Divinity, sexuality, and divine rakham

It’s axiomatic to us that God has no gender,* and we usually are comfortable taking this to mean that Scripture’s repeated references to divine masculinity are metaphorical. We often leave the axiom at this because asking the logically next question presents a thorny dilemma.

Here’s the next question: Are we to understand divine genderlessness as meaning that human masculinity and femininity have no analogue in God, so that our experience as men and women reveals nothing at all in the divine life?

If we say yes then it becomes absurd to say that we are in the divine image as male and female, but this strains Genesis 1:27 to the point of incoherence: In the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. This is a typical Hebrew parallelism suggesting that being “in the image of God” is found somehow – perhaps first of all – in human sexual dimorphism. In spite of centuries of commentary that suggest otherwise, the text doesn’t say in the image of God he created them, intellectual and volitional he created them or in the image of God he created them, able to speak their own word he created them. 

If we say yes we will also lose an important element in centuries of commentary, since we will no longer understand why Song of Songs is part of the canon. The whole premise of commentary on that book from Origen to Bernard to last week (and there are more commentaries on Song of Songs than any other Scriptural text) is that what is characteristic of human sexual love is somehow -and perhaps first of all – characteristic of God also.

If we say no, however, our theology will have to decide what is characteristic of men and women, and divinize these characteristics by eminence and analogy, which means divinizing stereotypes.

I don’t know how to resolve the problem, but an interesting place to start is the divine property of rakham. As a locus classicus we’ll take it from the first verse of Psalm 51.

The psalm is introduced as David’s penitential prayer after Nathan has outed him for adultery and murder. Tellingly for us, David has managed to pervert all intimate gendered relations: abusing his authority to seduce another man’s wife and then deceiving, abandoning, and murdering a friend and fellow soldier in his army.

In crying for forgiveness David appeals to two characteristics of God: hesed – a mysterious word for which all translations are inadequate – and rakhamwhich means both mercy and womb. 

The great illustration of rakham is the judgment of Solomon on the two women. In resolving a custody dispute between them over a child:

24 The king said, “Get me a sword.” So they brought a sword before the king. 25 The king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other.” 26 Then the woman whose child was the living one spoke to the king, for [e]she was deeply stirred over her son and said, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means kill him.” But the other said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him!” 27 Then the king said, “Give [f]the first woman the living child, and by no means kill him. She is his mother.”

I Kings 3 : 24-27

The “deeply stirred upon her son” is “warmth/ yearning in her rakham”The woman is identified as mother from just this stirring, as though to identify compassion and the womb. It’s this that David appeals to as a divine property when he calls out to God in his moment of greatest humiliation and degradation.

But to complicate or balance things, Scripture also relates a beautiful story of rakham in a man. It comes from the story of Joseph, which is too complex to summarize and so I’ll assume a familiarity with it allows you to visualize the moment where Joseph, as an Egyptian magistrate who has been separated from is family for years, finally catches sight of his beloved younger brother:

29 As he looked about and saw his brother Benjamin, his own mother’s son, he asked, “Is this your youngest brother, the one you told me about?” And he said, “God be gracious to you, my son.” 30 Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there.

Genesis 43: 29

The “deeply moved” is the same phrase used to describe the maternal feelings of the mother in the story from 1 Kings 3.

So where does this leave us? On the one hand rakham identifies maternity, on the other it is an experience which, though men might find embarrassing, they nevertheless can identify with. This male embarassment in the face of rakham suggests it is something which they both have some access to and yet identify with the feminine. And it might be in this sense that rakham must be made eminent and analogized to divinity.

Rakham is also used to describe loves of fathers for children (Ps. 103: 13), but, again, this seems to be the sort of warm, affectionate, love that is paradigmatically feminine. One can get rakham from a father or mother (and both the story of the prodigal son and good samaritan tell of it in a man) but it is difficult to visualize it as a continual or eternal trait without seeing it as maternal. In fathers,  rakham seems always balanced against other traits. This too opens a discussion of what exactly rakham looks like as a divine trait.


-I use “gender” throughout since to use “sex”, even if more proper, sounds like one is talking not about sexual dimorphism but coïtus.

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