God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

On Biblical Masculinity and Femininity

Gender roles are a hot topic, so it should come as no surprise that people are looking to the Bible for guidance.

Biblical-Masculinity-FemininityOver the summer, Larry Crabb published his Fully Alive: A Biblical Vision of Gender That Frees Men and Women to Live Beyond Stereotypes. Explaining it to Christianity Today, he says:

Neqebah (female) means one who is open to receive, has an invitational style of relating. And zakar (male) means one who remembers something important and then does it.

Unfortunately, Dr. Crabb makes fundamental factual and methodological errors here.

Factually, the Hebrew neqebah (“female”) comes from the root for “pierce,” not “open to receive.” Though the common translation of neqebah as “pierced” is probably not as accurate as “hollow,” the point is the same: the Hebrew neqebah describes the female sex organ.

More importantly, zakar (“male”) comes from a multifaceted root that does not simply mean “remember.” Rather, the root is connected more broadly to referring to something that is not physically present. One way of doing this is to remember something from the past, but there are many others. In Exodus 3:15, for instance, the root gives us zeker as a synonym for “name,” because a name is one way of referring to something that is not physically present. Another way is to point, and it may be this meaning that gives us the Hebrew zakar.

If so, the Hebrew word for “male” comes from the pointing organ and the word for “female” from the hollow organ.

But whatever the case, the methodological errors make the factual evidence irrelevant, because words do not get their meaning from their etymology. As I explain in And God Said, this is one of the most basic tenets of language, and also one of the most common Bible translation traps.

Just for example, a “building” in English comes from the verb to “build,” but that doesn’t mean that we primarily think of buildings in terms of how they are built, just as the word’s etymology doesn’t preclude the possibility of a building being something we occupy. Another English example is the pair of words “grammar” and “glamour,” which share an etymology even though most people don’t think of grammar as glamorous.

Similarly, the etymologies of the Hebrew words for “male” and “female” — memory and reception, or piercing and pierced, or pointing and hollow — are irrelevant to their meaning. So they do nothing to help answer Dr. Crabb’s question of “what God had in mind when he made a woman feminine and when he made a man masculine.”

It seems to me that what Dr. Crabb has done is take his own notions of what men and women should be and, through flawed linguistics, put them in the mouth of God.


September 17, 2013 - Posted by | general linguistics, grammar, translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , ,


  1. It’s interesting to me that no one seems to mention Jesus in the discussions on masculinity and femininity and what YHWH had in mind (or at least the discussions that I’m privy to). If male and female were made in YHWH’s image, and the New Testament claims over and over again that Jesus is the “exact image of God,” then what does that mean for masculinity and femininity? Or am I doing some poor assumptions of my own about the language used? Did Larry Crabb address this at all?

    Comment by jasonmfry | September 17, 2013

    • I have no insight into how the New Testament writers may have understood b’tzalmo (Heb: “in His image”) as used in Genesis (and elsewhere). However, in Genesis 1 the term is thought by some to refer to God as creating mankind as having the authority of God insofar as ruling over His creation. Supporting this view is the observation that in the creation myths of other cultures in the Ancient Near East, the creator [gods] also use this divine image motif; but unlike Genesis which democratizes God’s authority (all are in His image), only the annointed ruler bears the gods’ image. Being in God’s image, then, suggests that each of us has an obligation to rise above our natavistic impulses in order to rule [wisely] over God’s creation and not necessarily as our nature might dictate.

      Insofar as gender is concerned, a close reading of Genesis reveals that the Hebrew separates (grammatically at least) the creation of mankind from the creation of the genders. I choose to take the view that the separation of genders subsequent to the creation of mankind should be interpreted to mean that men and women bear the obligation to rise above nature and conduct themselves accordingly.

      With respect to your question about Jesus as the perfect image of God, this view of image would mean that Jesus epitomized, more than any other human person, the ability to rise above His natural inclinations and do God’s bidding. In other words, if the New Testament authors viewed b’tzalmo as I’ve just described, gender differences were simply not in view.



      Comment by mtp1032 | September 17, 2013

      • Right, that’s about what I believe. Making very simplified statements, our current gender discussions in the West are: “Women are inferior because of their femininity.” “No we’re not! Men are dumb because of their masculinity.” Whereas before it was only: “Women are inferior because of their femininity.” I think over against both of those, YHWH says that we are all called to bear His image, and it is in being His (imperfectly) image-bearing creatures that we have worth; our gender does not give us worth. Rather, our gender gives us variety and difference in an inherently good way.

        Comment by jasonmfry | September 17, 2013

  2. It looks to me as if the “point” meaning of “zakar” could relate to the “dealing with things that are not right here” meaning — because, when you point at something, you are normally pointing at something that is at some distance from the person who is pointing (If you point at a distant speck on the horizon and tell your traveling-companion, “See that? It’s the oasis I told you about — we can make it there tonight, if we keep riding,” you are “zakar”ing the oasis by pointing to it, by referring to it although it is not actually right in front of you at the moment, and by remembering that it’s out there.)

