Almah (עַלְמָה ‘almāh, plural: עֲלָמוֹת ‘ălāmōṯ, from a root implying the vigour of puberty ) is a Hebrew word for a young woman of childbearing age; despite its importance to the account of the virgin birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, scholars agree that it has nothing to do with virginity. It occurs nine times in the Hebrew Bible.
Almah derives from a root meaning "to be full of vigour, to have reached puberty". In the ancient Near East girls received value as potential wives and bearers of children: "A wife, who came into her husband's household as an outsider, contributed her labor and her fertility ... [h]er task was to build up the bet 'ab by bearing children, particularly sons" (Leeb, 2002). Scholars thus agree that almah refers to a woman of childbearing age without implying virginity. From the same root, the corresponding masculine word elem עֶלֶם 'young man' also appears in the Bible, as does alum (used in plural עֲלוּמִים) used in the sense '(vigor of) adolescence', in addition to the post-Biblical words almut (עַלְמוּת) and alimut (עֲלִימוּת) both used for youthfulness and its strength (distinct from post-Biblical Alimut אַלִּימוּת 'violence' with initial Aleph, although Klein's Dictionary states this latter root is likely a semantic derivation of the former, from 'strength of youth' to 'violence').
The word almah occurs nine times in the Hebrew Bible:
- A servant of Abraham tells his master how he met Rebecca. He prayed to the Lord that if an almah came to the well and he requested a drink of water from her, that should she then provide him with that drink and also water his camels; he would take that as a sign that she was to be the wife of Isaac. Rebecca, a young, unmarried girl, is that almah.
- Miriam, an almah, is entrusted to watch the baby Moses; she takes thoughtful action to reunite the baby with his mother by offering to bring the baby to a Hebrew nurse maid (her mother).
- In 1 Chronicles 15:20 and Psalm 46 heading a psalm is to be played "on alamot". The musical meaning of this phrase has become lost with time: it may mean a feminine manner of singing or playing, such as a girls' choir, or an instrument made in the city of "Alameth".
- In a victory parade in Psalm 68:25, the participants are listed in order of appearance: 1) the singers; 2) the musicians; and 3) the "alamot" playing cymbals or tambourines.
- The Song of Songs 1:3 contains a poetic chant of praise to a man, declaring that all the alamot adore him. In verse 6:8 a girl is favorably compared to 60 Queens (wives of the King), 80 Concubines, and numberless alamot.
- In Proverbs 30:19, concerning an adulterous wife, the Hebrew text and the Greek Septuagint differ: both begin by comparing the woman's acts to things the author claims are hard to predict: a bird flying in air, the movement of a snake over a rock, the path of a ship through the sea; but while the Hebrew concludes with the way of a man with an almah, the Greek reads "and the way of a man in his youth".
- The verses surrounding Isaiah 7:14 tell how Ahaz, the king of Judah, is told of a sign to be given in demonstration that the prophet's promise of God's protection from his enemies is a true one. The sign is that an almah is pregnant and will give birth to a son who will still be very young when these enemies will be destroyed.
The Septuagint translates most occurrences of almah into a generic word neanis νεᾶνις meaning 'young woman', or to neotes νεότης meaning 'youth', both words being derived from neos 'new' and unrelated to virginity. Two occurrences, in the Genesis verse concerning Rebecca and in Isaiah 7:14, are translated into parthenos (παρθένος), the basic word associated with virginity in Greek (it is a title of Athena 'The Virgin Goddess') but still occasionally used by the Greeks for a unmarried woman who is not a virgin. Most scholars agree that the author of the Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 'a young woman shall conceive and bear a son' did not intend to convey any miraculous conception. In this verse, as in the Genesis occurrence concerning Rebecca, the Septuagint translators used the Greek word parthenos generically to indicate an unmarried young woman, whose probable virginity (as unmarried young women were ideally seen at the time) was incidental.
Byrne summarizes the arguments which show that both almah and parthenos are terms vague enough to allow for the possibility that parthenos is a correct translation of almah, regardless of merely linguistic (dictionary) sense of these words. I.e. that both almah and parthenos may or may not mean "virgin"; and the same applies for bethulah, na'arah and neanis to some degree. Both the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint use these words loosely enough (incoherently), and the same applies to Ancient Greek literature, especially about goddesses, parthenos simply meaning that a woman never was someone's wife, having sex or even giving birth to children were not considered enough for undoing her parthenia.
