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Do you think of God as male? In some ways I do. This is probably due to the fact that God is typically referred to in the Bible with masculine pronouns such as “he”, and masculine terms such as “father”. But does this masculine language really mean that God is male or masculine?

Masculine Metaphors for God

God’s transcendent nature and divine character are beyond our human understanding. To help our understanding, God is often portrayed in the Scriptures metaphorically, using imagery and similes that we humans can identify with. These Biblical metaphors of God are primarily designed to help us understand God “relationally and analogically” and should not be taken literally. (Houts 2002:356)

God is sometimes portrayed in the Bible with metaphors we tend to associate with maleness and masculinity. He is referred to as a father,[1] a king and a warrior, etc. These masculine metaphors have dominated the Church’s view of God. However, the Scriptures also refer to God using metaphors we tend to associate with femaleness and femininity. These feminine metaphors of God have been largely ignored by the Church. We will be looking at some examples of these feminine metaphors below, but first, let’s see what Genesis 1 says about men and women.

Men and Women in the Image of God

Genesis 1:26-27 clearly shows that both men and women were created in the image of God.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:26-27 

Not only are men and women made in God’s image, these verses, and the following verse in Genesis 1:28, say that the dominion and stewardship of God’s creation were given to both men and women. Genesis 1:26-28 contains profound truths about the equal status, worth and purpose of men and women. [More on gender in Genesis 1 here.]

Is Leadership Male?

Despite the fact that the Bible nowhere teaches that men better represent God’s image and likeness, the Church has traditionally taught that men are the superior sex, that men more fully represent God, and that only men can be ministers and leaders. In many regards, this message continues today. Some well-known Bible teachers state that God is only to be understood in masculine terms, and, following on from that understanding, they teach that church leaders must be male. This is especially true for many Christian denominations which regard their church leaders as priests.

J. David Pawson, in his book Leadership is Male, is emphatic that God is only to be understood in masculine terms. Pawson dismisses Biblical feminine metaphors of God because he regards “the proportion of these ‘feminine’ references as infinitesimal, compared to the male.” (1997:19) (His emphasis in italics.) This masculinist view of God has also influenced how Pawson views leadership in the Church. Pawson states that he is “thus far convinced” that the leadership of God’s people “must be male”. (1997:10) Pawson’s view does not take into account the leadership of Deborah and several other female prophetic leaders mentioned in the Bible (cf. Num. 11:12; 1 Thess. 2:7).

Masculine Pronouns

The God of the Bible is neither male nor female (sex), nor is he masculine or feminine (gender). If God is understood in gendered terms, this would contradict the affirmation that God is Spirit (John 4:24), lacking physicality (Deut. 4:15-16), and that he is the Holy One who is qualitatively “other” (Isa. 6:2-3; Hos. 11:9; Rev. 4:8). (Houts 2002:356)

Despite the fact that God is Spirit and should not be understood or defined in terms of sex or gender, many of us believe, either consciously or subconsciously, that God is somehow male. This masculinist view is exacerbated by the fact that, in the majority of English translations of the Bible, God is only referred to with masculine pronouns, such as “he”.

The reason God is referred to as “he” is largely due to the limitations of language. There is no “divine” non-gender in the biblical languages (or in English) that we can use when talking and writing about God; so we are limited to the grammatical genders of masculine and feminine in Hebrew, and masculine, feminine and neuter in the Greek.[3] Many Biblical names and titles of God, such as Yahweh, Elohim, Adonai, Theos and Kurios are grammatically masculine which is the reason why masculine pronouns are used in association with these words.

The Greek word for “Spirit” (pneuma), however, is grammatically neuter, and so neuter pronouns (corresponding to “it”) are often used in reference to the Holy Spirit in the Greek text of the New Testament (e.g., John 14:17; Rom. 8:16, 26b).[4] Nevertheless, these Greek neuter pronouns are usually translated into English as masculine pronouns (such as “he”) simply so that the Holy Spirit does not seem impersonal.

The Hebrew word for “Spirit” (ruach), on the other hand, is grammatically feminine, and some early churches referred to the Holy Spirit in feminine terms.[5] The Syriac Church used feminine pronouns (corresponding to “she”) when speaking and writing about the Holy Spirit until about 400 AD. (Houts 2002:357)

The fact that the word “Spirit” is neuter in the Greek Scriptures and feminine in the Hebrew Scriptures does not mean that the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is actually neuter or feminine. Similarly the fact that God is referred to with masculine pronouns in the Scriptures does not mean that God is actually masculine.