    Of course, the REALLY sscary thing about the misinterpretation (of the two terms we are discussing) is that, if you Bo by the misinterpretation & use it as a definition, it becomes a prescription: “Men SHOULD NOT be open and welcoming!” “Women SHOULD NOT have memories!” Does the author of that passage you quoted actually seek, if male, to court/marry a chronic and complete amnesiac? Surely, on his premise, such an unfortunate is the only truly feminine woman …

    Comment by kategladstone | September 17, 2013

  3. I have been thinking that the figurative meaning developed from cuneiform. That you tick off an item using a stylus, (the pointy thing) and that marks it as something to remember. Its important. Then the thing ticked off (having an impression in the clay beside it) becomes important.

    Naturally, I am just a little ticked off that nobody I have noticed has intervened and commented to Crabb that talking about women as a box opened with a woodworking tool and men as people with important things to do, is not politically correct. But so far nobody seems to have taken on that responsibility.

    On another side topic, I get the impression that Larry Crabb believes either

    a) that the Hebrew language, as the language God chose to use, communicated divine knowledge through its etymology, or

    b) that the Hebrew language, as the language of creation, and of Adam and Eve, communicates universal realities through its etymology.

    Very mysterious, but he seems to believe something like this.

    Comment by Suzanne McCarthy | September 17, 2013

    • I thought of responding to Larry Crabb, but why would he care about any comment by a woman?

      Comment by kategladstone | September 17, 2013

      • Honestly, I think Crabb is trying to be more respectful of women through this book but that he is unintentionally conveying some poor ideas. I don’t think he would pooh-pooh words from a woman. If you have some credentials with which to write a response, I would do so.

        Comment by reddeb | September 17, 2013

      • I have no credentials, other than having majored in linguistics and knowing some Hebrew. I haven’t found that little to cut much ice with people like Crabb.

        Comment by kategladstone | September 17, 2013

  4. This is what happens when ideology is allowed to drive Bible translation. Very sad.

    Comment by Wayne Leman | September 17, 2013

  5. […] In the interview, Larry Crabb is moving beyond his knowledge of Hebrew to his understanding of Greek. (See Suzanne’s post here and Dr. Joel M. Hoffman’s post here.) […]

    Pingback by Dr. Crabb’s Jesus’s “female” literally means “the breast” – say what? | BLT | September 17, 2013

  6. In my middle age, have often questioned the translations that people push onto the Bible. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church in the heart of the Bible Belt and as a I child I gladly accepted what I was taught. Knowing now that people make meaning of literature based on their own limited experience, I understand all too well how the literal translations are promoted. For example: Most people will site: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” as their reason for using corporal punishment. They rarely realize that in Biblical times the “rod” was also a unit of measure. Could this particular verse also be interpreted as meaning: If you do not hold a child to a high enough standard, you will ruin that child? Children, after all, rise to the expectations that adults set. The question here however is male/female genders. First, the Bible tells us that Man was created in God’s image. The Bible also says that God created male and female of all species. Eve, was created as a helpmate to Adam. She was NOT created to be subservient to him. She was a part of Adam (taken from his rib) and is the opposite side of his coin. One half of a pair. It follows then that Woman was also created in God’s image. Next, God declared that he is the Alpha and the Omega. Yes, it can be translated as the beginning and the end. It can also be translated as meaning God is the opposite sides to the same coin. He is BOTH the male and the female. He follows with, I am the ONE God. I see that as meaning not that God is the ONLY God (why else would he admonish us to “have no other god before me?”) but that he is the WHOLE or Complete God. Keep in mind that most other religions of biblical times had deities that were either male or female. It seems to me that God is both male AND female. Perhaps that would shed a little more light on the male/female question… Perhaps gender has more to do with Spirituality and less to do with Physicality…

    Comment by Jean Dorbandt | September 18, 2013

    • I think it’s more accurate to say, not that YHWH is both male and female, but that from His image come both male and female. Jesus, the second part of the Trinity, is decidedly male, but otherwise we must be careful in declaring a gender for the triune God.

      I think YHWH created male and female to reflect his complex nature, and to create the possibility of different persons relating in perfect harmony, as each person of the Trinity relates perfectly to each other person of the Trinity, in mutual submission, love, honor, respect, love.

      Comment by jasonmfry | September 18, 2013

      • In reality, difference is often little related to gender. It is one thing among a mass of things which create difference.

        If one puts too much emphasis on a connection between gender and difference, women are back in the same old hole, still “different” from whatever man assigns to himself, which in the case of Larry Crabb is self-importance. It goes like this “Men have important things to do. They are movers and initiators.” And then, “Women, on the other hand, are different.” We are so flattered!!

