The Language of Canaan and the Grammar of Feminism
by Vernard Eller

Table of Contents

This publication was originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids, MI: 1982).

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Bible selections are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989 (NRSV) by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

To Kenneth Hamilton
upon his retirement from the University of Winnipeg
with deep personal appreciation.
Although my book and his WORDS AND THE WORD (Eerdmans 1971)
are in no way the same book, they are in the same ballpark.
Soli Deo Gloria
  1. The Teachers and the Taught
  2. Temperature Levels
  3. Water Level
  4. Top-Level Man
  5. I'll Level With You
  6. The Eve of Adam (rather than The Dawn of Man)
  7. God's Gender and Ours
  8. The End of the Matter

A Foreword

This book is bound to ruffle some feathers. In the calm before that happens, I would like to pin down a few ideas that perhaps we can hang on to when the going gets rough.

This book deals with just one topic, namely, "language"--which is why it is as brief as it is. But this means that you will not know where I stand on abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, the ordination of women, homosexuality, the nature and extent of sexism, or even feminism per se. You will not know, because I will not be speaking about any of those things; I am speaking about language. And I would be grateful not to have readers jumping to conclusions for which they lack any evidence.

This book will make certain critical observations regarding the theological, anthropological, and philosophical bases underlying contemporary feminism. Yet I would submit that this in itself dare not he taken as grounds for calling me sexist, accusing me of sexism, or advancing any similar charge. Sexism (demeaning or denying the dignity of women) is a serious indictment to bring against anyone. It ought not to he bandied about, used in reference to whoever happens to disagree at some point with the feminist party line.

Now, because I have chosen to address only the one topic of "language," I admittedly do not give any close attention to or biblical documentation of a concept of "the feminine." That must await another and larger book. Yet, it will become apparent

  1. that what I understand to be the scriptural ideal of "the feminine" is not the definition under which the feminist movement has chosen to operate. Nevertheless,
  2. I do assert that scripture presents "the feminine" as the model and paradigm of the human race in its relation to the "masculinity" of God. Thus, essentially what it means to be "in the image of God" is to be feminine in respect to his masculinity.

Even clearer is the fact that the feminine represents Israel’s stance toward her wooer God and the church's stance toward her bridegroom Christ. In consequence, then, the feminine is also a model for all humans (both male and female) in their relations to one another. So, although it is true that I disagree with the feminist idea of femininity, it does not at all follow that I am "anti-feminine."

Unless, then, it is the case that only feminists are qualified to interpret scripture; that only feminists can tell us how language is structured, what it means, and how it functions; that only feminists (which is not even to say "women in general") are allowed to speak to the issue of what constitutes "the feminine"--unless the foregoing is the case, then my attempt on the subject is entirely in order. I am quite willing for critics to tell me I am "wrong" (particularly if they are willing to follow through and show me where I am wrong). But I trust they will be fair enough not to use glib accusations of "sexism" in putting down my work and me.

The line of thought culminating in this book got its start through my reading of A. C. Thiselton's Two Horizons, an investigation of the hermeneutical implications of the work of several prominent philosophers. (Never mind what "hermeneutical" means; it makes no difference to the story.) One of the philosophers treated was Ludwig Wittgenstein. Thiselton got me interested; I read Wittgenstein himself; and in consequence, I was moved to write what you are now reading.

Yet, after it was written, I had no idea what it was. I could tell that it was too long for an article and not long enough for a book--so what else is there? Not knowing what it was, the best I could see to do was to make Xerox copies to mail around to friends and others who might be interested. Eventually, when it was actually accepted for publication, it was compared to what Will Strunk fondly called his "little" hook, the Strunk/White Elements of Style.

That remark chased me back to a rereading of Strunk/White--something, I must confess, I had not done for several years. However, I soon discovered that these masters of language had said some things that were pertinent to my little hook as well.

