Cross-Gender Imagery in the Bible -- By: Al Wolters

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 08:1 (NA 1998)
Article: Cross-Gender Imagery in the Bible
Author: Al Wolters


Cross-Gender Imagery in the Bible

Al Wolters

Redeemer College, Ancaster, Ontario

An examination of the phenomenon of cross-gender imagery in the Bible reveals that gendered imagery does not affect gender designation. Thus a masculine person is grammatically always identified (or “designated”) as masculine, even when feminine imagery is used to describe him. This rule is true of both OT and NT and of both human and divine persons. Feminine imagery for God may reflect the rhetoric of kingship in the ancient Near East, in which kings are compared to mothers.

Key Words: God as feminine, feminine imagery in the Bible, gender, king as mother

Consider the following quotations from four contemporary novels:

1. “She’s a better man than he.”1

2. “He would be pregnant with her.”2

3. “The dispatch of the layout left him in a sort of postpartum depression.”3

4. “Feeling like Judas Iscariot, Mrs. Kate Carpenter gave Barbara … the home phone number.”4

These are all examples of what I will call “cross-gender imagery,” that is, feminine imagery describing masculine persons, or masculine imagery describing feminine persons. It is a literary phenomenon that is widespread in contemporary speech and literature. It is not at all unusual, after all, to hear a man referred to as a “prima donna” or a woman as “one of the boys.”

But cross-gender imagery is not restricted to contemporary language. It seems to be well attested in the literatures of many cultures and historical epochs. For example, we find it in the Gilgamesh Epic, where a weeping Gilgamesh is described as “moaning bitterly like a wailing woman,”5 in the royal inscription of an ancient Syrian king, who claims that his subjects were disposed to him “as an orphan is to his mother,”6 and in the dialogues of Plato, where Socrates famously compares himself to a midwife.7 Given the pervasiveness of this kind of imagery in many different cultural contexts, it is not surprising that we find it in the Bible as well.

In the present paper I will examine the phenomenon of cross-gender imagery in the Bible, both in the OT and NT.8 I will begin by makin...

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