"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21

by Prof. Mordochai benTziyyon, Universitah Ha’ivrit, Y’rushalayim

Let me make one thing clear from the very outset: this article is not about whether or not a miraculous “virgin birth” occurred in the closing years of the first century BCE (or at any other time, for that matter); I really DO NOT CARE whether one did or not. It’s completely irrelevant. This article addresses a very different question: did one of the Hebrew prophets prophesy that a “virgin birth” was going to occur? The writer of the new testament book “Matthew” claims that the prophet Y’shayahu did – at 7:14 – but is this REALLY what that verse says?

Whenever christians discuss Y’shayahu 7:14, they invariably zoom in on just two details, namely the word עַלְמָה al’mah and the supposed “meaning” of the prophetic name עִמָּֽנוּאֵֽל Immanu’él. They seem to be pathologically incapable of even thinking about any of the other words in the verse. But, in focusing exclusively on these two details, they overlook (intentionally or otherwise) several important aspects of the exact language used in the verse, which results in a completely erroneous translation—and this leads inexorably to a bizarre and ridiculous “interpretation” of the verse. Their reading of it is, of course, biased by the dishonest way in which it is quoted by the gospel-writer “Matthew” (at 1:22-23), but this is no excuse for mistranslating the verse in its source location.

The Hebrew text of Y’shayahu‘s statement (at least the small part of it that is misquoted by “Matthew”) reads as follows:

‘עִמָּנוּאֵל’ שְׁמוֹ וְקָרָאת בֵּן וְיֹלֶֽדֶת הָרָה הָעַלְמָה הִנֵּה
“immanu’él” sh’mo v’kara’t bén v’yoledet harah haal’mah hinneh

Let us examine each word in turn. The first word, הִנֵּה hinneh, is the word usually translated as “Behold!”, or “See!”. This word is frequently used by the Prophets to introduce a prophetic declaration of major significance, but it is also used in common speech in the sense of “there is/are” for pointing something out – there is an example of this usage in B’réshit 22:7, where Yitz’ḥak says to his father, there are the fire and wood, but where is the young animal [Hebrew, ‘seh’] for the olah-sacrifice?”. The word hinneh can also be used in a third sense, as an exclamation of astonishment rather like the contemporary English “Wow!”, as in M’lachim Beit 2:11 “…and as they(Éliyahu & Elisha) continued walking along and chatting, wow! [suddenly] there was a fiery carriage with fiery horses and the two of them became separated…

The second word is הָעַלְמָה haal’mah, a term which roughly translates as “that teenaged girl”. I shall defer a discussion of the precise meaning of the word al’mah until later in this article, and will therefore limit my remarks about it here to noting that the prefix ha (which is normally the definite article “the”) is being used here with poetic licence in the sense of the demonstrative pronoun “that”, lending emphasis to that al’mah over there”, i.e. the“al’mah” the prophet was pointing to as he spoke.

The next two words, הָרָה harah and וְיֹלֶֽדֶת v’yoledet, are the critical ones from the point of view of translating the verse correctly. There can be no argument about the meaning of the second of these: וְיֹלֶֽדֶת v’yoledet (the fourth word in the prophet’s statement): yoledet is the feminine singular present participle of the root ילדyodlammeddallet (to give birth), and means “[she] is giving birth”… in fact, the prophet probably meant “she is aboutto give birth [at any moment]”, and used the present participle to indicate immediacy. The word after v’yoledet, i.e. בֵּן bén (pronounced like bane, i.e. rhyming with “train”), simply means “a son”; it’s a direct object in Hebrew because the root ילדyodlammeddallet is transitive, unlike the English verb “to give birth” which is intransitive and takes an indirect object (so that the English construction is “giving birth to a son”).

But what about the word הָרָה harah? The meaning of this one word is probably the most contentious issue in the entire Scriptures: it is so important to christians that it means “she will conceive” that they are pathologically incapable of even considering the possibility that it doesn’t. The pseudo-septuaginta actually translates it as ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει (en gastri exei) “[she] will be pregnant”, which in fact refers to being in the state of pregnancy rather than to the act of conceiving, the “King James’s Per-Version” rendering in Y’shayahu 7:14 (shall conceive) being both inaccurate and misleading; in Matthew 1:23, KJPV translates exactly the same Greek words ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει (en gastri exei) as shall be with child, i.e. will be (as opposed to will become) pregnant. I am going to discuss the grammar of the word הָרָה harah in detail, because the entire christian “virgin birth” myth hangs upon its precise meaning.

