When we read even the first few sentences of Genesis, we encounter questions about how we should understand “gender” in the Bible. For instance, Gen. 1:1 says, “In the beginning God...” Should we call this "God" (אלהים; elohim) “he”? “she”? “it”? “they”? We then read that “the רוח (ruach; ‘spirit-breath-wind’) of God was hovering...” (1:2). In Hebrew, ruach is feminine; so is God’s Spirit or Breath therefore “she”? Towards the end of creation, “God created the adam (האדם)... male and female” (1:27). If "the adam” is both male and female, then why do most English translations use the English word “man” for adam?
These basic examples from the first chapter of Genesis already illustrate some of the many issues that arise when we talk about gender in the Bible. Unlike English, the Hebrew language has full grammatical gender, which means that every noun — “table,” “frog,” “Pharaoh,” “wisdom,” etc. — has some built-in gender value. Very often such gender attributes play an important role in the connections the author is trying to make. Moreover, in certain languages, like Greek and Latin, nouns can be not only masculine or feminine, but also neuter.
As a result, we simply cannot talk about gender in the same way in different languages, because the languages do not “match” each other. The word ruach (“spirit-breath-wind”) is feminine in Hebrew, neuter when translated into Greek (πνεῦμα; pneuma), masculine in Latin (spiritus), and without gender entirely in English! In other words, gender gets changed (or lost) in translation — together with any connections that depend on it. Yet English translators still have to decide which pronouns to use (“he,” “she,” “it,” “they”), and people often draw theological or ideological conclusions based on these choices.
What is the best approach to use in English? There is no foolproof solution. It is important to recognize that anything we say will be different from the Biblical Hebrew original. But sometimes it is possible to reproduce parts of the original flavor, and personally I think we should try to do that whenever we can. So, for instance, we can translate אדם (adam) as “human” instead of “man,” recognizing that other words mean more specifically “male human” (איש; ish) and “female human” (אשה; ishah).
Not everyone agrees with this view. Dr. Vern Poythress wrote a serious article on “Gender in Bible Translation” and concluded, “The word ‘man’ in English, used to designate the human race, is not an exact equivalent to adam in Genesis 1:26 and 5:2. But I cannot find anything better.” Since there is no perfect solution, people will naturally have different preferences and opinions. However, all readers of the Bible should at least be aware of the choices involved. This will help reduce misimpressions, false beliefs, and hasty generalizations — for the good of everyone, both male and female!