The argument of a genderless God and the generic he:
Ask any of the protesters standing outside clinics or the various groups proselytizing on the street corners and on college campuses in the area as to God’s gender and more often than not the result will be far more confusing than it should be. “He is genderless” or “He has no gender or sex” are common answers to this question, yet even within their assertion that God is genderless, they are using a gendered pronoun. While it might seem odd and confusing to English speakers today, there is a very real possibility that the gendering of God was not intentional. In the older translations, going back to the ancient Hebrew and to the Greek there are numerous genders used when talking about God, with some of the genders being specific to various aspects of God’s work and existence. In some verses God is masculine, in others feminine, and in a few there is no definitive gender used when referring to their actions and existence. The issue lies in the translation into English and the use of the generic he to encompass all pronouns and to simplify the texts so that more people could read the Bible than just the clergy and those in academia.
So what is the generic he?
According to Dennis Baron, the generic he can best be explained as an attempt to find a gender neutral pronoun through looking at the gender hierarchy. Grammarians such as William Lily extended the hierarchy from the discussions of gender and sex into language, “crafting an influential rule called “the worthiness of the genders” for Latin grammar” (Baron, 2020, p. 23). As men were considered above women, and thus at the top of the hierarchy, their pronoun of he should be acceptable to be used when speaking about all genders as well as those of indeterminate gender. This rule stayed as grammar rules began to be set for the English language despite the fact that English already had a gender neutral pronoun, they, that had been in use since the late 1300s (Baron, 2019) but as it did not fit within the Latin grammar rules that grammarians were attempting to place upon the English language, it was viewed as an unacceptable pronoun due to it already being considered a plural pronoun and thus could not be singular as well despite it already being used that way in the common tongue (Baron, 2020, p. 152).
When involving the Bible the discussion of pronouns takes a truly fascinating turn, often dredging up stories of lost or erased verses and chapters, of whole personalities and deities struck from the pages, and of the missing goddess(es) within the Bible. The most commonly cited missing goddess is the goddess Asherah, the wife or consort of El (Read: God) in the Old Testament. While there are still small verses that hint at her existence, such as the mention of the of Moses being told to cut down all of the Asherah poles in Exodus 34:13, one has to often go outside of the Bible and the Torah to find the myths which most likely spawned the deity in the Hebrew religion, such as the Elba texts (Day, 1986). But there is something else that we can look to within the Bible that exists to this day to show us that God was at one point either multiple deities smashed down into one, or a genderless being who could assume the gender needed for a specific situation when dealing with the world. Mentions of God’s wives, or of the fact that the very term elohim used within the Bible is in fact a plural term much like seraphim (singular is seraph) and was used when talking about God as well as discussing other gods in the so-called enemy pantheons (Coogan, 2011, p. 176). As God is assumed to be male per many church authorities while also somehow being genderless and thus humans, both male and female, were made in His image, the only logical conclusions to be made tend to involve the erasure of polytheism from ancient Hebrew, the use of the generic he when discussing a genderless deity, or a mixture of both.
We can look to history to see that the arguments in favor of the erasure of other deities in the Jewish pantheon are not only possible, but probable through apocryphal texts and ancient statues. But what of the pronoun issue? How did God go from having no gender to somehow only being male? If humanity was made in the image of God, and there is more than one sex and more than one gender, then what exactly is God? Many of these answers can be found when looking at the structure of the ancient texts, such as with the poetical structure of Genesis 1:26–27 which uses the phrase “let us make a human being” suggesting that God was both male and female (Moor, 1998, p. 122). One can also look to the Hebrew text and the terms used when speaking of or about God and whether or not the pronouns or terms are feminine or masculine. An example of this can be found in Numbers 11:15, where Moses uses the feminine you when speaking with God in that God “is the mother who has given birth to Israel” (Ansell, 2015, p. 13). In a language where there are masculine and feminine articles for nearly every object and creature, context matters when attempting to translate the texts over into a language that either lacks masculine and feminine articles, or which does not have matching articles for the same items, such as how some languages have a masculine for the word table (der Tisch in German) or feminine (La mesa in Spanish).
Translators must make the difficult choices of trying to fit their own language to the original texts, or to try to make the texts fit in to the new language. Issues often arise during translation from one language to another, either through the loss of context or through whole new meanings being placed upon the words. God being referred to in the feminine and as the one who has given birth to Israel makes sense when looking at the Hebrew as the terms used are feminine. When translated into English, the terms lose their context as the pronoun you does not have separate forms for masculine and feminine. Adding to this issue is the fact that in almost every English translation of the Bible God is referred to with the masculine He, which causes even more confusion to those reading the Bible. How can a man give birth? Granted, in today’s Global North we understand that a man can give birth if he is a transgender man, but that doesn’t work when looking at the Biblical texts.
