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David E. S. Stein

It seems to me that the rendering “as a man carries his son” is also an explicating translation. For the word 'ish in itself is not so specific; its lexical sense is “a party [to a situation].” Rendering 'ish as “man” suggests that the imagery is primarily about (adult) maleness and (by connotation) fatherhood.

Unfortunately, that rendering is a poor explanation, for it distorts what the imagery would have meant to the text’s ancient audience. That image would not evoke either “a man” or “a father” in general, but rather specifically the head of a corporate household.

Here is the historical/societal backdrop that most translations fail to convey:

In ancient Israel, most men were not heads of corporate households. Rather, most men were subservient to a household head. That is, they were merely members of a household, in a subordinate role such as: offspring, extended family member, affiliate (na‘arim or gerim), indentured servant, or slave.

Yes, all of those subordinate men might well have carried a son with tender care, too. But that’s beside the point of this imagery. Most men did not have a patrimony to pass along, nor did they have heirs. Only householders did.

Primarily, when Deut. 1:31 implicitly likens God to a householder, what’s at stake is God’s legacy or “patrimony” on earth; and Israel is the “son” who is designated to inherit it (as in Exod. 4:22–23: “Israel is my first-born son”). That sense of protection and designation for the sake of passing along something valuable is lost when rendering 'ish as “man.”



I see what you mean. It's just that "householder" is *too* explicating of a translation within the guardrails I am respecting, to wit: "as literal as possible, as free as necessary."

I can see why *a man* as a translation might be misleading in the abstract, but in context, I think it comes across as little more than a somewhat unnatural stand-in for *a father.*

But really, as Wayne Leman would point out, it's necessary to field-test such claims, rather than take our own intuitions as sufficient.

David E. S. Stein

As I see it, John, what field-testing would reveal is predictable: contemporary English readers think that they know what “a man” means because it is an everyday term, so they wouldn’t question it. In contrast, they would dislike “a householder” because it is unusual: it sounds odd.

The problem is twofold:

1. The ancient society was grounded in patrimonial households, whereas ours is not. The “associated commonplaces” are missing for today’s nonscholarly readers.

2. English unfortunately lacks a good one-word equivalent to “head of a corporate (patrimonial) household.” A more precise gloss than “householder” is “paterfamilias.” But as you would say, that’s a non-starter, both stylistically and because it is so uncommon that few readers know what it means.

In short, translation alone cannot entirely clue readers in to what’s happening in this verse.

If we could presume a translation with footnotes, then a note on “as a man carries his son” could read:

More precisely, “as a paterfamilias carries his heir.”

At any rate, you stated in an earlier post that it is the responsibility of “Type A” translations to provide today’s readers with a sense of the ancient “associated commonplaces.” To the extent that you settle for “man” as a rendering in Deut. 1:31, are you abandoning that goal?



If it's true that "a man" in context comes across as little more than a somewhat unnatural stand-in for *a father,* the translation succeeds in conveying *something* of the associated commonplaces the ancient reader took for granted. Explanation in a note or a commentary might serve to elucidate further. But my note would be closer in spirit to that of Tigay cited earlier. For example:

"The Lord carried you, as a man carries his son." This refers to God’s care for Israel, and protection from danger. The same striking imagery of "carrying" is developed at length in Isa 46:3-4 and Ps 91:11-12. The tenderness of God's paternal care is underlined in Hos 11:1-4 with additional metaphors of physical intimacy. Exod 19:4 and Deut 32:11 compare God’s protection to the way an eagle carries its young. The compassion of a father was proverbial: see Ps. 103:13; Jer. 31:19; Job 29:16; 31:18.

Israel is God's son and every Israelite is God's son in the sense of being heir and possessor of the inheritance God bestows (the land), and of being obligated to heed God's instruction. See Isa 1:2-9. In this sense, male and female Israelites alike are are God's "sons." The king was understood to be YHWH's son in the same sense. See Ps 2.

[Note how I "cross-dress" "sons" in the comment. It is warranted, I think, by the underlying logic of the texts.]

David E. S. Stein

John, I find that I have not yet mentioned all of the significant data that impacts the rendering of this verse.

1. Contextual Semantic Domain
Let me amend something that I wrote earlier regarding ’ish, when I claimed that its lexical sense is “a party [to a situation].” Yes, that is indeed its primary sense. However, in Deut. 1:31 the situation (the background of patrimony and heirship) evokes our noun’s contextual semantic domain of representation: “one who acts on behalf of others”—and in particular, “...who represents a group as its authority.”

