In most circles today people avoid assuming someone is male. Long gone are the days when it made any sense to address letters to “Dear Sir” or “Gentlemen” as I am old enough to have been taught to do.
It has gone beyond what makes sense. It has become a political statement. So avoiding the generic masculine has become a way of signaling social virtue. In worship in the mainline Protestant churches, calling God “he” is frowned upon.
I sense that Samuel Terrien would be okay with that–up to a point. He definitely sympathized with feminism. But he also thought there was a valid reason the Hebrew Bible tended to speak of God in the masculine.
It was not, he says, because of a patriarchal tyranny that dehumanized women. In fact, he stressed how often writers use feminine imagery for the divine.
Especially interesting is his discussion of the idea of God’s compassion. He thinks compassion in the Hebrew Bible could often be translated as “womb compassion”. This usage comes out several times in Jeremiah 31. Its classic theological expression is probably Isaiah 49:15 where God is speaking::
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yes, these may forget, yet I will not forget you! (WEB Bible)
But in ancient Israel there was a theological need to reject Canaanite worship of Mother Nature in the guise of Asherah and other goddess figures associated with the mythology of the fertility religions. Jeremiah 44:15-23 shows that this cult was powerful in Jerusalem to the exile and beyond.
The fertility mysticism identified the divine with nature. The prophetic religion of Yahweh insisted on a distinction between “true divinity and deified nature” (p. 60).
Anyone who has read much modern spirituality or consciousness-expanding literature will see the nature religion and Mother Goddess idea is still around. Gaia has ancient roots, but is very much a part of neopaganism and mystical environmentalism today. Terrien was aware that Mother Nature devotion was not just something from the ancient past.
The prophets and other Hebrew poets ascribed to Yahweh the moral characteristics of human motherhood, but they never deified the feminine reality. It is this radical distinction that has escaped the notice of most anthropologists and psychologists who have written in modern times of the gender of God (p. 62).
The Hebrew Bible does not see God as hormonally male or as having male genitals. It uses even the metaphor of father sparingly. So Terrien thinks Freud and Jung wrong in interpreting the fatherhood of God as a projection having to do with the Oedipus complex (Freud) or dark side masculinity (Jung).
The masculinity of God is totally a metaphor.
Every one of the few allusions to God as Father in the Hebrew Bible connotes the image of a human father who carries in his arms a helpless infant and later a rebellious child, so that the child may mature into full adulthood (p. 66).
Although Terrien is not so sure about the priestly writings, he seems certain that the prophetic writings and psalms hold up a vision of men and women as equal. The critique of the Mother Goddess does not take anything away from that. Those modern writers who see the Bible as a whole as oppressive of women have not really understood it.