A theological answer would indicate that Rabbinic Jewish and early Christian thinkers did not attribute bodily form or sex to God, though most attributed male gender owing to the preponderance of typically masculine imagery and grammatical forms for God they saw in the Bible. Growing gender awareness has challenged traditional assumptions, and most Jewish and Christian communities now posit that God expresses both masculine and feminine attributes, or transcends gender altogether.
The following answer, however, reframes the original question for exegesis rather than theology:
Was Elohim of Gen.1:26-27 both male and female?
It is widely recognized that Genesis contains two, very different, creation accounts; for example:
- The creator is identified as Elohim in the Cosmic Creation
story (Gen.1:1-2:3) and Yahweh in the Garden of Eden
story (starting at Gen.2:4).
- Elohim and ‘adam are both spoken of as plural in the first,
whereas Yahweh and ‘adam are singular in the second.
- ’adam is differentiated as zakar and
nĕqebah in Gen.1 (male/female) and 'ish and 'ishshah in Gen.2 (man/woman).
- Male and female are each created in the creators’ image in the
first, and the second emphasizes the man and woman’s likeness to each
Because of these and other differences, critical scholars suggest the two accounts preserve distinct creation traditions within the development of the text. Both stories could be fully explored for hints about God's gender – the Jewish mystical tradition, for example, opens an interesting possibility for thinking YHWH a dual-gender deity. But for this question, examining 'Elohim in plurality' in Gen.1:26-27 is highly suggestive: “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.” This plurality is also present in Gen.3:22, Gen.11:7, and Is.6:8.
SIDEBAR: The sexual ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ of Elohim
There’s no avoiding that ‘image’ (צֶלֶם. tselem) and
‘likeness’ (דְּמוּת,dĕmuwth) allude in some concrete sense to
Elohim’s bodily form as the divine pattern after which the male
and female humans were modelled (Gen.5:3 and 9:6 suggest the same).
This parallels the more common use of tselem for sculpted idols (or
in Ez.23:14, a painting) where the image’s only physical quality is
its presumed resemblance to the original; e.g. bronze Baal,
terracotta Asherah, golden calf. Verse 27 therefore describes
the images of Elohim as male and female, referring to their physical
sex, not masculine and feminine (gender) or some other
Centuries later, when the bodily, predominantly male descriptions of
God in the Hebrew Bible were increasingly viewed as theological
metaphor, God could be conceived as transcending body, sex, and more
recently, gender. But within the earlier worldview, and given the
Hebrew Bible’s almost exclusive presentation of God as a male
figure, the ’image and likeness of God’ implies ‘of the male sex’.
After whom, then, is the female human modelled? As the OP observes,
this is a genuine challenge of this text. <+>
Various theories for 'Elohim in plurality’ are posited, some of them theological and anachronistic (e.g. Trinitarian foreshadowing). Four views are considered here:
Option 1: The word elohim referred to ‘the gods’, as it did in hundreds of other Hebrew Bible verses.
2 Nothing in the text specifies elohim is the Israelite/Judahite god, and a generic word may have been chosen deliberately for its universality. The plural elohim recalls the pantheons of other ancient Near East religions which included both male and female deities who could function here as the divine models for the male and female human images.
3 This would make Gen.1 a thoroughly polytheist creation story, perhaps a foreign story told for contrast to the Yahwist story it precedes (i.e. myth/anti-myth). However, if this reading reflects a very early tradition, it is unlikely to have been shared by later priestly redactors who included this beautifully-crafted story without critique.
Option 2: Elohim (the traditional Israelite god) speaking on behalf of a ‘heavenly court’, also alluded to in Ps.82, Is.6:8, 1Ki.22:19-23, Jb.1-2, Zc.3, and Dn.7.
4 An evangelical perceptive, based on the belief that biblical writers expressed only a (more or less) monotheistic conception of God, conceives Elohim’s council as an assembly of non-divine ‘sons of God’ or heavenly beings (often angels) over which God was unmistakably sovereign. So the NIV Study Bible footnotes Gen.1:26: “God speaks as the Creator-King, announcing his crowning work to the members of his heavenly court."
Though the biblical writers do not identify all members of Yahweh’s court, the likely contenders are all male (including angels). Those who hold the non-divine heavenly court view (e.g. Heiser, Sumner) offer no suggestion as to whose female likeness the female human in Gen.1 might have reflected. Many commentators defer, saying the likeness to Elohim is not concrete and sexual but spiritual or moral; and besides, the heavenly court did not participate in creation, even to lend their image. Both caveats seem to contradict the plain meaning of the ‘let us make in our image’ text.