In fact, הָרָה harah can be both a verb AND an adjective. There certainly is a Hebrew root הרה resh – this verb is normally used only in relation to females, when it is intransitive and means to conceive; it is transitive when used in relation to a male subject and the sense is to impregnate. This application of the same verb to male and female in different senses is not unusual in Hebrew; the verb ילד yalad, “to give birth”, is used of males (and often misleadingly translated using the English verb beget) even though the male takes no part in the actual birth process. The verb הרה harah is similarly applied to both males and females; but never, in the case of a female, in the transitive sense of “to conceive a baby“. It is transitive in the rare instances in the Scriptures (which are all poetic metaphors) where it is applied to a male, because the male is actually doing something when he impregnates a female, i.e. physically putting his zera into her body; but when a female conceives (becomes pregnant), this is something happening inside her body that is beyond her control and in most cases she doesn’t even know it has happened until some time later.

The verb הרה harah belongs to the ל”ה (lammed) class of irregular verbs, that is to say those verbs whose third radical is the letter ה . It is conjugated as follows in the past tense of the simple (“kal”) paradigm:

הָרִֽיתִי haRIti I impregnated (if spoken by a male)
I conceived (if spoken by a female)
הָרִֽיתָ haRIta you impregnated (to a male)
הָרִית haRIT you conceived (to a female)
הָרָה haRAH he impregnated
הָרָֽתָה haRAtah she conceived

It will be seen that there does exist an inflection הָרָה harah of the root הרה resh… but it’s the past tense, 3rd person masculine form “he impregnated” (or “he made pregnant”)! It occurs in T’hillim 7:15 (with the וָו הַהִפּוּךְ or “inverting vav” reversing the tense from the past into the future), a poetic metaphor that is difficult to translate satisfactorily because of the dual application of the Hebrew verb to both male and female in two different senses – something like “he seeds mischief and gives birth to lies”. A variant of the 3rd person masculine form harah, namely הָרֹה haroh, occurs in Iyyov 15:35, another poetic metaphor “he seeds trouble and gives birth to iniquity…”, and the same variant is also to be found in Y’shayahu 59:4 but with the anomalous spelling הָרוֹ haro“he seeds injustice and gives birth to wickedness”.

Apart from these three instances of the 3rd person masc. form, the past tense of the kal paradigm of the root הרה resh is used in the Scriptures in very few other places. The first person form הָרִֽיתִי hariti occurs just once, in B’midbar 11:12; the 2nd person fem. form הָרִית harit (again with the וָו הַהִפּוּךְ or “inverting vav” reversing the tense from the past into the future) also occurs just once, in Shoftim 13:3; and the 3rd person fem. formהָרָֽתָה haratah occurs in B’réshit 16:4 and again in 16:5. The 2nd person masc. form הָרִֽיתָ harita (“you [m.] impregnated”) is not found in the Scriptures at all.

But הָרָה harah can also be an adjective (“pregnant”). This word looks identical to the verb הָרָה harah and can only be distinguished from it by examining the grammatical context – there are many examples of exactly the same situation in English, e.g. the word “separate” can be either a verb (to divide into parts) or an adjective (describing something that exists, or is regarded, as a unit by itself) and the two can only be distinguished by examining the grammatical context, and the same is true of “refuse” which can be either a verb (to say “No!”) or a noun (garbage, trash). It is a source of astonishment to me that so many English-speaking christians have such a problem understanding that the same word in Hebrew can be both a verb and an adjective, with identical spelling, and that which part of speech a particular instance of the word is can only be determined by examining the grammatical context – when precisely the same phenomenon occurs in their own language!

The adjective הָרָה harah occurs a further ten times in the Scriptures, in addition to Y’shayahu 7:14….

