Isaiah 7:14 and the Birth of Christ
Joshua E. Stewart
Stewart, M.Div., Th.M., Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Luther Rice College and Seminary.
By fully apprehending the purpose of Isaiah 7, the impact of how Matthew shapes his story of Jesus becomes apparent.
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Gospel writers wrote to make sense of the unprecedented life of Christ. The best tool they had to make sense of the Son of God’s life was the sacred scriptures (including the Old Testament and other Jewish writings). The Evangelists turned to these ancient scriptures to discern how God worked to bring Israel their Messiah.
Another way to put this simple idea is: Easter morning radically changed the way many in Israel thought about Jesus. With this, we can turn to the matter of the relevance of Isaiah 7:14.
Most Christians are aware that Matt. 1:23 cites Isa. 7:14b, “See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name him Immanuel.” More often than not, Christians read Isaiah 7 as a prediction of the miraculous conception of Jesus.
My goal for this article is for the reader to understand Isa. 7:14 in light of its original setting before moving too quickly to the new significance given by Matthew. By better understanding the context of Isaiah 7, one will have a more significant (and even more impactful) understanding of the virgin birth of Jesus.
Through the years, scholars have discussed the usages and meaning of the Hebrew and Septuagint (aka the LXX, a Greek translation of the OT) words used in Isa. 7:14. Matthew made frequent use of the LXX, as is the case in our passage here. The Greek word for “virgin” in Isaiah’s LXX translation is parthénos, which translates the Hebrew word ‘almah.
In NT Greek, parthénos always refers to a young woman of marriageable age focusing on her virginity. This is not the case for the Hebrew’ almah, which was used for a young woman who may (or may not) be married without focusing on her sexual status.
The Hebrew of the OT had a suitable word specifically for a virgin (betulah); however, this was not the word used in Isa. 7:14. A woman’s virginity could be an implication in the use of ‘almah, but that is not the usage in Isaiah 7. Many modern English translations of the OT use “virgin” for ‘almah in Isa. 7:14, a translation decision that reflects the LXX’s reading of the passage. We now turn to the context of Isaiah 7 to gain a fuller interpretation of Matthew’s use of this text.
In Isaiah 7, Ahaz, the king of Judah, is scared to death. Ahaz is in the middle of the Syro-Ephraimitic crisis. In the late eighth century BC, Neo-Assyria was the superpower in the ancient Near East. Pekah, the king of Israel, joined forces with Rezin, the king of Aram (Syria). The coalition of Israel and Aram sought to defeat Tiglath-pileser III (aka Pul), the king of Assyria. They sought out Ahaz with the hope that he would join them in their endeavors. In Isaiah 7, Pekah and Rezin planned to attack Judah to force Ahaz to join with them against Pul.
Due to this threat, Ahaz is on the verge of being “afraid and heartless” (Isa. 7:4). Within 10 years of this crisis, the northern kingdom of Israel is taken into exile by the Assyrians, and Judah becomes a vassal state of Assyria. Becoming a vassal plagues Judah for centuries and eventually leads to their exile in Babylon (see Isaiah 36–39).
During the Syro-Ephraimitic crisis, Yahweh sends Isaiah to calm Ahaz. Isaiah tells Ahaz to stand firm in his faith. Yahweh eventually speaks directly to Ahaz and gives him a sign through the prophet Isaiah. This sign brings us back to Isa. 7:14. The sign is this: “See, the young woman, she is pregnant, and will give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel.”
If we were present in this moment, this is what we would have witnessed: Ahaz is there, Isaiah is there, Isaiah’s son (his name means a “remnant will return”) is there, and a young woman is there, along with others. Isaiah gives this sign and even points to this young woman (the Hebrew hinnê is used to draw attention to something).
The sign in Isaiah 7 is not that a virgin is pregnant; rather, the birth of the young woman’s child will signify that the threat is soon to pass (and it does pass in only a few years). The sign is that amid fear – in this case of defeat and exile – that Yahweh is with Judah. As an aside, if the child born in Isaiah 7 were through a miraculous conception of a virgin, then we would have two virgin births in the Bible.
The fact that the child’s name means “God with us” is the message of hope in a fearful and trying time in Judah’s life. The sign in Isaiah 7 isn’t related to the virginity of this young woman. The sign is that God is with them, and the threat will soon pass (Isa. 7:15–25).
With this focus on the actual context of Isaiah 7, we can now turn back to Matthew and better understand the new significance he is giving to Isaiah’s prophecy. The obvious conclusion is that Matthew desires his readers – first-century Jewish believers of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah – to reflect on the larger context of Isaiah 7. Matthew even does his readers a favor by mentioning the exile four times (vv. 11, 12, 17). Amid the impending threat of exile, Ahaz was given a sign not to fear because God was with him.
The exile period and its lingering effects weighed heavily on the Jewish people’s minds even in the first century. After many Jewish people returned to Israel after 539 BC, they were always under the oppression and rule of foreign kings (Persians, Greeks, and Romans). This foreign rule is the larger cultural environment into which Jesus was born. Matthew provides the genealogy of Jesus to the Babylonian exile. Then he quickly turns to the virgin birth of Jesus by giving a new significance to Isaiah’s prophecy.
Yes, Jesus was born of a virgin by way of the Holy Spirit coming upon Mary (Matt. 1:20; Luke 1:35). Yet, that is not the only point or even the main point Matthew is making. After the earth-shattering event of the resurrection, Matthew relies on the OT’s authority as a means of explaining the radically new significance of the birth of Jesus.
Matthew is doing much more than meets the eye of a modern western reader. The reader steeped in the Second Temple cognitive environment would have immediately recognized that Matthew is, in essence, saying that Jesus has come amid turmoil as a sign from God. (Jesus’ name is another salvific designator meaning “Yahweh saves.”) God is bringing about his final goal of saving his people from unjust and false rulers (see Herod in Matthew 2). He does this through the Messiah.
Relief from oppression will not come as quickly as it does in Isaiah, but the time is coming. Only by fully apprehending the purpose of Isaiah 7 will the total impact of how Matthew shapes his story of Jesus become apparent. Matthew shapes his story by recalling multiple OT memories to provide a culmination of Israel’s deliverance by God.