Rev of H. Løland, Silent or Salient Gender?

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Hanne Løland, Silent or Salient Gender? The Interpretation of Gendered God-Language in the Hebrew Bible, Exemplified in Isaiah 42, 46 and 49 (FAT II/32; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008) Pp. xiv, 224. € 49.00. ISBN 978-3-16-149705-6.

This volume is a slightly revised version of Hanna Løland’s 2007 doctoral dissertation (Norwegian School of Theology), which was awarded a John Templeton Award For Theological Promise in 2008. The work’s engagement with metaphor theory and the problem of whether gender is salient in God-language in the Hebrew Bible (HB) is rigorous and illuminating. Its scope is large, in that it reviews contemporary debates in metaphor theory, gender theory, and feminist theology, but the work is also subtle, as it consistently and critically attends to debates around gendered language and the concept of God, and provides close philological analysis of selected texts from Deutero-Isaiah. The principal contribution of the book is its persuasive case that gender is not a silent player in metaphorical language for God, but that it is significant for these metaphors’ operation and effect. Three sections comprise the book: the first introduces the topic within the field; the second is a lively theoretical discussion of how metaphor and gender impinge on God-concepts; the third section is a series of test cases that brings her findings to bear on three short texts from Isaiah (42:13-14; 46:3-4; 49:14-15). As the book’s title suggests, this last section is meant to be exemplary, not exhaustive.

As Løland articulates it in Part One, her guiding question is “whether and how the gender of the source domains is of significance when gendered god-language is used” (pg. 12). This question is pressing due to a perceived standstill in Biblical Studies over whether or not the gender of anthropomorphic images impinges on concepts of God. As she points out, scholars have come to opposite conclusions about the same imagery in the same passage. For example, J. Oswalt argues that in Isa 46:3-4, maternal imagery is excluded, while M. Brettler argues that the imagery is explicitly one of pregnancy, and “YHWH is a mother” (pg. 3). Noting this problem, Løland locates her discussion within the more-or-less abandoned project of mapping female imagery for God in the HB. She draws on E. Johnson’s She Who Is (1997), rightly noting that the implications of Johnson’s query “If it is not meant that God is male when masculine imagery is used, why the objection when female images are introduced?” more than ten years later have yet to be adequately addressed in the field.

The argument that conceptualizations of God are principally metaphorical is set forth in Part Two, followed by chapters on “God and Gender” and “Gender and Language.” Here the reader is provided with an incisive overview of developments in the field of metaphor theory. Løland follows the trajectory of M. Black and J. Soskice in arguing for the dynamic relationship between the “two subjects” of the metaphor, and against the problematic and still prevalent notion of “overlap” (see esp. pp. 87-90). Better than looking for “overlap,” scholars should inquire after whether features are “salient,” following R. Fogelin (Figuratively Thinking, 1988). If a feature of a metaphor is “salient,” it meets the following four criteria: 1) it is conspicuous; 2) it has a central, “sorting” function; 3) it is significant in its context; 4) it has directionality (discussion, pp. 42-47). Løland also convincingly shows the artificiality of the distinction often made between metaphors and similes, since both figures of speech are grounded in the tension between an “is” and “is not” (pg. 49). This mistaken distinction is too often used to prop up (even unconsciously) the invisible bias toward YHWH’s supposed masculinity.

The author’s discussion of gender theory (chapters 3 and 4) is also keen. She acknowledges the contributions of J. Butler and T. Moi, who problematize a strict sex/gender dichotomy and argue that the concepts are inseparable as well as culturally constructed. Nevertheless, Løland finds the sex/gender distinction helpful for discussing the anthropomorphized body of YHWH, which implicitly conveys gender, though not genitalia (esp. pp. 71-74). The analysis here is helpful: engaging Butler’s critical theory is an important move for interrogating the assumed gender categories on which much feminist inquiry has relied. Løland’s treatment still leaves something to be desired, however, since she chooses not to press either assumptions about how gendering signifies or about the fluidity of its boundaries. Such choices become problematic in her later textual analyses. In the first example (Isa 42:13-14), the author acknowledges that for the consideration of gender, the phrase “like a mighty one,” could as easily be treated as the phrase “like a woman in labor.” Her choice to treat only the latter (“feminine”) image, without carefully considering its dynamic relationship with the former remains puzzling to this reader, especially since the juxtaposition could implicitly critique the male/female binary on which her analysis hangs.

Part Two ends with a treatment of grammatical gender and what she calls “conceptual gendered language” (pp. 76-79; 84). On grammatical gender, the author engages feminist linguist L. Irigaray, but goes on to reaffirm that “the lack of a one-to-one relationship between grammatical gender and the gender of the referent … is today widely acknowledged” (pg. 77). More important for her analysis is the range of words and metaphors that are coded for language (“conceptual gendered language”). She takes as her point of departure J. Asher-Greve’s discussion of gender in Mesopotamian culture (“Essential Body,” 1998). For Løland, the saliency of each concept’s gender must be determined on a case-by-case level, and this is precisely what she proposes to do in the Isaianic examples in Part Three.

Løland’s textual examples answer a resounding “Yes!” to the question of whether gender is a salient feature of the source-domain in the selected metaphors. Readers will notice an abrupt shift in this section, in style, tone, content and method: Here, the author turns her attention to minute textual details, and for the most part takes a traditional philological and text-critical approach to the question of gendered imagery. In the example from Isaiah 42:13-14, her focus centers on the phrase “like a woman in labor.” Løland determines that the figure does indeed convey the implications of birth and labor, and more interestingly shows that since this metaphor is conventionally used of men (pg. 121), gender is not moot, but rather highlighted. The result is to create an image that ascribes power—a specifically female power—to YHWH (pg. 127). The second text she examines (Isa 46:3-4) poses the question of whether YHWH can be said to have a womb. With considerable insight, Løland analyzes the various uses of בטן “belly” and רחם “womb” in the HB and concludes that YHWH is indeed depicted as having a womb, and thus is imagined in this text as both mother, as well as midwife. In this case, it would have been helpful to see additional material brought to bear on the role and function of midwives. In the final example, Løland writes with sensitivity and compassion as she beautifully analyzes the breastfeeding imagery and the memory of God (Isa 49:14-15; pp. 188-89). She fruitfully brings medical and sociological data to the text to argue that it is specifically the bodily connection of the nursing mother with her infant that generates the powerful image of God’s tender care for Zion.

Silent or Salient Gender? is at its best in unmasking the subtle inconsistencies in the logic of gender bias in biblical interpretation, and Løland’s arguments call for careful consideration. Her theoretical groundwork encourages further inquiry into variously gendered imagery in other sections of the HB. The book is geared to an academic audience, and is thoroughly indexed with excellent footnotes and bibliography. It will be thought-provoking for scholars of Isaiah, and a resource for sophisticated readers interested in theology and gender.

Elaine James, Princeton Theological Seminary