God Is Not Male

God Is Not Male May 25, 2010

I’ll begin my explorations into the apophatic by stating something that God is Not, and something that I doubt will generate too much consternation among readers:

God Is Not Male.

Since God is also not female, it’d be even more accurate to say that God Is Not Gendered.

I think this sentiment is more palatable these days than it was fifty years ago because we are now aware of the complexities of gender. The meanings of words like “masculine” and “feminine,” “manly” and “womanly,” have been pretty thoroughly deconstructed. Thus, it’s really not even accurate to say, “God has characteristics of both genders,” since that sentence is basically meaningless. God is strong, which is masculine? God is sensitive, which is feminine? The ridiculousness of these sentiments quickly becomes clear.

Which makes this a good introductory salvo into the apophatic. We know only gender. Even the aforementioned complexities (homosexual, queer, bi-sexual, transgendered, intersexed) are understood based on the poles of the two genders. But God fits neither of the genders nor the complexities in between.

Therefore, we are left with nothing kataphatic to say, nothing positive to claim, when reflecting on God and gender. Instead, we make the apophatic statement, God Is Not Gendered.
N.B., This post is part of a series exploring apophatic statements about God.

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  • See: Women and the Word: The Gender of God in the New Testament and the Spirituality of Women. New York: Paulist Press, 1986. by Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM, prof emerita at the Jesuit school, Berkeley. book is a bit dated but theologically sound

    Your sentiment about the current palatability of God as non-gendered is admirable; however, it is not my experience…I find that, when pressed, most Christians are still very stuck in their traditional, patriarchal view of God …

    I continue my own writing and research in this particular area and I hope you will too…keep the faith…

  • ryan cavanaugh

    How do you interpret the fact that God is always described in scripture using Masculine pronouns? Since God inspired scripture and how God wanted to be described, doesn’t your statement require that in full understanding of the biblical record?

  • Jim

    Hmm, it seems like this is a great example of why apophatic theology needs kataphatic theology. In one sense, it’s absolutely true God is not male.

    But in another, its true that God is a father and a husband. Also that Jesus was (and still is) quite certainly male.

    And while gender traits have, indeed been academically deconstructed, difference actually still functions in real life, and still tells us things about God. My girlfriend still needs me to open the pickle jar. Can’t we say in this sense (analogically, of course), that God is masculine, and he’s the one we trust to open our pickle jars? Not ontologically, but functionally and realistically?

    It just seems like an overstatement to argue “we are left with nothing kataphatic to say.” Better to balance: God is not male, God is male.

  • Kathy

    So, God supercedes gender, yet chose to create gendered creatures, complexities and all. To say God is not gendered given the realities and complexities of creature-ly experience, suggests God and God’s ways are inscrutable as well. Not a new idea (inscrutability) but perhaps an interesting connection with regard to the gender/gendered question. If God is not gendered, how do we know God? If gendered identity (in all its complexity) reflects the imago dei, how do we know God and God’s intentions with regard to gendered identity among the people? If God is one, a unified being does this not include gender although gender cannot be used to classify God?

  • Ryan, to start with God is not _always_ described using masculine pronouns, the Holy Spirit is often referred to in the neuter in the New Testament, as proper Greek usage requires. As to why God is usually referred to in the masculine, this is mainly an artifact of the languages involved, in both Hebrew and Greek (and traditional English, for that matter) the masculine is the “unmarked” gender. The masculine is used when the gender of a pronoun’s referent is either unknown, undetermined, or, with plurals, potentially mixed. That our languages force us into such imprecise terms for God actually supports Tony’s argument. God is not masculine, God is not feminine, God is not even neuter, since “neuter” carries implications of non-personhood and of being “neutered”. Referring to God as “He” is just the best we can do with our human languages, that the best we can do in describing God, even in something as basic as this, is an approximation ought to give us pause about how much of an approximation/metaphor/just-plain-wrong our other statements about God are.

  • ryan cavanaugh

    Was Christ Genderless? The argument doesn’t hold with Christ the living word in flesh.

  • James

    This is the argument I see in this post:

    The word “Male” no longer has any meaning.
    Therefore God is not “Male”.

    I guess I just don’t see the point. If we’re going to deprive the word “male” of any meaning, then saying God isn’t “male” isn’t really saying anything at all, even in a “God isn’t X” kind of way. I could say, “God isn’t a GizzleSpik” and I would be providing as much knowledge or wisdom.

