Gendered Language for God
Do you think of God as male? It seems a lot of people do. This is probably due to the fact that God is typically referred to in English Bibles with masculine pronouns such as “he,” as well as a few masculine terms including “father.” But does this masculine language really mean that God is male or masculine?
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.
God is sometimes portrayed in the Bible with metaphors we tend to associate with maleness and masculinity. He is sometimes referred to as a father, 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 many in 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 humanity 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 humanity 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 statements about the equal status, authority, 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 church 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 Christian denominations that regard their church leaders as priests.
In his book Leadership is Male, J. David Pawson is emphatic that God is only to be understood in masculine terms. Pawson dismisses feminine metaphors of God in the Bible because he regards “the proportion of these ‘feminine’ references as infinitesimal, compared to the male.” (His emphasis in italics.) This masculinist view of God has also influenced how he views leadership in the Church. Pawson states that he is “thus far convinced” that the leadership of God’s people “must be male.” His view, however, does not take into account the leadership of Deborah and several other female prophetic figures mentioned in the Bible. It also does not take into account Moses’ and Paul’s descriptions of their leadership using maternal terms (Num. 11:12; 1 Thess. 2:7).
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).
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 are no divine or appropriate non-gendered third-person singular pronouns in the biblical languages 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. Many biblical names and titles of God, such as Yahweh, Elohim, Adonai, Theos and Kurios are grammatically masculine, so grammatically masculine pronouns need to be used in association (i.e. in grammatical agreement) 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). 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) and the Aramaic word (rucha) are grammatically feminine and some early churches referred to the Holy Spirit in feminine terms. The Syriac Church used feminine pronouns (corresponding to “she”) when referring to the Holy Spirit until about 400 AD. (Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic.)
For example, in John 14:26 in the Vetus Syra, the Old Syriac version of the Gospels, there are three feminine pronouns hi (equivalent to “she”): “but ‘that’ (hi) Spirit, the Paraclete who my Father will send to you in my name, ‘she’ (hi) will teach you everything, ‘she’ (hi) will remind you of all that I say.” See also The Odes of Solomon, a second-century Jewish-Christian work written in Syriac, which begins with, “I rested on the Spirit of the Lord, and she lifted me up to heaven …” (Odes, 36).
The fact that the word “Spirit” is neuter in the Greek Scriptures and feminine in the Hebrew (and Syriac) 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 of the mother-goddess. The Hebrew Bible mentions many times that the Israelites took part in idolatrous worship practices associated with the Semitic goddess Asherah.
Margot Houts 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.” 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 greater number of masculine metaphors may merely reflect the patriarchal culture of Bible times where men typically had more dignity and where women were largely excluded from official roles that involved civil and cultic leadership.
The authors of the Bible used metaphors that the people of Israel could identify with, and they could identify with patriarchy and mostly male leadership. The cultural norm of patriarchy makes the feminine metaphors of God all the more significant.
Feminine Metaphors of God
Mistress (Female Master)
In the Old Testament, the feminine metaphors of God are usually 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
According to the Bible, there is nothing wrong with looking to God in the same way as a female servant might look to her female master.
In the patriarchal society of ancient Israel, women’s roles were mostly associated with motherhood. In the Scriptures, God sometimes describes his activity and emotions as the activities and emotions of a mother.
In Isaiah 42:14, God describes himself using the simile of a woman 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 by the author 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).
“You who have been borne by me from birth
And have been carried from the womb.” Isaiah 46:3b
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.” Martin Luther stated, “God cares for us with an everlasting maternal heart and feeling.”
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 ordinarily does not forget her children. Calvin responds with, “… in order to express his very strong affection, [God] 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 11:3–4 NRSV, God describes his love and nurture of Israel using tender maternal imagery.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
In some verses, God uses fatherly and motherly language in the context of being a metaphorical parent (Deut. 32:18; Isa. 45:9–12). In Job 38:28–29, where God is speaking about his rule over nature, he asks rhetorical questions that include the words “father” and “womb.” (God uses the word “womb” in Isaiah 46:3 also.)
Since God describes himself, metaphorically, as a mother in the Bible, there can be nothing wrong with his people describing or referring to him, metaphorically, as a mother.
