Is God Transgender? It Helps to Know Hebrew


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Editor’s Note: Dr. Bartelt is responding to a New York Times editorial published on August 12, 2016, under the title, “Is God Transgender” He is author of Fundamental Hebrew Grammar and The Book around Immanuel: Style and Structure in Isaiah 2 – 12.

In all the discussion and debate over transgender issues, let’s at least get facts right.  In his New York Times editorial, Rabbi Mark Sameth should know his historical Hebrew orthography better, certainly before making claims on biblical texts in the New York Times.

First, there is no evidence whatsoever for a “highly elastic view of gender” in the Hebrew of what we now call the Old Testament. The examples that Sameth cites are all cases of common spelling conventions, due not to elasticity in any “view of gender” but to some elasticity in the use of final vowels and how they were marked, both in the older consonantal texts and then also in the vocalized texts of the Hebrew scribal traditions.

The example of Gen. 3:12 is a very common case of the spelling and actual writing of letters (orthography) of the pronoun (and other words) from a time when the consonants that were used to mark long vowels were used for more than one letter. Not to get too technical, but the masculine pronoun hu’ and the feminine pronoun hi’ are spelled the same except for the long vowel in the middle, which came to be marked by a waw (“w,” for the vowel “u”) for the masculine pronoun and a yodh (“y” for the vowel “i”) for the feminine. Though the consonant “w” could be used for both in the ancient consonantal text (and both marks are small, similar signs, both in ancient and rabbinic script), the scribes have clearly indicated that the pronoun in Gen 3:12 is feminine.

As an aside, this variation is also part of the derivation of the divine name YHWH, from the verb h-y-h, even though the middle letter of that verbal root appears within the divine name as a “W” (waw) not “Y” (yodh). This spelling convention can be documented from countless examples that have nothing to do with actual gender issues, certainly not “gender elasticity.”

A similar phenomenon occurs in Gen 9:22. Here the consonant is a he (pronounced “hay”), which is well known as a marker of a final long vowel, especially in early orthography (see, inter alia, the classic study by David Noel Freedman and Frank Moore Cross, Early Hebrew Orthography: A Study of the Epigraphic Evidence). Most commonly the he indicates an “a” family vowel, which in this case would, indeed, mark the feminine pronominal suffix, “her.” But, in fact, and one that is well known to Hebrew scholars and documented from numerous examples, the same consonant can mark a final “o.” Again, the scribes have indicated that this is an “o” vowel, marking the suffix as “his” tent, not “hers.”

Further, Gen 24:16 is a bit of the reverse problem: the final consonant he that would mark the “a” of the feminine ending is missing, although the scribes have clearly marked the noun as feminine, thus “young woman,” not “young man” (which is what the noun would indicate without the feminine ending).  The same thing happens earlier in v. 14, but all the other verbs and nouns in this entire narrative are consistent with the use of the feminine.

Gen 1:27 is a bit more interesting, as it goes to the heart of the matter itself, where “Adam” is used for “human being.” (The name is a pun on the Hebrew word for “earth,” or “ground,” the “’adamah” out of which the Adam was formed.) In Genesis 2, which is a second account of the creation event that focuses specifically on reproductive sexuality leading to the “next generation,” the details of how “God created them male and female in Gen 1:27 are provided.  The “them” of this verse refers to the “male and female,” which turn out to be two, different, distinct but complementary genders in Gen 2. Gen 1:28 goes on to command the couple to “be fruitful and multiply,” and that cannot happen without a male and a female. The whole point of the account in Gen 2 is to show that “Adam” could not find a marriage partner without God making one who was “fit” for him (Gen 2:18, the Hebrew preposition means “opposite,” “appropriate,” “suitable,” “complementary”), and the concept of how male and female “fit together” includes also the sexual physiology that is fundamental to one’s sexual identity.

It is a basic principle of biblical interpretation to interpret the unclear in light of the clear, and this applies also to grammatical oddities and spelling conventions. To assert that the Hebrew Bible supports “gender elasticity” by using examples such as these, and even misunderstanding the grammatical facts that remove the very argument Rabbi Sameth is trying to make out of thin air, is not only bad method but, more importantly, ignores the preponderance of clear biblical evidence that gender is unique and distinct, male and female.

Grasping at straws can hardly be considered credible argumentation, especially for the New York Times.

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18 Comments

  1. Perry Sukstorf August 15, 2016
    Reply

    I’m guessing the Old Gray Lady will not be printing a retraction any time soon, nor will they likely offer Dr. Bartelt an Op.Ed. Hopefully the Facebook campaign will educate a few folks.

  2. Howard Schoene August 15, 2016
    Reply

    John 4:24 God is Spirit and we are to worship Him in Spirit.

    • Robert Moehle August 16, 2016

      Don’t forget Truth! We are to worship God in Spirit AND in Truth.

  3. Gary Bauch August 16, 2016
    Reply

    Thank you Dr. Bartelt for clear exegesis of Scripture on a timely topic!

  4. Steve S August 16, 2016
    Reply

    While working in the Middle East, I took classes in Arabic. Arabic does not use vowels either, so it was quite amusing when one class included the students John, Jane, Jan, June, Joan, and Jean.

  5. Matthew Heady August 17, 2016
    Reply

    Would it be possible to respond to these claims by this pro-gay group??

    http://www.sojourngsd.org/blog/sixgenders

    Just a simple explanation of the six words they use as different genders would be great. Thanks in advance.

    • Andy Bartelt August 18, 2016

      This raises a different topic, really, beginning with the relationship of Judaism to the Old Testament. Both are grounded in what could be called the “Hebrew Bible,” but Judaism develops far beyond the O.T. including (especially!) its relationship to the New. Of the six words discussed in the article at the link you cite, only three are found in the O.T.: zakar and neqebah (male and female) and saris, which is often glossed as “eunuch” (though it can simply mean a court official of some sort). The other phenomena represent the breadth of information, discussion, and debate that one finds in Judaica, which often includes a lot of what might be called observational, encyclopedia-type classifications.

      Others are more conversant with the vast literature and contexts of Judaica, and its authorities can speak for themselves, but just because a topic is discussed does not make either the phenomenon or the discussion of it normative.

  6. R E LANGFORD JR August 17, 2016
    Reply

    Hurrah! Someone believable is teaching what Horace Hummel taught at Maywood so long ago. I’d almost forgotten the points he made. The segment beginning with Genesis 1:27 is almost a synopsis of my notes from class. How wonderful; TYVM.

  7. Paul Raabe August 17, 2016
    Reply

    Good explanation, Dr. Bartelt.
    Sometimes it takes a Gentile Christian to instruct even a Jewish Rabbi
    about Moses and the Prophets in Hebrew. We do not defend the Mishna
    and Talmuds but we do defend Moses and the Prophets, because our God
    is the God of Israel, not some Gentile god or goddess.

  8. Jena Gorham August 17, 2016
    Reply

    This is not to dismiss the fact that God himself has no gender, correct? I ve been told that he is referred to in both female and male pronouns- perhaps referring to different qualities? But aside from the son who is male, God has no gender, right?
    Would you mind giving your two cents?

    • Andy Bartelt August 19, 2016

      Yes, God as the deity does not have gender, though the Son of God entered into human flesh as a man, not just a human but specifically a male human being. Since gender is, in fact, related to physiology, then God, who has no physical body, has no gender. The metaphors and analogies that describe the relationship of God to his creation are predominantly male, such as “father” and bridegroom, including the use of masculine pronouns. One more feminine attribute often noted is God’s ruchamah, usually translated as “mercy,” from the word for “womb,” or the love of a mother for her child.

      Another issue often misunderstood is the grammatical gender of Hebrew nouns. The words for “spirit” (ruach) and “wisdom” (chochmah) are grammatically feminine, and one sometimes here the claim that since these words are used to describe God, therefore God must be feminine. But these words are simply feminine nouns and must be treated grammatically as such. The Greek word for “spirit” (pneuma) is neuter, but this does not suggest that somewhere between the OT and the NT the Spirit of God was neutered. An example from a modern language might be the German word “Fraulein,” which means young women or “miss,” but the word is grammatically neuter (as a diminutive, with the ending –lein). No one would suggest that this implies a connection between the gender of the noun and the actual gender of the person so identified.

      Our creeds have long spoken of God in terms of “Father, Son, and Spirit,” but the fundamental relationship of God to all and to everything is that of creator. While the creator does not have gender, the animate creatures do, given as a gift of the creator primarily for purposes of reproduction. In the case of human creatures, that gift includes the commitments and complementary relationships of marriage and family.

      This may go beyond my two cents, but what is often ignored in discussions of gender, identity, and sexual “rights” is the fundamental social function of family, including both a father and a mother, within the order of society. As one example, it is often noted that the single most significant socio-economic factor in our culture today is the overwhelming statistical growth of the “single-parent family” (predominantly single mother). Or another obvious phenomenon is that once birth control has separated sexual intimacy from reproduction, the fundamental biological reason for gender has been lost.

    • Cynthia August 20, 2016

      I especially appreciate the reference to order. It was something my biology prof at Valpo referred to often and something I am learning again as I raise honeybees and see the order they create in their hives. Thank you.

  9. Jena Gorham August 17, 2016
    Reply

    I hope a copy of this was sent to The Times and the Rabbi

    • Travis Scholl August 18, 2016

      As a matter of fact, as editor of concordiatheology.org, I wrote a letter to the editor at The New York Times (with a link to this piece) on Tuesday.

  10. Dwight Galster August 19, 2016
    Reply

    A time will come when people will not listen to accurate teachings. Instead, they will follow their own desires and surround themselves with teachers who tell them what they want to hear. 2 Tim 4:3 (NOG)
    Sorry I can’t be more original–but it’s already been said 🙂

  11. David Kruse August 20, 2016
    Reply

    I am a scientist, not a theologian, so my opinions are colored more by evidence than by doctrines.
    God is love, a spirit that is neither male nor female. God is also wise, and has reasons for the way the created universe works.
    If my understanding of the teachings of Jesus is correct, it seems that three of the great lessons we are to learn while alive in the body are love, compassion and forgiveness. I suspect that God designed people to be male and female so that they would want to form life-long married couples, and as a result have many more opportunities to learn those great lessons.

  12. Howard W Kramer August 23, 2016
    Reply

    Thank you very much, Dr. Bartelt, for responding to the article in “The New York Times.” I read the article by the rabbi there and thought “Well, I guess he ought to know his Hebrew.” I’m sure that many other people responded similarly. How happy I am to see that we have alert and talented scholars like you who step up for the rest of us at a time like this.

  13. Jakob K Heckert August 25, 2016
    Reply

    Thank you, Andrew, for your response to the Rabbi. Well done. Blessings. Jakob Heckert

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