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Friday, December 21, 2007

Child of her womb: Is. 49:15

    Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
    Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you. Isaiah 49:15 ESV

    הֲתִשְׁכַּח אִשָּׁה עוּלָהּ
    מֵרַחֵם בֶּן-בִּטְנָהּ
    גַּם-אֵלֶּה תִשְׁכַּחְנָה
    וְאָנֹכִי לֹא אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ

    μη επιλησεται γυνη του παιδιου αυτης του
    μη ελεησαι τα εκγονα της κοιλιας αυτης
    ει δε και επιλαθοιτο ταυτα γυνη
    αλλ' εγω ουκ επιλησομαι σου ειπεν κυριος

    Will a mother forget her child
    so as not to have mercy on the
    descendants of her womb?
    But even if a woman should forget these,
    Yet, I will not forget you, said the Lord.
All the translations in the King James tradition, except for the NRSV, have "son of her womb" in this verse. The (T)NIV and several other modern translations have "child of her womb". The Septuagint has "descendants" or "offspring" of her womb.

Although the Hebrew ben-bitnah most literally says "son of the womb", I have to question whether the actual referent here is a son or a daughter; and if a daughter, wouldn't it be better translated "child of her womb." In verse 14 the referent is clearly Zion, a female entity, and usually treated metaphorically as a female. Does it really make sense to call Zion the "son of her womb?"

My second reason for questioning the use of the gender exclusive "son" here is that this entire passage compares the love God has for his children to something both a mother and a father feels. But the feeling is for the children, not specifically a son.

I found the phrase "child of my womb" recently as the title of a post on a blog authored by a woman who had just lost a stillborn child, a daughter. I argue that she would never have used the phrase "son of my womb" in this situation. I feel strongly that if the Hebrew or Greek word refers to children, both male and female, then that needs to be made clear in English.

I look forward to hearing comments as to whether there are any reasons why "son of my womb" should be retained.

8 Comments:

At Sat Dec 22, 06:48:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Hebrew scholars should have better comments. But you've done a good thing showing the interlations (Hebrew and Greek and Englishes). And with respect to any single language, there is more than one meaning at any given level. In other words, on the single phrase ben-bitnah there may be phonological (i.e. punny ties) to other points in the Hebrew text. Or there may be lexical contrast to other births (i.e., 45:1, 45:5). To call a daughter (or a child) in the womb a son, might be really funny to Isaiah's Hebrew readers / listeners. Thus, taking that out of the text loses much.

On the rhetorical level, seems that 45:15 is an immediate contrast to the cry in 45:14. It's a rhetorical questioning, a response to a subjective situation. The suggestion is How can a God who treats the son of a womb so well neglect a daughter such as me? But, again, the Hebrew might bring that out in ways the Greek or English versions don't.

So in English (as you point out) and in Greek, the cultures and languages highlight other things. Multiple meanings all over again at any individual level of text (i.e., sounds, vocabulary, grammar, rhetoric, culture). Gender constructs within a historical period, as contrasted with our own, in languageS, make for very interesting reads. We, I think, have the advantage of looking back. And the advantages of looking back through various languages and subjective situations. Hope others will join in with thoughts. Those are my two cents, as we say here.

 
At Sat Dec 22, 11:13:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

I wonder what the "accuracy in translation" crowd do with this passage. The child is a girl, LXX seems to recognise a problem with "son", but they can hardly translate "daughter" here!

 
At Sat Dec 22, 12:09:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Kurk,

I see where you are going but I have to disagree. My thinking is simply this. Hebrew did not have a separate word for children. The word ben meant either "son" or "child" and we have to translate accordingly. In English we spread the meaning over three words - son, daughter, child; but in Hebrew the same meanings had to be expressed with only two words - ben and bat. Therefore, ben is legitimately translated into English as either "son" or "child". I don't actually think this has to do with gender construction or any other deep thoughts but is a straightforward situation where there exists in English the gender neutral word for child, and there doesn't in Hebrew.

That's what I think. I could be wrong. The Greek translator obviously had some question about this too.

 
At Sun Dec 23, 11:18:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Actually, I have to pull back... there is no necessary reason to understand this putative woman's child as daughter Zion. It could even (allowing for patriarchal social values) be that the second line intends "son" - strengthening the "value" of the child. The first line stresses the physical and emotional attachment of mother to nursling, the second stresses "son of her womb" (i.e. heir who continues the family line).

Though I still like the logic:
Daughter Zion says: I'm forgotten.
God says: A mum can't forget her nursling or the heir she has born. But if she can I can't forget you my daughter!

