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Gender Issues in Ancient and Reformation Translations of Genesis 1-4$

Helen Kraus

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199600786

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199600786.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
Gender Issues in Ancient and Reformation Translations of Genesis 1-4

Helen Kraus

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The introductory chapter gives a more detailed introduction to the study and its aims and objectives. It briefly charts the recent progress of feminist scholarship to a more moderate stance, to a multidisciplinary — even minimalist — approach. In the context of the Creation and Fall, it touches on the problems of gender‐exclusive language, gender‐bias, male/female stereotypes, and the implications of monotheism, a linguistically gendered God and the attendant prejudices and preconceptions. It points out that, as a piece of Old Testament research, this study is something of a hybrid, comprising exegesis, literary criticism and reception history, and drawing together a number of hitherto discrete approaches. This also means that, along the way, many potentially fruitful explorations have had to be put aside in the interest of brevity and clarity.

Keywords:   feminist scholarship, multidisciplinary, minimalist, Creation and Fall, gender‐exclusive language, male/female stereotypes, gender‐bias, monotheism, linguistically gendered God

How does the Hebrew text of Genesis 1–4 present the male–female dynamic, and how do five ‘authoritative’ translations represent this relationship? Are these narratives irredeemably androcentric? If so, to what extent are their translations responsible for promoting an intrinsic patriarchism which in turn finds resonance in contemporary culture? Is there a link between these narratives and what has been perceived by feminists as many centuries of misogyny? Can feminist scholarship help to make sense of a text that has been written, studied, and, until recently, interpreted almost exclusively by men?

The focus of this work is on those verses of Genesis 1–4 that concern gender and their rendition in five major translations: the Septuagint (3rd century BCE), Jerome's Vulgate (late 4th century CE), Luther's German Bible (1534), the English Authorized Version (1611), and the Dutch State Translation (1619). The questions that I shall address mainly concern variations between the Hebrew text and these translations and what they may reveal about the translators' understanding of women, their role in the male–female relationship, and their place in society. In order to give some insight into the translators' mindsets and cultural attitudes, I shall also briefly explore the sociocultural background to each translation.

The context of my study is the challenge mounted by feminist scholarship. A significant number of feminist biblical scholars – particularly those of the ‘second wave’1 – have tried and convicted Scripture,2 although the approaches and methods deployed are manifold and tend to defy classification.3 Some (p.2) have attempted to reverse the situation by arguing that woman is superior to man;4 others blame traditional readings of the text – rather than the text itself – for the creation of male and female stereotypes.5 Yet others adopt a more radical approach and reject what they see as ‘a malignant image’ of the Creation and Fall.6 This latter trend in feminist scholarship now appears to be giving way to a climate in which a more balanced approach is not only possible but becomes a natural development, and it is at this juncture that I have chosen to situate my study. A small but significant number of biblical scholars now seek to allow the text to speak for itself, and leading female scholars appear to be in favour of a more balanced, focused, finely tuned, and even multi‐disciplinary approach.7

In the case of Genesis, a return to the Hebrew text with its ambiguities, its poetic structure and qualities, and linguistic allusions, seems to invite a study of generations of interpreters, mainly but by no means exclusively Christian, who have shaped doctrine and translation alike. Furthermore, feminist criticism appears to have addressed exclusively the question of women in Scripture and their roles, often without giving due consideration to male–female interaction and the context of the relationship. Eve's actions, for example, affect both Adam and herself in equal measure. It is also vitally important to allow male biblical scholars sympathetic to feminist criticism to express their viewpoints,8 as well as giving a voice to those who are non‐feminist but who welcome the contribution made by feminist critical approaches to biblical (p.3) scholarship as a whole.9 If we assume that gender‐bias is genetic and cultural, as well as biological, then it becomes vital that the matter is viewed from the widest possible perspective to achieve the optimum balance and objectivity. A way forward, therefore, is to subject the biblical text to close exegesis in order to challenge accepted interpretation by attempting to identify and remove the detritus of many centuries of doctrinal tradition, to which translation has made a significant contribution. If the text is truly to speak for itself, it is vital that it is approached as much as possible without the preconceptions and prejudices either of the past or of present culture and fashion.

