Having discussed on at least a couple of occasions the difference between the Greek mind and the Hebrew mind, at least the Hebrew mind insofar as it means as far as the Bible is concerned (and not necessarily the mind of Jews today), I thought it would be worthwhile to explain one particular case in the Bible where the difference between the Greek mind and the Hebrew mind is particularly profound. This particular verse is profound both for what it meant on the literal level during the 8th century BC and what it meant in a deeper sense. The contrast between the Hebrew and Greek language as far as it gives this particular verse shows the distinction between the two languages, and the way this verse is viewed by Jews who do not believe in its deeper meaning also demonstrate that the Greek mind, such as it is, is not only a matter for Greeks but for many modern “Hebrews” as well whose mind has been shaped by the Greek mindset more than by the biblical worldview.
Let us look at the context of one of the most famous prophecies of the Bible, found in Isaiah 7:10-17. It reads, in the New King James, in English, as follows: “Moreover the Eternal spoke again to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign for yourself from the Eternal your God; ask it either in the depth or the height above.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Eternal!” Then he said, “Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? Therefore, the Lord HImself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. Curds and honey He shall eat, that HE may know to refuse the evil and choose the good For before the Child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you dread will be forsaken by both her kings. The Eternal will bring the king of Assyria upon you and your people and your father’s house–days that have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah.”
Before we discuss the importance of the Greek language on this particular passage (in particular, the verse “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel”), let us discuss the immediate context of this verse as well as how a Hebrew mind (such as Paul’s) could easily see a deeper meaning here. The immediate context of this reign is the Syro-Israelite War in the 730’s, where Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah (who had murdered the previous king of Israel who favored an accommodation with the Assyrian Empire) sought to replace the pro-Assyrian King Ahaz with an incompetent puppet king who would be under their rule. God wished to show His support of the dynasty of David, even though it was being ruled by a cowardly and faithless member of that house, and so He (through His prophet Isaiah) asked Ahaz to pick a sign, any sign, that would lead him to believe in God’s faithfulness. Ahaz was unwilling to make that step of faith, and so Isaiah, speaking for an upset God, gave him a sign.
In the Hebrew, let us note, that the word given for the young woman was the word transliterated “almah” meaning a maiden or a young woman. Straightforwardly, Ahaz would see a young woman (this would be a teenager, a young person of (barely) marriageable age, like Miriam was when Moses was placed into the reeds) give birth to a boy, and by the time that boy was a two or three years of age, able to choose right from wrong, both Rezin and Pekah would be dead through the agency of the Assyrian king. And that is precisely what happened. A young woman (presumably Isaiah’s wife) gave birth to a young son whose life would be a symbol of God’s love and God’s faithfulness, even for a faithless people, with deliverance from the threat of hostile regime change through the alliance of Israel and Syria through the unlikely salvation of the brutal Assyrian Empire. This meaning is the clear and obvious meaning of the text, the meaning that applied to the immediate context and would have been understood by Ahaz.
A Greek mind would stop at that point. Ironically enough, many Jews who despise the Christological implications of the Septuagint translation of the Bible behave precisely like the Greek minds who point only to the literal and surface meaning of this passage and fail to see any deeper meaning or deeper significance whatsoever. We should note that this is an aspect of Greek minds, not of the Hebrew minds inspired to write the holy scriptures by God Himself, who has always engaged in a layered sort of meaning that richly repays study as well as a deep appreciation of irony and multiple layers of meaning. (As an aside, we should likewise expect that those who have developed their own character and intellect like God’s will similarly be masters of that same multi-layered way of reading and interpreting and communicating as well, rather than ignoring either the surface meaning or any deeper or allegorical meanings, seeing all of them as rich evidence of the wisdom and subtlety of God’s word). A Greek mind, on the other hand, would argue incessantly over there being only one possibly true meaning that the passage contains and fighting with others over which one meaning that was, whereas a Hebrew mind (that is, a mind in tune with the way the Bible actually works) would be willing to see many possible meanings, all of which point to God’s providential workings in the lives of men and women to work out His will.
Rather significantly, the word “maiden” that is present in the Hebrew was translated “parthenos” in Greek, which is a specific word for virgin (similar to the specific word for virgin in Hebrew, “bethulah” that is not used in Isaiah 7:14. This has led some, especially Jews who do not believe in the virgin birth, to deny that there is any true meaning of Isaiah 7:14 that does include the miracle of a virgin giving birth to a child whose birth signified deliverance for Israel. Clearly the inspired New Testament authors saw the use of the word “parthenos” for “maiden” to be an inspired choice that directly pointed to a prophecy of a virgin birth yet to come in the future, showing a secondary meaning for Isaiah 7 that would not have been immediately obvious to the original audience. That said, the Bible is full of deeper meanings and significance that is not immediately obvious. Let us content ourselves for now with one brief example. Reading the Song of Solomon, one of my favorite books of the Bible, there is an obvious surface meaning of the poem being a love song about the loyalty and faithfulness of a young woman to her beloved despite the temptations of cosmopolitan Jerusalem. Later commentators, both Jewish and Christian, have seen in the song an ode to the faithfulness of Israel or the Church to God.
