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A month or so ago I received notice that my paper on the Biblical idiom "pisser against the wall" had been accepted for publication by a major journal subject to my addressing a few minor very concerns. In the cover letter, the editor reminded me of the journal's policy of gender neutrality and asked that where possible I modify my language in an effort to fulfill that policy more completely. I made a few changes in language to accommodate her request but I found it hard to make my translation of one Akkadian text gender natural: "If his urine flows in front of (his) penis (onto) a wall of a street, he will h[ave] sons." But then, gender and sexual neutrality are not exactly the same things.



Congratulations, you pisser!

It's a sad commentary on the priorities of a discipline when the one thing people care about enough to "correct" concerns "gender-neutral" - often "gender-unnatural" language.

Who cares about a clear and interesting thesis, proper documentation, engagement with scholarship at odds with one's own, and lucid prose? It reminds me of how often I got papers back in college with no engagement whatsoever with the Sache of what I wrote. Just a few notes about commas and capitalization.

David E. S. Stein

1. Let’s assume for the time being that some of the Bible’s composite idioms (made up of ’ish plus another term) might connote only males, by convention, without further recourse to context. That is, the term’s force is male even when the term is used to point to a category of persons (rather than to a particular individual).

I wonder how we today would go about determining which Hebrew collocations with ’ish were in ancient times conventionally construed as male.

And when in a given case robust evidence is lacking for such a male denotation, wouldn’t it be prudent to construe the construct chain according to each word’s usual lexical sense?

That is, let the referent’s maleness be implied—apparent as a connotation. For example, a translator could consistently employ a calque such as “party to war” and still preserve your desired intertextual concord of terminology.

More to come . . .

David E. S. Stein

2. Is it true that you have argued against my assumption of “no default male gendering” on the grounds that my rendering of certain passages is awkward. If so, I don’t see how that follows.

My assumption about the meaning in Hebrew could very well be correct, even if my translation is awkward. (Conversely, a smooth rendering might be inaccurate.)

I would say that the relative awkwardness derives from other reasons. Namely, that our translation team opted not to employ “he/him/his” in a gender-neutral sense. That constraint in English has nothing to do with how we construed the Hebrew. Also, while working our way through NJPS Exodus we were still relatively tentative in our adaptation approach.

Today I might try something like this:

Ex 21:3: One who came single shall leave single. [A male slave] who has a wife: his wife shall leave with him.

My first draft of such laws actually included a lot of renderings as if they were “foregrounding a particular possibility.” (Yes, those renderings were less awkward!) But upon reflection I concluded that the Hebrew text did not justify such a construal.

That is, the wording itself was non-specific as to referents’ gender. Further, I presumed that legal materials would have been construed as broadly as possible, precisely because of genre conventions. Readers turn to the law looking first for broad applicability, not for exceptions. They narrow their focus to qualification and special considerations only where necessary to preserve a sense of equity.

Still more to come . . .

David E. S. Stein

3. As you practice what you call the pragmatics of provisory interpretation, keep in mind that biblical Hebrew legal idiom is known to throw curve balls. It often intrinsically shifts to another subject or sub-case without an obvious change in the surface level of the wording.

For example, in Exodus 21:29 we are told that the animal’s owner is to be executed; yet in the very next verse, that owner is still alive:

‏ וְאִם שׁוֹר נַגָּח הוּא מִתְּמֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם
וְהוּעַד בִּבְעָלָיו וְלֹא יִשְׁמְרֶנּוּ
וְהֵמִית אִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה
הַשּׁוֹר יִסָּקֵל וְגַם־בְּעָלָיו יוּמָת׃ ‎
‏ אִם־כֹּפֶר יוּשַׁת עָלָיו
וְנָתַן פִּדְיֹן נַפְשׁוֹ
כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־יוּשַׁת עָלָיו׃

The syntax that separates those two sub-cases is not materially different from what separates the generic case from the male case in 21:2–3, which you quoted above. Thus I do not see any grammatical basis for your apparent syllogism:

A. The end of verse 3 clearly refers to a male slave, and it uses masculine pronouns and inflections.

B. Verse 2 and the start of verse 3 use masculine pronouns and inflections.

C. Verse 2 and the start of verse 3 must also refer to a male slave.



Here are a few thoughts that come to mind. A calque like "party to war," if it is fair to call that a calque, isn't going anywhere for other reasons. It's lame from a stylistic point of view.