  1. B’réshit 16:11 – “…you are pregnant [הִנָּךְ הָרָה hinnach harah] and are about to give birth to a son…”
  2. B’réshit 38:24 – “…your daughter-in-law Tamar… is pregnant [הִנֵּה הָרָה hinneh harah] as a result of prostitution…”
  3. B’réshit 38:25 – “…I’m pregnant [אָנֹכִי הָרה anochi harah] by the man these things belong to…”
  4. Shmot 21:22 – “…if men are fighting and they collide with a pregnant woman [אִשָּׁה הָרָה ishah harah]…”
  5. Shoftim 13:5 – “…you are pregnant [הִנָּךְ הָרָה hinnach harah] and giving birth to a son…”
  6. Shoftim 13:7 – “…you are pregnant [הִנָּךְ הָרָה hinnach harah] and giving birth to a son…”
  7. Shmuel Alef 4:19 – “…his daughter-in-law, Pinḥas‘s wife, was pregnant and about to give birth [הָרָה לָלַת harah lalat]…”
  8. Shmuel Beit 11:5 – “…I’m pregnant [הָרָה אָנֹֽכִי harah anochi]…”
  9. Y’shayahu 7:14 – “…see that pregnant girl [הָעַלְמָה הָרָה haal’mah harah] over there…”
  10. Y’shayahu 26:17 – “…like a pregnant (woman) [כְּמוֹ הָרָה k’mo harah] who is approaching her time to give birth…”
  11. Yirm’yahu 31:7 – “…a pregnant (woman) together with one who is actually giving birth [הָרָה וְיֹלֶֽדֶת harah v’yoledet]…”

Can הָרָה harah possibly be a verb in any of these 11 verses? No, it can’t, because הָרָה harah is a masculine form of the root הרה resh, and the subject is a woman in all 11 instances – and it’s the third person masc. form, he impregated. If the word were a verb, the inflection would have to be הָרִֽיתִי hariti (1st person, “I have conceived”) in cases 3, 8; in cases 1, 5, 6 it would have to be הָרִית harit (2nd person feminine, “you [f.] have conceived”); and in cases 2, 7 the inflection would have to be הָרָֽתָה haratah (3rd person feminine, “she has/had conceived”). Any attempt to translate harah as part of the verb “to conceive” in cases 4, 9, 10, 11 would be forced and contrived; it cannot be anything but an adjective in cases 4 & 9, and an adjectival noun (“a pregnant [woman]”) in cases 10 & 11.

Final point: the last three words of the prophet’s statement, v’kara’t sh’mo Immanu’él, mean “and she will name him [literally, ‘she will call his name’] Immanu’él” – that is to say, the baby’s mother will give this name to her child. Grammatically the form קָרָאת kara’t is the 2nd person feminine of the past tense in the simple or “kal” conjugation of the root ק-ר-אkufreshalef (to call), i.e. “you [fem.] called” – and the “inverting vav” changes the tense from past into future: v’kara’t, “and you [fem.] will call”: the wording is identical to B’réshit 16:11 where an angel says to Hagar וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ יִשְׁמָעֵאל v’kara’t sh’mo yishma’el, “you [fem.] will name him Yishma’el“. However, in Y’shayahu 7:14 the prophet is speaking to King Aḥaz of Y’hudah and it is hardly likely that he would have addressed the king in the feminine gender; the classical commentators are therefore in unanimous agreement that וְקָרְאָת v’kara’t is being used as a poetic variant of the 3rd person feminine form וְקָרְאָה v’kar’ah, i.e. “and she will call” – in other words the prophet is was predicting that the baby boy he was speaking about was going to be named Immanu’él by its mother (which was far more significant then than it may seem today because in those times a baby would normally be named – i.e. formally given its name – by the father). Even the christian pseudo-septuaginta Greek translation of the early 4th century is in agreement on this point: it has καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Εμμανουηλ (kai kaleseis to onoma auto Emmanouel), “and she will call his name Emmanuel”.

