Read with interest your discussion on the messianic nature of Isaiah 7:14. An atheist on the web to whom I sent your article pointed out that in your discussion you failed to address the fact that the Hebrew is in present tense, making the passage read: "A virgin/young woman (almah) IS with child and will bear a son..." He claims that because of this tense, the passage CAN'T be talking about Jesus' birth some 750 years later. I replied that I wasn't sure of the answer, but that I seemed to remember reading somewhere that Hebrew writers often used the present tense when dealing with prophecies like this, almost like they were trying to convey the prophecy from God's point of view (since the entire history of the universe would be His "eternal present"). As an atheist, I'm certain he won't accept that answer, but I promised to follow up. Since I know you've studied the ANE extensively, I'd like to know why you didn't mention the tense of the passage, and whether you think it's relevant or not.
Actually, your friend has somehow been misled--probably by an English translation--on this...
First of all, there is no Hebrew verb there to begin with--much less one in the "present tense"!
The word translated "with child", "pregnant", "conceives" or "will conceive" is an adjective [hareh, feminine form: harah], not a verb. There IS a verb harah that is used sometimes for "conceiving" but it would have been written haretah (with the h changing to a t, due to the root form being a type III-He; and the 3rd person feminine singular ending -ah) had it been used here. Instead, we have only a derivative form, the adjective "harah" (pregnant). There is no verb form in the first part of the clause.
The 'raw' word order/structure of the verse is like this:
"Behold [hinneh], virgin [no verb] pregnant (fem. adjective), and (one) bearing (participle) a son, and she-will-call (perfect, relative weqatalti form)..."
1. there is NO verb between 'virgin' and 'pregnant', so the context has to supply the tense element.
a. this use of the adjective "pregnant" occurs in BOTH present and future tenses in other passages:
"Behold, you (no verb) pregnant and you-will-bear (perfect, relative weqatalti form--see OT:IBHS, 32.2.5a-b) a son and you-will-call his name Ishamel" [Gen 16.11, this is most probably a Present, as in "you ARE NOW pregnant"]b. the most decisive context for determining tense (for such a tense-less construction) is grammatical, and in this case there are several grammatical clues that point to a future translation:
"Behold, you (no verb) pregnant and you-will-bear (same as above) a son" [Judges 13.5--that this is Future, as in "you WILL BECOME pregant" is clear from the parallel, more explicit, verbal statement in verse 3: "you are sterile and childless, but you-will-conceive (perfect, relative weqatalti form) and you-will-bear (perfect, relative weqatalti form)"]
i. The verb at the end of the clause ("and shall call his name...") is definitely future. Its form is called a "relative weqatalti form", whose general function is to indicate futurity (for the technical discussion, see the standard BH syntax reference, OT:IBHS, 32.2.5a-b).c. The next most imporant context is literary--how did Isaiah intend other similar/related phrases.
ii. The 'behold' (hinneh) when followed by a participle 'bearing' (yoledet) is normally rendered as future, and rarely as a present [OT:IBHS:37.6e, 6f]
iii. The form of the 'she will bear' construction, conveying futurity, requires the preceding concept ('becoming pregnant') to be future in meaning too. The Jewish scholar H. Ginsberg, in the Ency. Judacia, s.v. "Immanuel" (p. 1294), points out that hara must be 'she will conceive' or else the following verb ('will bear') would have to become a converted imperfect to convey futurity. [It is a participial form instead.]In this case we have many, many uses of the 'behold' word (hinneh, hin) by Isaiah for study, and a survey of these reveals that it almost always refers to future action. Indeed, Keil and Delitzsch, in their detailed comentary, state it forcefully:
"Moreover, the condition of pregnancy, which is here designated by the participial adjective hara (cf. 2 Sam xi.5), was not an already existing one in this instance, but (as in all probability also in Judg. xiii. 5, cf. 4) something future, as well as the act of bearing, since hinneh is always used in Isaiah to introduce a future occurrence. This use of hinneh in Isaiah is a sufficient answer to Gesenius, Knobel, and others, who understand ha almah as referring to the young wife of the prophet himself, who was at that very time with child." (KD, Isaiah, p.216).
I went through the 46 uses of hinneh (ignoring the related form hin) in Isaiah and find that the data tends to support KD's strong statement. Of the 36 uses that occur at the beginning of a verbal clause, at least 72% of them were clearly future, and of the 13 cases in which it began a participial clause (as in Is 7.14), all but two were clearly future. [The two exceptions (19.1; 30.27) could easily be understood as futures as well, but I tried to be cautious here.]
This would certainly argue strongly for a future translation of this.
2. And in fact, the vast majority of the modern translations/translaters consider this best rendered as a FUTURE as well:
[And, for the record, many prophecies of the future ARE cast in present
tense and past tense, as you suggested, as representing the vividness and
certainty of the event (cf. Is 28.8,40.10). This has more to do with Hebrew
discourse and literary praxis, than the theology of God's viewpoint, though.]
I hope this helps,
Glenn Miller [Mar 30/2000]