On the virgin birth
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
- Isaiah 7:14
The virgin will conceive and give birth. How could we study this passage and not engage with the miracle and controversy around this prophecy?
First, you might have heard that the Hebrew word that gets translated “virgin” (almah) can also be translated “young woman.” Critics of the idea of a virgin birth claim that the doctrine stems from a translation error. “The prophecy in Isaiah,” they say, “and perhaps the narrative around the birth of Jesus result from a misunderstanding.”
These people need to learn to listen to women when they speak.
In Luke 1:34, Mary responded to the news that she will be the mother of the Messiah by asking: “How can this be since I am a virgin?” More literally, she used the phrase “since a man I have never ‘known’ (if you know what I mean).” Mary knew where babies came from and would have known she didn’t meet the minimal criteria to become pregnant. Why would we discount her testimony?
Secondly, people discount the virgin birth as a symptom of ancient ignorance. “People back then didn’t have our level of scientific understanding,” they say. CS Lewis calls this perspective “chronological snobbery.”
In an era without reliable methods of birth control, with a high rate of maternal mortality, with honor killings for people who have sex outside of marriage; everyone would have been acutely aware of what was necessary to become pregnant. They weren’t any more likely to believe in a virgin birth than we are.
The proclamation of a virgin birth would have made Jesus liable to teasing, would have opened the door for doubt, and would have sparked social ostracization. Imagine how painful it would have been for Mary. Think about how it would have felt to be Joseph. Can you picture the disciples, already struggling to proclaim the resurrection from the dead, also having to contend for the virgin birth?
But they held onto it through history. And we believe it today. Why?
All throughout the biblical story, we hear about women who long to have children. Sarai. Rebekah. Rachel. Hannah. The Shunamite woman. Elizabeth. And then, all of the sudden, a virgin gives birth to a son.
Something in human history needed to change. Something that had never happened before needed to happen. We couldn’t go on like this forever. This is why Jesus came.
From the very start, he’s extraordinary. God who is truly with us.