The Male/Female Image of God Made Flesh

SophiaBy Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson, commentary on the lectionary for May 22

In this ongoing season of Pentecost, we celebrate the Holy Spirit, not simply as “a spirit,” but as Spirit-infused-flesh in human bodies. This week’s reading from Proverbs 8 connects with the recent sequence of selections from the Johannine Last Supper Discourse (John 13-17) to present us with the perhaps surprising portrait of Jesus as the male-female God-made-flesh.

Proverbs 8 interrupts the series of pithy wisdom sayings that makes up most of the book, with a portrayal of Chokmah/Sophia (Hebrew and Greek, respectively, for “Wisdom”) crying out in the streets. The gendering of Wisdom as female is perhaps a result of ancient Judah’s scribal elite insisting on monotheism in the post-exilic period. A little context might help here.

Before the exile, the texts that became part of the Hebrew Scriptures tend to express what scholars call henotheism, not monotheism. As we hear in the Ten Commandments:

“I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” (Ex 20.2-3; Deut 5.6-7). This suggests not that there only is one god, but that the people who claim YHWH will claim only YHWH among the many gods. The wrenching disruption of exile pushed this question further, as we hear in Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon– there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our harps.

For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

With exile, the question of the extent of YHWH’s power was asked in the desperate context of whether YHWH would continue to be accessible in distant Babylon. Various exilic authors chose the monotheistic path: yes, YHWH is still our god, even in Babylon, because YHWH is Creator of heaven and earth and all that is in them. We hear this most clearly in Genesis and Second Isaiah (Isa 40-55), two texts that stand in opposition to the claims of Babylon to divine authority for royal rule.

Monotheism may seem like the obvious truth to us today. However, taking this radical stance risked losing the sacred feminine, generally typed as “earth” in relation to the sacred masculine typed as “sky”/”heaven.” That is, in Babylonian religion, as in many other ancient traditions, earthly and royal fertility was ritually guaranteed by the union of sky-father and earth-mother. If Israelite tradition was to be monotheistic, what happens to the mothering, earthy god?

In Proverbs, as elsewhere, she became Chokmah/Sophia. Proverbs 8 was one of the most cited texts in the post-New Testament theological controversies, taken to “predict” Jesus as the fulfillment of its poetic imagery. But before those arguments began, a different writer wove the portrait of Chokmah/Sophia into a different image: of the Logos-made-flesh (John 1). Logos, the Greek word for both “word” and “reason,” had already been associated by the Alexandrian Jewish writer, Philo, with the part of humanity that revealed the “image and likeness” of God, as expressed in Genesis 1.26-27. A deep engagement with John’s gospel shows that the evangelist combined both the Chokmah/Sophia and Logos traditions in presenting Jesus as God-made-flesh.

Perhaps in our rightful sensitivity to LGBTQ sisters and brothers and the recognition that human gender is more fluid than we had previously imagined, readers might be a bit squeamish to affirm the male-femaleness of God/Jesus. But the Good News is that neither Genesis nor John equate “male/female” with “man/woman.” In Genesis 1.27, “male and female” renders the Hebrew zakhar unqevah. Although, in Genesis 2.22, the newly gendered earthling and its mate are ‘ish and ‘ishshah, “man” and “woman,” terms which apply exclusively to gendered human bodies. However, zakhar unqevah can apply to animals (Gen 5.2; 7.3, etc.) and, in our modern world, such inanimate pairings as plumbing pipes or electrical connections.

It is this last point that opens the image of God for potential fulfillment by all humans, regardless of gender identity. In this context, “maleness” is the capacity not of penile penetration in particular, but of any action that “enters” the life of another. Similarly, “femaleness” is an openness to be “entered” by others. We hear the nongendered truth of this in the Last Supper Discourse:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17.20-23)

Jesus embodied the fullness of male/female throughout his life, as he both entered the lives of others and allowed others into his own life. Of course, the most explicit image of this is in the Eucharistic traditions, made most carnal in the Johannine language of “munching” (Gk, trōgō) Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood (John 6.56). But it is also present in the sacrament of footwashing, via the mutual intimacy required to offer and receive the gift of another into relationship with one’s own hands and feet.

The result of all this is that we, as Jesus’s Body, are also called to incarnate Chokmah/Sophia-Logos. This call breaks us out of all human-made gender roles, especially those that would present men as dominant and women as submissive. Instead, we are invited to offer our embodied lives to one another as pure gift, so that we can truly experience God’s image and likeness in and through one another. Now that is truly Good News!

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