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Dunash ben Labrat

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Verbal System of Ancient Hebrew

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David E. S. Stein

John, if I understand correctly, you are pointing out that one result of rendering ’ish milhamah and ’anshe ha-milhamah as “man/men of war” is that it makes explicit an ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultural norm: masculinity and war go together. And that this consideration applies whether or not the Hebrew term itself actually ascribes gender to its referent. And that this result is in accord with what the mythic Type A gender-sensitive translation would do.

I agree that in some circumstances, gendering a rendering can be a justified (and even a preferred) move not only where the source text employs a noun that ascribes gender to its referent. Yet whether the cited cases would qualify as such an instance, I have my doubts. Maybe for an ideal translation type, but not necessarily when it’s time for the rubber to meet the road.

In my translation work, I have faced this question often. Let me give a few of many examples.

‏כַּאֲשֶׁר יִשָּׂא־אִישׁ אֶת־בְּנוֹ
ka-asher yissa ish et b’no (Deut. 1:31)
NJPS: “as a man carries his son”

When I first adapted NJPS for The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition (TAMC; 2005), I rendered this phrase: “as a parent carries a child.” Such a rendering is grammatically defensible because in this instance ’ish has a nonspecific reference and therefore in itself does not ascribe gender to its referent. And as I explained there in a comment: “In ancient Israel, protecting children from harm was the responsibility of both parents [refs. cited]. This would explain the term ish ... rather than, say, av (father).” (For comparison, NRSV likewise renders in generic terms: “just as one carries a child.”)

However, while preparing CJPS in 2006, I came to see that the text did not need to employ a gender-specific term, because its ancient audience had good reason anyway to mentally cast both the carrier and the child as male. For the imagery would have evoked a paradigmatic situation, one that was natural and familiar to the Israelite audience, whose members lived and worked in patrimonially organized corporate households. (On household-kinship imagery as the root metaphor for ancient Near Eastern society at all levels, see David J. Schloen, The House of the Father as Fact and Symbol, 2001.) For both ish and ben in this verse, the maleness of their referents goes without saying.

Yet contemporary readers do not live with that same kind of societal structure, so they (like me) would not so quickly make the same inference as the ancient audience. In order to (as you put it) “reflect the cultural grammar of the text at the discourse level,” I changed the rendering in 2006 to “as a householder carries his son.” In a more recent printing of TAMC that includes the new rendering, my revised comment on “a householder” now reads: “Who is responsible for his corporate household’s continuity—personified by his heir. Although carrying children is done by both genders [refs. cited], the noun ish ... refers to one who represents a group—here, a household; and a householder is presumed to be male.” And a householder was expected to invest time and attention on raising his (male) heir.

Note that I still chose an English equivalent of ’ish that is not itself a gendered term. Yet “householder” bears a much stronger clue to maleness than does either “parent” or the situational context of carrying a child. And together with a masculine pronoun (although “his” could still be construed in a gender-neutral sense), the connotation is, I think, sufficiently male.

Tell me, would an ideal Type A translation choose an even more virile English equivalent?

Similarly, here are two related examples regarding the tenth plaque in Egypt and its sequelae:

וּמֵת כָּל־בְּכוֹר
u-met kol b’chor (Exod. 11:5)
NJPS: “every first-born . . . shall die”

קַדֶּשׁ־לִי כָל־בְּכוֹר
qadesh li kol b’chor (Exod. 13:2)
NJPS: “Consecrate to me every first-born

In my own analysis, I determined that for cultural reasons, the ancient audience would have understood that the text uses a category term that is non-specific for gender, namely, kol bekhor, to refer to a male-only group (a common linguistic practice). However, I was aware that the English equivalent “first-born” (which in today’s parlance applies equally to sons and daughters) has confounded many readers’ understanding as to who would be affected by the plague and by subsequent commemorative rites.

So in order to give contemporary readers the benefit of what you call “the cultural grammar of the text at the discourse level,” I rendered all references to victims of the plague in terms of “[male] first-born” (with brackets that suggest the textual ambiguity), while all consequent references to Israelite rites are to “male first-born” (without brackets).

Tell me, would that approach suit an ideal Type A translation?

As a final example, I considered rendering every instance of kohen as “male priest” rather than the customary (and gender-neutral) “priest,” and likewise ha-levi’im as “the male Levites” rather than the (gender-neutral) “the Levites.” After all, those functionaries were only males.

I refrained from doing so because when I tried it out, such a translation looked, well, almost grotesque. The emphasis on maleness was so striking, whereas in the source text it is almost entirely unspoken. So I decided to trust that readers would possess sufficient background in the biblical world to construe such terms as having a male reference. In these cases, they did not need my help.

Tell me, with regard to those cultic roles, what would your ideal Type A translation do?

Where would you draw the line and say that a translator goes too far, in making implicit cultural information explicit?



As usual, your comments are interesting and insightful.

You are correct that I think "man/men of war" are translations that have a lot going for them apart from the facts of how one understands the extent to which the components of the idiom in Hebrew (1) mark gender; (2) imply gender; and/or (3) refer, as a unit and in actual fact to male- gendered entities in context. More on that in an upcoming post.

At this point, it may be helpful to underline a basic linguistic fact: language is a subtle, supple instrument. It is full of oddities, special cases, and so on.

Here's a fun example. While Paola and I were pastors in Sicily, it was a linguistic adventure to watch what Sicilians did, in Sicilian (the native dialect) and Italian (the language we had in common), in terms of gendering her title, "pastor." A "pastore" in Italian, was, until recently, an exclusively male profession. In Sicilian, there is also a residual usage of "pastora" for the pastor's wife along with "pastore" (masc.) for the pastor himself (in strict analogy, of course, with *one usage* of נביאה in ancient Hebrew; I'm not sure how a rabbi's wife is referred to in your context). Another possibility: "pastoressa" on the analogy of dottore "doctor" / dottoressa "lady doctor."

Depending on the circumstance and the speaker, Paola was called all three: "pastore," officially, in Italian; "pastora," in Sicilian, more colloquially, or in jest in Italian, by a few people (non-Sicilians, from the north, in tune with requests coming from some feminists) officially, in Italian; "pastoressa" in jest in Italian.

Here is an interesting question. Everyone would agree that "pastora" and "pastoressa" instantiate feminine grammatical and social gender. But is it the case that "pastore" is gender-neutral now that it used in reference to a pastor whose social gender is female. My answer would be, "no and yes." One reason people called Paola "pastore" and not "pastoressa" (on the analogy of "dottoressa" for a lady doctor) is because her congregation wanted everybody to know that she was a pastor, and their pastor, on the same level as male pastors before her. But in Sicilian it might be different, because of a kind of chivalry (and its opposite) that the dialect tends to vehiculate.

To show you how confusing things are in real life, in Italian, at least in my ideolect, I am inclined to say, "lei e' il mio dottore" "she is my doctor" (lack of grammatical concord) but still address that same doctor as "dottoressa" (feminine, with a diminuitive infix as well, to the dismay of some; attempts to get people to say "dottora" have, so far as I know, failed in practice).

Of course, the attempt to capture in *English* translation the subtle differences just described is hopeless without long-winded and almost inevitably misleading circumlocutions.

I'll get to your instructive Hebrew examples in another comment.

David E. S. Stein

With regard to female pastors and Italian:

1. Israelis face similar choices in Hebrew with regard to how to address female rabbis. However, I myself am not current on how that is playing out.

2. This is not a new issue. As I recall, among Sam Meier's writings about female messengers and scribes in the ancient Near East is a note that in the extant written record, at least a few female professionals identified themselves by the corresponding Akkadian male title. (Which would seem to reinforce the idea that when we then read a male term in non-specific contexts, it's possible that women may be in view.)

So with regard to women in what were traditionally male roles, I suppose that in a given utterance, the preferred word choice depends partly upon whether the focus is on the office or on the person who occupies the office.


In fact, every language I know which genders two-way or three-way (German) constructs a most intricate web of usages in cases like these.

The three usages of נביאה in ancient Hebrew deserve to be recalled: for a prophetess (Huldah, Noadiah); for a prophet's wife (Isaiah: Is 8:3); for a female who sings to the LORD (Miriam, Deborah); the latter usage lacks a corresponding equivalent in the case of the masculine נביא. Complexity of this kind, I submit, is par for the course.

David E. S. Stein

John, I must say that I find it hard to accept your claim of THREE usages of נביאה. The evidence of a distinct designation for “a female who sings to the LORD” is awfully scanty. Here is what comes to mind:

1. As you say, no male equivalent is attested.

2. Miriam’s status can be conventionally explained as a divine agent—one of many prophets whose commissioning was simply not recorded in the text that we have. As Rita Burns wrote (according to Adriane Leveen’s quotation in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 922):

“Six of the seven . . . texts which mention her represent her as a leader.... In designating Miriam as “sister” of Aaron (Exodus 15:20) and of Aaron and Moses (Numbers 26:59; I Chronicles 5:29) the biblical writers use kinship terminology to express Miriam’s parallel status in religious leadership vis-à-vis that of the two other leading figures in the wilderness.... Micah 6:4 ... [says] that Miriam (along with Moses and Aaron) was divinely commissioned as a leader in the wilderness.”
Has the Lord Indeed Spoken Only Through Moses?: A Study of the Biblical Portrait of Miriam by Rita J. Burns [Scholars Press, 1987], p. 121.

In short, Miriam’s biblical status is well beyond “a female who sings to the LORD,” especially according to Micah.

3. That leaves Deborah, who admittedly isn’t depicted as receiving a divine message or speaking on “the LORD’s” behalf, but that is true also of some males who are identified as prophets.


The evidence is scanty for a third discrete use of the term נביאה. Agreed.

But the evidence for collapsing the three usages identified above into the two you mention is also scanty.

Kaddari's Hebrew to Hebrew dictionary simply omits all reference to נביאה beyond the cases in which it clearly means: 1.מגדת עתידות בשם ה׳
2 . אשת נביאה

One or the other, according to Kaddari, without a discussion or citation of the other occurrences. Hmmm.

TDOT, on the other hand identifies a specific usage of both נביא and נביאה, in reference to ancient worthies, a usage which lacks the specific contours of later times: in reference to Abraham, Aaron, Miriam, Deborah, and Samuel; according to TDOT, only Moses in the early series bears an approximate resemblance to the use of נביא as it appears in literature that deals with later epochs.

BDB has the tripartite division of senses I consider to be a plausible, though by no means certain interpretation, of the data in hand.

BTW, there are scholars (Jepsen, Johnson) who reduce all usages to one and consider Isaiah's wife a (cult) prophetess as well.

Rita Burns' two theses, that "sister" expresses parallel status in religious leadership in Miriam's case vis-a-vis her "brothers," and that Mic 6:4 alludes to a prophetic commissioning of Miriam, if indeed Burns so intends, are novel, it seems to me, and quite interesting.

At this point, I would like to see her full argument, and explore the reasons why an earlier generation (to which BDB is a witness) found the tripartite division of usages I proposed to be self-evident.

Thanks for giving me an opportunity to point out the options here (I'm sure there are still more).

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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