The choice to use the generic he in the Bible adds to the confusion and oftentimes arguments among believers and scholars when trying to discuss other issues beyond the gender of God. It brings to question whether or not the people being spoken about in the Bible are actually men, or if there are more women within the Bible that have simply been erased through the attempts to use a masculine pronoun to refer to all genders. Some Bibles have attempted to fix this issue by looking back at the Hebrew texts and changing the pronouns in their own translations but unfortunately those are often just pet projects of scholars and these Bibles don’t make their way into mainstream use. Others have attempted to us the term they to replace the generic he but this often is not without a high amount of push back from the various authorities within the church. In a few cases there has been a push to have the pronoun she used as well as the pronoun he when speaking about God, as was seen in a group within the Church of England (Thompkins, 2015). Other cases, such as the Good as New: A radical retelling of scripture translation uses the pronoun she for the Holy Spirit, he for Jesus, and no pronouns at all for God (Thompkins, 2015).
But this doesn’t answer the question of why God became a man if He’s supposed to be without gender or able to be both male and female. For this we have to once again go back to the grammarians of the past and their enforcement of the generic he to refer to any and all genders. If a simple typo or transliteration error can create an entirely new being within the texts, as I have discussed previously in my piece, “Evolution of Satan, God, and the Changes to the Norse Pantheon Through Christianity” then what can changing the pronouns of God due to change the very scripture many Christians use as a basis for their beliefs and morals? Would many of the patriarchal denominations still be able to uphold their rules and laws subjugating women if God was both a man and a woman (or neither)? Would these denominations simply ignore the information if it came to be known that their very image of God was based on an outdated attempt to create a gender neutral pronoun?
For this I wish to look to the Christian film, The Shack and the portrayal of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit within the movie. In the book and the movie God is referred to as Papa, despite the character being portrayed as a woman. Within the novel she points out that they are neither male nor female, and that the only reason they go by the name Papa was to help the main character from falling back on their religious conditioning (Reinke, 2017). Despite the use of a woman to play the role of God, there isn’t much in the way of discussion as to why this was done outside of the character’s own statement regarding religious conditioning. Reinke points to several feminine passages within both the Old and New Testaments in his article on Desiring God’s website, though he states that even with all of the feminine passage put together, there is not enough evidence to warrant changing from referring to God as our Father in Heaven and then goes on to provide three compelling (at least in his mind) reasons as to why God needs to remain a masculine character. The first he cites pulls from John Cooper’s book Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God, which point to the fact that none of the passages use feminine titles for God, thus meaning that while feminine terms were used or words associated with the feminine were used when talking about God, that doesn’t mean God is a woman or even feminine. So his argument becomes,
That explains why in Scripture we find many masculine titles for God: Lord, Father, King, Judge, Savior, Ruler, Warrior, Shepherd, Husband, and even a handful of metaphorical masculine titles like Rock, Fortress, and Shield. While feminine titles for God — Queen, Lady, Mother, and Daughter — are never used (Reinke, 2017)
His other arguments pull from references to Jesus as the “God-man” and the so-called chosen incarnation of God into flesh within the Gospel of John. I personally have several arguments against this usage as the Gospel of John is the only Gospel in which Jesus refers to himself as the son of God instead of the son of man as seen in the three previous Gospels. In terms of original works versus fan fiction, I would have to say that the Gospel of John is to the other Gospels what 50 Shades of Grey is to Twilight, and thus we should really call into question how legitimate it is to cite that Gospel as the proof when said Gospel is in direct contradiction of the other three. His third point discusses the use of feminine metaphors for men, and how we can speak about the feminine side of men in today’s culture, so why couldn’t we do that for God in the Bible? Well, not to put the cart before the horse, but this argument essentially boils down to what many Christians would readily dismiss when non-Christians point to translation and transliteration errors within the Bible changing the message from the original texts.
I will admit his scrambling at the end of his article in an attempt to state that this doesn’t mean that women are less than men, that it’s simply that God chose to use masculine pronouns and a masculine identity and we must accept it instead of trying to change the scripture is laughable. I again point back to my work on the creation of the character Lucifer and the change of Satan from simply an adversary to the Devil and the reason why evil exists in the world as to why claiming that the Bible is the inerrant word of God does not work when trying to justify the numerous differences and translations. Reinke states that “He prefers to manifest his own nature to use through masculine titles, and sometimes feminine metaphors” (2017) despite the very fact that this claim, and the claims of other theologians stating they know the true identity of God, goes in contrast with the Bible stating in 1 Corinthians 2:11 that none can know the thoughts of God except for the Spirit of God or God alone.
