Isaiah 3:1-15 A Commentary

Isaiah decries injustice by the elite against the poor. As a fit punishment, social order will be upset, leaving the people in leaderless chaos.

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The section of Isaiah discussed here comes from the early part of the book, written by Isaiah ben Amoz.  It is a lesser-known passage, however, because it is not included in the cycle of haftarot (synagogue readings from the prophets).  In this commentary, Dr. Freehof samples the major rabbinic opinions on the critical passages.  This selection is excerpted from Book of Isaiah: A Commentary, and is being used with the permission of UAHC Press.

Isaiah ben Amoz' Denounces the Elite

The sin denounced here (in Isaiah 3) is social injustice: "Ye grind the face of the poor." (Verse 15) The money exacted unjustly from the poor enables the upper classes to live in ostentatious luxury. (The end of the chapter, verses 3:16-26, describes in detail all the ornaments of the pampered rich women of Jerusalem.) As punishment for this the whole social order will be upturned, the young will behave insolently to the aged (Verse 3), responsibility and moral leadership will cease. (Verse 7)

 

Text: 3:1-6  Babies Shall Rule

1. For, behold, the LORD, the LORD of hosts,

Doth take away from Jerusalem and from Judah

Stay and staff,

Every stay of bread, and every stay of water;

2. The mighty man, and the man of war;

The judge, and the prophet,

And the diviner, and the elder;

 3. The captain of fifty, and the man of rank,

And the counselor, and the cunning charmer, and the skillful enchanter.

4. And I will give children to be their princes,

And babes shall rule over them.

5. And the people shall oppress one another,

Every man his fellow, and every man his neighbor;

The child shall behave insolently against the aged,

And the base against the honorable.

6. For a man shall take hold of his brother of the house of his father:

'Thou hast a mantle,

Be thou our ruler,

And let this ruin be under thy hand.'

Commentary on 3:1- 6

3:1 The Lord . . . doth take away ... stay and staff.

Verses 1 to 5 are a list of punishments that God will send. Rashi (the 12th century French commentator), quoting the Talmud (Hagigah 14a), says that these curses mount up to a climax, the worst of all of them being: "The child shall behave insolently against the aged." (Verse 5). The contempt and the hostility of the young generation against the older is deemed by the prophet and the Talmud to be the worst curse that can come to a society.

3:3 The skillful enchanter. Ibn Ezra (12th century Spanish commentator) suggests that this may refer not only to a magician but to a clever orator, as we would say today, a spellbinder.

3:4 And babes shall rule over them. The word translated "babes" (ta'alulim) is variously interpreted by the commentators. The Targum (the Aramaic translation/interpretation) says, "You will be governed by weaklings." Rashi takes the word to mean "mockers." The people will have so little respect for their leaders that there will be a general air of cynicism. Kimchi says it means the young since, as stated in the previous verses, the older leaders will all be killed in war and famine. The Malbim (Meir Loeb ben Jehiel Michael, 1809-1879) agrees that it means "young" but indicates that the word itself implies impulsiveness. In other words, "You will be governed by the young, who themselves will be motivated by wild impulses." Krauss offers a similar explanation: "You will be governed by youth, who will rule you with violence."

3:5 The people shall oppress one another. Kimchi  (R. David Kimchi; also known as the Radak, a 12th century French commentator) elaborates and says that the people will scorn and fight each other; there will be no mutual respect.

3:6 Thou hast a mantle. Rashi bases his comment on the Talmud (Sabbath 119b) in which knowledge of the law is compared to a garment, and therefore he says the verse means, "You have learning, so become our ruler." Kimchi says it means, "You look respectable; be our ruler." Ibn Ezra says, "We do not want anything from you; keep your clothes, just rule us."

 Let this ruin be under thy hand.    The Hebrew word here means literally "let this stumbling…" Rashi says, "The people say to the man whom they have picked up on the street to be their ruler: 'Guide us in those commandments which we do not understand and which we stumble over."' Kimchi says, "Be our ruler because we are all stumbling and quarreling with each other." Ibn Ezra says that this stumbling simply means, "Rule thou over Jerusalem," because the same verb is used of Jerusalem in Verse 8 (see below), "for Jerusalem stumbles." In our translation the words are, "Jerusalem is ruined," but the Hebrew reads, "Jerusalem has stumbled."

Text: 3:7-9  Chaos and Moral Degradation

 7. In that day shall he swear, saying:

'I will not be a healer;

For in my house is neither bread nor a mantle;

Ye shall not make me ruler of a people.' 

8. For Jerusalem is ruined, And Judah is fallen;

Because their tongue and their doings are against the LORD,

To provoke the eyes of His glory.

9. The show of their countenance doth witness against them;

And they declare their sin as Sodom, they hide it not.

Woe unto their soul!

For they have wrought evil unto themselves.

Commentary on 3:7-9

3:7 In my house is neither bread nor a mantle. Kimchi says that this is the proof of poverty, that, even in the house of the respectable, there is a lack of decent clothing.

3:8 Provoke the eyes of His glory. Ibn Ezra: They provoke God publicly.

3:9 The show of their countenance. The Hebrew literally is "the recognition of their countenance." Therefore Rashi says that the meaning of the verse is connected with Deuteronomy 16: 19, which in our translation says, "Thou shalt not respect persons," but in Hebrew is "Thou shalt not recognize faces in judgment." Therefore Rashi says the prophet means that their perversion of justice, their recognizing of faces, testifies against them. Kimchi connects this phrase with "They declare their sin" in the next line and says that the verse means, "Their face betrays their sin and their mouth openly declares it." (So, too, Ibn Ezra, Malbim, and Krauss.)

Text: 3:10-15 Because You Crush My People

10. Say ye of the righteous, that it shall be well with him; 

For they shall eat the fruit of their doings.

11. Woe unto the wicked! it shall be ill with him;

For the work of his hands shall be done to him.

12. As for My people, a babe is their master,

And women rule over them.

 My people, they that lead thee cause thee to err,

And destroy the way of thy paths.

13. The LORD standeth up to plead,

And standeth to judge the peoples.

14. The LORD will enter into judgment

With the elders of His people, and the princes thereof:

'It is ye that have eaten up the vineyard;

The spoil of the poor is in your houses;

15. What mean ye that ye crush My people,

And grind the face of the poor?'

Saith the LORD, the God of hosts.

Commentary on 3:10-15

3:10‑11 Say ye of the righteous ... woe unto the wicked! Since these verses interrupt the sequence, Krauss agrees with modern scholars that they are a later insertion but they can also be described as having some connection with the preceding verses which speak of perverting justice. They condemn the righteous and vindicate the wicked; and the prophet therefore calls upon them to depart from this sin but to vindicate the righteous and condemn the wicked.

3:12 A babe is their master and women rule over them.  The same word here is used for "babe" as in Verse 4, and the commentators translate it as either a symbol of weak rulers or of mockers and cynics. Kimchi adds that, because of their sexuality (it has been a common misconception, from ancient times up to the present day, that women are more sexually enticing, and more sexually motivated, than men are), the men will fall under the domination of women. Krauss calls attention to the fact that the word for "women" (nashim) can also be read as "creditors," and that all the ancient translations indicate that one of the misfortunes that will come to them is that they will be always in the hands of their creditors.

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Dr. Solomon B. Freehof

Dr. Solomon Bennett Freehof (1892-1990) was a prominent Reform rabbi, posek, and scholar. Rabbi Freehof served as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Beginning in 1955, he led the CCAR's work on Jewish law through its responsa committee.