Such close exegesis is bound to confront the Old Testament scholar with the problem of monotheism that lies at the heart of the Creation narrative. As well as precluding feminine representation in the heavenly realm, it is monotheism that necessitates the creation of humanity from the earth rather than by sexual reproduction, which is the preferred method in other Near Eastern creation myths. Moreover, in a reversal of the customary process whereby man (and woman) is born of woman, monotheism demands that woman is born of man. Most important of all to this investigation, monotheism dictates the use of gender‐exclusive language when referring to the deity who presides over Creation. This exclusivity of language is present in all six texts in this study, and all therefore call for a linguistically gendered God. What exactly is meant by a ‘gendered God’ varies widely. Some cite Ezekiel 1:27–28 and point out that the writer ‘looks upwards and downwards from God's loins, but not at them.…the divinity who commands his creatures to reproduce (Gen. 1:28) does not himself do so.…God has no consort, and so [has] no use for the genitals that he yet gives to his human likenesses'.10 Others, in turn, cite Ezekiel 16:4–9 and conjecture that, to solve this conundrum, it is Israel who is groomed by God from infancy, eventually to become his consort by entering into a marriage contract,11 known as the Covenant. Yet others deny any sign of divine sexuality and argue that therefore sex is absent from ‘the realm of the holy’.12 This would appear to support the traditional notion that all sexual matters are separate from God. At the same time, however, Eve affirms divine participation in the procreative process in Genesis 4:1, and feminist scholars largely seem unclear as to how this participation may be understood. Much (p.4) has been written on monotheism and its attendant difficulties and implications, and it is not my intention here to reproduce the debate. Suffice it to say that much of what we shall encounter in these chapters is connected to the inviolability of the oneness of Yahweh,13 and it is useful to bear this in mind when considering the arguments that ultimately may be traced to his autocracy.

Meanwhile, archaeology has also entered the already adversarial debate with a historiography that is frequently at odds with Old Testament texts, and the matter has become at times extremely sensitive – and not always along gender lines.14 Minimalists, who argue that ‘biblical history’ is based on a theological construct, would argue that the two sides are ‘not that far apart’ and that a reasonable compromise is possible.15 The argument has been made of late for a less literal reading: we should ‘credit the Bible's presumably monotheistic authors with some capacity for metaphorical [and rhetorical] flexibility’. Can it be that for countless generations these writings have been misunderstood by both men and women? Have countless women suffered not only subjugation and oppression but also been falsely held responsible for engendering the sin that drove the human couple from the Garden and caused the ‘Fall’ of all humanity? If the answer is ‘yes’ – and there have been a good many affirmative voices – is it the writings themselves and their authors that must bear the responsibility, or is it those who used the Scriptures to lend substance to their ideas who should be held accountable? Or is it simply that the recording of these narratives was a task allocated to men and therefore they tend to reflect the masculine viewpoint?

There is a considerable body of scholarship that has considered these very questions, and I do not intend to reiterate the arguments. If nothing else, feminist scholarship has contributed, as Trevor Dennis puts it, to addressing the ‘terrible litter problem’ of the Garden of Eden, which is ‘knee deep in prejudices and preconceptions’.16 This is not a simple matter: many factors have contributed to the interpretations so forcefully condemned by feminist critics, and in the following chapters I shall attempt to unravel some of the strands of a complex story of traditions, external influences, strong‐willed individuals – and different perceptions of the human condition.

(p.5) My study begins by outlining some of the problems of translation and how these affect the understanding of translated texts. The second chapter ‘sets the scene’ by presenting and examining the Hebrew text as the source text for all five translations. I then turn to that all‐important first translation: the Septuagint, its origins, its history, its text, and its implications for subsequent translations. Next comes an examination of the Latin Vulgate, probably the most influential translation in the Western Christian tradition, and a look at the life and times of Jerome, the development of monastic traditions and the ascetic life, including that of women. There follows an appraisal of Jerome's translation which, unusually for those times, relied on Hebrew texts and scholarship. A short chapter on the life of women in early modernity introduces the three Reformation translations. I look firstly at Luther, considering the man and his life in order to see what bearing personal experience may have had on his translation of the selected passages. The English Authorized Version is next, which I assess through tracing the history of Hebrew scholarship in Western Europe and through the work of William Tyndale, arguably the most influential of its time, and the relationship of that work to the Authorized Version. The final translation to be examined is the Dutch State Bible, or State Translation, conceived and born out of the Low Countries' struggle for freedom from political and religious oppression. I examine the role of women in that society and look at the moral climate of the Netherlands' 17th‐century ‘golden age’. Some final remarks will summarize the conclusions drawn and bring the discussion to a close.

In the environment of Old Testament studies, this study is perhaps somewhat unusual and, in many ways, does not conform to the traditional pattern. Part exegesis, part literary criticism, and part reception history, it is something of a hybrid. The main difference lies in its emphasis on breadth, although, as regards exegesis of the text and its translations, in‐depth textual analysis of both Hebrew text and its specified translations constitutes not only a crucial aspect but also the supporting structure of the work. My study therefore concentrates on a number of areas of research, drawing on that carried out by others, to see how these different areas may interrelate, hopefully to present a coherent – if composite – picture. Thus the innovation of this study lies less in the advancement of research in any specific discipline, other than perhaps biblical hermeneutics, than in the application of an interdisciplinary method, and the drawing together of a number of hitherto discrete approaches, to the topic of ancient and Reformation Bible translation.

The major challenge in this study has been containment. With almost every one of its chapters carrying the potential of a separate volume, many topics (apocrypha, rabbinic writings [with the exception of some of Rashi's exegetical work], the theology of Augustine, the proliferation of early English Bibles, to name but a few) have therefore had to be put aside, valuable though their contribution would have been. Likewise, where secondary sources were (p.6) concerned, I have attempted to maintain a focus on those that deal with the Hebrew Bible per se, rather than considering its Christological interpretation. A necessary exception to this is the impact of Christianity upon the reception history of the Septuagint as an authorized translation. I have resisted the suggestion to exclude either ancient or Reformation texts from this study, and the result is something of a whistle‐stop tour of the reception history of the translation of gender issues in ‘Creation and Fall’ through antiquity and early modernity.

