You Don’t Have To Be Dr. Dolittle

How the Bible Should Talk Nicely About Animals

Respect Your Furry Friends: If the Bible tells us so, we should be kinder to our animal dependents. After all, Moses had a pet snake. Above, an animal rights rally in France.
Getty Images
Respect Your Furry Friends: If the Bible tells us so, we should be kinder to our animal dependents. After all, Moses had a pet snake. Above, an animal rights rally in France.

By Philologos

Published April 20, 2011, issue of April 29, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Translations of the Bible should refer to animals as “he” or “she” rather than as “it,” says PETA, an animal rights organization whose full name is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, according to the March 25 edition of the New York Daily News. Now that “the public recognizes that animals are feeling, intelligent individuals, capable of joy and suffering,” declared PETA’s vice president, Bruce Friedrich, they should not be de-animalized by means of a pronoun that is also used for sticks and stones.

Putting aside the Bible for a moment, the insistence that English speakers call all animals “he” or “she” strikes one as rather absurd. After all, don’t we generally call an animal “it” because we don’t know if it’s a she or a he? It’s impossible to tell, without turning it over, the sex of a cat or a dog lying at your feet, let alone that of a bird in the sky, a rabbit in a field or a fish in water. (This is also, of course, why the words “baby” and “child” in English often take the neuter “it” while the word “adult” never does, for whereas we can, in nearly all cases, identify the sex of an adult at a glance, this is not true of babies and small children.) And when we do know an animal’s sex — when it’s our own pet or a friend’s, for example — we almost always do use “he” or “she.” People do not ordinarily utter sentences like, “Putzy has no appetite — it must be sick.”

To get back to the Bible, however, what gives PETA’s call to biblical translators an appearance of reasonableness is that in Hebrew, the language in which the Bible was written, there is no neuter word for “it.” Unlike English, Hebrew is a highly gendered language in which not only all pronouns, but also all nouns and most verbs, are either masculine or feminine. If you wish to say: “Look at that bird; it’s so pretty,” or: “Did you see that fish? It has such big fins,” you have to say in Hebrew, “Look at that bird; she’s so pretty,” or: “Did you see that fish? He has such big fins,” because the word for bird, tsipor, is feminine, and the word for fish, dag, is masculine, and you couldn’t call either “it” even if you wanted to.

Whether this means that Hebrew speakers are more likely than their English counterparts to credit animals with intelligence, joy and suffering is doubtful. Calling a fish “he” or a bird “she” because the grammar of one’s language demands as much, even if this may not be the animal’s actual gender, does not necessarily lead to a greater identification with it. And yet nevertheless — if that’s how the language of the Bible works, wouldn’t it be more animal friendly of biblical translators to heed PETA’s call and reproduce such language in English?

In fact, apparently unknown to PETA, this is precisely what early English Bible translations do, including the King James Version of 1611, the standard English Bible for centuries. The KJV does this, moreover, not only when the sex of the animal in question is part of the story, as when it refers to Balaam’s donkey in the Book of Numbers as “she” (in the Hebrew, the word aton, a she-donkey, as opposed to ḥamor, a he-donkey, specifies that Balaam is riding a female), but even when it’s a mere grammatical category. Thus, for instance, in the list of clean and unclean animals in the Book of Leviticus, we read in the KJV: “And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls…. Every raven after his kind…. And the heron after her kind….” The word for raven, orev, is masculine in Hebrew, while the word for heron, anafa, is feminine, and the KJV, in line with its general policy of translating God’s word as literally as possible, decided to go along with this.

Modern Bible translations have substituted “its kind” for “his kind” and “her kind.” Does PETA object to this? Would Mr. Friedrich prefer that we spoke and wrote contemporary English in the manner of the King James Version? Should we be saying things like: “The Baltimore oriole has a bright-yellow breast. He winters in Central and South America”? And if so, why not “she winters”? Or shall we, to avoid sexism, alternate and say: “The Baltimore oriole has a bright-yellow breast. He winters in Central and South America. She returns to North America in spring”?

Ugh! What we should say — what we do say — and what everyone who isn’t hopelessly doctrinaire about such things knows it makes sense to say, is: “The Baltimore oriole has a bright-yellow breast. It winters in Central and South America.” If PETA thinks that’s going to make us cruel to orioles, it’s time for it — I mean for him — that is, for her — to reconsider.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.