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I previously asked and got great responses to an exploration of pronouns in psalm 139. There was a fascinating technical resolution to that one.

This question is related but significantly different. There is a reference to God as, what seems to me, clearly feminine in nature and does not show up in any of the translations.

Isaiah 51:9 (KJV), Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon?

Here's the biblehub interlinear for quick ref. The Biblehub interlinear translation has some straight up wrong translations for some of the critical feminine words in this text and I have yet to find a translation that respects the hebrew.

Now, the "arm of the lord" (זְר֣וֹעַ יְהוָ֔ה) is a feminine noun. And that's interesting in its own right, as well is the fact that the author is COMMANDING the arm of the lord to awake using the feminine imperative form of עוּר (to rouse). This sounds like a pep talk coming from voices in the Babylonian exile reminding God of the great things that he (she) had done.

Here's where my question comes in: The "art thou not it" part of the second half literally translates as: Are not you (2fs) she/it that did xyz. This format is then repeated in verse 10. I think it is amazing dissonance (but more respect than the NIV or NRSV have) that the KJV uses the "thou" and then "it" to capture this.

Points:

  • The "you/thou" is second person feminine singular (claim: one does not address "things" as you, nor does one command them in the second person - Moses just strikes the stone or holds the staff over the red sea to part it, no commanding it with words as a "you").
  • The "it" is the feminine pronoun (הִ֛יא) which is legitimately translated as "it (feminine) in some cases, but generally as "She" (c.f. First occurrence in Genesis 3:12 Adam says "she gave me the fruit and I ate it") when referring to an agent.
  • note the poetic parallels to the same call to Zion (feminine conception of israel as bride of God) in Isaiah 52:1 even with the same "awake awake" call.

These verses (9-10) attribute ALL of the powerful acts of God in creation, and subduing of the primordial chaos, to the "arm of God" and are calling it (her) to wake up, not God. This verse calls the arm of God to deliver the people from Babylon. This feminine power (like the spirit/breath/wind of god) is spoken to directly with a repeated command (that is conjugated feminine singular imperative) as a being itself.

My question is this: If all of the attributes of power, wisdom, and agency of God are captured in these feminine nouns, what does it mean to say that God is masculine? And should the translations respect this more? Also, how can we respect the location of the text and avoid an anachronistic anti-patriarchy driven modern gloss?

This thou/it distinction in relating to a being reminded me immediately of Martin Buber's I and Thou book (1937). Here's from the wikipedia summary:

Buber's main proposition is that we may address existence in two ways: The attitude of the "I" towards an "It", towards an object that is separate in itself, which we either use or experience. The attitude of the "I" towards "Thou", in a relationship in which the other is not separated by discrete bounds.

The KJV seems to be the only one that respects this tension in the pronouns. The KJV seems to directly translate the text into the dissonance of the thou/it difference that Buber speaks of.

I think we can respect that, in hebrew, as in spanish and other languages, a group with females that includes even ONE male is referenced with male pronouns. It seems that God consists of many feminine aspects, but also several important male aspects (e.g. the face, voice). But it seems like the major agential aspects of God are feminine:, including the wisdom (see proverbs 8/9) through which creation was possible, the spirit/breath (See genesis 1:2) which is the first aspect of God that we meet in the text (and which manifests Christ in Christian contexts). The spirit/wind "hovers (yes feminine participle)" over the dark void as an eagle over her brood. There is also the feminine noun hand, and the arm here. I respect the monotheism in this text, so I don't want to think of these anatomical elements of God as independent deities - they are not.

Is it an artifact of the language (versus what was actually conceived by the author) that the aggregate of powerful elements of God, responsible for all the great works, are referred to as masculine when pointing at the total being? God doesn't have genitals that I am aware of (none described in the text), or an X or Y chromosome (an anachronism), so what do we have to go on to to understand the gender makeup of God (particularly as the author conceived of it)?

Perhaps Isaiah 51:9 could be translated as:

Awake, liberating mother power! Your smooth, feminine arms are your great power! Awake power of old! Are not you, oh divine woman, she who did ...

Translation is hard from a gendered language (like Hebrew) to a neutered language (english).

For more context (on the topic of author original intention), I was taught that this section of Isaiah (40-55) is often referred to as "2nd Isaiah," and was written during Babylonian exile (it is bounded by references to Cyrus - the pagan Persian liberator from exile, referred to as messiah (Is 45:1)! - and various Babylonian god names in the context of idolatry - Isaiah 46:1).

