The Gender of YHWH

Professor Marc Zvi Brettler has written a very interesting and provocative article on the gender of God. The article was published in The Torah.com.

Professor Brettler begins his article by asking two questions: His first question has to do with the God of creation: “What is the gender of the God of creation?” The second question deals how the Hebrew Bible presents the gender “of YHWH in general?”

Before dealing with the gender of God in the Hebrew Bible, Professor Brettler discusses the view that some biblical scholars have proposed “that YHWH is above gender, because YHWH is so fundamentally different from humans that it is inappropriate to use any human terminology of God.”

Then, Professor Brettler discusses the difference between sex and gender. Sex, he says, “is a biological term, a person is either male or female.” On the other hand, gender is a social construct, that is, “it refers to masculinity or femininity, and refers to a role that an individual enacts or performs.”

Is the God of the Bible an androgynous God? This question arises because in Genesis 1:27, man and woman are created in the image of God. For this reason, some people believe that God is both male and female. Professor Brettler provides a different translation of Genesis 1:27 and concludes by saying that Genesis 1:27 has “no bearing on God’s gender or sex.”

Professor Brettler also discusses Isaiah 42:14 and other passages in Deutero-Isaiah that contain explicit references to God as female, God “as a woman giving birth.” This, according to Professor Brettler, is the prophet’s attempt at presenting YHWH as a “kinder, gentler God.”

Below is an excerpt of Professor Brettler’s article, dealing with the section where he discusses how the Hebrew Bible presents God as a man (with some of the Hebrew text and footnotes removed. These are found in the original article).

God as a Man

The Bible often uses explicit male imagery to describe God. For example, the Song of the Sea declares (Exod 15:3): “YHWH is a man of war; YHWH is his name.”

Similarly, God is explicitly called a king in many biblical verses:

Isaiah 44:6: “Thus said YHWH, the King of Israel, Their Redeemer, YHWH of Hosts.”

Psalm 24:10: “Who is the King of glory? – YHWH of hosts, He is the King of glory! Selah.”

Other biblical texts have more subtle ways of expressing God’s maleness.

The Implications of Grammatical Gender

As a Semitic language, Hebrew verbs are typically conjugated with respect to gender, and Hebrew nouns all have masculine or feminine grammatical gender, which, where relevant, are matched with the appropriately gendered verb or adjective. Thus, by looking or listening, it is clear whether “you (singular) wrote” refers to a male or a female writer; the former would be  כָּתַבְתָּ (katavta), while the latter would be כָּתַבְתְּ and (katavt). A female cow is automatically distinguished from its male counterpart—she is a פָּרָה (parah) rather than a פַּר (par), and will be modified by adjectives marked as feminine (e.g. שְׁמֵנָה , “fat”).

Unlike, e.g., German or Greek, Hebrew has no grammatical neuter gender, so all items must have a grammatical gender of masculine or feminine. Thus, every item must be assigned either a masculine or feminine grammatical gender—and the particular assignment often seems arbitrary to us. Thus, for reasons we can no longer understand, a table, שֻׁלְחָן (shulkhan) is masculine, while a bow, קֶשֶׁת (qeshet) is feminine.

Within this framework, YHWH in the Bible is masculine. Most scholars believe that this is irrelevant, claiming, e.g.:

“The grammatical forms for God are masculine and the representations of God are mostly masculine. Although God does use a comparison to a woman in childbirth (Isa 42:14), nonetheless there is a strong scholarly consensus that God is regarded as nonsexual. ‘If sex must be applied to Israel’s deity, it would be monosex, and this is either an incompleteness or a contradiction in terms.’”

In other words, most scholars suggest that the fact that God is grammatically masculine has no more bearing on the actual gender of God than the fact that table is masculine meant that ancient Israelites viewed tables as masculine and bows as feminine.

Recent linguistic studies, however, show that this is incorrect; grammatical gender does spill over to understandings of real gender. The same object—let’s say a table, may be marked as masculine and feminine in different languages. And depending on the language you speak, you will then view tables as either more masculine or feminine!

Thus, it is far from trivial that when YHWH was referred to in the Bible, YHWH always governs a masculine verb and is described by a masculine adjective. This grammatical fact derives from a view of YHWH as masculine, and would have reinforced that view.

Professor Brettler concludes his article by asking another important question, “So What Is God’s Gender in the Bible?”

In seeking to provide an answer to this question, Professor Brettler does so as a scholar and as a Jew. He wrote, “it is crucial for scholarship to recognize the difference, and frequently the distance, between means and meant—and, for those of us who are both scholars and committed Jews, between meant and what I wish it meant.” He explains the difference in the conclusion of his article.

This is an excellent article on a difficult topic, a topic which Jews and Christians have addressed in different ways. Professor Brettler presents a very satisfying view of what the Hebrew Bible has to say about the gender of God.

I highly recommend this article. You can read the article, “The Gender of God” by visiting The Torah.com.

Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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This entry was posted in Androgyny, Deutero-Isaiah, God of the Old Testament, Hebrew Bible, Hebrew God and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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