Almah (עַלְמָה ‘almāh, plural: ‘ălāmōṯ עֲלָמוֹת) is a Hebrew word for a maiden or woman of childbearing age who may be unmarried or married. It does not, in and of itself, indicate whether she is a virgin, for which a different Hebrew word betulah is used. The Septuagint version of the Old Testament renders both Hebrew words almah and betulah as the same Greek word parthenos. The term occurs nine times in the Hebrew Bible.
Definitions and etymology
The masculine equivalent of almah is elem ("עלם" in Arabic ghelam غلام) 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 (יָ֫לֶד) or yaldah (ילדה) - boy/girl (kids).
- "Tinok" ("תינוק) - suckling baby boy. Derives from the words "yonek or yanak (יוֹנֵ֔ק) which means suckle.
- olal (עוֹלָל) - a toddler, a suckling who also eats food. Translated as "young child" in Lamentations 4:4 (KJV).
- gamul (גָּמוּל) - weaned child (gamal).
- taph (טָף) - young child, one who still clings to mother. Derived from the word for brisk, small, tripping steps of young children.
- elem (עָ֫לֶם) or almah (עַלְמָה) - firm and strong child. (Between five-seven years of age and thirteen years of age.)
- na'ar (נַ֫עַר) or na'arah (נַעֲרָה) - "independent or free child" (from a root meaning "to shake off"). Aged 13+. Also "handmaid", "servant" or just "girl". In modern hebrew it is a commonly used in the meaning of "teenage boy" and "teenage girl", respectively, and the root is also used to for similar terms such as "youth", ("Noar", נוֹעַר) and teen spirit ("Ruach Neurim", רוח נעורים).
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 עָ֫לֶם 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 Laban, Rebecca's brother, how he selected her. 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.(Genesis 24:43) Rebecca, a young, unmarried girl and "a virgin whom no man had known" (Genesis 24:16) turned out to be that almah. When the servant's prayer is first related, in Genesis 24:12–14, the word almah is not used.
- Miriam, referred to as an almah in Exodus 2:8, is entrusted to observe her baby brother Moses as he is set adrift on the River Nile; after he is rescued by Pharaoh's daughter, Miriam takes thoughtful action by offering to bring the baby to a Hebrew nurse maid (their 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), which generally means "virgin". For example, the Hebrew word "betulah" for "virgin" is translated as "parthenon" in Exodus 22:16 in the Septuagint. (Greek parthenos had the wider meaning of "girl," allowing the Septuagint to describe Dinah as a parthenos even after she has been raped and hence no longer a virgin.
- Saldarini 2003, p. 1007.
- Blue Letter Bible. Entry for `elem (Strong's H5958). 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.)
- Donald Ratcliff; Brenda Ratcliff (1 January 2010). ChildFaith: Experiencing God and Spiritual Growth with Your Children. Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 8. ISBN 978-1-60608-552-3.
- "4", Music of the Bible, Katapi. Discussion of "alamoth" as a musical instrument.
- "Isaiah", Bible (Revised standard version ed.), Bible gateway
- Gravett et al. 2008, p. 72.
- Botterweck & Ringgren 1974, p. 461.
- Strong (9 April 2015), "3933. parthenos", Greek lexicon, Bible Hub.
- Parthenos - The Free Dictionary. Retrieved 9 April 2015.
- Exodus 22.16
- Exodus 22 - Kata Biblon Greek Septuagint. Retrieved 10 April 2015.
- Levavi Feinstein, Eve (2014). "3.5. Dinah and Shechem (Gen 34)". Sexual Pollution in the Hebrew Bible. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 89–91. ISBN 978-0-19939554-5. OCLC 875239398.
- 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. 16:11; 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.
- Barker, Margaret (2001). "Isaiah". In Dunn, James D.G.; Rogerson, John. Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Eerdmans. ISBN 9780802837110.
- Blenkinsopp, Joseph (2007). "Isaiah". In Coogan, Michael D.; Brettler, Mark Zvi; Newsom, Carol Ann. New Oxford Annotated Bible. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195288803.
- Childs, Brevard S (2001). Isaiah. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 9780664221430.
- Ehrman, Bart D. (1999). Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199839438.
- Rhodes, Ron (2009). The Complete Guide to Bible Translations. Harvest House Publishers. ISBN 9780736931366.
- 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.