Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Unavoidable Gender Ambiguities: A Primer for Readers of English Translations from Biblical Hebrew

David E. S. Stein


Loose ends appear constantly and that is part and parcel of the nature of translation.

—Steven Voth, SBL Forum, May 2008

Upon becoming a published translator of biblical Hebrew,[1] I was at first dismayed by how readers sometimes (mis)construed my intentions. After investigating the matter, however, I have come to appreciate that a byproduct of all English translations is ambiguity.

This article details my newfound awareness, expressed within a small area of concern: how readers of translations construe a noun's ascription of gender. I address three basic questions regarding renderings of the text's plain sense. And I conclude that readers have good reason to be circumspect.

QUESTION 1: When a translation employs gender-neutral language, does it mean that women are in view?

ANSWER: Not necessarily. The referent's male gender may go without saying. Or gender may not be the Bible's foreground concern at that moment.

Gender-neutral renderings can arise even when the context excludes women. For if the audience already knows—or can easily guess—the referent's gender, why bother to state it?

In English, such usage is common. For example, take the Boston Celtics (a championship professional basketball team). American sportswriters typically refer to its athletes as "players." With this gender-neutral noun, no one is implying that the team includes women. Readers already know that the Celtics play in an all-male league. Accord­ing to English idiom, if gender is understood, then it is normally not mentioned—unless it is somehow at issue.

Similarly, biblical Hebrew idiom often refers to male characters via terms that do not specify gender. Take, for example, the collective noun hamon. The narrator employs it (2 Sam 6:19) when King David marks a festive occasion by distributing goods:

le-khol hamon yisra'el le-me-'ish ve-'ad 'ishah

to the entire hamon of Israel, to [its] members [both] male and female.[2]

Clearly, hamon does not require that its referent be one gender. Yet in an earlier episode (Jud 4:7), during the prophet Deborah's discussion with Barak, she refers to the enemy commander's troops via the same term:

ve-'et rikhbo ve-'et hamono

". . . his chariots and his hamon."

Here hamon points to a group that is almost certainly male: we have ample and longstanding evidence (including from the Bible) that, aside from occasional female commanders, the ancient Near East had all-male militias. If so, the Hebrew text's audience would have understood that the fighters in question are male. But their gender is not at issue when Deborah speaks.

Translators can safely presume that English readers infer that the army in view was a male body. Its maleness is not an issue. So, according to normal English idiom, gender-neutral rendering of a noun like hamon is justifiable. Thus, renderings of Deborah's term include "multitude" (KJV), "troops" (NIV, NJPS, ESV), and "army" (HCSB).[3]

As a result, we readers cannot ascertain what those translators considered to be that party's gender. Just as Deborah left it unsaid, so do her translators.

Nouns can designate people in terms of a specified quality or of their function, rather than their gender. Thus, some biblical passages refer to a militia as 'anshe milhamah (Isa 41:12, Jer 50:30, Joel 2:7, and elsewhere). This expression denotes the participants ('anashim) in war (milhamah), that is, warriors.[4] They are surely males, yet their gender is not at issue. It is beside the point. It goes without saying. And, therefore, an English rendering need not be gendered. Defensibly gender-neutral renderings include "they that war" (KJV), "those who wage war" (NIV), "those who war" (ESV, HCSB), "warriors" (HCSB), and "soldiers" (NIV, ESV, HCSB).

Speakers or writers often employ a noun that actually denotes a much larger body. Let me use another basketball analogy: a sportscaster announces that "the Celtics are racing downcourt." In fact, however, most of the team's members are sitting nearby on the bench! Now, the speaker is (quite understandably) focusing on those players who are active—and is highlighting their group identity. Listeners are familiar with this convention. Thus the term employed ("the Celtics") can have a far broader scope than what would point strictly to the party in view.

Likewise in many biblical passages, such as Josh 10:15. There we are told that—after defeating five Amorite armies while the sun stood still—Joshua and kol yisra'el returned to their camp. To refer to the Israelite fighting force, the narrator employs a broadly inclusive term—which could apply equally well to the entire Israelite populace. Here it designates a certain subset of interest. Attention is focused on their group identity.

Typical renderings of our verse include "all Israel" (ESV, HCSB) and "all the Israelites" (KJV, NJPS, NIV). Such terminology is justifiably gender neutral. Yet, arguably the translators do not mean that they (or the Bible) consider only males to be Israelites. Nor are they implying that women are in view. However, we readers cannot actually be certain of the translators' intent in that regard because the wording uses an imprecise designation.

