I took a class in theology once, the kind where the professor had an exotic (to an American) Scottish brogue and brought a unique viewpoint to nearly everything. The day came when someone asked him, “Why is God always described as ‘he’ in the Bible? Why isn’t God ‘she’? How come God isn’t female?”
The professor thought for a moment and then gave a succinct two-word answer: “He is.”
Huh? What was the teacher doing? Was he gender-bending the divine? Anticipating a new gender category on Facebook? Maybe just being a smart aleck? (I imagine professors need to let off a little steam now and then.)
No, I think what was going on was that our teacher knew what the Bible had to say about God: that though God is usually portrayed as male, He is also portrayed with female imagery. I imagine this may unsettle some people, both traditionalists and those open to modern gender categories, so I’d better explain.
Avinu Malkenu, Our Father, Our King
More often than not, the Bible typically pictures God in masculine terms: as a warrior, a father, a king. For example, God as Father occurs often:
Do you thus repay the Lord, you foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you? (Deuteronomy 32:6)
Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers? (Malachi 2:10)
But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 64:8)
So too does God as King:
“He has not beheld misfortune in Jacob, nor has he seen trouble in Israel. The Lord their God is with them, and the shout of a king is among them.” (Numbers 23:21)
For the Lord, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth. (Psalm 47:2)
But the Lord is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King. (Jeremiah 10:10)
The image of God as both Father and King is familiar as well from the Jewish liturgy, such as the Avinu Malkenu prayer of Yom Kippur, which begins, “Our Father, Our King.”
Other masculine images include the portrayal of God as a bridegroom:
For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:5)
This at least is how God is pictured numerous times in the Bible, in the liturgy, and in the minds of many Jewish people—whether they see that as a good thing or as an outmoded, patriarchal kind of religion.
My Mother the Father
How striking then to read such things as these, in each case the speaker being God:
“As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 66:13)
“Can a woman [mother] forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.” (Isaiah 49:15-16)
Bible scholar John Goldingay offers this comment on Isaiah 49:15-16:
[God] knows what it is like to be a mother with a child at her breast and knows how a mother’s child can never cease to be her child however old it becomes, so how could Yahweh forget this child? Her portrait stands on Yahweh’s desk all the time, reminding Yahweh of her brokenness (v. 16).1
Sometimes, masculine and feminine images are juxtaposed in a deliberately thought-provoking way:
“You were unmindful of the Rock that fathered you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth.” (Deuteronomy 32:18)
Another scholar, Daniel Block, comments:
Israel has forgotten Yahweh. This notion is expressed by curiously conflating paternal and maternal elements. While masculine in form, the verbs describing Yahweh’s actions involve a female role. Whereas the first may be applied either to mothers or to fathers, the second (“who gave you birth”) obviously involves a maternal experience. By portraying Israel as the child of Yahweh, who exhibits both fatherly (v. 6) [see Deuteronomy 32:6, quoted earlier] and motherly (v. 18) qualities, the Song highlights Israel’s dependence on Yahweh for her very existence.2
The following verses put the masculine and feminine imagery together in an even more dissonant way:
The Lord goes out like a mighty man, like a man of war he stirs up his zeal; he cries out, he shouts aloud, he shows himself mighty against his foes. For a long time I have held my peace; I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor; I will gasp and pant. (Isaiah 42:13-14)
The time is about 538 b.c. God is about to deliver Judah from its 70-year long captivity to Babylon and from its enemies. To the Jewish people it seems that God has been absent for a long time, but now God is going to end the captivity suddenly and forcibly, as though giving birth to a child. The image of the warrior seamlessly transitions to an image of a woman in labor. Certainly there is “poetry” in all this. But can you imagine a four-star Army general announcing that he is going to move against an enemy and win the war like a woman giving birth? God, it seems, has a secure enough self-image to move between both male and female imagery.
Was Job Confused about Gender?
The dual imagery doesn’t end there. Everyone has heard of Job, who you may recall was the guy that God allowed Satan to afflict with great suffering in order to prove his faithfulness to God. In the throes of painful boils, his wife advised him to curse God and die. His friends insisted there must be a reason for his suffering, namely, his own sins for which God was now punishing him. Job rightly parried back that he was not aware of any sins that could account for this, and by the end of the book, the point is made that some things are beyond our reason—but that God is worthy of our trust even when we can’t understand.
The epic-like length of the actual Book of Job carries much more emotional weight than this simple summary does! The capstone comes in chapters 38-40, a magnificent piece of poetry where God gives Job a tour of the wonders of nature, all of which are also beyond his comprehension. In the middle of the nature tour, God again presents a somewhat unnerving juxtaposition of images:
“Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the frost of heaven? The waters become hard like stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.” (Job 38:28-30)
In the same breath, God is the “father” of rain and dew, but also the “mother” of ice and frost. The image of a woman giving birth to ice and frost is a bit unnerving, but the point is made: God as creator is both father and mother.
