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Israel and Zion—Two Gendered Images: Biblical Speech Traditions and Their Contemporary Neglect

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 September 2014

John J. Schmitt*
Marquette University


The Bible has two different ways of speaking about two objects of God's love: Israel and Zion. Israel is masculine, and Zion/Jerusalem is feminine. The difference between the two is more visible in Hebrew which distinguishes masculine and feminine in the verbs as well as in the adjectives. Neglect of this gender distinction by calling Israel “she” leads to distortion of biblical speech and thought, and to misunderstanding the Bible's image for the relation between God and Israel. Recognition of biblical usage and its gendered expression ought to precede theological reflection.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 1991

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1 Brueggemann, Walter, “Trajectories in Old Testament Literature and the Sociology of Ancient Israel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 98 (1979): 161–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Brueggemann calls them the liberation trajectory and the royal trajectory. These trajectories are congruent with what have been referred to as the “David-Zion” traditions and the “Moses-Sinai” story in Humphreys, W. Lee, Crisis and Story: Introduction to the Old Testament (Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield, 1979).Google Scholar They are comparable with Sinai, and Zion, in Levenson, Jon D., Sinai and Zion: An Entry Into the Jewish Bible (New York: Winston, 1985).Google Scholar

2 Gender is more visible and pervasive in Hebrew than it is in English. Hebrew verbs, except in the first person, express gender, and Hebrew distinguishes gender and number in the second and third person verb forms. Thus, Hebrew feminine “you” differs from masculine “you”—a distinction English cannot make with the pronoun. Moreover, contemporary English has dropped the number distinction between “thou” and “you.”

3 Schmitt, John J., “The Gender of Ancient Israel,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 26 (1983): 115–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Ephraim, the northern kingdom, once (Hosea 7:11) is briefly compared to a dove, yônah, a word which grammatically is feminine. Yet, in that passage it is only the “silliness” of the dove that is the point of the comparison. I am, however, ever looking for any clear feminine depictions of Israel in the Bible. The reader is invited to write.

4 McCarthy, Dennis J., “Notes on the Love of God in Deuteronomy and the Father-Son Relationship between Yahweh and Israel,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 27 (1965): 144–47.Google ScholarMoran, William L., “The Ancient Near Eastern Setting of the Love of God in Deuteronomy,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25 (1963): 7787Google Scholar, specifically: “In Deuteronomy we find the father-son relationship (8, 5; 14, 1 etc.) but never in connection with love, and of the marriage-analogy there is not a trace” (77-78).

5 The noun “Israel” occurs 2,507 times in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. Twice “Israel” has a verb in the feminine singular form: 1 Samuel 17:21 and 2 Samuel 24:9. One is inclined to regard these two exceptions (see Brown, F., Driver, S. R., and Briggs, F., Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament [Oxford: Clarendon, 1957], 975)Google Scholar as errors (the latter is changed to masculine in 1 Chronicles 21:5 when repeated from Samuel, as noted by Albrecht, K., “Das Geschlecht der Hebräischen Hauptwörter,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 16 [1896]: 5758)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and not as deliberate shifts of imagery and usage. In the New Testament, the gender of Israel is always evident by the masculine form of the Greek definite article occurring with the name, just as in the Septuagint.

6 Admittedly, contemporary English tends to use the feminine gender for countries (cultural gender, one might call it). It hardly seems relevant here, however, to discuss at any length the confusion of usages in various languages on the matter. In Latin, for example, fatherland is patria (feminine), and in German das Vateriand is clearly neuter. The Turks think of their Motherland, and the Russians honor “Mother Russia.” No doubt there are other peculiarities in other languages. The question is whether Bible commentators should explain the Bible first in its own imagery, which includes the genders that guided biblical thought. Granted that God language and creature language are metaphorical, the understanding of a text should begin with the metaphors and images of the author.

Examples of scholars neglecting to use the original biblical forms of thought regarding gender come from almost randomly selected annotations in the Oxford Annotated Bible, a good study edition which contains the reliable RSV. Psalm 130:7-8 reads, “O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” The annotation reads, “Israel should take the same attitude [as the individual in verses 3-6] in her national difficulties.” The annotation at Hosea 12:13 has the same “she” while the text has “he.” Later, at Micah 7:8-10, the speaker is feminine (clear from what her enemy says to her, v. 10), yet the annotation reads, “The prophet speaks as Israel.”

