Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isa 7:14, KJV)
Isaiah 7.14 is one of three prophetic sign-acts in Isaiah chapters 7-8 in which Isaiah of Jerusalem associates or gives an ambiguous or multivalent ominous name to a child as a means of sharing the divine message to his contemporaries. The historical context of these chapters is the Syrio-Ephraimite War. At this time Israel (the northern kingdom), Aram, and others, joined in an alliance to combat the rising Assyrian threat headed by king Tiglath-pileser III (r. 745-727 BCE). The kingdom of Judah (the southern kingdom) would not join the alliance and so Israel and Aram sought to remove the new Judean king, Ahaz (r. ca. 734-715), from power in order to install a more politically favorable king (referred to by Isaiah as the son of Tabeel; Isa. 7.6) who would join the alliance to stop Assyria. Ahaz, however, appealed to Tiglath-pileser III for help against Israel and Aram and submitted to Assyria as vassal to suzerain, stripping the temple in the process in order to pay the necessary tribute (2 Kgs. 16:17-18). Assyria would go on to conquer Aram and reduce Israel to vassal status before Israel’s ﬁnal destruction in 722/721 BCE by Sargon II.
In chapter 7 Isaiah goes out with his son Shear-jashub (meaning “a remnant will return”) to meet king Ahaz. There he tells Ahaz to trust only in YHWH who will deliver him and not to fear the machinations of king Pekah of Israel and king Rezin of Aram. This multivalent ominous name suggests that the Syrio-Ephraimite coalition will not succeed–but it also suggests to Ahaz that if he does not trust fully in YHWH then his kingdom, too, may be reduced in similar fashion (cf. Isa 7:9). In chapter 9, Isaiah has another son whom he names Maher-shalal-hash-baz (meaning “Spoil hastens, plunder hurries”). This ominous name informs Ahaz that the Syrio-Ephraimite coalition will be defeated, but it again implies that if Ahaz does not trust in YHWH fully then he too will suffer a similar fate.
Returning to chapter 7, Isaiah asks king Ahaz to request a sign from YHWH as proof of his message concerning the futility of the conspiracy against him by kings Pekah and Rezin, but Ahaz refuses. Nevertheless, Isaiah points out to Ahaz in verse 14 that “The Young Woman” [[Heb. ha’almah; the definite article is present and so refers to a specific person; additionally, this word does not necessitate virginity, but simply is a Hebrew word for a young woman of marriageable age regardless of sexual status]] “present/here” [[Heb. hinneh]] in their company, who is already “pregnant” [[harah is an adjective, and in context refers to the present historical situation, not the distant future]], is soon going to give birth to a son who will receive the multivalent ominous name Emmanuel (meaning “With us is God”). Before this child even knows how to make moral decisions, Pekah of Israel and Rezin of Aram will no longer be a concern to king Ahaz of Judah (v. 15-16). Thus Emmanuel is a positive sign to Ahaz: God is with Judah (see also a similar type of message with the name Emmanuel in the oracle found in Is. 8:9-10). However, if Ahaz does not trust in YHWH, then Judah too will suffer a similar fate (cf. 8:5-8), and so God will indeed be with Judah in its sin, but not for its deliverance, but for its destruction.
The Septuagint (LXX), the classic Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, translated the Hebrew noun ha’almah in Isaiah 7.14 as parthenos. This is a reasonable approximation, as this Greek word in classical usage does not necessarily suggest virginity either. However, the author of the Gospel of Matthew, who used the Greek scriptures, perhaps in part due to both the LXX translator’s rendering of certain Hebrew words into Greek as futures as well as the contemporizing eschatological hermeneutic widely current around the turn of the common era, picked up this passage from Isaiah, and, in Matt. 1.23, de-historicized it and (re)interpreted it in such a way as to refer to the birth of Jesus by the (Virgin) Mary as conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1.21-25).
Is it possible, however, that both a historical-critical understanding of Isaiah 7.14 and Matthew’s theological appropriation of it can be valid?
