What Happens When God Can be Mother Too?

El Shaddai, The Mother Name of God

When people tell you that there is no “Mother” title for God in the Bible, talk to them about El Shaddai. Through the ages, translators and scholars have only guessed at the meaning of El Shaddai. El Shaddai is usually rendered as “God Almighty,” assuming that the root “shad” must refer to the Hebrew word shadad meaning “to violently destroy” or to a word in the Akkadian language, shaddu, meaning “mountain.” There are a few verses in the post-patriarchal period for which the judging, destroying meaning of Shaddai would fit (e.g. Is. 13:6; Joel 1:15). However, as you’ll see, the early use of El Shaddai and Shaddai fully employed the word shad which means “breast” in Hebrew.

Translators and readers seem to believe that the female body and God don’t mix. The New Jerusalem Bible does assert that God Almighty is not a correct translation and uses El Shaddai instead. However, it leaves the question open rather than mention the meaning of shad as “breast.” But a few Old Testament scholars, like David Biale, have answered affirmatively that El Shaddai is indeed the God with breasts. 

The God of Fertility

Shad for a woman’s breast is used multiple times in the Bible (Gen. 49:25; Job 3:12; Psalm 22:9; Song 1:13; 4:5; 7:3, 7, 8; 8:1, 8, 10; Isa. 28:9; Lam 4:3; Ezek. 16:7; 23:3 and others). The ending –ai is the way of making a Hebrew word plural and singular possessive (“my breasts”). With El referring to God-as-power, the essential meaning of El Shaddai is “the divine power of my breasts.” 

David Biale notes in “The God with Breasts: El Shaddai,” “…all of the passages using El Shaddai in Genesis, with one exception, are fertility blessings.” The blessings of the breast, in fact. In ancient times, breast milk nourished babies and children until they were three-years old. Mothers could feed their babies by breast-milk even when other food was scarce. It ensured the survival of people groups, such as the Israelites. (See my post, Divine Breasts, for more about the gift of breast milk). 

In the first example of El Shaddai being used in a fertility context, God reveals one of her names for the first time in Genesis. Though “Yahweh” has been used by the writer(s) of Genesis since chapter 2, God does not actually refer to Herself as Yahweh until She tells Moses how to introduce Her to the Israelites in Exodus 3:14. (Note that I will use the feminine pronoun for the invisible, gender-less God for this post. For more on why gender-neutral language is not enough, go here).

The Genesis Verses

Instead, God calls Herself El Shaddai. God appears to Abram when he is 99 years old in Genesis 17:1. She says to him, “I am [El Shaddai]; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” God continues on in the theme of blessings through children in the rest of chapter 17, changing Abram (“respected parent”) to Abraham (“progenitor of a multitude”) and Sarai (a name for a barren mountain in the area) to Sarah (“noblewoman”).

That’s one example. Genesis 28:3 shows Isaac blessing Jacob with these words: “May [El Shaddai] bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples” (TNIV).

When God changes Jacob’s name to Israel, She again announces Her own name in the context of the blessing of fertility. She says, “I am [El Shaddai]. Be fruitful and increase in number” (Gen. 35:11).

In Genesis 43, Israel (Jacob) appeals to El Shaddai when hoping to see his youngest son Benjamin again after sending him down to Egypt with Judah: “And may [El Shaddai] grant you mercy before the man so that he will let your other brothers and Benjamin come back with you” (Gen. 43:14a). Phyllis Trible, in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, reminds us of the linguistic connection between the womb and mercy in Hebrew. “Rahim” (womb) is related to “rhm” (to show mercy) as well as “rahum” (merciful).

When Jacob is old and ill, he recounts to Joseph the story of El Shaddai’s promise of fruitfulness in 48:3: “[El Shaddai] appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me. God told me, ‘I will make you bear fruit and I will increase your descendants until they become a multitude of nations, and I will give this land to your descendants to have forever.'”

When Jacob is dying, he blesses Joseph in the same spirit that his father Isaac blessed him, with the same name of El Shaddai. He says, “…because of your father’s God, who helps you, because of [El Shaddai] who blesses you with blessings of the heavens above, blessings of the deep that lies below, blessings of the breast and womb” (Gen. 49:25). Both “shad” as breast, and the Akkadian “shaddu” for mountain may come into play here, as Jacob goes on to praise his own blessing as being “greater than the blessings of the ancient mountains, than the bounty of the age-old hills.”

Andrew Jukes, a nineteenth century Bible translator, wrote a learned little book called The Names of God in Holy Scripture. He was not afraid to correctly translate El Shaddai, perhaps because of his situation in a foreign country. He writes:

‘Jehovah’ [Yahweh] bears a sword (Deut. 32:41, 42; Ezek. 21:3,5). But ‘El Shaddai,’ the ‘Almighty,’ here revealed to Abram, is not the ‘sworded’ God. His Almightiness is of the breast, that is, of bountiful, self-sacrificing love, giving and pouring itself out for others. Therefore He can quiet the restless, as the breast quiets the child; therefore He can nourish and strengthen, as the breast nourishes; therefore He can attract, as the breast attracts, when we are in peril of falling from Him. This is the ‘Almighty.’

El Shaddai in Other Books of the Bible

Biblical authors refer to God as El Shaddai or just Shaddai 37 more times, and it is worth exploring in some of its other contexts. In Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24, Shaddai is the God who speaks and reveals, as She did to Abraham (24:2-4). Balaam then describes the fulfilling of the covenant promise to the patriarchs that the Israelites will flourish: “your descendants will live by running streams” (24:7). Ezekiel 1:24 and 10:15 likewise both refer to El Shaddai’s voice.

