In my previous post I discussed the Masoretes’ contribution to the transmission and preservation of the biblical text. That post was part of my attempt to explain Rabbi Mark Sameth’s statement about Eve and Rebekah.
In his effort to explain that the God of the Hebrew Bible was “a dual-gendered deity,” that is, a transgender God, Rabbi Sameth said that the Bible has “a highly elastic view of gender.” He said that the biblical text calls Eve a “he” and Rebekah a “young man.” In this post I intend to explain the reason Eve and Rebekah are portrayed as male in the Hebrew Bible. If you have not read my previous post, Eve as a “He,” I recommend that you do so before you read this post. My argument in this post is based on my previous post.
Eve as a “He”
In his defense of “a highly elastic view of gender” in the Hebrew Bible, Rabbi Sameth said that in Genesis 3:12, Eve is referred to as “he.” What he did not say is that Eve is called a “he” only in the unpointed text of the Hebrew Bible used in the synagogue. Let me explain why this makes a difference.
In Hebrew, the feminine singular personal pronoun “she” is הִיא (hî’). In the masculine singular personal pronoun “he” is הוּא (hû’). However, the feminine singular personal pronoun “she” appears 192 times in the Torah, the five books of Moses also known as the Pentateuch, with the corrupt form הִוא. The reason for this irregular form is because of a confusion with the masculine personal pronoun.
In his Hebrew grammar, Weingreen explains the problem: “Before the main vowel-sounds were represented by the vowel-letters, both הוּא and הִיא were written הא (1959:23). So, when the scribes added the vowels to the unpointed Hebrew “the consonants of the uncorrected form הוא (Kethibh) were given the vowel of the correction (Qere) הִיא, namely the vowel Ḥireq ( . ) and the impossible הִוא was produced” (1959:23).
The Masoretes corrected the mistake but the correction is not found on the margins of the printed editions of the Hebrew Bible because the error occurs 449 times in the Hebrew Bible. For this reason the unlisted Qere is called Qere Perpetuum, that is, a permanent Qere. However, there are 11 times where the word appears spelled correctly ( הִיא) in the Pentateuch (2010:61).
In the unpointed text of the scroll read in the synagogue, the Kethib, the uncorrected form הוא remains, but the reader of the text who should be familiar with the text, also should know that in the case of Genesis 3:12, the Qere, that is, the correct form ( הִיא) “she” should be read instead of the Kethib, that is, the uncorrected form ( הוא) “he.”
In the case of Genesis 3:12, Rabbi Sameth knows that although the unpointed text says “he,” the correct reading should be “she.” Thus, Eve is only called a “he” because the scribe made a mistake in adding a vowel to original text, and whoever calls Eve a “he” is also making a similar mistake.
Rebekah as a “Young Man”
A similar issue explains the reason the Hebrew Bible calls Rebekah a “young man.” This is only found in the unpointed text of the Torah used in the synagogue. The problem is not found in the English translations.
Genesis 24:16 reads: “The girl was very beautiful.” The Hebrew word for “young man” is נַעַר (na‘ar). The Hebrew word for “girl, maiden” is נַעֲרָה (na‘râ). In the printed Hebrew Bibles the word for girl is written as נַעֲרָ. This means that the final ה in the word is missing.
The Masoretes indicate that the word is written defectively. Many Hebrew words can be written defective or full. A simple explanation can be described as follow: full or plene writing uses matres lectionis; defective writing does not use matres lectionis (for a definition of matres lectionis read my previous post). Thus, the full word is נַעֲרָה and the defective word is נַעֲרָ. This is also a Qere Perpetuum.
On this Qere Perpetuum, Gesenius wrote: “נער for נערה is rather a survival of a system of orthography in which a final vowel was written defectively” (Gen-K 17 c).
In the printed editions of the Hebrew Bible the word for “girl” is printed as נַעֲרָ. However, because the scroll used in the synagogue does not have vowels, the text reads נער (“young man”) but the reader knows the Qere and thus, he also knows that the word in the text does not refer to a male, a “young man” but to a female, a “maiden.”