However in the story that the “Matthew” book tells, the young mother does not name her baby “Emmanuel” – in fact, she doesn’t name him at all: the “angel” that her husband dreams about in the story instructs him (the husband) to name the child Yéshu (1:21), which he does (1:25). And indeed, Yéshu is never called “Emmanuel” by his mother or by anyone else anywhere in the “Matthew” book, or anywhere else in the entire “New Testament” either, for that matter. This being the case, the “Matthew” book’s author couldn’t very well quote Y’shayahu 7:14 exactly as it stands even in the pseudo-septuaginta, because such a glaring inconsistency could hardly be explained away – so he resorts to the most dishonest of all tricks: he simply changes the word καλέσεις kaleseis (3rd person feminine singular, “she will call”) into καλέσουσιν kalesousin (3rd person plural, “they will call”) andpretends that the prophet said καὶ καλέσουσιν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἐμμανουὴλ (kai kalesousin to onoma auto Emmanouel), and they will call his name Emmanuel. This satisfies most christians, because they can say that theycall him “Emmanuel”; but it’s thoroughly dishonest because it isn’t what Y’shayahu said! The most astonishing thing of all is that nobody ever even notices this small but hugely significant alteration – we Hebrews don’t pay much attention to this verse because it isn’t actually that important to us (and we don’t waste our time reading pagan garbage like “Matthew” anyway), and christians are so mesmerised and hypnotised by the “name” the prophet says was going to be given to the child (and by what they are told it “means”) that they rush past the part that says who was going to give the child this name in such an orgasm of excitement that they don’t even give it a second thought.

The correct translation of Y’shayahu‘s statement is thus as follows. Pointing to a girl who must have been obviously very pregnant (we know he was actually pointing her out as he spoke because he uses the word hinneh), he says to King Aḥaz: “There is a pregnant al’mah – she’s about to give birth to a son, and she’s going to name him Immanu’él…” The reader may notice that I have left the word al’mah untranslated; I guess she could have been a virgin (although this is rather unlikely, given that she was very obviously heavily pregnant), but would anyone (apart from the prophet himself, perhaps) have even known? In the 8th century BCE in Y’hudah, girls who had never experienced sexual intercourse didn’t generally walk around with the word “Virgin” tattooed on their foreheads or with flashing neon signs hanging over their heads! And furthermore, if it had been an important aspect of his prophecy that she was a virgin, wouldn’t Y’shayahu have made this absolutely clear by using the explicit word for a virgin, i.e. בְּתוּלָה b’tulah?

Another point: the English word virgin refers specifically to a female, and is derived from the Latin word virgovirginis which is a feminine noun. Although the word is used metaphorically in English to mean “unspoiled” (e.g. virgin snow, virgin forest, etc.), its application to a male is a very recent development in English usage. The Hebrew word בְּתוּלָה b’tulah, a virgin, has no equivalent masculine form (it would be בָּתוּל batul if it existed), butעַלְמָה al’mah does have a corresponding masculine form, עֶֽלֶם elem, which is rarely used in the Scriptures but does occur in Shmuel Alef 17:56 and 20:22. I am not aware of anyone who suggests that both David (in 17:56) andYonatan‘s servant who he sent to retrieve the arrows during his archery-practice (in 20:22) had never slept with a woman prior to this incident! And if עֶֽלֶם elem has no relevance to prior sexual activity, why should the cognate feminine form עַלְמָה al’mah have such a connotation?

Incidentally, even Dr Strong admits that עַלְמָה al’mah is the feminine form of עֶֽלֶם elem: he gives the derivation of עַלְמָה al’mah (Strong’s #05959) as merely “from 05958”, the “Strong’s number” for עֶֽלֶםelem – which, by the way, he defines as “young man”. But this does not deter him from defining עַלְמָה al’mah as

virgin, young woman

(a) of mariageable age, or

(b) maid or newly married

and appending an irrelevant and ludicrously dishonest note by R. Laird Harris et al. (authors of Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, or “TWOT”):

“There is no instance where it can be proved that עַלְמָה al’mah designates a young woman who is not a virgin. The fact of virginity is obvious in Gen. 24:43 where עַלְמָה al’mah is used of one who was being sought as a bride for Isaac.”

As it happens, the first of these remarks is true, but so what? Consider the specious logic of that argument: just because it cannot be proved that עַלְמָה al’mah doesn’t designate a non-virgin, does that mean the word definitelydoes designate a virgin? It also can’t be proved that the word עַלְמָה al’mah designates a young woman who isn’t a blue-eyed, blonde, hunch-backed, 93-year-old woman with a beard – so perhaps Y’shayahu 7:14 should really be translated:

“Behold, the blueeyed, blonde, hunchbacked, 93yearold woman with a beard shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son…..”