The fact is, a translation has to pass muster on several fronts. Furthermore, if concordance across discrete texts within a larger whole is a priority, options are further limited.

It's true that robust evidence of the kind I would want is lacking for my hypothesis, that I must argue by analogy; but that applies to all hypotheses in this area, including yours.

I remain inclined to think that in legal materials, אִישׁ foregrounds a particular possibility, in the sense that an adult male referent (further defined in context) is thereby the provisional referent in the mind of the hearer or listener, subject to possible further clarification.

You are right, in any case, that my proposal - which equals your pre-understanding once upon a time - lacks a grammatical basis. Perhaps, in fact, it is too much influenced by Akkadian law ringing in the ears (shumma awilum awilam iduk "if a man kills a man").

The question is whether, in a legal context, terms like אִישׁ predisposed in the direction of a pre-understanding (male adult), or not. I think they did.

That's another way of saying that I differ with you about genre conventions. It is not the case, it seems to me, that ANE law or Israelite law in particular aimed to state law in as broad terms as possible.

Instead, it is case law full of "typical case" specifics that must be, in separata sede (in another time and place), generalized.

For the rest, I agree with you that awkwardness and accuracy are two distinct parameters by which a translation is normally evaluated.

But I have studied enough linguistics to insist on the fact that meaning, and therefore accuracy, is located at the discourse level, not the word-level.

That consideration stands in tension with another goal, that of translating word-for-word as far as possible, and with another, that of translating with relatively traditional equivalents unless there are strong reasons for doing otherwise.

Such disparate goals and considerations establish "a box" in which a translation must then fit. In one or more ways, of course, all translators box their translation in.

David E. S. Stein

Thank you, John; your position is becoming clearer to me.

You wrote: The question is whether, in a legal context, terms like אִישׁ predisposed in the direction of a pre-understanding (male adult), or not.

Okay, so on what basis can we decide which hypothesis to favor?

You hint that the precedent of Akkadian law formulations might argue for a foregrounding of particular (male) possibility. Yes, any case law is particular in its situational details, but the wording as it refers to participants is not necessarily so.

It seems to me that the key Akkadian term awilum/amilu can be profitably construed as a relational noun, just like ’ish. That is, in legal settings both of these cognate terms often have the sense of “a party [to the situation or proceedings] who is not otherwise constrained by social status such as slavery.” (The English word “man” does not convey relationship in most such contexts, and therefore it is a misleading rendering.) At least, that is what I take away from a perusal of the CAD entry for amilu: ; article begins on p. 68 of the PDF, p. 48 of CAD itself; see esp. 3.b.2', CAD p. 56. Of course this is an initial speculation and needs to be tested by someone with a more solid knowledge of Akkadian than I have.

At any rate, our alternative hypothesis (that the Hebrew wording’s default in the hearer’s mind is as non-specific in terms of the referent’s gender) has support directly from the Hebrew Bible itself. I mean the legal statements that make no sense in their narrative context unless they are read as I suggest. That is, readers are supposed to presume that when grammatically masculine substantives point to a category of persons, they have women in view by default. These include Gen. 23:6-7, 8, 11, 13, 15; Exod. 25:3; 35:5; Jud. 11:30-31; and Jer. 34:14. (As you know, I discussed these instances in both the preface to The Contemporary Torah and in “The Grammar of Social Gender in Biblical Hebrew,”; but I am not sure that you have grasped the implications with regard to the noun ’ish.)

Granted that these are not case laws per se, yet like case laws each one involves a pronouncement with serious consequences and specific conditions for proper fulfillment. Note that Exod. 25:3 employs the noun ’ish.

Now add to this the non-legal instances of ’ish (Gen. 17:13; 2 Sam. 6:19; 1 Chron. 16:3) that clearly show that (unlike zakhar, “male”) it is not an intrinsically male term.

Then what reason is there to justify treating ’ish differently in case laws from everywhere else, and differently from (seemingly) every other masculine noun in the Bible? The weight of biblical grammatical evidence seems to be against such a reading. If logical parsimony is a valued criterion, then my conjecture would seem to stand on more solid ground than yours.



