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Ishi not Baali

April 3, 2014

I have been working on this Hebrew word ish a little more. I was recently told that in Israel, women no longer call their husbands baali (my master) but ishi (my man.) So ishi it is –  “my man” and not “my master.” This reminds me of Hosea 2:18, especially in the King James Bible,

יח וְהָיָה בַיּוֹם-הַהוּא נְאֻם-יְהוָה
תִּקְרְאִי אִישִׁי
וְלֹא-תִקְרְאִי-לִי עוֹד, בַּעְלִי

And it shall be at that day, saith the Lord,
that thou shalt call me Ishi;
and shalt call me no more Baali.

And in more recent translations,

“And in that day, declares the Lord,
you will call me ‘My Husband,’
and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’ ESV

On that day, says the Lord,
you will call me, “My husband,”
and no longer will you call me, “My Lord.” CEB

“In that day,” declares the Lord,
“you will call me ‘my husband’;
you will no longer call me ‘my master.[a]’ NIV

So these translations agree that “husband” is ishi, not baali. Baali means “owner” and “lord and master.” But what happens when it comes to the verb, in Jeremiah 31:32,

וְאָנֹכִי בָּעַלְתִּי בָם–נְאֻם-יְהוָה

I was an husband (baalti) unto them, saith the Lord: KJV

Here baalti is husband. Hey, what? God was the husband as in “their lord and master” the baal of his people. But baalti in this verse is always translated as “husband” and not “master” – although the NIV does have a note saying “or was their master.” So the NIV is the only translation that provides any consistency in the translation of baal, the verb בָּעַל and the noun בַּעַל, at least in these two verses.

In any case, I think this verse in Hosea 2:18 speaks to a current linguistic trend in Israel and supports the notion that God promotes egalitarian marriage, where the husband is not a baal, but an ish. In Hebrew one now says ishi (my man) and ishti (my woman) or perhaps these words really mean “partner.” Here is the rabbinical commentary,

What’s the Hebrew word for ‘husband’?

Actually, you have two choices. Both are in use in Hebrew today. and both were used in the time of the bible. The first word is ‘ba’al’. If a woman in Israel today wants to refer to her husband, she might refer to him as ‘ba’ali’ – ‘my husband.’

But if you know Hebrew, you know that the same word ‘baal’ can mean ‘owner.’ For example, ‘ba’al ha-bayit’ means ‘home-owner’ or ‘master of the house.’ And more insidiously, the owner of a slave is also referred to in the bible as ‘baal’.

So you can see this term’s etymological origin. It is a relic of a time when a woman’s relationship with her husband wasn’t that different from the relationship between a servant and master. There are some people who won’t use the word baal on principle for this reason. So what word would they use instead? The word ‘ish’. Most literally, ‘ish’ simply means ‘man’ – but there are some points in the bible where the word ‘ish’ also means ‘husband.’ Someone who wanted to say the words ‘my husband’ in Hebrew could also say ‘ishi,’ which is very similar to the Hebrew word for ‘my wife,’ which is ‘ishti.’ The words ‘ish’ and ‘ishah’, meaning ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ are etymologically egalitarian words, unlike the Hebrew word ‘ba’al,’ which establishes a hierarchical relationship between husband and wife.

When we think of the history of marriage in Jewish tradition – actually, when we think of the history of gender relations in Jewish tradition – there have been times when the predominant paradigm was the hierarchical relationship of ‘baal’ and ‘ishah,’ and other times when the predominant paradigm was the egalitarian relationship ‘ish’ and ‘ishah.’

Normally, I love to talk about how enlightened Jewish tradition has always been about gender relations and has been far ahead of its time in treating women with respect and honor. But whereas it’s true that Jewish tradition was rather enlightened relative to many of its neighbors, it is sadly abundantly clear that women have been at a significant power disadvantage throughout much of Jewish history.

