Is God Male or Female?

An overview of God revealed as a male in Scripture and a critique of feminist biblical revisionism.

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In teaching his disciples how to pray, Jesus said, “Our Mother in heaven….”1 No, wait, that’s not what he said! Today, however, there are some people who think it is. The gender revolution that has been taking place in our culture for the last sixty years is not only impacting how people view themselves but also how they view God. A lot of contemporary theology has seen Christian organizations,2 feminist theologians,3 and cultic groups4 use feminine language to refer to God. After all, it is argued, the Bible uses feminine imagery to refer to God, so it must be fine to refer to God as Mother. This is why it is important to look at the unchanging Word of God rather than the ever-changing opinion of man to see how God refers to himself. Before we go on, it is important to note that this question is not about the equality of men and women. Both are made in God’s image and are therefore equal (Genesis 1:27). Rather, it is about who gets to decide how we speak about God and how we address him in prayer: people or God?

The authors of the Bible, however, were not unaware of non-masculine language to describe God.

Although those who use feminine language to describe God recognize the Bible uses male pronouns to describe him, they argue that this is because the Bible was written in a patriarchal culture, so of course it is going to refer to God using masculine pronouns. The authors of the Bible, however, were not unaware of non-masculine language to describe God, as even in ancient patriarchal societies, many cultures worshipped female deities (see Judges 2:13, 10:6; Acts 19:27–28). It is important to remember the Bible is God-breathed (theopneustos) and, therefore, the words that are used to describe God are his own (2 Timothy 3:16).5 God is not bound by culture (1 Peter 1:24–25) as he can come in the midst of any culture and communicate his truth from Genesis to Revelation. God has chosen to reveal himself to his creation in predominately male terms (see below).

It is important to remember the Bible is God-breathed (theopneustos) and, therefore, the words that are used to describe God are his own.

Feminine Imagery to Describe God

Those who believe it is ok to describe God in feminine terms refer to passages in the Bible that use feminine or maternal images for God: a woman in labor (Isaiah 42:14), a nursing mother (Isaiah 49:15), a comforting mother (Isaiah 66:13), or as a mother bear (Hosea 13:8).6 In Deuteronomy 32, God, through Moses, rebukes Israel, using both male and female imagery to describe its origin:

Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him, no foreign god was with him …You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth. (Deuteronomy 32:11–12, 18)
The female imagery used in the above passages cannot be used to conclude God is female. For example, in Deuteronomy 32:4, God is described as “The Rock, his work is perfect…,” but no one would suggest from this that God is a piece of marble or granite.

The female imagery used in the above passages cannot be used to conclude God is female. For example, in Deuteronomy 32:4, God is described as “The Rock, his work is perfect…,” but no one would suggest from this that God is a piece of marble or granite. Metaphors are used to compare the characteristic of one thing with that of another thing, but this does not mean the one thing (God) is the other thing (a rock). The comparison of God to a rock expresses his power and dependability. Deuteronomy 32:6 also says that God is Israel’s Father (ʾāb) who created them. The few passages in the Old Testament that contain feminine imagery are not meant to suggest God is female but are simply communicating truths to us about God through that imagery.

Another way people see a feminine component in God is the use of feminine nouns; such as the Hebrew word for “spirit” (rûach) and “wisdom” (ḥākmâ, Proverbs 8:1). But feminine nouns in no way mean that the spirit is a feminine person. The equivalent term in Greek for spirit, pneuma, is neuter (i.e., no gender). Moreover, in Genesis 1:2, “spirit” is modified by the masculine noun “God” (ʾĕlōhîm), just as in the New Testament (cf. Acts 5:3—4). There are even times when “spirit” (rûach) behaves as a masculine noun, especially when it occurs as part of the phrase “Spirit of the LORD” (rûaḥ YHWH) (see 2 Kings 2:16; cf. 1 Kings 18:12, 22:24).7 There is no evidence that the spirit of God is feminine.

In encouraging people to learn more about God our “Mother,” the heretical cultic group “The World Mission Society Church of God” erroneously state:

When God created human beings, He said, “Let us.” This shows that God is more than one. God created males and females as a reflection of the male and female images of God: God the Father and God the Mother.

That is why the original Hebrew text refers to God as Elohim, which means Gods. Elohim—God the Father and God the Mother—have been working together for our salvation since the creation of the world, but according to the Bible, the last days is the time for God the Mother to be revealed.