The psalmist speaks of God as a covering mother hen in Psalm 91:1 (see my post The Wings of God), with the motherly title Shaddai revived: “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of [Shaddai].” The mother bird imagery is more explicit in 91:3-4: ”Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare…he will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.”

The Book of Job uses Shaddai 31 times. Its date is a matter of controversy, but I agree with those who put Job’s author in the second millenium B.C, in the age of the patriarchs, for the reason that Shaddai and El Shaddai do not appear as extensively in any other book. Job opens and closes with the blessings of children: they are signs of Shaddai’s favor in the first part of Job’s life, and again in the last part (Job 1:1-5; Job 42:13-16).

Job’s friends use the name Shaddai as the God who justly disciplines Her children, starting with 5:17: “How happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of Shaddai.” However, Shaddai is not happy with Job’s friends in the end, saying that only Job has spoken rightly of Her (42:7-9). In Job 38:8 and 38:29 Yahweh answers Job and speaks of “my womb.” And She eventually becomes again the God with Breasts who gives Job more children (42:13-16).

The last part of the Book of Isaiah (“Third Isaiah”) uses Shaddai with the metaphor of suckling. In 60:16, the writer prophecies, “You will drink the milk of nations and be nursed at royal breasts. Then you will know that I, Yahweh, am your Savior, your Redeemer, the [Shaddai] of Jacob.”

Isaiah 13:6 and Joel 1:15 use Shaddai in the sense of severe judgement, as mentioned in the first paragraph, which could recall the word shadad (meaning, to violently destroy). The prophets wrote their books in the post-patriarchal era, when Yahweh was the warrior God, notes David Biale. As Biale says, “…in the late texts, Shaddai–used as a substitute for Yahweh–has the associations common to late Israelite theology: awe and veneration at best, fear and hostility at worst.”

In the book of Ruth, Naomi has a sense of a God who deals almost unjustly when she says, “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara, ‘Bitterness,’ for YHWH has afflicted me, and Shaddai has brought bitter destruction on me” (1:20).  Yet, Naomi’s complaint and specific mention of Shaddai would have brought up reminders of the God of the breast who blesses with children, and in this case, takes them away. However, Shaddai eventually does bless Naomi with a child, Obed, her grandson-by-marriage: “Naomi took the child into her lap and she became his caretaker” (4:16). (See my post comparing Naomi and Job here). Perhaps, with both the stories of Job and Naomi, the teaching point is not to misunderstand God as punishing when what one needs is to wait patiently for the blessings of The Breasted One to return.

Pantrokrator with Breasts

Though Almighty is not a correct translation for El Shaddai in the Old Testament, the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) often uses it, calling El Shaddai pantokrator. Andrew Jukes found that in Revelation 1:13 the Pantokrator has a golden sash around his chest; this word chest is mastois in Greek, meaning female breasts. How do commentators handle this? A.T. Robertson says that mastois is an “Old word for breasts of a woman (Luke 11:27; Luke 23:29) and nipples of a man, as here.” That’s one of the best examples I’ve seen of mental back flips to avoid the real meaning of a Biblical text, but he’s actually the only one with courage to even admit that mastois exists in Rev. 1:13. (The verses he mentions, by the way, only refer to a woman’s breasts and do not mention a man’s nipples!)

Jukes was certainly on to something important and unexplored. Interestingly, in Rev. 1:8, Jesus refers to Himself as “The First and the Last.” Wouldn’t it be like God–and I’m assuming She has a sense of humor–to make sure the beginning and ending of the Bible included such a vivid picture of the feminine aspects of God? 

In any case, I am more grateful than ever that El Shaddai was the first revelation of the invisible God. I believe this name gives us full permission and Biblical precedent to call God Mother. Just as importantly, the holy name of El Shaddai reminds us that God affirms and approves of the female body, and identifies with its power. And She has blessed it.

 

We Love to Call Him Lord–But Why?

Lord has always been one of my favorite names for God. But as a part of The Mother God Experiment, I have been reading translations that avoid the title, Lord, leading me to think more objectively about it. Is Lord a helpful and truly Biblical way to speak of God in the 21st century?

No More Lords and Ladies

It’s not just that Lord means something that no longer applies to our common culture among most English speakers. We don’t have a feudal system, and lords aren’t a part of our economic life. (The term is likely used more often by Brits, but still.)

It’s that Lord focuses narrowly on power, authority and rulership. And white power at that. A lord is always going to be caucasian (and upper class) in our image-banks.

Synonyms for lord from Oxforddictionaries.com include: magnate, tycoon, mogul, captain, baron, king, industrialist, proprietor, big shot, and (head) honcho. Those word make me think of Donald Trump. Is God simply someone extremely powerful and privileged, to be feared and obeyed? And do power-titles lead us to a better relationship with God or do we stand back a bit when we hear them?

The word is also intrinsically male, focusing on male power in particular. How do I know this about Lord describing a male? When I whip out the counterpart term Lady as a term for God, every one drops their powdered wig.

But Ladies had power, too, in the Middle Ages. (See my Lady God post here). The Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament refers to God as The Lady at times. And it’s a real mind-blower, but in a healthy way. It has helped me finally get a realistic hold on how antiquated and male-centered Lord is. We need some re-education.

Why Do We Call God the Lord?

We tend to believe that the title Lord leaped from the pages of the Bible. But the original languages reveal some important truths about God that translators have missed. The Old Testament writers refer to God as Yahweh 6087 times! It’s the predominant way of speaking of God.

Yahweh provides the foundation of our pre-Jesus understanding of God, having its roots in God’s own revelation of Herself to Moses in Exodus 3:14. Many have opinions on the translation, but ultimately the title Yahweh relates to primordial being: “I am who I am” and/or “I will be who I will be.”

The name Yahweh is not male-authority based. It is God-based.

