When it comes to talking about God, language matters. Every instance of so-called “God language” in the Bible gets parsed and dissected by scholars (and lay readers) in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the nature of God. Language, then, can become understandably controversial at times, as New Testament professor Ben Witherington III reveals in his Biblical Views column “Spirited Discourse About God Language in the New Testament,” in the May/June 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Ben Witherington offers an interpretation of the brief episode about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well from the Gospel of John to resolve an apparent oxymoron with the God language used there.
While speaking to the Samaritan woman, Jesus calls God “Father” and also says “God is spirit.” The gendered language of “Father” might suggest to some readers that God is a male with flesh and gender. Yet, according to Jesus, “God is spirit” and therefore has no body or gender. In fact, Ben Witherington argues, the use of gendered language such as “he,” “him” or “father” has nothing to do with the maleness of God or a gender-biased patriarchy. Instead, “father” describes the relationship of God to Jesus and all believers who become God’s adopted children.
Unlike Hebrew and Greek (in which all nouns, even inanimate ones, have gender), English is not a gendered language. Thus, Ben Witherington explains, when we hear male pronouns, we (wrongly) assume it implies a physically male gender. But “there is no connection between gendered language and gender identity,” according to Ben Witherington. “Our cultural biases have led to an overly sexualized reading of the God language in the Bible.”
For more about gendered language in the Bible, see Ben Witherington III, Biblical Views: “Spirited Discourse About God Language in the New Testament,” in the May/June 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.