Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Gender Discord in the Book of Ruth

November 20, 2013

This time I’m writing in response to an article that just appeared in the latest issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature, the flagship journal of the Society of Biblical Literature, the organization of academic biblical scholars.

The article, by Andrew R. Davis, is called “The Literary Effect of Gender Discord in the Book of Ruth.” Here’s what the author writes in his abstract summarizing the article:

In the book of Ruth there are numerous instances of disagreement in gender between a pronoun and its antecedent. Without discounting the various philological explanations that have been given for this disagreement, this article argues that the gender discord is also a literary device that makes an important contribution to the book’s narrative design and its development of characters. The laconic style of Hebrew narrative usually offers no glimpse of characters’ inner lives, but by recognizing the concentration of discordant forms in Naomi’s speech, we can appreciate how they characterize her grief and her ambivalence toward Ruth. The discord also highlights the theme of gender reversal in the book of Ruth. However the examples of gender discord might be explained grammatically, they also play an integral role in the characterization of Naomi and her relationship with Ruth.

Ordinarily this is the kind of explanation I love: A grammatical difficulty in the text, of the kind usually explained linguistically or simply written off as an error, is shown to be a deliberate choice by an author of literary skill. And if anyone in the Bible has demonstrated that skill, it’s the author of Ruth.

But I can’t accept this one. Here’s why. As Davis explains:

A survey of gender discord in the book of Ruth reveals two striking aspects of its distribution: first, nine of the ten instances of gender discord occur in ch. 1, and, second, the first seven instances are words spoken by Naomi.

If all the occurrences of gender discord were in Naomi’s own speech, it would be possible, even necessary, to explain them as a literary effect. But since two of them — Ruth 1:19 and 1:22 — suddenly appear in the words of the narrator, and the last (long after we have forgotten this issue) only in Ruth 4:11 (in the words of the townspeople and the elders), Davis is forced to make these latter three examples “work” in ad hoc fashion. This is midrash, not something that can be explained as a deliberate choice by a writer.

Moreover, there is an example of “gender discord” that Davis does not mention. In Ruth 2:1 the narrator informs us,

Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a man of substance, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz.

“Kinsman” is מודע (according to the Qere, or reading version; the word is מידע according to the Ketiv or written version). Whichever version of the word we follow, this is clearly masculine. Yet in 3:2, when we read,

Now there is our kinsman Boaz

“kinsman” is מודעתנו, where the ת clearly marks the word as a feminine form. This is Naomi speaking to Ruth; it would certainly not be hard to write another “gender midrash” to explain why she altered the form. But the nature of midrash is that one starts with a preconceived notion and demonstrates how a peculiarity in the text provides an opening for it. It does not work in the larger context; that’s what makes it midrash. Davis’s examples, like this unusual form, fall into this pattern.

There are some examples of a very deliberate gender reversals that do match the overall literary pattern of the book. The most obvious is this one:

Ruth 1:8
  But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Turn back, each of you to her mother’s house.”

Naomi’s two sons have died, and she is returning alone to Bethlehem. Ruth and Orpah have started out to accompany her, but she wants them to go back. In the Bible, the “natural” place for a woman to go when she is widowed is back to her father’s house; Naomi reverses this (one of several things in the book that suggest it was written by a woman).

There’s another, more complicated case of gender reversal in the book that also has a literary purpose. It works this way. Just as Boaz arrives in the field, Ruth is on her way off; the boys who are working as harvesters have been harassing her. (I’ve discussed this in three different articles, none of which are available online; but the third should appear when the Bible Odyssey web site launches next spring. I’ll link to it here when that happens.) Here’s what happens next (in the NJPS translation but with my emphasis):

Ruth 2:8
  Boaz said to Ruth, “Listen to me, daughter. Don’t go to glean in another field. Don’t go elsewhere, but stay here close to my girls. 9 Keep your eyes on the field they are reaping, and follow them. I have ordered the men not to molest you. And when you are thirsty, go to the jars and drink some of [the water] that the men have drawn.”

Boaz uses the word נערותי, “my girls.” When Ruth gets home to Naomi, however, she tells her (in 2:21):

He even told me, “Stay close by my workers [הנערים אשר לי] until all my harvest is finished.”

That’s the masculine form. Naomi — no fool — replies this way in v. 22, using the feminine form again:

It is best, daughter, that you go out with his girls [נערותיו], and not be annoyed in some other field.

And indeed v. 23 tells us:

So she stayed close to the maidservants [נערות] of Boaz, and gleaned until the barley harvest and the wheat harvest were finished.

