The Gender of the God of the Bible

In his article “Bible Translation and the Gender of God,” S. Τ. Kimbrough Jr. describes the conundrum a group of Methodist scholars faced when they were commissioned to prepare a new Liturgical Psalter to be included in a new United Methodist Hymnal. These scholars recognized the need to use inclusive language but had problems on how to express the gender of God and at the same time honor the language of Scripture.

Kimbrough (1989: 195) writes, “How can we use the language of Scripture, be faithful to the biblical message, and meet the needs of a world and church for inclusive ministry and language? Some aver that one must disclaim the word Lord as a name for God, for its masculine connotations are too offensive.”

According to Kimbrough, the use of the word “Lord” may lead some people to believe that the Bible teaches male dominance. Kimbrough (1989: 197) writes, “The primary argument against the use of ‘Lord’ as regards inclusive language for God centers upon the claim that it is a male term or name which specifically denotes male dominance and, therefore, suggests that the God of Scripture is a male dominant deity.”

Many Christians today, have problems addressing the God of the Bible by using the masculine pronouns, “he,” “him,” and “his.” Mukti Barton (2009:144) , in her article “Gender-bender God: Masculine or Feminine?” writes, “We restrict ourselves to seeing God only in masculine terms at our own peril. . . . If we imagine this God to be a masculine God, we have strayed from the Bible. My research makes me believe that the biblical God is a gender-bender God who refuses to be put in the restricted masculine garb.”

In an upcoming post I will address Barton’s view of God as a gender-bender God. This post on “The Gender of the God of the Bible” was originally posted on July 15, 2013 under the title “The Gender of God.” The post has been renamed and revised for republication. My next posts will address the masculinity of God.

The Gender of the God of the Bible

In two previous posts, I discussed how the Bible uses language to present the God of the Old Testament with feminine characteristics.

In the first post, “Feminine Language for God,” I discussed several passages in which the biblical writers used language to describe God in traditional female roles.

In the second post, “The Motherhood of God,” I discussed several passages in Isaiah 40-66 in which the writer used maternal language to describe God’s concern for his people. At the end of that post, I asked whether Christians should call God “mother” or use the word “she” to address the God of the Bible. In the next two posts I hope to provide a biblical answer to this question.

The church of the twenty-first century finds itself entangled in a dispute concerning the use of language it uses to speak of God. Many people are reluctant to use masculine pronouns to address God in prayer and to proclaim his name in worship.

In order to properly understand the issues involved in the debate about the use of inclusive language to describe the God of the Old Testament, it becomes necessary to study the gender of God. The nature of the problem concerning the gender of God is that many Christians, primarily those Christian women involved in the feminist movement, believe that the male language used for God in the Bible implies that God is a male.

For many women, the male language used to describe the nature and work of God has become a problem because this language is viewed as the basis for the exclusion of women from positions of leadership in the church. According to some feminists, the male language for God in the Old Testament reflects the patriarchal structure of Israelite society and as such, it is used to justify the subordinate position of women in the church.

Many women complain that the image of God as Father is offensive to women and children who have been molested by their fathers or who have grown up in homes where fathers mistreated the children or where fathers have abandoned their family. Some women find Christianity so dominated by male supremacy that they leave the church and deny the relevancy of the Bible to speak to the oppressive situation.

Some feminist writers believe that the patriarchal culture reflected in the Old Testament is the cause of many problems in homes and families. According to them, a patriarchal mentality derived from the culture of ancient Israel promotes the oppression of women, the mistreatment of children, and the sexual abuse of women.

Many feminists believe that the male language used for God in the Bible creates the impression in the minds of many people that men are more like God than women. In her article, “Women, Monotheism and the Gender of God,” F. Klopper wrote: “If we see God as a man or more like a man or more properly named in male language, we tend to think of men as more like God, and women less like God” (2002: 423).

A classical statement that clearly presents the way feminists feel about the male language for God in the Bible is found in Mary Daly’s book. She wrote: “If God is male, then the male is God” (1973:19).

Some feminist writers have proposed various terms to describe the God of the Bible. Some of these terms are intended to be inclusive when speaking of God: “God-she,” “God/ess,” “Sophia-God,” and “Godself.”

Others, when speaking of the three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, use terms such as Creator, Liberator, and Comforter as a way to avoid the words Father and Son or they use the expression “Our Father and Mother God” when praying to God. This use of feminine metaphors to speak of God does not solve the problem of the masculinity of God. Rather, this kind of language makes the God of the Bible a bisexual androgynous God.

The feminist criticism, that masculine nouns and pronouns to describe the nature and action of God are demeaning to women, does not do justice to the intent of the biblical writers. When properly interpreted in the social, cultural, and religious life of Israel, the use of masculine language for God is not oppressive to women and does not convey the sexuality of God.

The people of Israel did not use the metaphor of God as Father as often as many people believe. In the Old Testament God is called Father about twenty-five times. Christopher Wright said that “Only rather rarely do Old Testament texts speak about, or speak to, Yahweh as Father in contexts of worship or devotion” (2007:22). For instance, in the book of Psalms, God is compared to a father three times, but the psalmist never calls God “Father.” Only once God is called “my Father” (Psalm 89:26) and that declaration is found in the mouth of the king who was called God’s son because of God’s covenant with David (2 Sam 7:14).

The way Israel expressed the fatherhood of God was in personal names. Names such as Abiel, “God is my father” (1 Samuel 9:1), Eliab, “My God is father” (Numbers 1:9), Joab, “Yahweh is father” (2 Samuel 2:13), and Abijah, “Yahweh is my father” (1 Samuel 8:2) indicate that the idea of God as father was known and accepted in Israel.

As we shall see in my next post, Israel became God’s son because of creation and election, not because of reproduction. The reason for Israel’s reticence in using the father metaphor in addressing God was its rejection of the pagan view that the gods and the goddesses engaged in sexual activities and through intercourse gave birth to nations.

When the father metaphor is used to identify God, the word “father” does not identify God as a biological father, but as the heavenly Father, a God who is true love and mercy, a God who truly cares for his people.

On the other hand, whenever the Bible compares God to a mother, the comparison is only used as a simile and never as a metaphor (this will be discussed in detail in my next post). Although many individual names are compound with the word “father,” the word “mother” is not associated with any Israelite name. God is compared to a mother, but never called “Mother.” The people of Israel used the word “Father” in their prayers, but God is not addressed as “Mother” in any of the many prayers found in the Old Testament.

The Bible is a record of God’s revelation of himself to Israel and to the world. Our knowledge about the God of the Old Testament comes from what he did in the history of Israel and from what the biblical writers wrote about their experience with God.

In my next post, I will discuss what Scriptures reveal about the gender of God. The study will reveal that God is not male, and yet, the Bible teaches that the masculine language is the correct way to describe the nature and character of God and it is the appropriate way to address God since this is the way God revealed himself to Israel and to the church.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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Bibliography:

Barton, Mukti, “Gender-bender God: Masculine or Feminine?” Black Theology 7 no. 2 (2009) 142-166.

Daly, M. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston: Beacon, 1973.

Kimbrough Jr, S. Τ. “Bible Translation and the Gender of God.” Theology Today 46 no. 2 (1989): 195-202.

Klopper, F. “Women, Monotheism and the Gender of God.”  In die Skriflig 36 (2002): 421-437.

Wright. Christopher J. H. Knowing God the Father Through the Old Testament. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2007.

This entry was posted in Hebrew Bible, Hebrew God, Metaphors, Patriarchy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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