Thursday, December 15, 2005

Gender and the Image of God: Masculine-Representative Language--The Hunt Continues

I have been trying to make the case that there is a correlation between gender, the image of God, and masculine-representative language. I haven't gotten very far. I had not anticipated resistance to the idea that masculine-representative language even exists. This resistance was due in large part to my argument that the use of anthropos and adam in Scripture is an example of such language. But after much discussion and correction (thanks largely to Suzanne and Peter), I have come to the conclusion that such terms, though not precisely equivalent to the English “human-being” (see my argument here) are nonetheless sufficiently (though not entirely) gender inclusive that it is best to look elsewhere for examples of masculine-representative language.

In as much as my central thesis for this series depends upon the idea that masculine-representative language is indeed a scriptural phenomenon, I will attempt in this post to cite what I believe to be better examples of masculine-representative language. Once the existence of masculine-representative language has been sufficiently established (and I'm not the first to use this term), I will conclude my series by attempting to tie together such language and the typological relationship that exists between man and God. For sake of simplicity, I will restrict my argument (at least for now) to the Hebrew term ish.

Ish as an example of Masculine Representative Language
First, a quick look at Brown-Driver-Briggs, a standard Hebrew lexicon. Though both anthropos and adam are less clearly masculine terms—at least by lexical definitions—the Hebrew ish is most certainly a male term. The BDB reads,
[BDB] 35 vyai n.m. man -- man, opp. woman, emph. on sexual distinction & relation; thence = husband; fig. of 'y as husb. of Isr. yviyai (opp. yli[.B;); man as procreator, father; of male child, man, opp. beast; cf. fig. but also of male of animals; man, opp. God; hence in phrases to denote ordinary, customary, common; but also contr. ~d'a'; man, as valiant; even of 'y oft. prefixed to other nouns in app.; partic. bef. adj. gent.; a man as resident in, or belonging to a place or people; usually pl.; also sg. coll.; men = retainers, followers, soldiers; ~yhil{a/ vyai man of God = proph.; in phrase sq. abstr. v. supr.; sg. word of occupation; oft. distrib. = each, every; incl. women; of inanim. things; any one; of gods; one...another. (pg 35)
Like anthropos, ish is never used to denote a singular woman or a group of women exclusively. It is however, used inclusively to denote “every” and “each” of a given set (i.e., “let every man seek the Lord”) which would necessarily include women. It is also frequently used in the wisdom literature to set forth a basic principal—one that would apply to both men and women. For example,
Psalm 1:1 Blessed is the man (ish) who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.

Proverbs 5:21 For the ways of a man (ish) are before the eyes of the LORD, And He watches all his paths.

Ecclesiastes 7:5 It is better for a man (ish) to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.
In each case the text arguably applies to both men and women. I have never heard anyone teach these texts otherwise, nor do I think it likely that the authors of these texts intended their comments to apply to men exclusively. If "masculine-representative language" can be generally definded as "the use of a male term to designate both sexes," it is difficult to not see these texts as containing such language.

Proponents of gender neutral translation argue along the following lines: Since the biblical authors intended to include both genders, it is best to translate their words accordingly. Well and good, but it must be pointed out that the biblical authors possessed the linguistic capacity to write the text in a gender inclusive fashion, much like we read in the TNIV. Yet they chose not to. We must ask ourselves why this is. Is there theological significance here? Did they purposely use a clearly masculine term to represent both sexes, or was it simply a grammatical practice of an ancient culture, devoid of meaning?

I will suggest the former in my next post, but for now I think it best to see if there is general agreement that the above passages do in fact represent examples of “masculine/male-representative” language.


Wayne Leman said...

Gerald, separated as far from the biblical authors as we are, I don't know if we can ever know if they intended to use male examples to illustrate a generic truth or whether the male examples were the default way in their language system to communicate generically. In either case, I'm not sure that there is any theological significance, as claimed by Poythress and Grudem. We need to find theological significance in the clear propositions (statements) of the Bible, not in the grammatical forms used. Different languages use different grammatical forms to communicate exactly the same meaning. There is nothing necessarily sacred about any of those grammatical forms. In Scripture what is sacred are the teachings and teachings are done through linguist forms which are at least a clause in length and typically of ever larger length than clauses.

There is nothing sacred about the fact that Greek pistis 'faith' is of the feminine in grammatical gender. There is nothing sacred in the fact that Greek nomos 'law' is Greek. There is nothing sacred in the fact that teknon 'child' is grammatically neuter in Greek. There is nothing sacred about the fact that Hebrew ruash 'spirit' is grammatically feminine but Greek 'spirit' (pneuma) is neuter in gender.