Here in this case we clearly see that both Jews and Christians take a text that on its surface is very passionate and have long viewed it primarily through the lens of allegory because they do not want to accept the passionate and frankly erotic nature of the language, even though the erotic nature of the poem is expressed as being between a husband and a wife, and is clearly acceptable by the biblical standards of morality (as opposed to the more common erotic nature of our writings that deal with fornication, adultery, and other sexual sins). As I have pointed out at some length elsewhere, without the need to repeat myself at length here , there is a false dilemma between viewing the Song of Solomon as only allegorical and only physical. Clearly both meanings are present, as God is not hostile to the enjoyment of the marriage bed between husbands and wives as if it is evil to enjoy godly sexuality, and the conjugal happiness of husbands and wives is symbolic of the spiritual ecstasy between God and believers, as the unity of husband and wife is symbolic of the unity of God and Jesus Christ, and God and the Israel of God. Each level of meaning deepens and enriches, rather than contradicts, the other, if we properly view the text with a Hebrew mind and not with a Greek mind that seeks to reduce all text to one meaning and one meaning alone.
So it is with this passage. There is nothing particularly remarkable in the surface level of meaning about a teenager giving birth. In fact, it may have been a less remarkable aspect of life at that time, when young women married much younger than they now do, than it is in our own time when pregnant teens have been a matter of considerable social concern and where adolescence is no longer seen as a time to find a husband and start having children and more as a time to work on one’s education and develop one’s God given gifts for a lifetime of labor in the workforce (as well as at home). What was remarkable about the original context of the passage was that the deliverance of Judah from the threat of domination by Israel and Syria (if at the cost of increased Assyrian power in the region) would only take a couple of years. The initial miracle, therefore, was in the fact that God promised a relatively speedy deliverance of Judah and her beleaguered king from the pressure of its neighbors.
That surface meaning in no way denies the fact (especially when seen in light of Isaiah’s messianic tone as a whole) that the physical deliverance of Judah from domination by Syria and Israel was only a foretaste of a much greater deliverance that would occur when a virgin (who was presumably also a teenager) would conceive and give birth to a Boy named Immanuel (among His many names) whose birth would signify salvation to (spiritual) Israel during the reign of another famously insecure and faithless monarch (Herod the Great) at a time when Judah was similarly under foreign domination of both a physical and spiritual manner. Again, this deeper spiritual meaning in no way contradicts the original meaning, but neither does the physical meaning deny a deeper spiritual reality of which it was a foretaste. Indeed, when properly understood, both levels of the prophecy enrich and deepen our appreciation of the other, as we recognize that God neither ignores nor only focuses on the physical or spiritual aspects of our existence but rather desires our hearts, our minds, our bodies, as well as our spirit, to be in harmony with His ways. That is precisely what we should expect if we had a biblical mindset rather than a Greek mindset that would spend all of our time arguing which was more important between those things rather than seeing the greater whole and the layers and nuance of God’s word and God’s ways.
We therefore need to ask ourselves how will we view such matters? Is it more important to us to figure out which layer of meaning is the true one, or are we content to recognize that there may be many possible applications of a given verse and several fulfillments of it and that we may only grasp some of the possible meanings of a text? Again, the answer to that question depends on the way we approach scripture. If we approach God’s word with a Hebrew mind, that is, with a biblical mind, we will view the rich possibilities of scripture without neglecting their christological importance or their more mundane surface meaning. Our appreciation of depth will not lead us to neglect the original context and meaning or do violence to it, and neither will our appreciation of original context negate a deeper symbolic or allegorical meaning of a text, or even a personal meaning that we may see as particularly applicable to our own time and our own situation, even if it is a different one than was originally written. Given the rich levels of depth and irony and application of scripture, it behooves us to look at scripture with a biblical (i.e. Hebrew) mindset, and to put away from ourselves the sort of striving that leads us to neglect the multiple and rich layers that can be found in scripture but that we might not happen to see at a given time and place. The fact that King Ahaz was unable to recognize that the promise of salvation from the armies of Israel and Syria had a deeper meaning of spiritual salvation hundreds of years later does not in any way negate that deeper meaning. Yet neither ought our appreciation of spiritual salvation negate in any way our knowledge that this world needs physical salvation from oppression and violence and abuse as well. Neither meaning contradicts the other, to a biblical mind of maturity and soundness. Let us all develop that mind within us through the help of God’s Spirit.