The Day Jesus Was a Hen
If you know anything about Jesus, you know that he was a Jewish male who lived in the first century. But like the writers of the Hebrew Bible, at one point Jesus dared to apply female imagery to himself. We find him distraught over the future of Israel because they did not accept him as the Messiah. He laments:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37)
This, by the way, is startling for another reason: it is God in the Hebrew Bible who gathers Israel under His “wings,” that is, protects and nurtures, for example in Psalm 17:8: “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.” As elsewhere in the New Testament, Jesus implies that he is God come among us as a man.3 A man who is not afraid to compare himself to a hen!
And in the New Testament book of James, we find one more such juxtaposition:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth [gave us birth] by the word of truth... (James 1:17-18)
James, speaking about the spiritual experience of those who have come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, describes it (as the New Testament does elsewhere), as a kind of new birth, using a word normally used of a woman bringing a child into the world.
So Which Is It?
As Reform Jewish writer Matthew Berke notes, the Reform booklet for selichot services, Gates of Forgiveness (1993), turned tradition on its head when it changed the Avinu Malkenu to Avinu Imenu. In English, this yielded the result, “Our Father, Our Mother.” In one particular blessing, the traditional “Baruch atah” is replaced with “Barucha at,” turning the pronouns from masculine to feminine.4
Berke does not see this as a good change. He writes:
To address God as Father or Lord or King does not identify the sex or describe the essential being of God so much as it defines certain relationships between Him and us. While the God we pray to is beyond male or female, He has chosen to disclose Himself in distinctly masculine ways that are structured into the meanings of the Torah and the prayerbook, and cannot therefore simply be altered at will....
This genderless God also represents a profound betrayal of the Torah narrative. We can no more make the God of the Bible into a generic parent or sovereign than we can make King Lear into a mother/queen or Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, into a father/king. Father and king are aspects of Lear that are structured into his story (as Gertrude’s femininity is structured into Hamlet). If we can respect this integrity in works of secular literature, we should want to respect it even more faithfully in the Torah. For to change the sex of a character is no longer to have the same story.5
Berke is right that God is beyond human gender. And while he does grant that “feminine imagery is occasionally employed to describe God,” he maintains that masculine imagery is “pervasive.” In this he is right also, if we count up the number of occurrences of one or the other. But in reacting to an overemphasis of some Jewish feminist movements, he skirts over the rather startling nature of the biblical imagery that we glanced at above. In some way, while the Bible does emphasize the fatherhood and the kingship of God, it is not afraid to occasionally speak of God as a nurturing mother hen, or as a woman in the delivery room birthing ice, frost, and salvation.
Gender, God and Identity
Genesis 1 is the account of creation. God has already been called “he” four times in that story, when we come upon this:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
Both male and female are said to be created in God’s image. This hints to us that while God is usually called “he” in the Bible, there is something about Him that applies to both genders. God is beyond gender, yet also inclusive of both genders. And this suggests something about human beings and gender.
Both male and female are created in God’s image. This is ultimately our human identity: to be image-bearers of God, creatures who are rational, have emotions and will, can create things and steward them, who can relate personally to God and to one another.
As the Bible story continues beyond creation, it shows that humanity has brought sin into the world, resulting in estrangement from God, our own selves, one another and nature. In each one of us the image of God has become fractured. Each one of us has become gender impaired and impaired in many other ways. We are no longer who God intended us to be—whether we identify as male, female, or one of Facebook’s 58 genders.
Jesus and Gender
But when Jesus used the imagery of a nurturing hen for himself, he was alluding to the fact that his impending death and resurrection from the dead would be performing tikkun olam—restoration—on who we are, in our gender and in all other areas of our lives. When James spoke of God giving us birth through the “word of truth,” he was referring to the message about Jesus.
God loves and protects like a father. And He loves and protects like a mother. And because all of us, however we may identify, are created in His image, our identity is found not in a gender label but in having our sin forgiven, our brokenness healed, and our relationship with God restored.
Why isn’t God female? As my teacher said, “He is.”
1. John Goldingay, Isaiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), Kindle edition, location 5540.
2. Daniel I. Block, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), p. 757.
3. For more on this, see Efraim Goldstein, “The Promised Child,” http://jewsforjesus.org/publications/issues/v09-n01/promisedchild (page discontinued), and “Immanuel–God With Us,” http://jewsforjesus.org/publications/issues/v18-n06/01 (page discontinued)
4. Matthew Berke, “God and Gender in Judaism,” http://www.firstthings.com/article/1996/06/003-god-and-gender-in-judaism