[It is important to note that in many languages, including Greek and Hebrew, the grammatical gender of a noun may or may not correspond to the actual gender of the person or thing being named. The concept of grammatical gender is sometimes misunderstood by people whose only experience with language is English which has very little grammatical gender.]

Why More Masculine Metaphors?

While God is not male, he is often associated with masculine imagery. Perhaps God, through the Biblical writers, used masculine imagery and terms to make a clear distinction between himself and the pagan goddesses of the nations surrounding Israel. One of the most pervasive concepts of divinity in the Ancient Near East was the “Great Mother” goddess. Many religious customs and rituals associated with the worship of the “Great Mother” involved immoral, sexual practises which were the antithesis of the practices outlined in the Old Testament Law. The Old Testament mentions many times that the Israelites took part in idolatrous worship practices associated with the Semitic mother-goddess Asherah.[6]

Margot Houts (2002:356) suggests, however, that God sometimes associated himself with masculinity to accommodate the ancient patriarchal culture of Israel, “in which the masculine line was used to dignify and elevate.”[7] The fact that there are more masculine metaphors than feminine in the Bible does not necessarily mean that God is somehow more masculine than feminine. Rather, the fact that there are more masculine metaphors merely reflects the patriarchal culture of Bible times where women were largely excluded from official roles that involved spiritual and civil influence and leadership.

God, through the Bible writers, used metaphors that the people of Israel could identify with, and they could identify with patriarchy. The cultural norm of patriarchy makes the feminine metaphors of God all the more significant. [See endnote 7.]

Feminine Metaphors of God

Mistress

In the Old Testament, the feminine metaphors of God are largely of maternal images. One of the few exceptions to the maternal imagery is in Psalm 123:2 where both a master of male servants and a mistress of female servants are used as similes for God.

I lift up my eyes to you, to you who sit enthroned in heaven.
As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master,
As the eyes of a female servant look to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he shows us his mercy. 
Psalm 123:1-2

Mother

In the patriarchal society of ancient Israel, women’s roles were greatly restricted and women were mostly identified with the role of motherhood.[8] In the Scriptures, God sometimes describes his activity and emotions as the activities and emotions of a mother.[9]

In Isaiah 42:14, God describes himself using the simile of a woman in labour giving birth.

“For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back.
But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant. 
Isaiah 42:14 

In Isaiah 46:3-4, God is described as a mother who had carried Israel from birth.  It was primarily the mother’s role to care for infants in ancient Israel (cf. Isa. 45:9-12). Commenting on this verse, John Calvin wrote: “God has manifested himself to be both Father and Mother so that we might be more aware of God’s constant presence and willingness to assist us.”[10]

“You who have been borne by me from birth
And have been carried from the womb.  Isaiah 46:3b 

In Isaiah 66:13, God compares himself to a mother who comforts her children,

“As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”  Isaiah 66:13 

In Isaiah 49:14-15, God compares himself with a mother who does not forget her children. Calvin writes in response to this verse: “God did not satisfy himself with proposing the example of a father, but in order to express his very strong affection, he chose to liken himself to a mother, and calls His people not merely children, but the fruit of the womb, towards which there is usually a warmer affection.”

In Hosea 11:3, God describes his love and nurture of Israel using maternal imagery and actions. In some verses, God is described as both a father and mother (Deut. 32:18; Isa. 45:9-12).

Midwife

In ancient Israel, midwives were always female. Occasionally, God describes himself as acting like a midwife, assisting in the delivery of a newborn. The following verses depict God as the one who brings the newborn baby from the womb (Psalm 22:9-10; 71:6); and who assists in the delivery of the newborn nation of Israel (Isa. 66:9).

Yet you brought me out of the womb . . .  Psalm 22:9a; Psalm 71:6.

“Do I bring to the moment of birth and not give delivery?” says the LORD.
“Do I close up the womb when I bring to delivery?” says your God. 
Isaiah 66:9 

Housewife

When teaching about the Kingdom of God, Jesus used illustrations in his parables that ordinary men and women of that day could understand and identify with. In two of his parables, Jesus used the illustration of two women engaged in household duties as metaphors for God’s activity.[11]

In Luke 13:20-21, Jesus compared God’s activity in the Kingdom using the metaphor of a woman working yeast into bread. This parable is parallel to the preceding parable of the mustard seed planted by a man, in Luke 13:18-19.

