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."

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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.