Similarly, Elohim is the plural of El (god) and is most basically translated “God” or “gods.” Elohim appears 2340 times.

Finally, Adonai is used for God only 428 times. This term does mean “lord.” But throughout the Old Testament, English-speaking translators use “Lord” for Yahweh (though often in all caps: LORD, as my friend JoMae reminded me), and not only for Adonai. So the overwhelming feeling an English speaker has is that God’s primary, most revelatory name is Lord. But God has actually shown Herself through a name referring to foundational Being and Presence and not to male-only authority.

But What About Jesus?

Kyrios is Greek for “mister” and referred to the head of the household in Classical Athens. It appears 740 times in the New Testament. It was a natural Greek substitute for Adonai, which Jewish people have used to avoid speaking out loud the holy name of Yahweh.

Jesus preferred Human One (traditionally translated Son of Man) to speak of Himself. Indeed, he came as a servant to humanity (Luke 22:7) and called His followers His friends (John 15:15). He uses Kyrios sparingly–once to explain that “The Human One is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8; Luke 6:5), and another time to speak about the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 7:21). He actually challenges those who call Him Kyrie (the vocative tense of Kyrios), but who do not do what He says (Luke 6:46), and implicitly warns that both the goats and the sheep call Him “Lord” but that their actions differentiate them (Matt. 25:31-46). And Jesus shockingly identified with Yahweh when He said, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).

Nonetheless as Christians, when we say “Jesus is Lord” we are making an important statement of faith that Jesus is more than human. Jesus as Kyrios (the head, the leader, the master) was fundamental for the early Christians developing their theology, despite the fact that Jesus rarely called Himself this.

But there are other ways to say the same thing that do not use “Lord.” The introduction of The Inclusive Bible agrees:

The title ‘Lord,’ especially when it refers to Jesus, is hard to replace because it is confessional–that is, to call Jesus Lord is to both recognize in him a divinity and to make a commitment to him. To confess that Jesus is Lord is to confess, for example, Caesar is not Lord. To avoid sexist and classist connotations, we use substitutes for Lord that are meaningful in our own confession of Jesus, such as Sovereign, Savior and Jesus Reigns.

Even with the centrality of declaring Jesus as God, we do not have to use the English word Lord. Jesus is no longer a human male walking the earth, though His humanity mattered to Jesus. (His maleness did not seem important, however).

Jesus is Spirit. We may confess Christ’s divinity, and our commitment to do what Jesus says, without needing to emphasize gender.

El Shaddai

El Shaddai is one of seven titles for God that modern Jews continue to revere by never saying the names out loud. It refers to God only seven times in the Old Testament (but 48 times as Shaddai alone).

El means “God” but “Shaddai” is up for debate. English translators again always choose a power-title, God Almighty. However, the Hebrew root “shad” means breast, with the ending “ai” indicating two breasts.

Often when I see an article on feminine language for God, the writer will say that it’s “rare” or “unusual” for God to be referred to in feminine terms. But that’s not true, when one takes time to really notice every verse (go to my page for the evidence). An explicitly feminine title for God therefore seems reasonable.

One could take a risk and call God “The Two-Breasted One” sometimes. But as a more comfortable alternative, using the title Mother for God is one way to refer to God in English that avoids masculine power-centered words but has Biblical roots.

Moving Beyond Lord to Servant

The ineffable God is not attached to our antiquated words for Her. She sent Jesus to reveal a new definition of power, one that is about servanthood and love rather than “lord[ing] it over” others (Mt. 20:25).

It will take some courage, but we can leave “Lord” behind as our primary way of thinking about God. And we will have a clearer vision of God if we do.

 

 

 

 

 

Pondering Wonder Woman and Power

When is a human being most powerful? Does Wonder Woman show us what strength is, or does it give back to us what patriarchy and the white middle class have always said true strength is?

I have to admit that I haven’t seen the movie. But I’ve seen clips and read reviews, especially this article in Sojourners, entitled, “How ‘Wonder Woman’ Does Not Placate Audiences.” The author, like many, sees Wonder Woman as a feminist milestone, at least in part because “Jenkins [the director] shoots her heroine and her fellow Amazons, like male actions stars.” Wonder Woman “smashes through windows and beats back bullets as easily as any of her male counterparts….”

As I continue to reflect on the connection between love and power that I touched on in a previous post, I have two critical questions that Wonder Woman inspires:

One) Why is Wonder Woman white? Is feminist and divine power based in societal privilege? Though Gal Gadot is Jewish, and that’s good, viewers read “white” when they see her, much like we have white-washed Jesus throughout history. Harper’s Bazaar Magazine writer Cameron Glover says: “But the premiere of the Wonder Woman film is bittersweet for Black and other women of color, because even in this so-called ‘feminist’ film, erasure and a lack of inclusion is not only expected, but a given. When it comes to mainstream feminism, race and other identities often take a backseat to gender equality—and that simply isn’t good enough.”

The picture I chose for this post is meant to show a new image of a powerful woman, one of love-as-strength and strength-as-love, which women and men can both embrace. There are women warriors around the world who only a few see. They are often people of color who own little, and love anyway.

Two) Is Wonder Woman a female version of a male superhero, with too many of the patriarchal, violent ways of doing business? Having heard the stories of many refugees, I don’t want to completely blow off the idea of Wonder Woman’s mission. During a war, I imagine I would welcome salvation whether violent or not. Nonetheless, as a movie most of us watch in peaceful circumstances, Wonder Woman strikes me as similar to the violent, male-centered version of any other DC Comic movie.

Feminist scholar Carol Christ had this to say in a comment, responding to the article, “Saving Tomorrow: Wonder Woman and her Elevated Role in Shaping Our World”:

But do we really want anyone–male or female–to learn as a child that the way to be powerful is to kill the “other”? I do not. We need to change the paradigm. This apparently was what the original author of Wonder Woman set out to do.

