Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Faith Question: Is the Holy Spirit a female?

Q. In one of your recent Twitter posts you mentioned the Hebrew word for Spirit (ruach). A friend says the Holy Spirit is a female. What are your thoughts?

A. Virtually all branches of Christianity would adamately say no (though most would admit that God uses both masculine and feminine imagery to describe himself). At the heart of the issue is (1) the gender of the Hebrew word ruach and (2) the female imagery of the personification of wisdom in Hebrew poetry, which is often thought by some to be a reference to the Holy Spirit.

(1). The Hebrew word for "spirit" is ruach, which can also mean 'air', 'breath', or 'wind'. In the Old Testament, this is the word used to refer to God's Spirit. Often the Hebrew term is ruach hakadosh, which means 'Holy Spirit'; though many times just ruach is used. While it is true that ruach is feminine, it is grammatically feminine---which linguistically does not necessarily have anything to do with actual gender. Every noun and adjective is assigned a gender, thus a stone in Hebrew is grammatically feminine (and stones obviously are not male or female). However, the Greek word for 'spirit' is pnuema, which is grammatically neuter. This is the word Jesus uses to refer to the Holy Spirit in the Gospels and the word Paul and the other New Testament writers use. Furthermore, the apostles often quoted from the Septuagint--which was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. The word pneuma is the term chosen to translate the word ruach. So, if we were to taken grammatical gender literally then we would be claiming the Holy Spirit underwent a gender change sometime between the Old and New Testament!

There are biblical cases where the pronoun used for the Holy Spirit is masculine (cf John 16:13). Normally in Greek the pronoun and the noun must match in grammatical gender, but at least in a few cases biblical writers intentionally broke grammatical rules in order to intentionally refer to the Spirit as male. Moreover, though ruach is usually femine in Hebrew, there are a few instances where it is in a masculine Hebrew form (ex. Numbers 11:31; Isaiah 57:16). The gender for the word ruach seems to shift and some grammars therefore cite ruach as an example of "common gender".

Simply put, if you were to tell a Hebrew langauge specialist that since ruach is femine then the Holy Spirit must be a female, he would respond by saying that your misunderstanding how the Hebrew langauge works. Because of this, we should also be careful about the masculine language that is most often used of God. We must remember that this masculine language is also grammatically masculine, not ontologically masculine.

(2). The book of Proverbs, which is poetic wisdom literature, focuses on the theme of wisdom. In chapter 8 the attribute of wisdom is "personified", which means it is spoken of as if it were a person. Throughout the centuries many have understood this as a reference to one of the members of the Trinity. In the Early Church period (and continuing today) is was popular to see Wisdom as a reference to Jesus Christ. In the New Testament Jesus is referred to as the "wisdom of God" (I Cor. 1:24,30). Others have understood this as a reference to the Holy Spirit, though there is absolutely nothing in the text to sustain that argument.

However, interpreting Wisdom in Proverbs 8 as referring to a member of the Trinity is to blatantly ignore the very nature of the passage. Poets have always used personification, and biblical writers did as well. For example, in Gen 4:7 God tells cain “sin is crouching at the door”. In Psalm 85:10 David says “mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other”. Even in the New Testament an apostle states “then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:15). Proverbs 8 isn't describing God. Rather, it is poetically describing the manner in which God created the world and wisdom itself (notice that in Proverbs 8:22-25 Wisdom claims to have been "created"). He brought forth this world in a wise manner, and has laid a path of wisdom for godly men and women to follow.

All in all, there is no literary or linquistic support for the idea that the Holy Spirit is ontologically female (or male, for that matter).


  1. Thanks for this enlightening article! Did you also know that there is some Catholic literature which says that Wisdom personified in Proverbs 8 is really Mary, the mother of Jesus? In a booklet called "Scriptural Rosary (the old version) Douay Rheims" These verses [Prov. 8:32-35] are under the meditations for the fifth glorious mystery of the rosary called the Coronation of Mary. [page 31]

    Prov 8:32 Now, therefore, ye children, hear me: blessed are they that keep my ways. 33 Hear instruction, and be wise, and refuse it not. 34 Blessed is the man that heareth me, and that watcheth daily at my gates, and waiteth at the posts of my doors. 35 He that shall find me, shall find life, and shall have salvation from the Lord. 36 But he that shall sin against me shall hurt his own soul. All that hate me love death. Douay-Rheims Bible

    See how misleading it is to read the passage above out of context and to believe it refers to Mary?

    Other verses about wisdom are also quoted: Cant. 6:10 and Sirach 24:24-27 and all to celebrate the coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven!

  2. I read a book called, "The Shack" which my sister gave me. Have you read it? Fiction where a man meets God in the shack where his little girl was murdered. God appears as a black mama to represent the Father, Jesus as a man, the Holy Spirit as a female wispy thing. I hated it and yet could not put it down. A murder mystery and I wanted the bad guy to get caught. I had nightmares about this book and I never would recommend it to anyone.