This blurring of the gendered traditions by referring to Israel as feminine is common among some scholars. The influential Gerhard von Rad has “she” for Israel throughout the two volumes of his Theology of the Old Testament, 2 vols. (New York: Harper & Row, 1962 and 1965).Google Scholar An American example: “Moreover, such an epithet [‘He who creates the (heavenly) armies’] lent itself to use not merely as a creation formula, but as an appropriate name of the god who called the tribes to form the militia of the League, who led Israel in her historical wars” (emphasis added) (Cross, Frank Moore, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973], 70).Google Scholar Another scholar in reference to God's action: “Israel would understand who he was by what he did on her behalf” (emphasis added) (Childs, Brevard S., Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985], 39).Google Scholar

7 Chapters 49, 60, 62, 66. See Schmitt, John J., “The Motherhood of God and Zion as Mother,” Revue Biblique 92 (1985): 557–69.Google Scholar

8 The two capitals appear as guilty women also in Micah 1. Isaiah 10:11 is another example of the two capitals linked: “Shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols as I have done to Samaria and her images?”

9 The passage occurs within the narrative of the prophet's marriage to Gomer. The text compares God's marriage to that of the prophet. Yee, Gale A. (Composition and Tradition in the Book of Hosea: A Redaction-Critical Investigation [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987], 51125)Google Scholar proposes that the wife-of-God passage is earlier than the wife-of-the-prophet context. According to her position, the original oracle is Hosea 2:4a-b, 5, 7b, 12 (verses 2, 3, 5, 10 in the RSV); the rest comes from various levels of redaction. Yee concludes that the wife in the original oracle if Jacob/Israel's wife Rachel. But analysis of the language leads one to conclude that even the original oracle speaks of God's wife, the city of Samaria; see Schmitt, John J., “The Wife of God in Hosea 2,” Biblical Research 34 (1989): 518.Google Scholar

10 The ancient Aramaic version understood the woman in relation to a city. The Targum for “Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry” (Hosea 1:2) has “Prophesy against the inhabitant of the idolatrous city”; see Walton, Brian, Biblia Sacra Polyglotta (Graz: Akademische, 1964), vol. 3Google Scholar, ad loc.

11 John J. Schmitt, “The Virgin of Israel: Reference and Use of the Phrase in Amos and Jeremiah,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly (forthcoming). The phrase recurs in Jeremiah 18:13, 31;4 and 21, once of Jerusalem and twice of Samaria. Schmitt builds on Fitzgerald, Aloysius, “BTWLT and BT as Titles for Capital Cities,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 37 (1975): 167–83.Google Scholar

12 The dating of this text, Jeremiah 33:23-26, is, of course, quite debated. If the text is post-exilic (with Carroll [OTL], Couturier [JBC], Schreiner), then “Israel” would no longer refer just to the northern kingdom, but to the people as a whole, the post-exilic community, and the complementarity between people and city would be clear. If, however, the passage is authentic, there are three options (according to Feinberg, Charles L., Jeremiah: A Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982], 238)Google Scholar for the two families: (1) Israel and Judah, (2) Jacob and David, (3) Jacob and Levi. Both Bright and Holladay, admitting the late date, opt for Israel and Judah. The passage belongs to the longest section in Jeremiah that does not appear in the LXX.

13 The “paraphrase” Living Bible avoids the feminine singular in Jeremiah 2:3 only to use it at Jeremiah 2:14, “Why is she captured and led far away?” Both the NIV and the NEB translate this latter verse by “he.” Tanakh (New Jewish Version) has “it” at 2:3 and “he” at 2:14. The KJV has “him” and “he” in the two places.

14 The 1986 revision of the New Testament of the NAB has changed the gender in agreement with the RSV and reads, “What then? What Israel was seeking it did not attain.” The previous translation, of course, had passed various translation committees, and it has been read publicly in Catholic churches for over twenty-one years and now is available in many homes and on many library bookshelves. And what kind of improvement is the recent revision? Perhaps a people should be called “they.”

