I realize that this is another gender post but this topic has generated a lot of discussion and I would like to hear more on this topic. The issue came up in the first place because Gordon Fee mentioned that he believed that the angels in διὰ τοὺς ἀγγέλους should be understood as “angels” and not “messengers” and that men and women should affirm the male-female distinction (not hierarchy, but just difference) in the assembly “for the sake of the angels”, who were themselves ungendered. The Corinthians were misusing angelic (ecstatic) speech and were behaving as if the end times had already come.
I mention this as incidental information from Fee’s class. Fee is himself always ready to admit that there are many things that we do not know for sure. I am simply trying to pass on what he said in class because I believe people are interested in this as an underlying assumption which he brings to Bible translation – that angels are ungendered. My understanding – and Jeremy’s – is that this has been the classic Christian view. However, Martin counters this with a argument,
- As to names, note that Dan 9:21 reads האיש גבריאל, so describing Gabriel as a man. Surely the natural inference here is to assign male gender to the angel and the text would have to explicitly counter that text unless the readers were already aware that angels were ungendered.
Two other texts were mentioned in this connection are Gen. 18 and 32.
- Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby Gen. 18:2
וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה שְׁלֹשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים, נִצָּבִים עָלָיו
So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. Gen. 32:24
וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר.
The implication seems to be that because the Hebrew word אִישׁ ish is used for an angel, the angel must be male. However, there are many different ways of looking at this. First, the angels may simply have taken on the form of a man. In fact, in some traditions it is believed that one of the men who visited Abraham was God taking on a human form.
But at the core of this discussion is whether the word ish is intentionally male and whether we should derive some principle about the maleness of angels from the use of this word.
- This paper reports on an investigation into the nature of ’ish in preparation for the article on ’ish in the Semantic Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, edited by Reinier de Blois under the sponsorship of the United Bible Societies. My conclusion thus far is that ’ish has a very different function in biblical Hebrew than the conventional views allow. Overall, ’ish seems to be a term of affiliation, in which the word signals relationship either to a group or to another party. Only occasionally and incidentally does ’ish connote an “adult male.”
In a much longer paper dealing with Gen. 18:2 Stein concludes,
- VIII.A.23. As for rendering in the present verse, I would provide an ambiguous term such as “personages” or “figures” if I thought that the text’s original audience would have had reason to construe the foreground sense of ’anashim as being vague or equivocal. However, in this instance, the nature of ’anashim as a term of affiliation forces only one sense into the foreground, in which these visitors are agents—and whom Abraham recognizes as such from the start.
VIII.A.24. Most translations, including NJPS, render ’anashim as “men.”17 NJPS may have meant “men” in either a vague sense (“figures”), or a simple sense (“adult males”), or an elevated one (Webster’s: “a prosperous or successful person : a person of consequence or high estate”). In any case, rendering as “men” does not convey the salient agency sense of ’anashim, and it also overtranslates the social-gender component of the Hebrew term (see Part VII). These features are severe disadvantages. A more accurate rendering is “[divine] envoys.”18
In reading Stein’s series on ish I have noticed that he refers to 7 different Bible translations to represent the different ways of representing gender: KJV, Alter, NJPS, NIV, NRSV, TNIV, and CJPS, the Contemporary Jewish Publication Society version. There is more on the CJPS here at Higgaion. I had been intending to mention this paper some time ago, but other things have come up. Maybe this is a good time to look at the meaning of ish.
In view of this discussion of the meaning of ish is there further evidence that would tell us the angels are male? I would also have to question whether this would make angels gendered. That is, if all angels are male, aren’t they unisex, and not gendered? To my way of thinking, God is ungendered, and angels are ungendered and we will be also in heaven. I’d be interested in finding out if there are other references to angels that comment on their gender.