If Isaiah meant only a "young woman" and nothing more, he could have just used the word Na'arah. At any-rate the typical non Christian view of this prophecy is it's referring to Isaiah or The King's Wife, in which case it should have used a word for Wife.
Almah is the more rarely used word. That itself suggests it has the more specific meaning.
There is no place where Almah is used that you can prove the woman refereed to is not a Virgin. With Bethulah it's questionable a couple times it's used. Like Isaiah 47 using it of symbolic Babylon, in Chapter 23 of Isaiah as well where Tyre is the Bethulah daughter of Zidon. But those are poetic rather then literal contexts (they refer to cities and/or their populations, not individuals), so more or less irrelevant to how to generally define the word.
Some will use certain outside The Bible uses of words similar to Bethulah in other Semitic languages like Akkadian or Aramaic to prove it's lack of virginity. Words in similar languages are similar but still different, and besides those examples they use come from bizarre Pagan myths where words are often used in ways that contradict their proper meaning, or at least bend it. Regardless there is in fact no proof that Anath was ever viewed as Baal's wife, that's just something people like to infer.
Both are used of Rebekkah in Genesis 24, seemingly as synonyms. Na'arah is also used of her.
Those who take the apologetic approach of saying it's Bethluah that doesn't always mean virgin (or skeptics trying to argue neither means it, and virginity can only be clearly expressed in the negative), will say that immediately after Rebecca is called a Bethulah it then says she "has not known a man" as proof that Bethulah alone doesn't communicate virginity. When she's later called an Almah no such explanation is needed.
There are actually many reasons why I feel Genesis 24 is a perfect examples of how The Holy Spirit is often redundant for the sake of emphasis (go over it and be amazed at how much exposition and dialogue is repeated). Plus, I know many times in English people have said something like "A virgin who has never known a man".
Given the theory I shall develop by the end of this study. I do think it's possible that many not yet married young women still living in their father's house were assumed to be a Bethulah whether they were one or not, or even sometimes called that out of respect even if they really weren't. But Almah means something much more specific, and no woman who has had intercourse would ever be mistakenly called an Almah.
I feel like it's logical to conclude that if there is a difference between the two words, that all Almahs are Bethulahs but not necessarily all Bethulah's are Almahs. But even if the opposite were the case it would still mean most likely that neither have had sex with any man. They are most certainly not mutually exclusive words.
It is true that neither word has strictly the modern notion of virginity in mind. But also both definitely mean a lack of sexual experience with men.
It could be used against it meaning Virgin that Almah is not used in Deuteronomy 22, which is perceived as one of the definitive Bible passage on the subject of Virginity. I will be doing a study on that on my other blog in the future, where I argue it's not a good idea to define virginity off that chapter.
The fact that the word for virginity comes from Bethulah does suggest that it's the word you use of a virgin if that's the only characteristic you want to communicate. Being an Almah I think is about more then that but also definitely includes that.
I don't want to retread too much of what other apologetic material on this subject has gone over. Like "how could just any young woman conceiving be a sign?"
But I will again recommend against using the Septuagint. There is evidence it was changed by Christians, and at any rate the skeptical argument is frequently that the Septuagint is the origin of the error. I for one don't believe Matthew was using the Septuagint, he originally wrote in Hebrew.
If you continue to insist the word Almah has no implied lack of sex with men, read Proverbs 30:18-19.
"There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid."In all of these poetic idioms the latter is something the former cannot penetrate. In fact I've seen people use this passage to build an argument that the word implies as lack of sexual desire for men (A full six on the Kinsey scale Lesbian, a virgin in the sense of virgin as code for Lesbian, or maybe an asexual woman). My one problem with that is it could lend itself to support the Catholic perpetual virginity argument. Point is, this verse strongly supports that the word implies lack of sexual intimacy with men.
There is also Elem, a word that is the grammatically masculine form of Almah. It is used even more rarely, only twice ("young man" in 1 Samuel 20:22 and "stripling" in 1 Samuel 17 56, KJV renderings). In one it's describing David just after he killed Goliath. No way to know if these men were truly male virgins, but they do seem to have both been unmarried at the time in question.
