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“Hear the word of the LORD, O nations,
    and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him,
    and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.’

—Jeremiah 31:10 (ESV)

Why is the masculine pronoun "him" used to describe Israel in this passage? Why doesn't Jeremiah refer to the people of Israel with the plural pronoun "them"?

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Hi Kristine! It sounds like you have a great question, but because it's so terse, I can't tell. Can I persuade you elaborate a bit more about why the masculine pronouns are unexpected to you in this particular passage? It also helps to provide a quotation so that we all are on the same page and don't need to look it up. Thanks and welcome to the site. –  Jon Ericson Sep 24 '12 at 20:01
    
It looks like the NJPS translation uses "them". It might be a translation question... @GoneQuiet: I do see "Israel" in the English translations I've checked. Is the word not in Hebrew? –  Jon Ericson Sep 24 '12 at 20:45
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Since there's a lot going on here, I'm closing the question until we can clarify what's being asked. There might be several strange things going on in this verse and we don't want to have people misplace answers! (See: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/147896/…) –  Jon Ericson Sep 24 '12 at 21:25
    
Jer 31:9 in the Mesorah, start of the open "parashah". The OP question is probably why "he/him" and not "them", referring to the people of Israel, especially as a flock is in general plural. Answer is that "Israel" here is the a.k.a of the patriarch Jacob, who represents the people of Israel in prophetic writing, plus OT Hebrew in general does not stand on consistency of person or number so that he/flock does not sound odd in OT Hebrew. As an aside, there is some room to translate יקבצנו as "collect them", because of the diacritic. –  Eli Rosencruft Sep 25 '12 at 14:34
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@Eli Rosencruft: It sounds like you've got a good idea what the question might be asking. If you won't mind contributing an edit to clarify, I would appreciate it. Thanks! –  Jon Ericson Sep 25 '12 at 16:22

3 Answers 3

I think the use of the male pronoun casts Israel into an image of God's loved 'son'. It is the same but maybe more clearly used here:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. (Ho 11:1, ESV)

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Verse 10 starts a paragraph in the Hebrew, and the following verse (v. 11) mentions "Jacob" in parallel... That is, Israel = Jacob, which is a masculine name. So the context of verses 10-11 refers to the faithful remnant of Israelites in both the northern and southern kingdoms (="Jacob"), who will be reestablished through the New Covenant (Jer 31:31).

In other words, "Jacob" is masculine, which refers to the faithful remnant in both the northern kingdom and southern kingdom, and so the pronouns for "Israel" in that chapter are masculine in gender.

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I am not the original person with the question, but I too was struck when I came across the masculine pronoun as I read Hosea 11:1. The reason for my questioning was that Israel (Judah in the northern Kingdom) is compared to the unfaithful prostitute, a female. Also in Revelation 12 the pregnant woman giving birth is usually interpreted as Israel giving birth to Christ/Jesus. This certainly does not impact my faith, but it is confusing. The above response I find most helpful. But as a rule of thumb, I have always remembered Israel being referred to as a feminine entity. –  Sonia Oct 7 at 12:38

This answer offers a subtle but significant adjustment to Joseph's helpful offering.

OP's main question is:

Why is the masculine pronoun "him" used to describe Israel in this passage?

The central answer to this question is that "Israel" is always "masculine, singular" in biblical Hebrew. One of the basic studies of this phenomenon is by J.J. Schmitt, who writes:1

The Hebrew Bible does not know a feminine Israel. The dictionaries consistently and coherently give the gender of Israel as masculine. In the tradition the word 'Israel' names a people. Names of peoples are masculine, while names of countries are feminine.

And, it can be added, cities are "feminine", which accounts for the depiction of Jerusalem as "Daughter Zion" (among others) in the Hebrew Bible.2 This is often a helpful "diagnostic" when reading prophetic texts, in fact: cities have feminine referents (see, e.g., Ezekiel 16 and 23 for prominent examples), while masculine referents are used for "peoples" (what we would think of as "nations").3

So, in this sense, it does not matter that "Jacob" lies behind the name "Israel", although in this passage, there is as it happens a fair degree of alteration between these two in verses 1-14, the section in which this verse (31:10) appears.

Excursus - There is one apparent exception, the phrase בְּתוּלַת יִשְׂרָאֵל (bĕtûlat yiśrāʾēl) often translated "Virgin Israel", or the like. It is found only four times in the Hebrew Bible: Amos 5:2; Jer. 18:13; 31:4, and 21. Schmitt devotes some technical discussion to this (p. 119), considering it either to be an "appositional genetive" (cf. Gesenius-Kautzsch-Cowley, §128k) in which the gender of noun and adjective are not shared, or as extending the "city" imagery present in each context. However you slice it, it remains somewhat "novel", and in no way typical.

In sum, "Israel" will typically be referred to as "he", and even in this chapter there are quite a few other examples. Where English translations offer "them", it is because they are more interested in accommodating to English style (making concessions to the "target" language) than representing the pattern present in the Hebrew text (the "source" language).


Notes

  1. J.J. Schmitt, "The Gender of Ancient Israel", Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 26 (1983): 115-125 (quote on p. 116). Schmitt has written a number of related articles subsequently, the one most closely connected to this question being: "Gender Correctness and Biblical Metaphors: The Case of God's Relation to Israel", Biblical Theology Bulletin 26/3 (1996): 96-106.
  2. This also explains (in answer to a comment on OP's question) why the feminine is not used here: that might be English usage, but it isn't the pattern in biblical Hebrew.
  3. For those who have access to an ESV Study Bible, the general "Introduction to the Prophetic Books" has a helpful section on this matter, "Pronouns in the Prophets". FWIW.
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