(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on April 29, 2016)
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2, NIV).
It’s been two weeks since my last column, and since then I have gotten a lot of very strong responses from several of my faithful readers. A couple of you thought that I had completely lost my mind!
So let me come clean. In my last column, I decided to be intentionally provocative by very casually referring to God as a “She.” And lest you think that it was a typo, I did it twice. My hope was that describing God as feminine would spark some discussion about the language we use for God, even if it offended some of you. And based on the responses so far, I was successful.
Before I proceed any further, let me admit that when I was in seminary, my theology professor instructed us to use various types of language to refer to God. And while it was acceptable to use “He” and “Him,” as most of the Bible does, we were not allowed to use the masculine exclusively. This disturbed me greatly. I did not appreciate the instructions at all. It isn’t that I believed that God was literally a human male, but to suggest that we call God anything other than “He” seemed ridiculous. I was actually offended by such a suggestion. So if you were offended, then I completely understand; I was too!
It was pointed out to me by a lifelong, faithful Bible scholar that the second reference to God in the entire Bible was in the feminine. What?! Yes. Anyone that knows Hebrew can see that in Genesis 1:2, “the Spirit of God” (which is also God for those of you like me who are Trinitarian) is ru’ah, which in the Hebrew is a feminine noun. All throughout the Old Testament, God is given feminine qualities when referring to God as the Spirit of Wisdom. Furthermore, Jesus himself compared God to a woman. Seriously. If you go to Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables in which God is compared to one who has lost something, and rejoices when it is found (a sheep, a coin and a prodigal son). And in the second parable of that trio (Luke 15:8-10), the one who has lost a coin is a woman.
Maybe you aren’t convinced. It’s okay. After all, a vast majority of the Bible refers to God as a He. And Jesus, of course, is the incarnate Word in the form of a human male. Well, here’s the thing: God, in God’s essence, is beyond male or female. And the Bible clearly says that God made both male and female humans in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). God does not literally have XX or XY chromosomes (which determine male/female genetically), nor does anyone I know believe that God has those male or female organs that designate sex. God is beyond our understanding, beyond our language, beyond our ability to describe or comprehend. And we use a wide variety of metaphors to attempt to describe or talk about God. We call God a “shepherd” (Psalm 23:1), “potter” (Isaiah 64:8), “rock” (Deuteronomy 32:4), and a “rock, fortress, shield, horn, stronghold” (Psalm 18:2). We call God a king. Obviously, God is not literally any these things. We use these words to say something about God, that God’s protection is like that of a shepherd to his sheep, or that God is as strong and steadfast as a rock. God shapes us like a potter shapes clay. All language, including “He” and “Him” gives us a way to talk about something that is beyond description, and it is necessary. But our language for God is not God itself; it is our language. It’s like the proverb, “The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon. (It is a finger).” The same goes for our metaphors. And we must be careful not to worship our language about God as God or confuse our language about God for God. My suggestion is not that we all abandon masculine language for God completely, but realize that if we limit the language we use for God to only certain words, then we are only limiting ourselves. After all, does not God have what we think of as “feminine” qualities? Is God not a creator of life like a woman? Is God not protective like a mother lion or bear? Is God not a nurturer, a comforter, a healer, like our own mothers? To call God a “She” does not take away from all our other many ways of talking about God; it enriches our language about God.
Admittedly, this one column is not enough to do the subject of theological language justice, but I hope it encourages you to think. And if it offends you or makes you uncomfortable, then let me leave you with this: when Jesus called God “Father,” he deeply offended religious people. No one dared to call God, “Father.” That was considered blasphemy. What Jesus was trying to say is that he had an intimate relationship with God, and that we have an opportunity to have a close, intimate relationship with God. People didn’t think of YHWH (the Jewish name for God) that way in the Ancient world, but Jesus challenged the way people thought so they might come closer to God. When we focus on the fact that Jesus says “Father” and not “Mother,” I think we miss the point. Jesus is talking about a close relationship, not about gender.
Lastly, I have always appreciated the many kind words readers have given me in email and in person because of this column. At the risk of losing that treasure, I implore you to allow yourself be challenged. God is still God, but we have an opportunity to grow closer if we will step outside our comfort zones.