This is not dealing with just the Judges 4:4 reference, already asked; but we see throughout that the word is translated "woman" or "offering by fire," especially in Leviticus. In fact, it looks like the translation there could be intimated that God wants a Woman for Sacrifice. I see why that would be a problem, but the etymology of that word, ishshah, does go back to "fire" and "offering," moreso than if a yud or nun was deleted by the dagesh of the shin or some other folk etymology to get the word "out of Man," "ish," which is merely an assonance similarity. I do see where the plurals look like the cognate 'nsh, however that doesn't explain why God may have been talking about sacrifice with "woman." After all, He "built" "her" or something in Genesis 2:22.

  • I voted not to close because אשה in various forms is confusing to beginners. I often wondered about this as a kid - how two words that are spelled the same way (disregarding the diacritics) can be pronounced so differently and have such different meanings. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Dec 18 '17 at 6:49

Welcome to the world of Hebrew homographs. אִשָּׁה, with a kamatz under the shin is "woman", and אִשֶּׁה with a segol under the shin is a sacrifice that was burnt in its entirety. The first is a simple noun, the second is a noun based on אֵשׁ, fire, with a suffix ה indicating "of". There is no etymological connection between these words despite the famous sayings in Jewish folklore linking אִשֶּׁה, אִשׁ and אֵשׁ. These word differ markedly in their pronunciation, אִשָּׁה sounding like i'Shaa and אִשֶּׁה sounding like i'Sheh. The accent is on the final vowel, so the difference is crystal clear.

In a text without Hebrew diacritics (vowel points) the context indicates which word is intended. There is no verse in the MT in which the meaning is in doubt regarding אשה. The MT is very clear about human sacrifice in any form, God doesn't want it and we don't do it.

In Judges 4:4, it is clear that "Deborah was a woman of prophecy, the woman of (wife of) Lapidot.

Regarding the phrase "before vowel points" in the OP question, I suspect that this indicates a common misconception regarding the fact that is often misleadingly presented as "the vowel points were added later, by the massoretes, in the sixth century, and are not part of the original text".

This presentation is misleading because it gives the impression that the consonantal text is open to wider interpretation without the vowels. Although the massoretes did canonize the diacritics of the MT in the sixth century in manuscript texts, they did so according to a zealously preserved oral tradition that is as old as the consonantal texts themselves. The books of the OT were recited orally in Jewish communities for centuries. This was the main method of transmission of the tradition. The pronunciation and intonation were key to transmission. In fact, there are very few verses in the OT where an alternative pointalization would make sense and fit the context.

  • "with a suffix ה indicating "of"" I take it this is what is meant by 'ishah' (of-man), according to Gn 2:23? – Sola Gratia Dec 18 '17 at 18:27
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    @SolaGratia Yes, the midrash shem (folk etymology) of ishah in Genesis 2:23 uses exactly this idea, as does the midrash shem on Moses's name in Exodus 2:10. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Dec 19 '17 at 7:21
  • Pretty much every timeScripture gives a 'called ... because ... [root concept or word]' it is giving the etymology of the word, in my experience. – Sola Gratia Dec 19 '17 at 14:19
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    @SolaGratia Yes, that is called a "midrash shem", an explanation or etymology of a name. They are not to be taken literally as etymologies in the modern linguistic sense. Midrash shem is the scholarly technical term used in Hebrew for these etymologies. I do not know if there is a corresponding English term. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Dec 19 '17 at 14:44
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    @SamuelRussell I don't see any hint of dysphemism in ishah, nor have I seen anyone suggest that there is one, as opposed to the theories of dysphemism concerning the massoretic diacritics of molech in II Kings 23:10. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Aug 24 '18 at 14:18

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