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.
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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.
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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


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