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Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Breastfeeding fathers? The NIV and Numbers 11:12

CounterDon't clic here
"Have I conceived all this people? have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers?" --KJV

Now, there's a problem with this. Has anyone ever heard of a nursing father? Yet the word is in the masculine gender. This is how the NASB has it:

"Was it I who conceived all this people? Was it I who brought them forth, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse [Or foster-father] carries a nursing infant, to the land which You swore to their fathers’?" --NASB

Now, by 2010, 'nurse' still carried a female connotation, but much less so than it did 50 or even 25 years earlier, when a man who was a nurse was always referred to as "a male nurse."

So, let's give the CBT credit for making the best of the gender-specificity problem on the first try.

"Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their forefathers?" --ONIV

But the New and Improved NIV couldn't resist getting rid of that last vestige of sexism, the word "forefathers:"

"Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors?" --NNIV

The NLT clearly went too far trying to feminize the entire verse:

"Did I give birth to them? Did I bring them into the world? Why did you tell me to carry them in my arms like a mother carries a nursing baby? How can I carry them to the land you swore to give their ancestors?"

But focusing on gender only obscures a literal understanding of the passage. This is the situation: Moses is complaining to God that the people he gave him are too much to bear. Moses is carrying on a one-sided conversation with God:

Why am I saddled with the impossible job of leading these people? (is it because I deserved it?)
What have I done to deserve it? (is it because I'm their progenitor or something?)
Did I conceive them?
Did I carry them in my womb?
Did I give birth to this people?
(implied answer: No)
Then why are you making me carry them at my breast all the way to the promised land?
How can I possibly feed them all? They are hollering for food.

This is obviously a metaphorical picture Moses is painting, of someone who has never been pregnant, much less given birth--and therefore can't lactate--being handed a baby and told to nurse it. S/he can't! Neither can Moses handle the burden of providing food for six hundred thousand men and their families.

God's answer?

"Okay, so you can't handle the responsibility for all these whiners. Send seventy men up on the mountain and I'll distribute your authority upon them so they can share the load of leading my people."

This is clearly the intended meaning of this passage. Interpreting it literally, as the KJV does, offends the language; we don't have nursing fathers--at least not in the dialects of most English speakers. Interpreting it metaphorically, on the other hand, unpacks the literal meaning: Moses didn't think he could physically handle the job God had given him.

The NIV, more concerned with gender sensitivity than unpacking the meaning, obscures the literal meaning by translating ha-omen as "nurse." For one thing, it's not the usual Hebrew word for wet-nurse; look how the NIV translates its other occurrences in the Bible:

Ruth 4:16 Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him.

Lamentations 4:5b Those brought up in royal purple now lie on ash heaps.

Isaiah 49:23 Kings will be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers.

Isaiah 60:4 Your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the hip.

The word omen signifies, not a breastfeeding relationship, but one of caring for a nursing baby in other ways than breastfeeding. Moses uses it ironically: God is telling him to take a nursing baby, and care for it himself--without breastfeeding--all the way through the wilderness journey to the promised land! Clearly this is impossible, as Moses sees the situation. So let's see how we could allow this meaning, clear in Hebrew, to come across in English:

So Moses said to YHWH, "Why are You doing this to Your servant? What have I done to deserve You putting the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people, or give them birth, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom,’ as if I were a father carrying his suckling child all the way to the land which You swore to their forefathers? Where am I to get meat to give to all these people? For theirs is a constant whine in mine ears, saying, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’"

Once again, we see the NIV's Committee for Bible Translation  translating a masculine word in such a way as to thrust femininity into a context where it has no business being. Their pink-coloured glasses have blinded them again.

EDIT July 2017

It's been brought to my attention that the word 'nurse' as a verb carries very different connotations in American and British English, respectively.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the primary meaning of 'nurse' is to care for a person or animal that is sick. From that, the verb split into to secondary meanings on either side the Atlantic--and in both cases, these became the most common usages of the verb: In Britain and thus the Commonweath, to 'nurse' a baby simply means to care for it; the term 'baby-sit' is approximately analogous. But in the USA, to 'nurse' a baby clearly means allowing it to suck at the breast (whether natural or artificial).
The ONIV was an attempt to produce an English version free of both Briticisms and Americanisms. To accomplish that, it would have been best to eliminate the word 'nurse' altogether, but a compromise at least was reached in using the word only as a noun, where it carries close to the same meaning in either dialect--someone whose job is to care for sick and injured people--a meaning, however, that simply doesn't apply here.


  1. In an interesting aside, I just noticed that the Translators of the KJV mention "nourcing father(s)" once each in their respective introductions to the KJV text.

  2. Nursing of the father or bosom of the father or caring of the father 1john1:18 is that same meaning

  3. It's the same word in John 1:18, κόλπον, referring to a place of intimate affection (John 13:23), rather than a context of nourishment. Literally, though, it is a place where a baby is lovingly nourished, but the reference would have to be more specific to signify breastfeeding.


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