Does the Bible Support the Feminist God/Dess?
(Christian theology tells us that God is neither male nor female
in himself. In fact, the divine nature includes the perfections of
both genders. And yet Christianity has always insisted that
masculine language be normative for how believers address God
because that is how God has revealed himself.)
by Mark Brumley
Must our image of God go?" C. S. Lewis once rhetorically queried
the late Anglican Bishop John A. T. Robinson. Robinson, noted
thirty-five years ago for (then) avant-garde proposals, had
suggested it was high time feminine images for God were introduced
to balance out the traditional masculine ones. To this Lewis
replied ironically, "I shouldn't believe it strongly, but some
sort of case could be made out."
Today many people think a very strong case indeed can be made for
such feminist alterations of our "God-talk." They demand the
adoption of what is called "vertical inclusive language"-language
which "includes" feminine ways of talking about God. Yet on what
basis are such radical changes to be made?
Christian theology tells us that God is neither male nor female in
himself. In fact, the divine nature includes the perfections of
both genders. And yet Christianity has always insisted that
masculine language be normative for how believers address God
because that is how God has revealed himself.
One argument in defense of such traditional language, based on the
Bible, goes like this: since God chose to reveal himself in the
Bible in masculine terms, we aren't free to alter this language to
suit our contemporary, egalitarian tastes. No doubt theologians
can provide good theological reasons for why God, who is in
himself genderless, has chosen to reveal himself in masculine
terms. But regardless of whether one finds their reasons
persuasive, the biblical witness of traditional masculine images
remains the standard we must employ in addressing God. To do
otherwise is to replace the true God of the Bible with a false god
of our own making.
Needless to say, many feminist proponents of "vertical inclusive
language" reject this argument. Hardcore (and more consistent)
feminists dismiss the Bible itself as tainted by gender bias.
Others, unwilling to go as far as their feminist principles should
(logically) take them, try to combine elements from the biblical
tradition with a feminist view of God. These folks argue that
Scripture itself employs feminine images for God and therefore
provides a "depatriarchalizing principle" which, when
developed, overcomes the "patriachalism" of other parts of the
Bible. In other words, the Bible corrects itself regarding gender
stereotypes for God.
Is this true? Does the Bible itself provide reasonable grounds for
feminine language about God? As we shall see, a careful
examination of Scripture reveals that the biblical authors,
notwithstanding their so-called "feminine images" of God, conceive
of the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ, in essentially masculine
terms. The Bible does not in fact introduce a "depatriarchalizing
principle" into the biblical tradition as some feminists claim, so
efforts to justify feminist notions of God based on Scripture
amount to a feminist form of fundamentalist proof-texting,
replacing the historical-cultural worldview of the biblical
authors with that of modern feminist ideology.
In popular presentations on the subject, two sorts of biblical
texts are often invoked to demonstrate a "divine feminine"
principle, supposedly paralleling and balancing out the
"patriarchal" tradition of the Bible. First, there are texts which
deny that God is human and therefore supposedly imply that, being
beyond gender in himself, God maybe spoken of as either male or
female. Second, there are texts which allegedly attribute feminine
characteristics or activities to God, thereby legitimating such an
enterprise for us.
We will consider both sets of texts in a moment, but first a more
general point. The Bible speaks of God in a variety of ways-some
more anthropomorphic than others, but none making rigorously
philosophical distinctions. Nowhere, for example, does Scripture
systematically distinguish God in himself from the human language
we employ to speak about him. The biblical writers appear to know
that of their language about God is metaphorical-no one
supposes, for example, the Psalmist's comment about the shadow of
God's "wings" is taken literally by its author (Ps 17:8; 91:4).
At the same time, some images for God are so common and integral
to biblical revelation that the biblical writers seem to take them
literally, or at least these images function for the biblical
writers as if they were literally true. Masculine language about
God as appears to be of this sort, as we shall see. In other
words, the biblical writers are aware God is not male in the
crude, bodily sense; and yet they see him as fundamentally
masculine (especially in relation to creation and to Israel, his
Bride). They speak of God as if he male. To be properly
understood, then, feminine metaphors applied to God must be
interpreted with this in view.
GOD IS NOT HUMAN
We consider now the first set of texts-passages which deny that
God is human and therefore supposedly imply that, being beyond
gender in himself, God must be spoken of in either male or female
language or without gender-specific language altogether. Let's
consider three key texts frequently used to make this point:
Numbers 23:19, 1 Samuel 15:29 and Hosea 11:9.
