Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Introduction

Several Hebrew words used in relation to God are grammatically feminine. Ruach (“spirit”), chokmah (“wisdom”), and shekinah (“dwelling, presence”) are the three that are frequently mentioned in discussions about God’s gender.[1] Grammatical gender, however, is not a helpful way of demonstrating God’s gender. This is because grammatical gender does not necessarily correspond with the actual sex of either a person or deity.[2]

God is neither male or female, and I don’t believe the nouns ruach, chokmah, and shekinah tell us anything about God’s gender. Nevertheless, God is described in some Bible verses with feminine and maternal imagery. (I’ve previously written about this, with a section on Wisdom, here. And I have an article about gender and the Holy Spirit here.)

In this article, I focus on the Hebrew word shekinah. Even though it was a discussion on gender that motivated me to look into the word, my primary reason for sharing these thoughts here has little to do with this. The noun shekinah refers to God’s presence, and I’m sharing these thoughts because of the rich symbolism related to Jesus.

The Concept of Shekinah in Rabbinic Literature and in Matthew’s Gospel

The Etymology and Origin of Shekinah

The etymology of shekinah is straightforward. The noun is derived from the Hebrew verb škn (pronounced “shakan”) which means “to dwell, abide, settle, rest.” Shekinah and the related Aramaic noun shekinta share the same verbal root. The Hebrew word for “tabernacle” (mishkan) is also derived from škn.

Shekinah/ shekinta does not occur in the Hebrew Bible and there is no evidence of the word in pre-rabbinic literature or in the Qumran texts (the Dead Sea Scrolls), but it is common in rabbinic literature and the Aramaic Targums.[3]

Martin McNamara notes that shekinah/ shekinta “is a central term and concept in rabbinic literature expressing God’s presence in the Temple and with his people.”[4]  Rabbis used the word in verses that refer to God’s presence in the Israelite’s camp, the tabernacle, or temple (e.g., Exod. 19:16-18; 40:34-38; 1 Kings 6:13; 2 Chron. 7:1), and on mountains (e.g., Exod. 19:18; Psa. 68.16-18; Joel 3:17 cf. the Transfiguration). In the Bible, God’s shekinah appeared as a cloud (Exod. 24:16-18; 33:9; 34:5; 40:34-38; Num. 9:15; 11:25; 14:14; 16:42; 1 Kings 8:10-13), as a pillar of smoke and a pillar of fire (Exod. 13:21-22), as a burning bush (Exod. 3:2), and as a wall of fire (Zech. 2:5).

Avoiding Anthropomorphism

In rabbinic texts, shekinah/ shekinta is sometimes synonymous with the Holy Spirit. However, the word is employed in the Targums as an indirect way to refer to God. It is used instead of the Hebrew word Elohim (“God”) and God’s name YHWH, and also instead of “face” and “presence” when used of the divine. This is especially the case in Bible verses where God is depicted as going somewhere or as doing something that humans might do. The rabbis who wrote the Targums wanted to avoid attributing human characteristics directly to God.[5]

The New Testament authors did not have the same concern about anthropomorphism. They tell us the astonishing story that God came in human form and did human things. Moreover, the God-man Jesus even took on the form of a slave and allowed himself to be executed in a humiliating and barbaric way on a cross (Phil. 2:6-8; cf. 1 Cor. 1:18). It is no wonder the cross was a stumbling block to some Jewish people (1 Cor. 1:23-24).

The Divine Presence in Gatherings

Shekinah occurs twice in the Mishnah, the most ancient part of the Talmud. These two occurrences are in statements made by two second-century CE rabbis and they resonate with Jesus’s words recorded in Matthew 18:20.

“If two sit together and words between them are of the Torah, then the Shekinah is in their midst” (Mishnah Avot 3:3).
“If ten men sit together and occupy themselves with the Law, the Shekinah rests among them” (Mishnah Avot 3:6).[6] 
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them” (Matt. 18:20).

McNamara suggests that the author of Matthew’s Gospel moulded current rabbinic theology and terminology on the shekinah in keeping with New Testament Christology.[7]

The shekinah as the “glory of the Lord” had dwelt in the tabernacle and then the temple (e.g., Exod 40:35; 2 Chron. 7:1). Christians believe that since Pentecost, the Holy Spirit dwells among God’s people wherever they are, wherever they gather, and that God’s people together constitute a new temple (1 Cor. 3:16 NIV; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:19-22 cf. 1 Pet. 2:5).

