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A Problem in Translation: Isaiah 3:12

In a post on Facebook by Bob Edwards, I encountered an interesting case that illustrates some of the issues Bible translators face in choosing what precisely out of the meaning of a passage to translate and how to accomplish that. My point here is not to critique the critique of the ESV, but rather to look at this particular passage and how it highlights issues faced by translators.

Biases Up Front

First, my own biases, especially as they relate to this passage:

  1. I’m egalitarian in that I believe all people, irrespective of gender, should not just be allowed, but should be encouraged to serve in whatever capacity they are gifted for. In case anyone is in doubt, I do mean leadership roles, including pastor, bishop, or whatever title a position is given.
  2. I believe that the Bible conveys to us a message that is inspired by God.
  3. I believe the message is related through the experience and in the cultural matrix of those who receive the message. Thus to get God’s will for my own life, I need to hear God’s message in my cultural matrix. This message may call, and indeed I think it does call for a disruption of the prevailing culture.

The Passage

I’m going to ignore further heremeneutical points in how I develop #3 in order to address the issues of this particular passage.

As for my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them.

Isaiah 3:12a (KJV, emphasis mine)

The key word is “women,” which is translated in this way by a large number of Bible versions. The NRSVue changed the word to “creditors,” but prior editions also read women. Versions that do not read women include the NET and the CEB.

So what is going on here? What leads to a particular translation of this word?

The Text

Well, the technical issues are rather straightforward, but one’s views on textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible will have some impact. The dominant position among translators has been to give priority to the Masoretic text (MT). There are some who argue for a higher priority on the LXX (Septuagint) and versions translated from it, such as the Syriac.

In this case, the MT clearly reads “women.” The Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation (which I read from their excellent Jewish Study Bible edition), reads women in the text, with a footnote indicating that an emendation would produce “boys.” An emendation is a correction of the text based on internal factors, i.e., without full support of any manuscript. It’s a sort of proofreading of the text looking for things that a clearly copyist’s errors. In this case, the JPS translators did not think the emendation was well supported enough to be in the text, but thought it was worthwhile to let the reader know that there were alternatives.

The variant translations in other English translations, however, are based on the LXX, which results in “oppressors” and “creditors,” with “creditors” replacing “women.”

Those are some nice options. I like them. I much prefer them to “women” in the text.

But what I like doesn’t settle a textual issue. Most of the translators are giving priority to the MT, and likely doing so because they consider that the most probable original reading. One can debate whether they are right, but what one believes about the rights and value of women should not be a basis for deciding on the text.

I am absolutely not accusing those who have chosen a different reading to translate of allowing their biases to determine the translation. The LXX can reflect an earlier Hebrew reading, lost in the Hebrew manuscript tradition. It would take too long to go into details here. I’m looking at the choices translators made.

First the Text, then the Translation Thereof!

The first choice, then, is the text to translate. In this case, you have at least two options, along with some possible emendation of the text. (Note that one possible justification for a conjectural emendation is that there are multiple readings and these multiple readings may have grown from a difficult original which has been lost.)

For those translators who chose to use the LXX text, conveying the meaning of the chosen text is fairly straightforward. There may be multiple views on what having creditors rule over you means, but it’s fairly easy to translate.

But what if you believe the text says that “women rule over you” as part of a litany of the problems of God’s people?

Clearly, most translators have chosen to just go with the word and perhaps provide a footnote. I’m not going to review interpretive notes in various editions, but they doubtless have some explanations for what they believe the passage means.

Let me give just two options to illustrate the issue:

  1. A literal translation that may be misunderstood in a 21st century context
  2. A figurative translation that obscures the culture of the time in which the passage was first spoken/written

If we go with #1, we convey accurately (assuming we made the right textual choice) the words that were spoken, but what happens in interpretation? It looks clear to me that this passage is not addressing women in leadership positions directly. Rather, it assumes that the audience will find being led by women to be objectionable, and thus uses this to convey the sad state of the country.

My problem with this would be that we convey the source culture into the modern context without giving the reader adequate help in understanding the metaphor.

If we go with #2, we then convey the way in which we understand the passage, but we obscure the original cultural context, and deny readers the opportunity to hear the Spirit speaking through the text in its original context.

Adding a footnote is good and constructive with either option, indicating what one has done. Unfortunately, footnotes are much more often ignored than read.


Either option has the potential to lose some of the meaning. Depending on your primary concerns with the text, you will likely prefer one or the other, possibly vehemently. The difference, however, is in what the translator is most anxious to convey in translation.

Here’s The Message for reference: “Skinny kids terrorize my people. Silly girls bully them around. My dear people! Your leaders are taking you down a blind alley. They’re sending you off on a wild-goose chase.”


Something is always lost in translation. The question is, what?

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