    In the Bible (something never referenced in this post), God created humans, male and female, in His image. I find it interesting that the plurality of genders (male and female) are described as being in God’s image (singular) – i.e., God supersedes and totally embodies maleness and femaleness.

    So my question becomes then, what did the Bible mean by gender? The writers of the Bible reference gender, so clearly it wasn’t meaningless to them, and they describe God in various ways that reference gender.

    I guess what I’m saying here is, if you’re going to talk about what God is not, then those things you’re saying that God is not need to have some definition – you can’t just describe *everything* by what it isn’t, as then you end up not saying anything at all about anything.

  • As with all apophatic theology, “God Is Not Male” tells the truth but also leaves a lot of the truth out. (We see the same with the ecumenical Creeds of the Church, which we forget have never claimed to tell the whole truth, but are instead the height, and perhaps foundation as well, of ecumenical apophatic theology.)

    There are a number of problems with your claim:
    1. Jesus is male and Jesus is God. God may not be male but it’s a complicated kind of not being male that has little obvious parallel to gender as we understand and experience it–God has XY chromosomes and a penis.

    2. People are created in the image of God and people are gendered. Human characteristics are reflections of God’s characteristics. Therefore gender corresponds to something in God. What that something is, we don’t know, but it’s not nothing (as your claim might be read to imply).

    To say “God Is Not Gendered” falls short of describing God, because it says that there is something found in the image of God which we humans bear, which is not in God.

    To retain your socio-political theological point, instead of saying, “God fits neither of the genders nor the complexities in between”, why not say that God fits all of the genders and all of the complexities in between? Instead of saying “God Is Not Gendered,” why not say “God is fully gendered”? This would mean that regardless of my gender, I am formed in God’s image and therefore participate in God by who I am.

    The other route, which you haven’t taken would be to say that gender is totally socially constructed (like race), and that it has no connection to God. But Christian Scriptures and tradition would say otherwise, even though they do not essentialize gender as we try to.

  • Was Christ Genderless?

    If you follow Chalcedon, you would say something like “in his humanity he was male, in his Godhood he was genderless”. Two natures, not confused, distinct from one another, combined in the person of Christ.

    • Great point, Larry. While I believe that The incarnation of God in Jesus tells us a great many things about God, the biblical narrative neither states nor implies that Jesus’ maleness is among them.

  • ryan cavanaugh

    Jesus said to pray “Our Father” implying an understanding of Gender. Of course God does not have a physical body, so God is not some kind of genderless physical being, but all biblical understandings of him are rendered with an understanding of male gender. God is described as our “Father” and Christ is the “Bridegroom.” All these descriptions are how God in his word wants to be described. You do not see Genderless descriptions of God anywhere in scripture that I am aware of. You can play with words and say that they have been “deconstructed” and are rendered meaningless, but they had meaning to God and the writers of scripture that the Holy Spirit lead to write and describe God. To not honor their understanding would be rude and unfair. To not honor the Holy Spirit on how scripture describes God would be blasphemous.

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  • The fact that Jesus was/is male does not mean that God is male, just as the fact that Jesus was/is Jewish does not mean that God is Jewish.

  • Liz

    wow – I didn’t think people would actually show up to argue against the statement “God is not male” – even in my most conservative years I have never believed that God was male nor female. I do believe that God has traits that we would label as masculine and traits that we would label as feminine, but it seems obvious to me that God is neither masculine nor feminine – neither male nor female. Although this seems like a simple truth (to me) I find that it is important for me to ponder this because my human inclination is to try to put God in a box – to limit God to my imagination – to control who God is even to the point of trying to assign a gender. (interestingly, I had to go back through this short comment and replace several masculine pronouns with the word “God”)

  • Thanks for trying to tackle this subject Tony. As I graduate student, I’ve spent a lot of time working in this area. I wholly agree that God is not male, nor is God female. God is God. Simple enough.

    Applying a gender to God is such a limiting action. As a man, I know my body. I even know the bodies of females. I’ve seen studies of my organs. In fact, with my diet and exercise, I can even control my body. Myself and the rest of humanity have ownership over our bodies. Why? Because we “know” and “understand” bodies & gender.

    This not true of God. A simple claim that most people affirm is that God is incomprehensible. So infinite and so divine that no one can ever, ever, ever understand that greatness of what and how God is.


