What Gender is God Anyway? by Janet Rudolph


Adult Daughter (“AD”): Hi Mom, Alex said to tell you “hi.”

Me: That’s nice. How is she?

AD: How are “they?” Alex uses “they,” mom.

Me: Oh right, sorry. I am having some trouble wrapping my head around using “they” and “them.”

AD: Well mom, that is something you’re going to just have to get over.

Using “they” to refer to one person short circuits my long life of grammar training. I found my mind resisting the plural no matter how many times I reminded myself that Alex uses plural pronouns. As I considered my brain’s resistance to “they/them,” I realized that singular gendered pronouns are truly a cultural construct. I went on to muse that maybe Alex was on to something bigger than themselves. I began to think about the Bible, arguably the foundational document of our patriarchal society, and how it uses a plural form while referring to a singular or one God.

In the beginning God [Elohim] created the heaven and the earth.

Genesis 1:1

“Elohim” is the Hebrew word used for God throughout Genesis 1. Yet, in Hebrew, “Elohim” as God is plural with the “im” suffix functioning the same as the “s” in English. Elohim, a variation of the god name “El,” appears thousands of times in the Bible. Biblical scholars have long debated why “Elohim” appears in the plural, with no arrived upon consensus. The leading theory is that the authors of the Bible unwittingly preserved a little unconscious “throw back” to older multi-deity Pagan religions. It is a good theory, likely true. However, what is wonderfully mysterious and extremely interesting, is that in matters of spirit that there are often layers of meaning which can all be true.

Here is another fitting explanation: Linguistically, Hebrew uses the plural form of a word in two different ways. The first means “more than one,” just like in English. The second, however, is different. It is used to emphasize the expansive and remarkable characteristics of a single entity, person, or object. For example, “one trees,” translated in a Hebrew format, would describe the grandest or mightiest tree in a forest.

By adopting the plural to refer to a singular person, the gender queer community has tapped into a deep ancient wisdom well. Even if we popularly understand God as a male, the concept of one all-mighty deity transcends gender. While our patriarchal society might default to “he” when describing God, any gendered designation anthropomorphizes and diminishes the grandeur of The Great Sacred Mystery of Creation. Gendered pronouns strip Sacred Creation of Its majestic expansiveness, Its non-dualistic, mystical and omnipresent power. Elohim or They as a One God, comes as close as humanly possible in a pronoun to expressing the mystery and transcendence of All-Creation.

Having reflected on Genesis’ use of “Elohim,” I think my brain has finally fully digested “they” and “them” to refer to a single person. Each person is indeed an expansive mystery, and, to force people into gendered pronouns, can limit and narrow our self-concepts thereby depriving us of a full understanding of ourselves. It makes us smaller just as the concept of a he/she One God is so limiting. Next time my daughter and I talk about Alex, I have a feeling I won’t forget to use the appropriate pronouns.

 

 

Janet Rudolph is a twice ordained shaman, the latest as an alaka’i which is a Hawaiian spiritual guide.  Rudolph has walked this path for over 20 years traveling around the world to learn and experience original teachings from differing cultures.  Using a technique she calls “spiritual forensics” which includes cross-cultural explorations and ancient Hebrew translations, she has delved into the Bible’s pagan roots to uncover its hidden magic.  Rudolph has written two books on the subject of ancient Biblical teachings. One Gods: The Mystic Pagan’s Guide to the Bible and When Eve Was a Goddess: A Shamanic Look at the Bible.  A third book, When Moses Was a Shaman will be out in 2019.

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Categories: Education, Ethics, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Gender, General, God, Identity Construction, LGBTQ, Naming

Tags: , , , , , , ,

23 replies

  1. Interesting idea… and gives one pause… “Each person is indeed an expansive mystery, and, to force people into gendered pronouns, can limit and narrow our self-concepts thereby depriving us of a full understanding of ourselves.”
    Yet personally I prefer to think of the Absolute as the Impersonal Limitless Source of All… not person/s requiring gendered pronouns.