My husband points out that the original Wonder Woman cartoons showed her having tools of power but never using violence. She’d turn the bad guys over to the cops. He thought, as a boy, that she wasn’t a real superhero due to that. But he sees now that was the paradigm of patriarchy.

As for the original amazingly feminist vision of Wonder Woman, a press release from the 1941 debut said this (from an article by expert Jill Lepore):

“‘Wonder Woman’ was conceived by Dr. Marston [a Harvard educated psychologist] to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men” because “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity.” Marston put it this way: “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”

This new type of woman can know herself as powerful and embrace love as her strength. As Wonder Woman herself said, “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world.”

What do you think? Have we moved forward with the new Wonder Woman movie or do patriarchy and white privilege remain unchallenged? 

Guest Post: “Father’s Day Boycott?” by Dr. Tim Bulkeley

Whenever someone lets their mask slip and I catch a glimpse of the pain and hurt a bad father has caused my stomach lurches like I’m on a carnival ride. The pain of a father’s abuse lasts till the child grows old. It is a wound that only dies when the child passes on. But the problem with Father’s Day is not only abusive fathers, but also many who simply worked too hard to “provide”, and so seemed to fail in caring. So many fathers have caused pain that Father’s Day is a problem.

On Father’s Day, of course, I could feel so grateful for my own dad’s love and care. I could enjoy Father’s Day, because I had a dad I can celebrate.

But for so many friends, for them it is not even a day of mixed feelings. Father’s Day, for them, means remembering what is better forgotten – especially when it can never be forgiven.

We should all boycott Father’s Day!

And yet, I watch my son, a great dad, caring for his children Micaela and Rose with a fierce and tender love. As well as the joys of days spent at Playcenter [a parent-run New Zealand kindergarten], I hear of the sleepless nights (certainly less sleep than is good for parents). I hear the stories of intelligent and willful children demanding what they cannot be given (even angels have temper tantrums, at least human ones do). Parents are often driven to wit’s end. Being a parent is far from easy.

So parents need all the encouragement and support we can give. How could we be so stupid as to think of a boycott of the day when the fathers who try hard to be good parents for their children get a little recognition?

Fathers’ Day is a time for mixed feelings, a time to remember the past with gratitude or sadness, but also and above all, a time to encourage all those men who are trying and, naturally, being only human, failing to be the fathers we want our children to enjoy.

Dr. Tim Bulkeley is the author of Not Only a Father: Talk of God as Mother in the Bible and Christian Tradition.

Introducing Your Church to God as Mother

Church isn’t easy. There’s a lot to disagree about within Christianity, and within American (or Canadian, or your own country’s) politics. But still, some of you–pastors, leaders, lay leaders, and church members–will find that’s it’s worth it to take some risks to bring feminine language for God into church services.

You are the ones who know that to be completely supportive of women, we need to acknowledge the image of women within the Godhead. This starts with the words we use to describe God. To fully affirm that God made women in Her image, we must begin to change from worshiping an exclusively masculine god to an Invisible God who welcomes both male and female metaphors and pronouns to describe God.

If you are ready to begin the task of introducing your church to feminine language for God, here’s where to start:

One) Begin using it in your own prayer life.

This didn’t happen for me until I made up my mind to do my one-person experiment. I only used devotional books and Bibles that used feminine language for God until it started to get more comfortable to call God “Mother.”

I continue to use these helpful resources during my time with God:

Swallow’s Nest: a Feminine Reading of the Psalms by Marchienne Vroon Rienstra

The Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament by The Christian Godde Project 

The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation by Priests for Equality

Two) Do a teaching or sermon series on the Biblical basis for feminine language for God.

There are many obvious references to God as mother in the Old Testament and some in the New. I used to stumble over the argument that God is a father but only like a mother. Recently I re-read the mother verses and discovered that most of the time the Old Testament writers use mother as a metaphor. In fact, often God is speaking in the first person as a mother (See my post here). Jesus himself uses mothering as an implied metaphor when he says, “Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6).

It’s amazing what you and your congregation will discover as you unpack these verses that affirm the feminine within God.

Three) Discuss and introduce hymns that have inclusive language and feminine language for God.

It is often the lyrics to our hymns and worship songs that create sexist barriers and block full participation by egalitarians. Getting past the first few songs in a service can be a challenge with so many references to God as male, or to the “brotherhood of believers” or to being “sons of God.” Yet, great resources exist for bringing healing to women and men through music:

–Jann Aldredge Clanton’s hymn and worship song compilations.

–“5 Tips and Tricks for Being Gender-Inclusive in Worshipby Rev. Wesley Spears Newsome

–This great article for general guidelines for selecting inclusive hymns: https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/making-hymns-inclusive.

Four) Occasionally, use “She” as a pronoun for God, and refer to God as Mother in prayer.

Expect push-back. And keep going. Rev. Paul R. Smith, author of Is It Okay to Call God Mother? Considering the Feminine Face of God, says when he refers to God as “She” members of his congregation tend to laugh or giggle. Eventually, your congregants will understand that it’s not a joke, and will start to get comfortable with the fact that the God who is a non-physical person will sometimes be “He” and sometimes be “She.” Check out Paul Smith’s amazing book as a possible resource as you respond to complaints and questions. A scholarly work to refer to is Dr. Timothy Bulkeley’s book, Not Only a Father: Talk of God as Mother in the Bible and Christian Tradition.

Five) If you are in a liturgical setting, alternate the use of “Father” and “Mother” in liturgies sometimes. 

