Monday, August 24, 2009

Language and the gender of God

This is what I have been thinking, roughly speaking, about language and the gender of God. It sounds very different in different languages.
    English - God/goddess
    French - Dieu/déesse
    German - Gott/Göttin
In these languages where the vocabulary developed, to a greater or lesser extent, within Christianity, the words have a marked contrast. But here is Latin,
    Latin - deus/dea
And, in fact, there was a common saying, (I just discovered it though) sive deus sive dea, 'whether god or goddess." It was a way of addressing a god, if you didn't know which god it was. Actually, these two only differ by the grammatical ending.

And in Greek,
    ὁ θεός/ἡ θεός (also ἡ θεά))
"god and ""goddess" are the same word with a different article, most of the time. However, the nomina sacra developed fairly early within Christianity and that meant that the name of God, ΘΣ, became graphically distinct from the word for "god." But this had no effect on pronunciation.

In Hebrew the word for God does not have two contrasting gendered forms. Elohim, אלהים, is a masculine plural form possibly of a word eloah, which has feminine grammatical gender in the singular. David Stein makes this comment in footnote 48 of On Beyond Gender,
    The term ’elohim does not require that its referent be male. As a common-gender (“epicene”) noun, it can refer to either a male or a female deity. In this passage it is a status term; like “pharaoh,” that status can be taken by either a man or a woman. As such, the gender inflections of verbs and adjectives would be expected to follow the semantic orientation (social gender) of the occupant.
In this article, David Stein makes several points regarding the gender of God. I highly recommend this as recent scholarly work on the topic. First, he challenges our understanding of a personal God. He writes,
    Stephen A. Geller characterizes biblical theology in terms of three dominant traditions, and he succinctly summarizes their views of God: “In each one of them, one aspect of the deity predominates.The God of the covenant tradition is a personality; of the priestly tradition, a force; and of the wisdom tradition, a principle."
Then he takes on the question which constantly prods me to write. How is gender rendered in other languages, and what does this say about universal truths about God.
    Linguistic considerations, it appears, further helped some of the ancients to view deity regularly through a non-gendered lens. In contrast with Hebrew and other Semitic tongues, a few Near Eastern languages did not differentiate personal nouns by grammatical gender; the mythic poetry, epics and inscriptions written in those languages speak about male and female deities without linguistic gender distinction.35 During the last two millennia bce, male elites among native speakers of Semitic tongues often learned a non-gendered language (Sumerian, Hittite or Luwian), because it enjoyed international scope and literary standing.36 Given the ancients’ concept of the inherent reality of words, this multilingualism had cognitive consequences: The reader became used to viewing deities without grammatical gender cues; and in this view their social gender would not have been part of their nature, for, as Assyriologist and translator Stephanie Dalley has pointed out, “the change in noun categories would mirror a change in the objects which these nouns represented.
Update: I haven't been very clear with this, but the Greek word
θεός and the Hebrew word Elohim, אלהים both have the lexical meanings of "God, god/goddess." In Greek and Hebrew the word for God does not primarily contrast with a feminine word for goddess. The one word can function for any god, either masculine or feminine. Unfortunately one cannot use the English word "goddess" and still remain within orthodox Christianity.

However, this situation does not occur Greek and Hebrew. In these languages one can talk of "God" who is both masculine and feminine, or neither masculine nor feminine. It works in Greek and Hebrew to do this. We are constrained in English, French and German.


Peter Kirk said...

Hebrew eloah is not grammatically feminine. Here -ah is not the feminine suffix, which has a silent h, but a masculine noun with a pronounced h, indicated in Hebrew script by a dot known as mappiq. But this grammatical gender is not really significant.

In 1 Kings 11:5,23 it is the (masculine) plural elohim which is used of the goddess Ashtoreth.

J. K. Gayle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J. K. Gayle said...

important post!

And in Greek,

ὁ θεός/ἡ θεός (also ἡ θεά))

"god and ""goddess" are the same word with a different article, most of the time.

Here's some evidence from Homer's Illiad (530-33), with Samuel Butler's and then Richmond Lattimore's translations following (and my line breaks with / and my bold font):

ὃ δὲ Κύπριν ἐπῴχετο νηλέϊ χαλκῷ / γινώσκων ὅτ' ἄναλκις ἔην θεός, οὐδὲ θεάων / τάων αἵ τ' ἀνδρῶν πόλεμον κάτα κοιρανέουσιν, / οὔτ' ἄρ' Ἀθηναίη οὔτε πτολίπορθος Ἐνυώ.

He the while had gone in pursuit of Cypris with his pitiless bronze, / discerning that she was a weakling goddess, and not one of those that [???] / lord it in the battle of warriors, / --no Athene she, nor Enyo, sacker of cities.

and he swung the pitiless bronze at the lady of Kypros, / knowing her for a god without warcraft, not of those who, goddesses, / range in order the ranks of men in the fighting, / not Athene and not Enyo, sacker of cities.

θεός = θεάων
goddess = [???]
a god = goddesses

In the Greek, "she" (i.e., "the lady") is a "god" - though she's different from the other "gods" who are "goddesses" because she's ἄν-αλκις (i.e. "without warcraft" or "a weakling" or without strength). The difference is not marked here in gender but in might or in pacifism.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thank you, Peter. I am happy to report that I did not get that information from David Stein's article.

I can see that this has been much debated in the past but perhaps the feminine has now been laid to rest.

I recommend Stein's article for his argument that Elohim is not envisioned with social gender in the scripture.