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In Isaiah 3:3 the prophet describes what will happen when Israel is no longer in God's favor. Specifically it lists resources, public service, defense that will be lost, but what is the "clever enchanter."

3:1 See now, the Lord,
the Lord Almighty,
is about to take from Jerusalem and Judah
both supply and support:...
3:3 the captain of fifty and the man of rank,
the counselor, skilled craftsman and clever enchanter.NIV

I am using NIV but this is almost the same in the NKJV ("expert enchanter") and in ESV it appears as "expert in charms."

Is this describing a court jester or entertainer, or is it describing some form of intercessor? Either way is this describing the actual role or person, or is it a symbol of what they do? In other words, is the court jester symbolizing joy or entertainment, or the intercessor symbolizing God's inability to listen to those who intercede on Israel behalf?

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You are referring to Isaiah 3:3, which in the JPS Tanakh translation of the Masoretic Text reads:

Captain of fifty,
Magnate and counselor,
Skilled artisan and expert enchanter

As you note, other versions have a similar translation:

NIV

The captain of fifty and the man of rank, the counselor, skilled craftsman and clever enchanter

NKJV

The captain of fifty and the honorable man, The counselor and the skillful artisan, And the expert enchanter

ESV

The captain of fifty and the man of rank, the counselor and the skillful magician and the expert in charms

Note that there are two possibly ambiguous phrases, not one:

  • Skilled artisan (Tanakh): skilled craftsman (NIV), skillful artisan (NKJV), skillful magician (ESV)

  • Expert enchanter (Tanakh): clever enchanter (NIV), expert enchanter (NKJV), expert in charms (ESV)

Skillful magician in the ESV is not translating the same Hebrew text as clever (expert) enchanter.

"Clever enchanter"

The original written Hebrew here seems to have been ונבון לחש, which in the Masoretic Text appears as וּנְב֥וֹן לָֽחַשׁ.

נָבוֹן (nā·ḇôn) is an adjective form of בִּין (bîn), whose meanings include "to have skill", "teach", "perceive", "consider with full attention", "be discerning".1

The meaning of לָֽחַשׁ (lǎ·ḥǎš) is given in multiple lexicons2 as relating to charms or magic, but, as you note, this seems completely incongruent.

Rabbi A. J. Rosenberg's translation of the Masoretic Text here reads:

Captain of fifty and man of esteem, and counsellor and skillful craftsman, and one who understands secrets

Rashi's Talmudic commentary on this verse is:

[The Talmud separates this into two, explaining “understanding” as one capable of deducing a decision from an earlier premise. “Secret” is explained as] one fit to be entrusted with secrets of the Torah, given in whispers, such as the story of Creation and the account of the Celestial Chariot, related in Ezekiel 1.

So perhaps this is simply an unusual application of the word lǎ·ḥǎš, which more often is used in the context of the occult. The word itself is very rare in the Old Testament, appearing only 4 other times in the Masoretic Text (Isaiah 3:20, 26:16; Jeremiah 8:17; Ecclesiastes 10:11).

The meaning explained in Rashi's commentary also seems to come much closer to what is found in the Septuagint:

The captain of fifty also, and the honourable counsellor, and the wise artificer, and the intelligent hearer (Brenton)

"Skillful magician"

The Masoretic Text here is חֲרָשִׁים (ḥǎrā·šîm). The various translations of this word are split between associating it with magic or artisans. It seems that although the root word חֶרֶשׁ (ḥě·rěš) means something like sorcery, the word Hǎrā·šîm also refers to the valley of craftsmen near Jerusalem; e.g.

1 Chronicles 4:14

Seraiah begot Joab father of Ge-harashim, so-called because they were craftsmen.

The Septuagint translates the text with the Greek word ἀρχιτέκτων (architektōn), meaning essentially "architect" - implying that the Alexandrian Jews understood the phrase to refer to builders and not magicians. Rashi's commentary (above) also reflects this.


1. Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament) (1997)
2. Swanson, op. cit.; Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (1977); Gesenius' Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament (2003); Holladay and Koehler, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (2000)

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  • Should we take [וַחֲכַ֥ם חֲרָשִׁ֖ים וּנְב֥וֹן לָֽחַשׁ׃] together? Literally, וּנְב֥וֹן לָֽחַשׁ׃ would be " and he that has understanding of whispering charms" See in Eccles 10:11. There are obviously names of various jobs, some associated with magic and difficult to translate in any modern language. LXX: σοφὸν ἀρχιτέκτονα, "skillful "architect", yet this job was associated with magic, in Egypt. For instance Imhotep (cca 2650 BCE) was among other things an architect too and was actually revered as being like semi-divine. No wonder LXX and Judaism in Alexandria went for "skillful architect". – Constantin Jinga Dec 23 '17 at 19:44
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KJV is using "prudent" for this. In Hebrew there is קָסַם (qāsam), " to practice divination", broad enough to also mean "necromancy, augury, and visions". It occurs in many other places in the OT and is translated differently. Is 3:2-4 is a list of military, judicial, religious pillars of Jewish society, of people who have influence on others. This doesn't imply that Isaiah is fine with divination of any sort (compare with Isa 44:25). The idea is that God’s judgment would remove every support of Judah, every possible leadership (even divination) and anarchy would prevail. In the LXX they use στοχαστής , which apparently is a hapax (see: https://www.ibiblio.org/bgreek/forum/viewtopic.php?f=51&t=496) If you can please do have a look on: - Harris, R. L., Harris, R. L., Archer, G. L., & Waltke, B. K., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Chicago, Moody Press, 1999, p. 805 - Baker, W., The complete word study dictionary : Old Testament, Chattanooga, TN, AMG Publishers, 2003

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  • 1
    You seem to be referring to verse 2. I think the OP was asking about verse 3. – user33515 Dec 23 '17 at 17:17
  • It was a good answer to the wrong question :) I upvoted your answer anyway. – user33515 Dec 23 '17 at 19:36
  • @user33515: Yes, I was affraid so. The reference was so general (Isaiah Chapter 3) so I got stuck in verse 2, as the entire passage is using vocabulary so difficult to translate. I think the best we can is to stay with the general meaning of the passage. Thank you for upvote. – Constantin Jinga Dec 23 '17 at 19:47
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The 72 Jewish scholars who translated Isaiah from their Hebrew source to Greek in the second or third century BCE, interpreted Isaiah 3:3 as follows (TABP):

and commander of fifty, and wonderful counselor, and wise architect, and discerning listener.

The word that they chose in Greek is ακροατής (akroatis, a listener). Even assuming that the MT was not altered, the difference might be attributed to a change in usage of the Hebrew term.

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