One of my first breakthroughs in being able to call God Mother was during my husband’s home church services, where we alternated Father and Mother in the liturgy. Saying “Mother” out loud, and even better, “Mother Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” helped affirm to me that it really is okay to call God Mother.

Someone I knew balked at the term “Mother Almighty,” because in his mind “mother” could never be “almighty.” But that’s exactly the problem that we are trying to solve with changes in the language we use for God in church and society.

With the help of these new words for God, someday the church may see what God sees: the strength of women, who are made in the image of the Almighty God (Gen. 1:27).

Is Mother God Just a Love Muffin?

Do we have to make God the Mother a love muffin and God the Father the Big Boss? Does God the Father get to be Omni-Everything and God the Mother simply present? If we become aware of our own unconscious, societally-based sexism; correspondingly adjust our view of mothers; and see how power is related to love, we can begin to strengthen the mother metaphor for God.

Stereotyping Mother God

One of the problems of calling God Mother is our stereotypes of mothers and women, which can be helpful emotionally but may also reinforce a binary, sexist way of thinking.

To pick up on your own unconscious sexism (if it exists), slowly read the following two verses from Psalm 98 (Swallow’s Nest), one using masculine pronouns, and the other feminine. Notice your different images of God as you read:

“Sing new songs to El Shaddai for the wonders She has done! Her helping hand and holy arm have become our health and salvation.”

“Sing new songs to El Shaddai for the wonders He has done! His helping hand and holy arm have become our health and salvation.”

For me, the second verse seems almost neuter, as we all know that God helps and is powerful. The first image conjures images of a woman cooking Hamburger Helper and a nurse providing medicine. My ever-lingering stereotypes of my own sex get in the way of seeing God as Mother as simply helpful and simply powerful.

A Stronger Mother Figure

Lynn Japinga, author of Feminism and Christianity, writes:

The word he apparently transcends sexuality. At first this argument seems to transcend logic as well, but there are many English words in which the female version is inferior to the male or is sexualized in a particular way. A master is skillful or in charge; a mistress is an illicit sexual partner. A lord manages property; a lady has perfect manners and breeding, but does little more than drink tea. Sir is a term of respect; a madam runs a brothel. Christians throughout history have considered the female and the feminine at best subordinate, and at worst, dangerous. They did not think they honored God by calling God Mother or Midwife.

Especially because of this historical and ongoing sexism, the metaphor of mother is a helpful and needed addition to the father metaphor. Yet, we can move away from these false woman-as-weakling and mother-as-cook-and-nurse stereotypes to a stronger Mother figure for God.

God is Almighty, Mothers are Strong

Many years ago, my dissertation adviser told me he thought me changing a liturgical phrase to “Mother Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth,” was just obviously wrong. Could a mother be almighty, someone powerful enough to create everything? For him, that was the land of paradox.

But mothers are strong, the kind of persevering, won’t-give-up strength that Jesus wanted the male disciples to have when He told them, “The spirit is willing, but the body is weak” (Mt. 26:41b). They fell asleep during His time of deepest need. Three times. Jesus prayed alone as His heart broke. Moms stay awake when their children need them. They wake up when their kids are sick, sad, or scared in the night. And they provide.

As William Makepeace Thackeray said, “Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children.” (Thanks to Jory Micah for the quote!). To a child, which every adult once was, moms might as well be God as far as the power they have. Not always the power to control, which isn’t God-like or good parenting anyway, but the power to affirm, teach, influence, and empower. (And, sadly, the power to hurt when we emulate the brokenness in our parents).

Unlike the impassable Greek godddesses and gods, but like the invisible God, our children’s pain affects us. This makes us all the more powerful.

Power to Create More Than Babies

But what about that old definition of masculine strength that my adviser had in mind? The strength of omni-competence, the maker-of-heaven-and-earth kind of power? Women have those creator gifts, too.

God made women to shape our world, alongside men. We are sometimes “hidden figures,” struggling for recognition for our accomplishments, but women bless the world in every profession in increasing numbers. (See this book with a provocative title for more: The End of Men and the Rise of Women by journalist Hannah Rosin). And we still keep the hearth, on average doing much more housework and child care even when male partners are unemployed.

Jesus Showed Us Love is Strength

Other stereotypical masculine qualities, like dominance or authoritarianism, aren’t the strength of God. They are misguided notions of who God is, that Jesus came to change. Jesus didn’t come to condemn and judge the world, but to heal and save it (John 3:17). Jesus came to serve the world (Luke 22:27), not control it.

So, the stereotype may persist about Mother God being a love muffin, but love is the strength and power of Mother Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.

God is love itself (I John 4:8, 16b).

God is Wisdom, and Wisdom is a Woman

In the book of Proverbs, a mysterious character appears named Wisdom. And even more surprising, Wisdom is a woman. When I first grappled with these passages, I concluded that Wisdom was just a literary device, not God or a part of God. (See my post here). But after having read more on this topic, I’m pretty sure Wisdom was later thought to be God or a part of God, even if the original writer of Proverbs did not intend it.

Jesus refers to Wisdom as her in Luke 7:35. He is clearly referring to God, perhaps even Himself. The TNIV commentators agree. (I believe Luke may also be alluding to the wisdom of the woman who shows up in the next passage.)

Wisdom is another feminine metaphor for God, and an aspect of motherhood that doesn’t always leap to mind when we think of generic women. Historically, women have been perceived as having a lack of intelligence, and even today children and adult men associate men with intelligence. (Fact: women in developed countries now score equal to or better than men, on IQ tests).

Wisdom’s Big Picture

Wisdom is intelligence and knowledge applied in the world, but it is even more than that. It sees the big picture, and again, the big picture is love.

On Facebook, I often encourage other moms who doubt their gut instincts by saying, “Moms know!” In my experience knowing-one’s-kid is just one of the physical changes that come with motherhood and the increases in oxytocin, the love hormone.

