Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Does Isaiah 3:12 show that women leaders are a bad thing?

Does Isaiah 3:12 show that women leaders are a bad thing?

A reader asked yesterday what I thought about Isaiah 3:12. The Old Testament and Hebrew 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 which 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 judgement foretelling the demise of Jerusalem and Judah as a consequence of Judah’s rebellion against God, 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 counselor, skilled craftsman and clever enchanter” (Isa. 3:2-3 NIV).

Israel had previously benefitted 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.[1] 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.

So what does Isaiah 3:12 mean?

There seems to be 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, should be taken literally despite the poetic nature of this verse. If so, Judah will be ruled by young and inexperienced men. This might refer to Ahaz, who was a weak and wicked king, and who, towards the end of the eighth century BC, 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.

  1. 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). Theodore Beza, in a note in the Geneva Bible (1599), describes these leaders as “manifest tokens of [God’s] wrath, because they would be fools and effeminate.”[2]

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) Interestingly, 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; 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.

  1. 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”.[3]

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 inappropriate men and women being leaders. Whatever the original word may have been, it is clear that God was saying that Judah would be led, or bullied, by incompetent leaders.

Here are two English translations of Isaiah which favour different sources.

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)[4]

Does the Bible show that women leaders are a bad thing?

God’s judgement 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 judgement. 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). These women held respected and recognised leadership positions in society, and they were not regarded as odd. Deborah was a leader of all Israel and a prophet.

Many men in the Old Testament took advice and directions from women, and they did not see it as either a humiliating affront or as a punishment.
~ 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 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 judgement or punishment. Rather, it is the leadership given by fools and wimps, or corrupt avaricious creditors, that constitutes God’s judgement against Judah given in Isaiah 3:12 (cf. Isa. 3:14-16).


[1] “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.

[2] Theodore Beza, “Commentary on Isaiah 3:12”, The 1599 Geneva Study Bible.

[3] English translations which 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).

[4] Note 29 in the NET Bible gives good information on the textual uncertainties of Isaiah 3:12. <https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Isaiah+3>

Image credit: Statue of Deborah at the mausoleum of Joseph Sec (1792), Aix en Provence. (Wikimedia)

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Posted February 20th, 2016 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, The "Difficult" Passages, , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

29 comments on “Does Isaiah 3:12 show that women leaders are a bad thing?

  1. judy says:

    To lead well requires wisdom…ironic that wisdom is treated as a female noun in the Bible if a female is never to lead.

    Wisdom is considered to have no gender…except here in the Bible in the book of Proverbs:

    ” Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets:
    She crieth in the chief place of concourse , in the openings of the gates: in the city she uttereth her words…”

    Odd that wisdom is considered to be a ‘feminine’ noun…even from ancient times…by a patriarchal system that elevated Solomon’s wisdom…

    • Marg says:

      I personally have a problem with some of the things people associate with the personification of Wisdom in Proverbs, especially as Folly is also personified as a woman. I see this personification simply as a literary device, but I realise I’m in the minority here. Nevertheless, the Bible nowhere says that wisdom is an especially masculine virtue. The role of Wise Woman was a recognised role and position in ancient Israelite society. And plenty of Bible women displayed wisdom and sagacity.

  2. Michelle says:

    The Hebrew word for rule in Isaiah 3:12 is ‘mashal’. It is the exact same word used in Genesis 3:16 when God tells Eve, your husband will rule (mashal) over you.

    Because both these verses where spoken as a grave consequence of sin and turning away, I believe they are pointing us to the greater truth that humans beings are not called to rule over each other. Rulership meaning a person who has supreme power or sovereignty over others instead we’re called to love, lead and serve one another in a spirit of honor.

    People trying to cherry pick bible verses to use as “evidence” barring women from leadership will eventually find themselves on the wrong side of history, in the same group as those who staunchly opposed women’s right to vote and enter into medical schools & law schools etc in the early 1900’s. It’s only a matter of time! Keep up the excellent detailed work Ms. Marg, we appreciate it.

