I’m currently teaching a series on The Lord’s Prayer at Bayside Church and one of the questions that arose early in the series concerned the masculinity of God: “Because God reveals Himself to us as Our Father does that mean that God is a man?” I addressed this with our church last weekend because I understand that some people struggle with the fatherhood or maleness of God because they’ve had negative experiences with their own father (being unkind, absent or distant) or with men. It’s then easy to bring these negative feelings into – and hinder – our relationship with God. So how can we best navigate through these challenges?
Firstly it needs to be understood that the Bible uses something limited (words, languages, symbols, metaphors) to attempt to describe a divine person who is limitless. Any description of God in Scripture automatically falls short of who God really is and what He is really like.
Secondly Scripture reveals that God is NOT a man but rather a Spirit (Numbers 23:19a; John 4:24) but that does not mean that God is genderless. Going back to the Creation story in Genesis reveals the truth of this, “Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have … So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:26-27 NKJV). A simple reading of these verses infers that God is both male AND female and basically divided those two distinctions into men and women when they were created. That means the coming together of a man and a woman in marriage actually completes the nature of God in a relationship like no other bond can do. That’s why the husband and wife become “one flesh”.
In the Bible God uses both masculine and feminine terms and attributes when describing “His” nature. God seems quite comfortable equating Himself to a great warrior and a husband, but also as a child bearer (1 John 3:9), a seamstress, as well as cooking and cleaning a house. God is pictured as the female figure of Wisdom: creating, ordering, and saving the world (Proverbs 1:20-21). Jesus is even called “the Wisdom of God” in the New Testament and the Holy Spirit is often presented in female metaphors including the birthing process, consoling, comforting, and travailing in childbirth, emotional warmth and inspiration. The Syriac church actually used the feminine pronoun for the Holy Spirit until 400 AD.
Both pictures of God are put together in two adjacent verses in Isaiah 42, “The Lord will march forth like a mighty hero; he will come out like a warrior, full of fury. He will shout his battle cry and crush all his enemies. He will say, “I have long been silent; yes, I have restrained myself. But now, like a woman in labor, I will cry and groan and pant” (Vs. 13-14 NLT).
Jesus emphasizes the feminine when He laments over Jerusalem, “How often would I have gathered your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37b NKJV).
One of the most frequently used names for God in the Hebrew Scriptures, El-Shaddai, encompasses both male and female genders. El means God and “Shaddai” (a name borrowed from one of the pagan goddesses of the Canaanites) is usually translated (I believe wrongly) as “Almighty”. It is more likely that “Shaddai” was an attribute of a Semitic goddess linking the name to the Hebrew word for breast. Thus El-Shaddai could just as easily be translated “the god of the breast” (or “the womb”). This was God’s revelation to Abram who would become “Father of many nations” and Sarai who would become “Princess of a multitude”. God’s revelation in this name is of all sufficiency to nurture the nation of Israel to fruitfulness like a nursing mother would do for her children. God used this name for 500 years from Abraham to Moses at which time He started using the Name YHWH (Yahweh, Jehovah) a prophetic name promising who God will be from that time on, “I am He who will be …”
But the first thing God said by way of self-revelation to Moses was that He is “compassionate” a word based on the Hebrew root for “womb”. God’s love and compassion for us is like that which a mother has for her child. God has a mother’s kind of love for “His” own. Throughout the Bible, God progressively reveals more and more of His nature and character until the ultimate revelation of the Name that Jesus taught us to hallow, “Our Father”.
Author Aaron Armstrong says, “God is quite comfortable referring to Himself using or inspiring the use of both feminine and masculine characteristics, even if it makes some of us uncomfortable.” (Article Ref: Is there anything wrong with calling God she?).
It’s true that God is presented in the Bible as “He,” but this word does not demand precisely the same thing it does when used of human beings. Some people have suggested we ought to change the biblical references to God as Father from masculine to a designation that is non-gender specific like parent or to refer to God as He and She. While I understand where they are coming from I disagree. To play around with different pronouns can become cumbersome semantics. God has chosen to reveal Himself in the Bible with masculine pronouns, but uses both male and female metaphors to enrich our understanding of His nature. All of these words, names and descriptions are helpful, but ultimately inadequate in aiding us to fully understand an eternal, limitless, all-powerful being. When it comes to God, we need to learn to live with mystery, awe and wonder and not get caught up in word games.