We know not only because of our intelligence, but because we love. It’s a divine gift one can identify with Wisdom herself.

God is Fierce like a Mom Recovering Her Child

My least favorite verses with feminine imagery for God are the mother bear ones. Hosea 13:8 says, “I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs, and will tear open the covering of their heart….” But moms, at the height of their powers to save and heal, are warriors. Since they know their children, they are their voices when the child is bullied or has a disability.

In the online moms support groups I’m a part of, I’ve seen the best of motherhood and humanity in the women with children with autism, especially this Facebook group, Recovering Kids. The moms spend nights and days researching what will bring their child out of muteness or bring relief from Sensory Processing Disorder, often without the support of skeptical partners and relatives.

And their children thrive. When I think of myself and the kind of mother I want to be, these moms come to mind. Their motivation is love, with the fierceness of a mother bear robbed of her cubs. 

Motherhood at Its Best

God is not just a love-muffin. But God is love. William Placher writes in Narratives of a Vulnerable God, “…Christians will be most faithful to the Biblical narratives if ‘Father’ [or ‘Mother’] functions, when used, primarily as a symbol of love rather than of power.”

But he’s not quite right. Love is power. And power without love is destructive; it is in fact, evil. That’s a secret that patriarchy keeps us from seeing.

The vulnerability of Jesus on the cross saved the world, like a mom having a c-section with arms strapped down on a table can save a baby. What we all need is a divine parent, whether mom or dad or both, who loves us with the strength of motherhood at its best. And I believe and hope that we find that love in the invisible God who is Mother, too.

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Do other examples come to mind of the strength, wisdom and fierceness of mothers?

Does love equal power and power equal love, or is God’s omnipotence separate from Her love? I will write another post on this later.

 

 

The Wings of God

Last week, a friend on FB sent me a picture of a swan and her cygnets (babies), with Psalm 91:4 attached:

He will cover you with His pinions,
And under His wings you may seek refuge;
His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark. (NASB)

My friend added, “All the translations use a male pronoun, but this is clearly a female.”

Clearly a Female

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott agrees in The Divine Feminine: Biblical Imagery of God as Female. She says there are two mother-bird types of images in the Bible. One is the covering protection of the hen’s wings (Ruth 2:12; Ps. 17:8, 9; Psalm 57:1; Psalm 61:4; Psalm 91:4; Matt. 23:27/Luke 13:34). The other is the empowering, adult-making wings of the mother eagle (Ex. 19:4; Deut. 32:11-12; Is 40:31).

Ramey Mollenkott points out that the King James Version and a few other translations use feminine pronouns, but, like my friend noted, all the others use masculine or neuter pronouns.

Here is Deut. 32:11-12 in the KJV: “As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings: so the Lord alone did lead Jacob….”

The birds in all the verses show the protecting, teaching behavior of the hens or mother eagles. They are not likely male birds. So, the Old Testament writers identify God with a mother hen or eagle. It’s a whole new category of feminine imagery for God. (And so I’ve augmented my page, Feminine Images of God in the Bible).

This matters. It mattered, to Jesus, too, when he used hen imagery for Himself (Matt. 23:27/Luke 13:34).

Eagle-Mothering

I especially appreciate understanding better the kinds of God-mothering that the two birds represent. We may have pictured God protecting us under-wing as a hen or other bird, but perhaps we haven’t thought about the way an eagle mothers her young.

It’s been said that an eagle mother actually drops her fledglings so they can learn to fly. If they flounder, she catches them on her wings. Those are the images we see in the Bible. But as this blogger writes, if you watch eaglets and their parents, you’ll see that eaglets who are big enough to fly are way too big to be dropped or caught.

In fact, the mother eagle nurtures her babies according to their needs. Some take a few weeks to fledge, others a few months. She simply stays with them as they practice hopping, flapping and landing. And she keeps feeding them even after they know how to hunt, as long as they are still in the nest.

Like Mother God, the mother eagle patiently teaches and waits. And the end goals are the same: competence and maturity.

The Eagle Empowers

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott notes that in this role, God (the eagle) is female and humanity (eaglets) is male, if given a sex (e.g. Is. 40:31-32 NIV). This reverses what women often hear, that women represent a feminine humanity that should submit to a masculine God, and so therefore, women should submit to their husbands.

And, says Ramey Mollenkott “…the mother eagle images depict a God who is actively trying to create equals by empowering the eaglets to take care of themselves. Hence these images do not encourage dominance and submission even in our relationship with our Creator, let alone our relationships with other human beings!”

Time to Travel

In August 2015, when The Mother God Experiment was still embryonic, we went to Siletz Bay, Oregon on vacation. We rented a house that only required a walk through the back yard to get to the bay. I wrote in my journal:

I was coming back (from a walk) and looked up to see a bald eagle landing on a branch above me. I heard my husband cry, ‘That’s a bald eagle!’ We gathered under the tree as it adjusted its wings in the wind and watched us and the land around us.

I took the eagle’s landing as a sign. Of what, I don’t know yet. Later, back at the house, thinking about the eagle I saw a sign that said “Endeavor” with a sailboat underneath. It seemed significant. I thought about my metaphor of discovering Mother God as safe harbor, a place to launch from, to go out and explore and take risks.

So, I know it’s time to move The Mother God Experiment to a new level. It has existed in my mind and on these notebook pages…but it’s time to move further into the ocean of people needing to know Mother is a fine metaphor for God, that it can lead to new heights of trust in God.

I hear the eagle’s high-pitched call now as I write.

It’s time to travel.

The Eagle Speaks

When I got home, I did a search for what eagles symbolize. I mostly read that eagles represent the stereotypical ideas we have when we see them: power, strength, domination, masculinity.

