The Almah Controversy
To repeat a caution from the introduction: One bit of hermeneutic needs to be kept in mind as we examine the relevant texts. That is, that we should always use the clearest texts available on the matter to determine the meaning of those verses which are less clear. The relevance of this caveat will be seen when we look in particular at Proverbs 30:19 where some, like Ibn Ezra and others, have attempted to use it as the control for the meaning of all the other verses.
The most important to keep in mind when interpreting this proverb is that it is a proverb. For the poet/writer there is a mystery; in today's modern scientific society the mystery of the first three items is lost with barren explanations. [It is very easy for us in our society to assume that all people in all time thought as we do today; we forget that in the ANE they thought more metaphorically and in riddles.] Also, when we read the fourth item in the proverb we almost automatically "see" it as talking about sex because of our modern day societal preoccupation with sex (see Kirby and Kiefer, for example) which reduces the mystery of sexuality and romance to a mere act. To realize that this line of interpretation is wrong all we'd have to ask ourself is what is so "wonderful" to the writer about the proverb about not leaving a "trace" when having sex?
Another major problem in interpreting a text is the almost overwhelming ease with which reading a text in a literal manner yields a result that is satisfying to our minds. That, of course, should be the first clue that we have interpreted it wrong.
While this verse does appear in the Septuagint it is "out of place" relative to the Hebrew text. It also has a textual problem. Some manuscripts, supported by the Syriac, Vulgate, Arabic versions, and the manuscript on which the Wycliffe translation is based, would be translated "the way of a strong man in his youth." (See Niessen (139); in the Septuagint it is: "the ways of a man in his youth"). Bratcher (100) notes the differences but then completely ignores the significance of the differences. This seems to indicate that prior to the "standardization" of the Hebrew text there were various ways of understanding what the proverb said. So, we are left with the question as to which reading is the correct one. We should note that the beginning of the standardization of the Hebrew text didn't take place till A.D. 100. Bruce, (133) notes that "variant forms of the Hebrew text which existed before A.D. 100 were [then] allowed to disappear."
Assuming that the Hebrew text is the correct one then the emphasis of the latter part of the verse seems to be on the mystery of sexuality -- not on the virginity of the woman (cf. W. McKane, Proverbs. OTL (London, 1970): 658). This would be supported by noting that if vs. 19 is to be linked with verse 20 (which Delitzsch thinks is a disjunctive appendix; as that, this feature can be seen in the way the NIV and the NRSV format the passage. We should also note that including vs. 20 with the previous destroys the 3+1 motif. Sauer (553) suggests that the author is contrasting the "unchastity of the unwed maiden" with that of the "adultery of the married woman.") then there is something evil going on; but, such is not true with the first three items (eagle, serpent, and ship). Therefore, one can legitimately argue that sexual impurity is not the "way" of the fourth item. It would seem that we have to look elsewhere for the common denominator with all four items. Niessen (140) makes a better suggestion when he notes that these ways,
"capture the attention and inspire the imagination because of the mysteriousness of their actions. The majesty of the eagle soaring effortlessly in the sky, born aloft by invisible air currents; the unpredictable meanderings of a serpent on a rocky hillside; the listlessness of a ship floating on the high seas -- in each of these cases the "way" refers to the three objects in a particular kind of action that is awe-inspiring. ... Obviously, then, what is being described here is the courtship and infatuation of youthful love between a young man and his young girl friend."This is perhaps the background for Scott's translation in the Anchor Bible, page 179, "how a man wins his way with a girl." See also the CEV with its "people fall in love."
McKane (657-8) in his commentary on this verse refers to the scholar Wunsche who contended that it is the fourth item in these type of proverbs (3+1; for more examples see verses 21-3, 24-8, and 29-31) that is the significant one. He goes on to note that it is the,
"change which takes place in the sense of derek; points in the same direction. ... The common element is the marvel and grace of these different forms of movement and all this is nearer to the way in which a poet or painter sees than to a scientist's observations. Surely one is not to suppose that in the fourth item derek; refers to the graceful and mysterious way in which a man moves in his advances towards a woman; ... On the contrary, the fourth is linked to the first three through a utilization of the ambivalence of derek; as well as the common element of mystery. Here again the key lies in the recognition that the first three are parables of the mystery of man's desire for a woman or perhaps rather the irresistible and inexplicable attraction which draws together the man and the woman. [Notice that there's no "trace" here either but we assume that the writer is talking about sex -- but, then, doesn't that say more about us than it does about the proverb?] The first three have more in common with each other than they together have with the fourth and this, too, sets the final item apart. The subject of reflection is the mystery of sexuality, and other mysteries are suitable parables because the ambivalence of derek; fastens them to the centre of reflective interest."From ICC on Proverbs by C. H. Toy, page 531:"It is held by many commentators ... that the characteristic intended in the four things is that they leave no trace behind ... . This characteristic holds for the three first cases, but hardly for the fourth; and as to the second, there would be no reason for particularizing the serpent, since no trace is left on a rock by the passage of any animal. The point is rather the wonderfulness of the things named (Geier)."He refers the reader to Job 39:26-7 for the first stanza, Gen. 3:11 for the second, and WS.[?] 14:1-4 for the third. He does think that the fourth item is about procreation.
Walton (416-7) points out that even "if sexual activity is implied by the term "derek;" (way) the text does not indicate whether it might represent an initial sexual encounter; therefore the status of the 'alma; is not clarified any further by this context."
