The Feminine Side of the Holy Spirit?

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.

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8 thoughts on “The Feminine Side of the Holy Spirit?

  1. For me, I always thought that one reason that Jesus was male was because as a female in that day and age he/she would not have had the same opportunities and would not have been taken seriously by anyone. Women just weren’t seen as equals then (for example, the prostitute who was brought before Jesus…where was the man she was caught with? Probably one of the men who brought her to him) Just my two cents… 😉

  2. Couldn’t have said it better myself. On a side note, I wonder what kind of grade I would have received if I had done a sermon on the feminine characteristics of the foreskin back in the day when I was taking homiletics?
    Your post further demonstrates why we study this stuff…thanks!

  3. thanks for the clear explanation about the gender of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said he came to fulfill the law of the prophets. and even Jesus himself used word (He) related to the Holy Spirit (Jonh 16:7-8). |Praise the Lord, you have the gift of teaching, and i was edify by your explanation. God Bless You
    Your co laborer in Christ vineyard,
    Bro. Sam Luna

  4. Perhaps what you are missing here is the arrogance that is expressed thru the denial of the value of the female in Christianity. Since God has no gender, why do people become incensed when God is not referred to in strictly masculine terms? Is it not a sin of paternalism, a type of pride? I’ve lived with the “obvious” superiority of the masculine and inferiority of the feminine in every Protestant arena. If God is neuter– as you and the original texts express, we should stop mistranslating into masculine form. Several years ago, Christians for Biblical Equality presented a ‘meutered’ version of the Bible— it was met with vehemence. Sadly!

    1. Sheila,
      Thanks for writing. To point out that grammatical gender (in languages like Hebrew or Greek) does not necessarily correspond to biological or natural gender does not contribute to the denial of the female in any way. To do so is to confuse categories and to miss the point of my post. The Bible affirms the dignity, value and complementarity of male and female in the image of God. The disapproval of the use of feminine titles for God (i.e. God as Mother, etc.) is based, not on some inherit paternalism, but on the fact that the text of Scripture doesn’t use them (e.g. God is never prayed to as “Mother”). And contrary to what you suggest, I did not say that God was “neuter” nor is that expressed in the text. I said that while the Hebrew word for “spirit” is grammatically feminine, the Greek word for “spirit” is neuter. To suggest that God is neuter (or the the Holy Spirit is feminine) is repeat the mistake that the post was intended to correct: “in the majority of cases there is no correspondence between the grammatical gender of the noun and its supposed natural gender.”
      One other point needs to be made: to refer to God with masculine titles and pronouns is not a de facto denial of the value of women. Why? Because the same Bible that stringently refers to God with masculine titles and pronouns at the same time affirms the value of women.

  5. Reblogged this on Aaron Meares and commented:

    This mildly adapted post is from several years ago in response to an argument that is unfortunately increasingly being made regarding the nature of the Holy Spirit.

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