This is a classic case of reading into the Bible something that is just not there. While the Hebrew plural noun ʾĕlōhîm can refer to gods (see Exodus 12:12; 20:3), it refers to the one true God of Israel when it commonly occurs with singular verbs, as found in Genesis 1:1 (“create, bārāʾ).8 The Bible clearly affirms that there is only one God (Deuteronomy 6:4; 1 Corinthians 8:6), whose being is shared eternally by three divine persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (see Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14). So why use a plural noun to refer to one God? Even though Christians disagree as to the meaning of “let us”9 in Genesis 1:26, it is consistent with belief in plurality within God (Genesis 1:2; 3:22; 11:7; 18:1-3). However, the Bible nowhere states, “God the Mother.”

Further appeal to use feminine language to describe God comes from the words of Jesus in the New Testament. In Luke 15:8–10, Jesus uses a parable about a woman who searches for the lost coin. Some believe the woman represents God. Yet, the focus of the parables in Luke 15 is on rejoicing over the salvation of sinners (Luke 15:5, 6, 9, 10, 24), not on the nature of God’s being (i.e., female or not). Another example given for describing God in feminine terms comes from Jesus’ lament: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matthew 23:37). Jesus’ use of a feminine metaphor to compare himself to a hen who gathers her brood (as God sheltered his people, see Exodus 19:4) in no way calls us to think of him as a female (or as a hen!). Jesus was unquestionably male (see below).

While there are a number of feminine images in the Bible used to describe God, they in no way encourage the use of the term “mother” to describe him nor the use of feminine pronouns when referring to him.

While there are a number of feminine images in the Bible used to describe God, they in no way encourage the use of the term “mother” to describe him nor the use of feminine pronouns when referring to him.

The Masculinity of God

The pronouns and verbs used in the Bible to describe God are always masculine, as are most of the nouns and images (Lord, King, Redeemer, Father, husband):

The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ (Numbers 14:18)

Our Redeemer—the Lord of hosts is his name— is the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 47:4)

For your husband is your Maker, whose name is the Lord of armies; and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel, who is called the God of all the earth. (Isaiah 54:5)

Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Matthew 6:9)

Jesus said…I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.” (John 20:17).

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named (Ephesians 3:14–15)

he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, (1 Timothy 6:15)

The most important name for God is the one he revealed to Moses so the people of Israel would know Moses had been sent by him:

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord (יהוה), the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. (Exodus 3:14-15)

The covenant name יהוה (YHWH) comes from the participle form of the verb “to be,” and there is good reason to believe it means “he is” or “he who causes to be.”10 In the Old Testament, “the 6,828 occurrences of his name, יהוה (YHWH), are always in association with masculine adjectives, and masculine verbs.”11 The name יהוה (YHWH) marks out God’s uniqueness as he is both transcendent and immanent (cf. John 1:1–3, 14). The prophet Isaiah also tells us that יהוה (YHWH) is not like the gods of the nations as he12 is pre-existent, uncreated, the Creator of all things, and the only God who can save (Isaiah 40:28, 42:5, 43:10–12).

Some may argue that it is true that God is presented as male but that this is only metaphorical language used to describe God’s character. Even though the modern scholarly consensus seems to suggest this latter view is correct, it is by no means a unanimous view. Pastor and Old Testament scholar John C. P. Smith gives several good reasons to think this is not the case: (1) God consistently and repeatedly represents himself as male making a deliberate assertion about his nature; (2) The presentation of God as male throughout the Bible is ubiquitous and supports the notion that his maleness is a reality and not a metaphor; and (3) the term Father is not simply one metaphor among others in the Bible: it is what God in actuality is for his worshippers. 13

A further reason to see God as male is his many physical appearances in the Bible. In the Old Testament, God appeared many times in male human form, known as “theophanies”14 or “Christophanies” (see Genesis 18:1–3, 22, 32:22–30; Joshua 5:13–15).15 This is further affirmed in the New Testament when the Son of God (Jesus) is presented as being male in both his pre- and post-resurrection body (Luke 2:7, 42, 3:23, 24:36, 51). Jesus was fully God and fully man, as the apostle Paul affirmed that “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). Jesus’ gender is not something that will change, as at a fixed day in the future, he is the man who will judge the world in righteousness (Acts 17:31, cf. 17:18). From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is consistent in teaching the maleness of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Nevertheless, it is argued by some that the maleness of Jesus was just culturally appropriate:

God knew that if Jesus had come to earth as a woman she wouldn’t have been so involved in religious life, or had opportunities to travel, or have had a voice that would be heard in the same way that a man’s voice would. For Jesus’ ministry to be the most effective, Jesus needed to be a man.16
The fact of Jesus’ maleness is not theologically unimportant.

