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The Eternal vs the LORD

December 12, 2013

This will be a bit sketchy, a plane to catch this afternoon. But the problem with LORD is that it is anthropomorphic, and extension of a word for a certain type of human, a male boss, with sometimes unlimited rights. Almost all names for God are anthropomorphic except when He is called our rock and our shield, etc. Even putting the word in all caps doesn’t really make the word LORD non-anthropomorphic.

But another problem is that both “Lord” and “God” are semantically gendered words in English and are not semantically gendered words in Hebrew. That is, they have grammatical gender in Hebrew, they are referred to as “he.” But this is a function of the grammar of the language. A mother eagle can be a “he” or a table is a “he.” That’s just how it goes.

But in English “Lord” is semantically gendered because it is the opposite partner to “lady,” and “God” is semantically gendered because it has the opposite partner of “goddess.” Note the lower cap. They are not equal.

However, in Hebrew Elohim for God has no semantic gender. It is not male and cannot designate a human or indicate that God is male. It has no female contrasting equivalent. It is a plural word to begin with but takes a singular verb or pronoun. However, it has no semantic masculine content.

Yahweh, translated LORD, in the King James Bible, is the same. It has no feminine contrasting partner and no masculine content. Yahweh is the one who exists forever. Yahweh is also a personal being who relates to humans. Yahweh is not masculine or feminine, but Hebrew has only masculine and feminine grammatical categories, so grammatically it is masculine. This does not mean that Yahweh is masculine any more than a table is masculine. We are wrong to attribute to Yahweh Elohim attributes which we value in males over attributes which we value in females. Actually, humans are skewed in this. Overall, we value courage, honesty, loyalty, and a love of fun – for both men and women. We need to pull this one together and eliminate the great chasm dug between men and women.

Yahweh Elohim Shaddai, another name for God, can command armies and provide women with fertility. Yahweh exists forever as Itself. How shall we refer to Yahweh? As The Eternal? Next post will deal with Franz Rosenzweig’s opinion on this topic just preceding the Holocaust. Who is this Yahweh God?

LORD God in English marches to a masculine tune, but Yahweh Elohim does not. It doesn’t sound feminine, it sounds non-human but relating to humans.

Note: I snuck Shaddai in there and some want to call this the “Breasted God.” I find this icky, I don’t want a phallic God or a breasted God. Just silly. “The One who is sufficient” that is the possible meaning of this name.

Clicjk on the tag “Eternal” at the top to read all posts in this series.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. December 12, 2013 11:42 am

    However, in Hebrew Elohim for God has no semantic gender…. Yahweh … is the same. It has no feminine contrasting partner and no masculine content. Yahweh is the one who exists forever. Yahweh is also a personal being who relates to humans. Yahweh is not masculine or feminine, ….

    Well, yes. Not only English (with “King” / “queen” and “Prince” / “princess” and “Master” / “mistress”) but also much earlier the Greek of the Septuagint and then the very related Greek of the New Testament brings in gendered phrases for god / goddess, master / mistress, the male of the pair going to God, of course: θεός and Κύριος.

    You seem to be implying, then, that Hebrew does not do this. And yet how about the Hebrew male / female contrastive pair אָדוֹן [adon] / גְּבֶרֶת [gĕbereth]?

    I’m looking at Isaiah 24:2 where the pairs occur. And then at Isaiah 1:24, 3:1, 10:33, and 19:4, where the name of God includes Adonai [הָֽאָדוֹן֙], a male Lord or Master, no?

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 12, 2013 12:03 pm

    Greek on theos:

    Hearken unto me, all ye gods and goddesses, Iliad Book 8, line 7

    μήτέ τις οὖν θήλεια θεὸς τό γε μήτέ τις ἄρσην πειράτω διακέρσαι ἐμὸν ἔπος,

    So really it should say, “Listen to my words, all you gods, both the female and the male.” or something like that. “Godesses” is an English bugbear to chase everyone into subordination to males. Female gods were very respectable in Greek.

  3. December 12, 2013 12:04 pm

    Suzanne — I have not been following this series, so this may have come up already. The terminology “Lord” is not just arbitrary but follows normative Jewish practice established since the Second Temple period.