 

The second remark made by Harris et al. is even more dishonest, because B’réshit 24:26 states explicitly that Rivkah was a virgin – using the actual word for a virgin, בְּתוּלָה b’tulah.

So what is the Immanu’él prophecy all about?

But enough sarcasm. Now that we know what Y’shayahu 7:14 actually says, it’s time to move on from translation to interpretation, i.e. figuring out what the heck the prophet was talking about. It should now be obvious that it has no connection with the baby whose birth is described in ch.1 of the “Matthew” book, because the prophet was clearly referring to a baby who was about to be born then, at the time he was talking, in the 8th century BCE – and whose mother was going to name it Immanu’él… something the girl in the “Matthew” book story (which is supposed to have taken place some 740 years later) never did. I understand that this will be deeply upsetting to the many christians who genuinely and sincerely believe the “Matthew” book to be “God’s word” – but facts are facts and an honest scholar searching for the truth must be prepared to face reality.

Let’s consider the context of Y’shayahu, ch.7. The chapter begins with a brief historical episode (verses 1-2) which relates how during (actually, right at the start of) the reign of King Aḥaz of Y’hudah (reigned 742-727 BCE), the Aramean (i.e. Syrian) king R’tzin formed an alliance with Pekaḥ ben R’malyahu, the king of the northern Hebrew kingdom (reigned 758-739 BCE) and how they had together mounted an abortive joint attack on the capital ofY’hudahY’rushalayim (“Jerusalem”); this is also documented in M’lachim Beit 16:5 and Divrei Hayamim Beit 28:5-8. The version in Divrei Hayamim does not mention the failure of the alliance to accomplish its main goal of capturing Y’rushalayim, that writer concentrating instead on the massive losses (both in terms of casualties suffered and prisoners-of-war taken) that were inflicted on the people of Y’hudah, and on the respect shown by the northern Hebrews to the prophet Oded who instructed them to free the southern captives and send them home (verses 9-15). But although they had succeeded in repelling the attack on their capital city, and although the large number of prisoners-of-war who had been taken during the fighting had been returned, Aḥaz and his people remained terrified of their neighbours to the north and north-east; Y’shayahu expresses this using a most eloquent poetic metaphor: “[Aḥaz‘s] heart, and his people’s hearts, fluttered like trees in a forest flutter in the wind” (second half of 7:2).

It was because of this that the young, naïve Aḥaz plundered the Temple treasuries in order to bribe the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III (reigned 745-727 BCE) to come to his assistance (M’lachim Beit 16:7-8; also Divrei Hayamim Beit 28:16) and Tiglath-Pileser obligingly attacked the northern Hebrew kingdom, capturing several major cities and carrying their inhabitants off as captives (M’lachim Beit 15:29), and then marched on the Aramean (i.e. Syrian) capital, Damesek (“Damascus”), capturing this too and carrying its inhabitants off as captives as well, and also killing their king, R’tzin (M’lachim Beit 16:9). There can be little doubt that it was because Pekaḥ‘s alliance with R’tzin was seen as having precipitated the Assyrian attack that a coup occurred in the northern kingdom, led by one Hoshé’a ben Élah, and Pekaḥ was assassinated (M’lachim Beit 15:30). M’lachim records (ibid.) that this occurred in Aḥaz‘s 4th year (i.e. 739 BCE) – the text actually reads “Yotam‘s 20th year”, but Yotam (Aḥaz‘s father) only reigned for 16 years (M’lachim Beit 15:33), so the year that would have been his 20th was in fact his son Aḥaz‘s 4th.

After this, naïvely thinking that he had bought Assyrian king’s friendship, Aḥaz himself made a trip to Damascus to meet with him personally and was shown the great idolatrous altar in the temple of the Aramean gods. He sent details of its construction back to his own priest, a man called Uriyyah, with instructions that an identical altar should be constructed and erected in the Y’rushalayim Temple (M’lachim Beit 16:10-11). But Tiglath-Pileser betrayed Aḥaz – he marched on Y’hudah and attacked and besieged Y’rushalayim, although he did not succeed in capturing it (Divrei Hayamim Beit 28:20-21). With bitter irony, the author of Divrei Hayamim notes that“although Aḥaz had plundered the Temple and also the king’s and the officers’ palaces, and had given [the proceeds] to the Assyrian king, it did not help him” (ibid., v.21), continuing: “…even in the midst of all his troubles,[Aḥaz] continued to betray Adonai – that’s how Aḥaz was: he sacrificed to the Damascans’ gods, even though they [the Damascans] were attacking him, because he reasoned ‘the Aramean kings’ gods are helping them, so if I sacrifice to them, they might help me too’ – but they only brought about his and all Yisrael‘s downfall” (verses 22-23).