In ancient Israel, midwives were always female. Occasionally, God describes himself as acting as 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
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 a woman engaged in household duties as metaphors for God’s activity.
The first parable is in Luke 13:20–21 where Jesus used the example of a woman working yeast into bread as a comparison to God’s activity in the Kingdom. This parable is parallel to the preceding parable of the mustard seed planted by a man (Luke 13:18–19).
The second is in Luke 15:8–10. Here Jesus used the analogy of a woman sweeping her house and searching for a lost silver coin. The parable of the lost coin parallels the preceding parable of the shepherd looking for his lost sheep (Luke 15:3–7).
Not only could women listening to Jesus easily identify with a woman adding yeast to bread or sweeping a house, but the actions of the women in the two parables metaphorically represent God’s Kingdom activities: (1) of causing his Kingdom to grow and (2) of carefully searching for a lost soul, with great rejoicing when a soul is found and restored.
Other Metaphors and God’s Gender
It should also be noted that God is sometimes metaphorically referred to in the Scriptures as inanimate objects such as a “Rock,” a “Fortress,” or a “Horn,” which all symbolise strength. Occasionally God is compared to animal mothers to illustrate the ferocity of his love. (See footnote 15.) The purpose of all these biblical images, metaphors, similes, and descriptions—whether masculine, feminine, or neither—is to help us understand a God who is above our understanding. They are not meant to indicate or imply gender. God does not have gender.
The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church (CCC 370) correctly states that God “is neither man nor woman.” It further 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].”
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. Still, this doesn’t mean God is male. “The gender of Jesus is something that belongs to his human nature which mustn’t be confused with his divine nature. Jesus’ masculinity no more proves that God is male than that it proves that [God] is Jewish or mortal.”
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 suggests that Jesus was male because,
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). 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 that I find compelling:
I think a reason Christ came as a male was so God’s salvation would be seen as involving and including both male and female. 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).
Apart from Jesus, God is not male or masculine, nor is God female or feminine, and yet he has chosen to reveal himself in ways that people in ancient times could identify with—with roles and activities that those people associated with men and with women. It is important to be aware that the biblical metaphors are images to help us understand God relationally and analogically; they do not describe God’s actual or physical nature. This is true for both the masculine and feminine metaphors of God.
God is beyond our human understanding and transcends gender. Yet we know that both men and women are made in his image and likeness, and that he has commissioned both men and women to rule and care for his creation as his regents (Gen. 1:26–28). 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 2:17–18). Though men and women have some biological differences, we are equal in Christ, theologically and sociologically, as we both 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
 Margo J. Houts, “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, 356.
 The Hebrew Scriptures that speak of God as being a parent and having children are metaphorical, and not all these verses contain the word “father” (e.g., Exod. 4:22; Hos. 11:1). Verses where God is referred to as a father or directly called “Father” occur about a dozen times, if we don’t count the verses where God says he will be Solomon’s father. (See Deut. 32:6; Psa. 68:5; 89:26; Isa. 9:6; 63:16; 64:8; Jer. 3:4, 19; 31:9; Mal. 1:6; 2:10; cf. God as Solomon’s father: 2 Sam. 7:14; 1 Chron. 17:13; 22:10; 28:6). It may be that there are only slightly more paternal metaphors for God in the Hebrew Scriptures than there are maternal metaphors.
There are many more New Testament verses where God is called “Father.” Jesus became incarnate by having Mary as his mother and God (through the Holy Spirit) as his father (Luke 1:35; cf. Rom. 15:6; Eph. 1:3; 1 Pet. 1:3; 1 John 1:3). God is actually, not metaphorically, Jesus Christ’s father. Jesus, as our older brother, has invited us to call God “our Father.” Addressing God as “Father” in the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer often repeated by Christians, has cemented the custom (Matt. 6:9//Luke 11:2). And all authors of the New Testament letters and the author of Revelation call the first person of the Trinity, “Father.” For example, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom.1:7//1 Cor. 1:3//2 Cor. 1:2//Gal. 1:3//Eph. 1:2//Phil. 1:2//Phm. 1:3).
