In a recent post I addressed the views about the gender of God put forth by Rabbi Mark Sameth in an op-ed essay published in The New York Times titled “Is God Transgender?” In that essay, Rabbi Sameth wrote that the Hebrew Bible has “a highly elastic view of gender.”
Because of this “highly elastic view of gender,” Rabbi Sameth concluded that the God of the Bible was “a dual-gendered deity,” that is, a transgender God.
Rabbi Sameth offered two arguments to show that the Hebrew Bible presents “a highly elastic view of gender.” One argument was based on the name of God as found in the Hebrew Bible. According to Rabbi Sameth, the name of God as it appears in the Hebrew Bible indicates that God is “a dual-gendered deity” or a transgender. I have addressed this non-biblical view in my previous post, Is the God of the Bible a Transgender?
His second argument was based on Hebrew grammar and the unpointed text of the Hebrew Bible. The following is his argument for the open view of gender in the Hebrew Bible based on grammar:
In fact, the Hebrew Bible, when read in its original language, offers a highly elastic view of gender. And I do mean highly elastic: In Genesis 3:12, Eve is referred to as “he.” In Genesis 9:21, after the flood, Noah repairs to “her” tent. Genesis 24:16 refers to Rebecca as a “young man.” And Genesis 1:27 refers to Adam as “them.”
Surprising, I know. And there are many other, even more vivid examples: In Esther 2:7, Mordecai is pictured as nursing his niece Esther. In a similar way, in Isaiah 49:23, the future kings of Israel are prophesied to be “nursing kings.”
Today I want to address the issues Rabbi Sameth raises in this quote from his essay. However, in order to give a proper answer to the issues Rabbi Sameth raises, it will be necessary to use many words in Hebrew. I know that many people reading this post do not know Hebrew, but I will try to make the presentation as easy as possible so that every reader may follow my argument.
In addition, if the Hebrew words do not appear on your computer (most people who use Windows will have no problem with the Hebrew) or if the words make no sense as you read this post, I suggest that you download the Hebrew fonts and install them on your computer. Even if the Hebrew letters appear on your computer, I still recommend that you download the Hebrew fonts and install them on your computer. You can download the Hebrew fonts here.
The Work of the Masoretes
It is true that the name of Eve, the first woman named in the book of Genesis, appears in the text as a “he” but only in the appointed Hebrew text. Before I explain this anomaly, it is important to briefly discuss the transmission of the Hebrew text and the work of the Masoretes.
The earliest texts of the Hebrew Bible were written in old Hebrew and unpointed, that is, without any vowels. Below is a sample of old unpointed Hebrew used in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Where the blue arrow appears, that is the name of Yahweh in paleo-Hebrew as it appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In the synagogue the Torah scroll used by the rabbis is written with square Hebrew letters but they are unpointed, that is, without vowels. Below is a sample of the Hebrew used in the synagogue:
The word Masora means “tradition.” The scribes who developed the Masora are called Masoretes. The Masoretic text refers to the text of the Hebrew Bible today which is vocalized and accentuated following the Tiberian system of vocalizing the Hebrew text.
Since the Hebrew text was transmitted without vowels, the scribes had to know the pronunciation of the words and that knowledge was passed on to future generations of scribes. However, with the passing of time, it was necessary to develop a way to preserve the true reading and pronunciation of the text, thus the development of the Masora.
As Dotan wrote: “The term Masora, with its basic sense of ‘transmission, tradition’, refers mainly to the whole bulk of additions to the Hebrew text serving for transmitting the exact traditional reading and pronunciation of the text” (2010:58). These additions include the system of vowels and accents “and also all the marginal notes carrying textual information for the benefit of the scribe and the reader” (2010:58).
Dotan also points to a factor that it is important for readers of the Bible to know: “The notes of Masora draw the attention of the reader, sometimes of the scribe, to forms in the text concerning which there is some possibility of error that the reader or the scribe-copyist may make, that is: spelling with or without matres lectionis, certain vowels or accent signs” (2010:58-59).
