The answer might seem obvious to Christians. After all, throughout the Bible, God uses male pronouns to describe himself, and when God become flesh, he came as the man, Jesus. Most people are content to leave the issue there, but since I love thinking about culture, gender, and sexuality, I wanted to dig a little deeper.
In a fallen world, anything can become a source of division. This is true of music preferences; how much more when the character of God is in question? There are some who find solace in thinking of God as Mother rather than Father, and there are others who react against this with scorn and even hatred. It seems to me a part of the age old (Genesis 3 old) battle of the sexes: whichever sex God identifies with “wins.”
After all, if God is male, then it is one small step to assume that being male is like being God. And unfortunately, many of our Church forefathers taught wonderful truths about God alongside vicious insults about women. For instance, Thomas Aquinas viewed men as the default perfect image of God and women as defective copies:
As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence.
Saint Augustine, who helped formulate a comprehensive understanding of the Trinity, had this to say about women:
What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman… I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.
Associating maleness with God, gone unchecked, can lead to exactly this kind of derogatory, objectifying view of women. And as a woman, I have to say that this hurts. It hurts to know that men I respect and study would have seen me as something between a nuisance and a temptress. And it hurts when people react with horror at the mere suggestion that God might be female–for what, after all, is so horrendous about females?
But what is blogging for if not to wade into a minefield of emotions?
Let me begin by saying, I do not think God has a sex. Despite the popular image of a grey-bearded old man sitting on a throne of clouds, I don’t think the God who created the cosmos has either a penis or a vagina. Instead, the Bible presents God through the lens of numerous metaphors and similes meant to give us small glimpses of a God we can never fully comprehend. God is spirit (John 4:24), and thus cannot be categorized by human examples.
So perhaps God is not male nor female. But is he masculine, or does he associate himself more closely with men? Well, I go back to Genesis 1:27.
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
The image of God is both male and female. There at the beginning, before anything had gone wrong or sin entered the world, God proclaimed men and women to be his image bearers in the created world. And although God chose to label himself with male pronouns, he also uses female imagery to describe himself throughout Scripture.
God says he is a woman in labor (Isaiah 42:14), a mother breastfeeding her children (Numbers 11:12), a seamstress making clothes for Israel (Nehemiah 9:21), and a female bear protecting her young (Hosea 13:8). Jesus compares himself to a hen, longing to gather Jerusalem under her wings (Matthew 23:37). If you’re interested in reading more examples, I suggest you read Dr. Margo Houts article “Feminine Images for God: What Does the Bible Say?”
But if God is comfortable using female imagery to describe himself, and he admits that both men and women are his image bearers, then why does the Bible consistently refer to God as “him”? This question nagged at me long after I came to realize that, quite possibly, God loved me just as much as he loved men. It still seemed like an insurmountable obstacle granting men closer access to God than I could ever hope to experience. Then I read The Bible Among the Myths by John Oswalt. Although God’s gender is just a small part of his discussion, I found it the missing piece to my puzzling.
Oswalt’s thesis states that the Hebrew Scriptures were written in direct opposition to the pagan religions surrounding the Israelites. God, in his written revelation, wanted to make sure his followers knew that he was different than any other god they had experienced in the Ancient Near East. Part of that was gender. Other pagan religions taught creation stories in which humans were made from god’s blood spilt in cosmic battle or else were birthed from a female goddess. Both of these creation stories insinuated that humans have the divine within them. This is still true today, as numerous pagan religions that teach we must only find the goddess within us to attain happiness.
If god is female, and humans are birthed from her, then we too are gods and goddesses. But if God is male, he is our creator. There is no way for a male God to birth humans. In fact, when God became human, he used a human female to bring him into the world. As creator, God is still lovingly attentive to our creation, but a divide remains. One of the central tenets of Scripture is that God is God and we are created humans. We are needy creatures (not a bad thing!), dependent upon God and upon each other. We bear God’s image, but we are not gods. This, then, is why God reveals himself through masculine pronouns. He is setting himself apart from the pagan religions of the time as well as emphatically separating himself as distinct from all creation.
This was, for me, enough. I don’t believe that God is male or female, masculine or feminine. God is God. I continue to use masculine pronouns to describe him, partly from habit and partly to avoid unnecessary controversy. I also think there’s something wise about honoring the way God chose to reveal himself the majority of the time. But I don’t mind when Christians refer to God as female (there is even a bit of a trend toward referring to the Holy Spirit as “her” so that our language reflects the truth that both men and women reflect God’s image). In short, if our view of God elevates one sex above the other, I have a problem. But if we are struggling to understand a God far above our comprehension, I am quite happy to wade through the “him”s and “her”s with fellow Christians seeking to know God more deeply.