Thus far, we have looked at passages where the referents' gender was a given.

Alternatively, gender may simply not be the text's concern. Indeed, a referent's gender is often beside the point. In 1 Kgs 8:62, the narrator tells us that, during the dedication of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem:

ve-ha-melekh ve-khol yisra'el 'immo zovehim zevah

the king and kol yisra'el offered sacrifices

At the start of this episode, those whom the king gathered together were identified as ziqne yisra'el ("elders of Israel"; 8:1, 3). The Bible nowhere discusses the gender of those whom it designates via this term. It does not make an issue of whether they are male or female. Whatever their gender, they are serving here in their occasional role as the entire people's representatives.

As in the previous example, a gender-neutral rendering of kol yisra'el is justifiable. A typical choice is "all Israel" (KJV, NJPS, NIV, ESV, HCSB). But this does not mean that the translators believed that women are in view.

Unfortunately, when a translation employs gender-neutral terms, some readers picture both genders. But English idiom is not that precise. It normally expects gender to be specified only where germane and not already known. And in the Hebrew Bible, gender was often one of many descriptive details that the text's composers omitted.

Consider the preparations for divine revelation at Mount Sinai (Exod 19). In that passage, the text repeatedly refers to the Israelite participants via the collective noun ha-'am. This word is non-specific in terms of gender. (In Jud 16:30, ha-‘am must refer to the "men and women" twice mentioned three verses earlier.) However, in verses 7–8, the narrator—as in the previous example—foregrounds the zeqenim ("elders").

An analogy may help to unpack the gender implications. In 1787, the Constitution of the United States of America famously depicted its signers as "We the people." It does not follow from that text's use of a gender-neutral term ("the people") that women were among the Constitutional Convention's delegates. Nor does it prove that the signers considered only men to be "people." Why not? Because occupying the conceptual fore­ground is the signers' representation of a wider populace.

In our Exodus passage, the gender of the nation's representatives is not of concern. Are women in view? This question is not addressed when the narrator refers to the "elders" via the noun 'am ("people").

Women's presence (or absence) in this scene is likewise not the translator's concern. This may explain why even translations that render ha-'am variously elsewhere neverthe­less render it in this passage as "the people" (KJV, NJPS, NIV, NRSV, CJPS).

Such a rendering does not necessarily imply that the Torah depicts the whole populace (including women) as directly present. Nor can we tell from the gender-neutral nature of the rendering what the translators themselves thought about the participants' gender.

QUESTION 2: When a translation employs male language, does it mean that women are not in view?

ANSWER: Not necessarily. The male language may be employed in a gender-neutral sense.

In early modern English, the word "man"—when used without an article, or to refer to a category of persons—often bore a gender-neutral sense. In today's parlance, "man" could easily mean "human being, party." So consider the KJV translation of Num 31:26, in which God instructs Moses to take an inventory of recently captured booty, namely

ba-'adam u-va-behemah

both of man and of beast.

When the results are reported in verse 35, the KJV renders the same term as "persons"; we also learn there that all 32,000 "persons" were female. Clearly, in verse 26, the KJV has used "man" as a gender-neutral term.

Consider, too, the protasis (opening) of a law in Exod 21:12:

makkeh 'ish va-meth

He that smiteth a man, so that he die. . . . (KJV)

Elsewhere, the KJV seems to recognize that the noun 'ish can mean "a party."[5] Its translators highly regarded the (Latin) Vulgate, which renders here generically: hominem. So does the (Greek) Septuagint translation: τινα. Thus, in this instance, the KJV probably employed "man" in its gender-neutral sense.

QUESTION 3: When a translation employs male language, does it mean that gender is at issue in the biblical text?

ANSWER: Not necessarily. The male language may reflect another intent. Or the gendering may arise from English idiom.

Even with specifically male language, readers often cannot reconstruct with certainty what the translators meant. Conflicting possibilities simply cannot be ruled out.

A frequent case is "man" as just discussed. Many translators have employed it for formal reasons as a one-word equivalent of 'ish. They have sought to reflect how that Hebrew noun recurs in various ways—gendered or not—throughout a passage. (Gender is only occasionally at issue in the text.) Sometimes "man" means that women are in view, but at other times not. So from the noun "man" alone, readers cannot ascertain the translators' intent regarding the referent's gender.

