Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Is God's Spirit Female?

A correspondent in the letters section of the new New Yorker (Nov. 29, 2004) responds to John Updike's review of Robert Alter's new translation of the Torah. The letter reads in part:

"In the second verse of Genesis, the word "ruach," in the phrase "ruach elohim" (translated as "Spirit of God" in the old version), is a feminine word. Thus the spirit of the Lord is, in name at least, a female spirit."

It doesn't surprise me that someone might think that, but it does surprise me that the New Yorker thought it worthy of publication. Doesn't anyone on their staff know that the gender of a word and the sex of a person are not the same thing? The word "stone" in Hebrew ('eben) is also feminine; does that mean that rocks in Israel are female?

Two further points could be made. (1) The word ruach in Genesis 1:2 is not necessarily best translated "Spirit." Alter translates it "breath" (the fact that troubled the writer). The NRSV has "wind," as do the NEB and the NJPS. (2) Ruach is not always feminine in gender in the Hebrew Bible; for instance, in Numbers 11:31, it is masculine (as elsewhere, e.g., Isaiah 57:16). No one knows, as far as I know, why the gender shifts; but it has nothing to do with a sex-change.

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