Yes. No. Maybe.
All of the above.
In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth – when the earth was astonishingly empty, with darkness upon the surface of the deep (tehom), and the Divine Presence hovered upon the face of the waters – God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated between the light and the darkness. God called to the light: “Day,” and to the darkness He called: “Night.” And there was evening and there was morning, one day. (Artscroll Series – Mesorah Publications, 1993)
Genesis throws us right into the mystery. Our main character appears without a biography. We see no description of God’s appearance or spiritual attributes. No pronouns, except in one place where grammatically it’s absolutely necessary.
What hints does the text offer about God’s gender? What techniques of reading can bring the hints to light?
We can look at the meaning of God’s Hebrew name here: Elohim. It’s an odd word, both singular and plural. Sometimes in Hebrew Bible it functions as the name of one particular God. Sometimes it refers to all the gods worshipped by anyone. Is God presented here as both a unity and a multiplicity? As having one gender, no gender, or all simultaneously?
We can look at the gendered verbs, at their meaning and grammatical structure. Here, the Divine Presence “hovers,” just as a mother eagle hovers over her nest in Deuteronomy 32:11. The construction of the verb unequivocally suggests a female actor. As we read on, however, the verbs change, using Hebrew constructions that can be understood as either generic or masculine. “God said,” “God saw,” “God called” and finally — where it would be extremely inelegant to repeat the proper noun — “he/it called.” Is God presented here as both female and male? Or female, male, and neither?
We can bring to our reading later Jewish ideas, imagining them as comments on this text. Does the Divine Presence appear in later tradition as the Shechinah, the ideal mother nourishing all? Is she a feminine aspect of an integrated Deity? Or a female consort who assisted a male deity during creation, as Wisdom claims to be in Proverbs 8?
We can look at comparative mythology. The Hebrew used for “the waters” – tehom – sounds like the name of the Babylonian Goddess Tiamat. Her sacred marriage birthed the cosmos, but her children overthrew her to create the world we know. Does the Divine Presence hover over the waters in a metaphorical procreative act, involving male and female aspects of God in creation? Or does a male God overthrow the older Goddess, initiating patriarchal religion? Or both?
There’s no direct look at God here, only at what God does. God’s gender can be inferred, but not observed. And the story continues:
God said: Let us make humankind, in our image (b’tzalmeinu), according to our likeness (k’demuteinu)! Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the fowl of the heavens, animals, all the earth, and all crawling things that crawl about upon the earth! So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God did he create it, male and female he created them. (Everett Fox – Schocken Books, 1983)
God who speaks of creating in “our” image is a multiplicity; God who creates in “his” image is a unity. The created being reflects a particular image: a singular being with multiple qualities, named male and female. Here, God is male, God is female, God is singular, God is multi-faceted.
But the text throws in a little caveat, reminding us not to take these descriptions too literally. God proposes to create “in our image” and “according to our likeness.” Modern Hebrew cognates for “our image,” suggest an exact copy; for “our likeness,” they suggest an unspecified similarity, as slight as a metaphorical connection.
Yes, says Genesis 1, God has gender: both genders, male and female, as well as various stops along the binary continuum. But not exactly, because gender as we know it is only a reflected human approximation of the Multifaceted One who began to create heavens and earth.
Content: Summary of our group text study at Limmud Vancouver session, “Does God Have Gender?”