Deborah, prophetess and judge of Israel
A reader asked yesterday what I thought about Isaiah 3:12. The Old Testament and the Hebrew language are not my areas of expertise, but a quick look at the context of Isaiah chapter 3, and at various commentaries, provides three possible interpretations of Isaiah 3:12 that may indicate God’s attitude to women (nashim) as leaders. Or should that be noshim?
The context of Isaiah 3:12
Isaiah chapter 3 is an oracle of judgment. It foretells the demise of Jerusalem and Judah as a consequence of Judah’s rebellion against God. 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, or especially, the ruling classes of Jerusalem. (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). In the following two verses, God lists what kind of mighty men and women will be removed: “the hero and the warrior, the judge and the prophet, the diviner and the elder, the captain of fifty and the man of rank, the counsellor, skilled craftsman and clever enchanter” (Isa. 3:2-3 NIV).
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 leaders gain control. 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.) In Isaiah 3:5-7, God outlines some ways people will be cheated and oppressed by their leaders. 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 will be ruled by young and inexperienced men. This might refer to 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). Or it may refer to later leaders.
According to the literal interpretation, Judah will also be 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, favoured by many scholars, is that metaphors are used in this verse. In this interpretation “children” and “women” are used as metaphors which signify that the leaders will be childish (i.e. inexperienced, capricious, or foolish) and effeminate (i.e. cowardly and ineffective) (cf. Isa. 3:4). In a note in the Geneva Bible (1599), Theodore Beza 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. One example of this insult 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) In the story of Esther, both Vashti and Esther risked their lives by standing up for their principles and defying the king’s 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 a tremendous regard for Artemisia who was his ally and who had personally and valiantly led her navy in the battle at Salamis (480 BC). Thus Xerxes refers to her as a “man.” 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).
In Isaiah 3:12a, it is not clear who, specifically, the inept leaders of Judah are, or will be. But they are certainly being belittled and disparaged in this interpretation of the text.
3. Isaiah 3:12 originally did not contain the word for “women.”
A third possible interpretation, which is favoured by some scholars, is that the word for “women” was not originally part of Isaiah 3:12, the original word being “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, but different vowel points, the word can be noshim (נשים), which means “creditors.” The Aramaic Targum of Isaiah 3:12 has nosim (“creditors”). Accordingly, the New English Bible (NEB) translates the pertinent phrase as “the usurers lord it over them”.
The Septuagint was translated from Hebrew to Greek centuries before the Masoretes added their system of vowel points to the Hebrew text. The Septuagint’s version of Isaiah 3:12a (translated into English) reads: “O my people, your extractors strip you, and extortioners rule over you.” The idea of being extorted by creditors fits with the overall context of Isaiah chapter 3, especially verses 5-7, but so does the idea of ineffectual people as leaders. Whatever the original word may have been, nashim or noshim, it is clear that God was saying Judah would be misled by incompetent or 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, was that Judah would be oppressed by even worse leaders. Some people, however, highlight that having female leaders was part of God’s judgment. They argue that having a woman as a leader is an abhorrent aberration from God’s ideal and norm of male leadership of 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, and men ruled women (cf. Gen 3:16b). Nevertheless, some women were leaders of towns: civil leaders (e.g., Sheerah); and some women were prophets: religious leaders (e.g., Miriam). Deborah was a judge and a prophet, two of the roles listed in Isaiah 3:1-2ff, and God blessed Israel through her leadership. These women held respected and recognised leadership positions in society.
Many men in the Old Testament took advice and directions from women, and they did not see it as a punishment.
~ Two Israelite spies followed the directions Rahab gave them, to the letter, and they escaped from being caught by the king of Jericho’s men (Josh. 2:16, 22).
~ Barak, an army general, took directions from, and depended on, Deborah (Judg. 4:6, 8).
~ David heeded and praised the advice and prophetic words diplomatically and courageously given by Abigail (1 Sam. 25:23-31).
~ Joab, David’s general, agreed to the negotiations offered by the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah on behalf of her town (2 Sam. 20:15-22).
~ Solomon bowed to his mother Bathsheba and gave her a throne at his right hand, making her a powerful woman, albeit not as powerful as Solomon (1 Kings 2:19).
~ King Lemuel respected the oracles taught to him by his mother, and recorded them. Her words still instruct (Prov. 31:1-9).
~ King Josiah sought out the advice and carried out the instructions of the prophetess Huldah (2 Kings 22:8-20; 23:1-25; 2 Chron. 34:19-33).
~ Mordecai, and others, carried out all the instructions of his niece Esther, Xerxes’ queen (Esth. 4:17 NIV).
The Old Testament women mentioned here, and others, were used by God and respected by men.
Being advised or taught or led by godly women is not an act of God’s judgment or punishment. Rather, it is the leadership given by fools and wimps, or corrupt avaricious creditors, that constitutes God’s judgment against Judah given in Isaiah 3:12 (cf. Isa. 3:14-16).
 “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.
 Theodore Beza, “Commentary on Isaiah 3:12”, The 1599 Geneva Study Bible.
 English translations that reflect the “creditors” interpretation are the Common English Bible (CEB), the Good News Translation (GNT), the New English Bible (NEB), and the New English Translation (NET).
 Note 29 in the NET Bible gives good information on the textual uncertainties of Isaiah 3:12. <https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Isaiah+3>
Excerpt of Deborah Praises Jael, wood engraving by Gustave Doré (1866) (Wikimedia)
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