This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Lecturer explores God’s gender

ELKHART, Ind. — Does God in the Bible have a body? Does God have gender and sexuality? These were two questions Mark S. Smith, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, asked in this year’s Theological Lectureship at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary March 19-20.

New York University professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies Mark S. Smith speaks during the Theological Lectureship at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. — AMBS
New York University professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies Mark S. Smith speaks during the Theological Lectureship at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. — AMBS

His answers demonstrated what AMBS professor Ben Ollenburger described as Smith’s strength: bringing the Bible into conversation with our time and our questions.

Although it might seem that God should not have a body, “there is no denying the vast amount of human language used for God in the Bible,” Smith said.

The Bible describes three bodies for God, and each helps us understand something about God. One is a natural body, human in scale, that walks, eats and drinks, as when God appeared to Abraham in Genesis 18 and 19. The second is a superhuman body, such as when God’s hand covers Moses so Moses will see only God’s back side. The third is a cosmic, mystical body, seated over the heavens and earth, as described in the first chapter of Ezekiel.

“While the first two bodies of God express special divine presence that may inspire us, God’s mystical body is for us to contemplate and to help us sense the divine working in our lives and our world,” Smith said in his first lecture.

The second lecture asked why God is angry in the Bible. While many see God in the Old Testament as a God of angry judgment, and God in the New Testament as a God of love, “both love and anger are attributed to God in both testaments,” Smith said. “God’s anger and God’s love are closely related.”

God’s anger appears in the Old Testament at times when Israel has challenged or disregarded divine authority and when Israel fails to keep its covenant with God. God’s anger is part of God’s love — comparable to that of a parent toward a child or one spouse toward another. Smith sees this language of anger and love as a poetic way of expressing the mystery of the divine-human struggle.

Gender is complex

The final question Smith addressed is whether God in the Bible has gender or sexuality.

“The male understanding of God is true of much of what we see in ancient Israel and in Israel’s Bible, yet this is hardly the whole story,” he said.

“God may be represented as male in most passages, but several passages complicate this picture either with female imagery or representation of God as beyond gender.”

More female images and references appear in the texts as Israel embraced monotheism and as the goddesses that were part of their religious landscape became less prominent.

Moving to the New Testament, Smith examined gender language for the Trinity. He said God the Father and Jesus the Son emphasize their special relationship, not their maleness.

“What counts in the Trinity are the relationships of the three persons and, more specifically, the relationship of love, not some sort of divine male essence,” he said.

A Roman Catholic scholar of the Hebrew world of the Old Testament, Smith said modern liturgy has room for much more inclusive language for God. He challenged listeners to continue struggling with the question.

There is an opportunity “to reconsider not only what the question of sexual and gender language for God discloses about God’s transcendence, but also for what it hides,” he said.

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