Updated: Jul 21, 2018
What does the Bible say about women? While this may seem like a straightforward question, getting a straight answer can be a challenge. The nature of this challenge becomes apparent when we find that Bible verses about women do not say the same thing from one English translation to the next. One example of this kind of discrepancy can be found by comparing two English versions of Isaiah 3:12. In the New English Translation of the Bible (NET), we find,
“Oppressors treat my people cruelly; creditors rule over them. My people's leaders mislead them; they give you confusing directions.”
The same passage in the English Standard Version (ESV), however, gives us quite a different message:
“My people—infants are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, your guides mislead you and they have swallowed up the course of your paths.”
In the NET Bible, this passage warns against oppressive creditors. In the ESV, we are given the impression that the leadership of women is inherently misleading. This is a significant difference. Which of these translations accurately reflects the intended meaning of the prophet Isaiah? What was God actually saying to His people?
To answer these questions, we need to examine the meaning of this passage in the oldest available Bible manuscripts, which were written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. We also need to look at the context of Isaiah’s warning.
The original Hebrew of Isaiah 3:12 was written in consonants only. Without the presence of vowels, it is difficult to determine the precise meaning of the verse. One of the Dead Sea Scrolls found in 1947 was a copy of the book of Isaiah. Archaeologists believe it was most likely written, using consonants only, around the 2nd century BC. During the same period in history, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated by 70 Jewish scholars into the common language of the day, which was Greek. This Greek translation, known as the Septuagint, tells us how these 70 scholars interpreted the passage. They did not think it had anything to say about “women.” In the Greek Septuagint, Isaiah 3:12 contains a warning of God’s judgment against “extortioners,” leaders who financially oppressed God’s people.
In the 1st century BC, Isaiah 3:12 was also translated into Aramaic. This translation is known as the Targum of Jonathan. Aramaic was one of the languages used by the Jewish people during this period in history. Once again, just as we found in Greek, the Aramaic version of this passage says nothing about “women.” Instead, it pronounces a warning of God’s judgment against oppressive “creditors.”
Simply stated, two of the oldest Bible manuscripts available to us say nothing in Isaiah 3:12 about women. God is not warning against female leadership. Instead, the passage contains a warning that the leaders of God’s people must not take advantage of them financially. This warning continues throughout the context of Isaiah chapter 3. In verses 14-15, for example, we read,
"The Lord comes to pronounce judgment on the leaders of his people and their officials. He says, 'It is you who have ruined the vineyard! You have stashed in your houses what you have stolen from the poor. Why do you crush my people and grind the faces of the poor?'" (NET)
Preaching at the same time as Isaiah, the prophet Micah pronounced a similar judgment against the leaders of Israel:
"Listen to this, you leaders of the family of Jacob, you rulers of the nation of Israel! You hate justice and pervert all that is right. You build Zion through bloody crimes, Jerusalem through unjust violence. Her leaders take bribes when they decide legal cases, her priests proclaim rulings for profit, and her prophets read omens for pay. Yet they claim to trust the Lord and say, 'The Lord is among us.'” (3:9-11, NET)
Like Isaiah, Micah is not concerned about “women in leadership.” Rather, he issues a stark warning against leaders, rulers, prophets and priests who take financial advantage of God’s people.
If Isaiah 3:12 is truly a warning against financial abuse, where did the idea come from that women should not be leaders? How did the word “women” find its way into this passage? One of the first instances of this translation error can be found in St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate of the 4th century AD.
As a Bible translator and commentator, St. Jerome was strongly influenced by a worldview that did not have its origins in the Bible. He embraced an ascetic philosophy that viewed the body and human emotion as essentially evil. His views were strongly influenced by the work of a man named Origen, who said, “God does not stoop to look upon what is feminine and of the flesh.” Origen’s prejudice against women did not come from God or the Bible; rather, he learned it from studying a very male-dominated, hierarchical philosophy known as “Neoplatonism.” Neoplatonists compared women to Pandora from Greek mythology—a woman who opened “Pandora’s box” and unleashed everything evil into the world. To subdue evil and corruption, this philosophy taught that men must “ruler over” women. Many influential theologians of the 3rd and 4th centuries AD (Origen, St. Jerome, St. Augustine) began using this extremely prejudiced and patriarchal philosophy as an interpretive guide to the Bible.
When St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, he read from Hebrew manuscripts that had no vowels. Ignoring or overlooking the Greek Septuagint of the 2nd century BC, and the Aramaic Targum of Jonathan of the 1st century BC, Jerome appears to have mentally added vowels to a Hebrew word in Isaiah 3:12 that made it seem to say “women” instead of “creditors.” This same mistake was later made by Masoretic scribes who added written vowels to the Hebrew Scriptures between the 6th and 11th centuries AD. Like Jerome, the Masoretes were strongly prejudiced against women. Their prejudice can be traced to oral traditions that blamed the fall of humanity primarily, if not exclusively, on Eve. These traditions taught that all women should wear a veil of shame in remembrance of Eve’s transgression. It is a great tragedy that many of today’s English translations of the Bible continue to be influenced by ancient prejudices found in the Latin Vulgate and the Masoretic Text. These texts were written by men who ignored or overlooked earlier manuscript evidence, and translated Isaiah 3:12 not as a warning against financial abuse, but rather as a warning against female leadership. This tragedy is compounded by the fact that numerous other Bible passages have also been similarly altered.
Fortunately, many English translators of the Bible today have become aware of this prejudice. They are working diligently to lift the veil of patriarchal bias from Bible translation and commentary, so that the message God originally intended to share with us in the Bible can once again shine through. The church is waking up to the problem of patriarchal bias. It’s time for eyes to be opened, and for captives to be set free.
“How can you say, ‘We are wise! We have the law of the Lord’? The truth is, those who teach it have used their writings to make it say what it does not really mean” (Jeremiah 8:8).
“Having no regard for the command of God, you hold fast to human tradition” (Mark 7:8).
“Be careful not to allow anyone to captivate you through an empty, deceitful philosophy that is according to human traditions and the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).
ToJ, Isaiah 3:12, http://cal.huc.edu/.
Selecta in Exodus, XVIII.17.
See Plotinus’ Neoplatonic Enneads I, IV & V.
Edwards, H & B, (2017). The Equality Workbook: Freedom in Christ from the Oppression of Patriarchy,Charleston, SC: Createspace, pp. 9-10.