Perplexed, I didn’t think much more about our eagle-sighting or how important it seemed at the time. Until my friend wrote her FB post about the swan/cygnet picture and verse, and I began to think about this post. When Biblical writers used the eagle as a stand-in for God, or Her children, it was a symbol of nurturing empowerment.

Mother-Eagle-God was, indeed, telling me to fly.

Lady Julian’s Day

May 8 and May 13 are the feast days of Lady Julian of Norwich (1342-1416). She was the first woman to write a surviving book in the English language: Revelations of Divine Love

Julian was an anchorite, an early form of the Christian monastic. She lived in a simple room attached to the local church, receiving meals and participating in church services through different windows. Julian spent most of her time connecting mystically to God. Eventually, she also wrote and gave spiritual guidance to those who came to her.

When she was 30, God healed Julian of a serious illness. At that time she had a series of visions of Jesus on the cross. One writer said that Julian had what we might now describe as a Near-Death Experience, which I thought was an interesting idea. Her visions radically changed her and she spent the rest of her life writing down the things she learned from them.

Julian’s Vision of the Motherhood of God

I spent some time last night reading the most popular articles about Julian on the Internet. They seem to avoid mentioning her use of the metaphor of mother for God. However, this is an important aspect of Julian’s theology. She emphasizes the unconditional love and mercy of God. And she explicitly calls God, Jesus and the Spirit “Mother” as well as “Father.”

She wasn’t the first to do so in her time. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian reformer and abbot who lived a century before Julian, often used the metaphor of mothering for God and for himself in the tradition of St. Paul. Several of his followers did the same, as did the church fathers before them. (See my recent post on “Jesus as Mother: A Brief History“).

Here are some highlights from Lady Julian’s writings:

“As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.”

“The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, most courteously and tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life….The mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side.”

“So he wants us to act as a meek child, saying: My kind Mother, my gracious Mother, my beloved Mother, have mercy on me. I have made myself filthy and unlike you, and I may not and cannot make it right except with your help and grace.”

“So we see that Jesus is the true Mother of our nature, for he made us. He is our mother, too, by grace, because he took our created nature upon himself. All the lovely deeds and tender services that beloved motherhood implies are appropriate to the Second Person.”

Still Grappling with the Mother Metaphor

Lynn Japinga, author of Feminism and Christianity, writes, “Julian’s work was preserved, but the church has only recently begun to grapple with the implications of her theological insights.” I’m not so sure they’ve even begun. Julian is one of the few women of church history recognized as having written theology, but the church still overlooks her use of the mother metaphor for the members of the Trinity.

Let’s use her feast days (May 8 in the Anglican and Lutheran churches; May 13 in the Catholic) to remember both Julian’s work and the permission we have to call God Mother.

 

 

Jesus as Mother: a Brief History

“Do not wean me, good Jesus, from the breasts of thy consolation….”

The monk of Farne

Could Jesus be your Mother this Mother’s Day? Let’s talk about the history of the metaphor of mother for Jesus. It starts with Jesus Himself, and moves right on through the minds of church fathers and theologians, to the middle ages.

Caring for Children

Jesus began this tradition when he lamented about the unbelieving spirit he kept running into. In contrast, He said, He wanted to gather Jerusalem’s children together under His wings like a hen does her chicks, but they resisted violently (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34).

The apostle Peter went beyond Jesus’ metaphor of the protecting mother hen, to speaking of Christ as a lactating human mother. He attributed to Jesus the ability to give metaphorical breast milk to the church: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (I Pet. 2:3).

And the apostle Paul compared himself to a mother, with the same freedom Peter had to use the metaphor for Jesus. Paul said to the church at Thessalonica, “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you” (I Thess. 2:7b). To the Galatians, he wrote, “My little children, with whom I again suffer the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you….” (4:19).

The Early Church Got It

Paul and Peter’s freedom to use the Old Testament mother metaphors for both male pastors and for Jesus continued among many of the church fathers. For example, the second century bishop Irenaeus wrote in Against Heresies: 

He, who was the perfect bread of the Father, offered Himself to us as milk, [because we were] as infants. He did this when He appeared as a man, that we, being nourished, as it were, from the breast of His flesh, and having, by such a course of milk-nourishment, become accustomed to eat and drink the Word of God, may be able also to contain in ourselves the Bread of immortality, which is the Spirit of the Father.

Also in the second century, church father Clement of Alexandria gave a whole chapter in his book, The Teacher, to the metaphor of mother for God and Jesus. In this example, Christ is milk coming from the Father’s breasts:

Thus to Christ the fulfilling of His Father’s will was food; and to us infants, who drink the milk of the word of the heavens, Christ Himself is food. Hence seeking is called sucking; for to those babes that seek the Word, the Father’s breasts of love supply milk.

In the fourth century, preacher John Chrysostom wrote in Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, “Just as a woman nurtures her offspring with her own blood and milk, so also Christ continuously nurtures with His own blood those whom He has begotten.”

Others who wrote of Jesus as mother during this period include St. Augustine, says scholar Tim Bulkeley in Not Only a Father. Augustine saw Jesus as wearying Himself for us as a mother, and nursing us.

The Revival of Mother in the Middle Ages

Julian of Norwich is known as the first woman to have written a book in the English language (1385). She writes often of God, Jesus, and the Spirit as mother, making her seem a marginal voice in today’s theological world.

However, the male religious leaders of Lady Julian’s time, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, had already written in a similar vein about Christ. Caroline Walker Bynum, author of Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages, notes that Bernard uses “mother” extensively to “describe Jesus, Moses, Peter, Paul, prelates in general, and more frequently, himself as abbot.”

