Is God Gender Fluid?

Ideas, as they say, have consequences.  Throughout history, the idea that God is male, that God has a gender, has had disastrous consequences.  In many profound ways, it has been responsible for and contributed to Patriarchalism.  But the idea is not Biblical.  For centuries, the Church’s failure to teach clearly what Scripture says about “God’s gender”, has led many Christians to adopt patriarchal views and engage in discriminatory practices.  It has led many women to feel alienated from God, or at least not as precious in God’s eyes.  The idea that God is male is a very bad and misleading idea.  It’s not what the Bible actually teaches.

Recently, another idea has been floated that is equally as bad and potentially just as disastrous: the idea that God is gender fluid.  So too with the idea that God is gender neutral.  And the idea that God is female in gender, the Goddess.  None of these very limited, human, finite ideas, none of these imported “gender ideologies”, both traditional and recent, have anything to do with the God revealed in the Bible. 

For anyone who has read through the Bible in its full context, what the Bible teaches about God’s gender couldn’t be any clearer: God is neither male nor female.  Neither Gender fluid, nor Gender Neutral.  Because, as the Bible so clearly reveals, God is a Transcendent Being.  Transcendence, the Bible insists, is an essential aspect of God’s nature.  So, God clearly transcends the finite categories and limited distinctions of human sexuality.  God transcends all gender distinctions.  In fact, as the Transcendent Uncreated Creator, God is responsible for the distinction of gender.  Male and female God created us.  Before such a distinction existed.  This should have always been obvious, but as the One who creates both male and female—and everything else--God infinitely transcends all the finite limitations of our created existence, including gender.  

But in case this isn’t patently obvious to all, Exodus 3:14 makes it explicitly clear.  This verse is the highlight of the famous Burning Bush encounter.  In it, God reveals His Name to Moses.  In ancient Judaism, a person’s name revealed their identity, their innermost nature.  This is why, in the Bible, a person’s name is often changed when they come to follow God in some dramatic new way; it signals the radical change that has occurred in that person’s identity.  So, for example, when God calls Abram to be the Father of Faith, He changes his name to Abraham.  When Saul converts from a violent persecutor of Christianity to one of its most zealous proponents, his name is changed to Paul.  Their new name reveals their new identity.  

By revealing His Name to Moses, then, God is revealing His identity, what is most deeply true about HIm.  And here in the Burning Bush what God reveals is that “He” is neither Male nor Female.  God reveals “Himself” as the great “I AM”.  Translating the Hebrew of this Name, the first-person form of the “Tetragrammaton”, the divine name YHWH, is tricky because the verb stem and tense can be understood two different ways.

For those who are interested, the word in question here is simply the Hebrew verb “to be”.  But it isn’t clear in the Hebrew whether has it has the Qal or Hiphil stem.  The Qal stem denotes basic verbal action with the active voice.  In other words, if it is the Qal stem, it should be translated “I am”, or literally, “I be”.  The Hiphil indicates a causative verb in the active voice, translated, therefore, as “I cause to be”.  Uncertainty also abounds about which tense the verb is in, present or future.  Since, in this verse, the verb is repeated twice with the Hebrew word for “who/what” in between, it can be rendered variously as: “I am who I am”, “I will be who I will be”, “I cause to be what I cause to be”, or “I will cause to be what I will cause to be”.  Context suggests that the best translation is the Qal stem in the present tense, which is why it is usually translated, “I am who am”. 

But regardless of how it is translated, the basic meaning of the phrase remains the same.  God is revealing His identity as “Being-ness” itself.  As Pure Existence.  As the Eternal Ground of Being.  As the One from whom all else that exists derives its existence.  As the One and Only Being who doesn’t depend on anything or anyone else for its existence.  As the Uncreated Creator.  As the Absolute Other.

This revelation isn’t meant to deny or negate God’s essentially Personal nature—God uses the personal pronoun “I” in revealing Himself, after all.  More importantly, God is revealed to be quintessentially personal throughout scripture.  But God does reveal Himself as a Transcendent Person—in other words, a Being not limited by anything, including gender. 

(When I say that God is a Personal Being, I don’t mean to imply that God is merely a superhuman replica of us, a divine version of human personhood.  Rather, I mean that God’s nature is fundamentally Personal—in other words, that God has an intellect and a will, like us; God is a rational being Who can relate in a personal way to other rational beings, like us.  This is, in fact, what it means to be created in the image of God; the reason we are rational, personal beings is because we reflect, albeit in a very limited way, God’s nature.  With God, of course, there is a massive difference in that His intellect and will are perfect.  And He is absolutely Other in every other way.  In other words, He is a thoroughly Transcendent Person, a truly Divine Person.)

