Asking the Bible questions about God’s body and gender

Published: March 28, 2014

Mary E. Klassen

Does God in the Bible have a body? Does God have gender and sexuality? These were two questions Mark S. Smith, PhD, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, asked in this year’s Theological Lectureship at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, March 19–20.

His answers demonstrated what AMBS Professor of Old Testament Ben Ollenburger described as Smith’s strength: bringing the Bible into conversation with our time and our questions.

First Smith explored whether God in the Bible has a body. Although it might seem that God should not have a body, “there is no denying the vast amount of human language used for God in the Bible,” Smith said.

The Bible describes three bodies for God, Smith pointed out, and each helps us as humans understand something about God. One is a natural body, human in scale, that walks, eats and drinks, as when God appeared to Abraham in Genesis 18 and 19. The second is a superhuman body, such as when God’s hand covers Moses so Moses will see only the God’s back side. The third body of God described in the Bible is a cosmic, mystical body, seated over the heavens and earth, as described in the first chapter of Ezekiel.

“While the first two bodies of God express special divine presence that may inspire us, God’s mystical body is for us to contemplate and to help us sense the divine working in our lives and our world,” Smith concluded in his first lecture.

The second lecture asked why God is angry in the Bible. While many see God in the Old Testament as a God of angry judgment, and God in the New Testament as a God of love, “both love and anger are attributed to God in both testaments,” Smith argued. “God’s anger and God’s love are closely related.”

God’s anger appears in the Old Testament at times when Israel has challenged or disregarded divine authority and when Israel fails to keep its covenant with God. God’s anger is part of God’s love, comparable to that of a parent toward a child or one spouse toward another. Smith sees this language of anger and love as a poetic way of expressing the mystery of the divine-human struggle.

The final question Smith addressed is whether God in the Bible has gender or sexuality. “The male understanding of God is true of much of what we see in ancient Israel and in Israel’s Bible, yet this is hardly the whole story,” Smith said.

“God may be represented as male in most passages, but several passages complicate this picture either with female imagery or representation of God as beyond gender,” Smith noted. More female images and references for God appear in the texts as Israel embraced monotheism, and the goddesses that were part of their religious landscape became less prominent.

Moving to the New Testament, Smith examined gender language for the Trinity. God the Father and Jesus the Son emphasize their special relationship, not their maleness, he said. “What counts in the Trinity are the relationships of the three persons and more specifically the relationship of love, not some sort of divine male essence.”

The Roman Catholic scholar of the Hebrew world of the Old Testament admitted that our modern liturgy has room for much more inclusive language for God. Acknowledging the different voices in the church on this issue, Smith said, “That the ending is not yet written but open-ended may be the best news at the moment.” He left listeners with the challenge to continue struggling with the question; there is an opportunity “to reconsider not only what the question of sexual and gender language for God discloses about God’s transcendence, but also for what it hides.”

Smith holds the Skirball Chair of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at New York University. He completed his PhD at Yale, after earning masters degrees from the Catholic University of America, Harvard Divinity School, and Yale University. He was President of the Catholic Biblical Association of America in 2010–11, and in 2011 he was elected to the American Academy for Jewish Research. Smith has published over 100 essays and articles, including first editions of four minor manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He is the author of fourteen books and co-author of two others.

Want to receive AMBS news and updates via email?