Naomi’s remark in v. 22 is subtler than the NJPS English translation implies. The Hebrew has her enthusiastically agreeing with Ruth — but changing the gender of the word Ruth uses. Ruth may have used the masculine form casually; in Hebrew it can also imply both sexes. But one of the themes of the book is the many moments when history could have taken a different turn and prevented King David (Ruth’s great-grandson) from being born. In this case, we are wondering whether working all summer with the same group of guys might lead Ruth to a relationship with one of them instead of with Boaz. Naomi sets things straight right away, and both Ruth and the narrative follow the path she has laid out.

These are the kinds of gender reversal one finds in the book of Ruth. They fit the overall literary patterning of the book. I read the book of Ruth with my 2nd-year students at Penn every year, and often one of them thinks s/he has found “the pattern” that explains the grammatical gender discrepancies. But then another one shows up and the pattern is broken. I have to think that Andrew Davis, though his article is a worthy effort, hasn’t found it either.


What Did Hannah Ask For?

June 23, 2011

The Journal of Biblical Literature, which published my note about the phrase זרע אנשים (zera anashim; see my earlier post here) in 1 Sam 1:11, has now published an even shorter note responding to it — by none other than Shalom Paul of the Hebrew University. After Mayer Gruber, now of Ben-Gurion University, he is probably the person second-most responsible for my becoming a scholar and teacher of Bible.

Paul’s note, which sounds critical of my view, in fact confirms it. He emphasizes that the phrase in question is not at all “absurd” (as I characterized it) but is found in Akkadian, Hebrew, and Aramaic with the meaning “human offspring.”

I did not, of course, mean that the phrase was linguistically absurd, but that it was absurd for Hannah to ask for a human child. (As opposed to what, Rosemary’s baby?) The bottom line is that the phrase does not mean “a male child,” as the commentators like to take it, and therefore requires explanation.

It is a great thrill for me to engage in scholarly exchange with the remarkable scholars whose student I once was. And I am glad to remind the scholarly world that — despite the fact that my main focus for the last decade has been my Commentators’ Bible series — I am still primarily a scholar of Bible at heart.

1,000 Years of Biblical Literature

July 2, 2010

Hello again! I am hoping to resume posting more regularly.

In an earlier post, I discussed at length the fact that, though “the Bible” is a book, it is not one book, but three: a Jewish Bible, a Catholic Bible, or a Protestant Bible. I also pointed out that omitting the Apocrypha from the Protestant Bible leaves a gap of two centuries between the (originally) Hebrew books of the Old Testament and the (originally) Greek books of the New Testament.

That last comment is based on an assumption that was obvious to me but may not have been so to all of my readers—the Bible is an anthology. To speak only of “my” Bible, the Jewish one, it’s an anthology of literature created over a period of 1,000 years.

One reason it’s easy to forget this is because most of us read the Bible in English translation, and each translation is made in the space of a relatively few years, in more or less the same English “voice.” The various books may be translated by different individuals, but there is generally someone (or more usually, I believe, a committee) responsible for smoothing out inadvertent differences in the language of the various books.

They are not always completely successful—more on this, perhaps, in a future post—but in general our translated Bibles all sound as if they were written at more or less the same time (which indeed they were).

The real Bible, though, doesn’t sound like this. Take a moment to remember what 1,000 years of literature looks like. Subtract 1,000 years from 2010 and you get the year 1010—well before The Canterbury Tales (1390s?) and most of the way back to Beowulf (sometime before 1000). The Middle English of Chaucer is quite a struggle for most of us, and the Old English of Beowulf is simply impossible. We can’t read these great works of English literature until they are translated into English for us.

The situation is a little more complicated once we get to Shakespeare. Though some of us first learned these stories from the later, prose versions in Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, the plays themselves are still widely available and regularly performed in their original wording. Shakespeare’s English is close enough to our language that we understand it quite well (or think we do). We no longer say “whether ‘tis nobler in the mind”—we say “whether it’s nobler” or “whether it is nobler” or “whether it would be nobler”—but we adjust our ears to the slight difference. We all understand what it means to be “hoist by your own petard,” even though most people don’t know what a petard is. (The phrase literally means “blown up by your own bomb.”) But how many of us can hear the phrase “caviar to the general” without thinking—mistakenly—of someone in a military uniform? And only specialists (and Jacques Barzun, specialist in everything) know that Hamlet’s “buzz, buzz” means “You’re telling me stale news.”

We would expect the 1,000 years separating the earliest and latest biblical texts to exhibit a similar range—from the most recent and (relatively) easiest to understand back 1,000 years to a text that is more or less incomprehensible. But this expectation is wrong in two ways: (1) The oldest and newest texts are linguistically much closer to each other than Beowulf is to us; and (2) the biblical texts that are easiest to read fall in the middle of the time range, not at its end.

We’ll eventually get to a discussion of the history of Biblical Hebrew, a fascinating and contentious topic. But first—next time—let’s take a look at the oldest extended text in the Bible, the Song of Deborah.