(This is a slightly longer version of the article I wrote for Premier Christianity this month that includes footnotes.)
In recent years, some Christians, including my fellow Premier Christianity columnist Chine McDonald, have decided to stop using masculine pronouns (he/him) for God. Chine made some very good points in her recent article, including that God is beyond male and female, that both male and female are made in God’s image and that female imagery is sometimes employed to describe God.
You might think, since I’m a woman, I’d agree with a change in pronouns. But the longer I study the Bible in its original context, the more I find it at its best when we don’t whitewash over words that bother us.
You might think by neutralizing masculine imagery, the biblical text will be more embracing. What often happens though, is that ideas that challenge our thinking are obscured.
Take a look at Deuteronomy 1:31, “The LORD your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.” (NIV) Here we see an intimate picture of a dad lifting a little boy into his arms, carrying him on his shoulders when he’s too tired to walk. Moses was reminding Israel of the gentle protection God showed his people as he led them out of Egypt.
A more gender-neutral translation renders this line, “Until you reached this very place, the LORD your God has carried you just as a parent carries a child.” (Common English Bible) By neutralizing the male language we lose the beautiful scene of a man gently carrying a precious son. The concrete details become a vague non-reality. Ironically, we miss this surprising image of fatherly tenderness when we try to take the maleness out of it.
Here’s another place where it happens, in a passage that even contains feminine imagery of God. In the NIV, God says in Isaiah 66:13, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.” In the Hebrew, this line says literally, “As a man is comforted by his mother, so I will comfort you.”
Here again when you remove the masculinity by changing “man” to “child,” you actually remove the imagery of an adult man being comforted by his mother! In the extended families of the ancient world, mothers continued their relationships with their grown sons and acted as sources of wisdom and comfort.
What a remarkable image of a motherly relationship God uses to describe his relationship with Israel!
Israel’s Unique Beliefs
Believe it or not, Israel’s unique belief in a mostly masculine, monotheistic God created a culture that was remarkably less sexist and oppressive to women than the surrounding cultures. Polytheists had goddesses and priestesses, but their concern was primarily sexuality, fertility and childbirth. When your religious worldview revolves around erotic stimulation, women become valued for their sexuality.
Polytheistic myths are also full of stories of conflict between the sexes – goddesses killing their husbands, women using their sexuality to manipulate and defeat men, or forming sisterhoods to oppose men and fight for womanly causes. It was common for women to be viewed as almost a separate species.
In contrast, we never find a battle between the sexes going on in the Bible. Women in the Bible generally were striving for the same goals as men – the growth of their families and the prospering of Israel. Certainly Israelite women were subject to male leadership and conformed to traditional family-centered roles. In light of their limits within society, it’s actually quite remarkable that the Bible consistently presents women as intelligent equals to their husbands.1
It was actually Greek philosophy, not the Bible that polarized masculinity and femininity and saw women as a defective version of humanity.
Starting with Creation
The difference between Israel’s view of the sexes and the rest of the Ancient Near East becomes clear in their origin stories. In the Mesopotamian creation story, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh demonstrates his superiority among people of the world but becomes lonely because he simply has no equal. The gods want to create a companion for him. Surprisingly they don’t create a female but a male, Enkidu! A man is what a man needs for true companionship.
In another hymn, Ishtar’s wild personality make her unlike other goddesses, so another goddess, Saltu, is created to give her an equal associate. Both of these stories assume that the opposite sex is not where you find companionship – men and women were too unlike in their eyes.
What a contrast with the story of the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2. In the original Hebrew text, all references to the first human are neutral until God takes some of the human’s flesh and makes a woman — ishah, in Hebrew. Only at that point is Adam called ish, a man.
The Hebrew word ishah hints at her origins from within the ish, something that we can mimic in English, with the words “man” and “woman.” Interestingly, Adam is never called an ish until the ishah has been separated from him. As the Bible sees it, men and women aren’t fully the image of God without each other.2
Another key insight is that the word that is usually translated as Adam’s “rib,” tzela, is never used this way in the rest of the Bible. Rather, it always means “side.” When the phrase “one side” of something is used, it means one half, or one face of a building or object. (See Ex. 25:12; 26:26 or 37:3.)