What is the theological significance, if any, to the fact that Hebrew ish is used in Psalm 1?

I think that Dr. Grudem et al. are straining at gnats on this one, when we should be clamoring for the Bible's clear teaching, the big picture, the metaphorical camels.

I blogged on a related topic to yours on our Better Bibles Blog today.

It is a theory, and only a theory, of Dr. Grudem, that there is theological significance to the use of masculine terms to illustrate generic teachings in the Bible. We need to be careful that we do not put too much stock in theories when there are so many clear facts, not theories, which are found all throughout the Bible. Dr. Grudem is simply wrong, epistemologically and methodologically, to develop his theory of male representation and then, assuming the truth of that theory, call Bible versions which translate contrary to his theory "inaccurate." The term "inaccurate" needs to be reserved for actual errors, not for differences of opinion based on theories.

Peter Kirk said...

Gerald, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I will not accept that these uses of 'ish are "masculine representative" or "male representative". By the way, you said of the former "I'm not the first to use this term". Do you know who was? Do you have any evidence of either being used before Grudem and Poythress?

In principle I accept your definition as "the use of a male term to designate both sexes," although I would prefer "male representative" for this. For it seems that you are rightly referring to "a male term", i.e. one which is used specifically for those who are male in the real word sense, and not just to words which are grammatically masculine, in some particular language. I accept that there is "masculine representative" language in the Greek and Hebrew Bible texts in the sense "the use of a grammatically masculine term to designate both sexes", but there cannot be in any English Bible translation because English does not have grammatical gender.

So, if we are to look for examples, we must find cases where the term used is "male" and where it designates both sexes. Looking at your three examples of 'ish, I am by no means convinced that Proverbs 5:21 refers to both sexes, for the advice in this chapter is explicitly for young males, to avoid sexual entanglement with married women. Of course the general principle here can be extended to teach that young women should not get sexually involved with married men, but I don't think that was the author's intended meaning here. This means that TNIV may well have been misguided to avoid "man" here.

But what of Psalm 1 and Ecclesiastes 7:5? I will accept that in these passages 'ish is truly used to "designate both sexes". But is it truly "a male term"? It seems clear that 'ish has, as well as a male-oriented sense "man", a sense "each, every" which is gender generic, for it can refer to women, and to inanimate objects - as is confirmed by your quotation from what must be a greatly abridged version of "BDB" = Brown, Driver, Briggs' Hebrew lexicon. The full version of BDB gives two references for 'ish which must include women, Job 42:11 ("All his brothers and sisters... each one gave him...") and 1 Chronicles 16:3 (" each Israelite man and woman"). Now it is uncertain that this sense "each, every" is being used in verses like Psalm 1 and Ecclesiastes 7:5, but it is at least possible. Psalm 1 makes good sense if translated "Blessed is everyone who does not walk..." Thus these are by no means unambiguous examples of male representative language.

Ted Gossard said...

Gerald, from the TNIV website, the following:

"While in most of its instances, particularly in narrative, Hebrew 'ish does refer to a particular male human being, it is also, like 'adam, used as a generic for human beings (see Gen. 32:28(29); Exod. 11:7; 19:13; Jdg. 9:49), especially in poetry (see Job 12:10; 32:13; Ps. 22:6(7); Isa. 63:3; Jer. 23:24; Hos. 11:9), where it often stands in parallel with and serves as a synonym of the generic 'adam (see Job 38:26; Prov. 6:12; 30:2; Isa. 2:9,11,17; 31:8; Jer. 2:6) and also of the generic ben 'adam (see Num. 23:19; Isa. 52:14; Jer. 49:18, 33; 50:40). For that reason, a case by case judgment needs to be made as to whether 'ish is being used as a generic or in reference to a particular male human being. In the case of Psalm 1, since it stands within the rhetorical tradition of the OT wisdom literature, there can be little doubt but that here ha'ish is used generically. And since in Israel, the women as well as the men were supposed to internalize God's law (see Deut. 6:6-8; 31:10-11; Neh. 8:2-3) there is no reason not to assume that ha'ish is here generic for both men and women."

Gerald said...

Thanks guys. There's too much here to respond to each of your comments, so I'll try to hit upon a few major points.

First, I wonder if the term 'male/masculine' representative is causing disagreement here that need not be (at least for the sake of this series). Though I am comfortable with the term in ways that you all are not, the only point I really wish to make is that often times in canonical and extra-canonical writings, a term that is generally reserved for males (such as ish) is used in such a way that it obviously applies to both sexes. The reverse is not true--one never finds the term isha used in this fashion. It is not particularly important to me what label we place upon this phenomenon--call it "male- representative," call it "masculine-representative,” or call it "the thing when a customarily male term is used to denote people in general in a way that is not done by the corresponding female term." This last label gets a bit long and that's why I've been using the term "masculine-representative." Regardless, do we all agree that this does indeed occur?

And Peter, I understand why you make the distinction between "male-representative" and "masculine-representative." That has been helpful in reminding me that the grammatical gender of a term does not always reflect "real-world" gender. Thanks for bringing me some clarity there.

And Wayne, I'm not entirely sure what theological significance Grudem and company try to tie to the "male-representative" idea. I haven't read any of their stuff. I'll try to make a case that there is some theological significance in the fact that customarily male terms are sometimes used in such a way as to apply to both sexes (my idea may just be a repeat of what they have already said--or it may be fresh--I suppose you can let me know).

And Ted, thanks for pointing out the preface to the TNIV. That's helpful. I actually agree with everything in the preface (I think all of us agree with the observations that it notes). The question that remains however, is how should we translate a term such as ish. Is it better for our English versions to reflect a one for one correspondence between Hebrew and English terms, in such a way that it is clear to the reader that this particular term--a term most often used to denote males--is sometimes used in a generic sense to include women, or is it better to obscure this phenomenon for the sake of clarity in the English? I’ll argue for the former in my next post (and I think final) post.

Suzanne McCarthy said...


I feel as if I were watching a Supreme Court judge decide whether American women should get the vote based on the fact that the word 'American' in literature, usually refers to an adult male American. Think of 'American in Paris' and 'The Ugly American'. I am sure that if it was a woman, one would have to say 'American woman'. Does this linguistic phenomenon indicate a different position or status before the law in the United States?

Is this kind of male representation in language, that the male is the representative American for both men and women, significant to you? I hope not.

I find that you are confusing language and reality.

Talmida said...

Is it better for our English versions to reflect a one for one correspondence between Hebrew and English terms, in such a way that it is clear to the reader that this particular term--a term most often used to denote males--is sometimes used in a generic sense to include women, or is it better to obscure this phenomenon for the sake of clarity in the English?

I would argue that such a correspondence does not exist.

It did up until about 100 years ago. When women started acquiring legal status and legal rights, the word "man" in English began to change its meaning.

Presently, in modern speech to anyone under 30, the word "man" is not inclusive. It is exclusive.

What modern English word would you suggest that could capture the essence of ish?

If one to one correspondence is important, will you also maintain the thee/thou/ye/you distinction of the 2nd persons singular and plural?

If your goal is clarity, and your intended audience is speakers of modern English, I believe you must sacrifice some of the sociological implications (if that's the right expression) of the ancient Hebrew language.

I look forward to reading the next instalment.

Gerald said...


From your comment (and perhaps Wayne's comments above), it seems to me that you understand me to be attempting to support my general complementarian paradigm through the phenomenon of male-representative language. Perhaps I haven’t been clear enough, but that is not what I’m up to. This series is far less ambitious. I’m trying to simply argue that there is a correlation between a clearly detailed complementarian structure within Scripture (Eph 5, 1 Cor 11, etc.) and the use of male-representative language. One would already have to embrace at least some form of complimentarianism in order to appreciate the theological direction of my argument. I would never arrive at my complementarian position based upon male-representative language alone.

And Talmida,

Thanks for the comment. You raise some good questions that I intend to address in the next post, so I will hold off repeating myself.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

If you are only trying to prove something to other complementarians then this debate is pointless. Of course, there is a correlation as you say.. The existance of such a male usage in language gives men ideas about complementarianism. That is the correlation, we agree on that. But what does it say about the image of God?

I suspect by what you write that I am far more familiar with the many models of complementarianism than you are. I say this to your credit.

However, I am also familiar with the old style complementarianism which divided the men and women between spheres, so that each could be a leader in their own sphere, home and work, private and public, spiritual and secular.

In a woman's own sphere she was the decision-maker, in the home and drawing-room, with her children, and dinner guests she, the mother, was the leader and the husband was a leader in church or business. That allowed men and women to coexits quite happily. However, that paradigm has shifted and complementarianism reinvents itself every once in a while. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

I have , in fact, read much of Gruden and Piper and other fellows, Dobson etc. Of course, you would say I don't 'embrace' complementarianism. If someone must already 'embrace' it to accept what you are saying then you admit that there is no 'argument' to be made for your thesis - no reasoning, no apologetic, - you are just writing meditations on what you already believe for some other reason, Eph.5 I, Cor.11. Then write about those verses.