The Concept of Shekinah in the Jewish Apocrypha and in the New Testament

Shekinah in Greek: Skēnōsis (“Dwelling”)

There may be an early use of the concept of shekinah in 2 Maccabees 14:35. However, this text is in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic.

McNamara writes,

In a prayer for the safety of the Temple the priests remind God: “You were pleased that there should be a temple for your habitation (naon tēs sēs skēnōseōs) among us.” The abstract noun skēnōsis corresponds closely in meaning and form to shekinah, probably indicating that this term was already in liturgical use by 50 BCE.[8]

The cognate verb of skēnōsis is used in John’s Gospel in the context of Jesus dwelling among people: “The Word became flesh and dwelt [or, tabernacled] (skēnoō) among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

It seems John is using the concept of shekinah (God’s dwelling and presence) and attributing it to Jesus who dwelt with us and is the Word and the true light (John 1:4-9). John also used the word “glory” when introducing Jesus.

Shekinah in Greek: Doxa (“Glory”)

The shekinah is sometimes thought of as a glorious, radiant and powerful light. In some contexts, the shekinah of God is synonymous with the glory of God. There are passages in the New Testament where the Greek word doxa, typically translated as “glory,” has the sense of radiance and may refer to the shekinah, God’s presence. For example, when the angels announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, “the doxa of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:9).

2 Peter 1:17 recalls the Transfiguration of Jesus and seems to refer to the shekinah as “the Majestic Glory”: “For he [Jesus] received honor and doxa from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Doxa saying ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased!’” In the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration, a bright cloud appears on a mountain and voice speaks (Matt. 17:5// Mark 9:7//Luke 9:34-35). Jesus is engulfed in, and receives, and is validated by the shekinah.

The author of Hebrews more clearly indicates that God shares the shekinah with Jesus, the Son.

The Son is the radiance of God’s doxa and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. Hebrew 1:3

Furthermore, the shekinah, God’s glorious presence that was evident in Jesus, is also available to us.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s doxa displayed in the face of Christ.” 2 Corinthians 4:6

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s doxa, are being transformed into his image from doxa to doxa, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:18

God’s Presence in the Future Age

In the second last chapter of the Bible, John describes a vision of the new heaven and the new earth, with the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven. John then records the words of a voice which speaks from the throne.

Look, God’s dwelling (skēnē) is with humanity, and he will dwell (skēnōsei) with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away. Revelation 21:3-4

In Revelation 21:10-11, the New Jerusalem is described as having God’s glory (doxa) and as being radiant as precious gems. This is because God’s presence, his dwelling, his shekinah is there.

We are told that there is no need for a temple in the New Jerusalem because “the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev. 21:22). Moreover, “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because the glory (doxa) of God illuminates it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23). In the last chapter of Revelation, John says, “Night will be no more; people will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, because the Lord God will give them light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:5). Maranatha!

Shekinah in Kabbalah

In later Midrash, the shekinah almost becomes an independent identity standing between God and the world in a mediatorial role. In the Jewish mystic school of Kabbalah, Shekinah is a divine female entity. But these ideas are not found in the Bible nor in early rabbinic writings.

Chava Weissler describes the female personification of Shekinah.

In classical Kabbalah, Shekhinah is an ambivalent figure. … [who] encodes well-known gender stereotypes: The feminine is passive and receptive, receiving and transmitting the power of the masculine. Shekhinah can be seen as a beckoning princess or a comforting mother, but also as a stern and punitive disciplinarian.[9]

Weissler argues that Shekinah is a projection of what men think women are like.[10] Some modern Jewish scholars, authors, and artists, however, are reinterpreting Shekinah as an expression of female empowerment. And a few Christians seem to think of Shekinah as a divine feminine entity or force.

Conclusion

Even though shekinah is not a biblical term, it appears to be a biblical concept―it is God’s divine and immanent presence on earth, and it is connected with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This concept has been distorted with mythology and the personification of shekinah in some strands of Judaism. But for followers of Jesus, the shekinah is a wonderful comforting truth. God is with us.

Disclaimer: This topic is new to me. I write as a non-expert and expect that I will tweak, clarify, and add to these ideas as I learn more.