Numbers 23:19 and 1 Samuel 15:29 are similar passages. Numbers
23:19 says, "God is not a man that he should speak falsely, nor
human that he should change his mind. Is he one to speak and not
act, to decree and not fulfill?" 1 Samuel 15:29 develops the same
theme: "The Glory of Israel neither retracts nor repents, for he
is not man that he should repent."
Both of these texts stress the absolute veracity of Yahweh as
someone true to his word. Yahweh is not human, hence not prone to
acting contrary to what he has said or changing his mind (as
humans do). Neither text states or even implies, however, that
because Yahweh is not human, he is not masculine or isn't to be
spoken of in exclusively masculine language. In fact, while
asserting that Yahweh is not human, the biblical writers
themselves apply masculine pronouns to God. Nothing in the texts
suggest the biblical writers think Yahweh may rightly be spoken of
in female as well as male language.
Another commonly cited text, Hosea 11:9, reads: "I will not give
vent to my blazing anger, I will not destroy Ephraim again; For I
am God and not man, the Holy One present among you; I will not let
the flames consume you."
Again, Yahweh's way of acting-in this case his expressions of
mercy and holiness-contrasts with human behavior. But this text
doesn't require us to believe that since the biblical writers
think of Yahweh as superior to humans, they necessarily hold him
to be entirely beyond gender description or that we should apply
male and female language equally to him. The notion that
divinities could be both superior to man and yet still sexually
differentiated was common in the Ancient Near East. Apparently,
the idea that God is both superior to man and yet to be spoken of
as male was too.
IS GOD A WOMAN?
Having disposed of our first set of passages, we turn now to our
second group-texts which attribute feminine characteristics or
activities to God. A number of passages are commonly cited here:
Dt. 32:18, Ps. 22:10, Ps. 131:2, Is 42:14, Is. 49:15 and Is.
66:13. Let's look at them.
Deuteronomy 32:18 refers to "the Rock that begot you ... the God
who gave you birth." Psalm 22:10 says of Yahweh, "You have been my
guide since I was first formed, my security at my mother's breast.
To you I was committed at birth, from my mother's womb you are my
God." In the former text, Yahweh is compared to a mother in
"giving birth" to the covenant people; in the latter he is
seemingly compared to a midwife.
Psalm 131:2 says, "I have stilled and quieted my soul like a
weaned child. Like a weaned child on its mother's lap [so is my
soul within me.]" The psalmist applies this language to God,
suggesting a maternal image of Yahweh.
Especially rich in its use of maternal imagery is the second part
of Isaiah. Isaiah 42:14 depicts Yahweh as saying, "I cry out as a
woman in labor, gasping and panting." In Isaiah 49:15 we read,
"Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the
child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget
you." More explicit still is Isaiah 66:13: "As a mother comforts
her son, so will I comfort you," says Yahweh.
How are we to understand these passages, given the fact that the
vast majority of references to God in Scripture clearly envision
him in exclusively masculine terms? Are we to see here the
beginnings of that "de-patriarchalizing" principle for which some
feminists claim biblical warrant?
To the last question, the answer is clearly "no." These passages
all Yahweh to a woman in some fashion or another, but
nowhere is Yahweh spoken of as feminine . And even when
feminine images or similes for God are employed, it is still very
much a masculine Yahweh to whom they are applied. This is clear
from the consistent use of the masculine pronoun "he" for God.
Yahweh is never "she" or "her," even when feminine imagery is
invoked. As theologian John W. Miller puts it:
"Not once in the Bible is God addressed as mother, said to be
mother, or referred to with feminine pronouns. On the contrary,
gender usage throughout clearly specifies that the root metaphor
is masculine father."
None of the texts considered requires us to think that feminine
characteristics are ascribed to God in a fashion any different
from how such traits may be ascribed to human males. A case in
point here is Numbers 11:12, where Moses asks, "Have I given birth
to this people?" No one would argue that this maternal image
implies a tendency on the part of the Hebrew writer to
"depatriarchalize" Moses. Similarly, in the New Testament, both
Jesus (Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34) and Paul (Galatians 4:19) are
likened to a mother, though they are men.
THE IMAGE OF GOD
Some might think that Genesis 1:26-27, where man and woman are
said to be created in the image of God, is an exception to the
idea that the "root-metaphor" for God in the Bible is, as John
Miller says, a masculine-father image. One might argue that, since
both men and women are the image of God, the biblical author
rejects the idea of a divinity thought of in exclusively masculine
terms. How could both man woman be made in God's image if
God is understood only in masculine categories?
The answer depends on what it means to be made in God's image. For
the biblical author, being made in the "image of God" appears (in
context) to mean at least two things. First, that humans exercise
a delegated dominion over creation similar to but less than the
sovereign authority of the Creator ("Let them have dominion over
the fish of the sea, the birds of the air ..." (Gen. 1:26-30).
