God as father

Why is the biblical God typically (not exclusively) described in masculine terms?

So far I’ve had two friends cite this as one of their main complaints against the Christian God: “he” is too paternal. Too male. In an era when, thankfully, women are finally able to challenge the structures of male domination which have caused inestimable suffering, and when, unfortunately, the subsequent attempt to purge our culture of “patriarchy” has led to a unilateral rejection of masculinity even in its virtuous forms, this is not surprising. I have asked myself the same questions: is there a reason that God wants us to call him father and not mother? Since he is spiritual, not bodily (John 4:24), why does he use gendered terms at all? Why not something more philosophical or mystical such as “pure being” or “the One”? Something less tainted by the kind of emotional baggage that human male authority figures tend to create?

In fact, from the beginning, the biblical God has used a brilliant, non-gendered ontological self-descriptor: “I am,” which is the root of the Hebrew word Yahweh/Jehovah, the most common name for God in the Hebrew Bible. This teaches us that God cannot be fully described by human language and that (his) self-existence far transcends the limited categories of sex and gender.

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I Am has sent me to you.'” Exodus 3:14

All our ideas about God are limited by our “epistemic humility,” our inability to grasp anything beyond our familiar world of matter, space, and time. Anything we know of the divine is nothing more than a fraction of an infinite whole. That much has always been clear.

Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand? Job 26:14

With that said, here are four ideas as to why the Bible generally presents God as a masculine, paternal figure.

1) The Bible anthropomorphizes God as a gift to us, making him more comprehensible than he would otherwise be.

The question “why use gendered terms at all?” points to a larger question regarding the Bible’s tendency to use anthropomorphizing terms to describe God, and worldly terms to describe otherworldly phenomena. Think also of how often Jesus spoke in parables, or short stories, rather than theological treatises. The Bible is mostly made up of stories and poems which were first composed orally and only later codified in written text. This reflects a fact about our world: most humans in most times and places have been illiterate, oral learners. As a species we tend to absorb information better and faster through storytelling than through argumentation. What’s easier to remember: a two-hour movie or a two-hour powerpoint presentation?

Human languages divide the world into categories which God doesn’t fit into, but which God nonetheless adopts in order to give us a foothold into understanding who he is. Language is limited, but without it we wouldn’t be able to say anything at all about God. One could object to this and say that, therefore, we shouldn’t even try and should be content to be agnostic. But if God has actually given us a set of images and terms and has told us to latch onto them, while recognizing their inherent limitations, then that is an incredible gift. There is a risk that we will take it all too literally and think that heaven is really made out of gold or that God is really male. But at least gold and fathers are things we can imagine, while heaven and divinity are not.

Especially considering that the vast majority of human learning is picture-oriented, the anthropomorphizing terms that the Bible uses to describe God are an expression of grace, proving that our Creator wants us to know him.

2) Many people lack father figures (more so than mother figures).

Elsewhere I’ve mentioned the biological reasons behind this, and for people who have been around long enough, it’s a simple reality. It’s easier for fathers than for mothers to abandon their children, and so more of them do. That means many more people lacking a loving, protecting, paternal voice, which is universally desired – at least, I can think of no exceptions. The Bible has always called out “the fatherless” as a special group for whom God is concerned. Thus, God as father fills this gap when he tells us to call him abba, the term used at home with dad because you’re safe under his domain and you know that he loves you.

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship*. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” Romans 8:15

*The Greek word for adoption to sonship is a term referring to the full legal standing of an adopted male heir in Roman culture (note from the NIV).

3) The fatherhood of God redefines human fatherhood.

Most human societies have placed little emphasis on the father’s role in child-rearing. The phenomenon of the stay-at-home dad is extremely modern, again because of biological reasons and the realities of pre-industrialized life. By calling God “father,” the Bible combines the traditional archetype of the distant authority figure who rules by domestic decree with the idea of an intimately involved parent who loves his children ardently. That is, God is “other” from us in his divinity and moral purity in a way analogous to the traditional concept of the distant patriarch. Yet he is compassionate and loving towards us in a way that challenges that traditional concept.

Thus the Bible subverts our assumptions about patriarchal gender roles by teaching fathers to love their children gently and to care for them intimately, in the same way that God loves and cares for us. Think of the father in the story of the prodigal son, who as an aged man runs to meet his rebellious son and kisses him before he has a chance to say anything. That father, representing God, refuses to be treated as a master or employer. Instead he insists on being affectionate and “prodigally” kind to his undeserving child.

And you saw how the LORD [Yahweh] your God cared for you all along the way as you traveled through the wilderness, just as a father cares for his child. Deuteronomy 1:31

And my personal favorite verse comparing human and divine fatherhood, in that subtle, piercing tone so typical of Jesus:

If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! Matthew 7:11

4) The Bible doesn’t only use masculine, paternal imagery to talk about God.

There’s lots of potential for reflection here, but for now I’ll just list a few examples of the times that the Bible speaks about God as a mother/woman.