As such, the majority of Hebrew males would have been slaughtered in defense of Jerusalem (e.g. the suffering servant poetry in this section of Isaiah refers, in the past tense, to those set on pikes in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in the monarchic period 587BC). So the majority of the remaining Hebrew people would have been women, who were, in any case, responsible for teaching the Torah (another feminine noun) in the house and were thus educated and literate.

This section is hugely important for how it impacts Christian takes since all gospels start with Isaiah 40 (prepare the way of the lord! - the way out of exile in Babylon). The text frames Christ in terms of the suffering servant, pierced for our sins, outside of Jerusalem (Isaiah 53:5). This then (outside of the Christian read) may be poetry of lamentation of mothers and wives of their sons and husbands. Their men would have been the defenders of Babylon emasculated on pikes and the first century Jews either were ignorant of this or flat out re-appropriated it. Thus we can hear the desperation in the feminine voice of the authors in the text, now slaves in Babylon and likely the subject of unthinkable violence/rape by their Babylonian captors. Perhaps they related to their creator as a woman as well when the Babylonians slaughtered their loved ones and gave them voice in scripture?

There is just so much more to dig in just this verse (e.g. the tannin and the rahab serpents and sea monsters), but I'll stay focused on this topic and save those for another question.

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  • There are certainly subtleties of a certain kind in scripture. In both Old and New Testament writings the work of the Holy Spirit is sometimes hinted at by feminine activity. And the Church is, of course, the feminine counterpart of the Lamb. But I view it to be excessive to force the language in any way. A subtlety must remain a subtlety or it becomes an intrusion.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 1, 2020 at 21:42
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    Well, the major translations ignore these subtleties entirely and we lose all the nuance that speak to/for half the population of our churches.
    – Gus L.
    Jun 1, 2020 at 21:43
  • Your main bold question looks like a theology question that more belongs at Christianity.
    – curiousdannii
    Jun 2, 2020 at 23:48
  • That main question in bold is a technical and historical question about an appropriate translation into our modern language that respects the hebrew and the time and place of the author. I'm asking about how we might take this text to avoid anachronistic concepts of gender in translation. There is actually no theology here. Such a translation is a technical detail. It may have theological implications, sure, but theology derived from translation shouldn't drive translation. That's the tail wagging the dog.
    – Gus L.
    Jun 3, 2020 at 2:44
  • You asked "If all of the attributes of power, wisdom, and agency of God are captured in these feminine nouns, what does it mean to say that God is masculine?" - that's a theological question not a translation question. The translation question is how to translate those feminine nouns (and occasional femininely inflected verbs), but asking "what does it mean to say that God is masculine" is not a translation question, it is most definitely a theological question. As you say, we don't want the tail to wag the dog. We start with exegesis. But this question doesn't stop there.
    – curiousdannii
    Jun 4, 2020 at 5:42

3 Answers 3

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The answer is that the Hebrew word for arm זְרֹע is a female noun, regardless of who's arm it is. If I were to use the words זרע יצחק meaning Isaac's arm, it would still be a female noun. The word hand and arm are often used to mean power and force. It says that G-d brought Israel out of Egypt ביד חזקה ובזרע נטויה "with a strong hand and an outstretched arm" (Deuteronomy 26:8). G-d's arm's being's grammatically female has absolutely no theological implications. It is important to acknowledge that G-d has no gender. The only reason why the male is used in Hebrew is because it is seen as more abstract, and Hebrew is a gendered language which requires a gender for each word. It is important to only use one gender lest people think that the gender used in a section is important.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Steve Taylor
    Nov 3, 2020 at 21:00
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Grammatical Gender

This is a common but fundamental misconception about grammatical gender — that it corresponds to or denotes sexual gender. The only times when this is the case is when a noun happens to be of the same gender as a person, or when a pronoun is used of a person. In all other cases it is to be ignored just as it is by native speakers themselves, except perhaps when for poetic reasons, it can be used to rhetorical effect.

Greek has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Hebrew has two: masculine and feminine. Again, these don't correspond to sexual gender except by coincidence (i.e. when a man is referred to with masculine pronouns, or a woman with female pronouns, yet the pronouns used with respect to animals are ignored and translated by "it," not only in keeping with English grammar, but with the conception of the thing even by native users of the language).

Personification

By definition, personification involves the personing of inanimate objects or of animals, and "you" can be and is rightly used of personified entities (not rocks or seas, which were not being personified by the person).

