The Book of Leviticus begins with the God of Israel (יהוה; YHWH) telling Moses to speak to בני ישראל (bene Yisrael). Different English versions translate this simple expression differently. The King James, Jewish Publication Society, American Standard, and Douay-Rheims versions all say, “Speak (un)to the children of Israel.” The New American Standard and Young’s Literal have instead “…the sons of Israel.” New Living and English Standard go with “…the people of Israel,” while the New Jewish Publication Society version has “…the Israelite people.” The New International Version and New English Translation read “…the Israelites.” Each of these translations conveys a different nuance in meaning. Which one is right?
Last week I wrote a post about “gender in the Bible” that sparked a lot of controversy. Responses ranged from (if I may paraphrase) “This is utterly trivial and doesn’t matter in the slightest!” to “This is damnable heresy and everything wrong with the world!” Thankfully, many other commenters did see the value of considering and discussing such issues in a reasonable manner.
The case of בני ישראל (bene Yisrael) is another example of how complicated even the simplest translation choices can be, especially when gender is involved. Something is always lost and/or gained in translation. It’s never possible to reproduce the original with 100% accuracy. This particular phrase (bene Yisrael) appears hundreds of times in the Hebrew Bible – and whether the translator says “sons” or “children” or “people” will make a big difference for how readers understand the text. One practical effect is that many women and girls understandably feel excluded if the Bible speaks only about “sons” and “men.” And some men have actually come up with extremely misogynistic interpretations on this basis, as well.
So which translation is “correct”? The fact is that all of them are partly correct and partly incorrect! That is the best that can be done when “carrying over” meanings from one language to another. The basic Hebrew word בן (ben) is masculine and means “son” when contrasted with the feminine בת (bat), “daughter.” However, due to the principle of “male representation” or “female markedness,” the same word that means “son” can also include daughters. Moreover, it can combine with other words to produce a very wide range of meanings. That is why “the people of Israel” is also a reasonable interpretation of בני ישראל (bene Yisrael).
These types of issues affect all languages, not only Hebrew and English. The Russian writer Ivan Turgenev wrote a famous novel called Отцы и дети (Ottsy i deti), which literally means Fathers and Children but is usually translated as Fathers and Sons. The moral of the story is to always read a translation “with a grain of salt” and try to find out as much as possible about the original. And, for instance, if the prophet Hosea (1:10/2:1) speaks about בני אל חי (bene el chay), know that the translations “children of the living God,” “sons of the living God,” and “people of a living God” are all expressing different aspects of the Hebrew text.
Load more comments
Why is it You will not explain to Your readers and followers what a translation and VERSION is and means? Is there a particular VERSION You will recommend? Faye, what I try to explain is that all translations (often known as "versions") are by definition selective interpretations that cannot reproduce the original text perfectly. If people are aware of these factors and the underlying reasons, they can read any translation more skillfully. We are glad that you are finding our articles enlightening. You’ve already started your path into Scripture, but there’s so much more that awaits you! Consider enrolling in our immersive online courses: The Name of God or Exploring Jewish Interpretation. We guarantee that they will deepen your understanding of Scripture and enrich your faith experience. It can rejoice a male chauvinist and anger a feminist, but in Hebrew, a mixed-sex company is always male. So every translation can only be an interpretation. חמישה בני אדם נהרגו בתאונת דרכים does not mean that five men got killed in a car accident; they could have been both men and women. Thank you, Urmas. This is the principle of "male representation" that applies in Hebrew (or at least that is one way of describing the situation). I think this linguistic reality need not anger or rejoice anyone inordinately if understood well -- but sometimes there is a lot of confusion around such matters. With the decades long feminist war on boys, Americans are becoming accustomed to seeing phrases such as women & men, or she/he, or simply people or persons.
Thank you for the comment, Rob. One of the challenges in discussing language is that it is dynamic, always changing. Hence explanations, translations, etc. often need to be updated as well. As you point out, in many languages masculine, feminine, and neuter words can all be used to describe people of both sexes. This kind of situation can be hard for English speakers to grasp, but is important to keep in mind when dealing with languages that have grammatical gender. Note that "neutral" words like "human," "person," and "people" are hardly modern affectations -- they go back a long way! Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Name of God and Exploring Jewish Interpretation. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today! Very helpful. Again, love the etymological explanations. Thank you, Remi! Why not translate "sons and daughters"? Edgard, that is one possible translation. Like every other, it has pros and cons. Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Name of God and Exploring Jewish Interpretation. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today! I am a woman and I am not offended at all to be called a son of the Living God. In the Hebrew culture of the ANE, women were not initially able to inherit the father's property when there were no sons. The daughters of Zelophehadad changed that (Num 27). To be called a son in that culture was to be an heir. I am a fellow-heir in the grace of life (Jas 3:7). Thank you for sharing, Elizabeth. I think in English you would not be a "son" -- in a way, that's the point about languages: they use words differently, and the meanings of "equivalent" words overlap only partly. The issue you raise is very interesting. However, note that the daughters of Zelophehad inherited specifically as daughters (they didn't become "sons" in order to inherit). This again suggests you wouldn't need to be called a "son" but could be (accurately) a "daughter." Difficult to explain, as there was no female or Goddess at creation, [Except for the mention in various books of Sophia] then all the angels and sons including Jesus were created. Thus as accounted from the beginning of time.?? Floris, could you perhaps explain what you mean? We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Name of God or Exploring Jewish Interpretation. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now! Dear all, yes all these translation are right however, I have a problem with all of them except one. See, in order to be able to translate God eternal word you need to be sanctify first because it is possible that you could lose the meaning of what God means. You must have a spiritual senses, yes, the translation of Israelite people is the right one, not of any other than because all Jews are worthy of interpreting the Bible, not of my own view but God recommendation. They have been sanctified early by The LORD God. Stephen, all the possible translations have pros and cons. If you translate in this case as "people," for example, you lose all consistency with other passages when the same Hebrew word has to be translated as, say, "sons" or "children." I learnt that "son" is "Ben" in Hebrew language which literally means "Builder of family name" which is neither male or female. Thank you for the comment, Ngako. There does indeed seem to be an etymological connection there; but we should note that בן (ben) is masculine in gender. This word can refer to males or (in the plural) to a mixed group of males and females. We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Name of God or Exploring Jewish Interpretation. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now! I have Arabian Horses and a lot of the times when we have a stallion that is bred to a mare the foal is sometimes named Ibn or Ben. Which means son of. This is in Arabic and Hebrew. I understand that in the Hebrew bible in some cases that it mentions Man which in turn could mean both man and woman if they are married then they become as one. Echad in Dem. 4:6 it mentions that call GOD in one. I had a Rabbi that taught me that the word. [pt 1 to pt 2.]
However we all need to bear in mind that this is a modern affectation. Most languages, as did Standard English, is the male plural to represent both males and females. In German, Das Volk (neuter) represents both male and female. In Italian, la gente (femminine) represents both females and males.
I have long understood that Hebrew uses the same comvention. Bene (Sons) includes both male and female.
+ More answers (1)
Similarly, I have always translated the word ‘man,’ in this context, to be ‘mankind.’