Tuesday, November 3, 2009

gender in Jeremiah: male mother(?)

Our daily reading today is Jeremiah 30 - 31, first in Hebrew, then Greek, then English. It's stuff I read as the kid of evangelical Christian missionary parents, as presumable discussion (J 31) by God of the Old Testament (to his disappointing and disappointed exiled people, i.e., the Jews) about the New Testament. In South Vietnam for one annual mission meeting, each adult and child was given the name of a Bible character - and I was given the name Jeremiah for a week. Don't ask me who came up with that or how. But suffice it to say, that got me interested, as a 9-year-old, in what the text said, and in who Jeremiah was. So I read it with different curiosity. The adult Christian reading of chapter 31, of course, has focused on Matthew's quotation when telling the story of the historical context of Jesus coming into the world (the "voice is heard in Ramah") and verse 31 of chapter 31 is prooftext enough for the New Covenant, which Jesus brings.

What jumps out this morning, to me, after all these years and after finding myself further outside these scriptures, are these things:


The two chapters are an interplay between literacy and orality. God tells Jeremiah to write things down, and there's constant quotation, lots of speaking, which Greeks called rhetoric, recaptured graphically from the divine Voice by the hand of a Man. It's a transposition, and the reminders of how the new is going to be a continuation of the old, which is a returning to the old in new ways. God will speak, and humans will get it down. So the Jews, mainly Jeremiah, are writing, and then there's the Septuagint translating, where the Hebrew is made into Hellene, in Egypt of all places.

"31 [38]:32 οὐ κατὰ τὴν διαθήκην, ἣν διεθέμην τοῖς πατράσιν αὐτῶν ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ἐπιλαβομένου μου τῆς χειρὸς αὐτῶν ἐξαγαγεῖν αὐτοὺς ἐκ γῆς Αἰγύπτου, ὅτι αὐτοὶ οὐκ ἐνέμειναν ἐν τῇ διαθήκῃ μου, καὶ ἐγὼ ἠμέλησα αὐτῶν, φησὶν κύριος·

"31:32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord."

The Jews in Egypt translating omit "though I was their husband" and replace it with "καὶ ἐγὼ ἠμέλησα αὐτῶν" ("and I disregarded them myself").


There are all the gendered allusions. I'm talking, yes, about the "fathers" in the verse above, and the omitted reference to God as husband in the Greek. And also all the references to mothers and virgins and trying to get God's people to identify with being women and wives and such.


In addition to the orality /literacy turns and framing, the old and the new cycles here, there's something else. The jump out verse is 30:6 (or in Greek 37:6). Look at it, and look at it as a sort of literary and rhetorical (new and old) frame for these two chapters. Here it is:

שַׁאֲלוּ־נָא וּרְאוּ אִם־יֹלֵד זָכָר מַדּוּעַ רָאִיתִי כָל־גֶּבֶר יָדָיו עַל־חֲלָצָיו כַּיֹּולֵדָה וְנֶהֶפְכוּ כָל־פָּנִים לְיֵרָקֹֽון׃

ἐρωτήσατε καὶ ἴδετε
εἰ ἔτεκεν ἄρσεν καὶ περὶ φόβου
ἐν ᾧ καθέξουσιν ὀσφὺν καὶ σωτηρίαν
διότι ἑώρακα πάντα ἄνθρωπον
καὶ αἱ χεῖρες αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ τῆς ὀσφύος αὐτοῦ
ἐστράφησαν πρόσωπα εἰς ἴκτερον

Clearly, the allusion is back to the previous verse, where God is announcing to Jeremiah that "HE" is saying something, starting with "WE," and it's about fearful things.

But this following verse talks (in Greek especially) about a male having children with hands on his loins. The Greek isn't asking a question about this as the Hebrew does. And the Greek doesn't compare the man explicitly to a woman in childbirth pain (ילד) as the Hebrew does. The Greek seems much more factual is the metaphor, in the identity of a male human doing things a male human usually cannot do. God is speaking, man is writing, the new and the old, the Hebrew to Hellene, a fatherless birthing man in translation.


I don't have more time for a 15 minute post. The readings could, I suppose, take a lifetime.

and to update this quickly. Here's the RSV English translation of the Hebrew then Brenton's English on the Greek (for that verse above):

"Ask now, and see, can a man bear a child? Why then do I see every man with his hands on his loins like a woman in labour? Why has every face turned pale?"

"Enquire, and see
if a male has born a child? and [ask] concerning the fear,
wherein they shall hold their loins, and [look for] safety:
for I have seen every man,
and his hands are on his loins;
[their] faces are turned to paleness."