    But then we say “He Loves Us”.

    A simple statement.

    But what exactly is it implying? Well, obviously that “God” loves us, but there is a sub-context, which also says that “He” loves us, which, is implying whether you want it to or not, that “we” know and understand, or at least believe, this one thing about God – thus we can say He Loves Us.

    And yet this is not true. Most people at this point will agree with me. God is not a he. Nor is God a she.

    As Mary Daly said, “If God is male, then the male is God.” (which can also be said of females)

    The difficult part is putting this into practice. Try counting how many times you hear “He” in reference to God. It starts to get staggering.

    So why does this all matter?

    Simply because I do not understand God. And yet I worship God because of that.

    And so when speak of God (which used to be a very sacred thing) I strive to not say He or She. Why? Because when I say “He Loves You” am I saying that the God who is a male, who has the same body structure you have, and who’s very core is something that we know and understand – loves you.

    As compared to saying –

    The divine being, the one and only, God – unlike anything you’ve ever seen, unlike anything you’ll ever know or understand – so infinite and so divine, so powerful and so incomprehensible – loves you.

    I think the latter is what truly leads me to worship.

    And for those who believe this all, but still say – Jesus was a man. I think you’re right.

    Jesus was a man. But this does not mean that God is a man. Though we believe in Jesus as God reincarnation in this world, we don’t believe it fully. Right? I believe that they way Jesus loved is the same way God loves, I believe the way Jesus sacrificed is the same way God sacrifices – I don’t however believe that the way Jesus pooped is the same way God poops.

    And yes, I did just end a theological writing with a sentence about God and Pooping.

  • No argument here on your basic premise that God is not gendered in the way that people once thought. But, and I’m certainly no biblical literalist and not into prooftexting, but what do you make of Genesis 1:27? What does it mean to say that “male and female” are both the “image” of God?

    I guess I’m not sure it’s enough to say that “God is neither male nor female”. It seems that this intriguing passage (largely overlooked in this respect) says that the image of God somehow incorporates both genders. That’s not to say that God is some kind of hermaphrodite, but that God both transcends and incorporates gender as we know it. I think we could even expand our interpretation of this passage to include gender categories that the author of this passage was not even aware of. Humanity as a whole, with all of our complexity and diversity, is the image of God, the reflection of God’s being.

  • John, I think the interpretation of that scripture is simple enough.

    When humans are created in the image of God, they are either formed into male of female.

    If God was to create another God out of God’s self – it too would be genderless. The Holy Spirit is the perfect example here.

    This is why Jesus is male. I assume it could have easily been the other way around. Jesus could have been female. But it’s a simple either-or question. If God was going to come into human form, just as Genesis 1 says, it’s going to being either male or female.

  • correction.

    male OR female.

    not, “…either formed into male of female”.

  • I think Genesis 1:27 is a lot more complex than you assume. It is richly ambiguous and I think a lot more profound than you give it credit for. Read that passage in Hebrew–it plays with pronouns and genders in really interesting ways.

    Further, I’m not sure the Holy Spirit is a perfect example for you. First of all, orthodox trinitarianism doesn’t consider the Holy Spirit another deity created by God. Second, the Hebrew word for spirit is a feminine word (remember that Hebrew is a gendered language). So, by the same argument that God must be male because male pronouns are used throughout the Bible, we would have to conclude that the Spirit is female.

    In terms of constructive theology for today’s world, I don’t buy any of that. There is no question that the Hebrew Bible depicts YHWH as a male deity. like other ancient Near Eastern male deities. But that is a conditional theological portrayal, determined by the culture of ancient Israel, a culture that was quite different from ours.

    In this respect, the Bible is a theological source document that we build on, but are not bound by.

    Again, I am obviously not a biblical literalist and think that the gender of God is a perfect example of why we should abandon that approach to scripture.

    • Chris

      “There is no question that the Hebrew Bible depicts YHWH as a male deity. like other ancient Near Eastern male deities. But that is a conditional theological portrayal, determined by the culture of ancient Israel, a culture that was quite different from ours.”

      I’m not saying that God is either male or female either, but this observation seems to assume too much and ignores a lot.

      Much of what was determined by the culture of ancient Israel was undermined if not completely overthrown by the iconoclast, Jesus, who referred to God as his father, not implying a man, but as a being that has certain male characteristics that his culture could readily identify with. He also described God using female metaphors, referring to God as “a hen, gathering her chicks under it’s wings.” Considering all that Jesus did and said to upend the notions of his contemporaries, and granting the idea that Jesus had some real and meaningful insights into who God is, how hard would it have been for Jesus to disabuse them of incorrect beliefs regarding gender and about that same God?

      As I said, I don’t believe God is either a man or a woman, but I agree with others here that aren’t quite as anxious to make the dogmatic statement: God is not male, God is not female.

  • ryan cavanaugh

    If we are not bound to scripture, then what are we bound to? How do you understand God in a way that will not break the commandment to not make an Idol. Having an incorrect view of God would be making a God in YOUR own image and there is a theological term for that…SIN. God is revealed in the word by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and through Jesus Christ the living Word of God. The only way we can understand how God is revealed is through those scriptures. The scriptures are self-authenticating, all suffecient, historically proven and how God reveals God to us. Seeking spiritual knowledge away from the word would be Gnostism…that is not a good postion to be in. Understanding God away from the scriptures would mean you are making an Idol, and that must be repented of.

  • Eric Worringer

    I think your understanding of the grammar, both hebrew and greek, but which you clearly understand mostly in english is misleading. The use of Theos as a noun, is much like Anthropos, in that they are used to describe *mostly* gender-neutral situations. Also, the OT contains multiple images of God as a nursing mother or mother in labor.

    Further, your argument for the maleness of Christ leaves out the fact that while he was most certainly male, and referred to the bridegroom, Paul twice attaches feminine gender descriptions to Jesus when saying that he is Sophia, a feminine greek word for wisdom. Additionally, what is the importance of Jesus as a male for his saving work? other than its cultural necessity to be received semi-legitimately

    Tony – dont you think that saying that gender has been entirely deconstructed is going a bit too far? especially in relation to God. Certain aspects of gender must be part of God’s image if we are created in the Imago Dei. I know for me as a male, the imagery of God as a mother in labor, or creation moaning in labor, while it makes sense to me intellectually, will never make sense to me in a way that it would a woman. I would propose that the multiple references to God as a nursing mother, including 1 Peter, have not been deconstructed, because they may not be able to be, because there are gender differences that cannot be universally experienced.

  • ryan cavanaugh

    The reason Jesus had to be male was because he was the SECOND ADAM (Romans 5). God put the blame squarely on Adam (Tony, i understand that you have issues with original sin) and through Adam sin spread to all men. We do not have Jesus as the “Second Eve.” Jesus was the “Son of David” as prophesied throughout the scriptures. There was no way that Jesus could have ever been a woman.

  • Eric Worringer

    I don’t disagree, I think there are many reasons why jesus had to be male, but just keep in mind that occasionally feminine adjectives are used by Paul in describing Jesus. On the other hand, while I dismiss the second adam argument as being weak, certainly the Son of David resonates with me.

    I think the overreaction to pronoun and conjugation use bothers me some times, just because a conjugation or pronoun is male, does not necessarily denote God as a male.

  • James

    So Tony – what is your definition of “male”. I cannot tell if I agree or disagree with you at all because you reject one traditional view of the term but provide nothing in its place.

    If your definition of male is “contains an X and a Y chromosome”, then I have to agree, although I have to wonder what kind of point or principle you’re getting at. If you’re saying that the term “male” is completely and utterly meaningless, then you’re not saying anything about what God is or what God is not.

    So when you say “male”, what do you mean by it? This discussion comes across as kind of ridiculous when nobody is working with the same definition.

  • ryan cavanaugh

    I can agree that God is not male as in physical body and with appropriate male body parts. All I am saying is that Jesus conveyed how we are to percieve of God and that is by the imagery of “Father.” We are not to picture an old man (or young or middle) in the sky, but we are to pray “our father.” That is a perception that Jesus told us to have. To not understand that perception would be to go against the clear teachings of Jesus. Jesus cannot be deconstructed on this (although i’m sure that many reading this blog would say anything can and must be deconstructed). Jesus always referred to him as “Father,” and that is certainly how Jesus understood and percieved God (and he should know, he is God). If that perception is what Jesus had, perhaps its what we should have too. Unless we have obtained an understanding of God that is superior to that of Jesus. I don’t think anyone wants to say that here.

