In a previous post, I argued that a male-gendered translation of איש מלחמה and אנשי המלחמה in Ex 15:3 and related passages has certain advantages. Referents of “man of war” in modern English parlance (via Google): [Of a warship’s captain] “Before he could reply she said almost abruptly, ‘Your captain is a man of war,’ and shook her head, so that some of the hair spilled unheeded across her arms.” [Of Pyrrhus] “He was a mighty man of war, and nearly conquered Rome.” Dick Cheney. A Christian rap artist. It’s hard not to think of a man-of-war in the zoological sense, whose sting saves the day in this exquisite short story by Stephanie Dickinson.
I am not claiming that איש מלחמה and אנשי המלחמה are terms that necessarily applied to males and males alone. For all we know – it is easy to think of analogues in other languages - דבורה איש מלחמה“Deborah, a man of war,” would have been the correct diction. If so, it would have been correct precisely because the role of warrior, culturally speaking, was a quintessentially male one. David E. S. Stein has shown that איש is used in certain idioms with gender washed out of its range of connotations entirely (unless actualized again for a specific rhetorical purpose). The situation in this instance deserves further study. Are we to imagine a pair איש מלחמה : אשת מלחמה ‘a man of war: a woman of war,’ like איש חיל : אשת חיל ‘a capable man: a capable woman’? If so, and even if the contrary is true, it is unlikely that איש and אנשי in these idioms, as a rule if not in every imaginable case, are devoid of gendered referentiality and free of gender-specific connotations. Given that (1) meaning is known to be constructed above the word-level in terms of composition such that (2) the collocation effects of איש/אנשי and מלחמה need to be taken into account, and (3) the composite idioms in fact refer to specifically male entities, it stands to reason that איש/אנשי מלחמה is a collocation whose conjoint effect is not unlike “iron man/men” in English, in which the collocation of “man/men” with “iron” activates a level of male genderedness in “man/men” which might otherwise be merely potential. (Compositional semantics is a field of study which has often concentrated on idioms characterized by a high degree of figuration - see Nunberg et al (1994) [here] – but the principles apply very broadly.) Regardless, it would be misleading to suggest, based on analogy, that the use of איש/אנשי in such idioms merely implies that someone of female gender is not excluded as a referent.
Even when איש is a stand-alone term in legal material, as in Ex 21-24, it is unlikely that non-exclusion of someone of female gender is all stand-alone איש communicates, at least potentially, in terms of gender. If איש in such instances were in fact equivalent to a gender-neutral term like “person” in English – something no one has yet claimed, so far as I know, though “person” is the translation equivalent of choice in some translations on the supposition that it is the nearest functional equivalent in English – the conjoint specification of איש and אשה (or similar) where that occurs in the same legal materials would be superfluous.
It is more likely that the foregrounding of a particular possibility is accomplished by the use of איש in legal materials. A default male gendering results, corroborated on occasion by information provided later (as in Ex 21:2-6). The default is overturned, however, by conjoint specification whenever, and here I follow David Stein, doubt might subsist (as in Ex 21:20). On the salience of the “doubt” factor David Stein and I agree, but not on the connotations of איש in these settings. In his view, default gendering and/or foregrounding of a particular possibility are not in play with איש in these instances.
The translation knots that result from Stein’s assumption of no default male gendering, or of, at the least, foregrounding of a particular possibility, may be illustrated by comparing the translation of Ex 21:2-3 and 20 in CJPS and Alter (relevant terms italicized).
כִּי תִקְנֶה עֶבֶד עִבְרִי
שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים יַעֲבֹד
וּבַשְּׁבִעִת יֵצֵא לַחָפְשִׁי חִנָּם׃
אִם־בְּגַפּוֹ יָבֹא בְּגַפּוֹ יֵצֵא
אִם־בַּעַל אִשָּׁה הוּא
וְיָצְאָה אִשְׁתּוֹ עִמּוֹ׃
CJPS Ex 21:2-3: When you acquire a Hebrew slave, that person shall serve six years – and shall go free in the seventh year, without payment. If [a male slave] came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him.
Alter Ex 21:2-3: Should you buy a Hebrew slave, six years he shall serve and in the seventh year he shall go free, with no payment. If he came by himself, he shall go out by himself. If he was husband to a wife, his wife shall go out with him.
וְכִי־יַכֶּה אִישׁ אֶת־עַבְדּוֹ אוֹ
וּמֵת תַּחַת יָדוֹ
CJPS Ex 21:20: When a person [who is a slave owner] strikes a slave, male or female, with a rod, who dies there and then, it must be avenged.
Alter Ex 21:20: And should a man strike his male slave or his slavegirl with a rod and they die under his hand, they shall surely be avenged.
