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Breast-God: women in the male literary imagination of Genesis 49

August 6, 2013

With the dim hope of discovering more … female authors writing in Hebrew, the only path left for the Hebrew … feminist is treating issues of women and gender via the male-authored texts. Historians may try to reconstruct the actual life-experiences (Grossman 2001; Baskin 1991, 94–103; Assis 1988, 25–59) and the authentic voices (Kraemer 1995, 161–182) of real women captured in male-authored documents. The task of feminist literary critics, for their part, is to account for the ideological and symbolical functions designated to women in the male literary imagination; to map the positions of female figures and the positioning of their voices within the patterns of male discourse; to explore the artistic strategies of women’s presence/absence and the procedures of their signification.
Tova Rosen

In seeking the meaning or connotation for El Shaddai I have come up with no answers but plenty of poetic allusions. Here are the three major connotations of El Shaddai – breasts and by association mountains, and destruction. These do not represent the known etymological roots of the word, but rather euphonic and associative connections.

In Genesis, El Shaddai is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. In Genesis 49:25, Shaddai, – שַׁדַּי the Almighty, is the one who blesses with the blessings of the heavens and the deep and the breasts שָׁדַיִם (the shadayim) and the womb.
Suzanne McCarthy

The name or epithet Shadday (translated as “the Almighty”) derives its significance from … the pre-Mosaic patriarchal people…. However, the “etymology and primary meaning of the name [had] long since been forgotten” by the time of the LXX.
Harriet Lutzky

My mother has been studying the biblical names of God and told me this week that Shaddai has signified Breast.

About that time, Abram K-J, blogger, was announcing a soirée. To use his words precisely, he’s “Announcing the Septuagint Studies Soirée.” In “the” party, he’s announced the “four Septuagint-related blogs” that he knows of. All men authored, these four, I see; and so I’m back to posting about the LXX, as a man. In a private conversation, Abram tells me he’s struck by how proportionally there seems to be more women doing scholarship on the Septuagint than on other biblical studies. He names Karen Jobes, Kristen de Troyer, Jennifer Dines. And I say not to forget Adele Berlin, Sylvie Honigman, Naomi Seidman. Or Ann Nyland, who has translated the Psalms, using (as many translators do) both the MT and the LXX as the sources.

Then I recall what the Septuagint translators did with Shaddai in Genesis 49. They were men, weren’t they? Yes, breasts are mentioned, and womb. These motherly wifely womanly female images are in the Hebraic Hellene. And absence, margin, lack is there. The men – as if Moses writing the blessings spoken by Father Jacob over Son Joseph – imagine Jewish voices in Greek. Their LXX translation even helps men translating the Hebrew later try to figure out what the original Hebrew must have meant. So what?

What does that signify about women? To women?

Below is the MT and the LXX side by side. And beside that is Sir Lancelot Brenton’s Englishing of the Greeking of the Hebrew.

MT.LXX.49.25

Notice the name in the Hebrew that is missing from the Hellene.

Now here is how Everett Fox Englishes the Hebrew.

Everett.Fox.49.25

He transliterates Shaddai and includes a footnote (which I’ve put in the box above, to the right of his translation).

Now here is how Robert Alter puts the Hebrew into English. (His footnote is also included; I’ve again placed it to the right of his translation).

Robert.Alter.49.25

We should note that Alter is translating not only from the Hebrew MT but also from the Hellene LXX. And so he adds this footnote on the very next verse:

The Masoretic Text is not really intelligible at this point, and this English version follows the Septuagint for the first part of the verse, which has the double virtue of coherence and of resembling several similar parallel locutions elsewhere in biblical poetry.

That note brings us back to a quotation of Harriet Lutzky. She writes:

Verse 26: the absent mother

Immediately following [Genesis 49:25] is a highly ambiguous passage (verse 26a), whose Masoretic rendition “is obviously corrupt and cannot be restored”. There should be a line parallel to “blessings of breasts and womb”, with the form “blessing of x + y”. And, in fact, in some translations, after ’ā·ḇî·ḵā (your father) we find … καὶ μητρός σου (LXX) (and your mother).