Note two important issues mentioned by Dotan: “error that the reader or the scribe-copyist may make.” It is a fact that in writing the Hebrew text, scribes made mistakes that have been transmitted to the texts we use today to translate our Bibles into English. These mistakes do not affect the trustworthiness of the Bible. However, at times they make a difference in the ways we translate the Hebrew text.
The second issue that Dotan mentions is the use of matres lectionis. The original Hebrew text was written with consonants only. The vowels which are found in the Hebrew Bible were not present in the early manuscripts. Although the dates are uncertain, it is probable that the system of vowel-signs was introduced “about the seventh century of this era” (1959: 6).
Matres lectionis, a Latin expression meaning “mothers of reading,” refers to the use of certain Hebrew consonants to function in the text as vowels. The consonants used in the Hebrew Bible as vowels are the ה (he), the ו (waw), and the י (yod) (1959:7).
Another issue of importance in understanding why Rabbi Sameth said that Eve is called a “he” in the Hebrew text is the problem of the Kethib (“what is written”) and the Qere (“what is to be read”). Above I mentioned that scribes made errors in transcribing the text. When the Masoretes found an error in the text, they made a note on the margin of the text to indicate that a previous scribe had made a mistake.
As Weingreen wrote: “An interesting feature in the printed Hebrew Bibles is that corrections of recognized errors are made in the margin or footnote, while the uncorrected words are retained in the text. The refusal to change the text, even where obvious errors are recognized, is due to the extreme reverence felt for it and acts as a safeguard against tampering with it” (1959:22).
Another issue of importance is the problem of spelling of words. On this issue Dotan wrote: “First and foremost the Masora is an authority on spelling. Perhaps the majority of masoretic notes deals with orthography, mainly in matters of plene and defective spelling, and as such they are instrumental to the scribe.
I will deal with the issue of plene and defective spelling in my next post which explains the reason Eve is referred to as a “he” and Rebekah is referred to as a “young man.”
In order to show the problem with the wrong spelling of words, I offer a long quote from Weingreen (1959:22). The explanation may be confusing to you, but it is key to the proper understanding of the case of Eve and Rebekah.
An excellent illustration of this [Kethib and Qere] is afforded by the impossible word אֲנַוְּ (in Jeremiah xlii 6) which obviously cannot be read. We may imagine that what happened was somewhat as follows. The Personal Pronoun’ we’ is אֲנַחְנוּ in Classical Hebrew, but there is a shorter form אֲנוּ which does not occur in the Bible. The scribe of the text in Jeremiah began writing the word אֲנַחְנוּ, but, after having written the first two letters, left it in its shorter (unclassical) form אֲנוּ. Since the manuscript was written without vowel-signs the scribe wrote אנ instead of אנחנ. When, later, the vowel-signs were introduced, a scheme was devised for attracting the attention of the reader to the error and its correction, without altering the text. The consonants of the erroneous word (here אֲנוּ, i.e. אנ]) were retained but were given the vowels of the corrected form (here אֲנַחְנוּ, namely וּ ְֲַ ), thereby producing an impossible form (here אֲנַוְּ). The reader is thus forced to halt at the impossible word and to refer to the margin or footnote where the correction is given.
In this example above, the uncorrected word in the text is the Kethib (what is written in the text). The corrected reading in the margin of the Hebrew Bible is the Qere (what is to be read).
It is a scribal error such as this that helps us understand and explain the issue of grammar raised by Rabbi Sameth. Tomorrow I will discuss the problems Rabbi Sameth raised in his op-ed: Eve as “he,” Noah repairs to “her” tent, Rebecca as a “young man,” Adam as “them,” and Mordecai as a nurse.
Claude F. Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Other Posts on This Topic:
Dotan, Aron. “Masora’s Contribution to Biblical Studies—Revival of an Ancient Tool.” In Congress Volume Ljubljana 2007 . VTS 133. Leiden: Brill, 2010.
Weingreen, J. A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew. 2nd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.