Gender Bending In The Torah: The Nursing Kings of Israel
I am responding in this series to frequently asked questions about some gender-bending translations of Torah texts I have proposed in a few articles since 2008, and in an Op-Ed in The New York Times, “Is God Transgender?” (August 12, 2016).
Frequently asked question: As supposed evidence of gender-fluidity in the Hebrew Bible, you claim that Mordecai “nursed” Esther; and that Isaiah prophesied that the future kings of Israel would be “nursing” kings. But the word which you translate as “nurse” (ohmen) would be better translated as “foster father,” or “supporter.” There is another word in Hebrew which means “wet nurse” – meneqet.
Response: In English, it is more common to say that a mother is “nursing” than to say that she is “suckling,” even though the latter is more specific. So too, Hebrew has the words ohmenet (“nurse”) and meneqet (“one who suckles”). In English, one can “nurse” a baby or “nurse” a wound. So too in the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew word for “nurse” is found in reference to babies (Ruth 4:16) and wounds (Proverbs 27:6).
The grammatically masculine form of the word ohmen is admittedly strange. But the Septuagint (the earliest translation of the Five Books of Moses) renders it as tithenos (τιθηνὸς) – Greek for “nurse” (See Peter W. Flint, “Numbers,” in The New English Translation of the Septuagint, edited by Albert Pietersma, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
If we were to translate ohmen rather as “foster-father” or “supporter” in every instance we would miss an important hallmark of the Hebrew Bible: word-play. An example is the above cited Proverbs 27:6: “The wounds [inflicted by] a friend are nursing.” Or consider the parallelism in Isaiah 49:23: “They shall be your nursing (omnayich) kings / Their noble-women your suckling ones (maynikotaich).” The kings are not “supporting” their subjects; they are breastfeeding them. How do we know? Isaiah 60:16, which reads “Kings’ breasts shall you suck [tinaki].” I read Mordecai — who nurses the fatherless and motherless Esther — the same way. Mordecai is a “nursing father.”
Both Isaac Leeser and Abraham Benisch — the first Jews to translate the Five Books of Moses into English (1845 and 1851 respectively) – rendered ohmen at Numbers 11:12 as “nursing father,” as had the earlier King James Bible. This is the passage in which Moses complains to God that he, Moses, is in effect not woman enough for the task God has put before him: “Did I conceive (ha’riti) this people? Did I give birth to them (y’lid’tihu) that You should say to me: Carry them in your bosom as the nursing father (ha’ohmen) carries the suckling infant (ha’yonayk)?”
The image of God as “nurse” runs throughout the Zohar (see Ellen Davina Haskell, Suckling at My Mother’s Breasts: The Image of a Nursing God in Jewish Mysticism, SUNY Press). But the Jewish mystics did not make it up. They drew it from the Hebrew Bible.
The Hebrew Bible likens God to both father and mother: like “a father who has compassion on his children” (Psalm 113:13), like “a mother who comforts her child” (Isaiah 66:13). The first hint of this comes in the Book of Genesis, where the human being is created “male and female,” “in the image of God” (the suggestion being that God is male and female). The big reveal comes much later, in the Book of Deuteronomy. Toward the end of this last of the Five Books of Moses, God the father (avicha) is declared to have suffered labor pains (m’chol’lecha; Tigay, 1996), given birth to (y’lad’cha), and suckled (va’yayni’kay’hu) Israel (Deuteronomy 32:6, 18, 13).
Next time: Is the God of the Hebrew Bible Really “Dual-Gendered”? In the meantime: Listen to the 1727 Queen Caroline Coronation Anthem by G. F. Handel, “Kings Shall Be Thy Nursing Fathers.”