My circulation of the manuscript before it was known to be a book means that it received more prepublication feedback than is normally the case. Some of that merited response, and I have decided to do it here rather than mess up the original by trying to insert amendments and qualifiers in the requisite spots.

One critic opined that my analysis treats only the English Bible and would not apply in the same way to the original Hebrew or Greek. Neither he nor I know enough of those original languages to know what we were talking about; but the problem was easily solved with Strong's ancient but exhaustive concordance. For each occurrence of a given word in the English Bible (KJV), Strong includes a number key to indicate what was the Hebrew or Greek word it translates.

Thus we discover that all the different words spelled "m-a-n" in our soon-to-follow discussion of Genesis are simply spelled "'-a-d-a-m" in the Hebrew. The one exception (which does not change the fact that 'adam is used both generically and as exclusive-masculine) is where Gen. 2:23-24 uses the word 'iysh (which is never anything except exclusive-masculine). So, if those verses were retranslated to read, "She shall be called Female, because she was taken out of Male. Therefore a male leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife," the English of the opening chapters of Genesis would be entirely congruent with the Hebrew.

The Greek is not particularly germane to our discussion, but the parallel between the original and the English translation holds in this case as well. Anthropos (which is translated "man") is used both as a generic (which is to say "sexually ignorant") and as exclusive-masculine. Any feminist accusations regarding the sexism of modern English have to take on the biblical languages at the same time.

A couple of respondents faced me with dictionary evidence that, contrary to my stated opinion, "Everyone should do their part" is correct usage. They quoted dictionaries to the effect that "their" can be taken as singular, the equivalent of "his or her." Yet, if this were indeed the case, writers and editors across the country would be using "their" in place of the awkward "his or her." They aren't, because they know that, at least among us, it is not acceptable usage. My guess is that the dictionaries have reference to what may have been a limited British usage. But Will Strunk says:

They. Not to be used when the antecedent is a distributive expression such as each, each one, every one, many a man. Use the singular pronoun.... Similar to this, but with even less justification, is the use of the plural pronoun with the antecedent anybody, anyone, somebody, someone, the intention being either to avoid the awkward "he or she," or to avoid committing oneself to either. (Elements of Style, 47)

In the book, I at one point argue that the word "persons" as a replacement for the customary "people" is a monstrosity, a moving away from a quite personal word to one that is tinged with the impersonal. I propose that the proper place to use "persons" is where the intent is to emphasize that they are strangers to one another. I even suggest that "persons" actually means "units" and would here go on to opine that "persons" is next door to that most impersonal of all "person words," namely, "personnel." And now Strunk comes along with the one I hadn't seen, explaining why my feelings about that word are correct:

The word people is best not used with words of number, in place of persons. If of "six people" five went away, how many "people" would he left? Answer: one people. (Elements of Style, 44)

As I say, "persons" is proper when you mean "units."

Early in this book, I speak of "flag words," i.e., innovative usages designed to call the reader's attention to the fact that the text is "feminist approved." E. B. White (on p.61 of Elements of Style) supports my point while speaking of an entirely different phenomenon. He cautions writers against introducing innovations into their text. The example he gives is spelling "through" as "thru." Rather than the reader being impressed that the author is a very smart and logical bird who is really improving the language, White suggests that the actual effect is to distract the reader, forcing him to pause in an effort at figuring out why things are not as they regularly are and expected to be. And certainly, the distraction is all the greater if the "figuring out" means becoming aware of a political cause that has absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand.

Finally, I do want to express my gratitude to the readers of the not-yet-book who said that it really ought to be published. These include Bruce M. Metzger, Princeton Theological Seminary, and chairman of the NCC committee on the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible; Thomas H. Middleton, writer of the regular "Language" feature in Saturday Review; and Anthony C. Thiselton, University of Sheffield (England), author of Two Horizons and himself Ludwig Wittgenstein's Fürsprech.

The support of these experts makes me much more confident of my position and of the fact that what we have here actually is a book. And so, to the feather ruffling.

Copyright (c) 1982