[David:] But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. Psalm 131:2

[God:] Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Isaiah 49:15

[God:] As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem. Isaiah 66:13

[Jesus speaking, right before the story of the prodigal son:] Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she will call in her friends and neighbors and say, “Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin.” In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents. Luke 15:8-10

God is not a man. We have to remember that. In his mercy he has revealed himself to us in certain ways so that we can start to know him even now. The Christian life is a lifelong journey of working through all of this, emotional baggage and all, and gradually learning what it means when we pray, “our father…”


3 thoughts on “God as father

  1. I always thought that God reveals himself in the context of a specific time and place. Like us, his roles differ as he interacts with different people in different times and places. He’s the creator to the first man and woman, he’s the God who called Abraham, the God who sees Hagar, the God of angel armies to the Israelites, he’s the God of the Judges, he’s not the same at the start of the Bible as he is by the end of it. That is to say, in our time/place/context God might not necessarily chose to reveal itself to us in mostly masculine or feminine terms as we’ve developed to a point where not everything has to have a gender and we have the concept ‘it’. A good point about how people anthropomorphize him is that God was dealing with a society that readily accepted stories, we prefer to deal with facts. When God used masculine terms to speak to them, they were looking for the concepts. When we see masculine language – we tend to assume that masculine is the norm unless women are being specifically referred to. Keeping up the pretense of consistently using masculine language because it worked for them just confuses people today because for us, ‘man’ doesn’t include ‘woman’.
    There never was any doubt as to the identity of a child’s mother, she was there when the child was born. But to be a legitimate child of a father meant that a child would have legal protection, security, an inheritance, and continue the family name. A child who was fatherless would have none of those things in that day and age. I find it interesting that daughters also hold sonship status through Jesus; but sadly, there’s a gender hierarchy in play.
    One thing to understand about human fatherhood is that if a man really wants to do something, he will let nothing stop him. Like in the movie Hidalgo, the sheik treated his daughter extremely well when nobody was looking. If a man doesn’t want to do something, then he will find reasons why he ought not to do it. Men don’t mind the good part of fatherhood – playing with children, taking them places to see and do things. But it takes a real man to deal with bad part, the messy part, changing diapers and cleaning up vomit. I know of no man who would say: “It’s not proper for me to change a diaper because my gender role doesn’t permit it.” Sadly, gender roles aren’t subverted, rather, they’re standardized and made holy markers of true faith. Now men are the ones who held the power for the longest time and got to decide what was appropriate and what was not, this was a way of seeing to it that men reached certain heights appropriate for their status. Some men were expected to do some things because their culture prescribed certain limits on the role of father. Today’s gender roles, for example, heavily borrow off of 1950s idealism rather than Judeo-Roman Household codes.
    While it’s true that the Bible doesn’t *only* use masculine language and imagery for God, but it doesn’t exactly use an equivalent level of feminine language and imagery for God either. We don’t know Him as Her, We don’t know our Father as our Mother, we don’t know the Son as the Daughter. We don’t have something called Female Headship or Male Submission as the ideal in which humans ought to relate to one another.
    Look how long it took to defeat patriarchy (which I don’t think equates to a rejection of masculinity, just the idea of the superiority of men as a gender over women) – could some of that be because early Christians latched onto the idea that because God revealed himself as male, ordered that men were to be in charge of the church, in charge of families, that it powered patriarchy instead of subverted it?

    • Jamie, thanks so much for your input. I definitely agree with you on the masculine language issue, when referring groups of people. It’s only confusing. And we do have the concept ‘it’, in English at least – but it is inherently non-personal. Even while recognizing the non-binary gender rhetoric currently on the rise, do we really have the ability to conceive of persons, subjects with agency, entirely outside gendered categories? At this point, anyway? I’m not convinced on that. Also, really good point about the importance of legal fatherhood, thanks for that.

      No, the Bible doesn’t use equal levels of masculine and feminine imagery for God. Again, I think part of that is the simple fact that many more people are in need of a substitute father figure than a substitute mother figure. The fact that any feminine language is included in reference to God is surprising, considering common historical attitudes towards women. To say that a mother or a woman could ever be an appropriate way to think about God means that women also reflect God’s character, and are not merely defective or deformed versions of men. This goes back to basic imago dei doctrine, that “in his image God created THEM, male and female,” in other words that both men and women reflect God’s nature equally. Genesis goes out of its way to make that point in that verse.

      I acknowledge your point about the difficulty of “defeating patriarchy,” although I don’t see patriarchy as a monolithic entity as if gender roles remained fixed throughout time until 1968. (And I encourage you to take a look at the article linked to in the first paragraph of this post, hyperlinked to the words “rejection of masculinity,” for some additional food for thought.) But it’s also interesting that the only major civilization that has ever seriously challenged male superiority is also the only one with that imago dei doctrine written into its scriptures, and with a tradition of worshipping a God who is mostly masculine, but occasionally feminine, who is a kingly ruler but also a dad who runs to kiss his boy. Elsewhere men win every time, as it must be when the presupposition is that might makes right and that power justifies itself. Those types of presuppositions are fundamentally un-Christian.

      There’s obviously lots more to discuss here. I’m interested to read what you’ve written on the topic. What posts of yours do you recommend that I read?

      • I wouldn’t know which ones to suggest – I most talk about how complementarianism / male headship is failing miserably when it comes to dealing with abuse, protecting victims of abuse, promoting the status of it’s singles, and that it doesn’t work for all marriages or types of families. It’s related in that there’s a big emphasis on God the Father having authority and God the Son submitting to him at all times and there’s a big emphasis on men and women having the same relationship. I’ve seen husbands being described as ‘prophets, priests, and kings’ of their own households without any mention of what women are to do other than to ‘help’.
        I have seen some big names say that man is directly the image of God, woman is indirectly the image of God or that she’s a derivative image of God through the man. Since she isn’t made at the same time from the same source in Genesis 2, her image of God status isn’t the same as the man’s and is therefore lesser to some degree. It’s as if they’re using any and every difference in Scripture as proof that male headship was built into creation as God’s ideal for how men and women are to interact. So I don’t think that having imago dei doctrine really fixes the problem when people are capable of twisting it to keep the status quo.

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