In His encounter with the Samaritan Woman at the Well, Jesus essentially makes the same point.  During their extended conversation, Jesus tells her that God seeks worshipers who will worship Him in Spirit and Truth because, Jesus emphasizes, God is Spirit.  Jesus Himself--God Incarnate Himself--points to the fact that God is, in ultimate reality, a Transcendent Spirit. 

Later, Paul echoes this sentiment.  In 2 Corinthians 3:15-18, as he highlights the way God’s glory has been manifested in Jesus--the One in whose face the glory of God shines, he will say in 4:5-6—Paul links Christ with the divine Spirit, identifying the Lord, i.e. God, as Spirit.  Paul clearly includes Christ, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit in the divine identity of the Lord who is, in the ultimate sense, an Invisible Spirit.   Even though Paul’s focus is on the astonishing way God has revealed Himself to us in the tangible, human form of a man, his underlying assumption is that God’s eternal essence is that of a transcendent, invisible spirit—obviously beyond gender limitation.    

But what about all the “male” language the Bible uses for God?  It most frequently refers to God using male pronouns and images.  This is very true.  However, there are a number of notable exceptions, exceptions where the Bible conspicuously uses feminine gender language in reference to God, describing and/or portraying God in feminine terms.  These quite conspicuous exceptions provide some striking--some might even say shocking--balance to the predominant male imagery.  Accordingly, they remind us not to take the male language for God literalistically.  They remind us that all finite language about an Infinite God, including gender language, must necessarily remain, in some sense, metaphorical.  Even though the metaphorical language the Bible uses enables us to get a better grasp of God’s true nature, the Bible’s use of both masculine and feminine imagery for God reminds us that God can’t simply be reduced to any finite category we use to understand Him better.  This “playful” use of both genders in reference to God is meant to remind us that God is neither literally male nor female, neither gender fluid nor gender neutral.   

For example, in Isaiah 49:14-16, God speaks through the prophet, asking this provocatively rhetorical question: “Can a mother forget the child of her womb?  Even should she forget, I will never forget you.  See, I have inscribed your name on the palm of my hand.”  Obviously, the image of God inscribing Israel’s name on the palm of His hand is highly metaphorical language.  God clearly doesn’t have a literal hand that He has carved Israel’s name into.  Yet, God likens Himself to a mother here.  And God likens the impossibility of Him abandoning Israel to that of a mother forgetting about the child she has carried for nine months in her womb.  In Isaiah 66:13, God’s likeness to a mother is even more highly charged when, again through the prophet and in the context of a similar allusion, this time to a newborn child finding comfort and satisfaction in being fed by the breasts of its mother, God assures Israel that He will comfort Israel just as a mother comforts her child giving it succor in this way

In Luke 15, Jesus strings together three of the most famous parables He tells, parables which are designed to capture the character of the God He is revealing Himself to be.  In this trio, He sandwiches the parable of the Lost Coin between the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son.  In each parable, the central figure—a Shepherd, a Woman, a Father, respectively—represent God and His unconditional love.  By deliberately sandwiching a feminine image of God into this trio, Jesus couldn’t be more clear in signaling that God transcends gender distinctions. 

More poignantly, in Matthew 23:37 Jesus laments over Jerusalem, recalling how many times over Israel’s long history—i.e., before He was born—He has desired to gather her people in as a mother hen gathers her chicks.  This is remarkable.  At the very moment He refers to His preexistence as the Eternal Son of God, He also portrays Himself as a Mother Hen!    

The way the Bible “plays” with this diversity of images prevents us from too facilely assuming that God has a gender. 

There are many theological problems with The Shack.  But one of the things it gets right is this playful use of gender categories.  By provocatively portraying God the Father as a large African American woman, who is referred to as “Papa”; the Son, Jesus, as a Middle Eastern man—as, incidentally, Jesus would have looked historically in His Incarnation—and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman, it mimics what the Bible is doing: cautioning us not to be too anthropomorphic in our understanding of God and, thereby, reminding us to fully appreciate God’s essentially transcendent, albeit quintessentially personal, nature. 

All of which is to say, the way we know God isn’t male—or female…of gender fluid…or gender neutral--is from the same Bible which most often refers to God as “He”. 

So why, then, did God become incarnate in the gender of a man?  And why does Jesus reveal the truest Name--and hence, deepest identity--of God to be the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit?  And why did Jesus teach us to call God our Father, literally our Abba?

I will tackle these questions next week.

What do you think of the idea that God is gender fluid?  You can leave your comments at the “Contact E. J.” Page of the Raising Jesus website.  I look forward to hearing from you!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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