‘Male and female they created them’: Pronouns and the community of God

This coming Sunday, we will focus on the first creation story (here). During the service, I plan to reflect on how God acts in the face of chaos; here, I want to comment on translation. What’s interesting is the name of God and the related issue of pronouns, that is, he/him; she/her; they/them. Most English translations just write ‘God’ and assign a male pronoun; not coincidentally, most English translations have been authored by men. (If in doubt, read through the list of contributors in the front of your Bible. It’s an entirely depressing exercise.)

When we go back to the text of Genesis 1, however, the word translated as ‘God’ is ‘Elohim.’ The Hebrew authors borrowed the name from Canaan, where El is the top god and Elohim is the council of gods over whom El presides. In other words, God’s name refers to a plural presence. Why a monotheistic religion kicks off its Scriptures with a borrowed name for God, and a council of gods at that, is a mystery, but it is a fascinating one worth pondering.

You probably know the story: Elohim creates all things, including the human in Elohim’s own image: both male and female Elohim creates them. In other words, there is no justification for referring to God here as male: and if you try to tell me that the male pronoun encompasses all genders, I will tell you from my personal experience that it does not. Our language has shifted, and ‘he’ no longer includes people like me, if indeed it ever did. If we’re going to talk respectfully with people, we will accept that few women feel included by male pronouns; and if we’re going to talk intelligently about this story, we will refer to God with the pronoun ‘they.’ This handy little word is delightfully ambiguous: It encompasses both singular and plural, male and female, just like the Elohim.

So the next time you read Genesis 1:1-2:4a, every time you see God described as ‘he,’ substitute ‘they.’ Do this, reading aloud if you can. Listen to the difference. As someone made in God’s image, how does this make you feel? Does it affect how you experience your own gender, and your place in the created order? What possibilities does this open up? Are you resistant to this reading and, if so, why? Pray about this all: and as you pray try to address God not as a man, or even as a woman, but as a multiplicity of relationship, a relationship into which you, too, are called to participate.

Peace,
Alison

Emailed to Sanctuary, 3 June 2020 © Alison Sampson, 2020. Image credit: Jenny Smith on Unsplash. For a longer piece on gender and the godhead, go here.

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