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Adam and Ish

April 1, 2014

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.

וְנֶפֶשׁ אָדָם–מִן-הַנָּשִׁים
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.

He continues,

… 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?”


15 Comments leave one →
  1. Jonny permalink
    April 2, 2014 4:05 pm

    Interesting point about the “ish,” I had not noticed that before!

    Perhaps it is simple enough to say that in the Bible, the inclusive terms often have male connotations, but they were understood by the original audience to be in inclusive.

    The reason for this can be easily seen in the Book of Genesis, chapter 5. If translated more literally, the first two verses would say that “…God created Adam…male and female… and named them Adam.” The Bible itself gives the inclusive term a male connotation.

    So regarding your particular examples: perhaps to use two Hebrew words that had specifically female connotations would seem redundant to the original audience?

  2. April 2, 2014 4:26 pm

    As far as this “primacy of the male” business, sometimes I think people act like God invented the ancient Hebrew language just for the Bible, so that the way the Hebrew works reflects God’s intentions for males having “primacy.” But Hebrew is simply the language of the human writers that God inspired, and they had no other choices of words to use than “ish” and “adam.”

  3. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    April 2, 2014 4:41 pm

    “If translated more literally, the first two verses would say that “…God created Adam…male and female… and named them Adam.” The Bible itself gives the inclusive term a male connotation.”

    Now Robert Alter’s translation says, “Male and Female, He created them … and called their name humankind.”

    What if we actually translated adam as “human” since that is its meaning? A word can refer to a man, but have no maleness in its meaning. I don’t know if you are an American or not, but in asking this, I am in no way saying anything at all about your gender, but I do think that I am referring to a man. If I say that an alien turned up in my backyard, I am not indicating that the alien is male. If I talk about my doctor, I am not saying that the doctor is male. These words have meaning. The Hebrew word adam means “human.”

    If the first adam is called Adam, a human, that does not mean that being a human entails maleness. We just have to move beyond the male being the central point from which all reality is viewed.

  4. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    April 2, 2014 4:47 pm

    I used to think of it as a negligible thing, but recently I have been impressed with how overpowering it is that all exegesis is male, and that there is no balanced perspective on reality in the Bible. It is hard to break out of lifelong assumptions, but I think it would be a good thing for men to think of women as fully human. Its a stretch, I know, and sometimes women don’t treat men as fully human either, but I think it is a goal that we should aim for. We need to learn to be fully open to each other.

  5. Jonny permalink
    April 2, 2014 6:32 pm

    Alas, “Adam” is not originally a generic word meaning “human” but it is the proper name of the first human.

    I agree, there are different ways to translate the original language, based on preference, but that does not make the female person any more or less human. I do believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God.

  6. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    April 2, 2014 6:35 pm

    “Alas, “Adam” is not originally a generic word meaning “human” but it is the proper name of the first human.”

    Tell me what source would have any authority for you besides an English translation of the Bible. A lexicon perhaps, a translation by a Hebrew scholar, Martin Luther – who will you choose?

    “I agree, there are different ways to translate the original language, based on preference, but that does not make the female person any more or less human. I do believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God.”

    And does the Bible say that woman is human?

  7. Jonny permalink
    April 3, 2014 3:48 am

    My source text is the Hebrew. The Bible does say that male and female are both human, or “Aw-dawm.” We are in agreement on this issue 100%. I have never encountered the argument that woman is less than human based on Biblical translation, but I assure you, this is not my belief! Thank you again for the interesting post.

  8. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    April 3, 2014 12:49 pm

    You’re welcome! 🙂

  9. krwordgazer permalink
    April 3, 2014 1:35 pm

    So after the Fall the man took the name meaning “human” as his own name, and named his wife something else. This tendency for the male to think of himself as the default human, and the woman as something other, still bears fruit in our cultures today.

  10. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    April 3, 2014 3:17 pm

    No, I don’t think so. I think calling Eve “Eve” was an honour, a recognition of her role as life giver. It means “Life” because she gave life.

  11. krwordgazer permalink
    April 4, 2014 12:58 pm

    Yes, I think that’s also there. But unless “Adam” never was meant to be construed as the man’s name, then the fact remains that he ended up with the name that means “human.” And that’s part of the confusion English readers have today. Gen. 5:1 says God called both the male and the female “adam.” But for English readers, at least, in the translations we have, it means both “human” and “the man, by name.”

  12. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    April 4, 2014 1:46 pm

    Yes, Adam ends up with the name that means “human.” But women have to not be put off by that. Gen. 3:17, that does not refer to men only but also to women. Women always worked the soil alongside men, and women die just like men. Men grieve when babies die, and so on. We have to go back and read the story of Adam and Eve, as two themes in humanity, and both apply to men and women.

    Eve is the projected longings of human beings for wisdom and agency. The story is written by a man, so like Proverbs, where lady wisdom and lady folly are projections of male wish fulfillment, so is Eve, and ascribing to her the transgression works for the patriarchal writer. But the sin, the human condition, the struggles of life, the temptation and desire for knowledge and progress, these are all human issues, not male issues and female issues. We have misread this story for too long. We need to read ourselves into the text when it says Adam and men need to read themselves into the text when it says Eve.

    We need to be ishi and ishti, partners in reading and interpreting the Bible.

  13. krwordgazer permalink
    April 6, 2014 3:45 am

    I like that interpretation a lot!

  14. Ian Senior permalink
    June 17, 2022 4:23 pm

    I wonder if Ish has a connotation of Godliness. It first appears before the Fall.


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