God as 'she'?

I recently read an interesting article by Nik Ansell from ICS in Toronto in which he argues that God is referred to with a feminine pronoun. I will not produce his argument but simply show you the passage.
Moses heard the people weeping throughout their clans, everyone at the door of his tent. And the anger of the LORD blazed hotly, and Moses was displeased. 11 Moses said to the LORD, "Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12 Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,' to the land that you swore to give their fathers? 13 Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, 'Give us meat, that we may eat.' 14 I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. 15 If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness." (Num 11:10-15)

The 'offending' pronoun is highlighted above in v. 15. Note the context: Moses asks Yhwh,
"Did I conceive all this people?"
"Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,' to the land that you swore to give their fathers?"

The implied answer to both questions is "No! Yhwh did!"

Yhwh conceived Israel. Yhwh gave birth to Israel. Yhwh carried Israel in his bosom to the Promised Land.

In this context Moses uses the second person feminine singular pronoun ('at) of Yhwh. Yhwh is imaged here as a mother so this makes sense. But it is also unique. Nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible is Yhwh referred to by a feminine pronoun (which leads some to think the text corrupt or that it contains a rare, contracted form of the masculine pronoun which is identical to the feminine).

So gentlefolk - what theological reflections might one draw from Num 11:15? (This is a real question not a question leading to a predetermined answer)


Fascinating! Is the original article available online anywhere?
David Reimer said…
Well ... I'm sure you've done a bit of digging already, and I reckon it must be in that original article ... but ... just for the banter...

Muraoka has a note on this (Joüon-Muraoka GBH, 2nd edition, 2006; para. 39a/p. 110, n. 1). In addition to the five ketiv/qere haser spellings, Muraoka also quotes Andersen and Forbes, Spelling in the Hebrew Bible (1986; p. 135): "The normalization [= Ktiv] achieves consistency, but the survival of apparently fem. vocalization of clearly masc. forms (Nu 11.15; Dt 5.24; Ez 28.14) suggests that אַתְּ was a variant masc. form."

You're right to note that Num 11.15 is the only time this is used of Yhwh. In Deut 5.24 it is used of Moses, and in Ezek 28.14 of the "cherub" (longer form follows in v. 15).

So, in answer to the question "what theological reflections might one draw from Num 11:15?", one answer might be: "the same as whatever anthropological reflections one might draw from Deut 5.24".

As I say, just for the banter. ;)
David Reimer said…
And a teensy bit more digging reveals that Ansell's inspiration for this comes from Lisa Guenther's The gift of the Other: Lévinas and the Politics of Reproduction (SUNY Press, 2006), "esp. 135-136 and the comments cited there on the feminine pronoun by Rashi and Nachmanides" (taken from his online "inaugural" lecture, in the extended footnote on p. 11).

Sadly, these very pages are some of the very few omitted from the Google Book display. Sigh!

From Ansell's comments, he appears to think (in reliance on Guenther?) that the contexts of Num 11 and Deut 5 are commensurate, and that אַתְּ is the "stitchword". Two quick thoughts on that: (1) I'm not convinced that contexts are so resonant: I find Walter Moberly's positive assessment of Deut 5 persuasive (in Prophecy and Discernment). (2) The "stitchword" suggestion overlooks the Ezekiel 28 occurrence, slightly weakening the suggestion that the Num-Deut link here is special in some way.

FWIW. YMMV. etc.
Robin Parry said…

I don't think it is online anywhere. Not sure. Sorry.

Robin Parry said…

Thanks - you are fab! You are right that this might not be a real feminine pronoun and I love the comment about Deut 5:24 and anthropology!

Ansell does discuss Deut 5. He thinks that the people are alluding to Numbers 11 as they accuse Moses of refusing a mothering role (as Moses had accused God in Num 11). So he thinks that it is a fem pronoun in Deut 5. Am I convinced? No. But a little intrigued.
Robin Parry said…

on the commensurability of Deut 5 and Num 11 - I suspect you are right. Not sure as I have not looked at it carefully.

Anonymous said…

I realize this is a 'hot potato' but if God is spirit, he is neither male nor female. talk of 'male or female' when applied to God is just a category mistake, isn't it? I suppose God reveals himself using male pronouns - at least, predominantly. But surely it would be a mistake to think this means God is male. Jesus is male, of course. So the Second Person of the Trinity has a male human nature. But this does not mean God is essentially male, since his human nature is not 'part' of the divine essence, but only the human nature of the divine person of the Son.
Robin Parry said…
Ah Oliver Crisp! Good to hear from you.

You are, of course, correct and I don't think that anyone would disagree. But the 'battle' is over the dominance of masculine metaphors for God. Does the exclusive or dominant use of male metaphors in the Bible have detrimental social/political/psychological impact on women? Is the biblical practise therefore morally suspect? Is an alternative practise legitimized by [fill in the blank space ... morality? scripture? reason?]. That is a much more difficult issue to know how to handle.

Once you say, 'Of course, God is not actually male or female' then what do you do when someone says, 'OK, let's balance "our Father" prayers with "our Mother" prayers.'? On what grounds is the Father metaphor more revealing about God?

Scripture and tradition carry a lot of weight for me so I do not feel at all comfortable with the attempt to balance Father and Mother language (say) but on what grounds do I base such an objection?

Well Jesus taught us to pray 'Our Father' but there may well have been good reasons why Father would have served better than Mother to connote the ideas that Jesus wanted to communicate. But such reasons do not necessarily apply in all societies. So ...

Which is why I try to think about this topic as little as possible. :-)
Anonymous said…
Yes, I do see the problem. On the matter of whether one should refer to God in the Lord's Prayer as 'Our Mother' I don't think this would be appropriate because, as you already intimate, this is not what Christ said. So it is not what was revealed to us. And, like you, I think tradition needs to be taken seriously. I don't find referring to God as 'Mother' all that appealing, but I suppose that the logic of my argument would lead me to say that there is nothing in principle wrong with speaking of God in these terms, if God is, strictly speaking, neither male nor female, and where God reveals himself using male and female pronouns. Bit of a fudge, perhaps?

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