So once again we have to go back to the most logical reason for God becoming a masculine or male character within religion, men were at the top of the gender hierarchy, and therefore God was either a man, or used the masculine pronouns. As the generic he could be used both to speak about men as well as any gender for multiple centuries, there wasn’t much in the way of push back from people when the Bible was translated from Hebrew, Greek, and Latin into English. Though educated people and grammarians knew (read: decided on their own) that the generic he could be used for any gender, the general populace was using the pronoun they in everyday usage while keeping he as masculine, leading to the transition of God as a genderless or at the very least genderfluid (able to move between genders) deity into the white bearded man looking down from Heaven that we see in historical art, modern storytelling, and in the everyday assumption that God is a man. Scholars in the past have attempted to remedy this issue by creating gender-inclusive translations and guidelines for how to present the Bible and its Gospels in a way that is inclusive of all genders as opposed to the standard hierarchy of man on top and women and children at the feet of the man (Poythress, 2012).
Instead of changing the Bibles to make God both male and female, such as was mentioned in a 1983 New York Times article titled, “New Bible Text Makes God Male and Female,” or attempting to replace the masculine pronouns used by God with the gender neutral they, simply acknowledging the history behind the generic he and the fact that while the English language has changed and dropped the usage of the generic he the Bible stayed with using an outdated pronoun would in many ways help to show that it’s not that God is a man, but that the male writers and translators decided that since the generic he was good enough when talking about multiple genders of humans it would be fine for God. Instead of trying to change the pronouns from third person to second person, as seen with the New International Version (NIV) (Brend, Headland, & Wise, 2007), we can acknowledge the history of our translations and the why behind using masculine pronouns for God. Just as we place notes within the various translations of the Bible to explain how a term may have changed over the years, we could just as easily do the same for the pronouns used by God within the Bible.
While scholars in numerous disciplines can continue to discuss and debate over the true gender of God in the Bible and other holy texts, the very fact that we can trace the usage of various pronouns and terminology through the translations and evolutions of the Bible is all that really needs to be documented and placed within the texts. Much like how a publisher or author will add an addendum or notification to their readers when a text becomes out of date or uses terms and phrases now considered to be offensive or obsolete, we can do the same with explaining how God went from a being a multitude of beings, to a singular who could take on any gender necessary for the situation at hand, to a masculine presenting being, to a man through looking at the linguistic history of the very terms used to describe God in the Bible. They mystery behind God becoming a man is far less exciting than many would assume, there is no hidden society trying to shape the world through making God a man (well supposedly there isn’t), there (supposedly) is not evil cabal of men attempting to keep a hegemonic patriarchal society in place through the use of religion, there’s just men who felt that the terms they used at the time they did the translations were the most accurate due to their own beliefs and thoughts, and as they were in places of authority others went along with their decisions. As the terminology faded from use, others didn’t step in to update or fix the issues, instead simply letting it slide without understanding why the terminology was there in the first place. God was never a man, except in the eyes of men who placed their image upon God.
Ansell, N. (2015). Gender agenda matters: papers of the “Feminist Section” of the International Meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Austin, C. (1983, October 15). New Bible Text Makes God Male and Female. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1983/10/15/us/new-bible-text-makes-god-male-and-female.html
Baron, D. (2019, March 29). A brief history of singular ‘they’. Retrieved from https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-singular-they/
Baron, D. (2020). Whats Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She. Liveright Publishing Corporation.
Bonilla, M. (2019, November 19). Evolution of Satan, God, and the Changes to the Norse Pantheon Through Christianity. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@themicheab/evolution-of-satan-god-and-the-changes-to-the-norse-pantheon-through-christianity-f462364098b7
Brend, R. M., Headland, T. N., & Wise, M. R. (2007, June 26). Gender and Generic Pronouns in English Bible Translation. Retrieved from https://cbmw.org/2007/06/26/gender-and-generic-pronouns-in-english-bible-translation/
Coogan, M. D. (2011). God and sex: what the Bible really says. New York: Twelve.
Day, J. (1986). Asherah in the Hebrew Bible and Northwest Semitic Literature. Journal of Biblical Literature, 105(3), 385. doi: 10.2307/3260509
Moor, J. C. de. (1998). Intertextuality in Ugarit and Israel. Leiden: Brill.
Poythress, V. (2012, June 4). Gender in Bible Translation: Exploring a Connection with Male Representatives. Retrieved from https://frame-poythress.org/gender-in-bible-translation-exploring-a-connection-with-male-representatives/
Reinke, T. (2017, March 4). Our Mother Who Art In Heaven? Retrieved from https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/our-mother-who-art-in-heaven
Tompkins , S. (2015, June 2). Why is God not female? Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32960507
Young, Robert. (2015). Youngs literal translation of the holy bible.