Laban and Rebecca at the well, by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini. Rebecca is described as an almah (Genesis 24:43)

Almah (עַלְמָה‘almā, plural: עֲלָמוֹת‘ălāmōṯ, from a root implying the vigour of puberty[1]) is a Hebrew word for a young woman of childbearing age; despite its importance to the account of the virgin birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, scholars agree that it has nothing to do with virginity but is taken by many to refer rather to a woman who has not yet borne a child.[2] It occurs nine times in the Hebrew Bible.[3]

Etymology and social context[]

Almah derives from a root meaning "to be full of vigour, to have reached puberty".[1] In the ancient Near East girls received value as potential wives and bearers of children: "A wife, who came into her husband's household as an outsider, contributed her labor and her fertility ... [h]er task was to build up the bet 'ab by bearing children, particularly sons" (Leeb, 2002).[4] Scholars thus agree that almah refers to a woman of childbearing age without implying virginity.[5] From the same root, the corresponding masculine word elem עֶלֶם 'young man' also appears in the Bible,[6] as does alum (used in plural עֲלוּמִים) used in the sense '(vigor of) adolescence',[7] in addition to the post-Biblical words almut (עַלְמוּת) and alimut (עֲלִימוּת)[8] both used for youthfulness and its strength (distinct from post-Biblical Alimut אַלִּימוּת 'violence' with initial Aleph, although Klein's Dictionary states this latter root is likely a semantic derivation of the former, from 'strength of youth' to 'violence'[9]).

The Bible uses an unrelated word, betulah (‏בְּתוּלָה), to refer to a virgin,[10] as well as the idea of virginity, betulim (‏בְּתוּלִים).[11]

Biblical usage[]

The word almah occurs nine times in the Hebrew Bible:[3]

Greek translation[]

The Septuagint translates most occurrences of almah into a generic word neanis νεᾶνις meaning 'young woman',[13][14] or to neotes νεότης meaning 'youth',[15] both words being derived from neos 'new' and unrelated to virginity.[16][17] Two occurrences, in the Genesis verse concerning Rebecca[18] and in Isaiah 7:14, are mistranslated into parthenos (παρθένος),[19] the basic word associated with virginity in Greek (it is a title of Athena 'The Virgin Goddess') but still occasionally used by the Greeks for a unmarried woman who is not a virgin.[20][21][22] Most scholars agree[23][24] that the Isaiah's phrase ('a young woman shall conceive and bear a son') did not intend to convey any miraculous conception.[25] In this verse, as in the Genesis occurrence concerning Rebecca, the Septuagint translators misused the Greek word parthenos generically to indicate an unmarried young woman, whose probable virginity (as unmarried young women were ideally seen at the time) was incidental.[3][17][26]


  1. ^ a b Childs 2001, p. 66.
  2. ^ Sweeney 1996, p. 161-162.
  3. ^ a b c Byrne 2009, p. 155.
  4. ^ Leeb 2002, p. unspecified.
  5. ^ Sweeney 1996, p. 161.
  6. ^ "Strong's Hebrew: 5958. עָ֫לֶם (elem) -- a young man". biblehub.com. Retrieved 2020-08-01.
  7. ^ "Strong's Hebrew: 5934. עֲלוּם (alumim) -- youth, youthful vigor". biblehub.com. Retrieved 2020-08-01.
  8. ^ Even-Shoshan Dictionary, entries עַלְמוּת and עֲלִימוּת
  9. ^ "Klein Dictionary, אלם ᴵᴵᴵ 1". www.sefaria.org. Retrieved 2020-08-02.
  10. ^ "Strong's Hebrew: 1330. בְּתוּלָה (bethulah) -- a virgin". biblehub.com. Retrieved 2020-08-02.
  11. ^ "Strong's Hebrew: 1331. בְּתוּלִים (bethulim) -- virginity". biblehub.com. Retrieved 2020-08-02.
  12. ^ Preuss 1974, p. 461.
  13. ^ "Strong's Greek: 3494. νεανίας (neanias) -- a young man". biblehub.com. Retrieved 2020-08-02.
  14. ^ "Shir-hashirim (Song of Songs) 1 :: Septuagint (LXX)".
  15. ^ "Mishlei (Proverbs) 30 :: Septuagint (LXX)".
  16. ^ "Greek Word Study Tool". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2020-11-16.
  17. ^ a b Gravett et al. 2008, p. 72.
  18. ^ "Bereishit (Genesis) 24 :: Septuagint (LXX)".
  19. ^ "Yeshaiya (Isaiah) 7 :: Septuagint (LXX)".
  20. ^ Seidman 2010, pp. 40–43.
  21. ^ MacLachlan 2007, p. 7.
  22. ^ "Greek Word Study Tool". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2020-08-02.
  23. ^ Grindheim 2013, p. 78.
  24. ^ Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges https://biblehub.com/commentaries/isaiah/7-14.htm
  25. ^ Moyise 2013, p. PT95: "The first issue is the translation of the Hebrew word almah. Most scholars agree that its general meaning is "young woman" and it rather looks like the choice of "virgin" by the KJV was theologically motivated. [...] Indeed, we do not know of any Jewish writing which understood Isa 7:14 as involving anything but a normal conception."
  26. ^ Fletcher Steele 1892, p. 24.