Gender of God by Hanne Løland Levinson

“The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty” (Ps 93:1). The image of God as king does not surprise us. It fits well with the other male images for God that we are familiar with from the Hebrew Bible. God is portrayed as king, as warrior (Isa 42:13), as father (Ps 103:13), and even as husband (Isa 54:5). These images often lead to the conclusion that the ancient Israelites imagined their god as being a male deity. If we take a closer look, though, we see that the biblical authors’ presentation of the gender of God is more complicated than that. First, the Hebrew Bible also uses female images as well as gender neutral or gender ambiguous images. Second, gendered images do not necessarily gender the deity.

What is a gendered image, and which female images does the Hebrew Bible use for God?

A gendered image is a metaphor or simile that draws on or evokes gendered experiences. “We are the clay, and you [God] are our potter” (Isa 64:8). “God our potter” is a gender ambiguous image, reflecting gender ambiguous (or gender inclusive) experiences since we know both men and women did pottery work in ancient Israel. The image of the potter could therefore construct a male, female, or gender-neutral image of God.

The authors of the Hebrew Bible on occasion used female images to portray their deity. In Isa 42:14, God compares god-self to a woman in labor: “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor.” Most of the female images for God can be found in the book of Isaiah, but they do appear in other parts of the Hebrew Bible as well (for example, Ps 22:9-10 and Deut 32:18). In the book of Isaiah, God is portrayed as a woman in labor (Isa 42:14), a woman carrying the people in her womb (Isa 46:3), a breastfeeding woman (Isa 49:15), a midwife (Isa 66:9), and a mother (Isa 66:13). As these examples show, the female images for God are almost exclusively connected to the process of giving birth and being a mother. One criticism of these images has been that even though they are drawing on specific female experiences, these experiences are not shared by all women. The images are also essentialist in the way that women are represented mostly through the functions of their bodies. This is true. On the other hand, motherhood, birth giving, and midwifery were highly valued roles in ancient Israel, and thus, they construct positive and powerful images of female gender. These images are the ones used to portray the God of Israel.

But I thought God was beyond gender?

Most of the anthropomorphic images for God in the Hebrew Bible are gendered images: gendered male, female, or gender ambiguous. These images presumably constructed male, female, and gender ambiguous concepts of God for the ancient Israelite, the same way they do for us. When a biblical text compared God to a breastfeeding woman, this presumably made the listener think of God more like a woman. But does this say anything about the actual gender of God? The gendered images of God in the Hebrew Bible do not necessarily reflect a gendered deity. The mixture of male, female, and gender ambiguous images for God could indicate that none of them were seen as literally reflecting the gender of God as they construct images of God and deconstruct them at the same time. Alongside the images used to speak of God (the only way the Hebrew Bible can describe the deity), we find statements claiming that God cannot be compared to anything or anyone: “To whom will you liken me and make me equal …?” “I am God, and there is no one like me” (Isa 46:5, Isa 46:9). This also sets the deity outside of conventional gender constructions. Additionally, some of the Hebrew Bible’s authors strongly argue that God should not be depicted in any form: “Since you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure—the likeness of male or female” (Deut 4:15-16). The logic is that since God has no form, God cannot be captured in any image, male, or female.

Hanne Løland Levinson , "Gender of God", n.p. [cited 28 Nov 2021]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/main-articles/gender-of-god

Contributors

Levinson-Hanne

Hanne Løland Levinson
assistant professor , University of Minnesota

Hanne Løland Levinson is assistant professor in the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her first book, Silent or Salient Gender? The Interpretation of Gendered God-Language in the Hebrew Bible, Exemplified in Isaiah 42, 46, and 49 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), received the John Templeton Award for Theological Promise. Her next book is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press in 2021 and is called The Death Wish in the Hebrew Bible: Rhetorical Strategies for Survival.

God is often thought to be portrayed as male in the Hebrew Bible, but the biblical authors’ presentation of the gender of God is more complicated.

Did you know…?

  • God is portrayed as a pregnant woman carrying her child in her womb in Isa 46:3.
  • Moses imagines God as the mother of and nurse for the people in Num 11 and calls God to task for not properly caring for them.
  • “God our father”—the most conventional image for God in Christianity that is often used in Judaism as well—is not a frequent way of talking about God’s relationship to the people in the Hebrew Bible. It appears only about fifteen times. (More common in the Hebrew Bible is the image of God as the father of the king.)
  • In the Hebrew Bible, God is spoken of as human, animal, or nature. Hos 13:7-8 portrays God as a lion, a leopard, and a she-bear, while Hos 5:12 compares God to maggots and rottenness.
  • The Hebrew Bible often uses male and female images for God in parallels. In Isa 42:13-14, God is compared to a man of war and a woman in labor in consecutive verses.

The application of critical models of scholarship to a text.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Ps 93:1

1 The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty;
    the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength.
He has established the world; it shall never be moved;

Isa 42:13

13The Lord goes forth like a soldier,
like a warrior he stirs up his fury;
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
he shows himself mighty against his foes.

Ps 103:13

13As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.

Isa 54:5

5For your Maker is your husband,
the Lord of hosts is his name;
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called.

Isa 64:8

8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.

Isa 42:14

14 For a long time I have held my peace,
    I have kept still and restrained myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in labor,
    I will gasp and pant.

Ps 22:9-10

9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
    you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
10 On you I was cast from my birth,
    and since my mother bore me you ... View more

Deut 32:18

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you;
    you forgot the God who gave you birth.

Isa 42:14

14 For a long time I have held my peace,
    I have kept still and restrained myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in labor,
    I will gasp and pant.

Isa 46:3

Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
    all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from your birth,
    carried from the womb;

Isa 49:15

15Can 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 66:9

9 Shall I open the womb and not deliver?
    says the Lord;
shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb?
    says your God.

Isa 66:13

13As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Isa 46:5

5 To whom will you liken me and make me equal,
    and compare me, as though we were alike?

Isa 46:9

    remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
    I am God, and there is no one like me,

Deut 4:15-16

15 Since you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, 16 so that you do not act corruptly by mak ... View more

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

Isa 46:3

Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
    all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from your birth,
    carried from the womb;

Num 11

11 Now when the people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes, the Lord heard it and his anger was kindled. Then the fire of the Lord bur ... View more

Hos 13:7-8

7 So I will become like a lion to them,
    like a leopard I will lurk beside the way.
8 I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs,
    and will tear ... View more

Hos 5:12

12Therefore I am like maggots to Ephraim,
and like rottenness to the house of Judah.

Isa 42:13-14


13 The Lord goes forth like a soldier,
    like a warrior he stirs up his fury;
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
    he shows himself mighty against his foes.


... View more

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