"On God and Gender" Or: "Hey Rachel Held Evans, Come Study Greek With Me"

Around a decade ago, when I was working on my MDiv, I was confronted for the first time with inclusive language policies. One of my Bible professors at the time was so adamant about un-gendered language, especially for God, that if you referred to God with the pronoun "He" in her class, you were at risk of being kicked out of that class session and docked points. Inclusivity was the battle cry and if you transgressed you would be wounded in one way or another.

At that time I was still young in my biblical studies career and found it challenging to navigate through the issue. I had always heard God referred to as "He" and it was a little jarring to hear otherwise. It was somewhat illuminating to realize that, in fact, there are places in Scripture where feminine metaphors or imagery is used of God. Recently, in a blog post titled "Is God a Man?", by Rachel Held Evans, she too makes this point. Two more degrees in biblical studies and many years later, however, I'm not so convinced by some of the additional arguments that proponents of inclusive language, especially those advocating for this when speaking of God, carry any validity.

For example, in her post, Evans makes 3 points which, at various junctures, contradict one another, and at other points just do not hold interpretive water. Now, although I am posing some challenges here, let me say that I am NOT joining the chorus of voices calling Rachel a heretic and neither am I attempting to cast aspersions on her. I do not know Rachel personally but what I do know of her is that, at this point in time, she has garnered a bit of attention and has a lot of folks turning an ear to her.  I also know that she has an interest in God's Church and God's people.  So, instead of damning her, I would actually like to note that my retorts are meant to be edifying. Even more, I would like to extend a sort of invitation to Rachel, which I will do at the end of this entry.

Getting back to my main point, I will say that when I read Evans's post, I was struck especially by the arguments given in points 2 and 3. Point 2, which brings up the feminine imagery related to God in the Bible, also says "...while God is often referred to as Father, and Jesus was certainly a man, the Hebrew word for Holy Spirit is a feminine noun frequently connected with images of childbirth and nursing (John 3:5; cf. John 1:13, 1 John 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18)." Now, let me point out the obvious here first: Evans appeals to Hebrew and then cites all New Testament verses. Any first-year Bible College or seminary student knows that the New Testament we have is not Hebrew but rather Greek (yes, there are a few Latinisms and Semitisms here and there). Secondly, arguing that the grammatical gender of a noun is significant in determining its meaning is an exegetical error. Again, most first-year (or maybe second-year) language students know this. Here's an example of where this argument really falls flat: Yes, Evans is right that the Hebrew word רוח (ruach) is grammatically feminine, but what about the Greek counterpart πνευμα (pneuma), which is neuter? (Note: Although I am keenly aware of them, for ease of use, I'm not including breathing marks or accents in Greek and vowel pointings in Hebrew words in this post.) If we follow this logic we would be forced to argue that the feminine spirit lost her femininity somewhere in the change from Hebrew to Greek and became non-gendered; therefore, no gender is important. But wait...in John's Gospel, which Evans cites, when we come to 16:7, we find that the Spirit is called ο παρακλητος (o parakletos; The Comforter), which is a masculine noun with a masculine article. If one correlates grammatical gender with physical/sexual gender, then they would be thinking: Wow, so either A) The Spirit changed from female to neuter to male (and thus lost his femininity along the way); or B) The Spirit is all three at once. Obviously, both lines of thinking are wrong. What we must remember is that grammatical gender refers to grammatical gender and that's that! Grammatical gender does not determine physical/sexual gender. Native English speakers commit this exegetical fallacy pretty frequently.

Now, in point 3 I was a little taken aback because Evans wrote this: "Finally, (and as Mimi points out), the self-naming of God in Scripture is 'I AM WHO I AM'—a name without gender. I suspect that’s because, though God is a person, God is not a human being like us." Why was I taken aback? Because this line of reasoning is incredibly problematic. It is so because it directly contradicts the previous approach Evans was attempting to take, that is, applying grammatical gender to physical gender. In short, in the previous point Evans wanted to argue that the grammatically feminine word "ruach" in Hebrew had bearing on the physical gender of the Holy Spirit. The passage that Evans is citing, the one with the "I AM WHO I AM" statement is Ex 3:14. The Greek version(s) of the Old Testament, referred to as the LXX or Septuagint, say(s) this: εγω ειμι ο ων (ego eimi o on). Evans says that here the name of God is ungendered. Impossible. In fact, all four of these words have gender! Any guesses as to the grammatical gender? Masculine! That's right, all four of these words are masculine in grammatical gender. In Hebrew we get היהא רשׁא היהא (ehyeh asher ehyeh). In terms of grammatical gender, these are called "common," which means that in a given context the referent could be either masculine or feminine. That leads us to ask, however, who/what is the referent in this verse? Well, it is clear! The verse begins with אלהים (Elohim), a name/noun whose grammatical gender is masculine. This would mean, then, that the "I AM" statement is, grammatically speaking, understood to be masculine. Further, in Hebrew, there is no "neuter" or "non-gendered" gender, so, to make the claim that I AM WHO I AM is "a name without gender," is simply wrong.

In the end, one cannot argue that grammatical gender is determinative of meaning for the feminine Spirit but has no meaning or bearing whatsoever on "I AM WHO I AM"; that's a form of exegetical or interpretive cherry-picking. The fact is, grammatical gender is not determinative of meaning in either case! Further, the arguments that Evans attempts to make from a grammatical basis in this post of hers are, to put it kindly, all deeply flawed. In the end, I'm left wondering what the demographic that Evans is consistently appealing to, that is, burned-out Christians, ex-Christians, and young believers (she is also promoting a book about this very thing on her site as I write), are left to make of this? I have to think that they're somewhat confused. I myself, one with 4 degrees in biblical studies, am left scratching my head trying to figure out what sort of Trinitarian God this is?  How do folks begin to make sense of the notion that God is "Father" but that God's self-naming act renders God genderless, and then also that the Spirit is feminine while Jesus is male? Well, an understanding of biblical languages, just as I have briefly shown here, really can help cut back on such confusion.

What to make of all of this then? Well, it might be easy enough to join in the chorus of voices who are anti-Evans, after all, I am disagreeing with her. But I have a different idea. I would like to invite Rachel to come study Greek with me at the Conversational Koine Institute. I recognize Rachel's platform. I also recognize her gift for writing and relating to folks. And I also recognize the benefit, for those who engage and use the Bible, especially in public settings, of building up skills in biblical languages. That's what we do at the Conversational Koine Institute and I'm certainly willing to help her in that regard.

No comments:

Post a Comment