People have tried to use Almah's connection to this word to say it means a masculine or androgynous woman in some way. But this word is rarely used and not even similar to the standard Hebrew words for masculinity. A Feminine form of Zakar would be the better method to communicate that. Elem is grammatically masculine and used to describes male individuals, but masculine is not what it means.
The verb root from which both words are derived in Alam, Strongs number 5956. It means to veil from sight or to hide or conceal. Symbolically a woman wearing a veil often represents her virginity. The word is often translated by the KJV as words like secret, hide, hidden, hidest, hideth. All could speak to the notion that a woman's virginity is something to be kept. That a virgin has not "known a man".
Maybe the sense of being hidden also fits connecting it to a not hetero-normative sexual orientation? Maybe Elems and Almahs were both "in the closet" so to speak?
I want to point out a detail I feel is frequently overlooked but very interesting. Exodus 2 is the Nativity of Moses, a story many Christians see as foreshadowing the Nativity narrative of Matthew. Or to the skeptics point of view, that Matthew drew inspiration from.
Then said his sister to Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?" And Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Go". And the maid went and called the child's mother.The word translated "maid" here is Almah in the Hebrew. And to help you avoid confusion, this is the only time Exodus 2 uses Almah, the words earlier translated maidens and maid are Na'arah and Amah a word for a maidservant/handmaiden.
We know elsewhere in scripture that the name of the sister of Moses and Aaron is Miriam. So we have here the same controversial word used in Isaiah 7:14 applied to a young girl who's certainly a virgin that shares the same name as the mother of Jesus.
The three out of seven uses of the word that remain, are the only three times it's plural.
Song of Solomon 6:8 is the one verse people might try to use against it meaning virgin, since Almahs are depicted among Solomon's harem. They are distinct from the queens (malkah) and concubines, while in Kings and Chronicles all 1000 women of Solomon's harem were either princesses (sarah) or concubines.
It's likely that these are either women he's betrothed to but hasn't married yet, as Mary was when she conceived. And/Or since his Harem was so large, women he's legally married but hasn't gotten around to consummating yet. Clearly many of Solomon's marriages were purely political in nature and perhaps never meant to be truly consummated at all. And since he is only known to have had three children (Rehoboam and two daughters) as opposed to both David before and Rehoboam after who we are told fathered a lot. It could make sense that the majority of his "wives" were actually virgins.
Again, that option could be used by Catholics to support a perpetual virginity argument, but I can refute that on the end of Matthew 1 and the references to Jesus half-siblings alone. And it does look like Mary and Joseph were formally married before she gave birth showing that Almah could still apply to a married woman for whom the consummation is for some reason being delayed.
Song of Solomon 1:3 seems to demonstrate how uniquely attractive The Beloved is by saying that even the Almahs liked him. This could be a hyperbolic compliment from the Bride that may not even be literally true. We are dealing with a poetic book here.
This could fit what I said before about how some have speculated the word could be affiliated with Lesbianism. There is only one disclaimer I'd give to considering that possibility.
Even if some or many or most Almahs were homosexual, bisexual, polysexual, pansexual, or asexual women, the usage of Almah in key places like Proverbs still tells me that a woman ceases to be an Almah once she's had penetrative potentially reproductive intercourse. A Woman's sexual orientation however would not change simply because of that.
On more usage of the word remains. Psalm 68:25. "The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after; among them were the damsels playing with timbrels."
Psalm 68 is a psalm that is often viewed as looking back on the time just after the Exodus and the beginning of the 40 years in the wilderness. Exodus 15:20-21 also refers to Timbrels.
And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them, "Sing ye to the LORD, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea."So, we have come back to Miriam, the Sister of Moses.
Josephus says Miriam married Hur, but a Targum says she was the mother of Hur, trying to make her the same person as Ephrath. Those are later traditions that are rather contrived, going off Scripture alone, Miriam seems to have never married.
Exodus says "all the women" joined in the dancing and the timbrel playing. Certainly not all the women were Virgins. But Psalm 68 is being poetic not strictly literal, Miriam is leading this, so it's describing them all in terms that apply to Miriam.
There is also a Hebrew name derived from Almah. Alamoth, used in 1 Chronicles 15:20 and Psalm 46:1. Putting a Teth at the end of a word makes it a feminine plural.
In both those verses the KJV translates it as a name, but it seems like maybe that's not how it's actually being used, both are in contexts talking about musicians. There is certainly nothing to contradict it being affiliated with virginity.
