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.
 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.
 Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah (Google Books), or page 30 here.
 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.
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Excerpt from The Lost Drachma by James Tissot (Wikimedia)
Postscript 1: 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 idea on Shekinah here.
Postscript 2: 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 say about this here.
Postscript 3: 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.
Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 31.7. Translated by Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. (Online 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 (Online Source: Google Books)
Postscript 4: 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.)
Postscript 5: 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 40:9 ff., and Ezekiel 16:13. He believes grammatical gender influenced the understanding of the Holy Spirit as Mother.
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, 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).
More on the Gospel of the Hebrews here and here.
And see my article The Holy Spirit as Mother in Early Syriac Texts.
Postscript 6: 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.
Postscript 7: 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. 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.
Postscript 8: 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)
44 thoughts on “Is God Male or Masculine?”
When wisdom is personified as a female in Proverbs, specifically a female prophetess boldly preaching to the public, I immediately took the passage to be referring to the Holy Spirit. So would I be incorrect to call the Holy Spirit Sophia, since Sophia is the term for wisdom? Not to say I believe the gnostic texts that refer to wisdom or the Holy Spirit as Sophia; I just think that there may be some legitimacy to the name. I personally don’t feel like calling the Holy Spirit Sophia would be wrong, I’d probably just keep it personal and not public so people wouldn’t label me misguided Lol.
Also, I have an observation: I’ve noticed that when God is referred to in masculine terms, metaphors are usually used and when God is referred to in feminine terms, similes are usually used, however this isn’t always the case. I don’t know if that sheds light or not, I just noticed it.
Your metaphor/simile comment is interesting. I’ll have to have a closer look at that.
I don’t think that the Holy Spirit is especially feminine, or masculine for that matter.
I personally have a problem with Wisdom, or Sophia, being thought of as a member of the Godhead, even though people who are much smarter than me think this. God is not “like” wisdom, metaphorically or literally; God is wise.
As I mentioned above, both Wisdom and Folly are personified as women in Proverbs. So I’m not sure how these two “personalities” fit with describing the Godhead. If we call a member of the Godhead “Wisdom,” what do we do with “Folly”?
Hhhmmm… well if wisdom does not refer to the Holy Spirit, then it at least refers to an aspect of God. There is just too much personification of wisdom as a she to be dismissed. I don’t really think that God is male or female; but I do think that there is significance to the various scriptures that portray God as masculine and feminine, and traits of God as masculine and feminine. Proverbs does mention that God created wisdom, so perhaps that excludes wisdom from being the Holy Spirit? But then again, I see wisdom referred to in two ways: the characteristic and the she. Idk, it is a fascinating mystery to me. It’ll definitely be fun to research! But wisdom as Sophia or the Holy Spirit seems quite plausable.
I see the personification of Wisdom and Folly as a literary device used by Solomon to teach his son (or student) about wisdom and folly (Prov 1:6). There are some prophetic elements in the proverbs about wisdom which seem to point to God, but by and large, I do not think they are about God.
It is important to keep in mind the purpose of Solomons’ proverbs:
To know wisdom and instruction,
To discern the sayings of understanding,
To receive instruction in wise behavior,
Righteousness, justice and equity;
To give prudence to the naive,
To the youth knowledge and discretion,
A wise man will hear and increase in learning,
And a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel,
To understand a proverb and a figure,
The words of the wise and their riddles.
And, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (as well as wisdom.) Proverbs 1:7 (cf Proverbs 9:10; Psalm 111:10.)
Hi Margaret, thanks for posting this article. Out of interest, why do you think God is often referred to as Father in the bible? I didn’t notice this in what you wrote, so apologies if I missed it.
God is rarely called “Father” in the Old Testament. It really starts with Jesus, and God actually was his Father. (Have a look in the footnotes for more on this.)
I think God is sometimes referred to as “Father” because the patriarchal culture of Bible times typically recognised fathers, more so than mothers, as leaders and authorities. You can even see this thinking in some names: Abimelech means “my father is king”; Abraham means “father of many nations”. (The Hebrew word for father is transliterated as “ab” or “av”.)
Also, have a look in the section with the heading “Why More Masculine Metaphors?”
