Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
Female Personifications from 'And Sarah Laughed' The Status of Woman in the Old Testament, by John H.Otwell

Female Personifications

from And Sarah Laughed
The Status of Woman in the Old Testament, pp. 179-194.
by John H.Otwell

published by The Westminster Press, 1977

Two kinds of data in the Old Testament referring to women will not be discussed: names of women in genealogies and moral standards involving women. Much of the information that would be used for each topic has already appeared in other connections, and a discussion of these themes would be repetitious. For example, one important category of data dealing with women in genealogies is the names of queens and queen mothers. This has already been discussed. Most of the basic ethical standards which involve women as women, that is, sexual ethics and the relationships of husband and wife, parents and children, also have been presented. Some new material, such as the condemnations of bestiality (Lev. 18:23; 20:15f.; Deut. 27:21), homosexuality (Lev. 18:22; 20:13), and transvestism (Deut. 22:5) could be given, but it is so obviously related to themes already discussed here that this information would not greatly advance our knowledge of the status of woman.

Passages in which nations and attributes of deity are personified as women, however, have not been presented. The description of the latter category is also the appropriate place to raise the question of the gender of God.


Passages in which peoples and nations are personified as women can be grouped into those in which the nation is called a daughter, or a virgin daughter, those in which the title is shortened simply to "the virgin Israel," and those in which the nation is referred to either by a feminine personal pronoun or by a feminine attribute.

The title "daughter of Zion" is used in several ways. In Isa. 16: 1f. the flight of Moabite refugees to Jerusalem is described:

They have sent lambs
to the ruler of the land,
from Sela, by way of the desert,
to the mount of the daughter of Zion.
Like fluttering birds,
like scattered nestlings,
so are the daughters of Moab
at the fords of the Arnon.

Since the titles "the daughter of Zion" and "the daughters of Moab" appear in the same oracle, its author (either Isaiah or one of his disciples) applied the personification to both the political and the religious capital of his own nation (the daughter of Zion) and to another people (the daughters of Moab).

"The daughter of Zion" appears in four oracles of woe. Three of the four seem to refer only to Jerusalem (often called Zion). After the first Assyrian attack on Judah, when the whole land except Jerusalem had been devastated, Isaiah said,

And the daughter of Zion is left
like a booth in a vineyard,
like a lodge in a cucumber field,
like a besieged city.
(Isa. 1:8)

Slightly less than a century later, Jeremiah referred to Jerusalem as "the daughter of Zion" in predicting an attack against the city (Jer. 6:2-5). A late addition to The Book of Micah, coming from about the same time, employed the term in a warning of the Babylonian exile (Micah 4:9f.). Micah himself, a contemporary of Isaiah, used the title to refer to Jerusalem in an oracle of woe against Lachish (Micah 1:13-16).

Since "daughter of Zion" was used to refer to Jerusalem in oracles of woe, three of which were directed against the city, it is not surprising that it also appears in a lament after its fall:

Cry aloud to the Lord!
O daughter of Zion!
Let tears stream down like a torrent
day and night!
Give yourself no rest,
your eyes no respite!(Lam. 2:18)

Restoration is promised "the daughter of Zion" in a series of late passages. The tone of these range from militancy to exalted expectation. In Micah 4:13, the hope has martial overtones:

Arise and thresh,
O daughter of Zion,
for I will make your horn iron
and your hoofs bronze;
you shall beat in pieces many peoples,
and shall devote their gain to the LORD,
their wealth to the Lord of the whole earth.

Isaiah 62:11f. is less militant. The simplest statement of hope happens also to be the most inclusive: "Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion; for lo, I come and I will dwell in the midst of you, says the LORD" (Zech. 2:10; see also Isa. 4:3f.).