Jeremiah 31:4 refers to a Bethulah dancing with Tabrets (same word translated Timbrels), perhaps showing the two can be synonyms sometimes. Nahum 2:7 refers to Amahs (Maid servants) using them.
Judges 11:34 also affiliated Timbrel playing with the daughter of Jephthah, who we know was a virgin even though a word for virgin was never applied to her. Just the word for virginity.
A note about the daughter of Jephthah, Judged 11:37-28 uses Strong number 7464, Reah, the KJV translates it companions and fellows. The word in Hebrew is specifically feminine, it refers to female friends or companions.
Ancient Israel certainly did not have a status of ceremonial virgins comparable to the Roman Vestal Virgins or Catholic Nuns. Nor to the Greek ceremonial virgins affiliated with Artemis or Athena. But I am getting the impression, from the places where it's used in plural and affiliated with musicians. That maybe there was a special Virgin status or community in ancient Israel.
A Bethulah is any woman who is a virgin because she hasn't yet married or known a man. An Almah was someone who's virginity was more apart of her identity. All Almahs were Bethulahs, but not all Bethulahs were Almahs. And sometimes the text may not even use Almah if it's referring to an Almah, like possibly with the daughter of Jephthah.
But I don't think an Almah vow was required to be, or even usually expected to be for life. (Just as the Nazarite vow could be for life but didn't need to be). Jephthah's daughter however likely became an exception to that because of his rash vow. I agree with the apologists who argue that she was not sacrificed but merely forfeited her potential to produce an heir for Jephthah. When someone has no sons only daughters his inheritance could pass through a daughter thanks the law created for The Daughters of Zelophehad, discussed in Numbers 26:33, 27, 36, Joshua 17 and 1 Chronicles 7.
Some apocryphal legends like the Protoevangelion of James do allude to Mary holding something like a Temple Virgin status.That particular works however supports the heretical Perpetual Virginity view.
The only way an Almah could be maybe sometimes not a Bethulah is if in addition to a presumption of virginity Bethulah inferred a young woman still living in her father's house, which seems plausible. While an Almah isn't necessarily but still could be.
The assumption that the meaning of Almah implies youth I find not workable from the break down I already did of it's etymology. Plus that it is effectively still used of Miriam the sister of Moses when she was over 80.
Many other Christians defending that it means Virgin have argued Almah implies still living in her father's house. However in addition to being connected to Miriam at a time when her father was certainly long dead. Song of Solomon applies it to women that are to some extent already in Solomon's Harem.
We feel the need to do this because we keep assuming Mary was still under her father's roof at the Annunciation. But nothing in Matthew or Luke mentioned her father in the narrative (I do firmly believe however that he is the Heli of Luke 3's genealogy). While such a thing happening at all was rare, she could have been living on her own. Maybe her father and mother died already, maybe she was older then we usually assume. Maybe Almah in part refer to women who even if they eventually did marry wanted to be independent of that obligation.
You may ask "If Almah refers to a special vow or calling, wasn't Miriam awfully young in Exodus 2 to already have such a status?" Once again, we need to stop always picturing The Ten Commandments when we read Exodus. We have no idea how old Miriam was. Moses was newly born and Aaron was 3 years older then Moses. Miriam seems to be the oldest, and plenty of times a family may wind up having a decade or more between children. I think it's plausible she could have chosen to become or identify as an Almah at as young as 12. She died 11 months before Moses did at 120, so if she were 12 years older then him, she lived to 131, impressive, but only a year older then Jehoiada.
But also it's the narrative voice calling her an Almah in Exodus 2, so it could have been doing so retroactively.
Is it possible the Almah status appealed to many women who sexually and/or romantically preferred the company of other women to men? As well as asexual women? I think that's highly probable, the ancient world didn't define sexual orientation how we do today. And contrary to popular opinion, The Bible does not condemn homosexuality.
If this theory about what an Almah refers to is true. It's perhaps notable that there is no proof the word is ever used of any gentile. The closest we get to a possible example of that is Song of Solomon inferring Almahs were in Solomon's Harem. And that is only because 1 Kings 11 makes it seem like he only married foreign wives. But 1 Kings 11 is focusing on what it needs to to make it's point.