God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Is God a boy god or a girl god in the Bible?

If God is like a nurse, does that mean that God is female?

What got me thinking about things like this is that John Piper’s “desiring God” blog just ran a post called “Our Mother Who Art In Heaven?” The basic point is to affirm that God is a “masculine God” in spite of 26 places where God is described with feminine imagery.

The author, Tony Reinke, starts off as though he wants to examine the implication of those 26 places neutrally: “But one of the immediate objections to [a masculine God] is the simple fact that God sometimes references himself through feminine imagery, and this is certainly true.”

Of course, by phrasing the question as how “God references himself” (my emphasis), Reinke has already prejudiced the issue. Still, it’s an interesting question, and I don’t believe that Reinke, or John Cooper (whose book, Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God, Reinke cites) have understood how language works in these cases.

Cooper’s point, quoted by Reinke, is that there may be a variety of feminine imagery, such as Numbers 11:12, where God “gives birth” to the People Israel. But even so, there “are no instances where God is directly identified by a feminine term, even a metaphorical predicate noun.”

Most interesting is Reinke’s explanation: “That explains why in Scripture we find many many masculine titles for God: Lord, Father, King, Judge, Savior, Ruler, Warrior, Shepherd, Husband, and even a handful of metaphorical masculine titles like Rock, Fortress, and Shield..

What would make “Rock” a “metaphorical masculine title”? Not that it matters, but the word itself is feminine in Hebrew (at least one of the words, eh-ven) and in Greek (petra). Similarly, what makes “lord,” “savior”, “ruler,” etc. masculine? Certainly nothing intrinsic to the words.

I think that Reinke and Cooper are going about this the wrong way. The gender of the words used to describe or identify God is irrelevant.

Rather — as in so many other instances — I think the key to understanding the language here is knowing how imagery works. After all, even if God is our king, God isn’t a king in the same sense that Harald V of Norway is. Rather, “God is our King” means that God has certain attributes of a king.

For example, here are three attributes once common to most kings:

  1. they reigned with absolute power
  2. they inherited their position
  3. they were men

It seems pretty clear to me that the metaphor of God as king refers to (1). It seems equally clear that it does not refer to (2). The question is whether it refers to (3), and I don’t think that it does. I think that (3) is incidental to the metaphor, like (2).

In other words, even though only men were kings, and God is a king, it doesn’t follow that God is a man or even like a man, just as even though only humans were kings, and God is a king, it doesn’t follow that God is human or like a human. (A similar issue arises with the word “man” itself: “How to be a Biblical Man.”)

There can be no doubt that gender roles in antiquity were more sharply defined than they are today. But I don’t think that this cultural difference gives us the clear answer that God was masculine. Rather, I think we have to see past it in order to understand the intent of the text.

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July 6, 2012 - Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , , , ,

10 Comments »

  1. Well said. And what does “masculine” mean, anyway?

    Comment by abramkj | July 6, 2012 | Reply

  2. For whatever this might be worth…

    To the extent one defines God in terms of ‘man’, to the extent one fixates on that (not that you are doing that, Joel, you’re interacting with Piper, et al), is the extent one breaks the 2nd commandment. However, if one nuances the discussion, then one stays on safe ground. It’s one thing to say, “God is masculine.” It’s another to say that God has masculine characteristics. He has many characteristics: God has feminine characteristics, he has the characteristics of a ‘rock’. It’s really the difference between the metaphorical and the literal.

    We human males have a masculine identity–it’s literal for us. God doesn’t. It’s metaphorical for him, just the same as his “rockishness.”

    The problem with the whole discussion, as I see it, has to do with ‘identity’. A rock has a rock identity, though it doesn’t know that. Human beings can’t say the same thing; we can’t separate our self-consciousness from our identity.

    So, when we talk to each other and say, “God is masculine” (or “God is feminine”) we make a category mistake. We can’t help it; it’s who we are. Even women, whose identity is tied closely with their femininity, have a sense of what masculinity means (as men do of femininity). So, when we humans say, “God is masculine” we project onto God an identity which is not his.

    The identification of God as masculine takes the meaning of masculinity literally and not metaphorically as the Bible intends it.

    In my opinion, for a person in Christian leadership to try to take others down such a literalistic road is incredibly unwise, to say the least. It may even be idolatrous.

    Comment by Mike Sangrey | July 6, 2012 | Reply

    • I think it is clearly idolatrous when Piper says it, as he takes the metaphor too far.

      Comment by Don Johnson | July 7, 2012 | Reply

  3. […] Joel Hoffman, Is God a boy god or a girl god in the Bible? […]

    Pingback by Around the Blogosphere (07.06.2012) | Near Emmaus | July 7, 2012 | Reply

  4. […] rest of Hoffman’s post can be read here.  If you’re interested in the conversation, then please feel free to join in. Share […]

    Pingback by Is God a Boy Rock or a girl pebble in the Bible? « BLT | July 7, 2012 | Reply

  5. Wonderfu, helpful observations. But rocks are human too, says the girl Pebbles but even more importantly says Bamm Bamm:

    http://bltnotjustasandwich.com/2012/07/07/is-god-a-boy-rock-or-a-girl-pebble-in-the-bible/

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | July 7, 2012 | Reply

  6. –God is beyond time and space, not in anyway limited with a physical body. So surely you are not asking whether or not God has a penis.

    –Considering the focus of your blog, likely you addressing whether God is being described as male or female in particular Bible passages and how that affects translation.
    –Your post about the “right word” sometimes being the “wrong word” shows that having superb knowledge of which words are closest in meaning between two languages is insufficient to do good translation.
    –Maybe one way to approach things would be to break the problem into two parts. One, understanding what God is. Two, consider what masculine (or feminine) implies and then one has a chance of handling gender issues in a particular passage as good as is possible in a translation.

    –Breaking the problem into the two parts as I have suggested in no way solves the problem of how to deal with gender issues relating to God. Understanding what God is, is a difficult as it ever was. Conceiving of God as a being that consists of infinite mentality, is a great improvement over thinking of a being with a material existence, but, no doubt, is still a mere shadow of the real truth. Even to consider God a “being” seems to separate that being from the larger context in which such a being would exist, thus implying that something else is larger or more pervasive than God.

    –Understanding what gender implies or rather what it implied in biblical times, is also difficult, but at least some progress seems possible on that front.
    –In the Bible masculine often seems to be intellect or reasoning ability or maybe understanding, while feminine often represents the desiring or feeling aspect of our nature. Of course, in some contexts a female represents spiritual wisdom.
    –In biblical times and before, those with spiritual understanding personified (spiritual) wisdom as a female virgin, because certain characteristics of wisdom made such a metaphor apt. In those times, like now, more than 99 percent of the population thought the prophets, spiritual masters or whatever you want to call them, were talking about an actual goddess rather than a spiritual metaphor. (In the OT, wisdom is often a long barren female that finally gives birth to figure that represents spiritual awareness)

    –Knowing that most of the population would not grasp spiritual things, the prophets may have willingly allowed or even deliberately encouraged the population at large to understand their metaphors in a literal way. The Bible was certainly written with that in mind. The point being to keep the wisdom teaching alive and get it to the one in a thousand or ten thousand that could make use of it.
    –When confronted with a translation choice on whether to be more true to the underlying spiritual wisdom being allegorized, or to the literal story that has ensured the continued existence of that scripture in our society, how should one decide?

    Comment by Caleb J. | July 8, 2012 | Reply

  7. Wow I like this post- I was also wondering since when is a rock masculine? (Surely we’ve all seen pictures of statues of women carved out of a rock- would that rock be feminine or masculine?)

    I’m a little uncomfortable with how much the post you linked to REALLY WANTED God to be masculine. My opinion is “well the bible uses masculine pronouns/imagery for God more often than feminine ones, so, whatever, we can call God ‘he’ but you know he’s actually NOT a human so he’s definitely NOT male or female in reality, right?”

    Both men and women are made in the image of God- it seems like if they make the argument that God is DEFINITELY way more masculine than feminine and that it’s a BIG DEAL, then that means women are less “in the image of God” than men. There’s no way that’s right.

    Comment by perfectnumber628 | July 8, 2012 | Reply

  8. I think, if we are going to have a better idea of what it is we mean when we call something “God”, we must keep in mind this gender image is just a metaphor. It may have worked well, and probably a much different way in the distant past than now. However we are kind of stuck with what Steven Pinker might call a dead metaphor. We might do well to either try and revive it, or completely remove it and try a new one. I can’t think of any way that it enhances what I think of as god by trying to visualizing sexuality as part of its nature. It seems completely useless. I don’t see that god has any need of a sex or gender; it only makes it more clear to me that whatever we mean by it just forces our own image or stereotype onto whatever god turns out to be, We might get a better idea of what “god” is by defining what “god” is not. But we don’t hear very many people talking about what “god” is in plain, descriptive language without turning to metaphors, especially the old, worn out ones. I think the best I’ve heard is what Robert Wright describes in his book “Nonzero.” And of course until after Darwin the true, primary function of sex was probably not even understood. And even today, I think the majority of “educated’ people would have a hard time accepting that the true function of sex is not reproduction but evolution. If god is going to have a sex, he’s [sic} going to have all the functions of it, not just the social ones; then we’d have to figure out why and what it was for. Certainly not reproduction; but to evolve might be nice.

    Comment by Ronald Knight | July 9, 2012 | Reply

  9. What are the practical implications of these observations? It’s a bit like using instances where God changed his mind, and then concluding that he’s not at all decisive – not good theology in my opinion. Certainly it wasn’t incidental that Jesus was male. Nor was it so when he referred to his deity as “father”. Nor was it so when he taught us also to refer to his deity as “father”. (In fact, I think it was no more incidental than when Abel offered a blood sacrifice and that it happened to be “acceptable”.) Of course we make associations when we use such terms as “father” or “husband”, and that seems to be inevitable. But Jesus never gave us the option of addressing God as “mother”. And on that point, is God like us such that we may address him however we see fit? I think not. I think that’s the point Tony Reinke is making. He makes a valid argument.

    Comment by Robert Kan | July 9, 2012 | Reply


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