What God does is take out of Adam one of his “sides,” as if God split Adam in half and formed one half into Eve. Adam then calls her “flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone” – not just “one of my bones.”
The image is that one human was separated into man and woman so that they could have companionship with each other. The differences between men and women come from how they were formed by being taken apart from each other, so that one supplies what the other one lacks.3
The biblical idea that the most appropriate, compatible partner for a man is a woman was revolutionary! The effect of Israel’s strict laws of sexual monogamy that disallowed homosexual relationships was to cause men and women to form stable family relationships. As a result, women were protected from exploitation. Only when men learned to view women as life-long companions rather than sex objects were women were elevated in the ancient world.
Thinking beyond Male and Female
You might assume that since God sometimes speaks in feminine terms, that this is proof of God’s unique identity that is beyond masculinity or femininity. But if you look closer at the text, you actually find humans talking the same way! Believe it or not, Paul does so more than once:
My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you… (Galatians 4:19)
Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. (1 Thessalonians 2:7)
We all know that Paul is strong on traditional gender roles and condemns homosexual behavior (1 Cor. 6:9). Yet Paul simply has no problem describing himself with feminine characteristics. He does not see this as insulting in any way! We can learn from Paul’s example and embrace the biological sex that God gave us while appreciating the admirable characteristics of the opposite gender.
I think Paul’s attitude is also wise for me as a woman, as I embrace the fact that God chose to reveal himself through male images in the Bible. I can love the Father and Son and enjoy the admirable differences between gender, knowing that together male and female form the image of our loving God.
1 Tikvah Frymer-Kensky, In the Wake of the Goddesses (MacMillan, New York, 1992), 127, 142
2 Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary – Genesis (Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1989) p 23
3 Jesus seems to have these ideas in mind in his discussion on divorce in Matthew 19:3-6. See my article, Together Again, at the En-Gedi Resource Center.
Lois Morgan says
Well written, well said!
(and, it was nice meeting you in person at ETS last fall!)
This is an awesome read
It was refreshing to read – surprising and unexpected! You caused me to consider this issue in a biblical and thought-provoking way. Thank you!
Human Creation 201.
Thanks for the “stretch.”
norm Shepherd says
Wow, great article, not at all what I was expecting, thank you, Lois, for your insights into scripture.
Thank you, Lois for this insightful, clarifying article. I believe this is the way God intends us to be to each other and to ourselves.
helen havener says
This was so well articulated. Thank you !!!
I was just this minute reading in George Guthrie’s NIV Application Commentary on Hebrews ( pp 113-4) that the terms Father, Son, and brothers are analogies. “Divine revelation makes use of images and concepts from human experience to draw analogies to God’s activities or personality. “ God as Father reveals his “provision for, protection over, and loving guidance for his children. “ Jesus as Son speaks of His being “inheritor of the universe” And a relationship that “involves honor, unique position, and responsibility as well as subordination. “ I was just reveling in this wisdom which was so well affirmed by your blog with the same concept. Instead of trying to fit Scripture to our modern perspective, we need to understand the context in which it was written and widen our perspective. Thank you so much for all you do to add to our understanding.
Marianne Caron says
Dear Lois, I love your ministry, and I love this article. I totally agree with “Very well said!” I do have a question, however, and feel safer asking it here. I recently did some word study on “ruah, or ruach”, the Hebrew word for Spirit in the OT and saw that it is a feminine noun. And I’m wondering, what did this imply, if anything? I don’t want to build a theology based on this, I assure you. I just find this puzzling. Thank you in advance for your consideration. When I do word studies, I am using Strong’s Concordance and the Theological Wordbook of the OT by Harris, Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke. I am sure there is a LOT about the gender of Hebrew that I am ignorant of. In fact, really all I know is that there is gender and it can influence the whole sentence structure.
I have this question as well. How wonderful if you could further the conversation here by helping us think about this. Maybe your next article, Lois?
Wonderfully said! Thank you for such a beautiful picture of our Father.
