August 29th, 2023
92. "Virgin" or "Young Woman" in Joel 1:8?
In Joel 1:8 why do you translate the Hebrew word "betulah" as "virgin?" Some translations say “grieve like a young woman,” and many respected Hebrew dictionaries say that "betulah" does not mean "virgin." Is your translation "virgin" trying to uphold the virgin birth in Isaiah 7?
8Grieve like a virgin dressed in sackcloth, who grieves for the husband f of her youth.
Footnote: The term husband refers to a young man to whom the virgin had already been pledged in marriage as his legal wife, but with whom she had not yet lived.
One of the surprising things for people who read a lot of commentaries is how little things change from commentary to commentary. Countless commentaries repeat the same arguments in almost the same words for decades or even centuries.
On the other hand, it is surprising how quickly things can change. Fifty years ago when I was a young pastor, the conviction that betulah was the real Hebrew word for virgin was one of the chief arguments which critics used against the virgin birth in Isaiah 7. The claim was that if Isaiah meant to say “a virgin will conceive,” he would not have said an “‘almah would conceive.” He would have said “a betulah will conceive.”
The Exhaustive Concordance for the NIV-84 translates the fifty-one occurrences of betulah in this way: virgin 31 times; maiden (which refers to unmarried, virgin girls as is clear from the word “maidenhead”) 10 times; unmarried 1 time; girls 2 times; young woman 5 times; woman 1 time, daughters 1 time. Words with the connotation virginity predominate in this list. Though physical virginity is not the point of emphasis in every use of the word betulah, is there any case in which it can be demonstrated that virginity is excluded?
Contrast this with the treatment in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, a large multi-volume work, which is considered to be one of the most authoritative sources on biblical Hebrew words (TDOT II p 338-343).
In his survey of cognate languages to Hebrew, the author of the TDOT article concludes that the root btl means “young marriageable woman.” He claims that only now and then do the Akkadian texts emphasize that the woman is a virgo intacta. He claims that the term btl does not mean virgin exclusively, mainly, or generally, in any of the cognate languages. He goes on to claim that neither the Greek parthenos nor the Latin virgo originally or exclusively meant virgo intacta, but they very gradually assumed that meaning.
In his summary, the author of the article tackles the Isaiah 7:14 issue. He says,
“Almah does not mean virgin although, of course, an almah can be a virgin. The translation virgin goes back to the parthenos in the Septuagint. The parthenos in the Septuagint could have been influenced by an Egyptian myth in which a pharaoh was born to a virgin.”
His concluding emphasis is that “neither the word or concept of virgin or virginity is of any importance in the religious thought of the Old Testament, and in the earliest history of the interpretation of this idea.”
It is hard to imagine how anyone who has read the ancient religious literature of the Near East could come to the conclusion that “neither the word or concept of virgin or virginity is of any importance in the religious thought of the Old Testament, and in the earliest history of the interpretation of this idea.”
If you read the entire TDOT article straight through, it is hard to escape the impression that the virgin birth was the author’s intended target all along.
Fortunately, the biblical data that the TDOT article presents refutes the conclusions of the author of the article. The TDOT article grants that of the 51 times betulah occurs in the Old Testament, three clearly must mean virgin.
Leviticus 21:13-14 The high priest shall marry a woman who is a virgin. 14A widow or a divorcée or a woman defiled because of prostitution—these he shall not marry. Instead, he shall take a virgin from his own people as a wife.
Ezekiel 44:22 The priests must not take a widow or a divorced woman for themselves as a wife, but only virgins who are seed from the house of Israel. But priests may marry a widow who is a widow of a priest.
Deuteronomy 22:13-19 If a man marries a woman and goes to her, and afterward he hates her 14and accuses her with unfounded charges and defames her and says, “I married this woman, but when I approached her I found that she did not have evidence of virginity (betulim),” 15then the father and mother of the girl are to produce evidence of the girl’s virginity (betulei-hana‘arah) and bring it to the elders of the city at the gate. 16The father of the girl shall say to the elders, “I gave my daughter to this man as a wife, and afterward he hated her, 17so he has accused her with unfounded charges by saying, ‘I have found that your daughter does not have evidence of virginity,’ but here is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.” Then they are to spread out the bed covering in front of the elders of the city. 18Then the elders of that city will take the man and discipline him. 19They will fine him a hundred pieces of silver and give them to the father of the girl because the man defamed a virgin of Israel.
If one accepts the biblical claims that Leviticus and Deuteronomy were very early books, TDOT’s claim that virginity is a late concept is demolished. When the Deuteronomy passage wants a word for “young woman,” it uses na‘arah.
The TDOT article can cite only one case in which it can claim that the word betulah does not mean virgin.
Joel 1:8 Grieve like a young woman/virgin dressed in sackcloth, who grieves for the husband of her youth
The claim that betulah does not mean virgin here is dubious at best. The term husband here refers to a young man to whom the virgin had already been pledged in marriage as his legal wife, but with whom she had not yet lived. According to the law, the man and woman were legally husband and wife before their married life together began. (Compare the case of Mary and Joseph.) To refer to a virgin who had had a husband is an unusual circumstance, but it is not a significant problem for the claim that betulah means virgin.
If there are three passages in the Old Testament in which betulah must mean virgin, forty-seven where it could include the meaning virgin, and one in which an unprovable claim has been made that it does not mean virgin, it seems that the TDOT’s claim that betulah does not mean virgin is incredibly weak. In fact is there any evidence for it?
The basic fallacy of the argument is that it sets up a false dilemma: “Betulah must always emphasize virgo intacta, or the word betulah does not mean virgin.” This is obviously false. Not every part of a word’s meaning is emphasized every time the word is used. That does not mean that that part of the meaning is not an inherent part or even a basic part of the word’s meaning. If betulah means “young marriageable woman,” the assumption in that culture is that she is a virgin unless there is evidence to the contrary. Statements like “a betulah who has not had sex with a man” do not remove the fact that betulah’s basic meaning includes virgin. It simply is showing that the woman in question actually is a betulah, rather than simply being someone who identifies as a betulah. Betulah means virgin. “A betulah who has not had sex with a man” makes it more emphatic that she is a virgo intacta.
The arguments used to support TDOT’s claim that betulah does not mean virgin are flimsy. For example, it is claimed that since certain promiscuous goddesses called themselves virgin, this means that virgin can’t mean virgin. This is as specious as the claim that Elizabeth I of England could not be called the Virgin Queen or have Virginia named after her, unless she was a virgo intacta.
But the claim that most devastates the credibility of TDOT is the claim that “neither the word or concept of virgin or virginity is of any importance in the religious thought of the Old Testament, and in the earliest history of the interpretation of this idea.” Can anyone with knowledge of the ancient texts seriously maintain such a claim?
A warning must be issued against TDOT. A biblical scholar with a good knowledge of the original texts and of the dating of biblical books can sift much valuable linguistic data from this series, but its conclusions are saturated with negative critical assumptions which are not supported by the ancient texts.