Second, that humans are capable of fellowship with God. Neither
one of these meanings jeopardize the biblical writer's "root
metaphor" of divine masculinity, since God could be masculine and
both men and women still be his image in these senses of the
Common sense also confirms that there is no necessary conflict
between thinking of God as masculine and holding that both men and
women are made in his image. Daughters as well as sons can be
"spittin' images" of their fathers, without denying the unique
sexual identity of fathers as fathers and daughters and daughters.
To summarize, our survey of the relevant biblical texts has shown
that even in those relatively rare instances when feminine
metaphors are employed for God, these are clearly applied to what
is regarded by the biblical authors as a "masculine" deity.
"Feminine" characteristics are applied to God by the biblical
writers in the same way "maternal" or "feminine" attributes are
applied metaphorically to human males. Consequently, this use of
metaphor provides no more justification for using feminine
language with reference to God than it does for using such
language for human males.
Of course, to say the biblical authors see God as "masculine"
doesn't mean they see him as male in the full biological, bodily
sense of the term. Obviously God is not a male human being, and if
the biblical writers positively affirmed that he is, they would
teach erroneously about God-something which the divine inspiration
of Scripture precludes.
The biblical writers know that God is not a male human being yet
they insist he be spoken of as masculine. But they lack the
theological and philosophical instruments to account for this
apparent contradiction. As noted earlier, the biblical authors
don't engage in systematic philosophical analysis of the divine
nature or how we predicate things of God. It is anachronistic,
then, to read back into their writings a philosophically rigorous
distinction between strict literal and purely symbolic language or
even a thorough-going philosophical distinction between the
material and immaterial.
What is at stake is the symbolic language used to speak of God. In
this respect two questions present themselves. First, is there
something in the divine nature and its relation to us which
bestows on the masculine symbol a priority in language about God,
even though men and women are equal as human beings? Second, to
what extent may we alter what is the central "root metaphor" for
God in biblical revelation without altering that revelation?
Strictly speaking, these are not questions the Bible alone, apart
from Christian tradition and theological reflection, can answer-
although neither can the Bible's witness to the divine nature be
ignored or dismissed as purely "culturally conditioned." To answer
them adequately requires the resources of a Christian
anthropological analysis. What is important to point out here
is that those feminists who try to appeal to the Bible to answer
these questions aren't really drawing their answers from Scripture
alone, but from their own philosophical and theological
presuppositions derived from elsewhere, which they then read back
into Scripture. And these presuppositions are, to say the least,
hard to reconcile with Christianity.
Trying to "balance" masculine and feminine language for God or to
eliminate such gender language altogether from Christian
discourse, is a post-biblical phenomenon with no justification in
As we have seen, the biblical writers understood God in
essentially masculine terms. To do justice to their texts, we must
not project back onto them contemporary feminist theologizing and
certainly we must not think the biblical authors initiated a
"depatriarchalizing" project. To do so is to engage in a feminist
form of biblical fundamentalism the only purpose of which is to
bolster a dubious ideological agenda, not to discover how the
biblical writers themselves viewed things. It is eisegesis
masquerading as exegesis, pure and simple.
Ultimately, the significance of the Bible's emphasis on the
"masculinity" of God depends upon the extent to which biblical
"God-talk" is reductionistically explained away as "culturally
conditioned." Many "moderate" feminists dismiss the biblical
witness when it comes to exclusively masculine language for God,
but this poses an inescapable problem. If the Bible is so skewed
on this, how can we trust its claim to revelation at all? Isn't
monotheism itself just as easily dismissed as "culturally
conditioned"? Or the idea that "God is love," for that matter?
