The perception of God as masculine is of course not surprising in a patriarchal or male-ruled society. As noted by Susan Ackerman, there are some feminizations of Yahweh in Isaiah (e.g., "As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you" [66:13]; see also 42:14 and 49:15). But then Isaiah also refers to kings as "nursing fathers" (49:23) and to daughters who "shalt suck the breasts of kings" (60:16), words that cannot be taken literally. In any case, Yahweh outside of some Isaianic imagery is masculine in the Hebrew Bible.
In the New Testament, "God" translates the Greek Theos, with God remaining a male deity. Thus Jesus regularly uses the word Father (Greek Pater, in Jesus' Aramaic Abba) for God (e.g., Matt. 6:8-9; Mark 14:36; Luke 10:21; John 17:1; see also Paul's use in Rom. 8:15 and Gal. 4:6). Elaine Pagels points out that some Christian Gnostics thought of the divine in both masculine and feminine terms, with Jesus referring to the Holy Spirit as his Mother in the Gospel of Thomas and in the Gospel to the Hebrews, and with the Apocryphon of John describing the Trinity as Father, Mother, and Son. As Pagels notes, however, such views were suppressed as heretical, with none of the Gnostic texts included in the New Testament canon. (See Robinson's The Nag Hammadi Library.)
There is archeological evidence that at least some ancient Hebrews perceived of Yahweh as having a consort or female companion (see ASHERAH: THE LORD GOD'S LADY?). This could be the origin of the mysterious Lady Wisdom found in Proverbs and the Apocrypha. (She is in some of the Gnostic texts as well.) Wisdom (Hebrew hokma, a feminine noun) is personified in Proverbs not only as a woman but as a preexistent entity with Yahweh. "The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way," says Lady Wisdom, "before his works of old, . . . and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him" (Prov. 8:22,30). It was through Wisdom that Yahweh "founded the earth" (3:19), she is "a tree of life" to those who lay hold of her (3:18), and she offers to reward all who seek her: "I love them that love me; and those that seek me early shall find me" (8:17).
In the Apocrypha, Lady Wisdom is identified with the Torah or biblical law (Sirach 24:23; Baruch 4:1). In the New Testament, the preexistent Word (Greek Logos) at the beginning of the Gospel of John is reminiscent of Wisdom, and in 1 Cor. 1:24 Paul calls Christ "the wisdom of God" (Greek Theou Sophia).
The metaphor of Yahweh and the Hebrew people as husband and wife is found first in the book of Hosea, and continues in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. It is a troubled marriage, for despite Yahweh's "love toward the children of Israel," they "look to other gods" (Hos. 3:1). The wife's infidelity is thus a metaphor for the Israelite people's idolatry. (See HARLOTRY: "A-WHORING AFTER OTHER GODS.") "Thy maker is thine husband," Isaiah tells Israel, yet she beds down with others (Isa. 54:5; 57:7-8). "Turn, O backsliding children," Yahweh pleads in Jeremiah (3:14), "for I am married unto you." At one point Yahweh divorces Israel for her adultery, only to have "her treacherous sister Judah" commit adultery also (Jer. 3:8). Ezekiel 23 allegorizes Samaria and Jerusalem, the Israelite and Judahite capitals, as two sisters with a host of foreign lovers while both are married to Yahweh.
Particularly disturbing to feminist commentators are the biblical passages that describe Yahweh's brutal punishment of the women who symbolize Israel's unfaithfulness. As noted by Kathleen M. O'Connor, the portrayal of physical abuse by the divine in such passages implicitly condones such behavior in humans. Yahweh strips "the virgin daughter of Babylon" in Isa. 47:1-4, and lifts Jerusalem's skirts over her face that "(her) shame may appear" in Jer. 13:26 (see RAPE). In Lamentations, Yahweh trods "the virgin" Jerusalem "as in a winepress" (1:15), and in Ezekiel he tells his wife Oholibah (Jerusalem), "I will raise up thy lovers against thee," and they will "strip thee out of thy clothes"; they will take away not only "thy sons and thy daughters" but "thy nose and thine ears," and "thus will I make thy lewdness to cease from thee" (23:22-27).
Needless to say, the thought behind these metaphors of Yahweh the husband physically abusing his wife presents a challenge to modern biblical interpreters. Through such imagery "the Bible," writes Sharon H. Ringe in The Women's Bible Commentary, "seems to bless the harm and abuse with which women live and sometimes die." The brutality seems hardly ameliorated by Yahweh's assurances to his mutilated wife of a brighter tomorrow, for they make God sound like the stereotypical wife beater who minimizes what he has done and promises not to do it again: "In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee. . . . Again I will build thee, and thou shalt be built, O virgin of Israel, . . . and shalt go forth in the dances of them that make merry" (Isa. 54:8; Jer. 31:4).
Creation of Adam (detail)