The "Arm" of the Lord

The word being personified here is the "arm of the Lord." It happens to be a feminine noun, but not feminine in concept (in keeping with the section on Grammatical Gender above). Therefore, personification with the proper grammatical gender used for pronouns and verbs by its nature never tells us anything about the entity being personified, since personification is agnostic to the grammatical gender of the thing (things do not have gender).

Therefore, feminine verbs and pronouns must be used of it, and so "it" and the feminine "you" are necessary. They are not optional, nor do they hint at the gender of the thing personified, nor of the person to whom it (the arm) belongs.

Luke 1:51 He hath shown might with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.

The KJV translation, is, therefore, as close to perfect as a translation can be, although I prefer the Vulgatic (DRB) translation personally:

Arise, arise, put on strength, O thou arm of the Lord, arise as in the days of old, in the ancient generations. Hast not thou struck the proud one, and wounded the dragon?

Since it preserves the personification as a personification (avoids any "she, it, he" altogether, even though it's a misreading of Elizabethan English to confuse this for an attempt to signal any Hebew nuance anyway), as in the original text. In my opinion, a translation is best when it can also make the reader feel the same and leave with the same information after reading it as the reader of the original. After all, once you choose to translate from a language like Hebrew to English, you've given up a lot of 'oh, and by the way in the original, there's this nuance.' You simply cannot convey this kind of nuance (a 'feminine thou') in an English translation without it not being proper English and by extension, and by definition, not a translation. And again, a Hebrew speaker doesn't read this and think God is a female or his arm is, so it's not only bad translation, but misleading. As such, your suggested translations are entirely wrong.

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"Thank you for your thoughts, but you haven't answered the specific question about Isaiah. – curiousdannii ♦ yesterday"

IMHO, I thought I had by commenting how I deal with divine pronouns. My apologies!!! ♦

"what does it mean to say that God is masculine?" It means that the hubris of patriarchal, phallic priorities and brute strength took precedence over the Word of God - as it has done for millennia even unto the present. Religious PTSS is a recognized consequence of the brutality of religion. God is not abusive, fallen humanity is.

"And should the translations respect this more?"

  1. Translations should be as accurate as linguists can make them. It takes all kinds of minds to comprehend one truth and so variations are welcomed information ;)
  2. The hubris of the patriarch system is disrespectful to The Omnipotent God and the sooner we evolve to respect all who are created in the image of God (i.e. all of humanity), the more spirituality we will grow. The patriarchy is responsible for every genocide, racism (aBiblical), and oppression of others to serve self. The hubris of the Fallen patriarchy is doing satan's work.
  3. Patriarchy is de-humanizing, especially those who most benefit from the oppression it engenders. They are made filthy by their harm to others. They will never fit through the eye of the needle. Why would we continue to pass on that misinformation to protect a bunch who work against God? What does that make us?
  4. We are seeking God's Word not freezing ancient or modern anthropology and twisting it into God's Word. We must not gloss over anything.

Also, how can we respect the location of the text and avoid an anachronistic anti-patriarchy driven modern gloss?

  1. We are all free to respect scripture as inspired or not. For those of us who accept that scripture is inspired, we would not "do" anything but seek & ask as we consider the words deeply. In my own seeking, I have found scripture that does not seem to fit or is awkward, upon deeper study, to reveal the biggest epiphanies.
  2. The patriarchy is man-made enculturation and does not reflect God. It stems from the curse set upon mankind at the Fall, making it part of the curse of the Fallen.
  3. There is no place for anti-patriarchy or modern gloss (am I correct in interpreting gloss to mean feminism? Why would you consider the feminine aspects of God no more than gloss?
  4. Each of us is a unique mix of male/female characteristics, both socioemotional as well as physical. A "man" who does not recognize his "female" qualities struggles to be fully human as, too, a "woman" who rejects her "male" characteristics.
  5. Genetically (i.e. God-given??), X & Y Chromosomal Variations include XXY, XYY, XXX. There are several variants which include Tetrasomy X, Pentasomy X, XXXX, XXXY, XXYY, and XXXXY.

I tend to focus on deeply considered scripture and how it informs God's will for us. That does not change yesterday, today, or tomorrow.

I consider StakExchange such a valuable find in this endeavor. Many thanks to each of you for sharing the treasures of your Biblical investigations!!!!!

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  • If you need to clarify any points in your posts, you can edit the post in question instead of posting another "answer".
    – agarza
    Feb 9 at 21:58

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