Recap: The Book of Isaiah alternates between segments announcing good news for the remnant and bad news for the bulk. God’s judgment begins in his own house, as he repeatedly makes reference to “my people” in the judgment sections. Portions concerning the remnant occur in Isaiah 1:9, 25-27; 2:2-4, ,5; 4:2-6. Everything else so far concerns judgment on Judea and Jerusalem.
Though part of the preceding judgment section, a new motif begins in 3:16 against the “daughters of Sion,” LXX, “daughters of Zion,” ESV, and “women of Zion,” NET. The imagery here calls us back to 3:1, where Isaiah pronounces that the Lord will take away from Judea and Jerusalem, “the might man and mighty woman.” Everything from that point to this point has concerned “the mighty man.” From here (3:16) until the end of the section in 4:1, the pronouncement of judgment is cast in images of the female, “the mighty woman.”
As one reads through this portion, eventually the question arises, is the Lord irritated with the real women of Sion, or are these representative of something else? Could it be both? Isaiah begins in verse 1:1 by speaking of Judea and in verse 3 of Israel. In verse 4, the Lord is called, “the Holy One of Israel.” Verse 6 uses the motif of a human body for the nation Israel, while verse 7 clearly makes reference to the land, cities, and foreign nations. Verse 8 suddenly uses the phrase, “the daughter of Sion,” comparing her to “a vineyard,” “a storehouse of fruits in a garden of cucumbers,” and a “besieged city.” Isaiah is a poet, and he brings in these graphic metaphors to make his message understood. Underneath the images is the understanding that his concern is with the city of Jerusalem, the land inhabited by the nation, the nation of Israel itself, and the people whom God calls his own. But his judgments are against people, and the remnant he saves is a remnant of people.
Still in consideration of the question introduced in the paragraph above, are the women of 3:16-4:1 real women or representative of something else? Further evidence to consider is 2 Kings 19:21, “This is the word that the LORD has spoken concerning him [Sennacherib]: “She despises you, she scorns you– the virgin daughter of Zion; she wags her head behind you– the daughter of Jerusalem,” (ESV). In this quotation, “the virgin daughter of Zion” is equated with, “the daughter of Jerusalem,” where the former is a metaphor for the latter. The latter is also part metaphor, since, of course, cities don’t have daughters. Another verse to consider is Isaiah 10:32, “This very day he will halt at Nob; he will shake his fist at the mount of the daughter of Zion, the hill of Jerusalem,” (ESV). Here, it’s plain to see that the “mount of the daughter of Zion” is equated with “the hill of Jerusalem.”
Another verse to consider is, “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!” (Zephaniah 3:14, ESV). In this verse, the three phrases “daughter of Zion,” “Israel,” and “daughter of Jerusalem,” have all been anthropomorphized and are more or less equivalent. Finally, the verse, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey,” (Zechariah 9:9, ESV) illustrates how the “daughter of Zion” is equivalent to “daughter of Jerusalem.”
Therefore, based on these verses, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that in Isaiah 3:16-3:26, the daughters of Sion may refer to the residents of Jerusalem and perhaps even to the entire nation, as a religious entity. Comparing Israel to an unfaithful woman is not uncommon in Scripture. On the other hand, the scriptural examples given in the prior two paragraphs show the word “daughter” in its singular form, while in Isaiah 3:16, it is plural. The plural form is rare in Scripture, being found only in this verse, the next verse, then Isaiah 4:4, and last, Song of Solomon 3:11. The NET Bible apparently interprets “daughters of Zion” as concrete women, given that it translates the phrase as “women of Zion.” It’s notable how the change of one word gives the verse a different meaning, a more restricted meaning, than both the ESV and the LXE. While “daughters of Zion” may be interpreted as literal women, that is not the only possibility. But “women of Zion” loses the possibility of a metaphorical interpretation. Comment: As a reader, I much prefer the translations that stay close to the original text. These are the ESV, the KJV, NAB, and NRSV. When the NET Bible selects the meaning for me, then I’m not even aware that there is a question involved. I would not choose to study these other verses, not registering a need. Much of the richness of interacting with the text is thereby lost. It is true that NET places the literal translation in the margin, but its significance is minimized when relegated to the sidelines. And who reads all those marginal notes, anyway? Why not just place their own interpretation in the margin, and let the literal translation stand for itself in the actual text? If the reader has a question or would like more information, then they can consult the margin.
What then, as a One Small Voice reader, is my conclusion about these verses? I conclude that God is speaking metaphorically in this section of Isaiah. He’s allowing the phrase “daughters of Sion” to represent all the people, especially in their practice of religion and worship of himself. Clearly, he has no kind words for the actual women of Jerusalem, and their vanity and self-love describe well the character of the nation’s worship of Yahweh, God, at this time. The metaphor is tied very closely to the manners, dress, and movements of real women, of whom he is decidedly critical. I don’t believe, however, that he’s singling out the women in particular, but the nation as a whole. This corresponds with the prior segment, in which God’s judgment fell not upon concretely-literal high walls, cedars, oaks and physical ships. These are metaphors for proud people.
As the reader reads through the description of the daughters of Sion, try to see, hear, smell, and touch the various features richly described. Remember that the motif of this lengthy passage involves the theme of humbling by means of “taking away.” What does the Lord take away? What does he replace these items with?
The final verse of this section, 4:1, sums up the shame of these formerly proud women: seven women shall volunteer to become an unpaid harem for one man. No shame was greater for an adult woman of Israel in this historical era than to be without a husband. Representing the nation of Israel, these daughters of Sion will be like abandoned women, stripped down, nearly naked. This verse looks forward to Isaiah 54:5, which will bring a time of healing, redemption, and restoration to the remnant, “For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called,” (ESV).
Next time, Lord willing, I (and you who may be reading along with me) will move forward to a bright section, Isaiah 4:2-6.