In five oracles, "daughter of Zion" (twice "virgin daughter of Zion") appears in poetic parallelism with "daughters of Jerusalem." Two of the oracles are a taunt song against Assyria attributed to Isaiah (wrongly, in my judgment):

This is the word that the LORD has spoken concerning him:

She despises you, she scorns you—
the virgin daughter of Zion;
she wags her head behind you—
the daughter of Jerusalem.
(II Kings 19:21 = Isa. 37:22)

The remaining three passages are oracles of restoration. One seems to have influenced Mark 11:1-10 and its parallels in Matthew and Luke:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt the foal of an ass.
(Zech. 9:9)(74)

A series of variations of the title "daughter" appear. These cover much of the same ground that has already been described. The phrase "daughter of Jerusalem" is used in a lament (Lam. 2:15) and in an oracle of salvation (Isa. 52: 1f.). "The daughter of my people . . . of Jerusalem ... of Zion" appears in Lam. 2:11-13 (a lament), and "daughter of Zion . . . of Judah" occurs in Lam. 2:1-4 (also a lament). "Daughter of Zion ... of my people" was used by Jeremiah in an oracle of woe (Jer. 6:22-26), while "daughter of Judah" appears in Lam. 1:15; 2:5, and in Ps. 97:8 (an oracle of hope). Other variations on the title are "daughter of my people" (Jer. 4:11; 8:18 to 9:1; Lam. 3:46-51; 4:3, 6, 10), and "daughter of my dispersed ones" which was used in an oracle of restoration (Zeph. 3:10).

The use of the title "daughter of Zion" and its variations seems to have begun with Isaiah ben Amoz (740-700 B.C.). The term "the virgin Israel" appeared slightly earlier in an oracle from Amos:

Hear this word which I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:

"Fallen, no more to rise,
is the virgin Israel;
forsaken on her land,
with none to raise her up."
(Amos 5:1f.)

The Hebrew word here is bethulah (as also in Jer. 18:13; 31:21; Lam. 2:10). The English word "virgin" is a precise translation. Thus this cluster of passages refers to the nation as a girl who had "not yet known a man."

Titles given Jerusalem or Israel also were applied to other nations. Both "daughter of Zion" and "the daughters of Moab" appear in Isa. 16:lf., cited earlier here. "The daughters of Moab" was applied to Moabite refugees seeking sanctuary in Jerusalem. When used of nations or peoples other than Israel, the idiom appeared often in predictions of woe. Thus an oracle against Babylon begins:

Come down and sit in the dust,
O virgin daughter of Babylon;
sit on the ground without a throne,
O daughter of the Chaldeans!
For you shall no more be called
tender and delicate.
(Isa. 47:1)(75)

Other nations designated by the title were Egypt (Jer. 46:11f., 24), Moab (Isa. 15:2f.), Sidon (Isa. 23:12), Am-mon (Jer. 49:1-5), and Edom (Lam. 4:21f.).

In an extensive series of passages usually predicting judgment, the land (or the city as the epitome of the land) is referred to as feminine even though the titles just discussed are absent. Often this is done in a way which appears in an English translation as a series of feminine pronouns. In some cases, the feminine pronouns might be held to refer back to an antecedent feminine noun, as in Ezek. 22:1-3 (where "city" is feminine in Hebrew). In other cases, however, the antecedent is masculine even though the personification is feminine. Jer. 5:9-11 is an example:

Shall I not punish them for these things?
says the LORD;
and shall I not avenge myself
on a nation such as this?
Go up through her vine-rows and destroy,
but make not a full end;
strip away her branches,
for they are not the LORD'S.
For the house of Israel and the house of Judah
have been utterly faithless to me,
says the LORD.

She to whom the vine-rows and branches belong is "a nation such as this," and the word for nation is masculine in Hebrew.(76)

The authors of the Old Testament do not explain the significance of their feminine personification of the nation. The validity of modern psychological interpretations, which presuppose a transcultural validity for our categories of psychological analysis, has never been established. Thus Freudian or Jungian explanations are not demonstrable. We do know that the ancient Israelites used highly evocative figures and similes in their literature. It also is clear from the material we have just covered that the personification of the nation as a woman was used in statements of either great peril or great hope. It seems fair to conclude that feminine personifications may have been used because of the high standing of woman in Israel. Even though the male acted as the epitome of the family and nation in normal affairs, the female became the epitome of the whole people in times of great urgency.


