In what sense ought we to think of God as ‘He’?
The question is posed by divine revelation and by nature itself.
In the living world we find the two states of male and female. And although some organisms are capable of serving both functions, or alternating between both states, most species are exclusively either one or the other. Even in the plant world, where the characteristics of male and female are less easily recognized by most of us, the two conditions exist.
Within divine revelation, the God of Israel was worshipped within in a context where female deities were widely known, yet Yahweh was never regarded as one of them. The ‘generic’ term for ‘god’ in Hebrew, the language of the earliest Scriptures, is plural: ‘elohim’. Yet from the outset, Israel’s God is referred to by masculine singular verbs: “In the beginning created-he Elohim the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1).
Nor can we attribute this to Israel being a ‘patriarchal’ society, as if that determined the choice of deity. As far as we are aware, those societies which worshipped female deities were equally patriarchal. What is remarkable about Israel is not that they referred to their God as ‘He’, but that they only had one god to which they referred.
Circumstances thus force us into the kind of choice (if we may call it that) faced by Israel. If God is to be spoken of (not just grammatically, but conceptually), the way in which we speak tends towards one or other of the ways in which we speak of other ‘animate’ objects of our perception —to the male or the female. And since we worship only one God, it would appear we can make only one choice.
But whichever choice we make, what does it mean? Clearly, in Ancient Near Eastern culture, the ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’ of the gods was conceived of in terms analogous to that of men and women. The gods had relationships, including sexual relationships with one another and with human beings. Equally clearly, the God of Israel was not like these gods, and that in one very important respect, namely that no form could be ascribed to Israel’s God.
The God of Israel was only to be directly encountered ultimately through hearing him:
Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. (Dt 4:15ff)
The list of exclusions clearly reflects the categories of the Creation narrative in Genesis 1, and thus “the likeness of male of female” is surely a reference to humanity itself (cf Gen 1:27). God is not to be imaged as a man or a woman. Yet within the unfolding revelation of Scripture, there is something enigmatic about this prohibition.
First, when God relates to Israel in ‘gendered’ terms it is as ‘male’. We have noted the use of grammar, but this is more particularly expressed in the interrelationship between God and his people as a (faithful) husband and (unfaithful) wife. Indeed, the eschatological hope is that Israel will know her God as a Bride knows her Beloved:
“In that day,” declares the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’ [ishi]; you will no longer call me ‘my master [baali].’” (Hosea 2:16; MT 2:18)
Thus although Israel is prohibited from making images of God as ‘male’, Israel is nevertheless directed by God to think of God in terms of His ‘He’ to her own ‘she’.
Secondly, we read in Genesis 1:27 that God has already done what God has subsequently prohibited:
So God created man in his own image [tselem], in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
By contrast, in Numbers 33:51-52, we read these words of God to Moses,
Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places.
The presuppositions behind Genesis 1:27 would have been very familiar to Ancient Near Eastern cultures. The ‘god’ (or the king) is ‘imaged’ so as to be present where the image is. The God who prohibits images, whether male or female, has thus already made of himself an adequate image, both male and female, in the form of the human race.
It is surely, however, the height of folly to say at this point that God is therefore neither male nor female. The two things we are specifically told about this image is that man (Heb: adam) is it, and it is male and female. Yet when God speaks of God to Israel, it is as ‘male’. As it stands, it is a conundrum, but we cannot cut this particular Gordian Knot by denying one of the two things the text explicitly draws to our attention.
At the same time, however, it is clear that God is not ‘a man’. Man (Heb adam) is God’s image, and is no more, therefore, ‘god’ in actuality than an idol was ‘the god’ or a statue was the king himself. An image, as Genesis 1:26 points out, is a ‘likeness’. But it is a likeness made in something other than the ‘substance’ of the thing being imaged. A photo may give me an image and likeness of my late great aunt, but I would never suppose that she herself was made of silver halides and paper, or sat forever in the same seat with the same clothes, hairstyle and expression.
The very notion of ‘image’ implies both congruity and dissonance —the image is both ‘like’ and completely ‘other than’ the thing being imaged.
Thus the ‘man’ of Genesis 1:26-27 images God in the stuff of this world. But that ‘stuff’ is as unlike the substance of God as dead paper is unlike living flesh —only, of course, more so. Similarly, ‘male and female’ images God, but God is not, thereby, ‘a male’ or ‘a female’ or (God indeed forbid) some androgynous hybrid of the two. We are confronted by an image which we cannot dismiss, but which equally, by virtue of being an image, conceals as well as reveals.
Thus we are forced by nature and Scripture to consider God in relation to our experience, and specifically our human experience, of male and female. This is the medium in which God has imaged God. But we are also forced to consider ourselves in relation to a God who adopts the position of ‘He’. We cannot evade these ‘givens’. Nor can we impose on them some other framework more conducive to our sensibilities. Israel of old was prohibited other gods, whether male or female. We today must similarly resist the temptation to fashion God in our image.
More work remains to be done.
20 June 2009