Tile: She is not a man, nor is He a woman
Texts: Exodus 3:13-15, Matthew 28:16-20
Date: Oct 9, 2011
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
This week kicks off our series on passages in the bible that mess with our imagination, with our images of God, especially our images of God’s gender. The church, by and large, has been sexist. Sure, there are moments here and there throughout history, bright spots, episodes of egalitarianism; but, for the most part, the church has been far too comfortable with sustaining the power of men over women.
We won’t fix everything in our series over the next several weeks. But part of what I hope we’ll do is to start to untangle ourselves from the sexism that permeates our lives, that even flows through the history of Christianity.
We are always creating God in our own image; and for some reason, we tend to imagine God in masculine terms: God as a man, and only a man. I wonder if part of the reason why this has happened, in the history of Christianity, is because the church has mirrored the way gender roles have played out in the wider culture. So, men have done the thinking; they have been the theologians, not women, because women have been thought of as less rational, less able to think clearly about God. Since men have been doing most of the thinking and writing about God, it’s no coincidence that God has been described in masculine terms. Since men have done most of the theologizing for so long, it’s no mistake that our imaginations have been infected by sexist notions about God.
I find myself confronted with, what I take to be a subconscious sexism, when I hear people use pronouns to talk about God. If someone talks about God and uses masculine pronouns all the time — “he is good” and “we worship him” and “his mercy is everlasting” — I don’t think so much about it. I barely notice. But, if someone uses “she” and “her” to talk about God, I take note, and I’m usually impressed with their boldness. When I think about it, it’s a bit strange that I think someone is trying to make a point when they call God a “she,” but I don’t equally think someone is making a point when they call God a “he.” I think this has to be evidence of something, hidden deep within me, usually unnoticed, but a power that continues to shape the way I think about God.
To worry about our language for God isn’t only a modern concern, something we have to worry about in our age of so-called political correctness. This concern is there at the beginning of the people of God, when Moses asks God for a name, for God’s name.
Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I tell them?’ (Exod 3:13)
The request seems straightforward enough: Moses wants to get a handle on the identity of this voice speaking from the fire, the mysterious burning bush. “What’s your name?” Moses says to the fire. Put yourself in Moses’ sandals. He’s walking in the desert, taking care of the sheep. And he sees a bush on fire, but the fire doesn’t consume the bush. What kind of fire doesn’t burn stuff? Then, if that’s not strange enough, a voice speaks from the fire and calls Moses by name. Moses is bewildered, amazed, stunned.
The fire tells Moses a little more about who is speaking: “I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” This voice claims to be the God who has been with Moses’ people through the generations. I am the God, the fire says, the God who has been with your people, who has walked with you, who has sustained your lives.
This is how God wants to be known: God wants to be known as the God of Israel, the One who loves and cares for a people, the One who will save these same people from slavery in Egypt. This is a profound point. The identity of God and the people are interwoven. God will not be known without God’s people. The people speak the name of God with their lives: to look upon Israel is to see the face of God, to watch the people is to see what God is like, to see what God’s love and grace looks like in the world.
But Moses wants a name that is more specific, a name that he can hold onto; Moses wants a God like all the others, a God with an identity he can imagine, a God with a name he can work with, a proper name for a proper God. But this God, the God who speaks with fire, will not be like all the others, a God with a name like the other Gods. Instead, the fire gives a name that isn’t really a name, an identity that isn’t really an identity, just an unpronounceable word: God said to Moses, “I am who I am” — or, “I am what I am,” or “I will be what I will be” (v. 14).
We really don’t know how to pronounce the word. In Hebrew it’s four letters, all consonants, no vowels: YHWH, also called “the tetragrammaton,” which means “a word with four letters.” Some people supply a few vowels and guess at a way to say the word. I’d rather go with the Jewish tradition that says that guessing at how to pronounce the name violates the sacredness of the name. So, instead of trying to turn YHWH into a proper name, with vowels, the Jews have created a stand-in for the name, a surrogate: for example, Adonai, which means “my Lord,” or ha-shem, which means “the Name.”
After all, the whole point of the story is that God will not provide Moses, and us, with a proper name, a name that we can use to compare God with the other Gods. In the story, God won’t be a God that Moses can use, that Moses can name and claim, that Moses can classify and then compare with other Gods.