Footnotes

[1] Ruach is usually a grammatically feminine word in the Hebrew Bible. For no discernable reason, however, it is occasionally masculine (Exod. 10:13, 19 Num. 11:31 Isa. 57:16 Jer. 4:12 Ezek. 27:26 Psa. 51:12 78:39 Job 4:15 8:2 20:3 41:8 Eccl. 1:6 3:19). Ruach can be translated as breath, wind, or spirit depending on its context.

[2] In Hebrew, words are either masculine or feminine; in some forms they have common gender. There is no neuter grammatical gender in Hebrew. As with many other languages, even inanimate objects have gender.

[3] The Targums are ancient Aramaic paraphrases and midrashic interpretations of the Hebrew Bible which began to be written down in the late first century CE. More information on Targums here: Jewish Encyclopedia.

[4] Martin McNamara, Targum and Testament Revisited: Aramaic Paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible: A Light on the New Testament, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 148. (Google Books)

[5] Shekinah “was used by the Rabbis in place of ‘God’ where the anthropomorphic expressions of the Bible were no longer regarded as proper.” Kaufmann Kohler and Ludwig Blau, “Shekinah” in Jewish Encyclopedia.

[6] On page 149, McNamara further notes, “A similar saying, with broader connotation, is attributed to R. Halafta of Sepphoris (R. Hananiah’s contemporary) who speaks of the presence of the Shekinah with any “two or three who sit together in the market place and the words between them are of the Torah” (Abot de Rabbi Natan B, ch. 34, p. 74).”

[7] McNamara, Targum and Testament Revisited, 149

[8] McNamara, Targum and Testament Revisited, 148

[9] Chava Weissler, “Meanings of Shekhinah in the ‘Jewish Renewal’ Movement,” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues, 10 (Fall, 2005): 53-83, 62.

[10] Wessler, “Meanings of Shekhinah,” 68.

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Further Reading

“Shekinah” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible on Bible Gateway 

Explore more

The Holy Spirit and Eve as “Helpers”
Is God Male or Masculine?
Following Jesus, Led by the Holy Spirit
The Kingdom of Heaven in the Here and Now and Future
Gender Division Divides the Church (Rev. 5:9-10)

6 thoughts on “Shekinah: God’s Immanent Presence

  1. I knew of Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah. I learned from your writing that the Kabbalah refers to the Shekina glory as a devine feminine. I don’t have any trouble believing that this can also actually be true. My question is why should or shouldn’t God be described as modern descriptives of gender fluid and they, them pronouns? We are all made in God’s image afterall.

    1. Hi Sarah, I don’t think humans being made in God’s image has much to do with gender. Rather, as God’s image-bearers we are his representatives, regents, and stewards on earth. I’ve written about this here.
      https://margmowczko.com/in-the-image-of-god-gen-126-28-in-a-nutshell/

      I don’t have strong opinions on pronouns. I’ve written about the limitations of language, pronouns, and more about grammatical gender here.
      https://margmowczko.com/masculine-pronouns-english-bible/

      To me, what is more important than the pronouns we use, is having a real understanding that God is neither male or female, and that masculine and feminine descriptions of God in the Bible are analogical. More on this here.
      https://margmowczko.com/is-god-male-or-masculine/

      A few of my friends think of God as “gender-full.” I doubt that God has anything like actual gender. And I’m wary about “making” God in our image.

      While I discuss what later writers say on various verses and topics, ultimately, my focus is on what the Bible says. My blog is subtitled “Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism.”

  2. Wow, thank you for this, I woke up and your article was the first thing I read. Its enlightening.

    1. Thanks Maybee. I really enjoyed seeing the concept of shekinah in the New Testament. Biblical Christianity is a wonderful and beautiful faith!

  3. Marg, have you considered the coming of the Spirit upon the disciples at Pentecost as another instance of God’s Shekinah being manifested to inaugurate the new dwelling of God in and among His people?
    Common English Bible translation:
    1 When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place.
    2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting.
    3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them.
    4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

    1. Hi Robert, it’s something I’ve thought about, but the imagery of tongues of fire and a rushing wind don’t match with other descriptions of the Shekinah.

      And even though the Holy Spirit is poured out and remains, Acts doesn’t highlight the fact the Holy Spirit’s presence continues to abide with believers. Acts 2 doesn’t use Shekinah language or ideas such as “presence,” “dwelling,” and “glory.”

      In some ways, one might think that what happens in Acts 2 is an example of the Shekinah, but in other ways, it’s different. So I’m not sure what to make of it.

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