Adam and Ish
I was studying the difference between the Hebrew words adam and ish, looking at places where they seem to refer to the same class of people, a group that is all female. Here are the two Hebrew passages, Numbers 31:35 and 1 Sam. 30:2. These are my own translations, since any published Bible translation is not literal enough to follow, switching the phrase order around.
אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדְעוּ מִשְׁכַּב זָכָר:
כָּל-נֶפֶש שְׁנַיִם וּשְׁלֹשִׁים אָלֶף.
and the humans – from the women
that had not known a male by lying with him
all being thirty and two thousand
וַיִּשְׁבּוּ אֶת-הַנָּשִׁים אֲשֶׁר-בָּהּ מִקָּטֹן
לֹא הֵמִיתוּ אִישׁ;
וַיִּנְהֲגוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ לְדַרְכָּם
and had taken captive the women that were therein,
both small and great;
they slew not any person,
but carried them off, and went their way.
I commented in a recent blog thread elsewhere,
In one case, adam is used for all the humans in contrast to the animals, but all the humans in the passage are young girls. Numbers 31. In 1 Sam 30:2, the word ish is used for all the individuals concerned, every one, and the group was all female again.
And this is the response,
As you note, adam is juxtaposed with behemah. The point Moses is making is that both people and animals were taken as plunder. Apparently, there were boys among the group taken (vs. 17) so it seems inaccurate to say all the humans in the passage are young girls. That the word adam is used to refer to a group exclusively female (vss 35, 40) may underscore the primacy of males in the Pentateuch. Are there counter-examples, i.e., where the feminine counterpart to adam (whatever that would be in BH) is used to refer to a group that is exclusively male?
In the 1 Sam. 30 example you give, that no one was killed is stated via the negated qatal clause. The action described is fast paced. Hence the flurry of wayyiqtol clauses. I don’t think BH negates wayyiqtol clauses (if so, it is rare). So IMO, the narrator is giving the reader the simple fact that although everyone was captured, no one was killed. Was there a more succinct way to state this in BH narrative? So that ish was used in a context that was mostly female may strengthen the view that males held primacy in the OT culture. And for the record, there were boys among the group (vss. 3, 6).
This is not to critique someone else’s knowledge of Hebrew, but just to wonder at what is meant by “the feminine counterpart to adam.” I have always thought of myself as a human, so I wonder what the feminine counterpart to human is. (I’ll pass on the references to the primacy of the male.) However, I did think that women were adam. But recently I have noticed that sometimes women are also ish. Here is an even better example of the ishness of women, in Esther 9:19,
עַל-כֵּן הַיְּהוּדִים הפרוזים
הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּעָרֵי הַפְּרָזוֹת
עֹשִׂים אֵת יוֹם אַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר לְחֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר
שִׂמְחָה וּמִשְׁתֶּה וְיוֹם טוֹב
וּמִשְׁלֹחַ מָנוֹת, אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ.
Therefore do the Jews of the villages,
that dwell in the unwalled towns,
make the fourteenth day of the month Adar
of gladness and feasting, and a good day,
and of sending food one to another.
Purim, the celebration of the victory of Esther and Mordecai over Hamaan, is the time when Jews send parcels of food to each other, and it is still observed among some Jews today. But, of course, it is the women who bake, and men, women and children send parcels to their fellows, to their friends and neighbours.
It may only be in certain contexts that ish refers to women, but clearly it has that sense. Perhaps it is true then that as David E. S. Stein writes here,
How was it that ’ish came to have gender-neutral referents? Traditionally, scholars have understood that its gender-inclusive sense is the result of a semantic extension of the noun’s intrinsic maleness, as if men were the measure of all things—or at least of all human beings. However, my analysis suggests that the answer is fundamentally a matter of grammar and syntax. Meanwhile, we did face a semantic challenge: we had to recognize that “man” (adult male) is not the primary sense of ’ish.
In conclusion, I will borrow from linguistic terminology: rather than call ’ish a male term, it is more accurate to say that this noun is “unmarked for social gender.” The maleness of ’ish is a grammatical feature rather than a semantic one.
… this memorandum suggests (V.B), in the Bible ’ish usually has a gender neutral sense; and the constructions in which it takes that sense, grammatically speaking, are broad: all nonspecific indefinite usage, and all nonparticular definite usage. The word ’ish is employed for various non-human referents, further dissociating the Hebrew term’s grammatical gender from the social gender of its referent. Most likely, then, in the mind of the ancient Israelite audience the noun ’ish first conjured up a non-gendered concept such as “member” or “party,” which was then narrowed as needed to account for a male-only referent.
If so, then the words “man” and ’ish approach social gender from opposite directions. Hence, as we shall see, the rendering “man” often comes across with a stronger male sense than the word ’ish that it represents. To that extent, “man” mistranslates the original text.
I have struggled with the concept for some time. One is generally given the impression that adam means “human” and ish means “man,” but what if adam means “a human being,” and ish means “a member of the group, relevant to the event?”