“He” or “She”?

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In the Women’s Bible Commentary published by Westminster / John Knox Press (pp. 7,8), Sharon H. Ringe describes the need for gender-inclusive Bible translations:

A particular concern in women’s interpretation is the problem of language and gender. The so-called generic use of words like ‘man,’ ‘brother,’ or ‘mankind’ and of masculine pronouns in traditional translations of the Bible obscure or even negate the participation of women in the communities whose stories are conveyed in the Bible. The translators of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) worked strenuously and systematically to address these problems. Their translation, on which this commentary is principally based, uses words like ‘person,’ ‘human being,’ and ‘brothers and sisters’ where the gender of a person is unspecified or where women as well as men are clearly being addressed.

She goes on, however, to describe a problem not addressed by the NRSV, namely, the exclusively masculine pronouns used of Godde:

A theological issue of great importance in feminist interpretation that was not addressed by the translators of the NRSV is the problem of gender and language about God. All pronouns referring to God in that translation are masculine singular. The explanation given is that these pronouns (or verb endings, as pronouns are often conveyed in Hebrew) are found in the original languages and that therefore the translation is accurate. In both Greek and Hebrew, however, all nouns have grammatical gender, which governs the gender of pronouns used to refer to the nouns. In that sense, those languages are like such modern languages as Spanish, where, for example, ‘table’ (la mesa) is a feminine noun, requiring a feminine pronoun (ella, ‘she’). If one were translating from Spanish to English, however, where pronouns convey biological and not merely grammatical gender, the pronoun that refers to ‘table’ would be translated with the neuter ‘it.’ The same freedom prevails in rendering pronouns from Greek or Hebrew. Thus, the decision about which pronouns to use for God is one that cannot be made on grammatical grounds. It is a theological decision, and one whose resolution affects the way one views God. An interpretative decision that many women make is not to use any pronouns to refer to God (simply to repeat the word ‘God’), thus conveying the theological affirmation that God is beyond categories of gender.

That’s the approach chosen by An Inclusive Version and The Inclusive Bible, and it is certainly a valid approach: Avoiding all pronouns with reference to Godde is an effective way to highlight the historic Christian position that Godde transcends gender. On the other hand, however, avoiding pronouns altogether arguably doesn’t balance out the exclusively masculine language that so many use of Godde; it simply sidesteps the issue. Consequently, Ringe’s point about the gender of the pronouns in the Bible deserves some emphasis.

As grammarians are constantly reminding feminists, the gender of Hebrew and Greek nouns and pronouns doesn’t imply anything about biology or sex. Fair enough, but that point cuts both ways: The reason that pronouns referring back to “Godde” are masculine in gender is not because Godde is more properly described as a “he,” but because they have to match the gender of the word theos. Consequently, “he,” “she,” and “it” are equally valid ways of rendering those pronouns in English, a language in which the gender of pronouns isn’t determined by the gender of their antecedents but by what we intend to communicate in terms of personhood and sex.

When speaking about Godde, we necessarily use the language of analogy and metaphor because we cannot adequately grasp all that Godde is. When we describe Godde as “she” or “he” we’re not saying that Godde is biologically feminine or masculine, but that Godde engages us in spiritual relationship. Experiencing Godde as “She Who Is” affirms the Divine Feminine and expands our appreciation and understanding of Godde.

It’s our contention that a Bible version which uses the pronoun “she” of Godde is just as true to the original languages as Bible versions which use the pronoun “he.” In fact, given the importance of reclaiming the Divine Feminine within the Christian tradition, the need may be even more urgent.

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One Response to ““He” or “She”?”

  1. timvictor Says:

    Mark,

    I really like the way you’ve put this. Many people I’ve spoken to understand the use of a feminine pronoun to be an attack on men and masculinity and a threat to our very understanding of and relationship with Godde.

    Understanding translation principles like this really takes the tension out of the issue and highlights that it is because of the theology that people hold, rather than because of translation concerns, that people have a problem with feminine references to Godde.

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