Y’shayahu doesn’t mention any of this in chapter 7. After the brief historical introduction (verses 1-2), which makes reference to the joint attack on Y’rushalayim by Pekaḥ and R’tzin, he focuses on his own rôle as God’s prophet. In verses 3-9, God sends Y’shayahu to Aḥaz with a message not to be afraid of the two kings who had just attacked him. The prophet is not told to reproach the frightened young king explicitly about the idolatry he has lapsed into, but the implication is obvious: Aḥaz must stop worshipping the Aramean idols and then God will protect him – otherwise….

But Aḥaz wouldn’t listen. M’lachim tells us that he was very young (only 20 years old when he came to the throne), and also very wicked: “he did not do what is right in Adonai his God’s sight, as his ancestor David had done, but behaved like the kings of Yisrael, and even passed his [own] son through the fire, copying the practices of the [pagan] nations that Adonai had driven out…” (M’lachim Beit 16:2-3).

Aḥaz‘s biggest problem was that just he didn’t believe that the crazy old man who kept coming to him with “messages from God” really was a true prophet. There were lots of false prophets around in Biblical times, just as there are today. Seven and a half centuries earlier, Mosheh had promised the Yisraelites, Adonai your God will raise up prophets for you from among your own brothers, just like I am…” (D’varim 18:15), but he had also warned about false prophets at the same time: “…any prophet who dares to say in God’s Name something that he has not been commanded to say, or who speaks in the name of any false god, is to be executed. And if you are wondering ‘how are we to know what is false prophecy?’… well, when a ‘prophet’ makes a prediction in God’s Name and it does not come about, and does not happen – this is false prophecy; that ‘prophet’ is speaking impertinently, don’t be afraid of him” (ibid., verses 20-22). Implicit in these words is a promise that every prophet God does send will “prove” that he really is a prophet by foretelling a specific event which will then occur just as the prophet predicted it, so that Yisrael would know without any doubt that God really did send this man (or woman, several female prophets are mentioned in the Scriptures) to deliver His messages.

Mosheh himself was given no less than three demonstrations to show to the Yisraelites to prove God had sent him…

  1. turning his walking-stick into a snake and then back into a walking-stick (Shmot 4:2-4),
  2. making his own hand infected with tzara’at (“leprosy”) and then immediately healing the infection (ibid., verses 6-8), and
  3. making water turn to blood when poured onto the ground (ibid., v.9).

There is also an explicit example of a prophet providing proof of his “prophetic credentials” in M’lachim: just as Yarov’am I was about to inaugurate the altar of his idolatrous temple at BeitEl (see M’lachim Alef 12:28-29), an unknown, un-named prophet (traditionally identified as ‘Iddo “the Seer”, who is not mentioned at all in M’lachim but whose name appears in Divrei Hayamim Beit 9:29 & 12:15, and also in 13:22 where he credited with having composed a “Midrash”) arrived from Y’hudah and made the astonishing announcement that one day a descendant of King David by the name of Yoshiyyahu would come to the throne of Y’hudah and would defile that idolatrous altar by burning human bones on it (M’lachim Alef 13:2 – this did actually happen 330 years later, as recorded in M’lachim Beit 23:15 and Divrei Hayamim Beit 34:5). However the un-named prophet didn’t expect anyone to accept him as a prophet on trust….

 

He gave them proof at the same time by saying, “Here is proof that Adonai has spoken [to me] – that altar is going to split in halves and the ashes on it will pour onto the ground!”… and immediately the altar split in halves and the ashes on it poured onto the ground, exactly as the prophet had foretold by God’s command (M’lachim Alef 13:3, 5).

