Psalms and Pronouns: On the Importance of Seeing Yourself Reflected in God's Word
Updated: Oct 11, 2020
Last week, I sat outside in a friend’s yard in the South Bay working on my most recent sermon on Psalm 137 until the air quality worsened with drifting smoke. Two days before, my family and I fled our home in Santa Rosa in the middle of the night for the third time in four years. Making our way out to the car in the darkness, smoke whipped in the hot dry wind around us. The power was out. We could see the orange glow of the fire on the nearby hills. I comforted my children who had been jolted from sleep just minutes before, and wrangled our nervous dog. My husband loaded our “go-bag” into the trunk. Following our emergency plan, we called our friends, who readied a room for our 2 AM arrival.
Months before this evacuation, Pastors Dale, Kent and I met over zoom to plot out our fall sermon series on the Psalms. We eyed Psalm 137 with trepidation. Psalm 137 is a poetic and important psalm, with a horrifying twist at the end. Prompted by the Spirit, I volunteered to take it on.
What I didn’t admit to in the zoom call with Dale and Kent that day was that I thought I could understand the rage the psalmist expressed. Rage in the face of powerlessness makes sense to me. I suppress anger on a daily basis at circumstances beyond my control. Sexism. Racism. Child Abuse. Climate Change. Hunger. Homelessness. Sex Trafficking. COVID. I could go on, but I won’t. Seeing the psalmist express unvarnished anger to God was a relief. I’d like to be able to let go like that sometimes, too.
Even so, I had no idea when I committed to preaching on Psalm 137 that I’d be doing a deep dive on the Babylonian exile and the revenge fantasies it prompted in the psalmist while I was evacuated. I do not mean to conflate exile with evacuation; however, being evacuated, away from home, and worried about the fire gave me a window into being able to empathize further with the psalmist. (Click here to watch that sermon).
In identifying with the words and feelings expressed in psalm 137, I was doing what people have done for more than 2500 years. The book of psalms is an anthology of prayers or hymns written and collected over time in the life and worship of ancient Israel; the book of psalms probably reached its final form in the fifth or fourth century BCE. Since then, people have turned to the psalms to see themselves reflected in the profound religious expressions of ancient people pouring their hearts out to God.
Although the subject matter of the psalms themselves reflect the experiences of all people, Christian tradition almost exclusively uses the male pronoun “he” when referring to the psalmist despite the fact that many of the one hundred and fifty psalms are of unknown authorship. Tradition ascribes the authorship of some psalms to David (the traditional Hebrew text of the Bible known as the Masoretic Text attributes seventy-three psalms to David; the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, attributes eighty-four to David) and to other male figures such as priests. In those cases, to describe the psalmist as “he” would be accurate. In the case of psalms of unknown origin, it is prudent to ask: Why would we exclusively use the pronoun “he” to refer to these anonymous psalmists? Why is “she” not an equally appropriate pronoun to use?
Traditionally, “he” or “him” (the so-called “masculine generic”) has been assumed stylistically to cover all genders in writing in English, while “she” or “her” has not (1). However, regarding this inconsistency in usage, the American Heritage Dictionary notes:
Defenders of the traditional usage have argued that the masculine pronouns he, his, and him can be used generically to refer to men and women. This analysis of the generic use of he is linguistically doubtful. If he were truly a gender-neutral form, we would expect that it could be used to refer to the members of any group containing both men and women. But in fact the English masculine form is an odd choice when it refers to a female member of such a group.
There is something plainly disconcerting about sentences such as "Each of the stars of It Happened One Night [i.e., Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert] won an Academy Award for his performance." In this case, the use of his forces the reader to envision a single male who stands as the representative member of the group, a picture that is at odds with the image that comes to mind when we picture the stars of It Happened One Night. Thus he is not really a gender-neutral pronoun; rather, it refers to a male who is to be taken as the representative member of the group referred to by its antecedent. The traditional usage, then, is not simply a grammatical convention; it also suggests a particular pattern of thought (2).
In other words, the pronouns “he” and “him” are not gender neutral; they reflect a pattern of thought wherein the status of “male” is seen to be representative of all. If the gendered “he” can represent “all,” so too can the gendered “she” stand in for “all” on occasion.
Therefore, in regards to the psalms of anonymous authorship where the gender of the author is not known, it stands to reason that the pronoun “she” would be equally appropriate as “he” when speaking of the psalmist. Thus, in preaching on the psalms, I have chosen to alternate between “she” and “he” when referring to psalms where the authorship is anonymous.
As a pastor, I have chosen to alternate those pronouns because it is important to me that people regardless of gender see the psalms (and the Bible) as relevant for themselves. There is a body of research that shows people are more likely to perceive the “masculine generic” (such as the pronoun “he”) as exclusively male-centric rather than either male or female (3). Additionally, when readers read a Bible that uses mostly male pronouns to refer to mixed-gender groups, the default response is to envision men as the primary characters and receivers of the message (4). If the psalmist is always referred to as “he,” women and girls are less likely to see their experiences as relevant to and reflected in the psalms.
Using the male-generic exclusively to refer to the psalmist is a fundamental mistake - not only because some psalms like Psalm 137 is are communal laments speaking on behalf of the whole population - but because the male-generic pronoun excludes the possibility of asking interpretive questions that are inclusive of the non-male experience. Theologian Walter Brueggeman suggests readers should envision the speakers of the psalms as they interpret them, by asking the question, “Who would you imagine could talk like that?” In the case of an angry psalm like psalm 137, Brueggeman goes on to say, “You could imagine that it’s a Palestinian mother who is picking up the pieces of her exploded son, or something like that…”(5). Referring to the psalmist as “she” allows for the psalm to speak to a wider range of interpretive experiences.
As I interpreted the message of Psalm 137 for the sermon I recorded after our emergency middle-of-the night evacuation and during these months away from our congregation in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, my mind definitely was on the women of the Babylonian exile: what must it have been like for them, to see their temple in ruins, to be unable to protect their children, and to be cruelly forced to march hundreds of miles away from home to be resettled in a foreign land? As I grabbed my children’s hands while flames ravaged the hills around my home, the voices of women of long ago by the rivers of Babylon echoed down through the ages. The psalmist, she and I, we weep together.
By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion (Psalm 137).
D. Stahlberg, F. Braun, L. Irmen, and S. Sczesny, “Representation of the sexes in language,” in Social Communication, in the series Frontiers of Social Psychology, ed. K. Fiedler (New York, NY: Psychology Press, 2007) 163–187 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/291783641_Representation_of_the_sexes_in_language
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd edition. NY:Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992
Stahlberg, et. al.
Wallace, Gail. “4 Reasons to Use a Gender-Accurate Bible Translation.” CBE International, 4 Dec. 2017, www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/mutuality-blog-magazine/4-reasons-use-gender-accurate-bible-translation. Accessed 9 Oct. 2020.
Stowe, David W. Song of Exile : The Enduring Mystery of Psalm 137. New York, Oxford University Press, 2016.