The pronouns of God

Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, a panel on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican is a great work of art. It shows God and man reaching towards each other, but whilst the man’s wrist is limp and the index finger only slightly raised towards God, God’s index finger is pointing out on the end of an arm at full stretch with muscles straining. God is straining to reach out to a man who is indifferent. There is good theology to be found in paintings.

Detail from The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo showing the finger of God reaching out to the hand of man.

What Michelangelo got wrong was painting God as an old man in the clouds. It is not the old or being in clouds that I have issue with, that is taken from a vision in the book of Daniel where God is called “The Ancient of Days.” Michelangelo’s painting of God as an old person in the clouds is accurate, but just because Daniel saw a vision of an old man, age being a sign of great wisdom, does not mean that at the creation of Adam God was male.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:27 ESV UK

It literally says, “God created adam in his own image.” Adam in Hebrew can mean human beings, humankind, person, man, or the proper name Adam. Although the verse in English says “in his own image,” and twice says “he created” in Hebrew there are no pronouns for God. It does not say that God is masculine but in says that both male and female are equally created in the image of God. All the pronouns have been added to make the sentence grammatically correct in English,they are an interpreter’s choice.

Jesus told us to call God our Father, It says more about the relationship than it does about the sex or gender of God, after all females equally share God’s image with males; it is not saying that God is male or female. It is about the relationship between a son, Jesus and his Father, in telling us to pray, “our Father,” Jesus was telling is that we too could have a child parent relationship with God.

I have been told by a rabbi, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, @theRaDR on Twitter, that in Hebrew God has no pronouns, the pronouns of G-d is G-d she said. (The mane of God is written in the Bible without vowels and Jews follow that custom).

So if male and female are both equally in the image of God and God has no pronouns in Hebrew, what pronouns do we use when talking about God in English? One way is one I have been using for some time, I change the order round to avoid pronouns. Above I said, “Both male and female are equally created in the image of God,” which was swapping “male and female he created them” around to retain the meaning whilst avoiding the pronoun.

When I cannot avoid that I use he/him when speaking about the Father and Jesus and as the Hebrew for spirit, ruach meaning wind, breath or spirit, if a feminine noun I use she/her for the Holy Spirit. Not that I am implying by this that the Holy Spirit is female, I need to be clear that no member of the Godhead is either masculine or feminine. I avoid the singular they/them when talking about God as this would confuse that the Godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist in unity. Of course there are times when English demands a pronoun and I reluctantly follow the tradition of calling God “he.”

If anyone has any way around this dilemma please reply.

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