4

In some English translations of Isaiah 5:14, Sheol/Hell is personified as a woman. Versions include:

The King James Version:

Therefore hell hath enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure...

Young's Literal Translation:

Therefore hath Sheol enlarged herself, And hath opened her mouth...

The Literal Standard Version:

Therefore Sheol has enlarged herself, And has opened her mouth...

The English Revised Version:

Therefore hell hath enlarged her desire, and opened her mouth...

The Douay-Rheims Bible:

Therefore hath hell enlarged her soul, and opened her mouth...

JPS Tanakh 1917:

Therefore the nether-world hath enlarged her desire, And opened her mouth...

All other major English translations that I could find, neutralize the gender of the word to "its" or "itself".

Is the reason for the occasional personified feminization of Sheol/Hell in some English translations merely because of the gendering of the specific Hebrew words of the text, or is there a legitimate, perhaps mythological reason according to ancient Israeli cosmology, to think of Sheol/Hell, as a woman?

6

The definition of the individual word matters, but we must also see how it is used in context of the scriptures. When we go back to the first vs of this chapter it becomes apparent that Israel was the subject.

"Now will I sing to my wellbeloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My wellbeloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill:...." (Isa. 5:1, KJV)

"And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard...." (Isa. 5:3)

"For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry...." (Isa. 5:7)

"Therefore my people are gone into captivity, because they have no knowledge: and their honourable men are famished, and their multitude dried up with thirst." (Isa. 5:13, KJV)

The discussion was of the sins and sinful condition of Judah / Israel. Israel represented the wife of God in the covenant, and God was her husband (Deu. 7:6-9; Ezek. 16:8-21; Jer. 3:6-8, 14; 31:31-33; Hos. 2:2, 7, 16, 19-20, etc.)

That as God's wife, she became sin, she also became as the grave, or Sheol. Therefore the personification was of the sinful wife becoming the grave, with an open mouth for all depravity. Thus the feminine pronoun "her" is appropriate. This particular use does not give a universal characteristic of the grave as being feminine.

2
  • Great answer - good to see you back on the site Gina, really appreciate your contribution!
    – Steve Taylor
    Jan 29 at 9:12
  • @Steve Taylor - Thank you.
    – Gina
    Jan 29 at 10:27
4

Sheol
שְּׁאוֹל֙ (šə·’ō·wl)
Noun - common singular
Strong's Hebrew 7585: Underworld (place to which people descend at death)

The Hebrew word Sheol (שְּׁאוֹל֙) is both masculine and feminine. It has common gender. It is not the same as neuter in English.

The next word in the verse is

enlarges
הִרְחִ֤יבָה (hir·ḥî·ḇāh)
Verb - Hifil - Perfect - third person feminine singular
Strong's Hebrew 7337: To be or grow wide or large

It was supposed to match the gender of its noun "Sheol". The writer used a feminine verb. So translators who used English feminine modifiers were being faithful to the Hebrew original.

Now, let's look at the LXX version. Sheol was translated as Hades (ᾍδης) which has a masculine gender. Some versions decided to follow this convention.

In https://biblehub.com/isaiah/5-14.htm, 17 versions use "its" while 16 use "her".

1

Here is a very literal word-for-word translation of the first half of Isa 5:14 -

Therefore, has-enlarged Sheol herself and-opened her-mouth/throat ...

The bolded words are all third person feminine singular. Now, it is possible (and not entirely wrong) to render two of these words as:

  • "itself", rather than, "herself"
  • "its mouth", rather than, "her mouth"

... because in English, we do not have such gender-specific nouns as in Hebrew. Hebrew does not have a neuter gender so all nouns must have either masculine or feminine gender. However, this is one of the few times in the OT where "sheol" is performing an active role and doing something - it definitely appears to be personified. {In most cases Sheol is portrayed as passive and inanimate.]

Therefore, I would prefer a translation that preserves this subtlety and thus translate:

Therefore, Sheol has enlarged herself and opened her mouth ...

There might be a similar phenomenon in Prov 30:16 where three things are personified in the singular with Sheol, but that is another question.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.