Three feminine nouns are used in the Old Testament to describe some of the activity of God. The spirit (ruach) of God is virtually an hypostatization of God acting in the world; the wisdom (chokmah) of God is an hypostatization of God's purposes; and the righteousness of God appears in both a masculine (tsedeq) and a feminine (tsedaqah) form. Statistically, the most important of these feminine nouns is spirit (ruach), but it is the wisdom (chokmah) of God which is personified as a woman. It is difficult to determine the significance of the choice of gender in the use of the two forms of the word for righteousness.(77) We will restrict our discussion to the personifications of God's wisdom as a woman. We then will move to a consideration of the gender of Israel's name for God.

Wisdom appears as a female in five passages in the book of The Proverbs (1:20-33; 3:13-18; 4:3-13; 8:1-36; 9:1-6). The level of the personification varies. It is minimal in ch. 3:13-18 where the feminine personal pronoun takes the feminine noun chokmah (wisdom) as its antecedent. In ch. 9:1-6, however, Wisdom has become a wealthy woman, or possibly a fertility cult goddess:

Wisdom has built her house,
she has set up her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her beasts,
she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her maids to call
from the highest places in the town,
"Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!"
To him who is without sense she says,
"Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Leave simpleness, and live,
and walk in the way of insight."

Except in ch. 9:1-6, just quoted, the instruction given I by Wisdom is equated with a knowledge of the will of I God. It is "the fear of the LORD" (ch. 1:29) or a knowl-edge of "the paths of uprightness" (ch. 4:11). "The words of [her] mouth are righteous" (ch. 8:8) because "the fear of the LORD is hatred of evil" (ch. 8:13). Thus Wisdom walks "in the way of righteousness, in the paths of justice" (ch. 8:20).

Wisdom is described in only two passages (excepting again ch. 9:1-6) in a way which makes it more than a synonym for the knowledge of the will of God.

The LORD created me at the beginning of his work,the first of his acts of old.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth;
before he had made the earth with its fields,
or the first of the dust of the world.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master workman;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the sons of men.
(Prov. 8:22-31)

We are told in Prov. 3:19f. that

the LORD by wisdom founded the earth;
by understanding he established the heavens;
by his knowledge the deeps broke forth,
and the clouds drop down the dew.

If Prov. 3:19f. and ch. 8:22-31 be read together, Wisdom, created before the world and its inhabitants had been formed, becomes the artificer (ch. 8:30) assisting God in creating heavens and earth. If this figure be related to the Wisdom who instructs humanity, then the sages of ancient Israel believed that the orderly universe and the orderly life reflected the same divine will.

All the religions of Israel's neighbors were polytheistic, and their pantheons included deities that were male and female. Thus they expressed in their gods both the feminine and the masculine. There is little doubt that the sages responsible for the book of The Proverbs intended to create a feminine personification of the Wisdom of God. This, however, falls far short of the "feminine principle" incarnated in the Queen of Heaven, the great ancient Near Eastern goddess of fertility. A statement of what this may mean must be deferred until we have reviewed other relevant evidence.

The proper name for Israel's God is YHWH. It was so sacred and so powerful that it came to be pronounced only rarely. In the text of the Hebrew Bible, it was given the vowels for 'adonai ("lord") so that it would be pronounced as 'adonai when encountered in reading.

Even though this footnote to the history of the transmission of the Hebrew text is a tribute to the deep piety of Judaism, it also explains an odd problem in Biblical theology. If we had had preserved for us the vowels used when the name of God was pronounced, we might be able better to understand the name itself. Given only the consonants YHWH, we have to use more conjecture than is desirable.

A few statements about the proper name of God can be made with confidence. One is that it existed both as YHWH and as YH or YHW. We find the shorter forms both in personal names and in fifth-century B.C. documents from a colony of Jews living in Egypt at Elephantine. Joshua is Yehoshua' in Hebrew and probably means "Yah saves," whileJosiah (Yo'shiyahu) means "Yahu supports."(78) The Elephantine Papyri give the name of God as Yahu (or Ya'u).(79)

Another kind of statement can be made about YHWH. The Hebrew verb has two tenses (completed and incomplete action) and six modes. One of the modes is causal. If the Hebrew verb for "to become" be put into the causal mode, it would probably become Yahweh in the third person masculine singular. It would mean "He causes to come into being." We have to say "probably" because no causal form of the verb "to become" occurs in the Old Testament (except, possibly, in the name of God itself). Thus we lack other examples of the causal mode of the verb "to become" with which to check our application of the rules for verb forms to this one verb.

