David E. S. Stein on Angels and Gender
David E. S. Stein here: Of course I am pleased to find that you are showing an interest in my work! Although I am not competent to comment on literature written in Greek, perhaps it will also be of interest if I spell out my thinking specifically on the question of angels’ gender in the Hebrew Bible, which I pondered at length while preparing The Contemporary Torah: A Gender-Sensitive Adaptation of the JPS Translation (which some of you, I think, discussed on the “Better Bibles” blog a year ago at the time of its publication). In that project, my goal was first to reconstruct the way that the Torah’s composer(s) expected the text’s original audience of that work (the Torah as a whole) to read its gender-related cues, and then to translate the Torah so as to reflect that way of reading. The perceived social gender of divine beings was one area that I had to consider. (The following treatment draws upon, and goes beyond, the entry on “messenger” in the “Dictionary of Gender in the Torah,” which is located in the back of that book.)
As the Hebrew Bible tells it, some of its subjects occasionally ascertain the divine will suddenly and intensely, as if receiving a burst of information; to express that spiritual experience of clarity, the Bible usually employs the metaphor of a particular human social institution: the delivery of a message via a messenger. In the ANE, messengers were commonplace and frequently engaged for all types of communication (personal, commercial, military, diplomatic, etc.) and to perform errands. The biblical terminology would have evoked the image of an emissary who happens to be from God but is expected to follow the protocols that human emissaries observe.
In ANE society, both men and women functioned as messengers. The best discussion of this topic seems to be Samuel A. Meier’s cautious yet informative article, “Women and Communication in the Ancient Near East,” JAOS 111/3 (1991): 540–547. Here I will quote from its latter portion, focusing on messengers: “The Akkadian marat shipri [a clearly female term for messenger] is attested from the Old Babylonian period down to the Persian empire. . . . One [also] finds women sent on missions implying messenger activity, even though the description marat shipri does not appear. . . . In Mesopotamia, female . . . messengers were continually confronting men, and it is consequently inappropriate to perceive the female world as an isolated entity. . . . Women [as messengers] were not simply an (admittedly rare) alternative but a preferred choice in certain contexts.” As evidence of female messenger activity in ancient Israel, Meier cites three biblical passages: 2 Sam. 17:17; Prov. 9:2–3; and Isa. 40:9. Direct evidence for Israelite women as messengers is scanty, but at the very least the prospect cannot be ruled out and the circumstantial evidence is strong.
Now let’s look at Hebrew language and grammar. One term that the Bible often uses for a messenger is ’ish. The text often uses ’ish conspicuously in the context of agency, as if the term was expected to reliably evoke in the original audience’s minds the widely attested sense of ’ish as “representative functionary.” In Zechariah 5:9, I would suggest that the word nashim functions to identify those specifically female messengers as being agents (implicitly performing an errand on God’s behalf) in the same way that ’anashim often does elsewhere for male agents. That is, both ’ish and ’ishshah are basically terms of affiliation rather than of gender; and in such cases the nature of the affiliation is one of agency.
When the Hebrew Bible refers nonspecifically to a messenger either with grammatically masculine language or with the male form of relational terms such as ’ish, such language is non-committal as to that messenger’s social gender; in such cases, the language functions as gender neutral (in the Hebrew original!), and social gender is not a direct concern of the text at that point. However, in such cases the ancient reader still might have inferred social gender from other contextual clues. For example, if a text refers to messengers wielding drawn swords, that would have reliably been construed as a sign of maleness, because in the ANE a sword was an archetypical male implement.
Now, if the reference is grammatically specific, then the masculine language or the male form of relational terms such as ’ish (as is applied to the angel Gabriel in the book of Daniel) would indeed have conveyed maleness, in addition to the primary lexical content (such as ’ish as a term of affiliation).
In saying that, I am assuming that readers are interpreting the text’s references to divine messengers in the same way as for ordinary language about human messengers. For I do not see on what basis messengers would qualify for an exemption from the rules of grammar. (By contrast, grammatically masculine language about God may have been construed as not conveying social gender, given that the Torah’s God is a singular being for whom the normal rules of grammar arguably would not apply.) The case of the specifically female messengers in Zechariah 5:9 seems to confirm that for the Torah’s original audience, it was indeed conceivable that divine beings had social gender even from within a monotheistic worldview. Also, the fact that some of the prophets were women shows that God was perceived as dispatching human females as messengers (see esp. the messenger formula that Huldah uses, 2 Kings 22:15 ff.), so why not divine females as well? The language of divine messengership was already metaphoric, expressing communication-at-a-distance with the Deity. Social gender could easily be a part of such metaphors without necessarily reflecting on God’s nature.
Or maybe the gender of angels did reflect on God’s nature, given that in the ancient Near East, the apparent tendency was for men to appoint male agents, while women appointed female agents. (So wrote Sam Meier.) To the extent that the Torah presented its God as beyond gender—which is disputed—it would have had reason to portray that Deity as an “equal opportunity employer” of messengers of both genders.
That being said, nearly all of the Hebrew Bible’s specific references to angels do seem to be to male beings. I am inclined to think that this high incidence of male messengers is a reflection of what was for many centuries the root metaphor of ANE social organization, namely, the patrimonial household, from which the Deity’s role as ultimate authority is quite naturally expressed by depicting the Deity as the male head of a household that consists of the entire polity. (See David Schloen, The House of the Father as Fact and Symbol: Patrimonialism in Ugarit and the Ancient Near East, 2001.)
Again, recourse to such an extended metaphor does not necessarily mean that the Bible was depicting its Deity as exclusively male. (The Bible misses many opportunities to make God’s maleness explicit, and I suspect that such silence is conspicuous and significant. But that’s for another time.)
Finally, as for Reinier de Blois and the Semantic Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew that he is editing, he says publicly that my approach to ’ish is “worthy of serious consideration,” and he tells me that he is treating me as a co-author for the dictionary article on ’ish when it eventually appears. We are both waiting to learn from how my approach is received at the upcoming national SBL conference. Even then it will take a long time to categorize the lexical and contextual domains of a word that appears in the Bible more than 2100 times!