In Luke 15:8-10, Jesus used the analogy of a woman sweeping her house to look for a lost silver coin. (The inference is that the coin was part of the woman’s dowry.) The parable of the lost coin parallels the preceding parable of the shepherd looking for his lost sheep, in Luke 15:3-7.

Is God Male or Masculine?

Not only could women listening to Jesus easily identify with the woman adding yeast to bread or the woman sweeping a house, but the actions of the women in the two parables metaphorically represent God’s Kingdom activities of (1) causing his Kingdom to grow, and (2) carefully searching for a lost soul, with great rejoicing when a soul is found and restored.

It should also be noted that God is sometimes metaphorically referred to in the Scriptures as inanimate objects such as a “Rock”, “Fortress”, or a “Horn” (which symbolises strength), etc. Occasionally God is even compared to animal mothers. [See endnote 8.] The purpose of all these images, metaphors, similes, and descriptions is to help us understand a God who is above our understanding. They are not meant to indicate or imply gender.

The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church (CCC) correctly states that God is neither man nor woman. It states that God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the differences between the sexes. But the  respective “perfections” of man and woman reflect something of the infinite  perfection of God: those of a mother (Isa. 49:14-15; 66:13; Psalm 131:2-3) and  those of a father (Job 31:18; Jer. 3:4-20) and husband (Jer. 3:6-19). (CCC  370.)

Jesus is Male

God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are beyond sex or gender because they are “pure spirit”. However, Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, came to earth as a male human being.[12] Perhaps Jesus came as a male so that he would be able to speak in synagogues. Or perhaps it was to fulfil the role of the ultimate Passover Lamb which was male (Exod. 12:5ff; cf. 1 Cor. 5:7; 1 Pet. 1:18-19).

Carrie Bates (2011:11) suggests that “Teachings about self-sacrifice and the treatment of women as social equals would have lost their radical force had those teachings come from a woman. Christ came into a specific historical culture; in order to gain a hearing for the message of God’s liberating love, he came as a male.” If the second person of the Trinity had come as a woman, and willingly lowered and sacrificed herself in the same way as Jesus had, the full implication of that humiliation and sacrifice, and the profound example it provided, could well have been lost, especially for men (Phil. 2:7-8; cf. Eph. 5:25).[13] This is because many cultures reinforce the stereotype that it is more usual for a woman to be humble and servile than it is for a man.

Eric Weiss suggests a different reason altogether which I find compelling.[14] Eric writes,

“I think a reason Christ came as a male was so God’s salvation would be seen as involving and including both males and females. Had Christ, born of Mary, been a female, then salvation could be seen as being from and for and involving only females and the female nature. But the male Christ was born of a woman. And as the first Eve was brought forth from the first Adam, so the second or last Adam was brought forth from the second Eve (as the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches regard Mary) (cf. 1 Cor. 11:12).”

Conclusion

Apart from Jesus, God is not male or masculine, neither is he female or feminine; and yet God has chosen to reveal himself in ways that people in ancient times could identify with – in roles and activities that those people associated with masculinity and femininity. It is extremely important to be aware that the Biblical metaphors are merely images to help us understand God relationally and analogically; they are not meant to define God’s nature and character. This is true for both the masculine and feminine metaphors of God.

God is beyond our human understanding and transcends gender, yet we do know that both men and women are made in his image and in his likeness. Moreover, he has commissioned both men and women to care for his creation. Because of God’s great love for all people, he has made the way for both men and women to be redeemed, and he has called us to be his children and heirs. Furthermore, he has given his Spirit to all believing men and women, equipping them both for service and ministry (Acts 2:18).[15] In Christ, men and women, though having some fundamental differences, are completely equal, and together they reflect the image and likeness of God.

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:26-28


Endnotes

Some theologians also believe that “Wisdom” (Hebrew: hokmah; Greek: sophia) is a feminine metaphor for God. Wisdom is one of God’s attributes and is an agency of his divine action in creation. Wisdom is sometimes personified as a woman, as is Folly (e.g., Proverbs 9:13ff). Wisdom’s female personification is particularly clear in Proverbs chapter 8 (cf. Prov. 1:20-33; 9:1-6). Also, Jesus is referred to as “the sophia of God” in 1 Corinthians 1:24 (cf. 1 Cor 1:30). However, wisdom is not a metaphor for God, because God is wise. Wisdom is one of God’s defining traits in the same way as love is one of God’s defining traits. Wisdom is not an image or simile that helps us to understand God; therefore I have not included wisdom as a metaphor for God.