Very interesting conversation. I hope an Assyriologist is listening in, such that the topics touched on here are taken up in that context in relation to law and other genres in Akkadian. Perhaps they have been already.

First of all, I want to emphasize the area of agreement we share, even though perhaps that puts the two of us in a minority position in the field.

In particular, we agree that when the diction of a text pulls very strongly in the direction of a foregrounding of particular (male-gendered, and often further specified) possibility, it is still the case that the foregrounding did not - at least, this is my hypothesis and yours - establish an absolute limit, such that an *analogical reading* that applied the text to oneself even if one did not fit the category foregrounded, was a reading compatible with shared genre conventions.

Examples of foregrounded addressees: the paterfamilias in the Ten Words viewed as a unit; the male son addressed in Proverbs 1 and following.

I think you show the viability of analogical readings by pointing out examples in which the focus is widened without warning in specific instances. The analogical reading the text by convention allows remains below the surface most of the time, but nonetheless comes to the surface here and there in relatively random fashion.

I do struggle a bit with the notion of ish as an intrinsically gender-neutral term. For example, if I ask myself, are ish and isha intrinsically gendered terms, my answer is: yes. That is, abstracted from any context beyond an ish-isha collocation, the terms are intrinsically gendered.

On the other hand, if I ask myself, is ish gender-free in some usages, my answer is: yes. (Soft or hard) opposition with (overt or covert) isha is not always present. Far from it.

The question then is, in legal material like Ex 21:1-23:19, are ish and isha collocated such that the terms are intrinsically gendered? I think they are, though it is *also* true that ish is gender-ambivalent in a sense that isha is not, even if ish predisposes in one direction. Predisposition is not the same thing as eliminating a gender-neutral construal - something that the use of isha does; in this sense, ish and isha are asymmetric.

If ish did not predispose to a particular gendered reading, it would have been sufficient to use it whenever, for quite separate reasons, a "doubt factor" was in play in terms of applicability of a given case law.

But ish was not sufficient to remove doubt, which suggests that it is not a gender-neutral term in the strict sense, or the strictest sense imaginable.

Nor do I think that zakar would have been used in case law, instead of ish, if the foregrounding of the particular possibility in question (adult male, otherwise unspecified) were thought important. It seems to me that the use of zakar and neqevah has a distribution of its own which make the terms unfit for use in the contexts (or many of them) under consideration.

For the rest, I am wary of applying the law of parsimony to language. Language seems to delight in curious situations in which some things are made redundantly clear, and some things are even made redundantly ambiguous. Parsimony seems a rule hardly ever followed, in languages that inflect for gender first of all.

David E. S. Stein

Hmm. Regarding the law of parsimony, I wonder whether you have misplaced its point of application. The issue should not be whether language itself is parsimonious but whether our explanatory hypotheses are.

The explanation that can account for the linguistic data with the fewest twists and turns is supposed to be preferable, from a scientific point of view. Conversely, we are supposed to look beyond a straightforward explanation only where it is insufficient to account for the data.

David E. S. Stein

Regarding what you wrote:
Examples of foregrounded addressees: the paterfamilias in the Ten Words viewed as a unit

That statement seems at odds with the conclusion that you came to previously, when you reviewed my analysis of that passage:


Hi David,

Re: the law of parsimony. My point is: if the situation on the ground is complex such that a statement that "ish" is intrinsically this or intrinsically that obscures rather than clarifies that complexity, then it may be best to do without "intrinsic" hypotheses, per the law of parsimony.

But that probably goes too far. So we are back to exploring various hypotheses which seek to understand the variety of ways a highly versatile word like "ish" is used.

Re: my previous discussion of the Ten Words. I don't see how my current comments are in contradiction with my comments then. Then and now, I second you on the need to assume *a reading strategy* such that language tailored for a foregrounded audience (the paterfamilias, clearest in the case of the last commandment) would be adjusted by others so as to apply to them. I disagree with those who say that, given the limited scope of the language itself, a generalizing reading strategy is inappropriate. Law in general and case law in particular is received, it seems to me, by genre convention, as capable and in need of generalization. The ability to do so well is what distinguishes an excellent interpreter of the law from a poor one.

David E. S. Stein

John, hello again!
Another way to assess the (referential gender) behavior of masculine nouns in legal settings may be via looking at animals rather than human beings. Let’s try out the Type A approach with respect to case-law references to animals.

