Gender Bending in the Torah: Was Rebecca a Young Man?

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).

So far, we have looked at Eve as “he” and Noah repairing to “her” tent. Now we will take a look at Rebecca as a “young man.”

Frequently Asked Question: You have translated Genesis 24:16 as if it calls Rebecca a “young man.” But in the Torah, the word spelled in Hebrew nun – ayin – resh (which you translate as “young man”) can be vocalized either as na’ar, meaning “young man,” or na’arah, meaning “young woman.” It is clear that Rebecca is a “young woman.” Why do you translate the word as “young man”?

Response: Because the Hebrew language at first had no way to indicate vowels, in very ancient times “young man” and “young woman,” although pronounced differently, would have been spelled the same - nun - ayin – resh. But later, a “helper” letter heh (a consonant doubling as the vowel “a”) was added to the end of the word for “young woman” to help facilitate its pronunciation. Nun – ayin – resh – heh became the standard spelling for “young woman.” Indeed, except in the Torah, throughout the entire Hebrew Bible, in every text in which the word “young woman” appears, the word is spelled with the helper-letter heh (including Amos 2:7; the text of Amos, in the main, arguably as old as its 8th century BCE setting).

Helper-letters are referred to by grammarians as matres lectionis, “mothers of reading.” We see the helper-letter heh used throughout the Torah to distinguish the feminine form from the masculine (sometimes called “unmarked”) form. That’s why in the Torah Joseph is a yeled (“boy,” Genesis 37:30), but Dinah is a yaldah (“girl,” Genesis 34:4). Moses is a navi (“prophet,” Deuteronomy 34:10), but Miriam is a n’vi’ah (“prophetess,” Exodus 15:20). Noah’s eldest son Shem is ha’gadol (“the elder,” Genesis 10:21) but Laban’s eldest daughter Leah is ha’g’dolah (“the elder,” Genesis 29:16). Noah’s young son Ham is ha’katan (“the young,” Genesis 9:24), but Laban’s young daughter Rachel is ha’k’tanah (“the young,” Genesis 29:16). Each of the feminine-marked words above is spelled with the final helper-letter heh.

Given all that, we might expect to find the word “young woman” also spelled with a final helper-letter heh. But with one exception in the Torah it is not. In the Torah, the word “young woman,” pronounced na’arah, is spelled without the heh more than twenty times. Spelled without the heh, the word appears repeatedly in a short section of Deuteronomy (22:15 – 29). It is curious that it is in the middle of this cluster that we find the Torah’s one-time-only appearance of the word spelled with the helper-letter heh (Deuteronomy 22:19). Actually, it is more than curious. It is as if we had been reading an Old English text in which the word “erst” (Old English for “first”) repeated over and over, and then all of a sudden the word “first” popped up. What are we to make of this?

Various reasons account for spelling differences in the Torah. Here’s what I think accounts for this one. I think the Redactor made an artistic decision to spell “young woman” in the “old-fashioned,” archaic, grammatically gender-ambiguous way (meaning, without the helper-letter heh), long after the spelling of that word had presumably changed, in order that the word would appear to the official public reader of the Torah as if “young man.” The public reader would have been instructed, however, to pronounce the word as na’arah, “young woman.” And so those who heard the Torah being read out-loud would have been unaware of the scribal tradition.

Why the tradition? I believe the Redactor had an agenda, which the Redactor communicates in a hint to the reader by spelling na’arah the “modern” way - meaning with the gender-specific, feminine heh ending – that one time, at Deuteronomy 22:19. The Redactor’s agenda, the reason the Redactor chose to introduce grammatical gender-ambiguity into the text, I believe, was to signal to those in the know a closely-held priestly/scribal tradition about gender-fluidity… both human and divine.

Next time: Adam as “them.”

This story "Gender Bending in the Torah: Was Rebecca a Young Man?" was written by Mark Sameth.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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