Saturday, June 9, 2012

Should we use Feminine Language for God?

Before I present some points of the grammar of Hebrew on this issue I want to caution us all of a basic translation fallacy. It fundamentally is a mistake to make assumptions about the beliefs of a culture merely from their grammar. For example do Hispanics think that a "table" (la mesa) is feminine in some way just because grammatically it looks feminine? Of course not. There's a difference between grammatical gender and natural gender. That being said...

Grammatical evidence:

While the famous word for God, "eloheem" is listed as a masculine word (after all it takes masculine suffixes), it can be used even of female goddesses. For example in 1 Kings 11:33, the same word is used of Ashtoreth the "goddess" (eloheem) of the Sidonians. So even this famous word for God is not as gender exclusive as we tend to think of it.

The word for "Spirit" in Hebrew is common, meaning that sometimes (usually) it agrees with feminine words (Gen 41:8), but sometimes agrees with masculine words (Ex 10:13). Greek on the other hand treats "Spirit" as an "it". Theologically, most teachers say that we shouldn't call the Spirit an "it" in English, because it diminishes the Spirit's personhood.

One bizarre feature of Hebrew is that masculine words do not always look masculine. For example, there is no word more masculine than the Hebrew word for father "Av". Yet whenever the word appears as a plural, fathers, it takes a feminine suffix, "Avot". Oy-vey!

Historical evidence:

Keep in mind that for us today gender and family terminology is determined almost exclusively by biology. Even our social debates about gender hinges on the axiom that biology fundamentally determines our language. But in the Biblical world, the terms used to address someone were also legal relationships. Thus "father" was not just your biological sperm donor. The king of nation was also called "father" by his subjects. In fact anyone in a legal covenant relationship over you could be called "father". In the same way, "firstborn" was not your first kid, it was a status bestowed upon an individual, whether they had your genetics or not. To call God "father" was not a statement of gender for the Israelites. It was a way of calling God "monarch" who has jurisdiction over us. It was also a way of claiming that God had a special covenant legal relationship with his people.

My Two Cents:

1) Whether we call God father or mother, if we don't obey his authority, we have no right to call him either. That's what the ancients meant when they called God their parent. To lose this is to lose the message of the Bible. The next time you pray the "Our Father", try substituting "Our ruler" and you will feel the dual sense intended by the ancients. "... your kingdom come... your will be done." Why does affection have to be so separated from authority?

2) When the Bible uses masculine specific language (though not exclusively) it does so to communicate to a patriarchal society the message of God's absolute authority. The language is a means to an end, not an end in itself, to an idea about God's relationship with us, not his anatomy, or psyche. The challenge for the Church today is how to communicate God's absolute authority to a culture that recognizes no absolute authority, divine or human, male or female, young or old. Even our bosses can only exert pressure and cannot make us do anything. Pressed too hard, we simply quit and their authority vanishes by our choice. God is not like this. Since masculine language no longer communicates this absolute authority in modern English, trying to retain the traditional masculine language for God is the wrong fight.

3) Since the Bible is comfortable using a wide variety of gender inclusive and gender neutral language for God, there is nothing un-Biblical about doing so. English, however, inherently is a gender exclusive language (at least today). To switch our pronouns in our services, does not communicate inclusiveness and neutrality, it communicates the opposite exclusiveness. Combined with American gender role ambiguity, I think the best way forward in our language is take time to describe the many roles of God; as apposed to trying to communicate those roles through gender pregnant language. Describe God's roles as father, as mother, as protector, as nurturer and life giver. I also like the suggestion to avoid English pronouns for God altogether.

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