    We do not know how the Tetragrammaton was pronounced, because there is no record of its vowelization. The pronunciation you mention was hypothesized in the 19th century, and is a reasonable hypothesis, but it is by no means certain. Since at least 400 BCE, the term had been regarded as ineffable. During the Second Temple period, mention of the term was restricted to one mention annually by the high priest on the Day of Atonement in the Holy of Holies. After the destruction of the Temple, the pronunciation was lost.

    When reading the Hebrew Bible or praying, when Jews encounter the Tetragrammaton, they say “ado-nai” — literally, “lord” or “master,’ leading to the widely used English translation “LORD.”


    The question of whether God in the Biblical text is gendered is an interesting one. Certainly in the Christian Bible, the first person of the trinity is male (he impregnates Miriam) and the second person of the trinity is both human and male. In particular, the masculinity of Jesus makes it very difficult to think of a Christian non-gendered (or even non-anthropomorphic) god.

    Normative Judaism, at least since Maimonides, rejects anthropomorphic views of the divine, and thus the notion of a gender-free god sits much more naturally. However, arguably, in the actual Biblical text, God is described in masculine terms.

    In the Hebrew Bible, God is referred to as “our father” and “our king” which both carry strong male connotations, and although the divine role as the Lord God of Hosts does not necessarily imply gender, it does carry a fairly masculine image.

    Some scholars, notably Raphael Patai, argue that in the 8th century BCE there was a cult belief in Asherah, a goddess and “wife of God” who was worshiped alongside with God. This recently got a big boost in popularity from Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s BBC series and from William Dever’s Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. The theory is that references to Asherah still exist, for example, in Jeremiah’s references to “the Queen of Heaven.” It is clear, though, that even if this existed, it was regarded as a heretical practice by the times of the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah.

    In Jewish mysticism, both ancient and medieval, however, God has both male and female attributes. By the medieval period, Maimonides could famously claim that God was completely non-anthropomorphic, including in matters of gender.

  4. December 12, 2013 5:24 pm

    You’re both in very different ways, Suzanne and Theophrastus, suggesting polytheism or perceived polytheism, of the ancient Greeks and then of the Christians. The male (not female) is very much prominent in the gods and in the persons of the trinitarian God.

    > Even if we accept some of the ways that Mary R. Lefkowitz tries to downplay the sexism of Greek mythology (i.e., in her Women in Greek Myth), we have to note that even she is pressed to acknowledge that there are the θεαι who are below the θεοι:

    In the Greek myths that describe the creation of the world and the hierarchy of the gods, goddesses play a prominent role, either as wives or mothers or as permanent (and powerful) young virgins. According to the poet Hesiod in the Theogony, his epic about the genealogy of the gods, the divinity who first emerges from the primeval void (Chaos) is not an omnipotent male deity, like the “Lord God” in the first chapter of Genesis, but the goddess Earth. She is the mother of the god Heaven, who becomes her consort and the father of most of her children, initially, the mountains, the sea, and the river Ocean who surrounds the sea. But Earth comes first not because the goddesses had some ancient priority over the (male) gods [which would have reversed the male-on-top hierarchy]; rather as the Greeks themselves understood the story, it seemed more natural to image that a female rather than a male would conceive and give birth.

    Lefkowitz proposes a sharp contrast between the god(desse)s of the Theogony and the God of Genesis, but I don’t think she’s acknowledging the Septuagint here at all. And she botches both this work of Hesiod and that of Moses (whether in Hebrew or in the Homeric Greek translation done in Alexandria). In Hesiod, Mighty Lord of Kronos figures first, Lord Dia, (aka Zeus). The LXX “Genesis” seems to riff off of Hesiod, in my humble opinion. Some of the same characters are in play. Heaven, Earth, Chaos, Night, Day. But the Theos who gives Birth is never Kurios. He’s a mothering spirit God (πνεῦμα θεοῦ) hovering over. He’s a rhetorical God, καὶ εἶπεν ὁ θεός Γενηθήτω φῶς. καὶ ἐΓένετο φῶς. He’s Generative, He’s plurally Gendered. His names are plural. The whole translated Greek book plays off of alliterations of Birth/Woman/Earth; it’s not called “Gynesis” for nothing. 🙂 – Αὕτη ἡ βίβλος Γενέσεως οὐρανοῦ καὶ Γῆς, ὅτε ἐΓένετο, ᾗ ἡμέρᾳ ἐποίησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν Γῆν.

