8 responses to “Was Gender Usage in the English Language Shaped by the Old Testament in Hebrew?

  1. RD

    I think there is a patriarchy in almost every ancient text (based largely on patriarchal cultures that dominated the ancient world). Thus, men were the focus and it makes sense that God be described as a man and that all people be described as “mankind.” Linguistically it carried over to modern literature for a host of reasons, not least being linguistic simplicity. It’s much easier to write “he” with the near universal understanding that the designation also includes females. Recent usages such as “he/she” just don’t seem to flow, to me. But, perhaps that’s because I’m of the old school and just can’t adjust.🙂

    In writing an article where scripture is referenced, I don’t see the problem in defining the Hebrew adam (little “a”) which means, essentially, “mankind”, as “men and women”. In other words, if one were to reference Gen 2:5 in a paper I think it is perfectly acceptable to quote the verse “…The Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there were no men or women on the earth to work the ground.” I also don’t have a problem with alternating the terms “she” and “he” when speaking generically of mankind (I like this much better than using “he/she”).

    In Gen 5:1-2 the text is also using the Hebrew adam when the text reads that God created “man”. It’s in the next verse, Gen 5:3, that adam (mankind) becomes Adam (the individual).

  2. Howie Petts

    Jim – just wondering where you get your Hebrew Bible readings from? Ta…

  3. Sue

    I would like to respond to some of your points. First, I agree overall that the Tyndale Bible is influential. However, there are other points to consider.

    First, adam in Hebrew is translated as “women” in the Tyndale translation in Numbers 31:40. In most other translations adam is translated as “persons.” It can refer to a group of women only.

    Second, “man” actually meant “human beings” in middle English, and was an equivalent of anthropos, mensch and homo.

    In each case, these words meant generic human beings, often males but not always. There was another word for males male citizens (excluding slaves) , aner, Mann, vir. In middle English, there was an equivalent wer. But this died out, so Engish entered a new stage of using “man” for both human beings and men only.

    Adan in Hebrew can refer to

    – all women
    – men and women
    – in the singular, a man

    It can’t refer in the plural to a group of males, that I know of. It cannot actually mean “men” as we usually use the term today.

    Therefore, adam does not map well onto “man/men” in English, nor does the generic masculine pronoun map well from Greek and Hebrew into English.

  4. Sue

    Next, I would like to respond to these points of Denny Burk,

    Usually, a linguistic justification goes something like this. “We can’t use generic masculines because language has changed, and we don’t want to confuse readers. Modern readers are likely to mistake generic “he” as a signifying only males. Therefore, we cannot use it.”

    This justification at least has the merit of being linguistic, though I think it is profoundly wrong.

    My research indicates to me that the following men mistook the generic “he” pronoun in 1 Tim. 5:8 for a reference to males only – Dennis Rainey, Russell Moore, Robert Sagers, Stuart Scott, John McArthur and Owen Strachan. It appears not only readers of the Bible are confused but also expounders of the Bible are confused.

    I think feminists were right to argue that patriarchy is embedded in language (though I think they were wrong to attempt an artificial expunging of the usage). Masculine terms are routinely used in a generic sense in scores of languages, and I think the usage probably stems from a patriarchal impulse that originally informed the language. It’s ish then a derivative ishah. It’s man then a derivative womanor (womb-man).

    To be parallel to Hebrew, we would need to see adam and adama as a parallel to “man” and “woman”. However, adam and adama, are parallel to “human” and “humus”, as Robert Alter translates them, in order to perserve the literalness of the Hebrew. Alter is commited to translating literally in order to reveal the meaning and the form of Hebrew, its poetry and rhythm.

    I wouldn’t press any deep anthropological points as if men are therefore the “default” sex. But I do think that the name and its derivative reflects a patriarchal sense. That adam would stand for both man and woman is not surprising in this kind of a linguistic world. But it’s not just Hebrew. The phenomenon occurs in numerous languages.

    Hebrew has four words which English translates as “man” and Greek, German and Latin have two words. English is much better able to indicate the Hebrew pattern if we use “human being” for adam, and “man” for ish. It is not a perfect match, but closer than simply using “man” for four distinct Hebrew words.

  5. Sue

    It can’t refer in the plural to a group of males, that I know of. It cannot actually mean “men” as we usually use the term today.

    I am sure that adam could refer to a group of men, in the sense that men are human. I just can’t think of an example right now where adam refers to a group of humans that are exclusively male.

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