Now Y’shayahu‘s prophetic career had begun more than 40 years before his conversation with Aḥaz in Y’shayahu, ch.7, so he would have been well-known as a prophet in Aḥaz‘s reign and must have already established his “prophetic credentials” many years earlier. However, Aḥaz was only in his early twenties at the time of his conversation with the prophet, so this would have happened long before he was born. God and Y’shayahu therefore challenge him to put the prophet to the test, and to demand any proof of his own choosing (a totally unprecedented offer), but the wicked Aḥaz refuses even to give Y’shayahuchance to prove himself a true prophet (rather like those christians who will reject an article like this one as “wrong” without even reading it)…

So Adonai spoke to Aḥaz yet again, and said: “Choose a ‘sign’ from Adonai your God for yourself: ask anything you like, from the depths [of the ground] below, or from the heights above”. But Aḥaz said, “I will not ask anything– I want nothing to do with your ‘test’.” (Y’shayahu 7:10-12)

On the face of it, the text looks as though it is God Himself speaking to Aḥaz, but we have already seen in verses 3-4 at the beginning of the chapter that God didn’t speak directly to this defiant young idol-worshipper, but instead sent messages to him through Y’shayahu; and it is evident from the language of verse 13 that it is, in fact, the prophet who is speaking here rather than God Himself. Verse 13 gives a rare glimpse into the human side ofY’shayahu the man: his patience exhausted, he gets so angry with the rebellious, defiant young king that he loses his temper with him! In fact, he gets so angry with Aḥaz that he refuses even to call the young king by his given name, and addresses him as “David‘s house”….

“Now listen here, David‘s house!” he yells in frustration; “Aren’t you satisfied with frustrating me – do you have to frustrate my God too? You are going to have a ‘sign’, whether you want one or not, and if you won’t choose one for yourself, God will choose it for you!”
(Y’shayahu 7:13-14a)

And so, at long last, we come to the “Immanu’él prophecy”. It should be pretty obvious by now that, whatever it was, it had to be something that was going to occur during Aḥaz‘s lifetime, or the entire exercise would have been counter-productive: Aḥaz would have gone to his grave in 727 BCE still convinced that Y’shayahu had been a phony, because he had foretold something that had not come about.

We have already seen in the first part of this article that the “translation” of Y’shayahu 7:14 that appears in christian bibles is horrendously incorrect. But this is not the only deception worked by the author of the “Matthew” book in 1:22-23. He plays two more dishonest tricks – he quotes the prophet’s words completely out of context and, as if that isn’t enough, he only quotes a small part of what Y’shayahu actually says to Aḥaz. Here is the whole of the prophecy as it occurs in the Hebrew text, extending from the middle of v.14 to the end of v.16 (the writer of the “Matthew” book quotes only the latter portion of v.14, and doesn’t even quote that correctly):

“See that pregnant girl [pointing to her] – she’s about to give birth to a son and she will name him Immanu’él… he will get only soured cream and honey to eat, so that he will learn to refuse ‘bad’ [food] and choose ‘good’ [food], and even before the boy has learned to refuse ‘bad’ [food] and choose ‘good’ [food], the lands whose two kings you dread will be deserted” (Y’shayahu 7:14b-16)

The prophecy consists of three separate but connected statements, which all relate to the boy Immanu’él

  1. a pregnant girl, whom the prophet points out as he speaks, is close to giving birth, and is going to name her child Immanu’él (second half of v.14);
  2. the child will be fed only on soured cream and honey, which will teach him to “refuse bad” and “choose good” (v.15); and
  3. even before the child has learned to “refuse bad” and “choose good”, both the kings that Aḥaz “dreads” will be gone (v.16).

In the light of Y’shayahu 7:1-2, the “two kings that Aḥaz dreaded” is an obvious reference to R’tzin and Pekaḥ. But the reference to the child Immanu’él “refusing bad and choosing good” is not so obvious, however, and is almost universally mistaken for a reference to “good and evil”. While it is certainly true that man’s freedom to choose between doing right and doing wrong is a recurring theme throughout the Scriptures, this is not the meaning here. Look at the prophet’s exact words and then ask yourself this: does what a baby is given to eat really teach him the difference between right and wrong?

