Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Is God Masculine? Part Two: Genesis 1:27 Egalitarian but Ambiguous

Part one, which is more a loosely fillled junk drawer of ruminations, led me to try and focus this portion of the program down to one specific. One specific verse, anyway...

For this episode, let's assume the egalitarian / mutualist theologians are correct and that God is not wholly or even primarily Masculine. (Non-egalitarian folk are still welcome to read and check in w/ opinions!)

Genesis 1:27 is where I as a layperson would begin in any discussion on gender essentialism and Scripture. And no wonder. It is the very first verse of Scripture which includes us humans in God's story. I would think we'd pay it close attention.

"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." - NIV (The oft-preferred hierarchalist English version)


"So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." - NRSV (The only true and absolute version of the Bible, because I said so! [Okay, I'm kidding.])

Now, on the face of it, that sounds like an egalitarian verse if ever there was one. God creates mankind / humankind in his image. And then, in the second and third phrases of the verse, we see an apparently expanding repetition of that fact. The NRSV interprets the second phrase as "created them" rather than the NIV's "created him" -- not vital but helpful to me in that it already opens up the mutuality of humanness as male and female in equivalence.

But the second and third phrases get interesting. Phrase One: "[I]n the image of God he created them;" Phrase Two: "male and female he created them." I am hoping the reader sees the conclusion coming. The two phrases, seen as a direct parallel (the second one further unpacking as well as repeating the first one), lead to a fairly clear conclusion that "in the image of God" is to be equated with "male and female." At least, that's how I've read it for quite a while, and have heard others seemingly agree with my brilliant exegesis.

Now, if the above is true, doesn't that mean that God is both Masculine and Feminine, and that the writer wanted us to know that in no uncertain terms?

Mmmm... maybe.

Except, upon further perusal of egalitarian resources and writers, I've discovered that many egalitarians would not agree. For instance, the above Genesis 1:27 verse could also be read as merely indicating that we are made in the image of God, both male and female being so made. The gender issue could be viewed as roughly analogous to hair color or skin color, having no "meaning" to God outside the biologically limited purposes of propogation of the species and (per Song of Songs) the joyful pleasures afforded each gender in their marital enjoyment of one another. Genesis 1:27 merely affirms that both men and women are created in God's Image, and therefore neither is less "human" than the other or less "in God's Image" than the other.

If that is the case, inferring that God Himself has masculine or feminine within his character is not a necessary conclusion at all. I was intrigued during my reading to note that Marva J. Dawn (in her "Truly the Community" which I'm using as devotional material) says in a footnote:

"Out of my concern to reach the widest audience possible, I have chosen to refer to God with the masculine pronouns he, his, and him. I recognize that these pronouns are inadequate, for God is neither masculine nor feminine, but more than all our words can ever connote."
That simple, brief summary stopped me dead in my tracks. Was (am) I anthropomorphizing God myself by reading back into the Godhead masculine and feminine attributes which instead are part of the creation among many species including human? Hmm. And oddly, another egalitarian commentary on bible verses having to do with God as Feminine in Scripture seemed to be right down my original idea's track, but end abruptly with this:

"As we seek to follow biblical inclusivity, let us also affirm the consistent witness of the church, namely, that God is neither feminine nor masculine (gender), neither male nor female (sex). God, who is transcendent Spirit, possesses no physical body, yet accommodates to human limitations by using physical, relational, gender-laden images for self-disclosure. Some of those are feminine. Inasmuch as God inspired the biblical authors to be inclusive, who are we not to be?" [Dr. Margo G. Houts]
At present, I'm thinking, pondering, and trying to gather information here. I really liked my "God is both masculine and feminine" riff based on the Genesis 1:27 phrases, but admit that it may well be a case of sloppy exegesis allied with human bias (my own!). As we all know, that's biblically and intellectually a no-no. But I'm not entirely convinced yet, even after reading Marva's footnote, Margo's article, and even some other folks with the same idea who have unpacked it a bit more.

I realize in much of this discussion, I'm probably recreating the wheel. That is, someone out there in the Egalitarian / Mutualist universe certainly has biblically unpacked this to a far greater degree than I've imagined. In fact, I am fully aware I may not even be asking the foundational questions yet, if in fact I can use "foundational" while being a moderately post-structuralist kind of guy.

I may in my next bit wrestle with what "masculine" and "feminine" actually mean. That oughta be funny to watch. But it also might help me (and anyone willing to participate) to also sort out the masculinity / femininity in God thing. I hope.

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@bdul muHib said...

Thank you for these thoughts.

I have come to some conclusions on the Genesis 1 passage, unfortunately not supported by any theologian I've found so far; these are just my own thoughts. Well, the first part I learned from another. The word "image" means the same as the word used later in Hebrew for idols. The problem with idolatry is that we were making the wrong representation for God, when he had already chosen one for himself- us. We are to be his idols. And an image, or idol, in Hebrew, means the seat for the god. We are designed to be the seat, or the repository, of God. Doesn't mean we always are, but we are designed to be that.

Here's the part I made up on my own. I look at the Gen 1 passage, and I don't see it saying anywhere that men or women are in God's image. It says male and female. It is the both of them together that are in the image of God. (And come to think of it, there's an echo here in Paul's use of kai for male and female in Galations, rather than the oude of slave/free - Greek-Jew. Huh. Never thought of that before.) The image of God, the seat for His presence, does not therefore rest in any one person. Rather, it is in the relationship between people, and most especially (but not exclusively) between men and women. For it is where we are most different that we are called to love the most, and true love abounds the most- as you know from your experience in community.

I don't think I'm comfortable saying God is not either gender. I don't think gender is merely physical. I think a woman is female through and through, whatever being female means- and that means her spirit is female also. If that is so, and we are in the image of God, male and female, then God is male. And God is female. And a whole lot more.

Strange thing- blog convergence. Just today I dwelt on these issues, around gender, the gender of God, and repression of women, in my blog. Even read that horrible essay by Lewis on balls and priestesses in the church in preparation for my blogpost. Though, at one time, I found his arguments horribly convincing. Perhaps that is why I reject them so now.

Mark Mattison said...

Great blog entry -- I like where you're going with this!

Would you be willing to explore this a little more in the context of a Yahoo! discussion list? It's called "The Christian Godde Project" and you can find it at One of the things we're looking at is creating a version of the New Testament that images Godde in feminine ways. I'd love to hear your thoughts.