[1] The Biblical names and titles of God: Yahweh, Elohim, Shaddai, Sabbaoth, Adonai and Kurios are grammatically masculine, which is the main reason the masculine pronoun is used. It would have been confusing if the Bible writers had switched between masculine and feminine forms of words such as Adonai and Kurios, especially as one of the characteristics of God is that he doesn’t change.

[2] Christians typically refer to the first person of the Trinity as “Father”, and yet the Scriptures which speak of God as being our Father are usually metaphorical in the Old Testament. The New Testament verses which refer to God as Father are fairly few (excepting the verses where Jesus speaks of God as being his, and our, Father.)

[3] The Chinese language has a special genderless pronoun used in reference to divinity. The Chinese character for “he” contains the character for “human” and so is unsuitable when referring to deity.

[4] The neuter, singular article, is frequently used with pneuma in the Greek. Any agreeing adjectives and participles, etc, are also neuter singular in the Greek (e.g., Matt.10:20).

[5] That some early Christians regarded the Holy Spirit is profoundly feminine is demonstrated in this misguided quotation from the Valentinian-Gnostic Gospel of Philip: “Some said Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. They are wrong and do not know what they are saying. When did a woman ever get pregnant by a woman?” Marvin Meyer, “The Gospel of Philip”, The Nag Hammadi Scripture (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007) 54.
Matthew 1:18, 20 and Luke 1:35 state that Mary did indeed become pregnant by the Holy Spirit.

[6] Asherah shrines (wooden poles) and worship are mentioned forty-nine times in nine Old Testament books: Exodus, Deuteronomy, Judges, 1 and 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah. Jeremiah refers to Asherah as the “Queen of Heaven”.

[7] Patriarchy is a form of social organisation in which men are the leaders. In patriarchal societies, men are the leaders of the community, the leaders of the clans, and the leaders of the families and it is difficult and rare for a woman to have official power and influence. Patriarchy was a result of the Fall (Gen. 3:16) and does not represent God’s ideal in the home, in the Church, or in the society. Jesus’ redemptive act on the cross has purchased equality for all people regardless of gender, race, or social status.

[8] God also describes himself using the metaphors of animal mothers. In Hosea 13:8a God describes himself as an enraged mother bear robbed of her cubs. In other Scriptures God is likened to a bird who protects her young under the safety and shelter of her wings (Ruth 2:12; cf. Psalm 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 91:1,4). In the New Testament, Jesus described his longing to protect Jerusalem using the analogy of a mother hen who gathers her chicks under her wings (Luke 13:34; cf. Matt. 13:33).

[9] God clearly describes himself as having emotions.

[10] John Calvin, Commentaries, Volume 8, on Isaiah 33-66.

[11]  In Old and New Testament times, the prevailing patriarchal culture greatly restricted the roles of women. Many women, but not all, were limited to domestic roles in the home.

[12] It is important to note that while Jesus is a man, his maleness is never emphasised in the New Testament. For instance in Philippians 2:7, 1 Timothy 2:5, and 1 Corinthians 15:47, the Greek word translated as “man” (anthrōpos) actually means a “person” or a “human being”. In fact, Jesus is rarely referred to in the Greek as anēr (man); he is most commonly referred to as anthrōpos (a human being). Jesus became our saviour and mediator primarily because he became human, not because he became a male human.

[13] As it is, Jesus’ example of humility and self-sacrifice, and his counter-cultural teaching on leadership, has been poorly understood and demonstrated in the church.

[14] Eric’s comment is taken from an informal internet discussion.

[15] New Testament ministry is based on the equipping of the Holy Spirit and not on gender. The Holy Spirit gives his ministry gifts as he determines, seemingly regardless of gender (1 Cor. 12:11). This website has several articles about women who were church leaders mentioned in the New Testament.


Works Cited

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Vatican Archives website, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s2c1p6.htm

Bates, Carrie L., “Gender Ontology and Women in Ministry in the Early Church” in Priscilla Papers, Vol 25, No 2 (Spring 2011) 6-15.

Calvin, John, Commentaries, Volume 8: Isaiah 33-36 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005)

Hilton, Julie Ann, “Isaiah-Commentary” in The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary,  Clark Kroeger, Catherine, and Evans, Mary J., (eds) (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002) 355-369.

Houts, Margo J., “Images of God as Female” in The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary,  Clark Kroeger, Catherine, and Evans, Mary J., (eds) (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002) 356-358.

Pawson, J. David, Leadership is Male (Guildford: Eagle, 1997)


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