Ecclesiastes Translation Series (9): Qohelet’s Gender (Eccl 7:27)

Tim Mossholder님의 사진: https://www.pexels.com/ko-kr/photo/1722196/

The Hebrew language has a well-developed system of gender differentiation. English also distinguishes gender in some cases, such as the third person pronouns, but they don’t require gender-specific verbs when functioning as a subject. In Hebrew, however, the verb’s gender should agree with its subject, not to mention its number.

When Hebrew texts of the Bible are translated into English, verbs’ genders are not critical an issue in general. That is, though the gender of a verb cannot be translated in the English verbal system, it usually doesn’t affect the sentence’s meaning or the reader’s understanding. But in some rare instances, for example, if the writer intentionally breaks the subject-verb agreement, it does affect the meaning or interpretation of the sentence. Eccl 7:27 is the case. Let’s take a look at the verse first.

See, this is what I found, said Koheleth, item by item in my search for the reason of things

JPS

In the sentence above, the verb at issue is “said,” and its subject is Koheleth (Qohelet), the main character of the text. As I explained in this post, Qohelet(קהלת) is the feminine singular form of the verb קהל(qahal). Since he is introduced as a “son” of David in Eccl 1:1 to allude to Solomon, he is undoubtedly a male person. In other words, Qohelet(קהלת) is grammatically a feminine noun (or, more precisely, feminine participle functioning as a noun) but contextually or biologically a man. So Qohelet(קהלת), though a feminine noun, should take a verb in masculine forms. Therefore, “said” in Eccl 7:27 has to be masculine 3rd person singular such as אמר (amar, Qal perfect 3rd person singular). The Hebrew text, however, shows us the feminine 3rd person singular in Qal stem (simple action), אמרה (aməra).

Would it be just a scribal error? Maybe yes. But it is highly doubtful for a few reasons.

First, should it be a scribal error, then the scribe must have recognized the word, Qohelet(קהלת), as obviously a feminine noun and forgot that Qohelet is a “son” of David. How could the text writer forget whether the his/her main character is a male or a female? The scribe, in fact, didn’t make that mistake in Eccl 1:2 and 12:8 in which the scribe also wrote “Qohelet said” with the masculine verb in exactly the same form. 

Second, the basic form of every verb in every stem (such as Qal/active, Niphal/passive, Piel/intensive active etc) in biblical Hebrew is the third person masculine singular, not the first person. When you write something, you hardly make a mistake if the words are to be written in the simplest or the most basic form. So if the scribe mistakenly wrote “אמרה קהלת” instead of “אמר קהלת,” (that is, aməra Qohelet instead of amar Qohelet), that would mean the scribe was confused the simplest word form with a conjugated form. It can happen by chance when you speak, but it would hardly happen when you write, all the more so because the implied main character of the text is a legendary male figure in Israel’s history, Solomon, whose gender the writer would hardly be confused.

Lastly, using the feminine verb in a context where the writer deals with “women” (or specifically feminizing Qohelet) seems no coincidence. Eccl 7:23-29 is about Qohelet’s confessing his lack of wisdom despite his effort to become wise. The writer then spots an analogy between Qohelet and Eve (האשה, ha-ishsha), the first woman or human who desired the knowledge of good and evil (a kind of wisdom which Solomon also asked God to give–see 1kgs 3:9) but eventually was only cursed. (Note: this understanding of Eve or Gen 3 is just an interpretation rather than the interpretation) So the writer says through Qohelet’s mouth:

And I find ha-ishsha (the woman or Eve) more bitter than death because she is snares and her heart is nets: her hands are fetters. A good one before the Elohim will escape from her but the one who sins will be captured by her. 

my translation
Image by Jeff Jacobs from Pixabay

If you take ha-ishsha here just as “the woman,” like many other passages then the verse is so out of context; Qohelet’s misogyny has nothing to do with the core of Eccl 7:23-29, where Qohelet confesses his lack of wisdom. But if you take ha-ishsha as an allusion to Eve in Gen 3, the sentence starts getting into its proper position in this puzzling block. Eve or ha-ishsha is the ancestor of all who pursue wisdom but fail, and all humanity, including Qohelet, is her children, who are caught in her traps, snares, nets, and fetters. And that is more bitter than death. Qohelet finds that no one is wise, especially women (v. 28). So the writer feminizes Qohelet by adding the feminine verb אמרה (aməra) to the feminine subject word קהלת (Qohelet) because Qohelet like ha-ishsha tried to be wise, but he/she was far from it (Eccl 7:23). 

Though the writer’s intention of using the feminine form of the verb is not self-evident, there are some signs that point out that the writer alluded to the analogy between Qohelet and Eve. So, though the Hebrew verbal system of gender differentiation could not be translated into English, it would be nice if the reader could have such information through footnotes or a page of excursus in translations. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s