 Some English translations have the pronoun “him” in the second phrase of Genesis 1:27 and “them” in the third phrase, but others have “them” in both phrases. Which is correct?
“So God created humanity (hā’ādām) in his own image.
In the image of God he created him/them (’ōtô);
male and female he created them (ōtām)” (Genesis 1:27).
The Hebrew pronoun ’ōtô (“him”) in the second phrase is singular and masculine and agrees grammatically with the singular, masculine word hā’ādām (“the human” or “humanity”): “in the image of God he created him” (CSB, ESV, KJV, NKJV, NASB, etc). However, “them” may be the intended meaning in both the second and third phrases, not just the third phrase which has the plural, masculine pronoun ōtām (“them”): “male and female he created them.”
Hā’ādām is a singular word but it can refer to all humanity, not just men, and not necessarily just one man (cf. ’ādām in Gen. 5:1–2 NRSV). So some English translations have, “in the image of God he created them” for the second phrase of Genesis 1:27 despite the singular Hebrew pronoun (CEB, GNT, ISV, NET, NLT, NRSV, etc).
“Him” reflects the Hebrew grammar of the second phrase of Genesis 1:27, but “them” may more faithfully convey the intended meaning.
You can see the Hebrew of Genesis 1:27 on Bible Hub, here, and compare English translations on Bible Gateway, here.
 J. David Pawson, Leadership is Male (Guildford: Eagle, 1997), 19.
 Pawson, Leadership is Male, 10.
 Houts, “Images of God as Female,” 356.
 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.
Chinese pronouns are generally written as:
他 – male singular pronoun, equivalent to “he”
她 – female singular pronoun, “she”
它 or 牠 – neuter singular pronoun, “it”
For God, the pronoun is 祂.
The pronouns are written with a different “radical” on the left side of the word to indicate something about the referent:
亻- for a male human
女 – for a female human
牜- for an animal
礻- for spirit
礻, for “spirit” (on the left side), put together with 也 (on the right side), makes the pronoun 祂 which may be understood as “godself.” This pronoun is pronounced in Mandarin and Cantonese as “ta.”
 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.
 The neuter singular article is frequently used with pneuma in the Greek. Any agreeing adjectives and participles are also neuter and singular in the Greek (e.g., Matt.10:20).
 Some early Christians regarded the Holy Spirit as profoundly feminine. This is demonstrated in this quotation from the Valentinian Gospel of Philip translated from Coptic: “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?” Source: Marvin Meyer (ed), “The Gospel of Philip”, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007), 54.
Matthew 1:18, 20 and Luke 1:35 state, however, that Mary did indeed become pregnant by the Holy Spirit.
 Houts, “Images of God as Female,” 357.
 Asherah shrines 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.”
 Houts, “Images of God as Female,” 356.
 In patriarchal societies, men are the leaders of the community, the leaders of clans, and the leaders of 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. With Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice on the cross, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, there is now the possibility of equality or mutuality for all people regardless of gender, race, or social status (cf. Gal. 3:26–28).
 Sometimes God is compared to an animal mother. 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).
 God clearly describes himself as having emotions.
 John Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah.
Luther, Lectures on Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, ed. Hilton C. Oswald, Luther’s Works, vol. 17 (St Louis: Concordia, 1972), 183.
 In Old and New Testament times, the prevailing patriarchal culture restricted the roles of women. Some women, but by no means all, were limited to domestic roles in the home.
 A common assumption is that the coin was part of the woman’s dowry. However, the original audience may have understood the coin to be part of a small savings hoard or an emergency hoard that was in the woman’s care. It often fell to the woman-of-the-house to safeguard the household savings.
 “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” Vatican Archives Website: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s2c1p6.htm
 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” is anthrōpos and means a “person” or a “human being.” Jesus is rarely referred to in the Greek New Testament 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.
 Andrew Moody, “Does God Have Gender?” The Gospel Coalition Australia (August 27th 2016) (Source)
 Other than the Passover lamb, which was to be a perfectly sound young male lamb, and the Yom Kippur goat, many other sacrifices were female animals. Ewes, heifers, and female goats are mentioned in Leviticus 4:6, 28, 32; 5:6; 14:10; 15:27; and Numbers 6:14; 19:2–10; 21:2–6. These sacrifices may have been more costly as female animals are needed more than males to sustain the flock.
