Recently, in reviewing some of my files and notes in my computer, I was reminded of a guest speaker that we had at our church a while ago. This particular speaker was asked to talk about “the feminine side of the Holy Spirit.” The rationale for such a topic is that the word in the Old Testament for “spirit” (Hebrew, ruach) is feminine in gender. The speaker then proceeded to describe the feminine traits of the Holy Spirit and its relationship within the Trinity.
This interpretation is a spectacular demonstration of dreadful exegesis.
Such a terribly incorrect interpretation fails to understand something that almost any first year language student would learn: there is a difference between “natural gender” and “grammatical gender.” One of the ways some languages (including Greek and Hebrew) classify nouns and how they change in sentences (known as its “inflection”) is by gender. Hebrew has two gender categories: masculine and feminine. Greek has three: masculine, feminine and neuter.
Sometimes the natural gender corresponds to the grammatical gender. For instance, the Hebrew words for wife, sister, daughter, etc. are feminine. Likewise the words for man, husband, king, etc. are masculine.
However, in the majority of cases there is no correspondence between the grammatical gender of the noun and its supposed natural gender. For example, here is a very short list of nouns in Hebrew that are feminine:
- sword (cherev)
- war (milchama)
- sin (chatta’t)
- righteousness (tzedaqa)
- salvation (yeshu‘a)
- blessing (berakha)
- chariot (merkava)
- kidneys (kilya)
- wickedness (zimma)
- mercy seat (kapporet)
- ark (teva)
- garden (ganna)
I suppose it might be fascinating to base a sermon on the feminine side of righteousness, blessing, or salvation. But what about the alleged feminine side of sin, war, or kidneys? Must we assume that sin is a uniquely feminine quality?
And let us not forget my personal favorite Hebrew feminine noun: “foreskin” (‘orla)! Who is going to build a sermon around “the feminine side of the foreskin”?
All of this poses a problem for building a teaching on the feminine side of the Holy Spirit purely because the Hebrew noun is feminine. Not only that, such a view is quite untenable when one considers that the Greek word for “spirit” (pneuma) is neuter! If the Holy Spirit truly is feminine, why wouldn’t the Greek noun be in the feminine gender? The answer is that in most cases there is no association between a noun’s grammatical and natural gender.
Perhaps a better approach would be to avoid reducing God to one of our human masculine/feminine categories. We must remember that God transcends gender: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27 ESV). It is true that God is referenced with the use of masculine pronouns. To address that issue would be beyond the scope of a blog post. And it is true that Jesus, as God incarnate, was male “according to the flesh.” Nevertheless, it is a mistake to think of God in terms of natural sexual characteristics.
In the same way, it is certainly a mistake to think of the “feminine side of the Holy Spirit” merely because its noun in Hebrew is feminine.