One of the most uncomfortable demonstrations of this inequality comes in the haftarah portion from the book of Hosea that Jewish communities around the world read to accompany the Torah portion of Bamidbar (this year to be read on May 11). In this passage, the prophet Hosea tries to express why God has been so angry at the people of Israel. He uses the image of a husband whose wife had been unfaithful. He says: Isn’t this what you would expect when a husband suspects his wife has been unfaithful? Wouldn’t you expect him to “strip her naked and leave her as on the day she was born; to make her like a wilderness, render her like desert land, and let her die of thirst — to hedge up her roads with thorns and raise walls against her” (Hosea 2:5) — ? Hosea continues: now we know why God is taking such violent anger towards us. It is because we have been unfaithful, worshipping other gods, and God has responded exactly as we would expect any reasonable husband to respond to such infidelity.

This marriage metaphor is the central idea in the book of Hosea, and we presume that this metaphor resonated with his audience, who found such a violent response against a disobedient wife to be logical and justified. While we have no data on the extent of domestic violence
in the earliest years of our people, the existence of this metaphor in the Bible leads many scholars to the upsetting assumption that it was a phenomenon that was at least widely known, and probably widespread.

However, a few verses later, the book of Hosea includes a line that can only be understood by those who understand the contrast between the Hebrew words ish and ba’al (see above). After God and Israel are reconciled again, God says, ‘tikre’i ishi, ve-lo tikre’i li od ba’ali.’ ‘It will happen soon that you will call me ‘ishi,’ ‘my husband,’ and you will no longer call me ‘ba’ali,’ ‘my master.’ (Hosea 2:18)

Most biblical commentators, traditional and modern, understand Hosea’s word play to be a reference to the fact that many Israelites were worshipping one of the Canaanite gods whose name was Ba’al. But I cannot help but read this line in the light of these two paradigms for a marital relationship — the hierarchical paradigm of ‘ba’al’ and the egalitarian paradigm of ‘ish’. God indicates that someday soon, the relationship between God and Israel will operate on the ‘ish’ paradigm – the paradigm of mutual respect rather than the paradigm of domination and hierarchy.

continued here … 



8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2014 11:56 pm

    Beautiful! Thank you for this exegesis series, Suzanne.

    It occurs to me to wonder about the gender demographics of the various translation teams, given what we’ve repeatedly seen in other fields. Computer games and website design come immediately to mind, where we’ve seen that when there are no women among the developers, mistakes are made that offend or exclude women users.

  2. April 4, 2014 12:57 pm

    I think you accidentally switched the chapter and verse there with Jeremiah. I casually glanced at various translations of that verse. The Contemporary English Version opts for “God” as a translation of baalti. Wycliffe uses “Lord,” and translations such as the Easy-to-Read, the Lexham, and the Message opt for “master.” The NET and NLT really push the pro-patriarchal bias with “I was like a faithful husband” and “I loved them as a husband loves his wife” respectively! The Douay-Rheims (following the Vulgate) renders it as “I had dominion over them,” and Young’s Literal Translation follows suit with “I ruled over them.” The HCSB meets them in the middle with “I had married them.”

  3. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    April 4, 2014 1:37 pm

    Thanks for the correction. I have changed it to Jer. 31:32. Yes, odd that the NET and NLT push “husband” for baal. But you’re right – they are both pro-patriarchal translations overall. But the Common English Bible, not patriarchal, also has husband. I think the meaning of baal is pretty complex, and it is something quite hidden in English translations. Two words for husband, but whether baal really had a negative connotation all the time or not, I am not sure.

  4. April 5, 2014 6:06 am

    Curious how the LXX handles בעלי /baali/ –

    Greek Hosea:

    λέγει κύριος
    καλέσει με ὁ ἀνήρ μου
    καὶ οὐ καλέσει με ἔτι Βααλιμ

    Greek Jeremiah:

    καὶ ἐγὼ ἠμέλησα αὐτῶν [??]
    φησὶν κύριος

    Of course, the writer of the NT epistle to Hebrews (8.9) directly quotes this Greek Jeremiah:

    κἀγὼ ἠμέλησα αὐτῶν, λέγει Κύριος

  5. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    April 5, 2014 12:40 pm

    Hi Kurk.

    Yes, that’s a problem. A translation that implies the opposite of the original – or does it. Is baal a “faithful husband” as the NET Bible translates the Hebrew, or a “negligent master” as the Greek translates.


  1. Husband or master? « מִקְרָא Mikra: Biblical studies
  2. Is baal a careless master or a faithful husband? | BLT
  3. Suzanne McCarthy: No more crankypants! | BLT

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