Others like him who wrote about Jesus as mother include Aelred of Rievaulx, Guerric of Igny, Isaac of Stella, Adam of PerseigneHelinand of Froidmont, William of St. Thierry, the monk of Farne and Anselm.

Anselm, the saint and influential theologian of the Catholic church in the twelfth century, wrote a prayer to “Christ, mother, who gathers under your wings your little ones…” and prayed, “But you, Jesus, good lord, are you not also a mother?”

He turned to the mother metaphor to make God more approachable, before Mary took that role in the church, says scholar Tim Bulkeley. Interestingly, Bulkeley notes that the veneration of Mary began to flourish in the monasteries of Western Europe in the Middle Ages, and after that, mother language for Jesus and God disappeared from the church almost entirely.

Jesus Still Nurses the Church

This is just a sampling of the freedom that church fathers, mothers, and medieval theologians had with the metaphor of mother for Christ.

That liberty should never have been squelched. As Lauren Winner writes in Wearing God, “The metaphor of nursing captured how Jesus sustains the church with grace and love.” It still can.

So think of Jesus’ mother heart toward you this Mother’s Day, as part of your communion with the saints of history.

 

The Two Marys Who Stayed

Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of James and Joseph witnessed Jesus’ sufferings and death (Mt. 27:33) along with many other women. Then they emerged onto the scene as present in a unique way before and after Jesus’ resurrection. The women stand out from the men around them, in three ways, in Matthew’s gospel.

1. They Stayed

When evening fell…Joseph wrapped [the body] in fresh linen and laid it in his own tomb….Then Joseph rolled a huge stone across the entrance of the tomb and went away. But Mary of Magdala and the other Mary remained sitting there, facing the tomb. (Mt. 27:57-61).

Though the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea had the courage to ask Pilate for Jesus’ body, he came in the evening to place Jesus’ body in the tomb, and immediately went away under cover of night. There was danger and risk in being seen. Any one lingering could be identified as a follower to the religious leaders who spurred Jesus’s crucifixion.

The male disciples also disappeared, as Jesus predicted they would during the Last Supper (Matt. 26:31).

Yet, the two Marys stayed, and Matthew implies they stayed a while even past sunset, in the darkness, among tombs. The next day, the Sabbath no less, the religious leaders asked for a guard to be posted by Jesus’ tomb to keep the disciples from stealing Jesus’ body.

2. They Remained Standing and Listened

After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary of Magdala came with Mary to inspect the tomb. Suddenly, there was a severe earthquake, and an angel of God descended from heaven, rolled back the stone, and sat on it. The angel’s appearance was like lightning, with garments white as snow. The guards shook with fear and fell down as though they were dead.

The angel spoke, addressing the women: ‘Don’t be afraid. I know you are looking for Jesus the crucified…’ (Matt. 28:1-5)

In this passage, we see the Marys returning to the tomb at the end of Sabbath. Matthew points out that the male guards shake with fear and apparently faint due to the earthquake and the sight of the angel.

The women, however, remain upright. It’s to them the angel speaks, promising they will see Jesus in Galilee. Matthew writes, “the women hurried away with awe and great joy….” (28:8).

The women’s reaction is not to hide at home like Joseph or the male disciples, or fall down in fear before the angels like the guards. Rather, they joyfully respond to a new and deep understanding of the divinity of Jesus, as though this truth were, comparatively, all that mattered in the universe.

3. They Worshiped Him Without Doubting

Suddenly, Jesus stood before them and said, ‘Shalom!’ The women came up, embraced Jesus’ feet and worshiped. (Mt. 28:9).

Jesus Himself shows up, not to the male disciples in Galilee, but to the two Marys who are still on their way. He could have gone on to Galilee first, as the angel had said He was doing (“He now goes ahead of you to Galilee.” Mt. 28:7). But instead, Jesus finds the women as they journey to tell the good news of His own resurrection.

Why did He go to them even though that wasn’t the plan the angel had articulated? Jesus saw the women’s grief, courage and loyalty as they sat across from the tomb in the dark the night they watched him crucified. Did He want them to be the first to see Him in His new body?

Perhaps, just maybe, He was as excited as they were, as filled with “great joy.” Maybe He wanted to see them first.

Jesus encourages the women as the angel did, with “‘Don’t be afraid!’” He then gives them a mandate to tell the other disciples to “go to Galilee, where they will see me.” (Mt. 28:10). The Marys continue to have courage. They go “on their way” to do as Jesus has said (28:11).

When Jesus does appear to the eleven male disciples on a mountain in Galilee, they too fall down in worship as the two Marys did, “though some doubted what they were seeing,” says Matthew (Mt. 28:17). (Mark’s gospel shows Jesus “scolding [the Eleven] for their disbelief and stubbornness,” in Mark 16:14). In contrast, the Marys remain full of expectancy, hope and faith, from the first night after Jesus’ crucifixion, until their meeting with the resurrected Jesus. In fact, the two women were the first recorded to worship Jesus in his resurrected body.

The Two Marys Did Not Fall Away Because of Jesus

In chapter 26, Matthew has explained in length how the Twelve disciples failed Jesus in His most difficult moments (see last week’s post). They betray Him (Judas), deny Him (Peter), and fall asleep three times when Jesus nearly begs them to stay awake with Him in his grief. Then, for a time, they disappear.

Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph are the main actors after that in Matthew’s gospel. We do not hear about the male disciples again until Jesus appears in Galilee. They have, as Jesus said they would, “scattered,” perhaps doubting Jesus’ divinity to the point of  temporarily “falling away” as Jesus predicted (Matt. 26:31).

In every way, the two Marys who stayed at the tomb showed themselves stellar disciples of Jesus, and most of all, His loyal, faithful friends.