 Carrie L. Bates, “Gender Ontology and Women in Ministry in the Early Church” in Priscilla Papers 25.2 (Spring 2011): 6–15, 11.
 Jesus’ example of humility and self-sacrifice, as well as his counter-cultural teaching on leadership, has been poorly understood and poorly demonstrated in the church.
 Eric’s comment is taken from an informal internet discussion.
 New Testament ministry is based on the equipping of the Holy Spirit and not on gender. The Holy Spirit gives 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.
© Margaret Mowczko 2011
All Rights Reserved
Excerpt from The Lost Drachma by James Tissot (Wikimedia) (Luke 15:8–10).
A Note on Wisdom and Sophia
Some believe that Wisdom (Hebrew: chokmah; Greek: sophia) is a feminine metaphor for God. Some even believe Wisdom is a divine or semi-divine entity because Wisdom is personified as a woman in the book of Proverbs and in Jewish wisdom literature such as the Book of Wisdom and the Wisdom of Sirach. Wisdom’s feminine personification is particularly clear in Proverbs 8:1-38 (cf. Prov. 1:20–33; 9:1–6). Note, however, that Folly is also personified as a woman (Prov. 9:13ff).
The personification of Wisdom and Folly may simply be a literary device. However, some link Wisdom with Jesus being referred to as “the wisdom (sophia) of God” in 1 Corinthians 1:24 (cf. 1 Cor 1:30). I acknowledge that sometimes Wisdom does sound like Jesus (perhaps as the Logos) (cf. Wisd. 9:4a). At other times, however, Wisdom sounds like the Holy Spirit.
I now know everything, visible and hidden, for Wisdom, the designer of everything that is, has taught me. Her spirit is insightful, holy, unique, diverse, refined, kinetic, pure, spotless, transparent, harmless, delighting in what is good, sharp, unstoppable, overflowing with kindness, delighting in humans, steadfast, secure, not anxious, all-powerful, and all-seeing. Her spirit can be found in every spirit that is perceptive, pure, and refined. Wisdom is more mobile than anything that moves. She pervades and embraces everything because she is so pure (cf. 1 Cor. 2:10). Wisdom is the warm breath of God’s power (cf. Job 33:4). She pours forth from the all-powerful one’s pure glory. Therefore, nothing impure can enter her. She’s the brightness that shines forth from eternal light. She’s a mirror that flawlessly reflects God’s activity. She’s the perfect image of God’s goodness. She can do anything, since she’s one and undivided. She never changes, and yet she makes everything new (Tit. 3:5). Generation after generation, she enters souls and shapes them into God’s friends and prophets. Wisdom 7:21b–27 CEB
I have not included wisdom as a metaphor for God in this article because God is wise. Wisdom is not a metaphor, image, or simile, but one of God’s defining traits in the same way as love is one of God’s defining traits.
I recommend Dr Karen Jobes’ essay, Sophia Christology: The Way of Wisdom, which is freely available as a pdf here. There is also a helpful, shorter article on the Bible Odyssey website, here. I have an article on the concept of Shekinah here.
Does El Shaddai mean “The God with Breasts”?
Some believe that El Shaddai, a name or designation of God that is used several times in the Hebrew Bible, is a feminine name and that it means “the God with breasts” or something similar. I look at what Hebrew lexicons and the Septuagint say about this here.
Gregory of Nazianzus on Grammatical Gender and God’s Gender
Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390 CE) was the archbishop of Constantinople and a famous theologian. He was a native Greek speaker and much admired for his superb ability in rhetoric. In a discussion on the relationship between God the Father and Son, he poses rhetorical questions intended to show the absurdity of linking grammatical gender in Greek with the actual gender of God. (The answer to these rhetorical questions is “no.”)
Here is my mostly literal translation.
One must not … suppose that it is necessary to transfer the whole meaning of nouns used below [on earth], including those of family relations, to the divine sphere. Or would you readily suppose, according to this reasoning, that our God is indeed male because he is called ‘God,’ and also ‘father’? And that ‘the Godhead’ is female on the basis of it being a feminine noun? And that the ‘Spirit’ is neither [male or female, but neuter] because it is sterile?
Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 31.7, PG 36, 140–141.
Note that the Greek words theos (“God”) and patēr (“father”) are grammatically masculine nouns used of God; theotētos (“godhead/deity”) is grammatically feminine (cf. Col. 2:9); pneuma (“spirit”) is grammatically neuter.
Here is the translation on New Advent.
For it does not follow that … it would also be necessary to think that all the names of this lower world and of our kindred should be transferred to the Godhead. Or maybe you would consider our God to be a male, according to the same arguments, because he is called God and Father, and that Deity is feminine, from the gender of the word, and Spirit neuter, because It has nothing to do with generation.
Oration 31.7 (Source: New Advent)
The following translation is in William J. Abraham’s book, Divine Agency and Divine Action, Volume III: Systematic Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 51.
Do you take it, by the same token, that our God is a male because of the masculine nouns ‘God’ and ‘Father’? Is the Godhead a female, because in Greek the word is feminine? Is the word ‘Spirit’ neuter in Greek, because the Spirit is sterile?
Oration 31.7 (Source: Google Books)
Arnobius on God’s Masculine “Name” not Denoting Sex
In around 303–305, Arnobius wrote a defence of Christianity to counter the belief that Christians had brought the wrath of (pagan) gods on Rome. This belief fueled the Diocletian persecution of Christians. In the following quotation, Anobius makes the comment that even though God’s name is grammatically masculine, God is not male. (I think God’s “name” here refers to the Latin word deus.)
And yet, that no thoughtless person may raise a false accusation against us, as though we believed God whom we worship to be male — for this reason, that is, that when we speak of Him we use a masculine word — let him understand that it is not sex which is expressed, but His name, and its meaning according to custom, and the way in which we are in the habit of using words. For the Deity is not male, but His name is of the masculine gender …
Arnobius, Against the Heathen 3.8 (Source: New Advent)
Arnobius goes on to say that the heathen attribute sex, male and female, to their gods and goddesses.
Clement of Alexandria on God as Father and Mother
Clement of Alexandria (150–215) was a theologian and philosopher who taught at the influential Catechetical School of Alexandria. In his treatise, Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved? (section 37) Clement describes God as father and mother.
And God himself is love, and out of love to us became feminine. In his ineffable essence, he is Father; in his compassion to us, he became Mother. The Father by loving became feminine, and the great proof of this is he whom he begot of himself, and the fruit brought forth by love is love. (Source: New Advent)
This quotation doesn’t gel with me, especially as it still seems to indicate that God’s primary essence is masculine, but I share it to show that respected church fathers did not see God as wholly masculine but as being both father and mother. (Compare Clement’s comments with Calvin’s comments about God as mother in the article above.)
The Holy Spirit as Mother in the Gospel of the Hebrews
The first or second-century Gospel of the Hebrews apparently referred to the Holy Spirit as “Mother.” This Gospel is thought by some to have been a divergent form of Matthew’s Gospel written by the Nazaraean community. It was not well-received by the early church and it doesn’t survive today, but a few early church fathers mention it, including Origen.
Origen quotes from it in his commentary on John, but downplays the significance of the Holy Spirit as Mother.
If anyone should lend credence to the Gospel according to the Hebrews, where the Saviour Himself says, “My Mother, the Holy Spirit, took me just now by one of my hairs and carried me off to the great mount Tabor,” he will have to face the difficulty of explaining how the Holy Spirit can be the mother of Christ when it [the Spirit] was itself brought into existence through the Word. But neither the passage nor this difficulty is hard to explain. For if he who does the will of the Father in heaven (Matthew 12:50) is Christ’s brother and sister and mother, and if the name of brother of Christ may be applied, not only to the race of men, but to beings of diviner rank than they, then there is nothing absurd in the Holy Spirit’s being His Mother, everyone being His mother who does the will of the Father in heaven.