    • Marg says:

      Thanks for picking up on that, Michelle.

      Before the Fall, both men and women were given the command to rule and have dominion over the animals, but not over each other. Ruling other people is definitely a result of sin in the world.

  3. Jim Reiher says:

    Excellent article thanks.

  4. Nancy says:

    The Geneva Bible says, “and babes shall rule over them”., not ” women shall rule over them. Some commentaries on more modern versions, KJ and versions based on the KJ, say that the term “women” is referring to weak men. In both ancient Israel and medevial Europe , to compare a man to a woman was an insult. From what I’ve read, King James himself had a pretty low opinion of women, in general.

    • Marg says:

      Hi Nancy,

      In the copy of the Geneva Bible I’ve used it has: “And I will appoint children to be their princes, and babes shall rule over them” in Isaiah 3:4.

      But it has “Children are extortioners of my people, and women have rule over them . . .” in Isaiah 3:12.

  5. judy says:

    I guess the idea that men who don’t shore up are “girls”…is pretty much in line with Complementarian thought. This is more of the same that Comps throw at women…that they are man-like if they don’t stay “in their place”…as dictated by them.

    Perhaps these ideas have been around for a long time but I find it very insulting when I hear men call other men “girl”. What is wrong with girls, in fact?

    But the insult is that women are presumed to be weak, easily manipulated and foolish, cowardly, etc.

    The opposite insult is that women who act like men are strong, controlled, in charge, capable and responsible. None of these is an insult, in fact, unless the implication is that a woman rejects her gender altogether, calling women too masculine is actually a back-handed complement.

    Perhaps it is because of this that I am finding assigning people gender insults is back to the old double standard…I don’t mind being called capable (manlike)…but I am sure my husband wouldn’t like it being told he is a coward (girl).

    This might be a case where men suffer more under Complementarian teaching than women…the insult is much more severe because women ARE considered inferior beings…but women suffer because of this assumption as well!

    • Marg says:

      Gender insults are low blows, because a person’s sex is an intrinsic part of their being that cannot be changed (without resorting to drastic and dire measures.)

      I’m glad it is no longer socially acceptable in Australia to use the word “girl” or “woman” as pejorative terms, as it perpetuates faulty stereotypes.

      Women, as a group, are not weak, easily manipulated, foolish, or cowardly, etc, unless that is our social expectation, and thus part of their social conditioning. Even then, there are exceptions. 😀

  6. Warwick Badham says:

    Hi Marg, This is another example of knowing the 3 ‘c’s’when it comes to interpreting Scripture,i.e.circumstances,culture and context. Remember Jesus said ‘out of the mouth of babes’,Matt 21:16.The probem here is a topsy-turvy society that was being punished by God and women who were unqualified both in character and doctrine were usurping authority like those in Ephesus(there is evidence of ‘hetairi’,high class prostitutes in the time 1 Timothy was written).So what has changed? This in no way precludes godly women from teaching. God bless, Warwick

    • Marg says:

      Love the 3 Cs.

      It’s interesting that “babes” and “women” are mentioned in a disparaging way in Isaiah 3, but that Jesus elevated both.

      Jesus welcomed children, told people they need to become like small children, and he even became a babe himself for a while. Extraordinary.

  7. My comment is on your blog of the different Bibles…. in [ John 14:26 ] Says ( But the comforter, which is the Holy Ghost whom the father will send in my name ( Jesus ) he shall teach you ALL things, & bring back ALL things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. I only have 5 years of education, I’m baptized in the Holy Spirit full of the Holy Ghost….I have a KJV BIBLE & before I open my Bible I pray for wisdom, knowledge & I completely 100% understand God’s Word. I have read some of these other Bible’s such as NIV & when it speaks of God…it says Gods not God! & yes there maybe other Gods out here in this world….but there is only one true God! The God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob…these other Bibles have been watered down & words have been taken & added from the KJV….in [ Deuteronomy 12:32, also Rev 22:19 ] & so many more verses says Obey my commandments & do NOT!! take or add to my word or God will take away his part out of the book of life & out of the Holy City Amen. ppl need to Follow Jesus & focus on what thus saith the Lord & not what man says…Amen. God Bless All.

