Better Bibles Blog has moved. Read our last post, below, and then
click here if you are not redirected to our new location within 60 seconds.
Please Bookmark our new location and update blogrolls.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Rahab and her sisters

I can think of a dozen reasons to blog about Rahab. First, the wondrous scarlet of Leviticus, the scarlet that cleanses the leper, reappears in Rahab's window. But weave the scarlet back into the tapestry of Ps. 51, and look at other features of Rahab's narrative. She is kind to the spies. She is the means of escape and preservation for her parents and siblings. She marries a Hebrew, possibly one of the spies, and becomes an ancestor of Christ. What is not to love?

And yet, I have read that Rahab's sisters were not saved. I have read that her sisters were not saved because they bore the sin of pride. They were apparently too proud to enter her house of ill repute and be saved by the scarlet thread. Because, again apparently, sisters would take more offense than brothers at the prostitution of a sister - in the average Middle Eastern setting, that is. Here is why,


    11We know that the LORD your God rules heaven and earth, and we've lost our courage and our will to fight. 12Please promise me in the LORD's name that you will be as kind to my family as I have been to you. Do something to show 13that you won't let your people kill my father and mother and my brothers and sisters and their families. Jos. 2

    The Spies:

    17The men said to her, ‘We will be released from this oath that you have made us swear to you 18if we invade the land and you do not tie this crimson cord in the window through which you let us down, and you do not gather into your house your father and mother, your brothers, and all your family. Jos. 2.

    The Narrator:
    23So the young men who had been spies went in and brought Rahab out, along with her father, her mother, her brothers, and all who belonged to her—they brought all her kindred out—and set them outside the camp of Israel. Jos. 6.
So does "brothers" also mean "siblings" or do the sisters not rate being mentioned? Or are Rahab's sisters, in fact, not saved because of their pride.

I would suggest, that for Hebrew, the male terms for "sons," "brothers," and "fathers" refer, in the plural, to both male and female equally, and that is the usual way to do it. I don't think we can do that in English.

However, for Greek, I would argue a stronger case, that the plural of the male form, is probably the literal equivalent of a gender neutral form in English, either "brothers and sisters" or "siblings". Here's why.

First, the lexicon. The Liddell, Scott, Jones lexicon of ancient Greek provides several examples for αδελφοι, the first two are for brother and sister pairs.

1. The first reference to αδελφοι are Electra and Orestes, a sister and brother pair. Orestes is a Greek Hamlet character, but is much supported by his strong sister Electra, who has no parallel that I can think of in Shakespearean literature. In any case, these are a real sister and brother and are called αδελφοι.

2. The second reference is to the θεοι αδελφοι. These were the Pharoahs of Egypt, called the "Sibling Gods." They were brother - sister married couples who ruled Egypt for several hundred years. In imitation of Osiris and Isis, a married brother-sister pair among the gods, the Pharoahs of Egypt married a sibling. The famous Cleopatra, coming to the throne at 17, married her younger brother, Ptolemy, and later took Julius Caesar as a lover. She and her brother were αδελφοι.

3. This third example is from the Rahab narrative translated into Greek in the LXX. Here is how the translator, presumably someone who spoke Greek well enough, treated the problem.
    τὸν οἶκον τοῦ πατρός μου καὶ τὴν μητέρα μου καὶ τοὺς ἀδελφούς μου καὶ πάντα τὸν οἶκόν μου

    my father and mother and my brothers and sisters and their families Jos. 2:13

    τὸν δὲ πατέρα σου καὶ τὴν μητέρα σου καὶ τοὺς ἀδελφούς σου καὶ πάντα τὸν οἶκον τοῦ πατρός σου

    your father and mother, your brothers, and all your family Joshua 2:18
I have argued for a long time that the literal equivalent of adelphoi is not "brothers" but "brothers and sisters" and that to translate adelphoi consistently as "brothers" as if it were some sort of formal equivalent renders the texts of classical Greek incomprehensible. However, some have suggested that my understanding of ancient Greek is motivated by feminist presuppositions, and others have simply asked me to surrender all desire for truth and hold my peace.

It happens that this week more than one request was made for the real story on gender language in the Bible. This seems like a good place to start. I argue that an essentially literal Bible must translate adelphoi as "brothers and sisters" until the Countess of Pembroke and her brother Philip go down in history as a pair of "brothers."


At Fri May 23, 02:08:00 AM, Blogger theologien said...

Modern languages, such as French, use the masculine plural to indicate a group that includes both men and women. So, linguistically I don't think it is much of a stretch to arrive at your conclusion about the translation of αδελφοι.

At Fri May 23, 09:15:00 AM, Blogger Nathan Stitt said...

I'm really starting to warm up to siblings for this word. I still haven't read enough contexts though, but wanted to make a quick post so you know I'm following along. Need more free time for study.

At Fri May 23, 12:03:00 PM, Blogger tcrob said...

