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Why do many claim that "virgin" in Isaiah 7:14 should be rendered "young woman," "damsel" or "maiden"? Would not these renderings effectively negate the force of this word as being a prophecy about Jesus' miraculous birth?
It is important to capture the occasion for which this prophecy was given in order to understand it. The setting begins with Ahaz, king of Judah, refusing to join Rezin, the king of Aram (Syria) in Damascus, and Pekah, the king of the northern ten tribes of Israel in Samaria, against the Assyrians, who had subjugated most of the Near East. For Ahaz's resistance to their overtures, Pekah and Rezin marched against Judah with the intent of overthrowing the Davidic dynasty and placing the son of Tabeel (Is 7:6; Tabeel is probably a distortion from a name meaning "God is good" to something like "Good for nothing!") on the throne in Jerusalem.
In order to reassure Ahaz that nothing like this was going to happen, God sent the prophet Isaiah to join King Ahaz as he was out inspecting the water reserves for the city of Jerusalem, apparently calculating how long he could hold out against these two firebrands from the north. Isaiah's instructions from God were to invite king Ahaz to request from God any "sign" (that is, miracle) that he wished, for that miracle would be God's promise to the king that Pekah and Rezin would not have their way. God's word to Ahaz was "If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all" (Is 7:9).
Ahaz refused, protesting that Scripture (presumably Deut 6:16) did not allow him to tempt/test God. But, Isaiah explained, this was not the same as testing God, for God himself invited the request. It appears, however, that Ahaz had in the meantime sent off a secret message with financial encouragements to the king of Assyria with the request that he attack either or both Rezin and Pekah, thereby forcing them to withdraw from Ahaz's doorstep.
Despite Ahaz's reluctance to cooperate, Isaiah proceeded to give a "sign" from the Lord himself that would be for all the house of David. Isaiah 7:14 begins with a therefore, indicating that what precedes is the reason for what follows. So the divine word is not unattached to all that we have just described. Isaiah began: "The Lord ['donay , the name signifying that he is the one who is master over everything] himself will give you [plural, thereby referring to the whole Davidic house] a sign" (even though Ahaz had refused to request such in his unbelief). "Behold [untranslated in the NIV, but a term that calls special attention to a particular fact] the virgin [ha`almah] will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel [that is, `God with us']."
The word ha`almah has caused much debate. The Septuagint translated it by the Greek noun parthenos, a word that has the specific meaning of "virgin." But what does the Hebrew mean? When all the passages in the Old Testament are investigated, the only conclusion one can come to is that the word means "virgin." To date, no one has produced a clear context, either in Hebrew or in the closely related Canaanite language from Ugarit (which uses the cognate noun glmt), where `almah can be applied to a married woman. Moreover, the definite article with this word must be rendered "the virgin"--a special one God had in mind. Added to this is the question of what would be so miraculous ("sign") about a "young woman" having a baby?
Nevertheless, this message must have some significance for Ahaz and the people of his day, rather than it being only for an event that turns out to be more than seven centuries away! What significance could it hold for Ahaz and his generation if this event pointed solely to something over seven hundred years away? There was simultaneously a near as well as a distant fulfillment, and the prophecy simultaneously pointed to both a near and a distant future. Rather than a son of Tabeel taking over the throne of David, through whom God had promised to send his Messiah, a son was born to Ahaz: Hezekiah. It may well have been that the prophet pointed to a "young woman" standing nearby, who at the time was unmarried and a virgin (the two were assumed to go together). The son born to them, then, would be Ahaz's son, Hezekiah.
But this interpretation raises at least two major problems: (1) Hezekiah's birth was not the result of a miraculous conception, and (2) Hezekiah, according to most chronologies, was about ten years of age at the time. To the first objection, we respond that this misunderstands the connection between the near and the distant fulfillments in prophecy. Rarely does the "now," or near fulfillment, meet most, much less all, the details and expectations that the ultimate event completes. For example, John the Baptist came in the "spirit and power" of Elijah (Lk 1:17), and he was in that regard Elijah who was to come; but Elijah would still come again before the great and notable day of the Lord (Mal 4:5). Likewise, many antichrists have already come, but they are a small kettle of fish compared to the person and powers of the final antichrist (1 Jn 2:18). Again, five prophets in four centuries declared in five different crises that they were un- dergoing the "day of the LORD," yet they in no way experienced what the final day of the Lord would be like. Similarly, "now we are the children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known" (1 Jn 3:2; emphasis mine). Here is that same tension between the "now" and the "not yet." So Hezekiah did not fulfill all that the prophet had in mind, especially since he spoke of "you" as a plurality of the house of David.
What about the chronological problem? There is one remaining synchronism in the kings of Israel and Judah that has not been resolved: it is a ten-year problem in the years of Hezekiah. A reexamination of the date of the Syro-Ephraimite War, I believe, will show that the prophecy is properly aligned for the announcement of the pending birth of the next resident on the throne of David, thereby providing an unbroken string of occupants leading up to the grandest of them all.