For ease of navigation through the different chapter sections that deal with the translation of specific verses, I have attached the following subheadings to the same groups of verses in each chapter's textual analysis section:

[chapter subheading]


Male and female (1:26–28)


Man (2:7, 9, 15–17)


Woman (2:18–25)


Seeing (3:1–13)


Consequences (3:14–24)


Generation (4:1–2, 17, 25)

I also include two appendices: a synoptic comparison of the six texts studied (Hebrew text and five translations), and a comparison of Tyndale's translation and the Authorized Version.

Finally, in a work such as this, which takes translation as its topic but also deals with foreign‐language sources (both primary and secondary), there is an ever‐present risk of being hoisted by one's own pétard. Therefore, in order to be as faithful as possible to original texts and authors, direct quotes in the original language will be given in footnotes, with translations accredited as appropriate.


(1) For a recent account of the different ‘waves’ of feminism and their associated ‘gender criticism’, see Deborah Sawyer, ‘Gender Criticism: A New Discipline?’ in A Question of Sex?, ed. D.W. Rooke (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007), 1–17.

(2) A phrase coined by Carolyn Osiek, as cited by Yvonne Sherwood (Sherwood, Y., ‘Feminist Scholarship’, in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible, ed. J.W. Rogerson [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001]), 296–315 (301).

(3) Loades argues feminism can have no singular definition; Sherwood defines feminism as ideology rather than method. See Loades, A., ‘Feminist Interpretation’, in The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation, ed. J. Barton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 81–94 (81); Sherwood, ‘Feminist Scholarship’ (301). The term ‘second wave’ implies a ‘first wave’ (paralleled by the suffrage movement), which sought to challenge what was perceived as a biblically based male dominance and championed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (see Cady Stanton, E., The Woman's Bible [Great Minds Series; New York: Prometheus Books, 1999]). For a recent account of the ‘waves’ of feminism and their associated ‘gender criticism’, see Deborah Sawyer, ‘Gender Criticism: A New Discipline?’ in A Question of Sex?, ed. D.W. Rooke (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007), 1–17.

(4) Davis, E.G., The First Sex (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971).

(5) Trible, P., God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Overtures to Biblical Theology, [2]; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978) and, writing a century earlier, Cady Stanton, E., The Woman's Bible: The Original Feminist Attack on the Bible, abridged edn. (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1985).

(6) Daly, M., Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985).

(7) Among the main exponents are Phyllis Bird (Bird, P.A., Missing Persons and Mistaken Identities: Women and Gender in Ancient Israel [Overtures to Biblical Theology; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997]); Carol Meyers (Meyers, C.L., Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context [New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988]) and Heather McKay (McKay, H.A., ‘On the Future of Feminist Biblical Criticism’, in A Feminist Companion to Reading the Bible: Approaches, Methods and Strategies, ed. A. Brenner and C.R. Fontaine [Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997], 61–83).

(8) For example, David Clines (Clines, D., What Does Eve Do to Help? and Other Readerly Questions to the Old Testament [Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series; 94; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990]); Philip Davies (Davies, P.R., Whose Bible is it Anyway? [London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004], 89–94); Bob Becking, Meindert Dijkstra, and Karel Vriezen (Becking, B., Dijkstra, M., and Vriezen, K., Only One God? Monotheism in Ancient Israel and the Veneration of the Goddess Asherah [Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001]).

(9) See Eryl Davies (Davies, E.W., The Dissenting Reader: Feminist Approaches to the Hebrew Bible [Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003]).

(10) Loughlin, G., ‘Biblical Bodies’, Theology and Sexuality, 12, 1 (2005), 9–28, 23. Albertz points to the likely presence of a consort in Bronze Age Canaanite temples, as well as the veneration of Asherah as family goddess. See Albertz, R., ‘Religion in Pre‐Exilic Israel’, in The Biblical World, ed. J. Barton (London: Routledge, 2002), 90–124 (92).

(11) Eilberg‐Schwartz, H., God's Phallus and Other Problems for Men and Monotheism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 110–12.

(12) Frymer‐Kensky, T.S., ‘Sex and Sexuality’, in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. D.N. Freedman (New York; London: Doubleday, 1992), 1144–46.

(13) The meaning of ֶאׇחד is itself problematic as it seems to suggest a compound significance in addition to its singular one. See BDB, The Brown‐Driver‐Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 2001), 25–26.

(14) See Meyers, C. (see note 7).

(15) Davies, P.R., ‘What Separates a Minimalist from a Maximalist?: The Search for History in the Bible’, Biblical Archeological Review 26, 2 (2000), 22–27, 72–73; Davies, P.R., In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’, 2nd edn (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series, 148; Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995).

(16) Dennis, T., Sarah Laughed: Women's Voices in the Old Testament (London: SPCK, 1994), 8.