“Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel!” (Isaiah 7:14). These are some of the most exciting words of scripture, words forecasting the virgin birth, words that point directly to Christ. And yet as we discover them here in chapter seven of Isaiah, we find them in a context that is less than familiar.
King Ahaz is hardly a household name; and few among us would likely be ready to explain the political situation in which this prophecy is received, without consulting the scriptures. But there we learn that the Northern Kingdom and Syria were in league together against Judah, prompting King Ahaz, who led the Southern Kingdom in the mid-8th century B.C., to seek an alliance with great Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser. So we find this extraordinary promise buried amid what seems to be a geo-political conflict well over two thousand years in the past.
The context may seem distant and foreign, but there’s a constant in the details here: the virgin birth is the sign that nobody seems to want. When the Lord offers this sign of his promise to Judah, King Ahaz initially refuses it, piously quoting Deuteronomy, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deut. 6:16).
God finds it wearying to have his subjects quote scripture, which he himself inspired and over which he remains sovereign, against him. In fact, when God became flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus Christ, he quoted that same passage as a rebuke to the Devil who tempted him in the wilderness with quotations from the scriptures (cf. Matthew 4:1-11). When God wishes to give a sign, it’s best to accept it, even if it doesn’t seem necessary.
And isn’t that the crux of our concern about the virgin birth today? It may seem impious to say, but I think this part of the story of Christ’s incarnation is widely seen as irksome. Certainly a desire to explain exactly why God chose this sign has complicated our views of the relationship between procreation and original sin.
Likewise, Protestants seem suspiciously enthusiastic about writing off the need for a virgin birth by philological means. Questioning whether “virgin” is the proper translation here for the Hebrew word “almah” is as old as Christianity itself. The great translator of the Bible into the vernacular of the Roman Empire, St. Jerome, addressed this very controversy when he wrote against the heretic Jovinian. Elsewhere in his commentary on Isaiah he underscored that because this birth was intended as a sign, surely it bespoke something new and marvelous.
When in the second century B.C. the Hebrew was rendered into Greek in that most authoritative translation of the Septuagint, “almah” was rendered “παρθένος,” the unambiguous meaning of which “virgin” reflected the pattern of the use of “almah” elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.
I think if we can let go these concerns for a moment we will discover in this passage a truth about the goodness of God’s methods. The very fact that the virgin birth is so shocking helps us put the scandal of the incarnation in proper perspective.
Often people who are curious about my religious faith ask if I believe in the virgin birth. As if to say, “You believe God became man and died a criminal’s shameful death on account of our sins? Fine. But that a human was conceived without sexual intercourse? Absurd.”
No doubt this reveals something about our values, but let us resist that digression. Instead let us consider Jesus of Nazareth, who, despite being born of a woman, was God, the eternal word of the Father, and who remains so even now ascended and enthroned in glory. May we marvel at the miracle of his birth, that we may thereby come to marvel all the more at the power of his dying and living for us.
 Jerome, Against Jovinianus, 1.32
 Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah, 3.7.14