        Women don’t want to listen to this kind of thing any more. It belongs in kindergarten.

        Comment by Suzanne McCarthy | September 18, 2013

      • I think your claim, “difference is often little related to gender” is a bold claim that requires bold evidence. Yet I do agree with you that gender is also one thing among many that create difference.

        Unless I’m reading you incorrectly, there’s a logical leap between putting “too much emphasis on a connection between gender and difference,” and therefore “women are back in the same old hole.” Difference does not equate to enmity, despite how often we may make one follow the other. As I said above, YHWH has always existed in perfect relationship with (as?) the three different persons of the Trinity, and He desires that for us as well: perfect relationship with Him, each other, and every other part of His creation. And note that most of those things are different from me.

        Comment by jasonmfry | September 18, 2013

      • I would be interested in hearing how men and women are actually different in your view. Apart from culturally acquired differences, that is. Very few men that I interact with now, over the age of 50, make much of the fact that men have, in their younger years, greater upper body strength. Other than that, we are human beings, some have more of one attribute than another, but not based on gender.

        Just wondering what differences you perceive. I see differences as cultural, and circumstantial, some good, some not so good, but intrinsically, we are human beings, and we should treat each other as neighbours, as our nachste, our proxima, our rea, as a fellow human being. But I meet relatively few men who regard women as their fellow human being first and foremost. That would be so amazing.

        Comment by Suzanne McCarthy | September 18, 2013

      • I agree that we can make a long lists of the differences of men and women that are primarily cultural in nature. Some are physical, but even then there are plenty of women who are physically stronger than me (and not even the strong woman competitions). However, that does not mean that those things do not, or should not, necessarily define a man or a woman. A woman is different from a cat in many ways, but that does not mean there aren’t women who think they are cats, or who behave as a cat. Meanwhile, everyone around her is concerned for her sanity and safety. And then again, just because our actions happen to coincide with the actions of a cat (meowing in jest, for instance), doesn’t necessarily mean we have become a cat, or think ourselves a cat in any real way.

        I do believe that men and women are equally valuable. I believe this not because of what each are able to do, but because, by their very nature, they bear the image of YHWH, and that gives us all equal value. Below, however, are the differences I believe are inherit to our genders.

        Eph 5. 25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

        A man should love his wife as Christ loved the church: give himself up for her, sanctify her, present her holy. Eph 5:25-6:9 is interesting in that none of the commands to men, women, children, slaves, or masters are unique to that certain group of people (though they tend to get pulled out of context and understood that way). Instead, each command applies to all people. All people should love each other, as Christ loves the church (see also Phi 2:1-11 where all Christians are in mind), in order to sanctify one another, and present one another holy before Christ when he comes (1 John 2:28-29, and others). And this doesn’t mean that the wife doesn’t do these things. However, there is a reason Paul gave this command to men at this point, and I believe that is because mature men should have this as their general disposition with their wife, and also for others, just as Christ gave himself up for the church and for the Father. (this is a side note, and maybe incorrect, but I wonder why else should men join the military, and not women? Because men are generally stronger physically? Isn’t that becoming more and more irrelevant as our battles are raged with less personnel and more technology?)

        Eph 5. 22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

        A woman should submit to her husband, as she submits to Christ, and as the church submits to Christ (and as Christ submits to the Father). The word “submit” has received a terrible stigma, but I encourage everyone to redefine what the word “submit” means in light of Christ. How did Christ submit to the Father? How does the church submit to Christ? Christ is not a tyrant to submit to or be punished. Nor is the Father. Christ willingly submitted to the Father (again Phi 2:5-11), and the Father graciously accepted his submission, and because of it the Father elevated Christ above all things. Before Christ submitted to the Father in this, Christ was not the firstborn from the dead, YHWH’s fullness had not indwelt him, etc (Col 1:18-20). Christ received all of these things because he submitted to the One who judges justly (I Pet 2:22-25).

        Now again, submission is not something that only women should do to their husbands. In Eph 5:21 we are all called to submit to one another. However, there is a reason Paul gave this command to women at this point, and I believe that is because mature woman should have this as their general disposition with their husband, and also for others.

        I do not believe that this necessarily means women cannot teach or lead others, particularly men. I do not believe that women should be quiet in the presence of men, nor that women are less. I believe the image of YHWH is glorified when women are who he made them to be, and that is a variegated thing for each woman, but part of it is a submissive attitude. Again let me emphasize that men should be submissive to others as well. But their general disposition should be one of giving himself up for others, while women generally receive that sacrifice graciously. And women generally submits to others, while men generally receive that sacrifice graciously.