    Liked by 2 people

    • humm, then who is God ? and what is God ? is it a thing ? if not a person and it has no identity, and it cant be related to a him or a her, then what is it ?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Good question, fantun. I guess that is for each person to discover on their own. For me, God or divinity is the great mystery of life and creation. Elohim is a source of inspiration and the fountain that gives birth to life.

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      • Hi fantumof the winds, I already responded to your post and I am not sure it went through. It if did, I hope don’t see it as glib as I really want to honor your question as it is a very important one – at least it is for me. I don’t have the answer to your question but I do have a framework which I use to do my best at wrapping my head about it grand mystery of it all. That framework is to muse on the great expansive mystery that is creation and the fountain of its energy and life that has given us our existence and our connection to it.

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    • Yes, Yes Majak. I agree. The Absolute is a great mystery that is totally beyond our comprehension as human beings. The only thing I would add is that according the bible we are made in the tselem or reflection of the divine. In daily life our human capacity for language can’t really encompass the Absolute. That job is for mystical poets such as Rumi or Rilke. The rest of us have to figure out how best to communicate everyday concepts.

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  2. I love this understanding of the pronoun “they,” how it can invoke expansiveness and mystery–in trees, people, divinity. I also had grammatical unease using the pronoun they for one person, though I do my best to use it when requested. Now I can let go that quibble. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Cool! I knew about the traditional, patriarchal use of English pronouns in which “the male embraces the female.” That’s what I actually learned in the olden days. Nowadays it’s more or less grammatically acceptable to use “they” and “them” for a nonsexist pronoun in English. I knew Elohim is plural, but your exposition is very helpful. Many thanks for this post!

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  4. Thank you Janet. I think we too often forget that Israel had influential neighbours. The language we use for Divine Mystery says, perhaps, more about ourselves then about the Mystery. I like how you tied these two examples together. Respect and love lead us to listening to a person’s name instead of pasting our chosen name on them. In “playing” with the Genesis 2nd story of Creation, I would have the animals telling their names to the people instead of “Adam” giving the animals our names for them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point Barbara about the how the language we use says more about ourselves. I agree it reveals a lot about our beliefs and our values. Nice point also about the animals telling their own names. Active listening!

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  5. Great question, thanks Janet, “What Gender is God Anyway?” Wonderful that smile you have in your photo, because the question cannot be answered?

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  6. What Gender is God Anyway? Great question, because it opens up many other questions on the existence of deity, or what does “God” that mean?

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  7. I love this post, both for what it suggests about “God/dess” and about us. It makes me also reconsider the phrase early in Genesis translated as “male and female created [they] them”– so “we” are in “their” image, indeed!

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    • Thank you Joyce. I love moments for myself when something makes me re-evaluate my beliefs. The icing on the cake is when my writings do that for others too. I appreciate it.

      I like to use the translation of “reflection” instead of “image.” For me, image is more two-dimensional while reflection includes more of the wholeness of our divinity within. Its not a perfect translation either.

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  8. It is important to call people what they want… and adding “they” to our list of symbols for the divine is great, cool idea… but I’m not giving up “she” or my femaleness or the femaleness of the divine. Imo all specificity is not bad nor inherently inferior to unspecificity. Female symbols access truths that neutral symbols cannot access. And vice versa.
    I agree that gender is a prison. I hate the idea of femininity or masculinity- it is so diminishing and toxic imo. But I love the diversity of creation and of bodies and sexualities. Imo the divine encompasses and reflects all of these.
    Lovely article, thought provoking.

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    • Hi Trelawney, I hope you didn’t feel that my blog suggested the need to give up our female and/or male identities for those who treasure them. I am trying to express what you do so beautifully in your comment that “the divine encompassed and reflects all of these [diversities].”

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  9. However, what is wonderfully mysterious and extremely interesting, is that in matters of spirit that there are often layers of meaning which can all be true.

    Good point!

    And great essay… thought provoking.

    Like

  10. Thank you for bringing this discussion to FAR!

    Liked by 1 person

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