    • Marg says:

      Hi Othelia,

      Where does the NIV say “Gods” instead of “God” when referring to the one true God? Which verse?

      • judy says:

        Othelia the word (God’s) in the quotation you mention means that Marg is talking about something that belongs to God…it isn’t a quotation from a Bible.

        The (‘s) is a way of saying that something belongs to that person. In English it is called the possessive way of saying something.

        Marg used this term here:

        Does God’s lament and judgement in Isaiah 3:12 “women rule over them” show that the leadership of women is a bad thing? What does Isaiah 3:12 mean?

        This part…Does God’s lament and judgement in Isaiah 3:12 … is NOT IN ANY BIBLE…it is a question from Marg in which she then quotes the Bible…where you see “_______” the parts inside the ” and the ” are quotations FROM the Bible.

        Hope this helps. It is hard to read with understanding unless you know the rules of language and grammar.

      • judy says:

        Marg I may be wrong, but Othelia seems to be reading into your comment because she mentions the quotation I used when addressing her above…when she said she has 5 years of school I suspected that was the case, except she uses the possessive case herself so this is confusing!

        If you go to Bible study tools and enter the word “gods” under NIV you will find 233 quotations where ‘gods’ is found…you shall have no other gods but me…and much in Genesis about household gods…Otherwise I don’t know what she means because the KJV uses the word ‘gods’ also, though, 215 times.

        It is also important for her to distinguish between when the Bible describes something and when the Bible prescribes something.
        All Bibles describe people having other gods…so I am a bit baffled…but none prescribe that people have other gods.

        Othelia, it is not easy to distinguish what you say “ppl need to Follow Jesus & focus on what thus saith the Lord & not what man says”. Was Paul a man or God? At what point is what Paul says “thus saith the Lord” versus “what a man says”. Some would have it that the word of Paul is equal to the words of Christ…others would put the words of Christ above what Paul says…what do you think?

        • Marg says:

          Hi Judy, Her comment is confusing. I thought it was just a random comment about the KJV. (I’ve closed the comments’ section on my KJV article because it was getting too messy.) I didn’t think it was related to this article.

          It’s sad that KJV fans are fed, and believe, false information about the KJV and other English translations.

          Anyway, Othelia, if you read this, please tell me where the NIV mistranslates “God” as “Gods”, if, in fact, it does so.

  8. Rod says:

    In my own studies of the Old Testament, I generally turn first to the Septuagint to see what has been written there. Not only is that translation the oldest (esp. as compared to the Masoretic text), many of the Savior’s sayings recorded in the Gospels contain literal, word-for-word quotes from the Greek OT. The Gospel writers themselves frequently quote the Greek OT, using precisely the same syntax and grammar. I have many times encountered an English rendering in the Old Testament and, when I’ve compared what the modern translator has provided to the reader in that passage, I discover a rendering taken from the Greek OT vice the Hebrew, and this almost always without any reference note to declare that the translator has followed the LXX rather than the Masoretic text. What is my point? My point is that we should always remember that translations are just that–translations. Further, they virtually always reflect–to greater or lesser extent–the biases of those who make them. I am not at all surprised that when it comes to Isaiah 3:12, the Masoretic text and the Greek Septuagint differ greatly.

  9. Cracovian Crusader says:

    Political correctness has infiltrated every phase life, many churches included. The simple principle of gender roles has been ignored by weak men and those wanting to please feminists. Isaiah 3:12 is clear in every version and translation.

