Saturday, 20 June 2009

In what sense is God ‘He’? (A first reflection on God and gender)

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.

John Richardson
20 June 2009

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  1. Thanks for that - puts it in a nutshell.

  2. Thanks, Steve, though it is a bit of a 'coco'nut shell - and there's more to follow!

  3. Thanks, John - maybe you could edit slightly to add 'Deut 4:15ff' to the quotation above.
    It is true that 'ruach' is grammatically "feminine" in Hebrew ('gender' is a linguistic category, not biological, and some nouns of the feminine gender can be used of male persons. e.g. in French 'la sentinelle') but I do wonder what significance this gramamtical fact has. The 'ruach yahweh' is not evidently personal, let alone the Third Person of the Trinity. We must beware of modalism and tritheism, as well as Arianism - and switching between 'he' and 'she' can steer perilously close to these rocks.
    If we believe that Scripture is God's Word, then we must believe that God has named Himself, and it is arrogant rebellion to re-name Him.
    Mark B.

  4. One last point: while the OT does very rarely (I think it's x4, mainly in Isaiah)) use feminine similes for Yahweh, it never says 'He IS x' but only that 'He is *like x'.
    Are the statements/titles that God is King, Judge, and Father analogical and metaphorical('God is partly like a king, judge and father and partly unlike) or factual? Ephesians 3:14 makes me think they are factual. That Jesus never prayed to God as 'Mother' ought to be decisive for his followers.
    Mark B.

  5. I think you have the right approach to this John. It is the 'long view' starting with the revealed image of God over history that enables us to see how the Godhead desires to communicate with us relationally. The idea of gender equality is hardly new.

    I would think it quite extraordinary that the relational and gender aspects of the Godhead have now been revealed in a superior form to 21st Century Bishops!

    Chris Bishop
    (Bishop in surname only...)

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  7. Thanks for this, which seems much more clearly argued than your other recent contributions on this matter.

    Let us first agree that grammatical gender, in Hebrew as in Greek and any language, is arbitrary and so irrelevant to this discussion.

    Then it seems that we are left with a God who reveals himself through his image which is "male and female" (Genesis 1:27). This is a key theological point made at the very start of the Bible. So it seems that from the start God resists any suggestion that he is either exclusively male or exclusively female.

    Yes, there are places in the Hebrew Bible where male imagery is used of God. There are also places where female imagery is used. The former may outnumber the latter - although not hugely because the theme of God as Father is not well developed. So I think it is really hard to argue that the Old Testament God is more male than female.

    Yes, there is a slightly different picture in the New Testament. But the Greek word pater can be used for a female, as in Hebrews 11:23 Moses' pateres are one man and one woman. So the word translated "Father" can be used for a generic parent and so does not necessarily imply maleness.

    Therefore I conclude that there is no strong argument to go against what is made clear in the first chapter of the Bible, that God is essentially neither specifically male nor specifically female.

  8. Controversial though it has been when people have drawn attention to it, I quite like the beginning of an 'alternative Lord's Prayer' in our NZ Anglican prayer book:

    "Eternal Spirit,
    Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
    Source of all that is and that shall be,
    Father and Mother of us all,
    Loving God, in whom is heaven"!

    On the specific question of 'He' or 'She' for God: is it time for the church to invent a new pronoun for one who is neither impersonal nor (as Peter Kirk argues above) specifically male nor specifically female?

  9. Peter Carrell, to the prayer, 'Yeuch', and to the question, 'No'. ;-)

    However, I think the reaction of people to the alternative Lord's Prayer indicates that this is not a matter of mere 'pays your money, makes your choice' indifference. What (we all ask), for crying out loud, was wrong with Jesus' version?

  10. Note - the feminine imagery for good is often a simile, rather than a metaphor (' a hen gathers her chicks...').

  11. Jesus' version of the Lord's Prayer occurs in many places in our prayer book; and, if one looks diligently enough, one can even find the BCP version!

  12. To Peter Carrell, Hurrah! In fact, two cheers! ;-)

  13. Michael Jensen's point, though apparently small, may be quite significant to this whole debate.

    I suspect that there is often some confusion as to what we mean by saying that, for example, the word 'Father' in relation to God is a metaphor. What some people (not necessarily on this blog) evidently think this means is that God is 'like a father'. But as Michael's comment implies, this is surely more technically a simile.

    A metaphor, by comparison, involves a closer identification between the thing to which we are referring and that to which the word we are using generally refers.

    Thus if we say that God is 'metaphorically' Father, we should not then cast around to think of fathers that God is like, whilst all the time asserting that God is 'not really' a father. Rather, if we are truly using father 'metaphorically', we should think that God actually possesses, in some way, 'fatherly' qualities.

    At least, that is what I think this means!

  14. Yes: might we not say that God really is a Father - which is far more important than his 'gender', but which frames our language about him?

  15. Hi Michael, I think the other thing to say about metaphor is that whilst it suggests an 'actuality' about the object of the metaphor, the qualities to which it refers also differ from those of the referent object. So if I said, for example, "This is the path I'm travelling in life," there is a sense of 'actuality' to this, but there is more to what it means than simply 'travelling directionally on a physical path'. So God's 'Fatherhood', if metaphorical, is both an actual 'fatherhood' and yet more than 'fatherhood' in its usual terms.

  16. "Michael Jensen's point, though apparently small, may be quite significant to this whole debate."

