Deborah, prophetess and judge of Israel
A reader asked yesterday what I thought about Isaiah 3:12 which reads,
Children (“infants“) oppress my people, and women rule over them. My people, your leaders mislead you; they confuse the direction of your paths.
In this article, I look at the context of Isaiah chapter 3 and at three possible interpretations of Isaiah 3:12. What does this verse reveal about God’s view of women as leaders?
The Context of Isaiah 3:12
Isaiah chapter 3 is an oracle of judgment. It tells of the demise of Jerusalem and Judah as a consequence of Judah’s rebellion against God (Isaiah 3:8). This rebellion was brought about by the vices and mismanagement of its civil and religious leaders.
At the beginning of Isaiah chapter 3, we read that God is about to remove the capable and gifted people from Judah, including the ruling classes of Jerusalem (Isa. 3:1-4). This is exactly what happened in the early sixth century when the Babylonians invaded Judah and began deporting their best and brightest.
An English translation of the Septuagint’s version of Isaiah 3:1 reads: “Behold now, the Lord, the Lord of hosts, will take away from Jerusalem and from Judah the mighty man and mighty woman, the strength of bread, and the strength of water” (Isa. 3:1 Brenton; the NETS translation is here.) In the following two verses, God lists what kind of mighty men and women will be removed: “the hero and the warrior, the judge, the prophet, the diviner and the elder, the captain of fifty and the dignitary, the counsellor, skilled artisan and clever diviner” (Isa. 3:2-3). These kinds of people were considered necessary for a healthy functioning society in the ancient world.
Israel had previously benefited from the wise counsel, leadership, and heroic actions of certain men and women, but there would come a time when only the poorest, weakest, and least skilled would be left in Judah. Anarchy and extortion would follow as irresponsible and ill-equipped people became leaders.
These leaders are described as children and as untrained in Isaiah 3:4. This idea of children as leaders comes up again in our text, Isaiah 3:12. Furthermore, God outlines some ways people will be cheated and oppressed by their leaders (Isa. 3:5, 13-15). These ideas may also be behind Isaiah 3:12.
What does Isaiah 3:12 mean?
There are three ways of understanding God’s words in Isaiah 3:12.
1. Isaiah 3:12 should be interpreted literally.
Some believe that the meaning of Isaiah 3:12a, as it is in the Hebrew text, should be taken literally despite the rhetorical nature of the prophecy. If so, Judah is being ruled by inexperienced youth. However, the Hebrew word used in this verse עוֹלֵל (olel) more commonly refers to small children, even infants. Nevertheless, God may be speaking about Ahaz who was a weak and wicked king. In the year 732 BC, Ahaz began his sixteen-year rule at the age of 20 (2 Kings 16:2 cf. Eccl. 10:16).
According to the literal interpretation, Judah is also ruled by women, perhaps the queen mother (cf. 2 Kings 11:1-16) and other prominent women in the royal court. These may be the “haughty women of Zion” denounced in Isaiah 3:16-25. The descriptions of these haughty women show that they are wealthy and, therefore, influential.
2. Isaiah 3:12 should be interpreted metaphorically.
A second possible interpretation of Isaiah 3:12, one that is favoured by many scholars (and by me), is that metaphors or idioms are used in this verse. In this interpretation, the words “children” and “women” are not to be taken literally. Rather they signify that the leaders are inexperienced, capricious, or foolish (like children) and also cowardly or effeminate (like women) (cf. Isa. 3:4). In a note in the Geneva Bible (1599), Theodore Beza takes the metaphorical view and describes these leaders as “manifest tokens of [God’s] wrath, because they would be fools and effeminate.”
As now, it was an insult in ancient times to call a grown man a “child.” To call a man a “woman” was also, unfortunately, a common insult. This is because there was a stereotype that women were more easily frightened and more cowardly than men. (There are plenty of women in the Bible, however, who do not fit this stereotype. See here.)
The “woman” insult is used elsewhere in Isaiah. It occurs in Isaiah 19:16 which is about the downfall of the Egyptian people, male and female: “In that day the Egyptians will be like women, and tremble with fear before the hand that the LORD of hosts shakes over them” (ESV). This insult is also used in Nahum 3:13 about the downfall of Ninevah whose troops were male but called “women”: “Behold, your troops are women in your midst. The gates of your land are wide open to your enemies …” (ESV). In Jeremiah 50:36-37 and 51:30, this idiomatic insult is aimed at those Babylon, including Babylonian warriors and even horses.
One example of this insult used outside the Bible is given by the historian Herodotus where he records Xerxes, king of Persia, as saying: “My men have become women, and my women men” (Histories 8.88.3). Both Vashti and Esther risked their lives by standing up for their principles and defying Xerxes’ request and ruling (Esth. 1:12; 4:16 cf. 5:2). But Xerxes’ words here are about his own men who floundered and about Queen Artemisia I of Caria. Xerxes had tremendous regard for Artemisia who was his ally and who had personally and valiantly led her navy in the battle at Salamis (480 BC). Courage was thought to be manly, so Xerxes refers to her as a “man.”
In Isaiah 3:12a, it is not clear who, specifically, the inept leaders of Judah are, or will be. But according to the metaphorical interpretation of this text, they are being belittled and disparaged in ways that ancient audiences would have readily understood. Unfortunately, the idiomatic “woman” insult is misunderstood by some today.
3. Isaiah 3:12 originally did not contain a word for “women.”
A third possible interpretation, which is favoured by some scholars and Bible translators, is that the word for “women” was not originally part of Isaiah 3:12; rather, the original word meant “creditors.” (There is also some doubt about the word “children” in 3:12.)
The Hebrew word for women in Isaiah 3:12 is nashim (נשים). With identical consonants, the word can also be read as noshim (נשים), which means “creditors.” The Aramaic Targum of Isaiah 3:12 has nosim (“creditors”). Accordingly, the New English Translation (NET) translates the pertinent phrase as “creditors rule over them”.
The Septuagint was translated from Hebrew to Greek centuries before the Masoretes added their system of vowel points to the Hebrew text. (It is these later vowel points that distinguish nashim from noshim.) The Septuagint’s version of Isaiah 3:12a (translated into English) reads: “O my people, your extractors strip you, and extortioners rule over you.”
Extortion is alluded to in the verses directly following verse 12 where God condemns those who have plundered and oppressed the poor.
The Lord brings this charge
against the elders and leaders of his people:
“You have devastated the vineyard.
The plunder from the poor is in your houses.
Why do you crush my people
and grind the faces of the poor?”
This is the declaration of the Lord God of Armies. (Isaiah 3:13-15 CSB; cf. Isa. 3:5)
The idea of being extorted by creditors fits with the overall context of Isaiah chapter 3, but so does the idea of inept, ineffectual people as leaders.
Whatever the original word may have been, nashim or noshim, God was saying Judah was being misled by incompetent and unscrupulous people.
Here are two English translations of Isaiah 3:12 that translate the first sentence very differently.
My people—children are their oppressors,
and women rule over them.
O my people, your leaders mislead you,
and confuse the course of your paths. (NRSV)
Oppressors treat my people cruelly;
creditors rule over them.
My people’s leaders mislead them;
they give you confusing directions. (NET)
Does the Bible show that women leaders are a bad thing?
God’s judgment for Judah’s rebellion, caused by bad leaders and extortion among the people, was that Judah would be oppressed by leaders who were even more incompetent. Some people, however, believe that having female leaders was part of God’s judgment in Isaiah 3:12. They argue that having a woman as a leader is an aberration from God’s preference for male leadership in the community of his people. Is this really the case?
The events in the Old Testament mostly occurred at a time when patriarchy was the pervasive social dynamic: men ruled women (cf. Gen 3:16b). So there were many more male leaders than female. Nevertheless, some women were leaders of towns, civil leaders such as Sheerah and the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah. And some women were prophets, religious leaders such as Miriam, Huldah, and Noadiah). Deborah was a judge and a prophet, two of the roles listed in Isaiah 3:1-2ff, and God blessed Israel through her leadership. Salome Alexandra was a pious woman who brought peace and prosperity when she reigned Judah as sole monarch from 75 BC until her death in 67 BC.
Some women held respected and recognised leadership positions in Israelite society. These women were used by God and respected by men. Stanley J. Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo rightly note,
Scripture offers no evidence that the Israelites ever rejected a woman’s leadership simply on the basis of gender. On the contrary, we get the impression that Israel acknowledged the authority of God-ordained women leaders to the same extent as their male counterparts.
Being advised or taught or led by a godly woman is not an act of God’s judgment or punishment. Rather, it is leadership given by fools and wimps, or corrupt creditors, that constitutes God’s judgment against Judah in Isaiah 3:12 (cf. Isa. 3:14-16). Isaiah 3:12 is not an indication that God does not want or does not allow his people to be led by capable women.
 “The irony of the situation is highlighted by describing the possession of a cloak as sufficient evidence of distinction to warrant a leadership role.” Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 33.
In his translation of the Old Testament, John Goldingay gives Isaiah 3:1-15 the amusing title “You have a coat, you can be a leader.” John Goldingay and Tom Wright, The Bible For Everyone (London: SPCK, 2018 ), 651.
 Theodore Beza, “Commentary on Isaiah 3:12”, The 1599 Geneva Study Bible. (StudyLight)
 The Greek word for courage, andreia, which is used for both valiant men and women in Greek literature and in the Bible, comes from the Greek word for “man” (e.g., Prov. 12:4; 31:10; cf. 1 Cor. 16:13). This is because courage was associated with masculinity even though there are plenty of examples of brave women in the ancient world and in the Bible. (I’ve written about some of these brave Bible women here.)
 Reputable English translations that reflect the “creditors” interpretation are the Common English Bible (CEB), the Good News Translation (GNT), the New English Bible (NEB), the New English Translation (NET), and Brenton’s Septuagint Translation.
Adam Clarke (1762–1832), British Methodist theologian and biblical scholar, writes, “This verse might be read, ‘The collectors of grapes shall be their oppressors; and usurers (noshim, instead of nashim, women) shall rule over them.'” (Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible)
 Note 29 in the NET Bible, here, gives good information on the textual uncertainties of Isaiah 3:12.
 Stanley J. Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 67.
© Margaret Mowczko 2016
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