Having both a long and a shorter form of the name, we seem to face the possibility that the original name was one of the shorter forms. Not being confident that the long form is a verb in the causal mode, we appear to be unable to identify the root from which it was taken and thus cannot determine its meaning. A final complication seems to exist in the suggestion that the final H in YHWH indicates that it is a feminine noun since many feminine nouns are formed by adding a final A to a root containing three other consonants.

Frank Moore Cross has clarified the problem. He has pointed out that the long form of the name, YHWH, appears in non-Biblical sources as far back as the eighth century B.C. (possibly as far back as the fourteenth). The oldest evidence for the shorter form, YHW, outside the Old Testament comes in material dated from the fifth century B.C. Thus YHWH, the long form, is very early.(80) Furthermore, Cross provides evidence of the use in the ancient Near East of the causal mode of the verb "to become" in deity names which were brief sentences such as "the God N—— brings (or brought) into being (a child)."(81) These sentences appear to be statements traditionally made in a cultic context. Cross thus can write, "Our evidence also points strongly to the conclusion that yahwe is a shortened form of a sentence name taken from a cultic formula."(82)

I find this convincing. It identifies the name of Israel's God as the third person masculine singular Hiphil (causal mode) of the verb "to become." Two conclusions can be drawn from this. The first is that the ancient Israelites believed their god to be masculine. The second is that the Lord was so uniquely the Creator that "He creates" became the name of God. Is it possible that the absence of examples of the causal mode of the verb "to become" in the Old Testament is due to the absorption of all creative activity into God? Perhaps so, although it is difficult to see how it could be either proven or dis-proven.


The materials discussed thus far in the examination of the gender of the name of Israel's God have given an unclear picture. The personification of the wisdom of God was feminine and was described as a woman. The name YHWH seems to be a masculine verbal form. Furthermore, words describing God's activity are both feminine (spirit) and masculine (word, glory), or either masculine or feminine (righteousness).

The evidence that should be considered in a discussion of the gender of the name of the God of Israel would be incomplete without mention of the intense, sustained polemic in the Old Testament against the female and male gods of Israel's neighbors and of the earlier inhabitants of the land. All who are at all familiar with the Old Testament, especially with the Deuteronomic literature (Deuteronomy, Judges, Samuel, Kings) and the prophetic books, can document this statement for themselves.

A single example from Jeremiah will illustrate the point:

How can you say, "I am not defiled,
I have not gone after the Baals"?
Look at your way in the valley;
know what you have done—
a restive young camel interlacing her tracks,
a wild ass used to the wilderness,
in her heat sniffing the wind!
Who can restrain her lust?
None who seek her need weary themselves;
in her month they will find her.
Keep your feet from going unshod
and your throat from thirst.
But you said, "It is hopeless,
for I have loved strangers,
and after them I will go."
(Jer. 2:23-25)

Those who prefer a more explicit statement might read the description of the reformation of Josiah (II Kings 23:4-14). Baal and Ashteroth were the male and female gods respectively.

The strength of the Yahwist attack on religions which deified the feminine and masculine principles makes it extremely unlikely that the same thing was being done in Yahwism under another guise. Reading that into the masculine name of God and the female personification of God's wisdom is almost certainly wrong.

It seems likely that the ancient Israelites believed passionately that their God, the creator of all that was, transcended gender. Sexuality was a part of God's creation. Therefore it was intrinsically good. Nonetheless, it was part of the creation, not of the Creator who transcended the creation. The sexual functions of both female and male were sacred because they shared in the continuing creativity of God. Neither was divine in itself, nor were the two complete when joined together. New life came into being when female and male had been joined together, and when their union had been made fecund by the creative intervention of God. Without that divine intervention there was no new life.


This conclusion will summarize the findings of the preceding chapters. Each chapter has had a summary, but a more inclusive summary now is in order.

The God of ancient Israel was understood to be the creator, "He who caused to come into being." The Lord had created the world, had created a people by leading slaves out of bondage, and lived in the midst of that people to sustain and prosper them, or to punish and cleanse them.

The relationship between God and people was mediated by various offices in the cult, but it was actualized primarily by the appearance of new life within the people of God, by the ebb and flow of fecundity in nature, and by the varying fortunes of the people of God in relationship to the other peoples of the ancient world.