    > Even if we accept some of the characterizations of the persons of the Christian Trinity that would insist there’s no hierarchy, I do think that complementarians and the churchmen of the early councils who form the doctrine are constantly troubled by the fact that there is a Father (male) and His Son (male) and a Spirit (whatever gender it may be). “[H]e impregnates Miriam,” seems to me to be a bit severe. And arguably it’s not the “first person” (i.e., the Father) who’s doing the impregnating but rather the “third person” (i.e., the Holy Spirit) who comes on the young woman, not too different an account of how the Spirit of God comes on the Waters in Genesis.

    Gendered language for God may in the eyes of some mandate an always-male-over-female arrangement, but that’s not the only way to hear or to read such language.

  5. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 13, 2013 12:35 pm

    I only have my ipad, so a short response. This was intended to follow the use of Eternal, rather than be an all inclusive discussion of the names of God. Of course, God was called Adonai, not YHWH, in speaking. But, I have no idea when Kurios in Greek replaced the tetragrammaton. Jerome spoke of those who read the name of God as Pipi, for the reversed he vav he yodh. So in his time he still saw the tetragrammaton.

  6. December 13, 2013 4:25 pm

    Kurk, I did not mean to suggest that Christianity is polytheistic. The point I was trying to make is that Christianity is anthropomorphic. Not all Christians believe in a anthropomorphic deity, of course, (and many seem to believe in a mixed anthropomorphic-transcendent deity) but to the extent that one believes that Jesus was both a man and a god, it is hard to avoid some anthropomorphic coloring.


    The leading theologians of Christianity unanimously declare without ambiguity that Christianity is monotheistic and I believe that is nearly universally held as a belief by thoughtful Christians. The Trinity is hard to understand because it not all major Christian theologians view the Trinity in a consistent way — so there appeare to be many different “trinities” that are in the public discourse. Nonetheless, I do not believe that any mainstream Christian theologian is polytheistic — with the possible exception of “prosperity Christians” who seem to place money in an almost idolatrous role.

    There was a severe argument made by some Jewish and Islamic theologians in the medieval period that argued that Christianity was polytheistic, but I think that those non-Christian theologians were mistaken. For example, Maimonides asserted that Christianity was idolatry (although he claimed that both Christianity and Islam was part of a providential plan to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah). Nachmanides, in contrast, strongly defended Christianity as monotheistic. Here is the practical difference between the two: Nachmanides lived among Christians and had first had extensive contact with Christians (including the famous disputations), while Maimonides had very limited contact with Christians. For this reason, one might say that Nachmanides had a better grip on this problem.

    Indeed, during the medieval Jewish-Christian debate, Christian disputers argued that the Ten Sephiros of Jewish mysticism were comparable to the Trinity in terms of the polytheism-monotheism debate. If mystical Jews claimed to be monotheistic, then Christians had the same basis for claiming monotheism. This was a pretty good argument, but it became muddled after the scandal of Sabbatai Tzvi and the subsequent negative reaction to Jewish mysticism.

  7. December 13, 2013 4:40 pm

    Just to complete my thought, Kurk, it is clearly difficult to believe in a deity which is both anthropomorphic and transcends gender. Sex (male or female) is the single most noticeable characteristic about humans. One can think perhaps of a god that morphs its sex (like Shiva), or is a twinned male-female (Zeus-Hera style), or is a hermaphrodite with mixed sex traits, but those are all merely adopting both male and female traits — they are not transcending gender.

    In this way, religions which are less anthropomorphic or believe in a more abstract, philosophical view of God seem to have an advantage.

  8. December 13, 2013 4:57 pm


    Thanks for continuing the conversation you started here via iPad. Yes, I get how you’re interested in discussing The Eternal (as opposed to other options, like the LORD). I’ll be thinking about this for a long time!


    Your clarifications on the Trinity not usually being seen as polytheistic but invariably as anthropomorphisms is helpful. Lilith, whether a god or a creature only, is seen by some as a hermaphrodite, just to add to the list (and since I posted today on how some writers have conceived of her). Phrases (and Names) like Abba, like Son of God, like Breasted One, do bring in images of human gender and sexuality. Holy Spirit is the one in the Trinity mix that clearly does not. When we talk about these names, don’t we have to look at how we use language in general and languages in particular? Theo-log-izing is so very philosophical (with all its epistemological benefits and problems). But how do we make claims that one Name is better, if that’s what’s going on in this series of posts?