I think it's time for us to learn the difference between grammatical gender and natural gender, for this is the real issue.

At Fri May 23, 12:52:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

What's the difference in English, TCR?

At Fri May 23, 01:13:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

JK, English just doesn't have grammatical gender. We only make the "he, she, it" distinction based on natural gender. This is why it is very difficult for English speakers who have not learned modern languages with grammatical gender to understand grammatical gender in Greek and Hebrew. So, a plea to lean French or Spanish, German or Russian, or Arabic, or ...

At Fri May 23, 01:32:00 PM, Blogger Dewhurst said...

Too bad the writers back then (wayyyy back then) weren't a little more sensitive to gender. Would have been nice.

Would have been nice if they would simply have told women's stories in the holy texts more often. I know there are examples, but they just leave one feeling as if something grandly inadequate has been forced upon you. If your daughter (hypothetical, alright?) asks you to tell her a story about one of the women in the Bible you have a few choice morsels to relate to her. That, or you can find the nearest window and chuck yourself out of it. I leave it to you to decide which will be more pleasant.

We spend so much time on this gender thing sometimes. I wonder if it is because we are truly interested for personal or academic reasons, or is it because there is something in here we don't like to look at?

Or, something others quite easily see, that we don't want too.

At Fri May 23, 02:03:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks Peter. My question is rhetorical, and you answer it beautifully.

So when a group of sexist men like the Greeks from Homer to Aristotle (κατὰ γλῶσσαν ἐν ταῖς φυλαῖς αὐτῶν καὶ ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν αὐτῶν, as in LXX, Genesis 10:5) use language to suppress their women, then our bringing terms like τοὺς ἀδελφούς across into English, in which only some pronouns and certain marked nouns distinguish gender, makes translation very dicey indeed. Although we may really need some linguist lessons here, I question whether that's the only problem, or even the main issue for us.

Does everyone disagree that all English Bible translators have had no sexism? (Now I'm asking logically, of course).

For something else, I just reread F. A. Wright's last paragraph of his Feminism in Greek Literature from Homer to Aristotle:

"In Aristotle's time, for reasons which this brief survey of Greek literature has, perhaps, made plain, the facts of women's nature were certainly not sufficiently comprehended. Euripides and Plato are almost the only [male] authors who show any true appreciation of a woman's real qualities, and to Euripides and Plato, Aristotle, by the whole trend of his prejudices, was opposed. His mistake was that he failed to realise the moral aspects of feminism. A nation that degrades its women will inevitably suffer degradation itself. Aristotle lent the weight of his name to a profound error, and helped to perpetuate the malady which had already been the chief cause of the destruction of Greece."

So yes, let's learn languages as per your plea. And let's learn cultures and histories too. And then translate better Bibles.

At Fri May 23, 02:07:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

What you (and your hypothetical or real daughters) said. Thanks for asking your questions.

At Fri May 23, 03:17:00 PM, Blogger Dru said...

Some thoughts though I suspect not everyone will be happy with them.

First of all, there's a difference between sexism and sexist grammar. I am old enough to be able to date the grammar point fairly accurately to 1986. I hadn't encountered the issue at all until I was asked to write a book in Spring 1986, and the publisher's editorial policy referred to it. Until then, it was normally taken for granted that 'he', 'man', 'mankind' could depending on context mean either 'he' or 'he and/or she'. We were not sensitised to the point. It was not an issue. Nobody had thought of it. It is essential to recognise this when one reads books published before then.

A theological analogy is that until the Reformation, no one was catholic or protestant.

People are entitled to decide for themselves whether these sort of changes are a step forwards or backwards. But but once past that point we cannot go back again. We are sensitised to the issue.

Second, if one is writing about someone one likes but finds some of their attitudes reprehensible or unfortunate, one is entitled to say so. But if one is translating their writings, I do not think one can translate out the bits or the attitudes one doesn't like. That's interposing oneself between the reader and the original text. The reader is entitled to know what the original person said. That is just as much the case with Aristotle or, for that matter, Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter as with scripture.

Third, I think the point about grammatical and biological gender is an important one. As English speakers, we're not familiar with the assumption that a table might be female (French, Latin), bread might be male, but the basket it is in, female (Welsh), a child might be neuter (German) or a sea might be a different gender depending on whether it was a sea or a lake (German again). There are few bigger insults in English than to refer to a person as 'it'. Both Hebrew and Greek have grammatical gender.

So of European languages at least, it is only in English that one can have an argument about sexist language. The question does not exist in the others. The grammar precludes it.

Fourth, going back to Rahab, I'd question whether the original writer, was really concentrating on the question whether 'brethren' included Rahab's sisters or not. Furthermore, this is not part of the Torah. So there isn't the same obligation (if such exists) to consider whether the literal text contains some significant statement, as say with the daughters of Zelophehad.

So also, I do not think it is necessarily critical whether Greek speakers thought adelphoi meant 'brothers' or 'siblings'. It is quite possible they simply didn't regard it as an issue, or assumed it meant, 'brothers unless it needs to include sisters as well'.

