Sunday, April 06, 2008

masculine Israel and feminine Zion

In Hebrew it is clear that Israel is masculine and Zion is feminine. Both of these represent the people of God. It is to be regretted that this is usually obscured by translation. Here is John F. Schmitt on this topic,
    A study Bible should try to convey the ways of thought and expression that are characteristic of the original. So human an interest as gender seems unworthy of suppression. None of the newer translation remove from Israel his sonship in Ex. 4:22 yet they are often careless in other regards. (81) If masculine Israel can keep his gender there, why should not Zion be able to maintain her femininity elsewhere? The parallel between masculine Israel and feminine Zion is one that the Bible itself maintains. page 119 *
The author is referring to a lack of feminine pronouns and inflections. I want to explore how this works. Here is one contrasting example of gender treatment with regard to Zion and Jerusalem in Isaiah 37:22,
    this is the word that the Lord has spoken concerning him: She despises you, she scorns you - virgin daughter Zion; she tosses her head - behind your back, daughter Jerusalem. NRSV

    this is the word the LORD has spoken against him: "The Virgin Daughter of Zion despises and mocks you. The Daughter of Jerusalem tosses her head as you flee. NIV
The TNIV, HCSB, and many others concur with the NRSV that Zion is herself the daughter. The other translations, NIV, ESV, KJV and others infer that the virgin is the daughter of Zion and not Zion herself.

However, in the NRSV the gender of the pronoun is, in fact, suppressed in Isaiah 29:2,
    Ah, Ariel, Ariel, the city where David encamped! Add year to year; let the festivals run their round. Yet I will distress Ariel, and there shall be moaning and lamentation, and Jerusalem F81 shall be to me like an Ariel.
The TNIV, also a gender inclusive translation has,
    Woe to you, Ariel, Ariel,
    the city where David settled!
    Add year to year
    and let your cycle of festivals go on.

    2 Yet I will besiege Ariel;
    she will mourn and lament,
    she will be to me like an altar hearth. [a]

So far, with respect to keeping the gender of Zion clear, the TNIV outperforms the others. The KJV has "daughter of Zion" which, I think, obscures the gender of Zion herself.

But perhaps this is not fair, since in verse 7 we see,
    And the multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel, all that fight against her and her stronghold, and who distress her, shall be like a dream, a vision of the night. NRSV.
What is difficult to explain is that all pronouns in this passage from beginning to end refer to the city as feminine. What is especially missing in English is the capacity to say "you" in the feminine singular - "you" meaning "you, the one woman that God is speaking to." I am not sure that any translation can create the effect that the Hebrew does.

However, this does not mean that the people of God are always feminine in relation to a masculine God. Far from it. Israel, also the people of God, is masculine; and God has the feminine feelings of a mother for her child in regard to her people. The interplay of gender in the Hebrew scriptures is complex.

*Schmitt, John J. The city as woman in Isaiah 1-39 in Evans, Craig and Craig C. Broyles, Writing and Reading the Scroll of Isaiah: Studies of an Interpretive Tradition (2 vols., VTSup 70; FIOTL 1; Leiden: Brill, 1997).

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