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Jeff the Baptist, vol. 1, #12

He or She: What's in a Pronoun?

A number of readers were a bit surprised at my nonchalant use of the term *She* to refer to God last column. One particularly thoughtful response wondered if I limit the beauty and majesty of God by referring to Him as *She.* Do I? I dare say there were probably other, unsaid, responses that were quite a bit harsher...

At what point does language become a weapon? Should we draw borders between friend and foe because of pronoun usage? How can one word touch off such a firestorm of sermons, articles and columns these days? Why is *He* so comforting, and *She* so threatening, to so many?

It's confusing and threatening in two ways, I believe. Using *She* on the first level instigates, quite simply, a power struggle. Using *She* also radically affects, on a second and deeper level, our search for meaning. Both are, I believe, vitally important.

First the power struggle. There are those who see the nuclear family as a divine institution. The arrangement of Father, mother, children (note the capitalization) re-creates daily the act of Creation. We have a divine Father, created first, overseeing and protecting his Kingdom. The mother and children, who come later, serve to glorify and worship the Father for his trouble. Whether it's a divine Creator, Richard the Lionhearted, or the Smiths next door, the pattern is basically the same. It's hierarchical.
It's based on a perceived superiority of the man over everyone else. He provides security, she and the children glorify Him in return. True, it's a rather transactional way of going about things, but it works pretty well.

Unless you question the wisdom of such an arrangement. That's when the trouble begins. Question its wisdom and you become a threat to its very raison d'etre. I know. I've been there.

It's tough for the men who stake their manhood on such an illusion of superiority. Questioning the superiority strikes at the very heart of who such men consider themselves to be. That's why, I believe, men, and women, who build their self-identities on patriarchy so vehemently oppose any
changes to that order. Questions only serve to remind that they just might be wrong. That's why God cannot be *She.* Each use of the pronoun in reference to God questions the divinely ordained superiority of men. Each use questions the male right to be the true spiritual leader. Each use, as
some would have it, undermines the institutions of family and society. Each use seeks to destroy all that is held dear in the hearts of - you guessed it - men everywhere.

Right.

It's not a question of pronouns; it's a question, for all too many, of who we are and how we should interact with one another.

But let's return to that more thoughtful objection that whereas *He* doesn't solely represent men but all humanity, *She* detracts from His divinity by trying to limit God to an image that nowhere near captures His greatness. I disagree.

Which brings me to the, more fundamental, second level: how our search for meaning is affected. If *She* communicates a number of images, I believe that *He* does even more. The only thing is, *He* images have the stamp of approval because, so far anyway, they've stood the test of time. On the
other hand, *She* points out ways in which our traditional views of God may very well be incomplete. Take Moses' image of God as desert warrior, for example. Claiming the right to slaughter scores, because of a special relationship with God, may have been justifiable in BC Palestine, but in the
latter half of the twentieth century it smacks of just one more super-race theory.

Then, too, I find Anselm's image of God as lord of the manor, though yet very influential with all too many, to be missing something vital. That it was considered very thoughtful in a time when feudal relationships was the norm is true, but how much sense does it make today to talk of repaying a
debt of honor to our King? How much sense does it make to reduce Jesus to a lamb that, through a blood sacrifice, ends the dishonor of a feudal King and restores the balance of a Kingdom?

Images matter. *She* doesn't limit us. If anything, *He* does. Can you imagine a man with a womb? It's tough. How about a man with womb-like compassion? For some men I know, that's even harder. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the ancient Israelites had some problems with that image, too. However, what they didn't have problems with is describing God like that. Scholars such as Trible, in her landmark God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, are uncovering Hebrew images of God that tradition has always ignored. For example, the Hebrew word *rehem* means "womb." The adjective *rahum,* derived from rehem, means "compassionate" or "merciful." Trible points out that, of all the characteristics of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, the one image that consistently pops up through the epochs is "Yahweh merciful (i.e. rahum) and gracious." So, which is the clearer image, after all: Angry King or Compassionate Lover?

Continued exegesis by scholars is posing many other thought-provoking questions about ways to see God and ourselves {ref:
http://www.womenpriests.org/scriptur/genesis.htm}. Was the first being Adam? Or was the first being the non-gender earth creature (*ha adam*) formed from the earth (*ha adama*)?

Was Eve created as Adam's helpmate? Or was the second ha adam created so that we could find partnership and intimacy and fulfillment in the arms of each other? The *ezer* or "helpmate" of Genesis 2:18 {ref:
http://www.khouse.org/blueletter/Gen/Gen002.html#18}, while traditionally thought to illustrate women's inferior status, is also used to refer to God, who helps us, in Psalm 33:20 {ref: http://www.khouse.org/blueletter/Psa/Psa033.html#20} Hosea 13:9 {http://www.khouse.org/blueletter/Hsa/Hsa013.html#9}, and other places.

How conveniently we forget. Are we saying, then, that God is man's inferior?

Lastly, does all this mean our leadership models should be based on a King/Kingdom pattern with clear levels of hierarchy and superiority? Or should they be based on partnership because a loving God, with womb-like compassion, saw that a ha adam needs a peer to truly be fulfilled?

Images matter. How can we, in good conscience, continue to willfully mistranslate the Creation stories when simple research shows that things may not be as clear as tradition teaches? Somehow, all too many of us do. *She* shakes us up. Using it reminds us that God is much larger than we make Him out to be. It reminds us to stop recasting God in our image. It reminds us to direct our energy toward living up to Hers.

- Jeff the Baptist

 

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