Anyone who has ever tried to spoon-feed an infant knows that you can’t get a baby to accept something he doesn’t like. He will turn his face away from the spoon and, even if you succeed in forcing the stuff into his mouth, he will spit it right out again. Babies learn very quickly “to refuse bad food and choose good food” and this one, the prophet tells Aḥaz, will learn what he likes even more quickly than most, because he will only be fed “soured cream and honey” – babies like sweet things, so it won’t take very long at all for “Immanu’él” to realise that honey tastes nice and soured cream doesn’t. In other words, the 3-verse prophecy is a very long-winded and somewhat poetic way of saying “it won’t be very long before R’tzin and Pekaḥ are both gone and you won’t have to worry about them any more”. And the prophetic name, Immanu’él – “God is with us”? It’s a common christian arrogance to assume that when they read the first person plural “us” in the Scriptures, it includes them, but the Scriptures were actually the words of Hebrew prophets speaking to the Yisraelite nation; and in Y’shayahu 7:14, the prophet is having a private conversation with King Aḥaz of Y’hudah so that, when he said that the child would be given the prophetic name Immanu’él, or “God is with us”, he was speaking about the people of Y’hudah… the child namedImmanu’él would serve as a constant reminder to Aḥaz and his subjects of God’s promised protection.

This, then, was the “sign” that “God Himself chose for Aḥaz” to prove to him that Y’shayahu really was a true prophet. The million-dollar question is, did it happen just as Y’shayahu predicted?

Yes, it did – and within the time-frame provided by the Immanu’él child, too: Pekaḥ was assassinated by Hoshé’a ben Élah in the 4th year of Aḥaz‘s reign (M’lachim Beit 15:30), and R’tzin was killed by the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III when the latter ransacked Damascus soon afterwards (M’lachim Beit 16:9).

 

Postscript: “Mahér Shalal Ḥash Baz

Y’shayahu again foretells the downfall of R’tzin and Pekaḥ at the beginning of chapter 8, once more employing the symbolism of a young child to provide a time-frame for his prediction. The classical Hebrew commentators identify the child symbolically named מַהֵר שָׁלָל חָשׁ בַּזMahér Shalal Ḥash Baz” (Plundering—speed! Looting—hurry!) that the prophet refers to in 8:3-4 with the child Immanu’él of 7:14-16. The connection between the two children is tenuous, though: the only link is the mother of the Immanu’él child “prophesying” when giving him the prophetic name Immanu’él and the prophet referring to the mother of “Mahér Shalal Ḥash Baz” as הַנְּבִיאָהhan’viyah (“the prophetess”) in Y’shayahu 8:3. Furthermore, although the two prophecies are superficially similar, in 7:14-16 he foretells the deaths of R’tzin and Pekaḥ, while in 8:3-4 he predicts the overthrow of the Aramean capital Damascus and the northern Hebrew kingdom’s capital, Shom’ron (“Samaria”) – and although R’tzin was killed when Tiglath-Pileser III sacked Damascus, Shom’ron wasn’t overrun until 18 years later [why 18 years later? well, as we have already seen, the sack of Damascus and the death of R’tzin occurred in Aḥaz‘s 4th year, and Shom’ron was overrun in the 6th of Aḥaz‘s son Ḥizkiyyahu (M’lachim Beit 18:10) – now, Aḥaz reigned for 16 years (M’lachim Beit 16:2), so Ḥizkiyyahu‘s 6th was the 22nd year from Aḥaz‘s accession; it follows that there was an interval of 18 years from Aḥaz‘s 4th, when Pekaḥ was assassinated, Damascus was sacked and R’tzin was killed, until Ḥizkiyyahu‘s 6th, when Shom’ron was overrun]. If “Immanu’él” and “Mahér Shalal Ḥash Baz” are the same child, it becomes impossible to reconcile Y’shayahu‘s prediction that

“before the child knows how to call out ‘Daddy’ or ‘Mummy’, the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Shom’ron will have been carried off before the Assyrian king” (Y’shayahu 8:4).

It is far more likely that Y’shayahu was using the word הַנְּבִיאָה han’viyah (“the prophetess”) in 8:3 in the sense of “wife of the prophet” (that is to say, his own wife, since he states explicitly that he had sex with her) rather than implying that she herself had the gift of prophecy, and that “Mahér Shalal Ḥash Baz” was a completely different child, born many years after the Immanu’él episode, shortly before Shom’ron was overrun by the Assyrians.

 

 

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