“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”
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Four years in a Biblical Studies major … three years in a Masters of Divinity degree … and sixty years of hearing sermons … and not once was it even hinted that the “Spirit” in Genesis 1:2 is feminine!
Let’s start with a word study. The Hebrew word for “spirit,” as in Spirit of God, can (and is) also translated “breath” or “wind” – like in the story of the plagues of Egypt, “So Moses stretched out his staff over the land of Egypt, and the LORD brought an east wind upon the land… (Ex 10:13). Or as at Pentecost, “And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind… And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:2,4).
In addition, nouns in Hebrew have a gender: masculine or feminine, there is no gender-neutral “it” as in English. At times the gender makes sense. For example, the words aunt and daughter are feminine; whereas uncle and son are masculine. Then, again, sometimes an object and its gender don’t seem to have any connection, as in the words list and experience, which are both feminine nouns. Or, house and word which are masculine.
But where does this leave us with the Spirit of God?
It seems we have two options.
Either the fact that the Hebrew word for the Holy Spirit is a feminine noun means nothing … or … it means everything. Which, in either case, is hugely important!
Let me explain. If I said to you in Hebrew, “I’m making a list” and the Hebrew word for list is feminine, there is nothing about the list that is particularly feminine. The fact that the word list is a feminine noun tells me nothing about the list. Sometimes, it seems, the gender of a noun is irrelevant. There is nothing innately feminine about an experience (feminine word). Nor is there anything distinctively masculine about a house (masculine word). In the same way, the fact that the Hebrew word for the Spirit is feminine could be totally insignificant, telling me nothing about the character or essence of God.
However, if we say the gender of a noun describing God is irrelevant, then we must apply that fact to all Hebrew nouns describing God, we can’t just pick and choose. For example, if the feminine noun Spirit does not infer anything feminine in or about God, so too, a noun used for God that is masculine does not infer anything masculine in or about God.
Genesis 1:1 starts out, “In the beginning God…” The Hebrew word used for God here is “Elohim”—masculine. With the logic we’ve just used, the fact that Elohim is a masculine noun is irrelevant and does not suppose anything masculine about the character or essence of God.
On the other side of the argument, however, there may be times when it is very important to use a feminine or masculine noun. It makes sense, for example, that mother and aunt are feminine nouns, and son and uncle are masculine.
The noun’s gender seems extraneous when applied to a thing, as in book or table. But the noun’s gender seems to be logical, appropriate, and informative when it is applied to a person, as in aunt or uncle.
God is a Person!
Therefore, if the noun used to describe God—in this case the Spirit of God—is feminine, we can be assured there is something intrinsically female about God!
So, which is it? Is the gender of the noun used for God important or not?
After extensive study here’s where I’ve come down … I believe both options are true and significant when it comes to God.
On the one hand God is, obviously, beyond our understanding and comprehension. And to state that the gender of a God-noun is important doesn’t even make sense. God is not female or male. But remember that it is important to be consistent. If we say the feminine God-noun doesn’t mean anything, then we must also say the masculine God-noun means nothing as well. God is beyond all description. When we start trying to define God in human terms, we get in trouble. It’s like trying to contain God in a box—built by our own hand—for our own comfort.
On the other hand, the fact that the personhood of God—a member of the Trinity—is given a feminine name is outrageous! There is obviously something significant about the Spirit of God being feminine. Significant enough that right from the start Scripture loudly proclaims femaleness to be inherent in God!
I’m not talking about putting our own culturally-assigned ideas of female and male onto God. And we’re certainly not talking about physical characteristics.
We are talking about God.
And we are talking about the fact that there is something deep—world changing—going on here when a word for God is in the feminine … something s.t.a.g.g.e.r.i.n.g.l.y profound!
The fact that Elohim is a masculine Hebrew noun and Spirit is a feminine Hebrew noun should make you want to shout! Shout because our God is indescribable! Uncontainable! Beyond! And—as a woman—I hope you shout because of the freedom and power it brings you to know that God made sure the entire world knew part of the essence and nature of our God is feminine!
I hope it also raises some questions. Questions like … Why haven’t I known this before? What is my current mental picture of God? Is it accurate or a bit out-of-balance? What is God’s invitation to me in this? And, I’d be happy to correspond with you about any of your questions, just click on “Contact” for an email link.
Male and female—created in the image of God.
Keep an eye out for the NEXT POST as we continue our study of the Spirit of God!
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