Consider the word seh (“small livestock beast,” as glossed in HALOT), which is grammatically masculine. In itself it is not referentially male, as is demonstrated, for example, by the qualifying adjective in Exod. 12:5 (‏שֶׂה תָמִים זָכָר) seh thamim zakhar “an unblemished male seh.”

Now consider Exod. 21:37 (marked as 22:1 in many English editions)—
‏ כִּי יִגְנֹב־אִישׁ שׁוֹר אוֹ־שֶׂה וּטְבָחוֹ אוֹ מְכָרוו
ki yignov ’ish shor ’o seh
u-tvaho ’o m’kharo

“When a party steals an ox or a sheep,
and slaughters it or sells it...”

I would agree that “foregrounding of particular possibility” has occurred in the mention of certain animal species. Everyone is supposed to understand that these are the kind of animals most likely to be stolen.

Now, here the masculine singular object suffix of the latter two verbs refers back to shor ’o seh (“ox or sheep”). The reference is to a category: any such animal that satisfies the conditions of the law. So what does it mean that the word seh governs masculine pronouns?
• Does it mean that it’s a crime to steal only a male beast?
• Does it mean that a male animal is being used as a typical (or particular) case?

These are possible explanations. And they cannot be disproven, to wit:

A possible refutation:
A female beast was much more economically valuable than a male; therefore the typical case of theft ought to be a female beast, not a male one.

Possible reply to that refutation:
Sometimes a law is intentionally stated in terms of the “atypical case.” That is, if it applies to a (less valuable) male beast, then “all the more so” it must apply to a (more valuable) female!

(Presumably such reasoning is what justifies rendering in English in the singular, given that the Hebrew could be taken as a collective and and thus cover the theft of more than one animal. The translator has opted to render in terms of the atypical case of single-animal theft, and then we readers think to ourselves “all the more so for multiple animals.”)

Again, what does it mean that the word seh governs masculine pronouns? A more parsimonious explanation is that (as in all other noun references to a category) the masculine wording is a matter of grammatical gender concord only. It is not a matter of referential gender, except to say “not solely female.”

Perhaps that is why KJV/Alter/ESV all render the suffixed pronouns via the sex-neutral term “it”:
If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it (KJV)

My question to you is:
Are you saying that an ideal Type A gender-sensitive translation should render this pronoun as “him”?

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  • Midrash, etc.
    A fine Hebrew-to-English blog on Midrash, by Carl Kinbar, Director of the New School for Jewish Studies and a facultm member at MJTI School of Jewish Studies.
  • Phil Lembo what I'm thinking
    a recovering lawyer, now in IT, with a passion for a faith worth living
  • Roses and Razorwire
    a top-notch Levantine archaeology blog, by Owen Chesnut, a doctoral student at Andrews University (MI)
  • Scripture & Theology
    a communal weblog dedicated to the intersection of biblical interpretation and the articulation of church doctrine, by Daniel Driver, Phil Sumpter, and others
  • Scripture Zealot
    by Jeff Contrast
  • Serving the Word
    incisive comment on the Hebrew Bible and related ancient matters, with special attention to problems of philology and linguistic anthropology, by Seth L. Sanders, Assistant Professor in the Religion Department of Trinity College, Hartford, CT
  • Singing in the Reign
    NT blog by Michael Barber (JP University) and Brad Pitre (Our Lady Holy Cross)
  • Stay Curious
    excellent comment on Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language topics, by Karyn Traphagen, graduate, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia PA (archive)
  • Sufficiency
    A personal take on the faith delivered to the saints, by Bob MacDonald, whose parallel blog on the Psalms in Hebrew is a colorful and innovative experiment
  • The Sundry Times
    Gary Zimmerli's place, with comment on Bible translations and church renewal
  • Sunestauromai: living the crucified life
    by a scholar-pastor based in the Grand Canyon National Park
  • ta biblia
    blog dedicated to the New Testament and the history of Christian origins, by Giovanni Bazzana
  • Targuman
    by Christian Brady, targum specialist extraordinaire, and dean of Schreyer Honors College, Penn State University
  • Targuman
    on biblical and rabbinic literature, Christian theology, gadgetry, photography, and the odd comic, by Christian Brady, associate professor of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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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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