This is such an important message, Marg!
Thank you for all the examples you’ve included to show how God is our Father AND our Mother. It baffles me that so many Christians feel threatened by this concept.
For me, it just makes God more awesome and more able to meet my EVERY need according to his riches in glory….needs that my earthly mother and father could never meet.
This is an excellent and important article. However you never engage what I believe to be the most important metaphor God uses — that of being our Husband, and us being His Bride. I believe this is the main reason He generally uses male metaphors and came as a male human, and why He created marriage to begin with — to be a picture of His relationship with His People.
Hi Angela, God as “husband” (and Jeremiah 3:6-19) is mentioned only in passing in the article. I probably should add at least a line or two about this concept, even if just in a footnote.
There are a few passages in the Hebrew Bible where God says he is the husband of Israel. As well as the passage in Jeremiah, God also refers to himself as “husband” in Isaiah 54:4-8 and Hosea 2:16-20. And Ezekiel 16:8-14 implies betrothal.
Paul uses a marriage metaphor of Jesus Christ and the church in 2 Corinthians 11:2 and in Ephesians 5:22ff, but he makes this imagery serve two very different purposes to make specific, unrelated points.
Finally, in Revelation, we have the marriage of the Lamb. This is a concept I’ve looked into before.
In Revelation, “the bride” (nymphē) or “the wife” (gynē) of the Lamb is the New Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God.”
(Rev 19:7 “wife”; Rev 21:2 “bride”, Rev 21:9-10 “bride” and “wife”; Rev. 22:17 “bride”; cf. Rev 3:12.)
John the Revelator wrote, “‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” (Rev. 21:9-10).
(Paul uses “Jerusalem” in a different analogy in Galatians 4:26: “But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.”)
Apart from the four passages in Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea, and Ezekiel that I’ve cited, are there any other “God as husband” verses? Jeremiah 2 comes close.
I can understand them feeling threatened. I still feel a little uncomfortable about calling God “mother” and yet he clearly refers to himself with maternal metaphors.
I know someone who works with battered women, and she says that it is helpful for some of these wounded women to focus on the feminine metaphors rather than the masculine metaphors of God. That makes sense to me. God lovingly and powerfully supplies all our needs.
My dad says God could be a male spirit and no where in the bible does it say God is genderless
What do u say?
I wonder what your Dad means when he says that God could be a male spirit. What makes anything or anyone male?
Sex (male or female) is clear in many animals and is determined by their chromosomes and genitals. Does a spirit have chromosomes and genitals?
It seems that the main function of being male and female is to reproduce. Does God reproduce with a female spirit? I don’t think so.
The Bible does not say that God is genderless, but it also doesn’t say that he is male. One of my friends thinks that God might be “genderful” and have attributes that we associate with masculinity and femininity. Gender (masculinity and femininity) is different from sex (male and female).
Wow I didnt see that!! Wow thanks! Ya what makes someone male or female is there genitals! I guess my Dad sees God male cause of the references of him as father and that Jesus called him father. One thing my Dad believes is leadership is male ordained for males only, but also I big thing is he talked about how there are only male angels, im guessing he got this from their names. He said no where does it say the angels are genderless or we will be genderless but that we wont pricreate, my dad is saying he believes angels are male and they have male genitils and in haven we will have male or if women femal genitals, what do u say about this angel thing? Also when it talks about the angels in rev as his and
I think what my dad was saying is because God is always refered to as he ir his or him and father and Jesus being a male and holy spirit being called he, that God must be masculine sins only masculine is used to describe him.