Janet K says
I love the imagery of cutting Adam into 2 sides — man and woman! Great article.
Jeanie R says
Thank you, Lois! Your writings are always so clear and thought provoking. You inspire us all to pause and bring our “perceptions” before the Lord and His word and lean on that, not our own understanding. Thank you always!
This is fascinating! Thank you.
David Horne says
Much appreciated. It would have been easy to default to the zeitgeist, but in 2000 words you’ve managed a genuinely biblical ‘take’, given us helpful cultural background, finished up with a respectful balance between the sexes and elevated our wonderful God. No mean feat!
Thank you so much, Lois you have clearly articulated things I’ve wanted to say for ages and with the references to back it up!
Well done, Lois. Great truths and extremely well supported. Many thanks for writing this.
Reg Munro says
The promise that I am to be part of the Bride makes all your suggestions even more amazing. God is implying that we are designed to be the missing side part of Jesus that He died for
Ian Yates says
Thank you Reg
I have had a problem for years understanding that I as a man I could be a bride. Your answer has helped a little to clarify the problem. I still have a problem with Jerusalem being the bride in Revelation and the guests in the parable of the virgins. Who were the guests? Who was the bride?
Lois Tverberg says
Ian, Jerusalem represents the people of God. Cities in the Bible are always represented with feminine imagery. If you are part of the people of God, you are represented by Jerusalem, which is female. The fact you are a man makes no difference, because the idea is about you as part of a larger collective, not you individually.
This is all related to the imagery in Isaiah of God’s promises to Lady Zion, which is another reference to Jerusalem. God gets angry with her for her unfaithfulness and exiles her children to Babylon, but promises to bring her children home, along with many more from other nations. See Isaiah 54 especially.
Dan L says
Lois, Thank you for taking the time to use your wisdom and understanding of scripture to speak into these topics. We desperately need more people to have the courage to explain why God did this rather than trying to rationalize it away in order to justify the current cultural trajectory here in America.
Victor L. Stutzman says
A very timely excellent word for all of mankind to hear! Thank you, Lois, for NOT adulterating the Word of God!
Beth Harrison says
Well written, as always. Thank you for your diligence in adhering to Scripture, and God’s original intent. Jesus gave the example of bringing others back to the original intent of God in the Scriptures, and there is no greater example for us to follow. I’ve learned so much from studying God’s Word aided by your research.
D and L says
Dave and I read this while traveling home from being with family over the holiday. We so appreciated your wisdom. Powerful arguments well supported with scripture! The point about Adam not being called man until Eve was formed is amazing! As we celebrate the marriage of one daughter and anticipate the marriage of another this image is even more impactful. Thank you.
Chuck Weyh says
What else can one say?
These clear and powerful commentaries are so needful in our crazy, confusing times…
Chuck Weyh says
Sarna, quoted here, “As the Bible sees it, men and women aren’t fully the image of God without each other” sums it up beautifully.
EXCELLENT ARTICLE, Lois! Thank you.
Thank you for your courage!!! The LORD bless you sister and protect you❤. I am encouraged by your faith!
Ann Spangler says
Best ever! Thanks, Lois.
This is excellent!!! Thank you!
Rabbi Dr. John Fischer says
On the whole your article was very well articulated and very much on point. However, I found the specific discussion regarding pronouns far from convincing.
From my childhood, I was raised by my mother. I had three sisters. There was no male presence in my life. My mother faithfully took us to church and required us to learn scripture. I look back (I’m now 60), and I realize how important that “masculine imagery” was to my development. I cannot imagine my life without it. Lois, thank you for your defense of God’s original context. It made all the difference to me.
Sandra Byrd says
Thank you again for your wonderful insight into the precious Word that we read. I am so thankful that you are able to answer this cultural exercise which tries to change the true intent and imagery of the communication our dear Heavenly Father is expressing to us.
Ian Yates says
Than you Lois
Excellent article. I was particularly impressed with the fact that Adam was not referred to as a man before Eve was formed. I hadn’t seen it that way before. We will look at this scripture again.
Kath & Ian Yates