Origen, Commentary on John 2.12.87 (Source: New Advent)
Origen repeats the same saying in his homily on Jeremiah, 15.4: “And if anyone receives that saying, ‘Even now my Mother the Holy Spirit took me and carried me up unto the great mountain Tabor.'”
This saying from the Gospel of the Hebrews is thought to come from an alternate story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (cf. Matt. 4:8).
Jerome quotes the same reference in his commentaries on Micah 7:6, Isaiah 40:9ff, and Ezekiel 16:13. Unlike Origen, Jerome was not bothered about the idea of the Holy Spirit as Mother. He believed grammatical gender influenced this idea.
In the Gospel According to the Hebrews that the Nazarenes read it says, “the Lord proclaims, ‘My Mother the Holy Spirit has taken me.'” But no one should be scandalized in this matter because “Spirit” is feminine in the Hebrew when, in our own language [Latin] it is rendered in the masculine gender and neuter in its Greek form. For in the deity there is no gender.
Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah 11.40.9 (Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 73, p. 459) (Source: Google Books)
Makarios on the Holy Spirit as Mother
Symeon of Mesopotamia (c. 300–390), who wrote sermons (homilies) in Greek under the name Makarios, repeatedly stated that there is no human birth without a mother, and therefore no spiritual birth without the Holy Spirit (e.g., Makarios, Homily 8.1).
Here are some more quotations from his homilies.
“As the mother of young birds cares for them, so the Holy Spirit provides food for God’s children” (Makarios, Homily 16.2).
“… the grace of the Spirit, the Mother of the holy…” (Makarios, Homily 27.1).
“She [feminine Greek pronoun: autē] is the kind and heavenly Mother …” (Makarios, Homily 27.4).
“And from his [Adam’s] time until the last Adam, the Lord, people did not see the true heavenly Father and the good and kind Mother the grace of the Spirit …” (Makarios, Homily 28.4).
The writings of Makarios influenced Zinzendorf (1700s) who wrote, “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is our true Father, and the Spirit of Jesus Christ is our true Mother.”
See my article, The Holy Spirit as Mother in Early Syriac Texts.
Anselm’s Prayer to Saint Paul and Jesus as Mothers
In 1 Thessalonians 2:7, Paul describes his apostolic ministry, and that of his colleagues, using the metaphor of a woman breastfeeding her infant children. (More on this here.) In Galatians 4:18–19, Paul uses the metaphor of a woman in labour. Anselm, who became archbishop of Canterbury in 1093, picked up on these maternal metaphors in a prayer he composed in around 1070. He says about Paul, “Who is that affectionate mother who declares everywhere that she is in labour for her sons?”
Anselm then prays to Jesus alluding to Matthew 23:37.
And you, Jesus, are you not also a mother?
Are you not the mother who, like a hen,
gathers her chickens under her wings?
Truly, Lord, you are a mother;
for both they who are in labour
and they who are brought forth
are accepted by you.
You can read a longer excerpt of Anselm’s prayer, here.
Melito of Sardis and Singing to the Father and Mother
Melito of Sardis (d. 180) quotes a hymn in which male and female virgins are exalted. “Mother” here may be the Holy Spirit who is often described as a mother. The following comes from Daniel R. Streett’s website, here.
Sing a hymn to the Father, O holy ones!
Sing to the Mother, O virgins!
We, the holy ones, sing a hymn, we highly exalt [them].
May you be exalted, brides and grooms,
Because you found your bridegroom, Christ.
Drink in the wine, brides and grooms! (Melito, Fragment 17)
Man and woman as the image and glory of God (1 Corinthians 11:7)
Why masculine pronouns can be misleading in English Bibles
The Holy Spirit and Masculine Pronouns in John’s Gospel
The Holy Spirit as Mother in Early Syriac Texts
Paul’s Masculine and Feminine Leadership
Old Testament Priests and New Covenant Ministers
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
The Portrayal of Women in the Bible and Biblical Inspiration
Does El Shaddai Mean “The God with Breasts”?
Shekinah: God’s Immanent Presence
Johannes van Oort, “The Holy Spirit as Feminine: Early Christian Testimonies and their Interpretation,” Herv. teol. stud. 72.1 (2016): 1–6. http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/hts.v72i1.3225 (Online)