  9. December 13, 2013 7:28 pm

    Kurk, there is definitely a strong anthropomorphic trend in the Hebrew Bible (hand of God and all that) which led to the medieval project of Maimonides in Guide of the Perplexed (Moreh Nevukhim) to argue that anthropomorphism has no role in Judaism, except as a metaphor.

    Of course, my focus on Maimonides here is hardly unique — a major theme of the opening of Summa Theologicae is the walking the line on anthropomorphic thinking; ST 1a.13.4 is particularly relevant to this discussion, as is 1a.13.6. Ultimately Aquinas culminates his final conclusions by declaring that there is a point where discussion is no longer useful, as per his famous declaration:

    Et haec dicta sufficiant de his quae pertinent ad divinae essentiae unitatem. (And let what has been said suffice for considering matters relating to his divine nature.)

    There of course was incredible Muslim thought on non-anthropomorphism, and of course, Xenophanes’ criticism of Hesiod and Homer, but I am out of time to write this comment.

    Regarding Lilith, it is a fascinating folk myth widely noted in Judaism, but not what I would consider a normative part of Judaism. Perhaps, in a seasonal reference, you might consider Lilith to be on the same level of belief as Santa Claus. (St. Nicholas was a real historical figure, of course, but I am referring here to the Odin-like popular representation of jolly old Santa Claus with his long white beard and magical powers.)

  10. December 14, 2013 7:01 am

    Maimonides is definitely a wonderful example of someone whose “God” is anthropomorphic. And Aquinas. I’m glad to see you quickly, sharply, jump to Islam, where “The Eternal” is maybe prototypically if not in the West stereotypically “im-personal” and therefore NOT anthropomorphic. Yes, there’s Xenophanes. Let’s not forget Aristotle, who’s theo-logic finds the UnMoved Mover (and we don’t even have to go to the appropriations of Plotinus or of Anselm of Canterbury, the one claiming Aristotle and the other just deriving Proofs from Aristotelian logic).

    There does not, nonetheless, have to be the excluded middle here. We can resist the either / or binary in our review of theologies and theo-namings. There hasn’t only been and doesn’t need to be the category of anthropomorphic as opposed to the category of the NOT anthropomorphic. Is that really, we might ask, how language works? When humans use words for gods…

    Let me confess some of my recent thoughts come from reading Karen Baker-Fletcher’s Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective (ht Rod, aka h00die_R of the blog Political Jesus). Baker-Fletcher, examining Jewish and Christian Scripture, finds that

    God is like a mother eagle who catches and bears its young on her large, strong wings until they learn to fly freely on their own (Ex. 19:4; Deut 32:11). God labors like a woman in childbirth in God’s love for creation (Isa. 42:14). In Isaiah 49:15, God is like a mother who cannot forget her children, thus functioning as a model for human motherhood and parenting. Similarly, in Jesus’ model prayer (Mt. 6:9-13; Lk. 11:2-4) and in the Johannine literature, God as father functions as a model for human fathers and parenting. God is like a Mother and a Father. God is like a Parent. A parent, male or female, nurtures and provides. Neither term refers to one gender or another here. Nor is provider/nurturer strictly anthropomorphic. God created the earth and the heavens to be a provider and nurturer of a diversity of creatures. In their reflection of divine creativity, provision, and nurture, the earth and heavens are like God. “Provider/Nurturer” is a metaphor, a term drawn from concrete [personal, human] experience to describe the [so called] literal activity of the first relational agent of the Trinity in its ….

    I’m looking forward to more comments and /or posts from Suzanne in this series. Her title here “The Eternal vs the LORD” evokes a sort of oppositionalism that she may not really intend. There’s some nuance she’s begun to offer.

    And that’s a nice segue back to Lilith. Thanks for making the comparison to Santa. That’s helpful, especially to get a sense of how she belongs in the histories of Judaism. There is, for Lilith, a larger history that views her as the lost and silenced first woman. The male Adam and the male Satan and the male God work differently with the supposed first, Eve. The one’s just a screech. The other the Mother of all Sons, and daughters. Lilith, by a narrative like this, becomes useful for feminisms. She’s appropriated in ways that are ironic (like the appropriation of denigrating phrases such as “bitch” and “slut” as feminist badges of honor); she gives agency to women, and recently one Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber used Lilith as one who gave her the courage to leave the church, to give attention to social injustices, as she stepped out of her long-held “position in a coveted, progressive Baptist pulpit.”.