I think my Dad is actually trying to figure all this out to, he relies a lot of creation order and 2 timithy 2 11-15
Please pray that his heart is softened, I tried talking to him about ezer kenegdo and he kept saying wonen are equal in value but not role, then I asked do u believe genesis talking if woman as a helpmeet is a role? He said yes, then I said ezer kenegdo means a strength equal to, so that means also a womens role is equal to men, then my dad saud nono! Woman are only equal in value, then I said is helpmeet a role and he said YES! Then I told him what help meet translation is… and he didnt see…. please pray earnestly for him. Also my old church is getting woman to wear hats and teaches christ is subordinate to the father like a woman should be of a man, the pastor said he would pray for my conviction of wearing a head covering again… which scared me since I forgot that his prayers have no way to change God’s mind, but anyway maybe I should be praying too. So can u pray for ian goligher and his church plz? Very much appreciated and that God shows him why headcoverings and that it wasnt mentioned anywhere in the ot as a command well unless someone was married but then God gave no specific command, and usually all commandments from NT go with OT perfectly, laws fullfilled or affirmed but no new laws exept for Jesus`s new commandment is new. This is what I thought about earlier today
I understand your concerns. Some angels are indeed referred to as “men”, probably because some angels looked just like men for some assignments. But I really don’t think that they stayed in that form. Other angelic beings look nothing like human beings (e.g the four living creatures).
In Hebrews 1:7 God is quoted as describing angels and says: “He makes his angels spirits, and his servants [also angels] flames of fire” (cf Psalm 104:4).
I don’t think angels are male, and I don’t believe God, apart from Jesus, is male. God refers to himself in motherly and fatherly terms as you can see in my article.
Also, Your Dad is incorrect about the Holy Spirit being called a “he”. In English translations the Spirit is traditionally called “he”, but not in the original languages of the Bible – Hebrew and Greek.
I think prayer is the answer. It is very hard to change someone’s mind about this. But the Holy Spirit can soften hearts and change minds, and bring new, life-giving understanding.
I pray that God blesses you as your seek to know him more; and I pray for your Dad that he may begin to recognize that God used women, as well as men, as leaders and prophets, etc. I have said a prayer for Ian too.
You ask good questions.
God bless you.
It definitely sounds metaphorical, but might convey some element of fact.
The Bible does not tell us much about God’s angels, but I really don’t think they have male genitals with which they pee and have sex and reproduce. (Is there any other use for male genitals?) The Bible just doesn’t tell us anything about this (cf Matt. 22:30; Mark 12:25).
Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. Luke 20:34-36
Also, some angelic beings look like women (Zech 5:9).
I heard that passage could have been just metaphorical like how he also saw a flying scroll.
I think it’s interesting that the angel verses are seen as metaphorical, but the verses that speak about God as “Father” are not.
God isn’t actually my father. He didn’t marry my mother. I don’t have his genes and DNA. But he is metaphorically the Father of all his people.
As I said, the Bible does not give us much information about angels, but angels and human males are not the same thing. And since Jesus indicated that angels don’t marry and hinted that they don’t reproduce I can’t see why they would all have one sex, or any sex, whether male or female.
Do you think angels have babies and families?
The primary purpose of a differentiation of sexes, male and female, is procreation.
Anyway, I can’t say anymore about angels than what I have already written.
Strangely when you talk about the Holy Spirit and female side of God you use male pronouns.
I’ve been brought up to use masculine pronouns when speaking about God and the Holy Spirit in English, and I really have no intention to change this habit, even though the Bible, in the original languages, does not use masculine pronouns, articles, and participles, etc, for the Holy Spirit (except when he’s referred to as the “counsellor” paraklētos, etc).
I don’t think of God as having different sides, especially not a male side or female side. Although the first human being in Genesis 2 may have had a male side and a female side. More on this here: https://margmowczko.com/human-man-woman-genesis-2/
At this point in time, I believe that the masculine and feminine metaphors and imagery that are used in the Bible to describe God are just that: metaphors and imagery. Except for Jesus, God is not human and does not have sex or gender as we do.
I do think God being our Father (and mother) is more than metaphor. He is our Creator, our Adoptive Father, and He puts His actual Life, Spirit inside us to make us partakers of the Divine Nature. We literally ARE his children by every means except normal human parentage.
I guess it’s how people look at it. The fact that God is not our father by human procreation makes me think that calling God “father” is metaphorical, because, to me, a father is a human parent who begets a child, or at least raises a child.
God really is Jesus’s father, and Jesus, as our metaphorical older brother, invites us to call God our father. But I think there is a metaphor here too.
I also acknowledge that there is the whole wonderful concept of adoption and sonship. We are children of God in a real, spiritual sense and a metaphorical sense, but God is not our physical father.