The new life given the people of God came into being because the Lord worked in the woman's womb, bringing to fruition the sexual relations of husband and wife. Thus the woman was uniquely the locus of the basic manifestation of the benign presence of God in the midst of the people, for without new life the people would soon ceato exist. This function of the woman, and the intimate and demanding nurture of the young that resulted from it, was so crucial that woman, its primary agent, was reinforced in many ways. She had the option of attending the major festivals rather than the obligation to go. She was guaranteed, as far as possible, the sexual access to her husband necessary to her role, and the economic security essential to its completion. Although she had access to communal affairs outside the home, her participation was voluntary rather than mandatory. Men, lacking so crucial a function, were assigned two roles: the epitome of the family, a position not normally held by a woman, and the priestly office, a position never held by a woman. The reinforcements given women should be understood in the context of a high death rate for mothers and infants in childbirth. The survival of the people always was in question. The conserving of the agent by which it was to be achieved was essential.se

Those women who had outlived the age of childbear-ing, who had recognized abilities, or to whom the Lord appeared, seem to have functioned outside the home in all capacities except the priesthood. The number of the reports of such women is small. This is probably to be attributed to the death rate in childbirth and to the demands on energy and time made by child care and home-making. There is no evidence that public careers were closed to women, or that they were felt to be unqualified to occupy them. On the contrary, there is ample evidence that women did function in a wide range of careers, from ruler to businesswoman, from prophetess to sage.

We must conclude, therefore, that the status of woman in the Old Testament is high. She is given the honor due to one in whom God acts directly and uniquely. She exercised full participation in the life of the community. Because the Old Testament is a God-centered literature, the role of woman is best stated as a doctrine. She was co-worker with God in the creating and sustaining of the people of God. She also participated fully and freely in the common life of that people.


74. The other oracles in this category are Micah 4:8 and Zeph. 3:14-20, both late.

75. See also Ps. 137:8f.; Jer. 50:41-43; 51:27-33; Zech. 2:7.

76. The prevalence of the personification of a city, people, or nation as a woman other than a daughter can be seen from the following:

Jerusalem: Ezek. 22:1-3; 24:6-9; Zeph. 3:1-7; Isa.62:1-5Zion: Lam. 1:17
Judah: Jer. 12:7-9; Ezek. 22:23-27
This nation (Israel and Judah): Jer. 5:7-11
The enemy: Micah 7:8-10
Assyria: Ezek. 32:22f.; Zeph. 2:13-15 Babylon or Chaldea: Jer. 50:8-16, 24-27, 29f., 35-38, 39f., 44-46; 51:1-5, 6-10, 36f., 45-49, 52f., 54-58
Egypt or Thebes: Ezek. 32:18-20; Nahum 3:8-13
Edom: Ezek. 32:29
Elam: Ezek. 32:24f.
Tyre: Ezek. 26:4-8; Zech. 9:3f.
Sidon: Ezek. 28:20-23
All such passages may not be included.

77. The masculine form is the more widely used. The feminine form appears in Ps. 36:6; 71:19; 99:4; Isa. 1:27; 5:16; 28:17; Jer. 9:24; Job 37:23; Dan. 9:7; Micah 7:9 (translated as "deliverance" in RSV). It is difficult to believe that there was no significance in the choice of the one form over the other, although the reason may have merely been euphemy.

78. A list of names compounded with Yah and Yahu is given in G. Buchanan Gray, Studies in Hebrew Proper Names (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1890), App. 113A, 113B, pp. 281-300. See pp. 149-63 for his discussion.

79. A. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923). As examples, see papyrus no. 6 (pp. 16f. for translation); and no. 30 (pp. 113f. for translation).

80. Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press, 1973), pp. 61f. See Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, tr. by J. A. Baker, The Old Testament Library (The Westminster Press, 1961), Vol. I, pp. 187-94, for a discussion of this debate.

81. Cross, op. cit., pp. 62-66.

82. Ibid., p. 66.

Contents of “And Sarah Laughed” Support our campaign Sitemap Contemporary theologians Join Campaign activities Go back to home page

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Please, support our campaign
for women priests
Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.