almah vs. betulah: Battle of the Virgins

I was using Vines and came across these entries and found them interesting.


`almah (H5959), “virgin; maiden.” This noun has an Ugaritic cognate, although the masculine form also appears in Aramaic, Syriac, and Arabic. The feminine form of the root appears 9 times; the only 2 appearances of the masculine form (`elem) are in First Samuel. This suggests that this word was used rarely, perhaps because other words bore a similar meaning.

That `almah can mean “virgin” is quite clear in Son_6:8 : “There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins [NASB, “maidens”] without number.” Thus all the women in the court are described. The word `almah represents those who are eligible for marriage but are neither wives (queens) nor concubines. These “virgins” all loved the king and longed to be chosen to be with him (to be his bride), even as did the Shulamite who became his bride (Son_1:3-4). In Gen_24:43 the word describes Rebekah, of whom it is said in Gen_24:16 that she was a “maiden” with whom no man had had relations. Solomon wrote that the process of wooing a woman was mysterious to him (Pro_30:19). Certainly in that day a man ordinarily wooed one whom he considered to be a “virgin.” There are several contexts, therefore, in which a young girl’s virginity is expressly in view.

Thus `almah appears to be used more of the concept “virgin” than that of “maiden,” yet always of a woman who had not borne a child. This makes it the ideal word to be used in Isa_7:14, since the word betulah emphasizes virility more than virginity (although it is used with both emphases, too). The reader of Isa_7:14 in the days preceding the birth of Jesus would read that a “virgin who is a maiden” would conceive a child. This was a possible, but irregular, use of the word since the word can refer merely to the unmarried status of the one so described. The child immediately in view was the son of the prophet and his wife (cf. Isa_8:3) who served as a sign to Ahaz that his enemies would be defeated by God. On the other hand, the reader of that day must have been extremely uncomfortable with this use of the word, since its primary connotation is “virgin” rather than “maiden.” Thus the clear translation of the Greek in Mat_1:23 whereby this word is rendered “virgin” satisfies its fullest implication. Therefore, there was no embarrassment to Isaiah when his wife conceived a son by him, since the word `almah allowed for this. Neither is there any embarrassment in Matthew’s understanding of the word.

Maiden, Virgin

betulah (H1330), “maiden, virgin.” Cognates of this word appear in Ugaritic and Akkadian. Its 50 biblical occurrences are distributed throughout every period of Old Testament literature.

This word can mean “virgin,” as is clear in Deu_22:17, where if a man has charged that “I found not thy daughter a maid,” the father is to say, “And yet these are the tokens of my daughter’s virginity [betulim]. The text continues: “And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city.” The husband was to be chastised and fined (which was given to the girl’s father), “because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel” (Deu_22:19). If she was found not to be a “virgin,” she was to be stoned to death “because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house” (Deu_22:21).

In several passages this word merely means a grown-up girl or a “maiden”; it identifies her age and marital status. The prophets who denounce Israel for playing the harlot also called her the betulah of Yahweh, or the betulah (daughter) of Israel (Jer_31:4, Jer_31:21). The other nations are also called betuloth: Isa_23:12— Zidon; Isa_47:1—Babylon; Jer_46:11  Egypt. These nations are hardly being commended for their purity! In Ugaritic literature the word is used frequently of the goddess Anat, the sister of Baal and hardly a virgin. What was true of her and figuratively of these nations (including Israel) was that she was a vigorous young woman at the height of her powers and not married. Thus betulah is often used in parallelism with the Hebrew bachur, which signifies a young man, regardless of his virginity, who is at the height of his powers (Deu_32:25). In such contexts virility and not virginity is in view. Because of this ambiguity Moses described Rebekah as a young girl (na`arah) who was “very fair to look upon, a virgin [betulah], neither had any man known her” (Gen_24:16—the first occurrence of the word).

Both the masculine and feminine forms appear in Isa_23:4 : “…I travail not, nor bring forth children, neither do I nourish up young men (betulim), nor bring up virgins (betulot). A similar occurrence is found in Lam_1:18 : “…Behold my sorrow: my virgins and my young men are gone into captivity” (cf. Lam_2:21; Zec_9:17).

The standard edition of William Gesenius’ lexicon by Brown, Driver, and Briggs (BDB) observes that the Assyrian word batultu (masc. batulu) is a cognate of betulah. This Assyrian word means “maiden” or “young man.”

Most scholars agree that betulah and batultu are phonetically related; yet they disagree as to whether they are true cognates. Various Old Testament contexts indicate that betulah should be translated “maiden” more often than “virgin.” If this is true, the BDB etymology is probably correct.


Filed under Bible, Religion

4 responses to “almah vs. betulah: Battle of the Virgins

  1. i’ll just repost the same answer i gave on the other thread since it’s the same question:In genesis 24:43 rifka is referred to as ‘almah’. In that same chapter she is also referred to as ‘bitulah’ and na’ara’. These are obviously not mutually exclusive terms.‘na’ara’ and ‘almah’ are translated as ‘maiden’ or ‘young woman’.‘bitulah’ is ‘virgin’.‘Virgin’ tells you that the woman has not had sexual intercourse with a man, not how old she is nor her marital status.‘almah’ and ‘na’ara’ tell you this is a young woman, not her sexual history nor her marital status. That’s all. So, yes. Rivka was a virgin when eliezar met her and was one until she married Yitzchak (verse 67). Stop trying to read into the jewish scriptures things that aren’t there and you’ll find your learning goes much easier.

  2. If it always refers to a girl who has not had sexual intercourse, why does it only pertain when referring to women when the male form of the word is simply translated young man?

    What about this:

    “In several passages this word merely means a grown-up girl or a “maiden”; it identifies her age and marital status. The prophets who denounce Israel for playing the harlot also called her the betulah of Yahweh, or the betulah (daughter) of Israel (Jer_31:4, Jer_31:21).”

    This is published in Vines so it is not my work, but what you are saying does not seem to be as black and white as what you are stating.

  3. <quote> The above verses show how “betulah” (virgin) modifies another word such as “na’arah” (young woman) or “achoto” (his sister). Thus, betulah could not mean a young woman since this would make for some rather strange translations.

  4. [1] Gerald Sigal, The Jew and the Christian Missionary: A Jewish Response to Missionary Christianity (New York: KTAV, 1981), 23. Citing Lev. 21:14; Deut. 22:15-19, 23, 28, Sigal argues that “betulah” unequivocally means “virgin.” However, this doesn’t seem to be the case: “Lament like a virgin [“betulah”] girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth” (Joel 1:8). Virgins don’t have husbands!

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