And that brings us again to what Tova Rosen has said:

The task of feminist literary critics, for their part, is to account for the ideological and symbolical functions designated to women in the male literary imagination; to map the positions of female figures and the positioning of their voices within the patterns of male discourse; to explore the artistic strategies of women’s presence/absence and the procedures of their signification.

To have women scholars working on male texts that imagine women is critical. Would you agree? And what difference do women make when they talk about men talking about women? And God? And breasts?

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. August 6, 2013 5:48 pm

    In this post, I meant also to quote Rosen saying the following (in light of Alter’s note on what Emanuel of Rome did with Genesis 49:25) –

    Debates over the good or bad “nature” of women are to be found also in Hebrew literature in Italy. The Mahbarot of Immanuel of Rome, are full with male poets entertaining themselves with this rhetorical sport of “praising the beautiful woman” and “condemning the ugly” using highly sophisticated language (Immanuel of Rome 35–43). Some dozen Italian-Hebrew poets were involved throughout the sixteenth century in a debate over women, cast in various poetic forms and influenced by Italian literature. The Hebrew poets brought arguments for and against women from the Bible, Greek mythology and Roman history. Though, again, the authors were exclusively male, this time women did participate as active readers and patrons of the poets (Pagis 1986, 259–300).

    Underlying many of the discourses and genres of medieval Hebrew literature is a framework of a male-to-male talk. In this virtual economy men convene at the city gates or in literary salons in order to deliver to other men poems, stories, sermons, epigrams and jokes. The intention of such “homotextual” economy is to give textual pleasure to other men, or to get it from them. The commodity which is most often delivered in these textual transactions is “woman.” In a maqama by Immanuel of Rome, a poetic contest is held between a lady’s husband and her two suitors. The winner’s prize, upon which all three men agree, is the wife’s body. Wed to an impotent, this pretty lady is eager to get rid of virginity, and thus encourages the suitors to win the contest. Though it seems that she plays an active role in this comedy—her task is merely to serve as a conductive for male rhetorical energy. What starts as a hilarious burlesque with an exchange of epigrams and bawdy rhymes, ends with the husband’s victory. The impotent husband wins back his own wife, who is paradoxically a virgin and an adulterer; a wife he will never be able to satisfy. Marriage, however destitute and absurd—prevails.

  2. August 6, 2013 6:45 pm

    To be totally pedantic, the LXX doesn’t omit El Shaddai: ο θεος + possessive (here, ο θεος ο εμος) is the favored translation not only at Gen 49.25, but elsewhere in the Pentateuch:
    - Gen 17.1: ο θεος σου
    - Gen 28.3: ο (δε) θεος μου
    - Gen 35.11: ο θεος σου
    - Gen 43.14: ο (δε) θεος μου
    - Ex 6.3: θεος ων αυτων (a slightly different construction, but very closely related)
    - Num 24.4: θεου alone (because it’s not in relation to a particular Patriarch, but just a ye olde name for God in the Balaam pericope, similar to its use in Job)
    - Num 24.16: θεου alone (ditto)

  3. August 6, 2013 7:47 pm

    I will read more closely and write again later, but for now, if I may give you a hard time (in a spirit of bloggerly love, and also framed by a deep appreciation for what you write and do) for this:

    “To have women scholars working on male texts that imagine women is critical.”

    “male texts” but “*women* scholars”? I know it’s becoming more accepted to speak of “women authors,” “women this,” and “women that,” but what we really want to say is “female scholars.” Just like we wouldn’t say “man scholar” but would say “male scholar.”

    The Julia Kristeva in me wants to read a lot into an increasing use of “women writers,” “women priests,” etc. where adjectival “female” is the right word. But for now, I’ll just make the grammatical observation. :)

  4. August 6, 2013 7:48 pm

    (Not trying to sound pedantic!)

  5. August 7, 2013 8:23 am

    James – Totally pedantic point well made.Do know that we aren’t in the least anti-intellectual at this blog.

    And so: that the only instance of שָׁדַיִם in the Tanakh occurs here with μαστῶν (which is the only instance of this Greek phrase in the LXX Pentateuch) is rather striking, to me anyway. My co-blogger Suzanne talks also about the “euphonic and associative connections” (which gets to and lets in the Greek phrasings). And still: what is considerably startling to the reader (and maybe the listener of Hebrew too) is how שַׁדַּי (not the only name of God in this short context) so sounds like the plural שָׁדַיִם. The LXX translators lose that with perhaps their equivalent to השם, HaShem, the unspeakable “Name.”

    Thank you for your post “Shaddai and the LXX“; I’ve left a comment there (still in moderation).

  6. August 7, 2013 8:40 am

    LOL, loving Abram. :)

    I was really worried that you might come over here and call me out for writing:

    “These motherly wifely womanly female images are in the Hebraic Hellene. And absence, margin, lack is there.”

    Well, instead you give me flack for writing something else, which I confess is not my own. Writing so very quickly yesterday, I’m afraid I forgot to use the quotation marks. And, yes, I understand you too were moving very quickly in your reading. Let’s together, now, get this right. My title and the bit you take me to task for is really something from Dr. Tova Rosen:

    “women in the male literary imagination”

    She, this female writer, also writes too much about “women authors,” “women this,” and “women that,”:

    “The absence of Jewish/Hebrew women poets is manifest especially when compared to the relatively significant number of medieval non-Jewish women writers.”

    “Even more pertinent to our context are the scores of Arabic women poets, Eastern and Andalusian; princesses, courtesans and slave-girls; fighters, mystics, and musicians, whose names, and sometimes also their texts, have been preserved, or rediscovered (Nichols 1979, 114–117).”

    “The woman’s voice here might be representative of the women keeners who, in traditional societies, are burdened with the task of expressing the grief of the community.”

    And she refers to the essay by Carmen Caballero Navas, entitled, “Women Images and Motifs in Hebrew Andalusian Poetry.”

    We might take that up with her. Grammar. Is it “female” grammar, for her, to us men?

    Yes, blame the observations, ours that is, and purely about grammar, on Kristeva, the female in you. I’m smiling in real life, a smile has come out on my face, as I’m resisting writing a second emoticon. (Just this week I met with one of my colleagues who is toying with writing an essay on the uses of feminist, women, and female as adjectives in the name of a course she teaches. She notices how her choice to use women – and not some other English modifier – constantly raises questions from others. And she’s the one who so long ago introduced me to the wonderful book by Nancy Mairs, entitled: Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer. “Is there a God in the Academy creating academics in His own image and dispensing careers according to some holy plan?” Mairs asks. And so she resists “modification.”)

    Abram, I really do hope you will be able to find time to comment more! Looking forward to hearing from you.

  7. August 7, 2013 11:50 am

    Actually (having re-read it now more closely) I think “These motherly wifely womanly female images are in the Hebraic Hellene. And absence, margin, lack is there” was the best line of this post. :) <—- emoticon

    It is interesting, isn't it, that Rosen also says (as you quote her earlier in the post), "…to map the positions of female figures and the positioning of their voices within the patterns of male discourse…," using "female" and "male" in parallel as adjectives? I wonder (contra the intriguing suggestion from your colleague, which essay I would love to read) whether Rosen is using a noun ("women") as an adjective on purpose?

    This is perhaps highlighted in the Christian Book Distributors catalog, which has a "Favorite Authors" section (men) and then a separate "Favorite Women Authors" section. "Author" as male is default (hence, no "Favorite Male Authors") such that to speak of a female author has to be specifically marked. And maybe some are still so taken aback by the very thought of a "female this" and a "female that" that they make the grammatical equivalent of a stutter and use a noun (which feels awkward to me… maybe just as the very notion of a female author/poet/pastor/etc. feels awkward to some?) where an adjective is otherwise wanted.

    And I see James has pointed out that ο θεος ο εμος in the LXX translates את שׁדי in the Hebrew (so would be on the third line in your first image, rather than a blank).

    So, then: is your point that the LXX translator(s) perhaps did have a breast-God (את שׁדי) text in front of them and sanitized the title of God that in the Hebrew would have carried the association with breasts?