Anyway, I do hear what you’re saying, Angela and I have no issue if people want to think of God as their actual father or mother. I’m content with honoring God as creator and also understanding him metaphorically as father and mother.
(I don’t think “creator” and “parent” are synonymous. Also, Jesus was involved in creation too, and he also gives us the Spirit.)
Maybe I’m too unimaginative. Or maybe I have a different or narrower definition of what an actual “father” is than yours. As wonderful as God is, and as much as I love him, I don’t regard him as my actual father but as a father figure.
I stand corrected! when it says God is not man, it uses the Hebrew word ‘is which means male
so God is saying he is not male!
‘is means male and not human right?
The Hebrew word used in Hosea 11:9, ‘is, typically refers to a “man” as in an adult male human:
“For I am God and not a man (‘is), the Holy One in your midst, and I do not come to destroy.”
I think your argument would be sound were it not for one thing.
If Jesus, who is God, taught us to pray to God the spirit, as Our Father, and of course God reserves the right to tell us, His creation how to both address Him and speak of Him, then this, in my view, is a deal breaker.
Whether God the Father is a man with genitals is neither here nor there, Jesus was/is human and God, and a man with genitals. Therefore, since God is one, and he both refers to himself as He Son and Father,this will be the reason people baulk against discussing God’s gender. He has already made it clear how to see Him.
Hi Ana, I’m not sure that I’m fully following your idea, but I will have a go at replying.
God the Father is neither male or female, even though we call him (metaphorically) “Father”, etc.
God the Holy Spirit is neither male or female, even though “spirit” is feminine in Hebrew.
Jesus is definitely male, and yet his maleness is rarely highlighted. (See the footnotes.)
Jesus has shown us many things about God (John 1:18; 14:9) but sex (or gender) isn’t one of those things.
The fact that many (but not all) terms and metaphors for God are masculine is explained in the article.
I still maintain that God is neither male nor masculine.
Apologies for going off-topic a bit, but quoting from the article: «These Greek neuter pronouns, however, are usually translated into English as masculine pronouns (such as “he”) so that the Holy Spirit does not seem impersonal.»
But isn’t this dishonest and misleading? I can’t see why the inspired use of a neuter pronoun could be replaced by a gendered one.
As a non-trinitarian, I find this to be a tremendously biased rendering. Why, translating the holy word of God, should we change his inspired word choices to fit our worldview? This also applies to the inconsistency of rendering John 1:1c as “and the Word was God”.
My personal opinion is that, had the authors of the New Testament considered the holy spirit a “personal being”, they wouldn’t have used a neutral pronoun!
Pneuma is a neuter word, so any words grammatically “agreeing” with pneuma will also be neuter in the Greek. But this grammar rule does not necessarily coincide with English grammar and comprehension, so “compromises” need to made be in translations.
It is a grammatical impossibility for the authors of the New Testament to use anything other than neuter pronouns, adjectives, participles, articles, in regards to pneuma.
Several neuter Greek words (e.g., teknon “child”) are translated into English sentences that also contain a masculine pronoun (e.g. indicating a boy rather than a girl) even though neuter language is used in the Greek.
Conversely, some Greek verses that contain grammatically masculine words are correctly translated into English with non-gendered language (e.g., “everyone who believes” in John 3:16).
Also, grammatical gender in Greek and other gendered languages does not always coincide with actual gender.
The translation “the Word was God” (καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος) follows standard Greek grammar regulations regarding the nominative predicate. Most sentences have only one nominative (i.e. subject) noun or noun phrase (which may or may not be repeated). Some Greek sentences have two different nominative nouns, but only one can have a definite article. This doesn’t mean, however, that the meaning of the nominative noun without the definite article is indefinite in meaning. This is very basic Greek grammar.
The “patriarch” or “male dominant” culture from the OT times were like that because of man or God? In other words, is the patriarchal culture a result of God usually calling man like Abraham or Noah or Moses to fulfill some purposes and not specifically a woman?
by the way this is not an “affirmative question” but it is literally a question, I don’t know the answer Lol.
I believe patriarchy is the result of the Fall.
In Genesis 1, we are shown that men and women at creation have the same status, the same authority, and the same purpose.
In Genesis 2, we are shown that it’s not good for the man to be alone, and the woman, made from a part or side of the man’s own body, is his perfect and equal companion. The theme in Genesis 2 is of the affinity, mutuality, equality and unity of the first man and woman.
It falls apart after the Fall. Now man will rule woman (Gen 3:16). (Various articles about gender in Genesis are here.)
However, for those of us who are “in the Lord” there is the possibility of regaining this pre-fall affinity and mutuality.
In 1 Corinthians 11:11-12, Paul speaks about the mutual interdependence of Christian men and women and says, “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.”
And alluding to Genesis 1, Paul says,”. . . there is neither male and female, for you are all one in Christ (Gal. 3:28)” More on this here.
Firstly I would like to thank you for sharing your hard work and study with us on this blog. Your writing has been extremely helpful to me as I have been questioning male headship and the restrictions on women teaching in the church, etc. and wondering if these concepts were really biblical.
My husband has been so supportive of my journey into a more egalitarian perspective, and has been helpful to dialogue with. He made an interesting comment that I wasn’t sure how to respond to, which I would love to get your input on! It is that “God prefers male leadership.” (It is something similar to Barbara’s question above.)
He acknowledges the few women leaders in the Bible, but asserts that if there were two qualified individuals, one male and one female, God would choose the male. I responded to this by saying that the reason there are more male leaders in the Bible is because of the patriarchal culture. He then asks, didn’t God shape that culture? I believe like you that equality was lost in the fall, but my husband had a good point when he said that God created the culture of Israel after bringing them out of Egypt. And so if God wanted to, he could have made men and women more equal in that culture, or had women leaders be more of a norm. For instance, priests were only male and that was God’s choice, says my husband.
I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on this! Thank you so much.
The Israelite culture after Egypt was flawed. Think of the Golden Calf incident. In fact, God’s plan before the Golden Calf incident was that the entire nation of Israel was to be a priesthood. After the incident, only perfectly healthy male Levites between the ages of 25-50 would be considered as eligible for the priesthood. The qualifications for the priesthood were hereditary and physical, nothing more. The qualifications for ministry in the New Covenant, on the other hand, are spiritual and moral and based on ability. In Paul’s general teaching on ministry, women are not excluded. (More on the priesthood here.)
Many of the regulations given in the Old Testament Law were designed to minimise harm caused by less than favourable, even sinful, practices (e.g., slavery and polygamy) without totally banning them. This is a form of shaping, but it is not starting from scratch, or a fresh start, as in Eden.
If God wanted, he could have outlawed slavery and polygamy, but he didn’t because they actually served a purposed in a fallen, and sometimes brutal, world. Many of the leaders in Israel’s past were warriors who could personally stand against warring enemies and nations. Even though some women, including Deborah, did become personally involved in wars, perhaps warfare is where patriarchy had/has a use. Nevertheless, I fully believe patriarchy is an unfavourable social dynamic that God tolerated and regulated to some extent, but did not advocate.
When Deborah was prophet and leader of Israel, there were men who were princes and warriors. When Huldah was prophet, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, and other notable male prophets were around. But King Josiah, and God(?), chose Huldah to endorse the newly discovered Law scroll. Not to mention Anna. There was a respected place in Israelite society for prophets, whether male or female, and the words of these prophets was usually respected and heeded.
Paul had no problem with using women as fellow ministers, and he sometimes mentions them side by side with men. He sends Phoebe to Rome with his precious letter where she acts as his envoy. Surely there were other Corinthians he could have sent. Paul leaves Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus to look after the church while travels further on his mission. There is no indication that Aquila is in charge. Rather, it seems Priscilla was the more outspoken one in ministry. And Paul seemingly entrusts the fledgeling Philippian congregation in Lydia’s care, and not that of the Philippian jailor or another man.
Sometimes a woman is simply the more capable person in a situation, but the church and society have overlooked these capable women in preference for a man.
The patriarchal society of the past made it generally difficult for women to acquire leadership skills. Nevertheless, some women did become leaders in antiquity, and some women appear to be God’s first choice in ministry or in certain endeavours. The Samaritan woman, Mary Magdalene, and Lydia were involved in a few firsts.
Good day Marg
Thank you for sharing your insights. They have been challenging me since I started reading them this morning and have started shaping and correcting some of my views, which I trust has been Holy Spirit lead.
I have however battled with your arguments in this article for a while and simply cannot seem to agree. Let me at this point first point out that I am not as educated as you are on this matter and am merely seeking clarification. I am at not suggesting that you are wrong – merely that I don’t agree and that I believe that God will reveal all of this to us one day.
The sticking point I therefore have is this: Jesus was human (yes, He was a man, but this is irrelevant for the current question) and at various points He refers to God as “Adonai” or “Father” if I understand correctly. If Jesus, being God, with intimate knowledge of God, refers to God as “Father”, does that not settle that God is in fact “Father” and therefore male? He (Jesus) could have referred to the Father as “Mother” in various other situations, but He didn’t.
I am not saying that because Jesus was male, God is male – I read above that you have answered a similar question to that. I do however believe that God being male does not diminish the fact that God has made men and women as equals. Nor does it diminish the fact that we (men and women) are made in His image (I believe that the interpretation of image in Genesis can be quite wide, ranging from a two-armed, two legged being to a living being with intellect and a soul).
Your response to this question will be greatly appreciated as I know that this is a difficult topic for many.
I believe I understand what you are saying. The Bible definitely uses many more masculine terms and metaphors to refer to and describe God than feminine ones, so it is easy to think of him as male. But can a God, who is spirit, really being male? The word “male” is usually used for people, animals, and even parts of plants, that have the “equipment” to reproduce sexually. I’m certain this does not apply to God.
If male leadership in the Church better reflects God, then men have historically failed miserably. So many systematic crimes were created when the Church was run by the male patriarchy before there was a separation of Church and State. Look at what has come out of the SBC in the last 30 years after they took it back to all male leadership! When men lead alone, they fail. We are made to lead together with both male and female.
The verse in Genesis 1:26 says that the reason God even created human beings in His image was so that they may rule. “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over…” Only afterward God acted upon those words in vs 1:27 and created male and female in His image.
The animals were only blessed and told to multiply, but the male and female image bearers of God were told to subdue and rule. God gave both man and woman the blessing of the firstborn. To have dominion and subdue is a command from God and it reflects His image.
“The word “male” is usually used for people, animals, and even parts of plants, that have the “equipment” to reproduce sexually. I’m certain this does not apply to God.”
That is a great point Marg! Even animals are male, yet they certainly don’t reflect the image of God. Geneticists have discovered that all human embryos start life as females, as do all embryos of mammals. About the 2nd month, the fetal tests elaborate enough androgens to offset the maternal estrogens and maleness develops.
Peace. This has been my first exposure. Thank you. (I wish for 3 exposures before deciding on patron-hood, but vote1 is in your favor.)
Essentially I agree with your essential points. God is neither male nor female. Sex is not an aspect of image-of-God.
God is not a man. Jesus is a man, both male and human.
Holy Spirit-Wind is not a male person. As a Jewish Christian muslim I must agree with the commentator above that it is simply dishonest to portray any of God’s sanctified wind energy as a male ‘person’.
There are cultural excuses that are true, yet the adversary and male oversight have historically driven many expressions toward masculine bias. English ‘man’ began as a generic term for a human. After 1000 ce it was shoved into masculine expression. Married couples ceased to be composed of “two menn,” as was said in Old English.
Were not Hebrew and Greek subject to masculine biases of dvelopment and interpretation?
Thus I offer a radical hypothesis that you may be able to evaluate:
Suppose God never adopted a male-female dichotomy for pronouns? Suppose the One instead used a nested hierarchy of division wherein there was a purely generic category (which cannot be spoken in sexy english) and a second category of feminine?
Western classification systems came to favor bifurcation. But nested systems without exhaustive specifications are feasible, especially to get going in a NON-expanded language. Approximate examples can be found. There are U.S. Congress-persons, and there are Senators.
There are eggs, and there are yolks.
There is (raw) milk, and there is cream.
There are fingers, and there are thumbs.
Suppose that, in Scripture, there are generic personal ‘its’, and there are ‘shes’? That’s it. If so, all of the issues here are instantly vanquished, leaving only the basic truth that the One (my pronoun for God only) is neither male nor female.
As for father, it is likewise generic in God’s view, meaning parent/ancestor.
Thanks for your comment.
My knowledge of Hebrew is minimal, but I have a working knowledge of Koine Greek. In ancient Greek the masculine grammatical gender is the default gender when speaking about a generic person (e.g., the person who believes in John 3:16), when speaking about men, and when speaking about a group of men and women. The feminine gender is used when speaking about a group that is made up only of females. But there is a bit more to it.
In the Greek New Testament, the Holy Spirit is sometimes referred to with a pronoun that is equivalent to “it,” for no other reason than pneuma (“spirit”) is a grammatically neuter word.
Grammatically feminine words are used for God’s voice and God’s hand(s) because the Greek words for “voice” and “hand(s)” are feminine. But that doesn’t mean God has a feminine voice or feminine hands.
Thank you for responding. Please forgive my ignorance. My chief interest is in the topic of using English he, him & his in appliction to God, since these words have such a strong connotation of indicating a male animal.
I have no doubts that we emerged from the middle ages with rules of grammar articulated for Gospel Greek. I’m sure they function well in general. Likewise we emerged with an excellent set of working rules for predicting planetary positions using circles of various sizes and speeds attached to orbit-circles going around the earth. The system works so well that Kepler could find only a few tiny discrepancies, none far off. It took a long time to shake off the existing tradition and enthrone a heliocentric system.
My hypothesis of a generic-centric grammatical cosmology discards any prior assumption that God is known to have used any particular set of grammar rules (traditions). The assumed traditions impose a male-centric bias wherein is implied that if it’s alive, and it ain’t specified to be female, it must be male.
A generic pre-set, completed by a feminine specific, if not precluded by something more substantial than a grammar tradition, will work as well or better than the assumed dichotomy of masculine-feminine. God may have once again tricked us (us men that is) by again allowing us to trick ourselves.
The hypothesis suggests that God did not merely allow that a so-called Masculine word might operate also for a sexless non-living thing or even an unknown generic human but overtly used an alternate system in which generic genderless, sexless (an it) was the norm in all applications. A second set of pronouns and pronoun implications were then used when needed to specify a female animal.
By this, God is not rightly called an English he or a she. Like the Chinese we need a new word.
I shared this post on social media for Mothers’ Day and it generated a lot of discussion. I must admit, I got really tired of using “he” and “him” as pronouns for God because it does send a message, even if only slightly, that God is somehow male. I agree: We really need a divine non-gendered pronoun like the Chinese.
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 abilities 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 gender of God. The answers to these questions are “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.
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.”
Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 31.7
Translated by Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. (Online Source: New Advent)
The following translation is in William J. Abrahams 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)
I still like refer the Holy Spirit as female pronouns, but even I know that she isn’t really a she nor a he. The singular they would be the more correct pronouns.
I think people make too much of pronouns. Either “she” or “he” is fine for the Holy Spirit. Both have precedence in the scriptures, as does “it.”
I wonder if the concept of God as a father can also be vaguely connected to the fact that his spirit gives life to all creation:
Men in procreation are the ones that literally give out of their bodies to the woman’s body. A woman receives this, she does not produce an ovum which projects out of her body. Of course it takes both parties but one gives and the other receives.
I know its not mentioned in the bible but this imagery is linked to the way God is Jesus’ father. Mary conceived through God’s spirit and became his mother.
Hi Sara, did you see footnote 2?
I really don’t think God is called Father because of the male role in procreation. However, God as Father and Creator is mentioned in Deuteronomy 32:6.
“Is this how you repay the LORD, you foolish and senseless people? Isn’t he your Father and Creator? Didn’t he make you and sustain you?” (CSB)
Having said that, there is another way of translating the Hebrew word behind “creator.”
“Is this what you do to the LORD, You foolish and unwise people? Is He not your Father who has purchased [or acquired] you? He has made you and established you.” (NASB)
God is Jesus’s actual Father but not in any way that is analogous to the usual male role in procreation.