Until recently, most people believed that there were two genders, male and female. This view was based on the creation story in the book of Genesis: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). This identification of human beings into two genders is called “gender binary.”
However, in the twenty-first century many people consider themselves to fall outside the normal definition of gender and identify themselves as “non-binary.” Non-binary people are men and women who are confused about their gender. According to Nathan Carlin, even God is confused about his own gender. Carlin writes, “God is gender confused and has made some rather poor decisions in the midst of this confusion, but, if, however, God were able to accept a wider range of masculinities and sexualities, especially in himself, God would be much better off—as also would contemporary American Christian men.”
Mukti Barton believes that God does not want to be identified as a masculine God. She writes, “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 genderbender God who refuses to be put in the restricted masculine garb.” In a future post I will address Mukti’s contention that the God of the Old Testament is “a genderbender God.” I will also address Carlin’s contention that God is confused about his own gender.
Mukti’s contention that we stray from the Bible if we identify God as a masculine God is contrary to what the Old Testament has to say about God. In his article on “The Gender of God,” Professor Marc Zvi Brettler writes, “YHWH in the Bible is masculine. . . . 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 recognizing that the Bible speaks of God with masculine terminology. He wrote, “Speaking for myself, I wish the Bible depicted YHWH as gender-neutral, gender inclusive or genderless. But from my perspective as a scholar, this simply is not so.”
Today’s post deals with the masculinity of the God of the Old Testament. This essay on “The Masculinity of the God of the Old Testament” was originally posted on July 29, 2013 under the title “The Masculinity of God.” The post has been revised and renamed for republication.
The Masculinity of the God of the Old Testament
Biblical religion is based on the revelation of God in the history of Israel. This history is recorded in the Old Testament by those who were the recipients of that revelation. In the Old Testament God is revealed as the creator and as the father of Israel. Thus, the experience and belief of the Hebrew people are expressed in a unique language that identifies the character and the nature of God. To change this language is to change Israel’s understanding of God and the way God revealed himself to the Hebrew people.
Many gods in ancient religions were portrayed as males and as sexually active. However, the God of the Bible, although revealing himself as the Father of Israel, is not sexually male nor is he sexually active with a goddess. As the Bible says: “God is not a man” (Numbers 23:19; see also 1 Samuel 15:29).
These words, that God is not a man, were written to emphasize that God must be distinguished from his creation. The second commandment (Exodus 20:4) forbids Israel to make an idol in the shape of anything in the sky or on the earth. In fact, Moses was more strict when he urged Israel “not to act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever: the form of a man or a woman” (Deuteronomy 4:16 TNK).
God is the father of Israel, not through procreation, but through creation and election. This is clearly revealed in several passages in the Hebrew Bible:
“Do you thus repay the LORD, O foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you?” (Deuteronomy 32:6).
“Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?” (Malachi 2:10).
The sonship of Israel is due to God’s grace. God is Israel’s sovereign Lord and Israel is the work of God’s hand (Isaiah 64:8). Israel became God’s son not because God had a consort, like El had Asherah, but because God redeemed Israel from the house of slavery and chose the nation to be his son and the heir of his promises.
In his article on the motherly language for God in Deutero Isaiah, Mayer Gruber studied four texts in Isaiah 40-66 where the prophet used feminine imagery to describe God’s concern for Israel (1983:351-359). As I have shown in previous posts, the writers of the Old Testament used feminine language to speak about God’s care for Israel, but they never addressed God as a mother.
Since the Bible never addresses God as a mother and never uses the pronoun “she” to speak of God, to change the biblical language used to address God is to go beyond the language of revelation. Such a change is not based on biblical theology, but on contemporary concerns to change the way people address God.
It is true that the Bible uses similes and metaphors to address God. A simile “is a figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared.” In his article, “Language for God and Feminist Language: Problems and Principles,” Roland M. Frye uses Isaiah 42:13 to explain how the prophet used a simile to describe God. The prophet said: “The Lord goes forth like a mighty man, like a man of war he stirs up his fury.” Frye wrote: “The prophet is careful here not to identify the Lord with a war god, even a supreme war god. Instead, by a formal comparison God is said to ‘go forth’ and ‘to stir up his fury’ like a man of war” (1992:29).
The same happens when Deutero-Isaiah uses similes to compare God to a mother. When the prophet compares God with a woman in labor, he is not saying that God is a mother in the same way that he is not saying that God is a mighty man of war. Thus, the purpose of the simile is to illustrate one specific aspect of God’s attitude toward Israel.
A metaphor is the use of a word or phrase to compare an object with another object. In his article, Frye says that “a metaphor is a rhetorical figure that carries words and phrases beyond their customary or lexical meanings in order to provide a fuller and more direct understanding of the subject” (1992:38). Thus, when the Bible addresses God as father, this does not refer to a magnification of a human father. Rather, it expresses a divine reality that can only be understood in the context of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.
Elizabeth Achtemeier, in her article, “Exchanging God for ‘No Gods’: A Discussion of Female Language for God,” wrote: “The Bible uses masculine language for God because that is the language with which God has revealed himself. The biblical, Christian faith is a revealed religion. It claims no knowledge of God beyond the knowledge God has given of himself through his words and deeds in the histories of Israel and of Jesus Christ and his church” (1992:5).
God has revealed himself through his mighty acts in this history of Israel and through the words he spoke through his prophets. This self-revelation of God has been preserved in a collection of writing we call the Old Testament and it is through these writings that we know the person and character of God.
To affirm that the Bible reveals God with masculine language does not mean that Christians should avoid using inclusive language when referring to people. For instance, I use inclusive language in all my posts. My use of inclusive language reflects my commitment to the equality of men and women in all areas of life.
In her article, “Female Language for God: Should the Church Adopt It?,” Elizabeth Achtemeier rejects current efforts in academia and in the church to use feminine language for God. She wrote: “The church cannot and it must not accede to feminist demands that language about God be changed to feminine, for then the church will have lost that God in whom it truly lives and moves and has its being” (1986:109).
The language the Bible uses to describe the character, nature, and actions of God is masculine, and as Achtemeier described, “a unique revelation of God in the world” (1992:8). Thus, the use of masculine language to describe the gender of God has a profound theological significance. By their use of masculine language for God, the writers of the Old Testament purposely made it clear that the God of Israel was different from the gods worshiped by the nations of the ancient Near East.
In his article, “The Gender of Israel’s God,” Paul Mankowski emphasizes that the nouns, pronouns, and verbs used in the Hebrew Bible to describe the character and acts of God are all masculine. According to Mankowski, the words “masculine and masculinity”should be used when speaking of God in order to express a grammatical category as opposed to a sexual or biological reality” (2001:36).
If the Hebrew Bible uses masculine nouns, pronouns, and verbs to express the gender of the biblical God, then to call God “Mother” or to use the feminine pronoun “she” to address God is a contradiction of what the Bible says about God.
To call God “Mother” or “she,” is a theological innovation that finds no support in the Hebrew Bible and contradicts Israel’s efforts to distinguish Yahweh from the other gods in the ancient Near East.
Christopher Seitz, in his article “The Divine Name in Christian Scripture,” wrote: “To call God ‘mother’ or ‘she’ would be to call attention to God as truly gendered, simply by the fact that such language means to serve as a replacement for or improvement on the language biblically grounded” (2001:34).
In the same way, to use feminine language to address the work of the Holy Spirit is also unacceptable because of the danger that it may introduce sexuality into the concept of the Trinity. As Hook and Kimel have expressed, when this feminine language for God is spoken in worship, listeners “hear this language as referring either to a bisexual deity or to three separate gods, two males and one female” (2001:76).
In conclusion, the use of the masculine nouns, pronouns, and verbs to describe the God of the Bible excludes the use of “she” and “mother” to speak about God. The masculinity of God does not involve the idea of male sexuality. As Mankowski has said, in the Hebrew Bible, “YHWH is invariably ‘he,’ even though utterly divorced from the anthropomorphism of sex” (2001:57).
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Achtemeier, Elizabeth. “Female Language for God: Should the Church Adopt It?” In The Hermeneutical Quest: Essays in Honor of James Luther Mays on His Sixty-fifth Birthday. Edited by Donald G. Miller. Pp. 97-114. Allison Park. Pa.: Pickwick Publications. 1986.
________. “Exchanging God for ‘No Gods’: A Discussion of Female Language for God.” In This Is My Name Forever: The Trinity and Gender Language for God. Edited by Alvin F. Kimel Jr. Pp. 1-16. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
Barton, Mukti. Gender-bender God: Masculine or Feminine? Black Theology 7 no. 2 (2009): 142-166.
Frye, Roland M. “Language for God and Feminist Language: Problems and Principles.” In This Is My Name Forever: The Trinity and Gender Language for God. Edited by Alvin F. Kimel Jr. Pp. 17-43. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
Gruber, M. I. “The Motherhood of God in Second Isaiah.” Revue Biblique 90 (1983): 351-359.
Hook, Donald D. and Alvin F. Kimel Jr. “The Pronouns of Deity: A Theolinguistic Critique of Feminist Proposals.” In This Is My Name Forever: The Trinity and Gender Language for God. Edited by Alvin F. Kimel Jr. Pp. 62-87. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
Mankowski, Paul. “The Gender of Israel’s God.” In This Is My Name Forever: The Trinity and Gender Language for God. Edited by Alvin F. Kimel Jr. Pp. 35-61. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
Seitz, Christopher R. “The Divine Name in Christian Scripture.” In This Is My Name Forever: The Trinity and Gender Language for God. Edited by Alvin F. Kimel Jr. Pp.23-34. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001.