Translations of the Bible are never without controversy. In a few articles since 2008, and in a recent Op-Ed in The New York Times, “Is God Transgender?,” I have provided examples of grammatical gender-bending in the Torah - all hints, I believe, to the “dual-gendered” nature of God. I’ll have more to say about what that might have meant then and what it might mean today later in this series. But we begin with some frequently asked questions about the translations themselves. As Seth Meyers would say: Let’s take a closer look.
Frequently Asked Question: You claim that Eve is referred to as “he” (Genesis 3:12). It’s true that the Hebrew pronoun heh – vov – alef is gender-ambiguous. But it is also true that, because the Torah has no vowels, words can be vocalized any number of ways. In the Middle Ages a group of scholars known as the Masoretes prepared a text of the Torah which included vowels. The Masoretes indicated when the gender-ambiguous pronoun was to be pronounced hu (“he”) and when hi (“she”). No surprise, the gender-ambiguous pronoun in Genesis 3:12 which refers to Eve was marked as “she.” Why do you translate it as “he”?
Response: I translate heh – vov – alef as “he” because that is what the word literally means. Let me explain. The first thing we should notice about the “gender-ambiguous” pronoun is that in the entire Hebrew Bible it only appears in the Torah (it is to be found nowhere in Prophets or Writings, which together account for more than 225,000 of the Hebrew Bible’s fewer than 305,000 words). Throughout Prophets and Writings there is - as one would expect - one word for “he” (spelled heh – vov – alef) and another word for “she” (spelled heh – yod – alef). Whoever edited the Torah (biblical scholars refer to this person or school as the Redactor) was aware of this. How do we know? Because the Redactor sometimes spells “she” the expected, conventional way: heh – yod – alef.
Here’s the first question: Why would the Redactor choose grammatical inconsistency when the Redactor could have chosen grammatical consistency? (Biblical scholars such as Umberto Cassuto and R. N. Whybray are very interested in this question.)
Here’s the next question (even more challenging to the conventional wisdom): Why in no other book in the Hebrew Bible does heh - vov - alef refer to a female? Everywhere else in the Hebrew Bible – in texts considered early and late, northern and southern – “he” is spelled heh – vov – alef and “she” is spelled heh - yod - alef . It’s as if scholars from the future were to find a library of English language works spanning 1,000 years (longer than the English language has yet existed), from all over the English-speaking world; and in one work – and in only one work - the word “she” is sometimes used to refer to a male. And then our scholars of the future were to say: Well, there must have been two spellings for “he” back then – one in which the “s” was silent.
I don’t think so.
The reasonable conclusion is that heh – vov – alef is not a regional variant for “she” (or we would expect to find it northern but not southern texts, or vice versa); it is not an earlier or later form of “she” (or we would expect to find it in earlier but not later texts, or vice versa); nor is it a “typo” (or we would expect to find this “typo” – ubiquitous in the Torah - somewhere else in the Hebrew Bible).
No. The word heh – vov – alef was then, as it is today, the pronoun “he.” But in the Torah – and only in the Torah – it functions, according to tradition, in a gender-ambiguous way, sometimes to be vocalized as hu, meaning “he,” and sometimes to be vocalized as hi, meaning “she.” Again, not to put too fine a point on it, but only in the Torah and nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible is heh – vov – alef understood to mean both “he” and “she.” Why? I believe because it is a metonym; a hint from the priests to the four-letter name of God, the Tetragrammaton YHWH, which also means “he” and “she.”
(The two syllables of the Tetragrammaton, strictly speaking, should be called “sound-equivalents” of the pronouns. In order to spell the pronouns out in full we would need to add two letters alef. Abulafia explains their absence as a way of further obscuring the secret.) There may be a competing theory which successfully explains the gender-ambiguous pronoun in the Torah, but if so I am not aware of it. After two and a half millennia, the Torah is, in many ways, just beginning to speak to us.
Next week: Did Noah repair to “her” tent?