Option 3: Elohim speaking on behalf of a traditional ‘divine council’. Anthropologists note that the mythic motif of the heavenly court pre-dates ancient Israel. In Canaanite religion, El was the chief of the elohim, the gods. Like other ancient Near East pantheons, Canaan’s elohim included males and females: e.g. Asherah, Baal, Astarte, and other gods known to Bible readers as Yahweh’s primary rivals prior to the Exile. Many scholars suggest that as heterodox Yahwism grew in prominence, it assimilated the titles, names, attributes, symbols, and mythology of El and competing cults, including the very names El and ‘sons of elohim’ (El’s divine council of 70 gods and goddesses) and eventually aspects of the dying goddess religions as well.
5 It likely took centuries for Judaism’s increasingly exclusive monotheism and increasingly desexualized divinity to emerge from poly- and heno-theist predecessors.
At an interim step in this development – before the full flowering of exclusive monotheism – Elohim could be seen to speak on behalf of a council that included the divine daughters and sons of Elohim, as suggested in Gen.6:4, Dt.32:8, Ps.29:1, and Jb.1:6 and 28:7. Gen.1 is widely believed to have been written before the early 5th century BCE, that is, before Elohim’s divine council (option 3) was ‘demoted’, in the interpretation of some readers, to the status of non-divine heavenly court (option 2) after the expansion of angelology in late- and post-biblical Judaism.
7 According to this view, the male and female humans of Gen.1 were fashioned after male and female members of Elohim’s divine council.
Option 4: Elohim speaking on behalf of himself and a female consort. As mentioned, Canaan’s pantheon was composed of the 70 children of El; their mother was Asherah. Like its neighbors, Canaan was represented by a divine couple, El and Asherah, his consort. Together they were co-creators in Canaan’s creation story.
There is ample biblical evidence for the Asherah cult in Israel/Judah – 40 mentions in nine books – including the installation of her statue in Yahweh’s temple in Jerusalem (2Ki.21:7). Archeological evidence, including inscriptions and thousands of terracotta figurines likely bearing her image, suggests Asherah was venerated in the folk cults of Israel/Judah from the 10th to the 6th centuries BCE and was, for long periods, also part of its official religion as Yahweh’s consort. Asherah worship was purged with the emergence of monotheistic Judaism after the Exile, but 5th century papyri indicate Anat-Yahu, another wife or consort of Yahweh, was worshiped by Judahite exiles in a Yahweh temple in Egypt. Coogan states that while the entire pantheon of elohim could be the model for male and female humans in Gen.1, “the divine couple, Yahweh and his goddess consort, are more likely.”
It’s unknown what specific cultural referents informed this particular story in its original telling, but critical scholarship, archeological evidence, and comparative religion support the third and fourth options. Both reflect a time when a story could be told in which the traditionally male Elohim was joined by a female divine figure (and perhaps others) in the creation of the first humans as male and female. Echoes of similar henotheistic stories and myths, equally faint and ambiguous, are heard throughout the Hebrew Bible, particularly in its early chapters.
1 “The general use of the word, therefore, seems to demand the idea of ‘image’ in some concrete sense, and prevalent scholarship always calls for this as the first interpretation. .... Interpretations of the image of God, therefore, may swing between two extremes: the absolute, literal, physical resemblance, which seems to be supported in Genesis 5:1-3 where the image of God is clearly paralleled with Seth as the image of his father, Adam; and over against this, the necessary spiritual interpretation supported by Jesus’ classic definition of God, namely, that ‘God is spirit’.” ‘Image of God’, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915).
2 Grammatically, the noun elohim is always plural; in fact the KJV translates elohim as ‘gods’ 244 times. But when it refers to the primary god of Israel/Judah, English translators follow the LXX model and render it as capital-G ‘God’ (2,346 times), which is also the English word they use for El (213 times) and Eloah (52 times). The Hebrew text retains the original.
3 A conservative reading of the plural elohim in the Bible as possibly including angels (e.g. Heiser, n.55) does not appear to provide a female model.
4 Michael S. Heiser, “Divine Council,” The Lexham Bible Dictionary, John D. Barry and Lazarus Wentz, eds. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012); p.23.
5 Tikva Frymer-Kensky, In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth (Ballantine Books, 1993). See Levenson's review in First Things 27 (1992):50-53.
6 Also in Michael Heiser’s ‘Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism? Toward an Assessment of Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible’, and in Ellen White’s ‘The Council of Yahweh: Its Structure and Membership.’
7 Michael D. Coogan, A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament. Oxford University Press: 2009.
8 "H. Wheeler Robinson pointed out that the image in which humans were created in Gen. 1:26 was that of the 'sons of God' who were members of the Divine Council.” In Christopher Kaiser, n.155.