Almah (עלמה, plural: alamot עלמות) is a Hebrew word meaning a young woman of childbearing age who has not yet had a child, and who may be an unmarried virgin or a married young woman. The term occurs nine times in the Hebrew Bible – see usage below.
Definitions and etymology
The masculine equivalent of almah is elem ("עלם") meaning "youth" or "young man of the age of puberty". Feminizing these terms would result in "young woman" or "young woman of the age of puberty". Gesenius defines the word as a "girl of marriageable age". In modern Hebrew almah means a young woman or girl, a young or unmarried woman.
The notion of marriageability is typically part of the definition of almah. In the ancient Near East girls had value as potential wives and bearers of children. Carolyn S. Leeb points out: "A wife, who came into her husband's household as an outsider, contributed her labor and her fertility. Her task was to build up the bet 'ab by bearing children, particularly sons". This same sense of marriageability does not accrue to the masculine elem even though they also have entered puberty, but it does apply to "bachur" or "young warrior", when boys have matured to the point of being able to support a new household.
"Almah" was one of a list of sequential "terms, each depicting a fresh stage of life". (spellings per Gesenius translated to English):
- yeled or yaldah - newborn boy or girl.
- yonek or yanak - suckling baby.
- olel - suckling who also eats food. Translated as "young child" in Lamentations 4:4 (KJV).
- gamal - weaned child (under 3 years old).
- taph - young child, one who still clings to mother. Derived from the word for brisk, small, tripping steps of young children.
- elem or almah - firm and strong child
- na'ar (masc) or na'arah (fem.) - "independent or free child" (from a root meaning "to shake off"). Also "handmaid", "servant" or just "girl".
The meaning of almah is most often determined by referring to its uses in the Bible. However, there are only nine passages (two of them psalm headings) that use this term (and only two more use the masculine form elem). This results in a very small number of examples from which we may extract a definition. This small number is further reduced because only a few of these verses contain clear and unambiguous meanings. These few instances do not necessarily clarify the meaning of almah in the remaining passages. The problem is further compounded when one considers that these various texts were recorded by different authors living centuries apart. Languages tend to evolve over time and ancient Hebrew was no different.
- 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. In this passage 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, a difference between the Hebrew texts and the Greek Septuagint leads to divergent interpretations. The focus of the text is consternation over an adulterous wife. The author compares this adulterous wife's acts to things he claims are hard to understand: a bird flying in air, the movement of a snake over a rock, navigation of a ship through the sea and how a man is with an almah. (The Septuagint reads "and the way of a man in his youth" instead.)
- 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 is a true one. The sign is that an almah will give birth to a son who will still be very young when Judah's enemies will be destroyed. Most Christians identify the almah of this prophecy with the Virgin Mary. In Isaiah 7, the almah is already pregnant, and modern Jewish translators have therefore rendered almah here as "young woman". The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, which was completed in the late 2nd century BCE, translated almah into Greek as παρθένος (parthenos).
- Saldarini 2003, p. 1007.
- Blue Letter Bible. "Dictionary and Word Search for '`elem (Strong's 05958) ' " . Blue Letter Bible. 1996–2002. 22 Jun 2006.
- Webster's New World Hebrew Dictionary, Hayim Baltsan, Prentice Hall, 1992.
- The widow: homeless and post-menopausal.(term "widow" in the Bible), Biblical Theology Bulletin; 12/22/2002
- Sketches of Jewish Social Life, Chapter 7, "The Upbringing of Jewish Children" In relative order and by its connotation of firmness and strength, the almah (or elem) suggests the period of rapid growth in adolescence (particularly early adolescence) but prior to independent responsibility or freedom. (Edersheim adds 'bachur - young warrior" to the list, but this applies to young men and is excluded here.)
- Discussion of "alamoth" as a musical instrument
- Isaiah 7.16 from biblegateway.com
- Gravett et al. 2008, p. 72.
- Botterweck & Ringgren 1974, p. 461.
- Botterweck, Gerhard Johannes; Ringgren, Helmer (1974). "Isaiah". In Botterweck, Gerhard Johannes; Ringgren, Helmer. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Eerdmans. ISBN 9780802823250.
Thus the sign is already underway (the ‘almah is already pregnant), but it is yet to be completed (birth and naming of the child; cf. Gen. 16:112; Jgs. 13:3-5).
- 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.
This traditional reading has been so strong among Christians that the word "virgin" appeared in Isa 7:14 in every major English translation of the Hebrew Bible until the RSV in 1952.
- Saldarini, Anthony J. (2003). "Matthew". In Dunn, James D.G.; Rogerson, John. Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Eerdmans. ISBN 9780802837110.
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- Barker, Margaret (2001). "Isaiah". In Dunn, James D.G.; Rogerson, John. Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Eerdmans.
- Blenkinsopp, Joseph (2007). "Isaiah". In Coogan, Michael D.; Brettler, Mark Zvi; Newsom, Carol Ann. New Oxford Annotated Bible. Oxford University Press.
- Childs, Brevard S (2001). Isaiah. Westminster John Knox Press.
- Ehrman, Bart D. (1999). Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford University Press.
- Rhodes, Ron (2009). The Complete Guide to Bible Translations. Harvest House Publishers.
- Sweeney, Marvin A. (1996). Isaiah 1-39 : with an introduction to prophetic literature. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. p. 161. ISBN 9780802841001.