15 One curious example of gender usage is Kaiser, Walter C. Jr., In his Toward an Old Testament Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978], 101–3)Google Scholar, immediately after a three-page section on Israel as “My Son, My Firstborn” in which Kaiser consistently refers to Israel as “it,” he employs the traditional feminine usage for the rest of the book: “The effect on Israel was overwhelming. After she saw …” (104). Yet in that book he makes no reference to marital imagery for God and Israel. In a later book he makes at least one reference to “God's adulterous bride, Israel” (Toward Old Testament Ethics [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983], 280Google Scholar).

16 The numbering of these verses differs among Bibles. The Masoretic text numbers them vv. 18-19, and NAB and NJB follow that enumeration. The LXX, however, numbers them vv. 16-17, and the Vulgate, KJV, RSV, and many other translations, and the Living Bible, follow that numbering.

17 The RSV and others follow the Greek, Latin, and Syriac versions which read “she” instead of the Hebrew “you” (feminine).

18 Eichrodt, Walther (Theology of the Old Testament, 2 vols. [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961, 1965])Google Scholar was the most influential Old Testament theologian in this development, and he organized his whole theology around the concept.

19 See Nicholson, E. W., “Covenant in a Century of Study Since Wellhausen,” Oudtestamentische Studiën 24 (1986): 5469.Google Scholar

20 Fensham, F. Charles, “Father and Son as Terminology for Treaty and Covenant” in Goedicke, Hans, ed., Near Eastern Studies in Honor of William Foxwell Albright (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971), 121–35.Google Scholar

21 “berith,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 2, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), 278.Google Scholar

22 Walsh, J. P. M. (The Mighty from Their Thrones: Power in the Biblical Tradition [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987], 51)Google Scholar felicitously translates qanna' as “passionate.”

23 Buber, Martin, Kingship of God, 3rd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 121–35.Google Scholar

24 Hall, Gary, “Origin of the Marriage Metaphor,” Hebrew Studies 23 (1982): 169–71;Google ScholarRinggren, Heltner, “The Marriage Motif in Israelite Religion” in Miller, P. D., Hanson, P. D., McBride, D.. eds., Ancient Israelite Religion: Essays in Honor of Frank Moore Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 421–28.Google ScholarWilson, Robert R. (Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980], 284)Google Scholar says that the imagery of marriage was originally part of Ephraimite prophecy.

25 I leave to others a decision about “the degree of metaphor” in this masculine and feminine consistency of terms and ideas. A writer or speaker might be able to use images without invoking the powerful forces and imaginative possibilities of a full-blown metaphor. I have been content here to speak of “speech traditions.”

26 Schneiders, Sandra, Women and the Word (New York: Paulist, 1986), 6566.Google Scholar

27 There has been a different analysis. Neher, A. (“Le symbolisme conjugal: expression de l'histoire dans l'Ancient Testament,” Revue d'Histoire et de Philosophie Religieuses 34 [1954]: 3049)Google Scholar sees a marital relation between God and Israel but does not view it as patriarchal. Schneiders, (Women and the Word, 35)Google Scholar summarizes Neher's view well: “He suggested that the metaphor was so apt for the relation between God and humanity precisely because of the equality of the partners in marriage as two autonomous subjects who freely chose to relate to each other and because of the historical character of marriage which allows for mistakes and regressions, recoveries and triumphs, growth and deepening. In no other relationship do two free adults choose one another and bind themselves to one another in an eternal covenant which must take its shape from the historical experience they forge together.” Neher surely has a beautiful view of marriage, a twentieth century one perhaps. Not many readers can understand certain biblical passages from this perspective.

28 History and experience reveal an easy link between superiority and violence. “The twin assumptions of male supremacy—through self-identification with God—and women as male property constitute patriarchal order. Rationalized as loving protection of the ruled, the bottom line of patriarchal order is the use of violence toward and even murder of the ruled for their protection. Augustine's epic City of God provides the explicit connection between rule and protection that allowed patriarchal rulers in families and states to justify their rule to those subjected as ’for your own good’” (Miles, Margaret R., “Violence against Women in the Historical Christian West and in North American Culture: The Visual and Textual Evidence,” Shaping New Vision, Harvard Women's Studies in Religion (Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1987), 1129, citation, 17).Google Scholar

29 Arnold, Joan (“Karl Barth's Theology of the Word of God: Or, How to Keep Women Silent and In Their Place” in Plaskow, Judith and Arnold, Joan, eds., Women and Religion, rev. ed. [Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1974], 6373)Google Scholar describes such an understanding in this way: “Thus it is woman who represents the creature, as in Barth's understanding of the Virgin Mary. She is subordinate and unequal, she must understand and keep her place. It does not seem to occur to him that male domination is the real hubris, the usurpation of the role of God with respect to women” (67).