- Childs 2001, p. 66.
- Sweeney 1996, p. 161.
- Byrne 2009, p. 155.
- Leeb 2002, p. unspecified.
- "Strong's Hebrew: 5958. עָ֫לֶם (elem) -- a young man". biblehub.com. Retrieved 2020-08-01.
- "Strong's Hebrew: 5934. עֲלוּם (alumim) -- youth, youthful vigor". biblehub.com. Retrieved 2020-08-01.
- Even-Shoshan Dictionary, entries עַלְמוּת and עֲלִימוּת
- "Klein Dictionary, אלם ᴵᴵᴵ 1". www.sefaria.org. Retrieved 2020-08-02.
- "Strong's Hebrew: 1330. בְּתוּלָה (bethulah) -- a virgin". biblehub.com. Retrieved 2020-08-02.
- "Strong's Hebrew: 1331. בְּתוּלִים (bethulim) -- virginity". biblehub.com. Retrieved 2020-08-02.
- Preuss 2008, p. 461. sfn error: no target: CITEREFPreuss2008 (help)
- "Strong's Greek: 3494. νεανίας (neanias) -- a young man". biblehub.com. Retrieved 2020-08-02.
- "Greek Word Study Tool". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2020-11-16.
- Gravett et al. 2008, p. 72.
- Seidman 2010, pp. 40-43.
- MacLachlan 2007, p. 7.
- "Greek Word Study Tool". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2020-08-02.
- Grindheim 2013, p. 78.
- Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges https://biblehub.com/commentaries/isaiah/7-14.htm
- Moyise 2013, p. PT95: "The first issue is the translation of the Hebrew word almah. Most scholars agree that its general meaning is "young woman" and it rather looks like the choice of "virgin" by the KJV was theologically motivated. [...] Indeed, we do not know of any Jewish writing which understood Isa 7:14 as involving anything but a normal conception."
- Fletcher Steele 1892, p. 24.
- Byrne 2009, pp. 149-156.
- Byrne, Ryan (2009). "Anatomy of a Cargo Cult". In Byrne, Ryan; McNary-Zak, Bernadette (eds.). Resurrecting the Brother of Jesus: The James Ossuary Controversy and the Quest for Religious Relics. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 9780807895498.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Childs, Brevard S (2001). Isaiah. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 9780664221430.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Fletcher Steele, Wilbur (January 1892). Art. I. -- The Virgin Birth -- Its Expectation and Publication. Methodist Review. Fifth. VIII. G. Lane & P. B. Sandford. p. 24.
- Gravett, Sandra L.; Bohmbach, Karla G.; Greifenhagen, F.V.; Polaski, Donald C. (2008). An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible: A Thematic Approach. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 9780664230302.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Grindheim, Sigurd (14 March 2013). Introducing Biblical Theology. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 78. ISBN 978-0-567-32105-3.
- Leeb, C.S. (2002). "The widow: homeless and post-menopausal". Biblical Theology Bulletin. 32 (4): 160–162. doi:10.1177/014610790203200403. S2CID 169057204. Archived from the original on 2013-01-03.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- MacLachlan, Bonnie (1 January 2007). MacLachlan, Bonnie; Fletcher, Judith (eds.). Virginity Revisited: Configurations of the Unpossessed Body. University of Toronto Press. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-8020-9013-3.
- Moyise, Steve (12 June 2013). Was the Birth of Jesus According to Scripture?. Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. PT95. ISBN 978-1-62189-673-9.
- Preuss, Horst Dietrich (1974). "Isaiah". In Botterweck, Gerhard Johannes; Ringgren, Helmer (eds.). Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. I. Eerdmans. ISBN 9780802823250.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Seidman, Naomi (15 February 2010). Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation. University of Chicago Press. pp. 40–42. ISBN 978-0-226-74507-7.
- Sweeney, Marvin A. (1996). Isaiah 1-39: With an Introduction to Prophetic Literature. William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. ISBN 9780802841001.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)