On the Better Bibles Blog, Peter Kirk mentions a rendering of Isaiah 7.14:
Behold, the young woman is pregnant and will give birth to a son, and she will call his name Immanu-El.
Of course this verse always reminds me of the controversy over not rendering ʿalmah in English as virgin, thus, the lie line went, denying the virgin birth. But here, I think in terms of Messianic prophecy young woman may really be a superior translation, because it better recalls the birth in Revelation (11.19–12.17), while virgin may get people hung up on just the one fact of the virgin birth, as great a miracle as that is.
In Revelation, the Blessed Virgin/Israel, crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth, bears a male child who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron (obvious reference to Psalm 2). There’s a lot going on here, but if the connexion can be made without doing violence to the text, I think it’s good for a translation to allow it to be made with recourse to a footnote – I myself am a fan of scholarly apparatus, but a footnote just doesn’t do it for me when I want to sow intuition about Scripture.
That the identity of the woman here isn’t quite clear serves readily to temporarily background any distinction we might make between Mary and Israel, thus also telescoping the Nativity narrative and the Passion-Resurrection narrative. The text of Revelation does seem to be going for this, given how it talks about the dragon in the beginning of the passage, depicting things from long ago as well as the time of Christ.
We started here with the Isaiah-Revelation connexion via Mary and the literal birth of Christ. The Psalm 2 reference, however, works better with the Resurrection, as we can see in the arrangement of Handel’s Messiah, where the librettist very nicely pairs Psalm 2 with the Hallelujah chorus in reference to the Resurrection of Christ. (I use Messiah as a commentary. Bite me.) Jesus himself makes the birth-resurrection connexion by speaking of his death and resurrection as birth pains and a birth (Mt 24; Mk 13; Jn 16.16–24).
Translating ʿalmah in English as young woman, then, facilitates movement in the New Testament texts from Christ’s birth (as Matthew 1 cites Isaiah) to his death and resurrection. Not a bad thing, is it?
[For the necessity of a Messianic fulfilment of Isaiah 7.14, see Claude Mariottini’s blog.]