The historical-critical method has ruled in the community of academic biblical scholars since the 19th century. Scholars wanted to get back to the “original” historical meaning as intended by the biblical author(s), and to divorce their scholarship from the governance of religious Dogma. They developed their own methods and criteria for properly reading and interpreting biblical texts, and the results of this endeavor have been substantial. Nevertheless, recent literary and philosophical movements have questioned whether one can really ever gain access to the author’s intended meaning, and, even if one could, whether this is desirable or necessary. A text has a certain life of its own independent of its creator(s) and is able to bear any number of meanings depending on the interaction that occurs between the text and its reader(s) in their disparate situations. This should be apparent to anyone who has read the same text several times and has come away with different meanings in each instance.
Moreover, the questions that may be appropriately asked of a text, the hermeneutical methods that may be used in its analysis, and the very way the text is approached seems to depend on the context in which the it is read (e.g., the Bible as read in a humanities program or as understood within a certain religious community in which the text functions authoritatively for faith and practice).  Thus the validity of a interpretation depends on the perspective that is presupposed and the contemporary situation(s) of the reader(s) or community when a text is interpreted. It is apparent that Isaiah 7.14 in its historical context had nothing to do with Jesus or the Virigin Mary, but within a community of faith that believes the Bible to be Scripture and that uses criteria for determining appropriate readings of its scriptural texts different from those of the academic community, their readings may be just as valid within their given context. In this way Matthew’s theological appropriation of Isaiah 7.14 is one potentially valid interpretation, provided it is given within the right community and/or context.
My questions for the reader, then, are as follows: Can both the historical-critical interpretation of Isaiah 7.14 and Matthew’s understanding of the passage be accepted within Mormon conceptions of Scripture and prophecy? And if we, as LDS-Christian interpreters, are able to apply the Scriptures unto ourselves regardless of their “original” socio-historical meaning, what hermeneutical principles do, can, or should govern our reading of our sacred Scriptures? Other questions and topics of discussion are open for dialogue as well.
 See Eugene Ulrich’s and William G. Thompson’s chapter “The Tradition as a Resource in Theological Reflection–Scripture and the Minister,” in Method in Ministry: Theological Reflection and Christian Ministry (eds. James D. Whitehead and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead; Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1995), 31-52. The reference is to pages 31-32 in particular.
9 Replies to “Isaiah 7:14 and Scriptural Hermeneutics”
what a great post, tyd.
a lot to think about.
you caught me by surprise with the ending. though i guess i should have seen it coming from the title.
this brings to mind a dialogue article of yesteryear:
This is s great post and i think raises a lot of key points about how historical critical scholarship changes the way we thi about the scriptures. Obviously, this issue is not unique to Mormons, and this passage is one that applies to all of Christianity. To be very brief, I’d say that I think it is important to introduce and take seriously the HC arguments, but also that what Matthew shows us is that different people have different hermeneutical rules. I then try to explain those rules and why they are different from our own historically located approach. For me, it shows how the “original” meaning gets privileged in certain ways to deauthorize competing interpretations.
For LDS hermeneutics, I’ve suggested that African American and feminist approaches can serve as a model for a post-HC biblical interpretation.
I attended an interesting session at SBL a few years ago; consequently, although it has a long interpretive tradition, I’m no longer convinced Matthew cites Isaiah *specifically* for the virgin birth aspect. Apparently, parthenos is not strictly a “virgin intacta” (or whatever the Latin is) and not the way one would describe a virgin. There was no such single term bearing that meaning. Luke does not use the word, but simply says Mary had not had intercourse with anyone, the necessary phrase to make such clear. I think divorcing Matthew from the lexical issue of almah/parthenos downgrades the problem a bit.
It is an interesting theory, and I’m open to it, but it seems to raise another problem. I’d say that the dominant view is that the only reason that the tradition that Jesus was born of a virgin is because of Is 7:14. If that isnt the source of the tradition, then what is? Where does this idea come from, especially since it is of limited circulation among early christian texts? It seems that the exegetical origins of the tradition provides a pretty good explanation, and if that goes away, we have an even bigger problem. Whether or not parthenos meant this or that seems like a much smaller problem.
