Like the great celestial wheels of antique imagination, the seasons continue their wearisome roll across the earth. On a day long marked as a holiday among those more closely attuned to nature than most modern people in developed nations, we face the beginning of autumn. Change is in the air and already the gray skies that have predominated the eastern seaboard over weeks since Irene seem to have winter on their minds. Changes always call to mind how the human mind tends to divide what it sees into categories. The Bible is one place that this tendency is crucial. The whole scheme behind clean and unclean comes down to the need to make discrete that which nature shamelessly blends. When it comes to deity, the party line has always been (at least in the monotheistic religions) that God is like one of us. We can’t imagine human very well without gender, and so God becomes a guy. Notwithstanding protests to the contrary, early religions did take that distinction literally; divinity and masculinity were of a piece.
This fact makes it all the more intriguing when the Bible itself offers a few passages that call this orthodoxy into question. A few verses explore the trope of God as female, but they quickly back away and revert to the male God when taking on more literal terms. Hebraic culture was monistic, not dualistic. God as “spirit” was not really a possibility in the Hebrew Bible. God as a big man fits the picture better. One of the voices that claims dissent is that of Ezekiel. No surprise there—Ezekiel has been analyzed as everything from a dreamer to a dropper. Ezekiel’s understanding of God, however, is deeply imbued with temple imagery. Ezekiel was a priest without a sanctuary, and so his view of God suffered from temple vision. Nevertheless, the strange account of Ezekiel’s vision of Yahweh coming to Babylonia that opens his book demonstrates a startling lack of clarity when it comes to divine gender.
When two people meet, as psychologists have long noted, the first bit of information they attempt to discern is gender. Perhaps it’s the old fight or flight reflex from our reptilian brains, or maybe it is the opportunistic mating behavior that so obviously characterizes our species, but we are very uncomfortable when we can’t make a gender assignment. It is the whole premise behind Saturday Night Live‘s old sketch of “It’s Pat.” When Ezekiel first espies God he describes the deity in terms of glowing metal. But notice that he begins, “And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about” (1.27). Beginning at the loins the prophet looks the deity up and down and concludes God is like fire. This image does not long survive the vision, for Ezekiel quickly reverts to masculine imagery for God. Even in the face of evidence that God is not gendered, the faithful must make him so, for the age-old appurtenance of male superiority suffers immeasurably without the camaraderie of God.