God and Gender: A Theological Reflection
Talking about gender is like walking into a minefield. Some of the hazards are societal beliefs, some global and some more local, while others are reactions to those beliefs. Nevertheless, this post will venture where most sane people fear to tread. And please remember that I am speaking of what we might call archetypes– the so-called “norm.” Many of us don’t fit that norm. Yet our beliefs about gender often do.
Let’s begin with one of the Bible’s most radical statement about gender identity: that of God.
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27 [NRSV])
I was raised with the vision of a male God. To be honest, coming from a matriarchal family, the idea of a female God terrifies me. But the Bible tells us something challenging: God is both male and female. This is radical because most ancient cultures had a pantheon of male and female gods. But the Hebrews had only one God, and that God encompassed both genders. The “image of God” is both male and female. One might say that the image of God is the union of the two.
Obviously this doesn’t mean God is a hermaphrodite. God has no physical body, and therefore no genitalia. Though we tend to limit our vision of creatures to their physical traits, male and female are characteristics that go beyond physical gender. The sea, for example, has most often been seen as female, as are the ships that have sailed on her. The earth is often described as female, and the sun as male.
God encompasses characteristics of both genders: creating and loving and nurturing, building and tearing down and disciplining. These are archetypal characteristics for female and male respectively. But in us as creatures, these characteristics are rarely manifested in ideal ways. Males, we believe, are responsible for propagating and protecting the species, and females for nurturing it. We know that the male role is often abused, and the female role is sometimes abdicated. Or the characteristics may be twisted into destructive forces: male (the archetype suggests) is prone to violence, and female to manipulation.
But we don’t always have perfect alignment with the characteristics of our gender, and that’s true throughout nature. The characteristics of male and female are neither exclusively genital nor consistently presented. What do we make, for example, of the male seahorse carrying embryos to birth? Or the female praying mantis decapitating her mate when he has served his purpose? Or the earthworm, each of which is biologically both male and female?
Still, our society often finds a nurturing man suspect, or a female leader. Men are not supposed to be beauticians, nor women soldiers or politicians. When you think of the word “nurse,” what gender is the image?
Much of this presupposition can be traced back to the Mosaic Law, which defined male and female roles.
A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent to the Lord your God. (Dt 22:5)
These books were finalized at a time when order was extremely important. They defined who was “in” and who wasn’t. You see, when Israel fell to Assyria, ten tribes were taken into exile. They were never heard from again. When Judah went into exile in Babylon, they were determined to survive as a people. They wanted above all to avoid assimilation. That is why there is so much emphasis placed on category.
Here’s an example: animals with cloven hooves are ruminants and provide dairy. The pig has a cloven hoof but is not a ruminant and does not provide dairy. It doesn’t fit, therefore it is unclean. The camel and the rabbit are ruminants but do not have a cloven hoof, therefore they are unclean (Lev 11:3-7). Similarly, lobster is neither insect nor fish; it doesn’t fit and is therefore unclean (Lev 11:12).
And they emphasized that different categories do not mix. Don’t wear a garment made of two fabrics, or plant a field with two kinds of seed (Lev 19:19, cf Dt 22:9-11). The practice of growing corn, beans, and squash together would have been an abomination, and a cotton-poly t-shirt would be strictly forbidden.
This concern with order extended to interpersonal relations. Just as Lev 19:19 forbids the mating of different kinds of animals– no breeding of mules in the Hebrew world– so a particular view of family was also emphasized. Not only was incest forbidden, but so was the marrying of your wife’s sister as a second wife (Lev 18:18, note that polygamy was assumed.) This is also where homsexualty is condemned. These are practices that “don’t fit,” and keeping category boundaries was imperative for survival. Similarly, men must be men and women must be women. Belonging to a category was everything.
This was embedded in Jewish culture for centuries before the birth of Christ. It was so important that, in at least one instance, category overrode the biblical ideal to “cleave to” your spouse (Gen 2:24) when, after return from exile, the Jews sent away all foreign wives (Ezra 10:3, Neh 13:23ff).
It’s only in this light that we can see how radical was Peter’s dream about eating unclean food (Acts 10:9ff). He was told, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15). Immediately afterward, Peter witnesses the Holy Spirit coming to a group of Gentiles– non-Jews who were considered unclean. The dream was not really about food at all. It was about the inclusion of those traditionally seen as unclean, the “out” group, into God’s plan of salvation. The people who don’t belong, who don’t fit. Paul would later write, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). This turned Jewish traditions on their head! Category was no longer a barrier. The Jewish obsession with “in” and “out” had served its purpose.
Some of this reversal we accept. No longer do we recoil at mixed garments or different crops planted side by side. Mules may have fallen out of fashion, but labradoodles are popular. I was even recently served lobster at a Jewish wedding!
But other aspects remain challenging for us. Not long ago it was still considered scandalous for a woman to wear trousers in public. Based on the comments of some female pastors, for some people it still is! And I’m old enough to remember the comments made about men with long hair and women with short hair. Underlying these comments is a common concern: “They don’t fit!” For us, as for the ancient Hebrews, category remains important.
But God has overthrown human categories. In Christ there is no male and female. This challenges us! Men, according to our accepted archetypes, want to “manly men doing manly things.” We want our women to be feminine, however we might define that. (As a man, I dare not speak to what women want.) To consider that gender is a category that has been overthrown challenges our social order. Jesus wouldn’t do that, would he? Yes, he did exactly that. “So the last shall be first, and the first last…” (Mt 20:16). This was not just spiritual, and not even just economic.
This has far reaching ramifications. The most obvious have to do with gender equity and gender identity, but it doesn’t stop there. If God represents male and female, what does that say for leadership styles? For a system of incarceration based on punishment? For our foreign and domestic policies? For judging a presidential candidate (male or female) on their fitness to lead the nation through troubled times?
Society, of course, has a hard time with this. Category remains an important tool for preserving order, and we are acutely aware of who is “in” and who isn’t. But as Christians who follow the Gospel, we are called to challenge societal norms. God is both male and female. So is the Body of Christ. How can we transform our own vision to that of the Bible?