Does the Bible Support the Feminist God/ess?

CATHOLIC DOSSIER

To an Anglican bishop who suggested it was high time feminine images for God were introduced, C. S. 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.” Yet on what basis are such radical changes to be made?


"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"(1) 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 may be 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 some 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, (2) 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 were 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.(3)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 liken Yahweh to a woman in some fashion or another, but nowhere is Yahweh spoken of as feminine per se. 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.(4) 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."(5)

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 and 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.(6) 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 expression.(7)

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. (8) 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.(9)

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.(10) 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.

FEMINIST FUNDAMENTALISM

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 Scripture itself. 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 Christianity."(11)

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 "patriachicalizing principle" in the Bible have yet to grasp: Scripture can't reasonably be used to justify feminist revisions of God.

ENDNOTES

  1. In her book, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (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 The Politics of Prayer, edited by Helen Hull Hitchcock, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992.

  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 example.

  3. Ancient Near Eastern religion exploded with sexuality among its divinities. See, for example, Thomas G. Smothers, "Religions of the Ancient Near East," Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, pp. 744-748 and The Ancient Near East, 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." The Hebrew Goddess, Ktav Publishing, Inc., 1967. See also John W. Miller, Biblical Faith and Fathering, 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 "depatriarchalizing principle."

  5. John W. Miller, Biblical Faith and Fathering, 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, Biblical Faith and Fathering, 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," Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1990, pp. 240-241 and also Jack Finegan, Myth and Mystery, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989, pp. 119-154.

  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." Miracles, NY: MacMillan, 1960, paperback edition, 1978, p. 77.

  10. In this regard, see Manfred Hauke, God or Goddess? Feminist Theology: What is it? Where Does it Lead? , San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995; and his Women in the Priesthood? A Systematic Analysis in the Light of the Order of Creation and Redemption, San Francisco:Ignatius Press, 1988; Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism, edited by Alvin F. Kimel, Jr., Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992; Jean Galot, S.J., Abba, Father, New York: Alba House, 1992; Francis Martin, The Feminist Question, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,1994; and The Politics of Prayer, edited by Helen Hull Hitchcock, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992.

  11. God in the Dock, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970, p. 237.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

"Does the Bible Support the Feminist God/ess?" Catholic Dossier (May 1996).

This article is reprinted with permission from Catholic Dossier. To subscribe to Catholic Dossier call 1-800-651-1531.

Copyright © 1996 Catholic Dossier
 


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