Something to Brag About: Jeremiah 9:22-23 (Part 2: Adjectives, Gender, and Number) – Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields
This month’s post continues from last month. Please see the June 2017 post for an explanation of versification. As mentioned there, this post will follow Hebrew numbering with Hebrew texts and English numbering with English texts.
The Hebrew of 22b–d contains three adjectives, “wise … strong … rich” and three corresponding nouns, “wisdom … strength … riches.” The adjectives are functioning as nouns and refer to people identified by each quality. The nouns are impersonal and are things possessed by the people.
The careful reader of English versions notices some differences between the NIV and NASB in v. 23b–d: the NIV has “the wise … the strong … the rich” while the NASB reads “a wise man … the mighty man … a rich man.” The reader who is able to work with Hebrew or with Hebrew tools can readily answer these questions.
Why the NIV and NASB Differ over Specifying Gender in v. 23b–d
Hebrew adjectives, unlike English, are marked for gender (for further discussion of these first two paragraphs, you may wish to consult Hebrew for the Rest of Us, ch. 12). For example, the adjective is the same in both English expressions “a large man” and “a large woman.” But in Hebrew the adjective is different, respectively: אִישׁ גָּדוֹל (ʾîš gādôl) and אִשָּׁה גְדוֹלָה (ʾiššâ ḡedôlâ).
Hebrew has only two genders, masculine and feminine (English, of course, also has a neuter). The default gender is masculine. So when men exclusively are intended or when men and/or women are intended, the masculine gender is used. When women exclusively are intended, the feminine gender is used. Whereas English can make genderless expressions such as “a wise one/person,” Hebrew does not have this option and must choose between masculine and feminine. In Hebrew expressions of adjectives used as nouns (that is, without the nouns present), Hebrew must choose between גָּדוֹל (gādôl) meaning “a large (man)” or “a large (person),” and גְּדוֹלָה (gedôlâ) meaning “a large (woman).”
The differences between the NIV and NASB are explained as follows. The NASB follows the form of the gender of the Hebrew; the adjectives are all masculine, and indicates this by adding the noun “man,” which is not explicit in the Hebrew. The downside is that some readers may assume that women are excluded from being described as wise, strong, or rich. The NIV, wanting to avoid this limitation, translated following the form of the Hebrew by not including a noun.”
Why the NIV and NASB Differ on Singular and Plural Pronouns in v. 23b–d
The Hebrew of the three nouns in v. 22b–d all have pronouns suffixed to the nouns. The NIV has the plural “their”; the NASB has the masculine singular “his.” Why?
Hebrew pronouns, just like nouns and adjectives, all have gender and number. First person pronouns are “common” gender, meaning that “my” and “our” do not indicate gender; context determines whether or not women are included. For second and third person pronouns, Hebrew must make a choice between masculine and feminine, and the genders are determined in the same way they are for adjectives.
The suffixes in the Hebrew of v. 22b–d are all third person, masculine, and singular, “his.” The gender and number are in agreement with the antecedent, the substantive to which they refer. (For further explanation, please see Hebrew for the Rest of Us, ch. 9 and pages 113–16, which includes a discussion of English.)
What are the versions doing? The NASB is translating the form of the Hebrew; the pronoun “his” matches the gender and number of the Hebrew. The NIV has changed the Hebrew number from singular to plural, and the English third person plural pronoun, “their,” does not mark gender. This, of course, is in keeping with their understanding that the verse is not intended to be limited to men.
With regard to gender, it is interesting to note that the adjectives “strong” and “rich” never occur in the feminine; nor did I find contexts that demand the inclusion of women. This must not be pressed too far. Women could be rich in the OT (see Num 27:1–11) or in the NT (Acts 16:11–15). The word “strong” usually implies might in combat rather than character. So perhaps it would not be justifiable to apply the term in the OT or NT world to women. Also, Jastrow, גִּבּוֹר, Dictionary lists only masculine examples. However, in Isa 47:5, 7, where the Masoretic Text has גְּבֶרֶת, geberet, “lady,” the 1QIsaa of the Dead Sea Scrolls has גבורה, gbwrh, which the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew conjectures might be vocalized גִּבּוֹרָה, gibbôrâ, “heroine.” But this is not probable. “Wise” is used specifically with respect to women a few times, usually modifying the noun “women,” and is even used without the noun in Jer 9:16. Including women in the descriptions, of course, also includes women in the warnings for misplaced boasting.
Inclusiveness and Personal Application
Both the NIV and NASB are good translations.
What is gained and lost? Readers of the NASB must be aware that in Hebrew the masculine gender is the default, and the inclusion or exclusion of women must be determined from the context. Readers of the NIV might read the plural and have a reduced sense of the personalness of the verse implied by the singular number. Bible students that can work even a little in the biblical languages can see these potential blind spots.
As we seek to apply God’s word, some passages are more corporate and others are more personal. The principles in this passage have application to the lives of each of us whether male or female.
In the next post, we will conclude our study of this passage. If you have not yet memorized these verses, give it shot. And again, if you know Hebrew, memorize it in Hebrew!