30 See especially Ibrahim, Muhammad Hassan, Grammatical Gender: Its Origin and Development, Janua Linguarum, Series Minor, 166 (Paris: Mouton, 1977).Google Scholar

31 Chinese, Japanese, and Turkish, among others, have never possessed grammatical gender, while Persian, belonging to the Indo-European language family which readily employs grammatical gender, once possessed it but subsequently abandoned its use.

32 For the influence that grammatical gender has had on some writers, the following observations are helpful: “The Russian painter Repin was baffled as to why Sin has been depicted as a woman by German artists; he did not realize that ‘sin’ is feminine in German, … but masculine in Russian. … Likewise a Russian child, while reading a translation of German tales, was astounded to find that Death, obviously a woman … was pictured as an old man. … My Sister Life, the title of a book of poems by Boris Pasternak, is quite natural in Russian, where ‘life’ is feminine, but was enough to reduce to despair the Czech poet Josef Hora in his attempt to translate these poems, since in Czech this noun is masculine” (Jakobson, Roman, “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation” in Brower, R. A., ed., On Translation [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959], 237Google ScholarPubMed, as quoted by Ervin, Susan E., “The Connotations of Gender,” Word 18 [1962]: 249–61).CrossRefGoogle Scholar Grammatical gender, although created to keep specific lexical units connected, has clear psychological effects on those sensitive to it. Ibrahim says of gender, “Once a grammatical category comes into existence, speakers may utilize it in ways which had nothing to do with the creation of that category in the first place” (Ibrahim, , Grammatical Gender, 95).Google Scholar One might propose that sometimes the speaker is “used by” or influenced by gender rather than the reverse.

33 Ervin, , “The Connotations,” 259.Google Scholar

34 The impact is described well by Carolyn Osiek: “The affront to one's being that this one-sidedness represents can only be appreciated by someone whose social identity is excluded from the divine imaging: an exclusively white God with middle-class values is just as offensive for those whose identity is otherwise. The religious experience of one who has grown accustomed to the assumption that God is ‘like me’ is quite different from the experience of the one who knows that God is ‘like the other,’ a being with whom I cannot identify according to the analogy of my specific personhood.” And more specifically, “If a woman cannot find an ‘I’ mirrored either in God or in Christ, what is left?” (Osiek, Carolyn, Beyond Anger: On Being a Feminist in the Church [New York: Paulist, 1986], 19).Google Scholar

35 The Pentateuch's presentation of the conception, birth, and growth of the man “Israel,” the personification of the people, is proposed by Wilcoxen, Jay A. in “Some Anthropocentric Aspects of Israel's Sacred History,” Journal of Religion 48 (1968): 333–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

36 Generally scholars tie the marital image, not to the city, but to “fertility cults” or, recently, other cultural data. Mesopotamian culture, however, had a tradition of a goddess bewailing her lost city, in which sometimes the city itself was depicted as a woman (Jacob Klein, “The Motif of ‘The Lamenting Goddess’ in Cuneiform Literature and Its Assumed Biblical Parallel,” read at the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament Congress, August 1986, in Jerusalem). A different study relates the city as barren woman to the ancestral traditions of Genesis: Callaway, Mary, Sing O Barren One: A Study in Comparative Midrash, SBL Dissertation Series 91 (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1986).Google Scholar Another study makes connections with Greece in the figure of Athens/Athena, the daughter of Zeus: Follis, Elaine R., “The Holy City as Daughter” in Follis, Elaine R., ed., Directions in Biblical Hebrew Poetry, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 40 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987), 171–84.Google Scholar Still a different approach is to see the image of a woman in pain as a literary device that allows for “the full and free acknowledgement of women as persons” (emphasis in original): Kaiser, Barbara Bakke, “Poet as ‘Female Impersonator’: The Image of Daughter Zion as Speaker in Biblical Poems of Suffering,” Journal of Religion 67 (1987): 164–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar, citation from the last sentence of the article. The validity of Klein's work shows that the studies of Follis, Callaway, and Kaiser need the broader scope of the ancient Near East when one speaks of the Israelite depiction of cities as women.