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  • Larry, love that you bring in Chalcedon. It’s certainly helpful for my thinking on the question of God and gender.

    Perhaps my whole hang-up here is that I want to retain the claim that gender matters in God, and that my genderedness is shown to matter in God by the fact that Jesus is gendered. This claim can’t be upheld (at least not in the same way) if God is gender-less.

  • Ethan Magness

    Hey Tony,

    I appreciate your blog and so many of your books. I am trying to understand you point and I wonder if perhaps I don’t fully understand how you are using these terms. I am not even sure how to ask the question , but I will try.

    You seem to be using the terms male/female interchangeably with the terms masculine/feminine and manly/womanly. I am searching for some way to talk about maleness and femaleness as biologically categories that are distinct from sociological categories. Am I wrong to do that?

    So when you say, God is not male, the first meaning I affirm is that God is not a man biologically. Then it seems to be a different point to say that God’s personhood is not adequately captured by any particular human category of gender (as a social construct.) Is that distinction fair?

    I will also add, that I am very concerned when any specific physical attributes of Jesus are transferred back as limiting attributes of God in God’s fullness. (So God is not a Jew, God is not X inches tall, does not weigh this much, God does not have a penis.) To limit God by the specific physical expression of Jesus as God incarnate quickly leads to the absurd.

    One final note on grammer. I am confident that the word “God” is a perfectly good pronoun. For ten years I have been saying things like, “God desires that all of God’s people would turn back to God and pursue God’s ends by God’s means.” I can attest that in my community, this kind of linguistic change has gone a long way to debunk the notion that God is male. God is not male biologically and God is more than male sociologically and we should never let our lazy grammar give people the impression that God is male.

  • I agree with your statements, Tony– but I can’t help but to think back on another similar article about this that I recently read online. This is from Aish.com’s Judaism 101 article on the gender of God:

    “The two physical forms that characterize the world — male and female — act as a living metaphor for the two ways in which God makes His presence known… Why use male imagery? The Kuzari explains that the male genital organs are external, which makes masculine reference appropriate for times when God’s presence is in a revealed, “external” state… God’s presence is not only outside and above His creations, but is within them as well. The feminine genitals are internal and unexposed to the external eye, which is why the feminine word “Shechina” describes God’s presence within each of us.” (Source: http://www.aish.com/jl/p/g/48964511.html)

    Yes I know that this is a little bit graphic, but I love how Aish.com describes God as neither male nor female while acknowledging that in our limited human understanding, we need a way to discuss his abstract characteristics. I do agree that it’s definitely foolish to say things like, “God is ______, and is therefore male/female.” But I’m not sure if it’s totally inappropriate to use masculine or feminine pronouns when discussing Him… or Her… or Them… or It? 🙂

  • True story:

    My daughter is 3. I asked her recently if she thinks God is a man or a woman. She said “God’s a man.” I asked her if she’s sure. After some thought, she replied, “Today she’s a man.”

    I think she’s got it just about right.

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  • Jeff Kursonis

    I find this discussion really insightful, an area I’ve wanted to explore more, but haven’t.

    Here’s a thought; I don’t know much about the theology of “glorification” in church history, but basically understand that when Jesus returned in his resurrected state, he may have been in his new “glorified” state – still human, but somehow different (able to walk through walls, but still ate food), and that we will one day also have a glorified human state – apparently necessary for living eternally. What if that new state is not gendered? What if the resurrected Jesus was no longer male, but a new kind of human that reflected both genders? I think that would be cool, and would go along with the idea that there will be no marrying in heaven. I’m not sure how I’d feel about giving up one of my favorite parts – so essential to my maleness, but I guess there would be things like, the ability to fly that would make up for it:) (a pretty masculine activity).

  • Jeff Kursonis

    Oh, and not to say flying isn’t also feminine too – just reflecting in a humorous way the stereotyped masculine imaginations of North American boys which often go toward flying (being a pilot, a superhero, etc….but there’s plenty of female pilots and superheroes, so not excluding that imaginary history either:)…I should have just left that last line out…where’s the edit on this?

  • The primary purpose of both creation narratives, but especially the Priestly account culminating in 1:27, is etiological: it explains how and why the world came into being. I don’t think it’s intended to explain what came into being at all; the ancient Hebrews simply could look around to see that. Of course, the “what” needed to be described in order to discuss the how and the why, and the ancient Hebrews did so in the languuage which was available to them, but I don’t think the Priestly account is really making an ontological point at all. The Priestly account doesn’t tell us that God created birds on the fifth day in order to explain that there is a such thing as “birdness” which all those flying things have in common (leading one to wonder whether non-flying birds like ostriches, and fying mammals like bats, were created on the fifth or sixth day); it does so to explain where all those flying things (whatever we want to call them and however we wish to classify them) came from. Trying to force metaphysics onto the myth seems to be doing it a great disservice, especially if one believes (I do not) that ideologically-neutral “textualist” or “functionalist” readings are available to a reader.

    I’d argue that the mention of gender in 1:27 is functionally equivalent to the mention of avians in 1:20-24: “men” and “women” were categories which were already experientially present to the ancient Hebrews. That men and women existed was already stipulated, rightly or wrongly; they didn’t need oral tradition to tell them that. The creation narrative would thus have functioned to explain where both genders came from–from God–rather than to assign them some type of eternal, unchanging essence.

    If we assume the opposite, that Gen. 1:27 is detailing some sort of deliberate “creation” of gender and/or gendered differences (prominent marriage equality opponent Maggie Gallagher describes it as “the idea that God himself [sic] made man [sic] as male and female and commanded men and women to come together in a special way to image the fruitfulness of God”), then we’re left with the uncomfortable question of just what was the deal with all those birds and fish that were created (the story goes) on the fifth day. Did the ancient Hebrews assume they just sort of existed genderlessly until the sixth day?

    Why mention gender in 1:27 at all, then? Part of me thinks this question is wrongheaded–we might just as well ask why 1:20-24 mentions birds specifically. But insofar as we read Genesis as making a more profound point about men and women than it is about fish and sea creatures, I think the point is to make it explicit that men and women shared equally in the imago dei. Granted that the overall culture would have been a patriarchal one, I don’t think this reading is in any way anachronistic, or at least not inherently so. Since Genesis is a compilation of often contradictory oral traditions, we shouldn’t be surprised to find a proto-feminist sentiment lurking among the patriarchalism. Furthermore, there’s plenty of patriarchal notions which are simultaneously deeply sexist but still (arguably) compatible with the notion of equal participation in the imago dei–for example, the notion of two separate but equal spheres.

    Of course, as moderns and postmoderns we do not look to Genesis as etiological in the same way as did those who were actually shaping those oral traditions. For us, the spiritual truth testified to in Genesis 1 that all of creation is God-breathed is in some sense divorceable from any sense of Genesis 1 (or Genesis 2) as historical or scientific fact. But the spiritual truth is still a truth about a relationship between God and the world–that God is the ground and source of all being–and not one about the contents or structure of that world.

    We don’t construct our taxonomies of nature based on a division between “flying birds,” “sea creatures,” and “land animals,” but based on (if you accept evolution, which I’m hoping you do) DNA and evolutionary processes and so on or (if you don’t accept natural selection) fundamental similarities in anatomic structures, so that (for example) bats and whales are both mammals, ostriches and penguins are birds, etc. We recognize that the storytellers which passed down the Priestly creation story were expressing a profound spiritual truth using a pre-scientific language.

    Furthermore, we don’t consider even our more scientific classifications to represent ontological essences, but simply convenient ways of structuring our knowledge of the natural world. That the platypus is a mammal which happens to lay eggs isn’t something that many lose all that much sleep over, nor should they. It’s an example of the limitation of human systems of categorization, not a transgression against some law of nature, be it divine or scientific.

    It seems to me that the same approach is appropriate in terms of gender. Male and female are categories which we use, for good or ill, to structure the way we think (and which the ancient Hebrews certainly used to structure the way they thought) of human (and non-human animal) diversity, in much the same way that “bird,” “fish,” and “mammal” are used to structure our understanding of a different type of animal diversity. But these are no more divinely-ordained categories than are “bird,” “fish,” and “mammal,” and nothing in Genesis 1 should make us think that they are. Rather we recognize that they were using their own flawed patriarchal language, lacking the concepts of “intersexed” and “genderqueer,” to express a powerful truth as best as they were able, that every human being–male, female, intersexed, and/or genderqueer–is reflective of the divine.

