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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.

  • 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 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 at 21:43
  • Your main bold question looks like a theology question that more belongs at Christianity. – curiousdannii Jun 2 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 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 at 5:42
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I'm probably over-simplifying your question. To me, God is spirit. As such, it is no gender neutral and no sex. However, the Hebrew language is a gendered language. It cannot describe God and the associated parts without biasing the Hebrew readers with gender. In terms of translation, I consider both masculine and feminine forms are biases because spirit is neutral. How much of that bias we want it to show in the English Bibles? I think that is the heart (or over-simplifying) of your question.

My simple or over-simplifying answer is this: as little as possible. In that regard, I think the King James people did a pretty good job. Overall in the KJV, we see God as a masculine figure, not because of the male biases of the translators but because that is how God wants us to connect with Him, as our Father, and not as our ... you-know.

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  • Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Note that paul does not say neither male NOR female but male AND female... the other concepts were false dichotomies where male and female are primordially one whole with both split out in Genesis 2. I do not think of God as genderless and I don’t think the scripture supports this. We were made in gods image with both male and female in us, just as God has it. Genderlessness is some sort of ethereal gnosticism, not incarnational theology – Gus L. Jun 1 at 20:01

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