Close your eyes and imagine what God looks like. More than likely, you pictured in your mind a male body. Maybe the image is something similar to Michelangelo’s renowned mural The Creation of Adam (1512) in the Sistine Chapel, in which God is illustrated as an old but well-built white man with a flowing white beard. Eurocentric art has taught, normalized, and legitimized a white male image of God. And it is this image of God that justifies patriarchy and influences a sexual ethics detrimental to women. No discussion concerning sexual ethics can take place until we first debunk God’s purported male gender.
Most of us refer to God as a “He” without giving it a second thought because we construct “Him” in our minds as male. Yet the biblical text teaches us that when humans were created, they were formed in the very image of God. According to the first creation story found in Genesis 1:27: “God created adam in God’s image, in God’s image God created him, male and female God created them.” Most Bibles read by Americans have translated the Hebrew word adam as “man.” The verse is hence rendered: “God created man in God’s image.”
But is rendering adam as “man” the proper translation? In Hebrew, adam can be used to refer to a proper name, as in Adam, the husband of Eve. Adam can also be translated to refer to a male-gender individual, as opposed to the Hebrew word issah for “woman.” And finally, adam can be used to refer to mankind, as in all of humanity. Now the text tells us that when God created adam, adam was created as male and female by God. So, if we translate adam to mean the person Adam, or render adam as “man” as opposed to a woman, does this mean that Adam the person or generic man was created with both male and female genitalia? If so, was Plato correct in imaging some primordial split? But what if we were to translate adam to mean humanity? Is humanity male and female? Yes, both males and females make up humanity. For this reason, when reading Genesis 1:27, “humanity” is a better translation for the word adam.
The fact remains, however, that for the vast majority of Judeo-Christian history, God has been thought of as a male, just as Michelangelo painted him on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But what does it mean that we conceive of God as male, complete with a penis? If the functions of a penis are to urinate and to copulate, why would Yahweh need a penis? Or does the penis have a spiritual meaning? If men conceive of women as castrated by the Almighty Himself and as envious of what only God and men possess, then, the reasoning goes, should it not be natural for woman to submit to men—who, unlike women, are created like God? In the nineteenth century, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) came to the conclusion, from a purely secular standpoint, that women are envious of men’s penises. If man, like God, has a penis, does it not stand to reason that all who have penises are closer to the perfect image of God? Following this line of thinking, the penis itself becomes a sacred object shared by God and males.
With this view in mind, it should not appear strange that in biblical times the great patriarchs of the faith, such as Abraham and Israel, placed great spiritual value on their penises by swearing oaths upon their genitals (Genesis 24:2–3; 47:29–31). More disturbing are biblical accounts concerning penises, such as the time God tried to kill Moses but was prevented by Zipporah, Moses’ quick-thinking wife, who cut off the foreskin of her son’s penis and rubbed it on Moses’ penis, thus appeasing God (Exodus 4:24–26). Or King David’s winning of his wife Michal through the gift of the foreskins of a hundred Philistine penises (2 Samuel 3:14).
What is important to note is that the sign of the covenant between God and man begins with the penis—specifically, cutting off its foreskin through the ritual of circumcision (Genesis 17:10–14). How then do women enter into a covenant with God if there is no penis to circumcise? Reserving that covenant for men only, the privilege of having a penis must therefore be protected at all costs from the threat of women. Hence the biblical enjoinment that if during a brawl, a woman “puts out her hand and lay hold of [a man’s] genitals, then you shall cut off her hand and your eyes shall not pity her” (Deuteronomy 25:11–12).
It is true that the Bible refers to God as a “He,” but God is also said to have eyes, ears, a strong arm, and so on. God is anthropomorphized and given human features so that humans’ temporal minds can attempt to conceive of the eternal. The biblical text is not trying to tell us what color God’s eyes are; rather, it is meant to convey the concept that God sees, so the act of seeing is understood by humans through the symbolical language of giving God eyes. The same concept is in play when the biblical text says God is a burning bush (Exodus 3:2) or a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29). Does this mean God is combustive? No; the symbol of burning fire helps us to better comprehend that which is beyond comprehension. And when the Bible refers to God as a mother who would not forget the child from her womb suckling her breast (Is. 49:15) or as birthing Israel (Deuteronomy 32:18), this isn’t intended to mean that God lactates and has a vagina; these too are symbols to aid our comprehension.
Contemporary scholars Paul Tillich (1886–1965) and Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005) were correct in asserting that one can only speak of or describe God through the use of symbols, connecting the meaning of one thing recognized by a given community that is comprehensible (such as father) with another thing that is beyond our ability to fully understand (that is, God). As important as symbols are to help us better grasp the incomprehensible essence of the Divine, they are incapable of exhausting the reality of God. To take symbolic language literally (for example, God is exclusively male or female) leads to the absurd (for example, God has a penis or a vagina) and borders on idolatry (the creation of hierarchies in relationships according to who is closer to the Divine ideal). To speak of God as male, as fire, or as mother is to speak of God in symbols that, through analogies, convey limited knowledge for understanding what God is like.
The radical nature of the Hebrew God, as described in Genesis, is that unlike the gods of the surrounding Canaanite neighbors, Yahweh has no genitalia. The gods of the people surrounding the Hebrews were depicted in small statuettes about the size of a hand. If these gods were female they were manifested with large, pendulous breasts, broad hips, and prominently featured vaginas. The male god statuettes usually were depicted with large, protruding and erect penises. Even though this was the norm for fertility gods, the god of the Hebrews, who was also responsible for creating and sustaining all that has life, had neither breasts nor a penis. The revolutionary concept of the Hebrew god is that this God was neither male nor female and thus was male and female. In short, this God named Yahweh was beyond gender. For this reason it was considered blasphemy to make any graven image of the true God (Exodus 20:4), for such a God was beyond the imagination of finite minds.
To give God a penis is to subjugate women to all those who also have penises. As feminist theologian Mary Daly wrote, “If God is male, then the male is God.” If men are gods, then women, because they lack a penis, fall short of divinity. Being less than men, women, as understood via the biblical text, were reduced to the status of property, incubators, the weaker sex, and the fallen Eve.
This article is part of a larger work, A Lily Among the Torn: Imagining A New Christian Sexuality