The Hebrew word ‘almâ used to describe the mother of emmanuel in the divine oracle delivered to King Ahaz of Juda (735–715 b.c.) by the prophet isaiah (Is 7.14). The Hebrew substantive is the feminine counterpart of the rare 'elem, "young lad," and ordinarily designates a young girl of marriageable age until the birth of her first child, prescinding entirely from her actual marital or virginal status. (The Hebrew word for expressing "virgin" as such is b e tûlâ. ) A Ugaritic cognate, [symbol omitted]lmt, is attested in approximately the same meaning as alma; but the Ugaritic literary parallel adduced for the prophecy in the poem of Nikkal is based on a highly questionable textual restoration. In the OT itself, this prophecy exhibits the literary characteristics of the genre known as "birth oracle" (Geburtsorakel ), foretelling a child's birth, name, food, and future circumstances of life (cf. Jgs 13.3–5; Lk 1.13–17).
The Septuagint translation in choosing to render alma in this passage by παρθένος (rather than νε[symbol omitted]νις) furnishes a pre-Christian interpretation and greater specification of the somewhat neutral Hebrew expression by making explicit the notion of "virginity" connected with the mother of Emmanuel. In Mt 1.23 the angel appearing to Joseph in a dream is portrayed as citing the Septuagint version of the prophecy of Emmanuel and his virgin mother and applying it to Mary and her expected child. Subsequent Christian translations and interpretations of the passage in antiquity generally followed the lead of the Septuagint.
Because of its use in Matthew, this prophecy has usually been held to refer to Mary and her Son in at least a typical sense (implicitly demanded by Pius VI in his brief Divina, Sept. 20, 1779, Enchiridion biblicum 74). But the literal sense of the passage has often been disputed, and no single theory has been able to win general acceptance. The following points describe briefly the four opinions most commonly held at present. (1) The prophecy may be taken as literally messianic (see messianism). Isaiah was promising as a sign for the king a future savior of Israel, even though the prophet may not have fully understood the import of his words. (2) The literal sense of the prophecy may involve no specific woman and child, but may simply be a figurative way of expressing passage of time in a broader context. Isaiah 7.14–16 should be interpreted as a whole: "Before the unborn child of any woman now pregnant has had time to reach the age of discretion, the two kings whom [Ahaz] fears will be destroyed." (3) The prophecy may be viewed as referring to Isaiah's own wife (cf. Is 8.3) and his own unborn child. The child's birth and naming are wholly within the prophet's power because Emmanuel is in fact to be his own son. This opinion sees ch. 6–8 of Isaiah as the proper context for interpreting the oracle and tends to regard 7.18–25 (and perhaps also 7.15, 17) as later literary additions. (4) The oracle may refer literally to Ahaz's queen Abi(a) and the unborn prince who will reign as Hezekiah (715–686 b.c.). The birth of the heir to David's throne would be a mighty portent for the king and provide a fitting type for the Messiah to be born of the same Davidic royal line. The prophecies of the "Prince of Peace" and the "Root of Jesse" in ch. 9 and 11 of Isaiah would thus be fulfilled in varying degrees in both the literal, present heir and in his messianic antitype.
See Also: virgin birth.
Bibliography: j. lindblom, A Study of the Immanuel Section in Isaiah (Lund 1957). n. k. gottwald, "Immanuel as the Prophet's Son," Vetus Testamentus 8 (1958) 36–47. j. j. stamm, "Neuere Arbeiten zum Immanuel-Problem," Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 68 (1956) 46–53. m. mcnamara, "The Emmanuel Prophecy and Its Context," Scripture 14 (1962) 118–125; 15 (1963) 19–23, 80–88.
[j. a. brinkman]