    • Marg says:

      “As for my people—oppressors strip them and swindlers rule them. My people—your leaders mislead you and confuse your paths.” Common English Bible

      “Money-lenders strip my people bare, and usurers lord it over them. O my people! your guides lead you astray and confuse the path that you should take.” New English Bible

      Moneylenders oppress my people, and their creditors cheat them. My people, your leaders are misleading you, so that you do not know which way to turn.” Good News Translation

      “Oppressors treat my people cruelly; creditors rule over them. My people’s leaders mislead them; they give you confusing directions.” NET Bible

    • judy says:

      Cracovian Crusader: What is SIMPLE about the principle of Gender roles? If it were so clear and simple there would be no argument.

      So sorry that weak men bother you so much…guess they don’t know their gender roles like you do…or maybe it isn’t as clear to them as it is to you. Simplicity is usually a sign of spiritual laziness in my view…especially in dealing with literature that covers thousands of years and a multitude of writers.

      If you want simple then God’s original creative introduction of the two genders is straightforward and direct from Him “and gave them to have dominion over—every living creature…all the earth…” Mutual dominion is what God gave them both. Now there is simplicity…what God has said, take not from it nor add to it…

      And then, after Satan made a hash out of God’s work…Jesus came and restored the original plan of His Father :”For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby”

      And so God made them to have dominion, not over each other, but over all the earth… and when Satan tried to destroy God’s way Jesus came and broke down the fleshly enmity that divided men and women and slew the enmity between them…except that some who claim to follow Jesus insist on re-erecting that wall of partition, as you seem to do…because you think you are so strong and you even demean other men who don’t agree with you, who are seeking to obey the Word that says “In Christ there is neither male nor female”…so much for ‘gender roles’…there is no such thing in Christ if there is neither male nor female there…

      You can fool some women some of the time but you can’t continue to fool a woman who knows her Bible, Crusader!

  10. Rod Dearth says:

    So then… Having looked at various English translations of Isaiah 3:12, argued about the correct rendering of the Hebrew and Greek texts, and discussed the impact of historic culture a bit as it pertains to gender perceptions, can we now look at the remainder of what the prophet records in this passage (which ends at Isaiah 4:6)? Let’s begin at verse 16 and see what God is saying. Along the way, let’s be sure to determine if gender has anything to do with our understanding of the message. Afterwards, we can apply what we’ve learned to the context overall and see if it affects our interpretation and understanding of Isaiah 3:12. When we’ve done all this, we can then see if there’s any application of the specific message to the cultural paradigm all of us currently experience.

  11. Rod Dearth says:

    Well, flippancy is certainly one response.

    • Marg says:

      No disrespect intended. It just sounds like a lot of work about one verse that I can’t see is significant, or has much bearing on life today. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in what you come up with.

  12. judy says:

    I don’t mind people ‘discovering’ new truths in the old…but I get mighty tired of people twisting and spinning the old truths to warp me and my life into a pretzel…

    It has been a joy to live in Christ away from all the whirlwind of gender issues that stem, frankly, from the male genders’ determination to retain ascendancy over women. Here in the quietness of solitude, one can hear that ‘still small voice” of God without the echo of interfering selfish impositions of narcissism and entitlement. One can get quite used to it…and I still have the further joy of female fellowship without the need for ascendancy over one another at all…

    Men, beware that women are learning to love separation from your institutions you call church but which are often clubs where women can come to silently admire the many qualities of men and go home again to reality.

    • Nancy says:

      “Men, beware that women are learning to love separation from your institutions you call church but which are often clubs where women can come to silently admire the many qualities of men and go home again to reality.”

      Amen. In most evangelical churches, women are nothing more than non-essential accessories. ~~~ Much like clip-on earrings, just to give the men a little bling. ~~~.
      Where do those attitudes leave us in relation to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Distant, detached, out in the cold!

      • Marg says:

        I know I couldn’t belong to such an institution. It seems these kinds of churches breed male pride and female passivity. Both are ugly and ungodly traits, and have nothing in common with Jesus’ kingdom.

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