God is Not a Boy Name

God is Not a Boy Name June 15, 2020

Just this past week, on June 12, Twitter theologian and activist Robbie Hurlocker found himself in a debate about the sex of the Holy Spirit and, by extension, God. Among other tweets, Hurlocker quoted Episcopal priest Lyn Brakeman, who popularized the term, “God is not a boy name.”

The Evangelical Right, as they do, jumped all over this, and Hurlocker has now been labeled a “demon” and “heretic” by his own former church.

This is a very familiar position for those of us who grew up in the religious Right. Any challenge to dogma is met with fierce resistance and ad hominem attacks. But it’s rarely met with facts. So I thought I would do some checking on my own to see what the Bible says…

As it turns out, the word for the Holy Spirit takes different genders in different languages. In Hebrew, it is רוח (rūaḥ) which is usually feminine. In Greek, it is πνεῦμα (pneûma) which is neuter. In Latin it is the masculine spiritus.

So which came first? Well, Jews still use Hebrew and translations of Hebrew, and Christians tend to use various translations of the Greek Septuagint, which in turn came from the same Hebrew Jews use. Latin, as most of us know, came much later.

So the winner in terms of getting closest to the original autograph is the feminine rūaḥ articulated in the Hebrew language.

Of course, the counter argument is that Pharaoh’s spirit was also feminine in these texts (Gen 41:8), and Pharaoh was clearly male. Same with Jacob (Gen. 45:27). If anyone’s spirit can be feminine, the argument goes, how do we know God’s is?

Well, I think that’s the point. Anyone’s rūaḥ is feminine—yours, mine, Jacob’s, whoever’s. The Bible makes no distinction for God.

But what about God him- her- or them-self? Most Christians accept that Jesus was male. That seems pretty incontrovertible. But does God have to have a gender? And does it have to be male?

Looking at the creation stories in Genesis, God uses both collective and masculine pronouns for self reference. But here’s the thing—in the first creation story, man AND woman are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). In the second creation story, God took a literal piece of the man and made woman from it. From this alone, it appears that God’s creation, which mirrors God directly, holds the possibility for both male and female. In fact, from the official Catechism of the Catholic Church (#239) to the right-wing Evangelical Focus on the Family, the theology is clear that God transcends the idea of male and female, and female images of God abound.

So if the Spirit is clearly feminine, the son is clearly masculine, and God themself transcends both, why is it Evangelicals are so fiercely defensive of strictly masculine language?

I’ll let you decide. Leave your comments below…

About Jim Coppoc
Jim Coppoc is an author and seminarian, and the child of a gender-transcendent God. You can read more about the author here.

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