See also Leeuwen (254), and William LaSor, Isaiah 7:14 -- 'Young Woman' or 'Virgin'? pages 3-4 (cited by Feinberg, page 256 footnote 20) for a like interpretation.
This text shows that the word "be'tulah" can sometimes refer to a married woman. Some will try to claim that the word "ba'al" doesn't have to be a "full" husband but, rather, just betrothed. This is implied in the way Bratcher (101) handles the verse. However, in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament Tsevat (341) writes that in Joel 1:8 the word "be'tulah" "certainly does not" mean virgin and that "this interpretation can be avoided only by the singular assumption [<---note those last two words carefully] that ba'al means not only "husband," but also "fiancÚ"." Below is a table that shows every text in which the word "ba'al" is used in relationship to a woman; note that in all cases a full marriage relationship is described -- not once is it used to describe a betrothal.
TABLE 4: Texts where the Hebrew word "ba'al" is used in the OT
Gen. 20:3; Exod. 21:3, 22; Deut. 22:22, 24:4; 2 Sam. 11:26; Est. 1:17, 20; Prov. 12:4; 31:11, 23, 28; Joel 1:8.
To repeat in a different way: it should be noted that in none of the verses given above in Table 4 is the Hebrew word "ba'al" used in relationship to a wife who is only betrothed -- Kirby, Wolff, Keil (184) and Wadsworth (170) ignores this distinction in their discussions of the meaning of Joel 1:8. Compare that with Num. 30:16 where the Hebrew word "'iysh" is used to describe the husband of a betrothal relationship.
Wenham (1988: 989) also notes that here "be'tulah is a young widowed wife, not merely a fiancee as English versions misleadingly suggest by translating ba'al here as "bridegroom" instead of "husband," its normal meaning." See also Wenham (1972: 345). The Septuagint reflects the idea of actual marriage rather than just betrothal by translating the word "be'tulah" in Joel 1:8 as "numphe" instead of "parthenos" (contra Wadsworth, Myers (140), and Bewer (80); see Wolff's interesting attempt to solve the dilemma.). He also notes that in Deut. 22:23 the husband of a betrothed woman is called an "'iysh" whereas, in the previous verse the husband of a married woman is called "ba'al". Thus, the word "ba'al," as Niessen (146) puts it, "always refers to a married man when describing the relationship between a man and a woman." Note that the word "'iysh" is used in Num. 30:16 to describe a betrothed husband-wife relationship.
Niessen (146) also points out that "the expression "husband of her youth" is an expression of longevity [this is commonly overlooked]. It is parallel to the phrase "wife of thy youth" in Proverbs 5:18 and Isaiah 54:6 which can be translated, "a wife you have had since your youth." This is commonly ignored by most Bible critics.
Translation and Meaning
When we talk about what a word means the first question we should ask ourselves is whether we are asking for the denotation or the connotation. One aspect of the meaning of a word is the cultural usage of the term. Too many seem to feel that once they have found the dictionary definition of a term that they now understand what it means -- the cultural meaning is ignored, or at best short-changed. In the case of the word "'almah," as Wilson (316) pointed out, "the presumption in common law and usage was and is, that every 'alma; is virgin and virtuous." Some critics have responded that simply because she was supposed to be a virgin that didn't mean that she was a virgin. However, again as Wilson pointed out "we have a right to assume that Rebecca and the 'alma; of Is. vii. 14 were virgin, until and unless it shall be proven that they were not." And, we should also point out that unlike our society where people can do things and not be found out by close relatives and associates this would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, in a close-knit, small community society such as that which existed in the Middle East in Biblical times.
Also when translating a word, or passage, from one language to another we need to ask ourselves if we are going to do it word-for-word or thought-for-thought (also known as dynamic equivalence). It has also been noted that some translations, for instance, the KJV and the Septuagint, mix the two methods within one work.
One way to conclude this study is to quote Groningan (530):"A review of the materials available to students and scholars alike, and briefly summarized above, leads to the sure conclusion that on the basis of the use of the term in both Hebrew and Ugaritic, the Hebrew term 'alma must be translated "virgin." The Septuagint gives full support to this and the New Testament's testimony (Matt. 1:23) gives the final word. Isaiah said and meant virgin (cf. KJV, NIV, RSV mg.)."Groningan's conclusion is correct in the setting he notes and it is important to realize that in the cultural context of the ANE there would be no question that the term "'almah" "means" virgin. Smith (253) also points out that "the birth of an illegitimate child to an immoral woman would not constitute then or now a very definite sign, one has to conclude that the 'almah of Isaiah 7:14 is in fact a virgin."
We should also note a very apt observation by a historian on this subject. Merkley (332) observed that,"The contemporaries of the writers of the Gospels fully understood, for example, that virgins did not conceive and bear sons. They were not an iota more or less free than we are to disbelieve this claim with respect to the child Jesus (as it is made in Matthew and Luke.) (Is it really necessary to point out that this presumption is the basis of Joseph's behavior in Mt. 1:18-25?) If they believed it nonetheless it was because they persuaded by the authority of the witnesses of the life of Jesus to accept what they otherwise 'knew' to be impossible. Such a fact as this contradicted the 'facts of life', for them no less than for us. All the undoubted advance that the sciences have made in describing the processes involved in the conception of new human lives neither adds to nor subtracts from the simplicity of the issue involved. There are today devout gynecologists who confess without reservation the dogma of the virgin birth, and there are masses of scientific illiterates who reject it."
Significant Terminology: Almah
Significant Terminology: B'tulah
"Problem" Texts and Conclusion