Another source of gendered renderings is English idiom. Consider the wording in the 2 Chronicles account just after King Josiah's death. In 36:1, "the people of the land" took Prince Jehoahaz:


and made him king (KJV, NRSV, TNIV)

and made him the next king (NLT).

This same verb is employed in Esther 2:17 with regard to that book's heroine:


and made her queen (KJV, NRSV, TNIV)

and declared her queen (NLT).

In each case, the word "king" or "queen" helps to render the verb; in neither case does the Hebrew wording itself have a directly equivalent noun.

The narrators, in choosing the verb va-yamlikh, were not calling attention to matters of gender. For example, the Chronicler was not saying that Josiah's son was nearly proclaimed queen instead of king.

Note that of the four translations cited, three call themselves "gender-sensitive" or "gender-accurate" versions. Their translators strove to convey gender only where it is at issue in the original text. Yet all have opted here for the gendered terms "king" or "queen"—rather than, say, "ruler." Why?

Such usage is warranted by English convention. That is, when referring to the office of sovereign of a particular realm, English naturally makes the gender explicit, choosing between "king" or "queen." Consequently, a national anthem in certain English-speaking countries shifts between "God Save the Queen" and "God Save the King"—but never "God Save the Ruler."

Previously I claimed that English idiom does not normally state the referent's gender if it is understood. As we now see, there are exceptions. Gendered rendering can arise because of the needs of English, quite apart from the Hebrew text.


I have shown that gender-neutral language does not correlate exactly with women's presence, nor does gendered language correspond fully to their absence. Further, when a noun appears to be male, gender may or may not be germane.

These ambiguities are among the "loose ends" of translation. And so to some extent, what fans and critics of gender-sensitive translations really argue about is which ambiguities they themselves prefer.

Ambiguities arise not only from the act of rendering but also from the biblical text. Both the text and its translations are inexact. The text is a snapshot of a live communication performance (a longer event—yet itself of limited duration). Its translations, in turn, are only impressionistic likenesses in mosaic tile. Perhaps we should be careful not to expect too much precision from either one.

As Adele Berlin has noted, a translation "does not have the space to explain or justify itself."[6] So with my newly honed appreciation for unavoidable ambiguities, let me offer two modest suggestions to readers of translations:

•     Don't be too certain that you know what we translators were thinking.

•     Don't try to force a translation to answer all questions about the Bible; instead, let it prompt further questions.

David E. S. Stein, Freelance Editor[7]


[1] CJPS (Contemporary Jewish Publication Society translation), in The Contemporary Torah (Philadelphia: JPS, 2006); see Other cited translations are meant as representative, including

ESV = English Standard Version (2001)

HCSB = Holman Christian Standard Bible (2003)

KJV = King James Version (1611)

NIV = New International Version (1984)

NJPS = New Jewish Publication Society (1985)

NLT = New Living Translation (2004)

NRSV = New Revised Standard Version (1989)

TNIV = Today's New International Version (2005).

[2] On the primary meaning of 'ish and 'ishah as "participant, party, member," see my article "The Noun ‘ish in Biblical Hebrew: A Term of Affiliation," The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 8.1 (2008). Online: .

[3] Surely these translators did not pick a rendering simply because it was gender neutral. (Indeed, because English usually separates gender from other features of a noun's referent, they may not have consciously considered gender at all.) For a noun, translators typically begin by studying its meaning in all biblical instances. They select a default English equivalent. Then, in each case, they confirm that the default rendering fits the context; if it does not, they choose a suitable alternative. Gender is only one of many factors when deciding what makes a good fit.

[4] On 'anashim as "participants," see note 2. This plural personal noun is grammatically masculine, which does not then imply that all its referents are male; rather, they are not solely female. (Hebrew grammar divides the animate world into two categories: female and not-female. The grammatically feminine version of a personal noun is used when its referent is known to be solely female; otherwise, the grammatically masculine version is used by convention.) See my article "The Grammar of Social Gender in Biblical Hebrew," Hebrew Studies XLIX (2008): 7–26. Online: .

[5] As implied by its rendering 'ish variously as "one, whosoever, each," etc.

[6] Adele Berlin, "Text, Translation, Commentary," in Biblical Translation in Context (ed. Frederick W. Knobloch; University Press of Maryland, 2002), 141.

[7] With appreciation to Katharine Barnwell, Adele Berlin, Athalya Brenner, Michael V. Fox, Suzanne McCarthy, Mark Strauss, and especially John Hobbins, for their helpful critiques of earlier drafts.


© 2015, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.