What I’m trying to say, with this passage from Exodus, is that from deep within the story of Israel, from deep within the memory of God’s people, is the giving of a name that shatters all our conceptions about God, that calls into question our ways of thinking about God. Moses wants a God that makes sense within his world; but the One who speaks from the fire won’t let Moses fit God into his categories of what God is, of what kind of thing or person God is supposed to be. This God is not a God, but a mystery, an overwhelming presence, a holy presence: “Remove the sandals from your feet,” the fire says to Moses, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (v. 5).
All of this should make us realize that it’s hard to talk about God, at least if we mean the God of Israel, the God who speaks from a fire, the One who wants to be known through the life of the chosen people, the people who bear the name, the unspeakable name, the holy and mysterious name.
For us, as Christians, Jesus invites us into a way of life, where our very existence, all that we do, speaks the unpronounceable name of God. We are, as Jesus says in our passage from end of Matthew’s Gospel—we are baptized into the name of God. Our lives are brought into the life of God in the world: this flow of personal, divine life that we have learned to call upon as “Father, Son, Holy Spirit.” The reality of God is so profound that our words are not enough. Instead, our lives become God’s communication. Through baptism, we are brought into communion with God; we are invited into the unspeakable name, ha-shem, so that we can make God’s name known as a living reality, not just a name we can use, a name we can claim as ours, as a possession — but as a living reality, a flow of grace, of love, of mercy, filling our lives as we are drawn into the river of life, God’s life, poured out for all people.
Like I said before, all of this should make us realize that it has always been difficult to talk about God, to represent God with our words, with pronouns, because She is not a man, nor is He a woman — we stumble over our words. We are at a loss to find the perfect language to represent God. But this loss, this hesitancy, is part of the good news, because it leads us into new forms of expression, new ways to communicate what God is like, ways that involve our whole lives, not just our words, but all that we are, which brings us back again to sexism, to the ways that the church, through the ages, has restricted who has been allowed to represent God, to name God, to display God’s life.
Church — congregational life, our lives together as God’s people — is how we spell out the name of God, the reality of God. So, gender matters in who we commission to preach, who we authorize to serve Communion, to pray and read the Bible for us, and, who we think should care for our kids in the nursery. That men and women do all of these things in our church has everything to do with how we communicate the reality of God. It’s not just about pronouns, about whether we call God she or he; it’s more than that. It’s about how we let men and women represent God’s care for us in the nursery, and it’s about how we let women and men speak, how men and women embody, gender and all, the Word of God from the pulpit. Through us, God becomes gendered as God reaches through our gendered lives.
The good news is that God has drawn close to us, so close, close enough to speak His love, to show Her power, through us, all of us, in very public ways like preaching, and more quiet ways like providing a meal for someone or letting someone know that you are a friend, a companion in time of need. In God’s life there are no gender divisions; God is always gender crossing, transgressing the boundaries called “feminine” and “masculine” that we’ve created. This is the reality — this gender crossing — that we reflect as a church, as God’s people, as the people who reveal God’s name.
As we let God speak with all that we are and in all that we do, as God becomes flesh in our midst, as our gendered bodies are taken up into God and made holy, we become the fire of God.
 Nahum M. Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1996), 45.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a. 13, 9, and 1a. 13, 11: “If, however, a name were given to God, not as signifying his nature but referring to him as this thing, regarding him as an individual, such a proper name would be altogether incommunicable and in no way applicable to others—perhaps the Hebrew name of God, the Tetragrammaton was uses in this way.” “Even more appropriate is the Tetragrammaton which is used to signify the incommunicable.”
 Nicholas Lash, Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004), 84: “To speak appropriately of the holy mystery that makes and heals the world, but is not the world nor any item in it, is quite beyond the resources of language. It is the tragedy of modern Western culture to have fallen victim to the illusion (widely shared by believer and nonbeliever alike) that it is perfectly easy to talk about God.”
 Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2002), 68: “the simple throwing up of compensating ‘feminine’ divine imagery may leave societal relationships between the sexes largely untouched; false apophaticism may leap to the place of ‘unknowing’, leaving curiously intact the sexual stereotypes it claims to overcome. The safer test for sexism overcome is not so much the purity or balance of an official doctrinal formulation, but the practical out-workings of the relationship between the sexes in society and Church.”