If Jesus' ministry was only about being the “most effective,” then why after his resurrection did Jesus first reveal himself to Mary Magdalene (Luke 24:10; cf. Matthew 28:1), a woman from whom Jesus had cast seven demons (Luke 8:2)? A woman’s testimony, especially of a former demoniac, was not highly valued in first-century Jewish culture. This argument, however, misses the biblical reason why Jesus came as a man. The fact of Jesus’ maleness is not theologically unimportant.17 The reason Jesus came as a man was to stand as “the last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45) as the head over a new and redeemed people (cf. Romans 5:12–19). Just as the first Adam is head over a fallen humanity bringing death and condemnation (1 Corinthians 15:22; Romans 5:18), so Jesus as the “last Adam” brings justification from sin and resurrection life to a redeemed humanity (Romans 5:19; 1 Corinthians 15:22–23). It was a man who brought sin and death into the world, so it needed to be removed by a man.

The simple reason why we should not speak of God as female (i.e., “our Mother”) is that this is not the way God has chosen to reveal himself to his creation. God has chosen to reveal himself in predominately male terms and specifically as a male in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, the last Adam. And that is the way we should speak to God and about God to others.

Footnotes

  1. In Matthew 6:7–9, “Silent Voices—The Feminist Bible” removes the word “Father” and replaces it with the word “Mother”—which is not present in the Greek text: “In praying, don't use vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their much speaking. Therefore don't be like them, for your Mother knows what things you need, before you ask her. Pray like this: 'Our Mother in heaven, may your name be kept holy” (Matthew 6:7–9), https://silentvoicesbible.com/voices/40-matthew-006.html.
  2. Carla Lindsey, “Our mother who art in Heaven,” December 29, 2018, https://www.salvationarmy.org.nz/article/our-mother-who-art-heaven
  3. Feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson uses feminine language in reference to God; see Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1996).
  4. The heretical cultic group “The World Mission Society Church of God” states: “Christ Ahnsahnghong founded the World Mission Society Church of God in 1964 as the only church that keeps the New Covenant that Jesus established 2,000 years ago. We believe in Elohim God—God the Father and God the Mother—and share God’s love all over the world through various acts of volunteerism” (from https://www.wmscog.com/about-the-world-mission-society-church-of-god/).
  5. This does not nullify the fact that God used men to communicate his truth (2 Peter 1:21).
  6. See “Female Images of God in the Bible,” https://www.womensordination.org/resources-old/female-images-of-god-in-the-bible/.
  7. See “Does God Have A Gender? A Biblical Response to the Gender of God,” by John C. P. Smith on June 3, 2020, https://answersingenesis.org/who-is-god/does-god-have-gender/.
  8. Kenneth Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26: The New American Commentary Vol. 1A (B&H Publishing: Nashville Tennessee, 1996), 127.
  9. There is much discussion among scholars regarding the meaning of “let us” in Genesis 1. Some of the different suggestions to what “let us” refers to are: God is consulting with his heavenly host (angels); a plural that depicts God’s self-deliberation;; or even a plurality of majesty.
  10. Although there are different interpretations of this phrase, Oswalt agrees with Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna’s suggestion: “[T]he phrase is in the first person because God is naming himself (since in the ancient Near East the person who names another has power over the named person). The suggestion has much to commend it because otherwise the connection between this phrase and the name itself, presumably ‘Yahweh,’ is unclear. On this understanding, God would be saying that he names himself Yahweh (3:15; see NLT mg), meaning ‘He is’ or perhaps ‘He who causes to be,’ because he is the one who eternally is and upon whom all other things depend.” See John N. Oswalt, Exodus: Cornerstone Biblical Commentary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 303.
  11. John C. P. Smith, “Does God Have A Gender? A Biblical Response to the Gender of God,” Answers in Depth 15, https://answersingenesis.org/who-is-god/does-god-have-gender/.
  12. Isaiah 43:10 uses the 3rd person masculine singular pronoun ה֔וּא () to describe יהוה (YHWH).
  13. For a more detailed discussion on this, see Smith, “Does God Have A Gender?”
  14. This term comes from the Greek: theos = “God” + phaino = “appear.”
  15. These would be pre-incarnate appearances of the Son, Jesus (see John 1:18, 8:58).
  16. Lindsey, “Our mother who art in Heaven.”
  17. There are several other reasons why the coming Savior must have been a man: he was to be a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15), which was fulfilled in Christ, a man (Acts 3:22). He was to be a priest after the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:27–28), and the nation of Israel only had priests, not priestesses. The titles “Son of God” (Luke 1:35; cf. Isaiah 9:6–7) and “Son of Man” (Daniel 7:13–14; Matthew 26:64) affirm that Jesus must have been a man.

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