In principle, I have no problem with an interpretation being valid even when it does violence to the HC interpretation, so long as the basis for the non-HC interpretation has some other solid foundation.
For example, if it turns out that Mary was a virgin when Christ was born, then the Matthean interpretation of Isaiah is pretty cool. However, if the only reason for supposing Mary to have been a virgin is a hamfisted reading of Isaiah, then I see no basis for saying the interpretation is valid. Obviously Luke had a similar understanding of Mary being a virgin which is (assuming Markan priority) independent of Matthew. So there is at least a plausible starting place that the whole tradition is not simply based on a misreading of Isaiah.
D&C 19 may be correct about the sweaty blood in Gethsemane even if that turns out to be a later addition to Luke. There are tons of examples. For me the “original” meaning doesn’t deauthorize competing interpretations, but rather, deauthorizes the text in question from being the sole basis for some theological point.
To say it another way, if God revealed to his prophet some interesting point of theology, I give a fair amount of license to that prophet in “seeing” that point in previous scripture even when the author did not. Even this has it’s limits, though, for example D&C 76 and 1 Cor 15.
Great post TYD. The changes in perception of what text criticism does, or should do, is an interesting segway to how we use the Nephi dictum. Lots of things to think through here.
Thanks for all the comments!
I especially appreciated TT’s remark that:
“I . . . try to explain those rules and why they are different from our own historically located approach. For me, it shows how the “original” meaning gets privileged in certain ways to deauthorize competing interpretations.”
As well as the following by Jakob J:
“For me the “original” meaning doesn’t deauthorize competing interpretations, but rather, deauthorizes the text in question from being the sole basis for some theological point. To say it another way, if God revealed to his prophet some interesting point of theology, I give a fair amount of license to that prophet in “seeing” that point in previous scripture even when the author did not.”
I think the issues you have raised are interesting, but I don’t think I am convinced. I did discuss (albeit briefly) in the post, though, that in classical usage the Greek word parthenos does not entail virginity (nor does the Hebrew word almah).
Thanks for the link!
I think this is a great question; I don’t have a big picture answer (or a little-picture one either). But these thoughts seemed relevant:
(1) Both Nephi (several times) and Alma the Younger testify that Christ will be born of a virgin, but never (unless the search function on my electronic scriptures missed something) cite Isaiah as a source. Nephi gets it by vision. He doesn’t even mention it when testifying of Christ after transcribing the large swath of Isaiah including that verse.
(2) One common thread in various OT prophecies is the “types and shadows” trope. One way to make the case that Isaiah 7:14 really is Messianic is by pointing to some (other) aspect in which Christ is like the Immanuel described there. The more obvious connections (Judah is saved from Ephraim and Syria after the child is born) are pretty weak: the child doesn’t do anything! A more profitable route (going back to Nephi) might be to have a hard think about why Nephi included Isaiah 7-8, if its focus is primarily on the Syro-Ephraimite war. Does that part of Israel’s history have a place in the overall arc of gathering and scattering Nephi cares so much about? If so, might its Emmanuel, in that larger context, serve as a type of Christ?
(3) As well as the virgin birth, Matthew focuses also on the name. I wonder if more mileage can be gotten from this connection by focusing on the names instead of focusing on the virginity. That is, if Matthew is reading back a Messianic prophecy into Isaiah 7:14, it might be that he’s using the virgin birth already known about to make a further point about Christ and God’s being with us.
Thought-provoking post. It would seem that some cases pose more problems than others. Personally, I tend to see the benefits in making an effort to get back to the original meaning.
As your post suggests, however, the interpretation of the Matthean community could be considered an original meaning from our perspective. We make a distinction between exegesis and eisegesis, but in a sense these are loaded terms. We always bring something to the text and our understanding of texts changes over time, even by the same person, as you point out.