Almah  

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"The Septuagint scholars mistranslated the Hebrew word for “young woman” into the Greek word for “virgin.” It was an easy mistake to make because there was only a subtle difference in the spelling.

So they came up with a prophecy: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear us a son.” You understand this? It was the word “virgin” that caught people’s attention. It’s not everyday a virgin conceives and bears a son.

But leave that for a couple of hundred years to stew, and the next thing you know you have the Holy Catholic Church." --Franky "Four-Fingers" in Snatch.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

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".

Bible usage

The meaning of almah is most often determined by referring to its uses in the Bible. Unfortunately, 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 Rebeccah. 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). Many scholars render parthenos into English as virgin. However, the Septuagint also describes Dinah as a parthenos even after she has been raped and hence is no longer a virgin.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Almah" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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