  11. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 16, 2013 11:33 am

    I can only respond that there are multiple ways of viewing God, and Eternel is just one of them. Of course, there are many anthropomorphic ways of referring to God. I just don’t know if the way we refer to God or conceive of God, has much to do with the way God is.

  12. December 16, 2013 2:36 pm

    I just don’t know if the way we refer to God or conceive of God, has much to do with the way God is.

    Suzanne, of course I agree with you on this.

    Is this a problem?

    There are French writers who have referred to la déesse éternelle. Voltaire famously calls Lake Geneva “the Eternelle Goddess.”

    And here is a gendered reference to old Greek in French translation, first some of the Greek:

    Έξελθούσα δέ θνητού και δυσαγθοϋς σώματος, όντως όψει δεσπόζοντα έν αίθέρι και νεφέλεσιν ὃς βροντάς, σφυγμούς αεί γαίης επάγει, αστραπής τε κεραυνούς και μέλη γαίης κινεί και κΰμα πόντου. Ταΰτα εσται εργα θεοΰ παμμητορος, αιωνίου ‘ πάντα βροτοίς κατέδειςεν ό θεός και εναντία πάντα.

    Now the French:

    mais, lorsque tu auras quitté ton enveloppe mortelle et insupportable, tu verras réellement, dans les airs et dans les nuages, le souverain maître, qui commande au tonnerre, aux tremblements de terre , aux éclairs, à la foudre, qui met en mouvement les fondements de la terre et les flots de la mer. Telles seront les œuvres de la déesse éternelle, mère de toutes choses; Dieu les a toutes enseignées aux mortels, ainsi que leurs contraires.

    The Greek in larger context can be found here. The translated clip is here.

    What I’m wondering is whether “Eternel” for God really does describe deity without human terms? Isn’t there gender here in this French?

  13. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 16, 2013 3:19 pm

    Yes, Genfersee, of course, my own dear lake and my mother’s lake.

    But why did the French translator here translate ‘theos’ first as ‘la deesse’ and then as ‘God?, because of the article? Eternitas was the name of a feminine god and aiwnios, the name of a masculine god. Its really too mixed up for me. How much is just grammatical gender used as metaphor?

  14. December 16, 2013 4:52 pm

    “But why did the French translator…? How much is just grammatical gender used as metaphor?”

    Great questions, Suzanne. It may be mixed up, and yet there’s something going on with this French rendering of Greek not too different from your examples with French rendering of the Bible, I think.

    Notice how just a bit later in the French book, there’s the continuation of the Greek:

    θηριώνυμε θεε, θεων ακους …

    Which gets put this way:

    Ne souffre pas, ô âme, de ton corps mortel. Tu as pour toi le commencement et la fin des temps. Seule, la terre sait que le corps que lu guides’ est amèrement éprouvé par les ma ladies et tourmenté par les lois de l’Univers, et non seulement par les lois, mais par les crises qu’il éprouve. Toi donc, dans ta lassitude et dans ton affliction, déesse au nom de bête, écoute la parole d’un Dieu et la mienne.

    In the context of the translation, there’s reference to Goddesses (Athena and Mylitta) which suggests if these uses of déesse are simply metaphorical, then at least there’s an understanding of the “real” or “actual” deities of the Greek myths.

    Similarly, Voltaire in describing in homeland, that is près du lac de Genève, makes explicit references to the god(desse)s of Greece (and even of Rome):

  15. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 16, 2013 5:02 pm

    Are you suggesting that Eternel is just the masculine of Eternelle? For Voltaire, certainly, for Maimonides, I don’t think so. Just my guess.

  16. December 16, 2013 5:05 pm

    Are you suggesting that Eternel is just the masculine of Eternelle?

    Yes, that’s exactly what I’m wondering. (And I really don’t know Maimonides.)

  17. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 16, 2013 5:52 pm

    Maimonides was directly opposed to any anthropomorphisms of God which led to his asking “what can we say about God.”

    I think Voltaire was part of a neoclassical culture that loved to turn all desirable objects and attributes into the feminine in order to imagine possessing them. Its not really comparable in my mind to contrast the name L’eternel and the attribute “eternelle.”

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