In a recent post titled “Women Prophets in the Hebrew Bible,” I wrote the following statement about Isaiah’s wife:
The fourth woman known as a prophetess in Israel was Isaiah’s wife: “And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the LORD said to me, Name him Maher-shalal-hash-baz; for before the child knows how to call `My father’ or `My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria” (Isa. 8:3-4).
Nothing is known about this prophetess and scholars are not in agreement concerning the role she played in Isaiah’s ministry. Some scholars believe that she was called a prophetess because she was married to the prophet Isaiah. Others believe that this mysterious woman was a prophet in her own right.
Personally, I believe that Isaiah’s wife was a prophet who exercised a prophetic ministry alongside her husband. According to Isaiah 8:16, Isaiah had a group of disciples who preserved his oracles. Thus, it is possible that Isaiah’s wife was part of this prophetic guild and worked with him by giving a symbolic name to their son as a visible evidence of the message Isaiah preached to king Ahaz.
Andrew King at The Blog of the Twelve, linked my post to his blog and made the following comment: “Overall, Dr. Mariottini provides a good introduction, though I have reservations about various conclusions (eg. Isaiah’s wife as one of disciples).
I would like to thank Andrew for linking my post to his blog. In defense of what I wrote about Isaiah’s wife, I would like to make a few comments about her status as a neb’iah, a Hebrew word that means “prophetess.” In discussing Isaiah’s wife, I will use the Hebrew word neb’iah to speak of a prophetess and women prophets in general.
The text in which Isaiah mentions his wife is Isaiah 8:3: “And I went to the prophetess [Hebrew neb’iah], and she conceived and bore a son.” Reading the text as it is found in the book of Isaiah, the word neb’iah can only have two meanings.
First, the word neb’iah is used to describe the woman as the wife of the prophet. In this case, neb’iah would mean “Mrs. Prophet” or “Mrs. Isaiah.” This is the view adopted by Skinner: “Isaiah’s wife is so called, not because she herself possessed the prophetic gift, but because the husband’s designation is transferred by courtesy to the wife” (1963:72).
The second meaning of the word neb’iah is that the woman was a prophet in her own right. This is the view I took in my post. I will explain the details below.
There is a third possibility, one which most people would reject because of the ethical implications behind this view. This view says that the woman was not Isaiah’s wife and that he had a child by a woman who was a cultic prophet.
This view is the view adopted by Joseph Blenkinsopp in his commentary on Isaiah. Blenkinsopp writes, “we are not told that this anonymous woman was Isaiah’s wife. . . . We therefore assume that she is, or is represented as being, an officially recognized member of the nabi’ class . . . perhaps also a member of the Jerusalem temple staff” (2000:238).
If one accepts the view that the neb’iah was not Isaiah’s wife, then Isaiah had sexual relations with a woman that was not his wife and had a son born out of this relationship. Such a view is so contrary to the ethical values of the people of Israel that I do not even consider this a possibility.
So, we are left with two possibilities: either the neb’iah was an honorific title given to the woman because she was married to a prophet or the woman was a prophet in her own right.
A survey of the Hebrew Bible shows that the prophets never called their wives prophetesses. The prophet Ezekiel was married and when he spoke about his wife he said, “my wife died” (Ezek. 24:18). Ezekiel never called his wife neb’iah, a prophetess. The prophet Hosea was married to Gomer and when he spoke about his wife, he called her “my wife,” not the prophetess (Hos. 2:2).
On the other hand, every time the word neb’iah is used in the Hebrew Bible, it refers to a woman who exercises the prophetic ministry. Deborah was a neb’iah and the wife of Lappidoth (Judg. 4:4). Huldah was a neb’iah and the wife of Shallum (2 Kgs. 22:14). These women were called neb’iah, prophets, even though their husbands were not prophets.
Miriam was a neb’iah, but we do not know who her husband was. Noadiah was a neb’iah, but we do not know her marital status. In the New Testament, Anna was a prophet and a widow (Luke 2 2:36-37).
The information provided by the texts where the word neb’iah appears clearly indicates that a woman was a neb’iah, not because she was married to a prophet, but because she exercised the prophetic ministry, because of a divine call, and because she had received the endowment of the Spirit.
If Isaiah’s wife was a prophetess in her own right, then one can understand how their children had symbolic names that were directly related to Isaiah’s ministry. Isaiah said that his children were signs to Israel: “See, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion” (Isa. 8:18).
In ancient Israel, when children were born, it was the mother who named them (see the naming of Jacob’s children in Genesis 29:31-30:24). Thus, because the children were given symbolic names to emphasize the message the prophet was proclaiming, it is almost certain that Isaiah’s wife had some input in naming them. This also indicates that Isaiah’s wife was also involved in his ministry.
In my post I did not say that Isaiah’s wife was one of his disciples. Rather, I said that “Isaiah’s wife was part of this prophetic guild and worked with him by giving a symbolic name to their son as a visible evidence of the message Isaiah preached to king Ahaz.”
If one rejects the view that the neb’iah was not Isaiah’s wife (the third view mentioned above), and if one rejects the view that neb’iah was only an honorific title bestowed upon the woman just because she was married to a prophet, then one must accept the fact that the title neb’iah, prophetess, was given to Isaiah’s wife for the same reason the title was given to Miriam, to Deborah, and to Huldah. Isaiah’s wife was called a neb’iah because she was a prophet in her own right.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Isaiah 1-39: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
Skinner, John. The Book of the Prophet Isaiah Chapters I-XXXIX. The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges. Cambridge: At the University Press, 1963.