John Richardson considers how we ought to think of God as ‘He’? The question is posed by divine revelation and by nature itself

In the living world we find the two states of male and female. And although some organisms are capable of serving both functions, or alternating between both states, most species are exclusively either one or the other. Even in the plant world, where the characteristics of male and female are less easily recognized, the two conditions exist.

Within divine revelation, the God of Israel was worshipped in a context where female deities were widely known, yet Yahweh was never regarded as one of them. The generic term for god’ in Hebrew, the language of the earliest Scriptures, is plural: ‘elohitn. Yet from the outset, Israels God is referred to by masculine singular verbs: ‘In the beginning created-he Elohim the heavens and the earth’.

Nor can we attribute this to Israel being a patriarchal society, as if that determined the choice of deity. As far as we are aware, those societies which worshipped female deities were equally patriarchal. What is remarkable about Israel is not that they referred to their God as ‘He’, but that they only had one god to which they referred.

What God is like

Circumstances thus force us into the kind of ‘choice’ faced by Israel. If God is to be spoken of, this will tend towards one or other of the ways in which we speak of other ‘animate’ objects of our perception —to the male or the female. And since we worship only one God, it would appear we can make only one choice.

But whichever choice we make, what does it mean? In Ancient Near Eastern culture, the ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’ of the gods was conceived of in terms analogous to that of men and women. The God of Israel was not like these gods, and that in one very important respect, namely that no form could be ascribed to Israel’s God.

The God of Israel was only to be directly encountered through hearing him: ‘Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth…’ [Deut. 4.15ff]

The list of exclusions clearly reflects the categories of the creation narrative, and thus ‘the likeness of male of female’ is surely a reference to humanity itself [cf Gen. 1.27]. God is not to be imaged as a man or a woman. Yet within the unfolding revelation of Scripture, there is something enigmatic about this prohibition.

Manas image

First, when God relates to Israel in gendered terms it is as male. This is more particularly expressed in the interrelationship between God and his people as a (faithful) husband and (unfaithful) wife. Indeed, the eschatological hope is that Israel will know her God as a Bride knows her Beloved. Thus although Israel is prohibited from making images of God as male, Israel is nevertheless directed by God to think of God in terms of his ‘He’ to her own ‘she’.

Secondly, we read in Genesis 1.27 that God has already done what God has subsequently prohibited: God created man in his own image [tselem], in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

By contrast, in Numbers 33.5If, we read these words of God, ‘When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places.’

Male or female

The presuppositions behind Genesis 1:27 would have been familiar to Ancient Near Eastern cultures. The god’ (or the king) is ‘imaged’ so as to be present where the image is. The God who prohibits images, whether male or female, has thus already made of himself an adequate image, both male and female, in the form of the human race.

It is surely, however, the height of folly to say at this point that God is therefore neither male nor female. The two things we are specifically told about this image is that man (Heb: adam) is it, and it is male and female. Yet when God speaks of God to Israel, it is as ‘male’. As it stands, it is a conundrum, but we cannot cut this particular Gordian Knot by denying one of the two things the text explicitly draws to our attention.

At the same time, however, it is clear that God is not ‘a man. Man is God’s image, and is no more, therefore, god’ in actuality than an idol was ‘the god’, or a statue was the king himself. An image, as Genesis 1.26 points out, is a ‘likeness’. But it is a likeness made in something other than the ‘substance’ of the thing being imaged.

Nature and Scripture

A photo may give me an image and likeness of my late great aunt, but I would never suppose that she herself was made of paper, or sat forever in the same seat with the same clothes, hairstyle and expression. The very notion of image implies both congruity and dissonance – the image is both like, and completely other than, the thing being imaged.

Thus ‘man images God in the stuff of this world. But that ‘stuff’ is as unlike the substance of God as dead paper is unlike living flesh. Similarly, ‘male and female’ images God, but God is not, thereby, ‘a male’ or ‘a female’. We are confronted by an image which we cannot dismiss, but which equally, by virtue of being an image, conceals as well as reveals.

Thus we are forced by nature and Scripture to consider God in relation to our experience, and specifically our human experience, of male and female. This is the medium in which God has imaged God. But we are also forced to consider ourselves in relation to a God who adopts the position of ‘He’.

We cannot evade these givens. Nor can we impose on them some other framework more conducive to our sensibilities. Israel of old was prohibited other gods, whether male or female. We today must similarly resist the temptation to fashion God in our image.

More work remains to be done.

For this and the continuing exposition go to