Undoubtedly, before 1985, the Plymouth Brethren assumed brethren included sistren, even if they didn't allow them to speak. I know there are people who will disagree with me on this, but I would still maintain that the not speaking bit is not the same thing as the linguistic bit.

Finally, though, I personally wouldn't be very excited about using the word 'sibling'. It is possible this may be a difference in usage between different English speaking countries. But as far as I've experienced it, it isn't really used in normal speech, rather than sociological texts or forms.


At Fri May 23, 03:35:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


I don't find siblings all that useful myself. However, the sibling gods seems to be the only way to "accurately" translate adelphoi. Not that anyone would use it.

Since I was also raised in the Plymouth Brethren, I can say with certainty that "brethren" always included women, "brothers" excluded women absolutely, and correspondance addressed to assemblies always opened with "brothers and sisters."

Although "Brethren" meant silence, "brothers" meant complete exclusion. I was never taught to consider myself a "brother" - that would have been unthinkable.

At Sat May 24, 12:53:00 AM, Blogger Dru said...

Suzanne, I 'm not actually brethren but I encountered them quite a lot in my late teens and early twenties. Your distinction in usage between 'brethren' and 'brothers' is really interesting. Thankyou.


At Sat May 24, 02:41:00 AM, Blogger Jane said...

Thanks for this excellent post and great comments.
Suzanne I wondered what you might think about using the German word "Geschwister" for αδελφοι - obviously it doesn't work for English but it is used more in German than sibling is in English. Or might you even there want to argue for making the male and female siblings visible through the translation choices made?
On a more general point I live in one francophone country - France - and work in another - Switzerland - they have rather different approaches to inclusive language - the Swiss churches certainly make much more effort to use inclusive language and to use the term La pasteure for a woman minister. Try to find a French translation of sisterly in a dictionary though and you'll come up with "fraternité"!
In France I'd often have some smart Alec in the congregation call me "la pastourelle" which I suppose means shepherdess - hmmm very Marie Antoinette.
But is it really ok to say Ceux rather than "ceux et celles" and argue this on a pure grammatical basis. I don't think - even grammar can be sexist - but finding elegant
solutions is always a challenge.
In Switzerland there is more reference to les droits de la personne or les droits humains - France still insits on using les droits de l'homme - I suppose they would say they invented the phrase.
Anyway thanks also for the rehabilitation of Rahab

At Sat May 24, 03:38:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Anyway thanks also for the rehabilitation of Rahab

Yes, thank you Suzanne. And, Jane, what a wonderful description of the possibilities: "rehabilitation of Rehab" (and Ha I get the serious word play too).

The reader is entitled to know what the original person said. That is just as much the case with Aristotle or, for that matter, Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter as with scripture.

All 4 of your points are excellent. But I think this pt 2 is a great concern and fear and misunderstanding. It actually runs nearly opposite from what Jane sees Suzanne as doing.

You want us also to look back to the Hebrew tellings of Rehab (your pt 4) lest there's a burying of "what the original person said."

Since you bring up the Reformation (pt1) and Der Struwwelpeter, may I bring up again "Goldilocks and the Three Bears"? I'm really being serious, because, like you I think analogies can be extremely helpful. What's the original "Goldilocks" and don't your children deserve to "know what the original person said"? I asked this in a post here.

One point I am making (since it is an awfully long post on Goldilocks) is this: we should be very suspicious if ever anyone says "don't read the original Aristotle" or "the original Adolf Hitler" or "the original Hebrew on Rehab"; However, might we also be as suspicious when someone won't let us "know" how James Murphy puts Hitler into English (with Goebbels albeit differently from the original German)?

Language, in and by translation, alongside the original, if we must, will both rehabilitate and will bury. Can we pretend and fear that translation always and only moves in one direction (i.e., away from the original author's somehow original intentions, as if that intention is singular and the audience is singular both synchronically and diachronically)? Not really.

At Sat May 24, 06:34:00 AM, Blogger Dru said...

This is gripping. Thank you. Unfortunately, I'm going to be off line for a day or two. Pity.


At Sat May 24, 09:18:00 PM, Blogger David Ker said...

I don't remember any explicit teaching on Rahab's sisters from my childhood. Our church used NASB so it's "brothers."

Does remind me of another important passage in the Bible which shows the feminine form of brethren in Gen. 37 where Joseph's brethren throw him in the sistern.

Aren't you glad I commented?

At Sun May 25, 12:20:00 AM, Blogger Sue said...


You have made some great comments and I will try to respond to them in future posts. I have written about fraternité before and I will try to dig out that post.

I have tried to blog a little more about gender in Greek. I am not sure exactly what people are interested in, but I hope my next post will be of some usefulness.


Yes, I am glad that you commented. I have also enjoyed your posts and all our pomo conversations here on the BBB.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home