 
At Sun Dec 23, 11:47:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Since elsewhere even the strictest of gender exclusivists regard bene as non gender specific, why is this case different?

It seems to me we are assembling emotive reactions. I know of no one at all who thinks that the "children of Israel" cannot refer to the people of Israel, women included.

Who says that here "son" means "heir" and elsewhere it simply has to do with the number of years since a person, male or female, was born, or merely to be one of the people of?

And clearly this interpretation is not one that would be useful in a pastoral situation. A mother does not emotively think of her daughter as being included in the word "son".

 
At Sun Dec 23, 02:31:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Susanne, I have no desire to argue either that a contemporary translation should render ben-bitnah as "son of her womb", I much prefer "child of her womb" for the sorts of reason you have stared.

Except:
(a) here ben is singular (not the plural construct you cite bene) and the singular form usually refers to a son, it is rare that it refers to a daughter - unlike the plural
(b) the imaginary person referred to as ben-bitnah is NOT daughter Zion as you suggest (and I at first accepted) but rather an imaginary child of an imaginary forgetful mother.

In either case what strikes me is that mother YHWH replies to daughter Zion saying (unlike that imaginary forgetful mother) I will not forget you.

That message is only nuanced, but not at all changed, whether one translates bene as "child" or as "son".

It would be a shame to loose sight (especially at this time of year) of the lovely picture of the motherly God, whose love knows no end to argue over the putative gender of the sad forgotten child of the imaginary human mother!

 
At Sun Dec 23, 05:51:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I agree that this is a metaphor, but on the level of referential meaning, I am still unsure of whether ben can mean "child" or not. It was translated as "child" several times in the KJV so this gave me the impression that it actually meant "child." The lexicons also provide "child" as a meaning. So on a very simple level, I am still unsure of whether a Hebrew woman would have spoken of an unborn child of unknown sex as ben.

 
At Mon Dec 24, 07:18:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

>Suzanne writes I see where you are going but I have to disagree. My thinking is simply this. Hebrew did not have a separate word for children. The word ben meant either "son" or "child" and we have to translate accordingly. . . I don't actually think this has to do with gender construction or any other deep thoughts but is a straightforward situation where there exists in English the gender neutral word for child, and there doesn't in Hebrew.

>Tim writes That message is only nuanced, but not at all changed, whether one translates bene as "child" or as "son".

>Suzanne responds So on a very simple level, I am still unsure of whether a Hebrew woman would have spoken of an unborn child of unknown sex as ben.

Yes, we can just imagine whether the Hebrew woman speaks this way. Even if she does, we have this text to read, to interpret, to translate.

If I write the color xanh in my Vietnamese, then how will you English readers read it? Is it your "blue" or your "green"?

So whether the Hebrew woman writes, or whether a Hebrew man writes for her (as if she were his protagonist in his novel, or if he were her editor), the Hebrew male term ben-bitnah can mean different things in Hebrew. Even this phrase has multiple meanings, despite some singular (ostensibly original) intention.

Isn't it the way that C.S. Lewis (an English speaking Brit, a literary scholar atheist-turned-Christian, in the twentieth century) must reflect on the Psalms (written in Hebrew, to be read by Jews around David and the other song writers believing in their One God, perhaps scores of centuries before Lewis)? Lewis reads "second meanings" into the Psalms. These are "English meanings," "Western meanings," "literary meanings," "Christian meanings," and "twentieth century meanings." Would David agree with these although he may not have intended them originally? (Would David have appreciated C.S. Lewis's book Reflections on the Psalms the way Lewis appreciates David's Psalms?)

Doesn't the ambiguity insist on outsider humility? And if a Hebrew woman so long ago (or the man writing for her) only has access to ben-bitnah, does that prevent the multiple meanings?

If my letter "A" sticks on my keyboard, then would you still m*ke me*ning from wh*t I type if I h*ve to substitute for th*t letter this symbol "*" inste*d?

So color constructs are different from keyboard "letter A" constructs. And gender constructs (as in any single language) are different even more. Of course! The distinctions may be Tim's "nuanced"-vs-"not-at-all-changed" distinctions. We have to differentiate the consequences of the constructs. Color constructs for us, depending who we are, merely nuance, as do keyboard letter substitutions. But gender constructs have powerful societal consequences, for us, depending who we are. And our readings and translations highlight these consequences.

I don't disagree with what you've written, Suzanne (or Tim). But would you agree with me in saying that we cannot prevent the "second meanings" of ben in ben-bitnah in the context of Isaiah 49:15?

 

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