    Hey, I said that, but I am far too humble to point it out. I said the statements that God is King, Judge, Father are factual not metaphorical.
    Peter Kirk's claim is nonsense:
    "Yes, there are places in the Hebrew Bible where male imagery is used of God. [Yes, about 99.99% of the 'gendered' references - king, warrior, husband, shepherd etc). There are also places where female imagery is used. [about 4, all expressly similes]. The former may outnumber the latter - although not hugely because the theme of God as Father is not well developed. [No 'may' about it, Peter!]

    The NZ 'prayer' is a ghastly and heretical hodgepodge of feminism, monistic Hinduism and a PC version of Polynesian paganism. Apart from that it's OK.

    Mark B.

  17. No, it should go to Mike Williams, cos I was half-remembering this essay of his which makes that point and many others:

    Mark B.

  18. What is, IMV, most important about the Father language is that it is personal, not that it is masculine. I recall Martin Smith challenging a group not to avoid the personal nature of the relationship just because we had bad history withour own fathers.

    As to the choice of Father rather than Mother. I wonder what effect early understandings of procreation may have had. The idea that the "seed" from the male only needed the "seedbed" of the female's womb may have been part of the picture. Which is not to deny that the revelation of God as Father was not revelation, but to recognize that God chooses lanuage that we can at least begin to understand.

    Someone in earluer comments on this blog discounted the influence of patriarchy on the use of Father and other masculine images, citing the feminine deities of other patriarchal societies of the period. But, as is fairly clear,YHWH was not that kind of a deity, and might not the best analogies to the kind of very different relationship that God wanted with Israel have been Father, King and Husband? Indeed 1 and 2 Samuel show the conflict betewen those who wanted a king like their neighnors and those who believed that God was not like a king but was their King.

  19. God is Father, neither metaphorically nor similitudinously. He is the source of all things. Thus Ephesians 4:14 speaks of '... the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, ...', and an ESV footnote tells readers that patria ='family' could also be translated 'fatherhood'. A missing elements in the comments above is the source of motherhood.

    Does motherhood come from God like fatherhood, or from somewhere else?

    Being somewhat conservative, orthodox, and traditional in my theological understanding I believe in just the one God and thus believe that motherhood is sourced in God.

    From that presupposition I suggest it is appropriate to speak of God who is 'Source of all that is and that shall be' as 'Father and Mother of us all'.

    Understandably many of us - including myself - hesitate, even refuse to address God as 'Mother' (simpliciter) for that address has no precedent in Scripture. But a consistent address of God as Father, and a commitment to the factuality of God as Father should not ignore the origins of motherhood!

    Though there is always that conservative, orthodox and traditional theological route taken by Marian theology :)

  20. Peter Carrell, I've not had time to go into this, but I wonder if Paul's comments in Galatians ought to be 'in the mix':

    "These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother." (Gal 4:24-26)

  21. Chris Bishop asked me to post the following as he couldn't:

    Peter [Kirk],

    It is not my intention to make ad-hominem remarks or play any sort of game. I think the debate about woman’s ordination , the authority structures between men and women and the impact they are having on the CofE are serious issues are very far from being a game.

    You have written extensively on the issues of Egalitarianism /Complementarianism on your own blog and on others with your own position very clear. I have followed your writings with interest as you articulate your views so well. My impression is that you do not approve of the complementarian position as put forth by e.g Driscoll et al and organisations like Reform as they are coming from an interpretation that assumes an inherent patriarchy and a divine created order of the genders. Your views are very forthright on this. I have not meant it as a criticism.

    I have raised it on this thread as I think that the origins of gender, the development of gendered relationships between the Godhead and how we should view the gender nature of the persons of the Trinity as outlined by JR in his first reflection, must be in some way be relevant to the Egalitarian/Complementarian debate. I would not like to see this thread go off into the a discussion of this ‘chestnut’ as it has been thrashed to death elsewhere, but I would have thought that gender assignations within the Godhead must have a bearing on it. Would you not agree?

    JR- I understand the linguistic arguments that are being made here. My specific point and the one I hoped Peter would respond to, is that in the account in Genesis with the angels and Lot, we see *descriptive* rather that linguistic evidence that angels have a male gender. So much so, that the local populace recognised them as men and desired them . It seem to me that we read of angel genders being described by witnesses, so I think we have a case where you cannot argue exclusively on linguistic grounds for the gender or otherwise of angels.

    Chris Bishop

  22. Just to throw in something else closely related. When I sing 'Be thou my vision' and the line 'Thou my great father and I thy true son' - I am just that even though in fact I am female.

  23. I would like to make an observation regarding the problem identified by Rachel. As a native English speaker, and a Christian musician working almost entirely among Spanish speakers, I find the issue she raises practically never occurs in my ministry.

    In English, it is difficult to replace "son" (one syllable) with "daughter" (two syllables) in a song, since the rewritten verse will almost never scan correctly. In Spanish, however, "hijo" (son) and "hija" (daughter) both have two syllables, and are therefore readily interchangeable. In fact, in many Spanish language hymns and song sheets, the words are written in a special format shown in the following example: "hijo(a) de Dios" [son(daughter) of God]. This enables men and boys to use the masculine form, and women and girls to use the feminine form, while they are actually singing the song.

    The same principle extends to many other nouns, verbs, and adjectival forms found in natively written Spanish worship music.

  24. The Hebrew Scriptures rarely use feminine images for God because the faith of Abraham and his people has to do with God's revelation in the Divine Man Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

    You might be interested in this: