Sunday, July 18, 2010

Fathers or Ancestors: Who do you sleep with?

The burial place of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah, is called in English, "The Cave of the Patriarchs" but in Hebrew it is the "Cave of Machpelah." According to Genesis, these six people were laid in the grave in this order; Sarah, Abraham, Isaac and Rebekah, Leah, and Jacob. There is no male priority to this list.

Sometimes English gender treatment in translating from Greek or Hebrew brings about fundamental misunderstandings. So it is with the word "partriarchs." We understand in English that this word means "father-ruler" or "male-ruler."

But, in fact, the term "patriarchs" is often used as a translation for a term referring to our "ancestors" of both genders, those from whom we are descended. And it refers to both fathers and mothers. By translating this concept with the word "patriarchs" or "fathers" we are communicating a predominance of maleness, when, in fact, there was none in the original.

Here is Jacob, asking to be buried with his "fathers." Does this translation "fathers" make any sense in this passage, or should we think rather of the term which is used as a synonym, "my people?"
    All these are the twelve tribes of Israel. This is what their father said to them as he blessed them, blessing each with the blessing suitable to him. 29Then he commanded them and said to them, "I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, 30in the cave that is in the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place. 31 There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife. There they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah— 32the field and the cave that is in it were bought from the Hittites." 33When Jacob finished commanding his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed and breathed his last and was gathered to his people. Gen. 49 ESV
Who did Jacob want to rest with in death? His grandparents, his parents, and his wife. Abraham had bought the field to bury Sarah, and then later he was buried beside her. Each man with his wife. Because perhaps a man wants to rest with his wife, or his mother. In fact, this speaks to us of the integral unit of the family, not of the father representing the mother; but truly, the father wishing to be buried with his wife.

There is a family intimacy to this narrative which is completely belied by the term "patriarchs." Patriarchy, in English, is understood to mean that the father rules the children and the wife. The wife is under the rule of the husband. However, the "patriarchs" of the Hebrew Bible are simply the "parents", the ancestors, who, as couples, as mother and father, engender their children as a blessing from God, and who teach their children the Torah.

But you might ask me whether or not the Herbrew really says "fathers." It does, and it does not. In Hebrew, as in Greek, the common word for "parents" is the plural of the word for "father." But it is clear from its constant use for parents of both genders that this is its meaning - parents. In the English of today, the word "fathers" cannot refer to parents of both genders.

Here is an example. In contemporary Hebrew, the term for a seniors home is beit avot. There is no attempt to segregate the seniors into "men's homes" and "women's homes". But this is the impression you might get if this term was translated as "house of fathers." It would be bizarre and meaningless. The phrase refers to "parents" - a shelter or home for parents, or elderly people of both sexes.

In fact, much of the time the word avot in Hebrew ought to have a gender inclusive translation in order to carry the meaning over from the Hebrew.

The TNIV uses "fathers" in the passage above, but the NRSV uses "ancestors" and this, in my opinion, is the best choice, the one that communicates the meaning of the original Hebrew the best.


Kristen said...

The TNIV obviously made a mistake here-- but I can't help thinking they could have avoided a lot of the controversy by emphasizing, not "gender inclusiveness," but "gender accuracy" as the goal of their translation. The problem with traditional translation is clearly that the English language has changed so that the male gender is no longer inclusive-- so to be gender-accurate, the translations should now include gender-inclusiveness wherever it exists in the original, by using whatever form in English is gender-inclusive. But by promoting their translation as "gender inclusive" rather than "gender accurate," the TNIV gave people the impression that it was fudging the meaning of the original just to be politically correct.

You have made a very clear case why "fathers" or "patriarchs" in the passage you're citing, Suzanne, should be rendered "ancestors" or something similar. I only wish that political games between rival factions could be taken out of the translation equation, so that the text could speak for itself.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

I don't actually know what the TNIV calls itself. I doubt that it would matter.

J. K. Gayle said...

The NRSV translators have "father" in Gen 49 at verses 2, 4, 8, 25, 26, and 28. Would they have done better to translate the Hebrew Ab (אָב) consistently as "ancestor" or more gender inclusive there as "parent"?

Rod said...

@JK Gayle

Good point! the NRSV is inconsistent with its gender inclusivity.

@Suzanne: The NRSV is always the best choice. ;)

NicodemusLegend said...

but I can't help thinking (the TNIV) could have avoided a lot of the controversy by emphasizing, not"gender inclusiveness," but "gender accuracy" as the goal of their translation.

Actually, this is exactly what they did. At some length. (They also avoid the term "gender neutral") It was the opponents of the TNIV that insisted on using the word "inclusiveness" instead of "accuracy."

Kristen said...

Thanks for that information, Nicodemus. In the place I was at the time the TNIV came out, apparently all I heard about it was what its opponents were saying. Interesting.