        You may say that I’m splitting hairs and there’s really no difference here because all people should be submissive, and all people should love one another. However, I’m doing my best to be faithful to how I understand the Scriptures, and how I understand Christ. I believe that there is an inherent difference between men and women. These differences can get confused and switched, but that does not make them any less relevant. These differences also must never be a cause of enmity, nor be seen as making one lesser or greater. Submission is a good thing. Giving oneself up for others is a good thing. It is the world that has gotten these things out of whack, and we must not allow the world to drive the argument, or the language, because when we do we are tacitly saying, “Yes, these are the important questions, these are the ways to frame them, and this is the language we will use.” Instead, when the world begins to do that, we must redefine the argument, reclaim the language, and provide the framework, all in Christ.

        I welcome your comments, discussions, and disagreements on this. I have been wrong before, and have no delusions that I won’t be wrong again.

        Comment by jasonmfry | September 20, 2013

    • Re: “Spare the rod and spoil the child” — what’s the chapter and verse, please? and which Bible translation is it from? I can’t find it in any Bible that I’ve checked through with concordances or full-text searching.

      Could you (or others you trust) have falsely attributed to Scripture a statement which is not in Scripture? Please check.

      Comment by kategladstone | September 18, 2013

      • Proverbs 13:24. Quick Google search of that phrase made it easy to find the reference.

        Comment by jasonmfry | September 18, 2013

      • We’ve gone somewhat afield from the problems gender presents in the Bible. Thus, I’m somewhat hesitant to continue down into this weed bed, but I can’t help myself so I’ll pass on these few thoughts.

        First, I think the reference provided by Jasonmfry (Prov 13:24) is responsive and reasonable. However, I suggest that there’s more here than simply advocating corporal punishment. To really capture the intent of “spare the rod…”, one should also reflect on Prov 22:6 in which parents are admonished not to let a child adopt his own values (al-pi darko — lit. according to the way of his mouth”), or the child will grow to be willfully disobedient.

        Second, in 13:24 the Hebrew word for rod, sheev-to, is correctly understood as something to be used is to beat stuff (e.g., cummin (Isa 28:27), people (2Sam 23:21), and sheep (Lev 27:32)). On the other hand, the word can also be translated as “sceptre” — a mark or badge of authority and a symbol of rulership (e.g., Amos 1:5, Zech 10:11, Gen 49:1, and so forth).

        Accordingly, I choose to read Prov 13:24 more metaphorically, vis, as admonishing parents to exercise parental authority, one aspect of which is corporal punishment. My interpretation, then, of these (and other) parent-child teachings suggests that God cares less about how parents correct their children and much more that they do — especially as that correction pertains to a right understanding of Torah.

        I apologize for not keeping to the thread and will not use this one to discuss this aspect further. If you wish to add something (or take issue with me), please feel free to write me at mtp1032 — at — comcast — dot — net.


        Comment by mtp1032 | September 18, 2013

      • Re:
        “(al-pi darko — lit. according to the way of his mouth”)”

        No — not even literally.

        “Darko” means “his way.”

        “Al-pi” means literally “on/by the mouth of” —
        and what it _actually_ means
        is “according to.”

        “al-pi darko” = lit. “on the mouth of his way”
        = “according to his way”

        There is _nothing_ in “al-pi darko” that literally (or otherwise) is grammatically capable of meaning “his mouth.”

        If Hebrew had any phrase that would be _literally_ translated as “according to the way of his mouth,” that phrase would be “al-pi derekh piv” … But I have never encountered that phrase in the OT or in any other Hebrew text or utterance of any period.

        Of course I don’t know whether “al-pi derekh piv” would have been comprehensible to speakers of Biblical Hebrew — there are no native speakers of Biblical Hebrew fir me to ask.

        For what it’s worth, though, it is certainly not comprehensible to modern Hebrew speakers, including those who are very familiar with Biblical Hebrew. The impression it produces is almost what you’d get, in English, if you heard someone saying “A calling stone glasses no houses” — as if the speaker is jumbling together parts of half-memorized phrases in a way that puts his/her meaning just out of reach.

        Comment by kategladstone | September 18, 2013

  7. I’ma be honest, I don’t think your claim that words do not get their meaning from their etymology is one you can accurately make.

    Many words do indeed derive their meanings from their roots, perhaps not all their meaning, & perhaps not all the time, but it can not be said universally, or even specifically in this case, that the meaning of these words isn’t rooted in a more fundamental meaning.

    Hebrew actually very much does tend to be structured in a constructive sort of way, fundamental meanings are carried through, & varied, to the different derivatives of root words.

    Many of them tend to be grounded in concrete, often visual/familiar realities

    Such as the word yirat (fear/awe/powerful gut feeling) is derived from the word yara (to flow).

    And this thing we translate as fear is literally this overflow of emotion, often causing a resultant action, like bowing down in reverence, running in fear, or admiring in awe.

    Comment by Jordan | December 5, 2020

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