The awkwardness of CJPS relative to Alter’s translation is palpable. Alter’s translation, however, is awkward, too, in the case of the twice-repeated they in Ex 21:20. It would have been less stilted to follow the example of KJV, with its delimiting commas – and render “And should a man strike his slave, or his slavegirl, and he die under his hand, he shall surely be avenged.”
The delimiting commas are, I think, justifiable. The topic deserves further study, in light of what Geoffrey Nunberg calls “the pragmatics of deferred interpretation” (go here), and what I would call “the pragmatics of provisory interpretation,” whereby one of two or more possible interpretations is preferred, pending potential further clarification.
In summary, I have offered several reasons for preferring the male-gendered translation of איש מלחמה and אנשי המלחמה we find in KJV, ESV, and Alter to gender-neutral alternatives. In every case the motivations are of the kind type A translations, insofar as they are committed to reflecting a source text’s idiosyncrasies, at the cost of using equivalents that are sometimes less natural or up-to-date than alternatives, are particularly inclined to give precedence to.
To be sure, if the proffered reason of “reflecting the cultural grammar of the text at the discourse level” were taken to a logical extreme and applied unthinkingly in all conceivable situations at the word-level, the result would be horrific. The cultural grammar of a text is best expressed as unobtrusively as possible, by the use of a gendered pronoun, for example, or a gendered noun like “man” or “men” as here. Translations that tend in the direction of literalness often accomplish this, as it were, inadvertently. Thus KJV has “if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his rod” in Ex 21:20. Alter’s translation in the same place, on the other hand, is more explicative: “should a man strike his male slave or his slavegirl with a rod and they die under his hand,” a possible infraction of his warning against “explanation” in translation - but the warning, of course, is relative only, and a guideline rather than an iron-clad law. CJPS in the same verse is more than obtrusively explicative [brackets and all]: the source-text diction is extensively modified in pursuit of a masculine-pronoun-free target-language equivalent (see above).
היצאים לצבא (Num 31:28) means ‘who went out on duty,’ more precisely still, ‘who went out on the (aforementioned) term of service,’ service, in this case, military in nature. צבא refers in some contexts to civilian service (Num 4:3.23; 8:24). ‘Service’ is the primary sense of צבא, ‘military service,’ a contextual meaning. ‘Servicemen, troops’ is another contextual meaning. Comparison with Num 31:3-4 suggests that ‘on the aforementioned) tour of duty’ is the precise contextual meaning in 31:28. An idiomatic translation: “[A]nd raise a levy for יהוה from the men of war who went out on duty.”
עד תם כל הדור אנשי המלחמה מקרב המחנה (Deut 2:14). The syntax goes like this: ‘Until that whole generation perished, the men of war, from the midst of the camp.’
1 Sam 17:33: KJV “for you are but a youth, and he a man of war from his youth” is unsurpassed in terms of faithfulness to the diction of the source-text. ESV and Alter are inferior to it.
Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” in Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre (Sue-Ellen Case, ed.; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990) 270-82; Cynthia R. Chapman, The Gendered Language of Warfare in the Israelite-Assyrian Encounter (HSM 62; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2004); idem, “Sculpted Warriors: Sexuality and the Sacred in the Depiction of Warfare in the Assyrian Palace Reliefs and in Ezekiel 23:14-17,” lectio difficilior 2007/1 (here); Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., “Symbols for Masculinity and Femininity: Their Use in Ancient Near Eastern Sympathetic Magic Rituals, JBL 85 (1966) 326-34; Geoffrey Nunberg, Ivan A. Sag, and Thomas Wasow, “Idioms,” Language 70 (1994) 491-538; Geoffrey Nunberg, “The Pragmatics of Deferred Interpretation,” in The Handbook of Pragmatics (Laurence R. Horn and Gregory Ward, eds., Blackwell Handbooks in Linguistics; London: Blackwell, 2003) 344-364; David E. S. Stein, “The Noun איש (’îš) in Biblical Hebrew: A Term of Affiliation,” JHS 8 (2008) Article 1 (pdf here)
ESV ESV Text Edition 2007 in The ESV Study Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008)
NLT NLT 2007 revision in The NLT Study Bible, New Living Translation Second Edition (Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 2008)
CJPS The Contemporary Torah: A Gender-Sensitive Adaptation of the JPS Translation (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2006)
TNIV Today’s New International Version (Colorado Springs: International Bible Society, 2005)
Alter Robert Alter. The David Story (New York: Norton: 1999). The Five Books of Moses (New York: Norton, 2004).
CEV The Holy Bible. Children’s Illustrated Edition. Contemporary English Version (New York: American Bible Society, 1995)
REB Revised English Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989)
NIV New International Version (Colorado Springs: International Bible Society, 1984)
KJV King James Version (1611; 1873 ed.)
To be continued.