The Feminine Side of the Holy Spirit?

This slightly 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.

ruah pneuma.001Recently, in reviewing some of my files and notes in my computer, I was reminded of a guest speaker that we had at our church some time ago. This particular speaker was invited to speak 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.

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 “inflection”) is by gender. Hebrew has two gender inflection categories: masculine and feminine. Greek has three: masculine, feminine and neuter.

Sometimes the natural gender does corresponds to the grammatical gender. For instance, the Hebrew words for wife, sister, daughter, etc. are feminine. In the same way, 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 also 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 feminine side of sin, war, or kidneys? Must we assume that sin, war, or kidneys possess uniquely feminine qualities? Even the Hebrew term “foreskin” (‘orla) is a feminine noun! Who is willing to give a sermon on “the feminine side of the foreskin”?

All of this poses a problem for basing a teaching on the feminine side of the Holy Spirit solely because the Hebrew noun is feminine. Not only that, such a view is quite untenable when one considers that the Greek word for “spirit” in the New Testament (pneuma) is neuter. If the Holy Spirit truly is feminine, why wouldn’t the Greek noun likewise be in the feminine gender? The answer is that in most cases there is no association between a noun’s grammatical gender and natural gender.

A better approach is to remember that God created humanity in his image, yet made them in two separate sexes: “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. And it is also 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. It is inappropriate to attribute human gender traits or characteristics to something merely because it follows a certain inflection pattern.

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