The masculine root 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", but the actual definition is: "girl of marriageable age". This sense of the word continues to the modern Hebrew where almah still means "damsel" (a young woman or girl) and "miss" (a young or unmarried woman).
Almah seems to be the only word in the Biblical Hebrew language which unequivocally signifies an unmarried woman and children born to an almah would be illegitimate. The English word that corresponds most closely to this concept is maiden or maid which means "an unmarried girl (especially a virgin)".
As already indicated, 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 which may explain a recurring sense of marriageability regarding alamot or girls who had entered puberty. 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.
Some authorities believe that almah is derived from alma, a verb meaning "to hide, to conceal". Adam Clarke speculated upon the association between alma and almah: "A virgin ... had not been uncovered, she had not known man." .
almah is a modern Egyptian word for belly dancer or singer and some linguists see this as derived from the ancient semitic word almah for "girl".
In Roman alphabets almah is correctly spelled with an initial spiritus asper mark (‘almah), indicating the word is spelled with an initial ayin. The ayin is either silent or pronounced as an initial soft glottal stop (like a breathy "kh" sound). This pronunciation is also suggested by the Ugaritic cognate word glmt, meaning "damsel".
Alfred Edersheim describes 'almah' as one of a list of sequential "terms, each depicting a fresh stage of life (spellings per Gesenius translated to English):
In relative order and by its connotation of firmness and strength, the almah (or elem) in Edersheim's list suggests the period of wicked quick growing in puberty (particularly early adolescence) but prior to independent responsibility or freedom.
The meaning of almah is most often determined by referring to its uses in the Bible. Unfortunately, there are only nine passages 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 recounts 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 Rebeccah, a young, unmarried virgin is that almah and most Bibles use "virgin" or "maid" as the translation.
The older sister of a infant boy is an almah. She is old enough to be entrusted to watch the baby Moses and she takes thoughtful action to reunite the baby with his mother by offering to bring the baby to a Hebrew nurse maid (her mother). Most translations use the word "girl" to describe Moses' sister.
In both of these passages the psalm is to be played "on alamot" -- a musical meaning that has become lost with time. It most probably refers to a certain type of 10 or 12 stringed lute instrument, so named because of its pitch resembling that of girls' singing voices. It may also refer to a feminine manner of singing or playing, such as a girls choir. A third theory is that "alamoth" refers to an instrument made in the city of "Alameth". . Translators have difficulty with this term and many simply transliterate the Hebrew into English as "alamoth". However, a few versions make speculative attempts such as "soprano voices", "high voices" or "small harps", while other versions simply ignore this reference and do not include it in the translation. (The Latin Vulgate, and consequently the Douay-Rheims Bible, uniquely translates the word as "mystery").
In a victory parade, the participants are listed in order of appearance: 1) the singers; 2) the musicians; and 3) the "alamot" playing cymbals or tambourines. Most Bible versions translate this instance of alamot as "maidens" or "young women".
A poetic chant of praise toward a man, declaring that all the alamot adore him. Thus, he is attractive to marriageable "maidens" or "young women" according to most translations.
The woman, who is the object of this love poem, is favorably compared to a harem of 60 Queens (wives of the King), 80 Concubines (Secondary Wives) and numberless alamot; indicating that these alamot were neither wives nor concubines of the king.
In addition to the standard translations such as "maiden", "virgin" and "young woman" a difference between the Hebrew texts and the Septuagint leads some versions to dramatically revise this verse or translate it with different words. (To some extent, this is also an attempt to develop a dynamic translation of the passage that is clear to the modern reader.) 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 the how a (strong) man is with an almah. (The Septuagint reads "and the way of a man in his youth" instead.) The sense may be that a strong man forcing himself upon a weaker girl is like the bird, the snake, the ship and the adulterous woman. In each instance there is no lasting, visible evidence of the action. However, this is not the only view and there are a variety of translations of the final phrase in verse 19:
The many variations of wording and implied meaning makes this verse particularly difficult for those seeking a precise definition for almah.
Ahaz, the wavering King of Judah—or possibly the royal Court of David's descendants —is told of a sign to be given that the Lord is in charge and will protect the kingdom. The sign given is that almah will give birth to a son who will still be very young when Judah's current enemies will be destroyed. Because Matthew 1:23 treats 14 as a prophecy of Jesus' birth, most Christians insist that almah means "virgin". Jewish readers, however, assert that the passage refers only to events contemporary with Isaiah and Ahaz. (See the Isaiah 7:14 Controversy Below). Versions of the Bible can be found to support both views. Nevertheless, with some notable exceptions (such as the Revised Standard Version), most versions of the Bible that include the New Testament translate "almah" in Isaiah 7:14 as "virgin," while those translating only the Hebrew scriptures use "young woman."
This table compares the translation of each instance of 'almah or 'alamot in the Bible. (references per KJV)
|Bible Version||Year||Gen 24:43||Ex 2:8||Ps 68:25||Prov 30:19||SS 1:3||SS 6:8||Isa 7:14||1 Cr 15:20||Ps 46|
|JPS||1917||maiden||maiden||damsels||young woman||maidens||maidens||young woman||Alamoth||Alamoth|
|JPCT||maiden||girl||maidens||young woman||maidens||maidens||young woman||Alamoth||alamoth|
|Dohay Rheims||1609||virgin||maid||damsels||youth**||maidens||young maidens||virgin||mysteries||-|
|New Life||1969||girl||girl||young women||woman||young women||young women||young woman & (virgin)||high sounds||-|
|Amplified||1987||maiden||girl||maidens||maid||maidens||virgins||young woman & virgin||Alamoth||trebel voices|
|The Message||1993||young woman||girl||maidens||**||everyone**||**||girl||melody||-|
|CEV||1995||young woman||girl||young women||**||young women||others||virgin||smaller harps||-|
|New Living||1996||young woman||girl||young women||woman||young women||virgins||virgin||(alamoth)||soprano voices|
|NIRV||1996||virgin||girl||young women||young woman||young women||virgins||virgin||high notes||alamoth|
|Holman||virgin||girl||young women||young woman||young women||young women||virgin||Alamoth||Alamoth|
|NEB||young woman||girl||girls||girl||maidens||young women||young woman||lutes||**|
|NET||young woman||young girl||young women||woman||young women||young women||young woman||Alamoth||Alamoth|
** = Not Directly Translated
Many Christian apologists respond that throughout the Old Testament, in every other instance where a girl is described as almah, she is a girl who has never known a man carnally or had intercourse. Moreover, the word bethulah is sometimes used to describe women who are arguably not virgins (Joel 1.8 and Esther 2:8-17), and in at least two cases (Genesis 24: 16 and Judges 21: 12), an additional phrase in the text explains that that the bethulah has "not known a man." Thus, they argue, almah refers to virgins more consistently than does bethulah. Most importantly, the Jewish scholars who translated and compiled the Hebrew scriptures (the Torah first and then later the Prophets and the Writings) into a Greek version of the Old Testament, translated almah in Isaiah 7:14 as parthenos, which almost always means "virgin.
Some scholars contend that debates over the precise meaning of bethulah and almah are misguided because no Hebrew word encapsulates the idea of certain virginity. Martin Luther also argued that the debate was irrelevant, not because the words do not clearly mean virgin, but because almah and bethulah were functional synonyms.