  • I’m most certainly not arguing that the Hebrews wanted to include intersexed and genderqueer individuals in their understanding of the imago dei but simply lacked the language to do so. I think that’s incoherent: language determines thought, and while it’s possible that they might have had some sense of non-binary sex/gender (after all, intersexed individuals would have existed, as would–presumably–those who transgressed strict gender roles), I don’t think there’s any evidence as to how they cognized it. Rather, my claim is that the exclusion of people non-binary sex and/or gender is indicative of the categories they were using to tell the story and is not the point of the story. In other words, the intent of the ancient Hebrews would have been completely neutral in regards to intersexed and genderqueer individuals, because intersexed and genderqueer are 21st-century Western labels.

    Obviously, there’s some sense in which the Hebrews intent was to say that every human being was reflective of God because that’s what literally the passage says (unless maybe we assume the imago dei can be lost in some way–technically, the passage only claims that the primordial, created humans, the ones about whom we argue whether or not they had belly buttons, were so reflective). What’s not clear is what that doctrine of imago dei meant to them.

    I take it as read that it didn’t mean to them that all people were equally the children of God, for the tribe of Israel was called to a special status. It certainly didn’t mean that people were socially and politically equal: after all, this was not only a deeply patriarchal society, but a society in which slavery was (and/or would be) permitted. But even in the later codes which legislated the conduct of how to keep slaves, one sees a tension between the notion that slaves are human too and thus befitting of dignity, and an “us vs. them” mentality where there are winners and losers. I think there’s a sense that this tension runs thoughout the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures.

    It sort of makes sense that the primordial created humans in 1:27 would need to be both male and female: we can imagine an ur-Human from which all races ultimately derive, but–especially under the binary understanding of gender which the Hebrews inherited–it’s harder to imagine an ur-human which includes all of both genders (sort of like the description of Lilith in Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah).

    There isn’t of course, one single univocal intent shared by all the ancient Hebrews or even represented in all of Hebrew Scripture, which is why I don’t think its problematic to hypothesize it might represent a piece of proto-feminist thought even in the context of a patriarchal culture. But I’m also comfortable acknowledging it is a hypothesis. I don’t claim to be able to read the minds of the ancient Hebrews, nor do I think it’s necessary, so I’d be okay with my interpretation of the doctrine of imago dei as ultimately being more rehabillitative than exegetical, more about our relationship with Scripture as 21st-century post/moderns, with the entire history of Church tradition to draw upon, than the ancient Hebrews’.

    But I also put forth a second (well, actually, it comes first in my original post) alternate understanding of the imago dei: that it has absolutely nothing at all to do with gender, that the text could just as easily have read “in the image of the gods, God created them; green-eyed and brown-eyed, God created them” or “tall and short, fat and thin, God created them” with absolutely no change in doctrinal implications, just like I don’t think the meaning of the creation story would be fundamentally changed if God created invertebrates on the fifth day and verterbrates on the sixth, instead of birds and fish on the fith and land animals on the sixth. The reading of the imago-dei as proto-feminist is to offer a possible explanation for those who might argue that they don’t think the Hebrews would mention gender in that formulation if they didn’t have something to say about it profound. My first answer is still that the Hebrews didn’t have much profound to say about birds or sea creatures or land animals, but I think the argument is that the closeness to the mention of the imago dei accords a special signifigance to the division being male and female which the division between birds and sea creatures and land animals simply lacks.

    My fundamental argument here isn’t a positive argument about what Genesis 1:27 means but a negative argument: whatever the function of Gen. 1:27 was in the culture in which it was formulated (and I stand by my point that the primary function is simply to tell a story of creation and really has very little to do with gender at all), it wasn’t to represent male-female relations as divinely ordered, that it’s illegitimate for people with a more conservative view of Scripture than my own to use the passage as some sort of proof-text against same-sex marriage. I think putting forth a plausible alternate positive reading of the imago dei helps me make the negative argument, but it’s ultimately secondary.

  • Dawn

    I am having this discussion with a gentleman about God. I believe I will be visiting your page a little more often. In fact I know I will be. The gentleman I am speaking to cannot get past all the “he” pronouns, even when I have explained there are no pronouns to use for nongendered beings. I’m happy to find someone is discussing this openingly. Thank you.

  • @ryan cavanaugh: we aren’t bound by scripture, but it could unbind you if you’re willing to listen those voices.

    Could it be as simple as the fact that Hebrew doesn’t not have any neuter personal pronouns, and since the Bible was written by males, God has therefore always been called a male?

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