Given the centrality of God's "masculinity" in the Bible, it is
hard to understand how abandoning exclusively masculine language
for God is anything other than abandoning biblical revelation
itself and therefore Christianity itself. C. S. Lewis, in an essay
against women priests, once put the matter this way to those who
say it doesn't matter whether we speak of God as "Father" and "he"
or as "Mother" or "she":
"But Christians think that God himself has taught us how to speak
of him. To say that it does not matter is to say either that all
the masculine imagery is not inspired, is merely human in origin,
or else that, though inspired, is merely arbitrary and
unessential. And this is surely intolerable: or, if tolerable, it
is an argument not in favor of Christian priestesses but against
The same Bible which some feminists so glibly (and absurdly)
invoke in defense of calling God "Mother" can be easily discarded
as irreparably sexist when feminist proof-texting falters, as
indeed it must falter upon carefully examination. Most feminists
outside the Catholic Church and a growing number putatively still
within it, now reject the Bible altogether-and with it the God of
the Bible-replacing the true God with a "goddess" of their own
making. As one so-called Catholic feminist recently observed, "The
problem is in the texts themselves." Ironically, the more
thorough-going, consistent feminists and traditional Christians
agree on a crucial point which the proponents of an alleged
"depatriachicalizing principle" in the Bible have yet to grasp:
Scripture can't reasonably be used to justify feminist revisions
1 In her book, (Philadelphia:
Fortress Press, 1978), Phyllis Tribe argues that such a principle
is present in Scripture, despite its patriarchalism. Tribe is
famous (or infamous) for her arguments regarding the femininity of
Yahweh in the Old Testament, based on a linguistic analysis of
Hebrew words used in relation to Yahweh. Her arguments are
demolished by Paul V. Mankowski, S.J. in "Old Testament Iconology
and the Nature of God," published in ,
edited by Helen Hull Hitchcock, San Francisco: Ignatius Press,
2 Describing Yahweh as Father ("Have we not all one father?
[Malachi 2:10]; Hos. 11:1; Ex 4:22; Dt. 32:6, 18; Is. 63:16) or
King (Nm 23:21; Dt. 33:5; Jgs 8:23; 1 Sam. 8:7; 12:12), for
3 Ancient Near Eastern religion exploded with sexuality among its
divinities. See, for example, Thomas G. Smothers, "Religions of
the Ancient Near East," , pp. 744-
748 and Vol. 1 & 2, James B. Pritchard
ed., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958.
4 Raphael Patai writes: "It is in the nature of the Hebrew
language that every noun has either the masculine or the feminine
gender (except a very few which can take either). The two Biblical
names of God, Yahweh ... and Elohim (or briefly El; translated as
'God') are masculine. When a pronoun is used to refer to God, it
is the masculine "He"; when a verb describes that He did something
or an adjective qualifies Him, they appear in the masculine form
... Thus, every verbal statement about God conveyed the idea that
He was masculine." , Ktav Publishing, Inc.,
1967. See also John W. Miller,
Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989, pp. 50-62.
One might object that the biblical writers, as a result of the
patriarchal society in which they lived, couldn't bring themselves
to call Yahweh "she." This is precisely the point. The biblical
writers, notwithstanding the distinction they recognized between
God and humans, and despite the prevalence of female divinities in
their "backyard"; still thought of God as masculine. Given this
background, it makes little sense to claim they tacitly affirmed a
5 John W. Miller, Mahway, NJ:
Paulist Press, 1989, p. 61.
6 Traditionally, being "made in the image of God" has been
understood as referring to man's possession of intellect and will.
This is implied in the biblical writer's use of the idea, since
man's delegated dominion and his ability to fellowship with God
presuppose his possession of intellect and will.
7 "After declaring Let us make man (adam) in our image ...' the
text specifies, So God created man [male and female] in his image
...' (Gen. 1:27). Apparently biblical authors saw no incongruity
in characterizing both men and women as bearing the image and
likeness of a paternal deity." John W. Miller, , Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989, p. 62.
8 Another point to consider here is the continuity of Yahweh with
the Canaanite father divinity El. The fact that Jos 22:22 can say
that "El of gods is Yahweh" indicates that there was at least some
overlap between how these two deities were thought of. El was
clearly masculine and that "El" could be used as a name for Yahweh
suggests Yahweh was clearly a masculine deity. See Lamoine
Devries, "El," , Macon, GA: Mercer
University Press, 1990, pp. 240-241 and also Jack Finegan, , Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989, pp. 119-
9 C. S. Lewis makes this point well: "The reason why the modern
literalist is puzzled is that he is trying to get out of the old
[biblical] writers something which is not there. Starting from a
clear modern distinction between material and immaterial he tries
to find out on which side of that distinction the ancient Hebrew
conception fell. He forgets that the distinction itself has been
made clear only by later thought." , NY: MacMillan,
1960, paperback edition, 1978, p. 77.
10 In this regard, see Manfred Hauke, San Francisco:
Ignatius Press, 1995; and his , San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988; ,
edited by Alvin F. Kimel, Jr., Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans,
1992; Jean Galot, S.J., , New York: Alba House,
1992; Francis Martin, , Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 1994; and , edited by Helen Hull
Hitchcock, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992.
11 , Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company, 1970, p. 237
This article was taken from the Mar-Apr. 1996 issue of "Catholic
Dossier". Catholic Dossier is published bi-monthly for $24.95 a
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