2. A Distinct Denotation
A relatively frequent case of “representing a group as its authority” occurs when the group in question is a corporate household—Israelite society’s basic unit of organization. Our word occurs conspicuously in the sense of the “representative” of such a group, in instances distributed widely across the Hebrew Bible. Thus it seems safe to assume that this meaning was already recognized as a distinct denotation. For analysis of one such instance, Gen. 30:43, see my JHS article, pp. 16-17:
For a roster of further examples, see:

3. Interlingual Semantic Assymetry
As Menachem Dagut pointed out (drawing upon an image from the linguist Georges Mounin), Hebrew “slices up reality” differently than English does. The single area of experience covered by a wide-ranging word (such as ’ish —DS) in Hebrew is distributed in English into a set of smaller pieces, each designated by its own separate noun (Hebrew-English Translation, 1978; p. 21).

The translator, says Dagut, must therefore interpret the precise semantic value of that word each time it occurs (p. 25). In some cases, the more specific English term can better convey a semantic feature that is implicit in the Hebrew term (p. 32). For in order to convey meaning, Hebrew relies more on context, whereas English prefers the more specific term (p. 33).

4. Rendering in English
On the above grounds, whenever our relational noun appears in the sense of “family patriarch, paterfamilias, householder,” it deserves some such English rendering, as distinct from the usual (albeit inaccurate) rendering as “man.” Although the contextual denotation is “representative,” such a rendering would be obscure in nearly all translations. In terms of the way that English “slices up reality,” the contextual connotation is “householder”; and that is why I adopted such a rendering.

Such instances are akin to the distinct situations where ’ish is, in most translations, rendered as “husband” and (even more often) ’ishah as “wife.”

5. Primarily a Relational Noun
Whatever the rendering in such cases, it ought to convey the party’s relationship or affiliation to his household. To the extent that a rendering of ’ish fails to do so, it has missed the basic thrust of the word.

6. An Old Relational Rendering
One interesting (albeit archaic) instance of a proper rendering is in the KJV in Prov 7:19:
‏ כִּי אֵין הָאִישׁ בְּבֵיתוֹ
For the goodman is not at home
where (judging from Merriam-Webster’s)
“goodman” = the head of a family or household

7. Case Study
Let me conclude with analysis of another case in which (like Gen. 30:43) there’s no question that the referent is male, namely, Reuel in Exod. 2:21:
‏ וַיּוֹאֶל מֹשֶׁה לָשֶׁבֶת אֶת־הָאִישׁ
...lashevet ’et ha-’ish
NJPS: “ stay with the man”

• The narrator could easily have referred to Reuel by name or via a pronoun or another noun (such as ha-kohen [the priest], as in v. 16; or ’avihen [their father], as in v. 18).
• Conspicuous by its presence, the word ’ish thus appears to bear some specific meaning.
• Being a relational noun, ’ish refers directly to one party while relating it to another entity.
• Here, the activity referred to by the predicate shevet ’et (“to dwell under the jurisdiction of”) is what establishes the entity that this ’ish is affiliated with: the household and its members.
• Together the syntax and the situation evoke the representational sense of ’ish: “one who acts on behalf of others”—and in particular, “representing a group as its authority.”
• That is, Reuel is the designated authority for his corporate household; in other words, a “family patriarch, paterfamilias, householder.”


Thanks, David. That clarifies things. Again, my sense is that the reader of the traditional translation:

as a man bears / carries his son

almost perforce takes "man" as a way of describing someone who has a "son." That would be a "father."

Does it matter whether the father in question is father of a nuclear family or an extended family unit (patriarch)? I don't see that the distinction is important in terms of capturing the sense of the whole.

But perhaps you are claiming that it is very important to bring out that a patriarchal (not nuclear) householder is evoked. If so, I'm fail to see it so far.

David E. S. Stein

You wrote: “perhaps you are claiming that it is very important to bring out that a patriarchal (not nuclear) householder is evoked”

RESPONSE: Yes. I say so for 2 reasons:

1. Most Israelites lived in what you call “patriarchal” households. Even for those who didn’t it was the archetypal social arrangement.

2. It is only the “patriarchal” householder who is involved in the trope of patrimony—that is, the legacy that a paterfamilias is responsible for passing on to a worthy heir.


I follow you on the importance of the distinction, truth be told, though I'm not sure the distinction can be made in short order in translation.

Unfortunately, there are many important things that are best left to explanation rather than translation.

I preach on this topic occasionally. My goal is not to mythologize the extended family, but to help people understand why the old adages people still try to live by, in which one's family is supposed to be the place where all one's needs are met, is totally unrealistic when "a family" is a nuclear family.

Just an example.

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