Adam as a “Them”
In English the word “man” can refer to an individual or when used collectively, the word can refer to mankind, that is, both men and women.
There are three Hebrew words for man. The first word is אִישׁ (’îsh). The word generally is used to refer to an individual: “Noah was a righteous man” (Genesis 6:9).
The second word is אֱנוֹשׁ (’enôsh). The basic meaning of ’enôsh is to refer to man in a general sense: “Blessed is the man who does this” (Isaiah 56:2 RSV). This word generally points to man as weak and mortal.
The third word for man is אָדָם (’ādām). This word carries a collective idea, the same idea present in English:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind (’ādām) in our image’” (Genesis 1:26 NRS). The NIV reads: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man (’ādām) in our image’” (Genesis 1:26 NIV), but the sense here is not of one individual as implied in the NIV translation, but that humanity in general as in the NRSV.
The same idea is present in Genesis 6:7: “So the LORD said, “I will wipe mankind (’ādām), whom I have created, from the face of the earth” (Genesis 6:7 NIV). The NIV is inconsistent in its translation. In Genesis 1:26 the NIV translates ’ādām as “man” but in Genesis 6:7 the NIV translates the same word ’ādām as “mankind.”
So, when the Bible treats Adam as “them,” the Bible is not referring to one individual, but to human beings in general, both to men and women. A classic example of this is found in the King James translation of Genesis 5:2: “Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.”
Noah Repairs to “Her” Tent
The grammar here is more complicated, but it is explained in detail in Gesenius § 7 c and § 91 e. Here is the simple explanation: in Genesis 9:21 the suffix for the 3rd masculine singular “his” has been written defectively. The Hebrew text reads: אָהֲלֺה. However, because the Torah scroll is unpointed, instead of reading 3rd masculine singular “his tent” as in the Masoretic text, the unpointed Hebrew of the scroll reads 3rd feminine singular “her tent.” The Qere clearly tells that it is “his tent” and not “her tent.” The same problem appears also in Genesis 12:8, 13:3, and 35:21. The same problem with the word “tent” in Genesis 9:21 appears also with other Hebrew words in other texts of the Hebrew Bible.
Mordecai as a Nurse
Rabbi Sameth exaggerated a little bit in his interpretation when he wrote that that “Mordecai is pictured as nursing his niece Esther.” The Hebrew word in Esther 2:7 is used as a metaphor for nurturing, sustaining, or supporting.
The word in Esther 2:7 comes from a Hebrew word that means “to confirm, support, uphold.” The word is generally used to refer to a person who takes care of children. The word is used in 2 Kings 10:1 and the word is translated as “guardian”: “Now Ahab had seventy sons in Samaria. So Jehu wrote letters and sent them to Samaria, to the rulers of Jezreel, to the elders, and to the guardians of the sons of Ahab.”
In Numbers 11:12 the word is translated as a nurse: “Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors?” (Numbers 11:12).
Where Rabbi Sameth says that “Mordecai is pictured as nursing his niece Esther,” the Jewish Bible, the Tanak, translates the same verse (Esther 2:7) as follows: “He was foster father to Hadassah — that is, Esther — his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother” (Esther 2:7 TNK).
Rabbi Sameth’s views that the Hebrew Bible has “a highly elastic view of gender” should be rejected. I am sure that Rabbi Sameth knows the difference between the Kethib and the Qere and he also knows the correct meaning and pronunciation of these words. I am quite sure that he reinterpreted these words in order to make his point. My concern is that using an incorrect exegesis to prove a point leads the interpreter to wrong conclusions and misleads people who do not know Hebrew or who never heard of the Masoretes.
Rabbi Sameth’s view that God was “a dual-gendered deity,” that is, a transgender God, is based on an incorrect exegesis of the Hebrew text.
Emeritus 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.
Gesenius, Wilhelm, Emil Kautzsch, and Arthur Ernest Cowley. Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1966.
Weingreen, J. A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew. 2nd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.