  8. August 7, 2013 12:22 pm

    Abram,

    What a wonderful comment, all of it! Yes, the emoticon with arrow! Thanks for pointing to Rosen’s (grammatical) parallelisms and for showing how marked “Women” is in the language of the Christian Book Distributors catalog. I do think that wo-men and fe-male are inherently marked in English. I wish we in English had grown-up terms for boy and girl, that allowed neither to be semantically and morphonemically dependent on the other.

    On the next point, I wonder if “translates” really is what we might call what the LXX renderer is doing with ο θεος ο εμος. The move is clearly different from what he does with μαστῶν.

    I love your question to me:

    So, then: is your point that the LXX translator(s) perhaps did have a breast-God (את שׁדי) text in front of them and sanitized the title of God that in the Hebrew would have carried the association with breasts?

    I don’t know if we ever could know. I do believe the absence speaks loudly, and it maybe serves less to sanitize than it does to throw off the outsiders who are not in the know, so to speak. Naomi Seidman has an awfully intriguing thesis that the “Talmud does present an extraordinary Jewish counternarrative to the [Christian] patristic Septuagint legends”; so that in the counternarrative the LXX is viewed as “a trickster text: the [Jewish] translator is a trickster, who in folklore ‘represents the weak, whose wit can at times achieve ambiguous victories against the powers of the strong.’ Not only does the Talmud present the composition of the Septuagint as an elaborate Jewish trick, it also describes the passages in the Hebrew Bible itself as a ‘hidden transcript,’ the private discourse of a minority culture.”

    But the question of whether and why male [or men] translators would rework a man [or male] text that imagines wo-men [or the fe-male] is the more interesting question.

    (BTW, William Safire once mused about “woman v female,” and so I made a poem out of his words, that your comment inspired. Here.)

  9. August 7, 2013 12:35 pm

    “I do think that wo-men and fe-male are inherently marked in English. I wish we in English had grown-up terms for boy and girl, that allowed neither to be semantically and morphonemically dependent on the other.”

    Great points. Well said.

    I love the Safire article–that captures and gives words to so much of what’s been in my head on this issue of late. (And nice “Man Grammar” poem, too–how many blogs do you have!)

    It would be interesting to go through various languages and see what other languages mark the equivalent of “wo-man” and “fe-male” as we do.

  10. August 11, 2013 9:16 am

    Abram, I’m mid-way through a course learning the Comanche language. And so far my instructor (and the various lexicons and language consultants I’m working with) have not me marked words such as fe-male and wo-man that are derivations from and dependent on un-marked “natural” and “root” and “stem” words such as male and man. For example, the Comanche word for woman is waʔipʉ̆ and for man is tenapʉ. The other languages I speak and read tend to be more like Comanche and less like English in this respect. Hebrew, of course, plays with איש and אשה; and yet there’s נקבה and זכר.

    This makes me recall another observation and mode of (at least English and French) by Nancy Mairs. She writes (and note her “woman” adjective for herself – “I am the woman writer,” getting her “femininity both ways” right as she writes something else):

    In my writing, I try to sustain a kind of intellectual double vision: to see the feminine both

    as that which language represses and renders unrepresentable by any human being, male or female,

    and

    as that which in social, political, and economic terms represents experiences peculiar to the female.

    I want my femininity both ways—indeed, I want it as many ways as I can get it. I am the woman writer. Don’t ask me for impregnable argument. As far as I’m concerned, my text is flawed not when it is ambiguous or even contradictory, but only when it leaves you no room for stories of your own. I keep my tale as wide open as I can. It’s more fun this way. Trust me.

    Mairs goes on to say that a sexist writer, a man such as Montaigne, has much to learn from anyway. The goal is her woman writer femininity both ways, and she doesn’t want to box in me, or you either.

Trackbacks

  1. Shaddai and the LXX | James Dowden's Biblioblog
  2. Man Grammar: A Poem | Mind Your Language
  3. Women or Female? This Woman says Women | BLT
  4. Words on the Word | Septuagint Studies Soirée #1
  5. Biblical Studies Carnival: August, 2013 | NEAR EMMAUS

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