In this post, I discuss the conclusions of an article by David E. S. Stein entitled:
“On Beyond Gender: Representation of God in the Torah and in Three Recent Renditions into English,” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues 15 (2008) 108-137
I thank David for sending me a copy of his article. Below the fold, I answer “No” to the question posed in the title of this post. I am convinced David would answer "No" as well. Nevertheless, we differ about the degree to which the “No” must be qualified, and the implications of a qualified "No" for the work of translation and interpretation today.
The thesis of David’s article is that a (mostly) gender-neutral translation of the Torah’s God language better conveys the degree to which gender is germane to the Torah’s description of God than does a translation which renders יהוה with Lord and uses the masculine pronouns “he-his-him-himself.”
(1) It is almost never the case that gender is germane to the persona of God the Torah offers her readers.
(2) The use of (mostly) gender neutral God language conveys that fact with less distortion than would rendering יהוה with Lord and using “he-his-him-himself.”
The logic of the argument is unassailable. Its premise, nonetheless, is open to criticism. I suggest a replacement premise, (4), and a corresponding conclusion, (5), below.
It is possible that I have worded (1) in a way David would not be comfortable with. Perhaps he wishes only to say that:
(3) It is not the case that gender is germane to the person of God as the Torah conceives of God if all the relevant texts are taken into account.
(1) and (3) differ from each other in important ways. Persona refers to ways God is described in the texts, not the way God necessarily is, outside of metaphor, in essence, according to those same texts. There are texts in the Torah which relativize all language used of God. Exodus 3:14, אהיה אשר אהיה, comes to mind. So far as I can see, however, God’s reflexive self-definition in Ex 3:14 did not lead the Torah to avoid describing God most everywhere else in more specific and less reflexive terms, gender-specific terms included.
I have no objection to (3), but here is a more helpful premise, or so it seems to me, more in line with the sensibilities of the ancient authors, though not with those of some modern readers:
(4) The biblical authors did not avoid gendered language in their descriptions of God or any other god. Gender-specific, personal and a-personal expressions are all applied to God, and gods in general, in the Bible. Nevertheless, insofar as gendered personhood is ascribed to God or any other god, it is not ambiguous, undetermined, or under-determined.
The “social gender” of Israel’s God, though not of some non-Israelite deities such as the unnamed “Queen of Heaven” (Jer 7:17-18; 44:17), is masculine. But – an important caveat – Israel’s God is not sexed.
Once again, God’s “social gender” is masculine, but – another important caveat – not without a feminine remainder. That is, God is occasionally described in language fit for those of female gender, not male.
If (4) is on target, one might conclude as follows:
(5) A measured but still frequent use of gendered God language in Bible translation – calibrated according to context and target language considerations on a passage-by-passage basis - conveys the facts with less distortion than would avoiding the masculine pronouns “he-his-him-himself” entirely and supplying instead the allegedly non-gendered stand-in, “God,” and/or resorting to circumlocutions.
Let me exemplify.
(5) means translating a verse like Genesis 2:2 as follows:
וַיְכַל אֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה
וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה
On the seventh day, God finished the work he had been doing, and on the seventh day stopped all the work he had been doing.
I assume that David would argue, though he does not discuss the example in the article cited above, that to so translate distorts the degree of “genderedness” the Hebrew instantiates. On its part, The Contemporary Torah, one of the translation efforts David offers as a model, supplies “God” in brackets and resorts to circumlocutions:
On the seventh day God finished the work that had been undertaken; [God] ceased on the seventh day from doing any of the work.
I find the translation unsatisfactory on several levels. But I admit that the translation it revises, NJPSV, with its thrice-repeated capitalized “He” in which “He” is also fronted (against the source text) in the second half of the complex sentence, “over-masculinizes” the Hebrew:
On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done.
In my judgment, the translation of Gen 2:2 I offer, in which “he” occurs twice in embedded relative clauses, does not “over-masculinize.” NJPSV’s thrice-repeated use “He,” however, with “He” moved up with the effect of granting it greater prominence than it has in the Hebrew, “over-masculinizes” indeed.
But The Contemporary Torah on its part botches Gen 2:2 in the attempt to offer a contemporary audience “an opportunity to encounter its God more directly” (109), that is, a God to whom male-gendered language is attached with great difficulty. Let me clarify.
In Gen 1:31 and 2:2-3, what God made/did (עשה) is what God “sees,” “finishes,” and “stops.” This is obscured in The Contemporary Torah. A majestic string of active verbs with God as implicit or explicit subject stretches from 1:1 to 1:31 and again from 2:2 to 2:3, in the latter case, with two passive verbs, in 2:1 and 2:4, acting as bookends. The strings are undone by The Contemporary Torah at 1:31, 2:2, and 2:3 for the sole purpose of avoiding masculine pronouns.
Furthermore, 2:2b is so radically made over from a syntactic point of view that the deliberate syntactic parallelisms across 2:2-3 are washed away:
ַיְכַל אֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה
וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה
כִּי בוֹ שָׁבַת מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים לַעֲשׂוֹת
On the seventh day, God finished the work he had been doing,
and on the seventh day stopped all the work he had been doing. . . .
for on it he stopped all the work of creation God had been doing.
To be sure, the mention of “God” in 2:3 seems misplaced and the syntax otherwise difficult, but a discussion of the crux lies beyond the purposes of this post.
Further Musings on the God Language of the Bible
There are contemporary confessional contexts that relate well only to a non-gendered God. It is or should be well-known that a major Protestant denomination, the United Church of Christ, came close to deciding to officially adopt a hymnal in which references to God thought by some to be masculine or patriarchal in a negative sense, “Lord,” for example, had been stricken. It is or should be well-known that a movement to eliminate references to God as “Father,” insofar as it trigger memories of bad fathers, or is otherwise suspect, has had a certain impact in some circles.
People come down on the issues in opposing ways. Some want everyone to relate only to a non-gendered God, and seek to revise worship materials and the Bible accordingly. Some wish to maintain that the biblical God is presented in gendered and non-gendered ways, and that the Bible’s gendered descriptions of God, masculine and feminine, convey essential truths that are obscured by translations and worship materials which aim for “gender neutrality” in their representation of God language.
I actually don’t think The Contemporary Torah succeeds in offering a contemporary audience the possibility of encountering a rigorously degendered God. The word “God” itself, used throughout The Contemporary Torah, is freighted with masculinity in English. Indeed, unlike אלהים in Hebrew, “God/god” is gender-specific in English, used as a rule of male deities in English, with another gender-specific term, “goddess,” used exclusively of female deities.
Personally, I consider that result felicitous. That’s because there is something spiritually unhealthy in the contemporary tendency to relate only to a non-gendered persona of God. The tendency has no basis whatsoever in the Bible or tradition, and for that very reason, drives a deep wedge between the Bible and tradition on the one hand, and contemporary spirituality on the other. Of course, that is just what the doctor ordered according to a number of vocal thinkers.
So far, except in Unitarian-Universalist settings and a few very liberal Jewish and Protestant contexts, it does not seem to be the case that the de-gendering of God has caught on. At the same time, there is more awareness than before that God per se as it were is not inherently masculine or inherently feminine. It’s nice to see that traditional teaching re-emphasized today.
Is the biblical God a persona beyond gender? No, but gender insofar as it is ascribed to God by the biblical authors cannot be taken to imply that God is an inherently male or female deity. The biblical authors thought of their God in all of the following categories: gender-specific, personal, and a-personal. Specific truths are conveyed in each case. We do well, should we choose to situate ourselves in the slipstream created by biblical tradition, to emulate in our own God language the range and variety of categories and social constructs through which God is described in the Bible.