Is God male? A question for Mothering Sunday

“Dear God”, wrote an eight-year old girl, “are boys really better than girls? I know you are one, but try to be fair”. But is God male? In the English language God tends to be male, but in Hebrew, the grammatical gender of the Spirit is feminine as is shekinah, a term used in rabbinical writing to describe the presence of God.

According to C.S. Lewis: to pray to ‘our mother in heaven’ would be a different religion, for only masculine terms are used for God when it comes to revelation. Whereas feminists maintain that to talk of God in male terms is akin to showing black people pictures of a white God. It is insensitive, prejudiced, and untrue.

Certainly, the God of the Old Testament is very much a male figure. He is depicted not only as a father, but as a king, a judge, a shepherd, a warrior, and a lover who woos his bride. Similarly, the God of the New Testament is very much a male figure. Jesus taught his disciples to address God in prayer as “our Father in heaven”; and he himself, when speaking to God, used the intimate Aramaic word abba, perhaps best translated as ‘Father, dear’.

On the other hand, the Bible does not speak of God exclusively in male terms. At the very beginning of the Bible we read God saying: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1.28-29). The image of God includes both male and female. In other words, there are within God both male and female qualities.

Isaiah often has God likening himself to a mother. “I will cry out like a woman in labour, I will gasp and pant” (Isa 42.14). “Listen to me, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb” (Isa 46.4). “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isa 49.15). “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you” (Is 66.13).

In the New Testament God is never directly spoken of as mother. Yet Jesus in his parables not only likened God to a father who had found his prodigal son, but also to a woman who had found her lost coin. More significantly, the concept of new birth lends certain characteristics of a mother to the Father. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1.13). Anselm, the eleventh century archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in one of his prayers addressed to Jesus: “For longing to bear sons into life, you tasted of death and by dying you begot them… so you, Lord God, are the great mother”. Another feminine image is that of milk. God is the one who has given us birth, and now we are to long like babies for milk, i.e. the milk received through the apostolic teaching of God (1 Pet 1.3; 2.2). Clement of Alexandria, an early church father, in discussing milk in the scriptures concluded: “To us, infants, who drink the milk of the word of the heavens, Christ himself. is food. Hence seeking is called sucking; for to those babes that seek the Word, the Father’s breasts of love supply the milk”.

The fact is that the language we use about God is always limited and provisional. Even the terms father and mother, cannot fully encapsulate God. “God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4.24). God transcends all categories. It has been said that “to limit our idea of God to maleness may well be considered idolatry, because it restricts our picture of God to one particular aspect of divinity, to the exclusion of others”. For most of us it may seem strange to address God as both our father and our mother, but it is not blasphemy.

The love of God revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus holds within it not just the authority of a father, but also the tender care of a mother. In Jesus strength and tenderness are combined in a unique fashion. We may perhaps say that Jesus through his love and compassion redefines fatherhood. Hence Tom Smail wrote “It is precisely when the love of God is denied its motherly quality and is developed in a masculine, authoritarian and therefore sexist direction, that compensating images of the tender gentle Jesus or of the Virgin Mother have to be evolved, to whom people can run from the stern judgements and harsh demands of God” (The Forgotten Father).

How then do we address that God? To my mind, we most naturally address him as “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 1.3; 2 Cor 1.3; 1 Pet 1.3). But in so doing we need to remember that this is no ordinary deity – for the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is a God of tough but tender love.

Comments 2

  • Well said, Paul, although I still sense something of a tension with you! I think that one of the problems is that few languages have personal but non-gender-specific pronouns – one has to use the gendered “he” or “she” or the impersonal “it”, none of which quite fit the need. I know modern English increasingly gets over this by using the somewhat clumsy “they” and “them” but used in a singular sense. We also have a problem in our prayers: you will know of prayers which are addressed to the “Creator God”, “Jesus, our brother” and the Holy Spirit painted in feminine terms. However well-intentioned these may be, they over-divide the working of the various Persons of the Trinity and run the risk of depersonalising the Father.

  • Paul,
    Very thought provoking.
    We are studying Hebrews at present, after Jonah!
    How often it is that ‘humans’ are prepared to presume that they know better than God, even ‘assuming’ a sexuality for Him.
    Is this not only a lack of faith but denying the nature, power and omni…. everything! Of God?

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