37 Jung, C. G., Symbols of Transformation, vol. 5 of Collected Works (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956), 208.Google Scholar

38 It is not a matter of the literary device of pars pro toto. Various biblical authors give evidence for the continued distinction between capital city and the realm: “Jerusalem and Judah” (e.g., Isaiah 3:1, 3:8, 5:3) and the post-exilic sequence “Judah and Jerusalem (e.g., Isaiah 1:1, 2:1, 36:7; Jeremiah 4:4; 2 Kings 18:22, 23:2). The phrase “in Samaria over all Israel” (1 Kings 16:29, 2 Kings 3:1, and elsewhere) and other aspects of the distinction are treated in the article, “The Virgin of Israel,” in note 11 above.

39 “A woman may be understood to have much in common with a city or a country: she may be more or less valuable, more or less beautiful, large or small, a greater or lesser source of nurture, faithful or unfaithful. It is a compliment to a city or a country to personify it; it is an insult to women that cities and countries are so personified!” (Laffey, Alice L., An Introduction to the Old Testament: A Feminist Perspective [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988], 162).Google Scholar Perhaps Laffey's discomfort comes from assuming that the physical city alone is being spoken of. Biblical expression shifts quite easily among city as space, as ideal, and as inhabitants. When a city is condemned for its faithlessness, the focus surely is on the human beings within it.

40 Rabbi Aqiba (late first and early second century CE) is sometimes claimed to be the first clear adherent of the allegorical interpretation of the Song. None of Aqiba's sayings in the Mishnah, however, indicate that his interpretation included a marital relation between God and Israel. His real concern was that, because of its canonicity and sanctity, people would refrain from using the Song in “profane” celebrations. See Barthélémy, D., “Comment le Cantique des cantiques est-il devenu canonique?” in Mélanges bibiiques et orientaux en I'honneur de M. Mathias Delcor, Alter Orient und Altes Testament 215 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1985), 1322.Google Scholar

41 One can see this in Schneekloth, Larry Gilbert, “The Targum of the Song of Songs: A Study in Rabbinic Interpretation” (Diss., University of Wisconsin—Madison, 1977; Ann Arbor: University Microfilms) esp. 41, 48–50, 63–64, 67–68 and 76.Google Scholar

42 A contemporary Jewish biblical scholar who insists that the Bible itself depicts the relation as marital is Levenson, Jon D., Sinai and Zion, 7580.Google Scholar

43 The contemporary state of Israel can be grammatically feminine in Israeli Hebrew, and that is because the official name of the country if Medinat Israel (the State of Israel), a feminine construction. A test case, however, would be the gender of biblical Israel in modern Hebrew. The New Testament in modern Hebrew offers only a few passages in which the gender of Israel is clear, but these passages in a recent modern Hebrew translation (Berith Hadashah [Jerusalem: Yanetz, 1983])Google Scholar are consistent with the usage of the Hebrew Bible. At Romans 9:31, the verb is masculine plural. In the three other places where gender appears, Romans 10:19, 11:7, and 11:26, Israel is masculine singular. Biblical Israel today retains its original masculine gender in Hebrew.

44 A few other New Testament passages are taken to be appropriations of the supposed Old Testament image of God's marriage to Israel. One such is John 2:1-11, the episode of the wedding feast at Cana. But here the idea of marriage is not applied to something else; the wedding is significant for the miracle Jesus performs at the celebration. If there is an allusion to an Old Testament text in the Johannine passage, that allusion is to the opening chapters of Genesis because of, among other reasons, the way Jesus addresses his mother, “Woman”; see Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John 1-11, Anchor Bible 29 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 108–9.Google Scholar On a New Testament author who calls the readers adulteresses, a word often interpreted as an allusion to the covenant, one can consult Schmitt, John J., “You Adulteresses! The Image in James 4:4,” Novum Testamentum 38 (1986): 327–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar