When we read even the first few sentences of Genesis, we encounter questions about how we should understand “gender” in the Bible. For instance, Gen. 1:1 says, “In the beginning God…” Should we call this “God” (אלהים; elohim) “he”? “she”? “it”? “they”? We then read that “the רוח (ruach; ‘spirit-breath-wind’) of God was hovering…” (1:2). In Hebrew, ruach is feminine; so is God’s Spirit or Breath therefore “she”? Towards the end of creation, “God created the adam (האדם)… male and female” (1:27). If “the adam” is both male and female, then why do most English translations use the English word “man” for adam?

These basic examples from the first chapter of Genesis already illustrate some of the many issues that arise when we talk about gender in the Bible. Unlike English, the Hebrew language has full grammatical gender, which means that every noun — “table,” “frog,” “Pharaoh,” “wisdom,” etc. — has some built-in gender value. Very often such gender attributes play an important role in the connections the author is trying to make. Moreover, in certain languages, like Greek and Latin, nouns can be not only masculine or feminine, but also neuter.

As a result, we simply cannot talk about gender in the same way in different languages, because the languages do not “match” each other. The word ruach (“spirit-breath-wind”) is feminine in Hebrew, neuter when translated into Greek (πνεῦμα; pneuma), masculine in Latin (spiritus), and without gender entirely in English! In other words, gender gets changed (or lost) in translation — together with any connections that depend on it. Yet English translators still have to decide which pronouns to use (“he,” “she,” “it,” “they”), and people often draw theological or ideological conclusions based on these choices.

What is the best approach to use in English? There is no foolproof solution. It is important to recognize that anything we say will be different from the Biblical Hebrew original. But sometimes it is possible to reproduce parts of the original flavor, and personally I think we should try to do that whenever we can. So, for instance, we can translate אדם (adam) as “human” instead of “man,” recognizing that other words mean more specifically “male human” (איש; ish) and “female human” (אשה; ishah).

Not everyone agrees with this view. Dr. Vern Poythress wrote a serious article on “Gender in Bible Translation” and concluded, “The word ‘man’ in English, used to designate the human race, is not an exact equivalent to adam in Genesis 1:26 and 5:2. But I cannot find anything better.” Since there is no perfect solution, people will naturally have different preferences and opinions. However, all readers of the Bible should at least be aware of the choices involved. This will help reduce misimpressions, false beliefs, and hasty generalizations — for the good of everyone, both male and female!

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186 COMMENTS

  1. Hi - dear, yes, it is interesting the gender thing but it has to be clear that we prefer to call The Lord God, He because though I did not read the original Hebrew bible which suppose to clarify the God first word. But my understanding is that I should call Him, He. For the fact that when He introduces himself, He says I am He not I am she. However, He call his wisdom she and his Spirit which are a part of himself. But know that He is He not she otherwise we wouldn't call him father
    • Thanks, Stephen. What about in languages where (say) "the Spirit" is masculine? Would you still call the Spirit "she"? It can get confusing!

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    • The 3 letter word God Is an English word. The 3 letter word God never existed in ANY language until OVER 4,400 YEARS after the heavens,earth,and Adam were created SOoooooo I fail to see how anything that did not exist at the time everything was created, created ANYTHING! Do some deep serious research on the ORIGIN of that word, and who it originally applied to. IF you do, I hope You know what origin and apply means.

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    • Well, it depends, Stephen, from where you are taking your “quote.” In the “burning bush” passage in Exodus, God uses an indeterminable form of the Hebrew verb for “to be” — usually translated “I am who I am,” but, I find fascinating, equally acceptably translated with different tenses or even moods, such as “I will be who I will be.” The Hebrew consonants, Y-H-W-H, give rise to a name so holy to Jews that they are not spoken by Dr. Gruber or Dr. Eli, and out of respect I will Just say that this name is the source of .

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    • It IS the 3 letter word God ITSELF that IS the problem. To apply that name/title or whatever You want to call it that FIRST applied to and meant an IDOL and later say that same name/title are THE CREATOR(S) of LIFE and all living things IS INSULTING.
    • In ancient languages it was not the gender of the person who was a father. Words in the language grammar had a gender. "Father" was a masculine word in grammar hence reference to a father had to be "he". God is a spirit therefore neither masculine or feminine.
  2. Seems a secular contradiction in terms of, "God", I would fear to refer to Him as she as do some in the secular world. I would almost give secularism a homosexual place in Christianity. The two dont stand together in the Kingdom, nor should it stand in hearts of those who are in Christ. I think there is too much stretch in the interpretation.
  3. I am a Messianic Jew this article even the title offends me and no doubt grieves the Holy Spirit. This is not of any importance and should not even raised as it detracts from the sovereign nature of our God. This is trivia and hence Ibam unsubscribing from your posts. I have considered your courses but this seals it. May the Lord Bless you and offer clear discernment to you.
    • If you are offended by a question, you might have had a hard time with our courses! We like to ask a lot of questions. :) That said, you seem to have misunderstood the article. It deals with a basic question of human language that actually is of importance for reading the Bible and does have many practical implications.
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    • I can understand Ralph Scott's comment. It is maybe only an issue in in countries where English is the major/sole language. It may not be a problem in countries or with people of multiple languages in which they are accustomed to differences in languages.
  4. If God and Jesus are one, and when He told Mary she would become pregnant with the Messiah, He said that she would have a son and call Him Jesus. How can God be female? Also Jesus refers to God as Father not Mother.
    • Beverly, here we are talking about the grammatical gender of words, not biological sex. And as far as I can tell, even most Christian interpreters don't read those passages as saying that God had sex with Mary/Miriam! Not to mention that the text actually says that "the Spirit" would fall on her (Luke 1:35). In Greek "the Spirit" is not masculine but neuter, while in Hebrew "the Spirit" is actually feminine. This perhaps shows the point of the article: that we should think about some basic realities of human language and also about realities that may exist beyond human language.
  5. We read in Genesis that God created both male and female after His image. That seems to indicate that the male and female qualities are all found in God and that "gender" really doesn't fit God the way we think of gender. I always refer to God as 'Him' because, as someone has already pointed out, we are told in Scripture that He is our Father. Also, Jesus is the Son. But the qualities of the mother image is also within His character. That is why He is all and in all. He is complete.
    • Diane Stephenson November 16, 2018 at 8:14 pm
      @ & Re: > "We read in Genesis that God created both male and female after His image."
      And it is also written > "God said let "US" make man in "OUR" image." SOoooooo We have God who are US, and God aka, HE. 95% of all "God" loving people OR who SAY the are only care about what anything means to them. God said let US create man in OUR image and God created man in HIS image. Really makes sense doesn't it?!?!

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    • Thank you, Diane! Both the use of a masculine pronoun for God and the idea that, as you say, God encompasses masculine as well as feminine qualities are longstanding views in Judaism and Christianity. I'm glad you pointed that out! Many commenters seem to be missing this.
  6. Thanks for this.

    Once upon a time, I did a fairly extensive-for-me word study of Maimonides' 7 names of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, focusing most heavily on YHVH (including AHYH: "I am") and Elohim. I gave it as a talk to some friends at a gathering. They liked it.

    My major conclusion: "God can be represented by masculine, feminine, singular, plural, past, present, future."

    I think another way of stating that conclusion is "God doesn't fit well into human soundbites".
    • Thank you, Beau! A great way of expressing it. Hopefully if people read your comment and then reread the article they will understand why we should consider these issues.
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    • Beau, New words are being created for the first time in every language. Words We never heard before. The 3 letter word God never existed in ANY language until the latter part of the 3rd Century A.D. Please if You will, tell me the ORIGIN, and the first usage of the 3 letter word God and WHO that 3 letter word applied to. I want to see IF You discover what I did/have. A good start in researching is an article by Donald Adkins entitled, Baal-Gad. IF anyone else is reading this message, I'll be most grateful for your input.

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  7. With respect I do find this article confusing. I have always addressed God in the masculine and still believe it right to do so. I can find very little in scripture to support a feminine God. Of course God is Spirit but in Matthew 5v16, v45, 6v6, v9, John 1v14 and in so much God inspired Scripture we are taught to think of and pray to our Father in Heaven. Regarding Adam, I understand that God created a man and woman to be his helpmete. Of course I do not believe that either is superior but stand equal.
    • Thanks for the comment, Colin. Both the use of a masculine pronoun for God and the idea that God encompasses masculine as well as feminine qualities are longstanding views in Judaism and Christianity. Note that Biblical texts certainly do call God our "father" (masculine), but also our "salvation" (feminine), "help" (feminine), etc. The "Spirit" and "Presence" of God are both feminine in Hebrew, as well. The point about "adam" is that this being -- humanity -- was created both male and female. We lose something, esp. today, if we translate "adam" as "man" (which implies "male") instead of "human."

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  8. This topic makes me sick, Jesus who was born DEFINITELY Male said to his disciples if you have seen me you have seen the Father, why all the attempts to water down the word of God. Jesus also said the Holy Spirit will lead us into ALL TRUTH, its all about Reverence to a holy and just God. Johns Gospel makes it abundantly clear that God is the FATHER and not Mother. Jesus said I ascend to my Father and your Father.
    • Noel, both the use of a masculine pronoun for God and the idea that God encompasses "feminine" as well as "masculine" qualities are longstanding views in Judaism and Christianity. Note that Biblical texts do call God our “father” (masculine), but also our “salvation” (feminine), “help” (feminine), etc. The “Spirit” and “Presence” of God are both feminine in Hebrew, as well. In the passage you mention (John 16:13), "the Spirit of Truth" is not masculine, but neuter. The article is discussing basic realities of language that are important to grasp. I suggest you read also the comments by Beau and Barbro.
  9. So disagree on this. God wanted to create “man in our own image”, which he did and then Adam needed a helpmeet so the woman was formed; and way later Yeshua taught a prayer, what we know as Our Father; also, statements such as “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.” are plentiful.
    • Connie, in Hebrew we read that God wanted to create "adam." The question is how to translate this into English. There is no perfect equivalent, but the article points out that "human" may be a better translation than "man," since the Hebrew word "adam" includes both male and female humanity. The idea that God encompasses “feminine” as well as “masculine” qualities is a longstanding view in Judaism and Christianity. Note that Biblical texts do call God our “father” (masculine), but also our “salvation” (feminine), “help” (feminine), etc. The “Spirit” and “Presence” of God are both feminine in Hebrew, as well.
  10. There seems to be no comment about Jesus praying to “Our Father which art in Heaven”. Clearly God, The Father is male.
    The reference in Genesis to Elohim is to Gods plural. Adam like any earthly being had both a mother and a father.
    The discussion about the gender of nouns in different languages appears to me to be a red herring.
    • David, the Bible describes God in human language using many terms. Biblical texts do call God our “father” (masculine), but also our “salvation” (feminine), “help” (feminine), etc. The “Spirit” and “Presence” of God are both feminine in Hebrew, as well. Usually these things are not interpreted to mean that God is "male" or "female," but rather that God encompasses both "masculine" and “feminine” qualities (in our terms) and that the masculine form is the default way of referring to God in human language. "Elohim" (though morphologically plural) actually functions grammatically as singular in Hebrew when referring to God.
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