What Happens When God Can be Mother Too?

Archive Tag:Feminine language for God

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.

 

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.

 

Mother is Simile to a Metaphor: A New Look at an Old Argument

There’s a lot of talk now among Christians about the movie, The Shack, and whether it’s all right for Christians to even see it. Some are asking, “Is it okay that God is portrayed as a woman?” and even “Is it okay to call God Mother?” These are good questions at any time.

The usual answer is “No, it is not okay. Father is how God revealed Himself in the Bible. God might be like a mother, but is not a mother.” Let’s look more closely at both axioms.

Only a Masculine God

I remember in 1993 reading OT scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier’s article in Christianity Today, “Why God is Not a Mother.” I was integrating my new-found feminism with my old Christianity, and eager to read anything about the topic. Achtemeier’s thesis was that we should not use feminine language for God because He revealed Himself only in masculine terms.

And, she said we know this because metaphors are stronger than similes. God is a father, but only like a mother. You’ve probably heard the same argument. She writes:

The few instances of feminine imagery for God in the Bible all take the form of simile, not metaphor, as literary critic Roland Frye has amply demonstrated. That distinction is instructive. A simile compares one aspect of something to another. For example, in Isaiah 42:14, God will ‘cry out like a woman in travail,’ but only his crying out is being referred to; he is not being identified as a whole with the figure of a woman in childbirth. In metaphors, on the other hand, the whole of one thing is compared to the whole of another. God is Father or Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Thus the metaphor, as Frye writes, ‘carries a word or phrase far beyond its ordinary lexical meaning so as to provide a fuller and more direct understanding of the subject.’ Language is stretched to its limit, beyond ordinary usage, to provide new understanding.”

In my 20s, this argument floored me. And angered me. But I didn’t have a good answer to it. So for years, I resisted calling God Mother to stay true to what I thought was traditional, orthodox Christianity.

I’d like to discuss Dr. Achtemeier’s points from my perspective in 2017, after an M.Div. and two years of The Mother God Experiment.

Leaping from the Limits of Language

Achtemeier argues first that there is something special about “Father” that goes beyond metaphor itself. She says in the Christianity Today article, “‘Father’ is not a metaphor imported by humanity onto the screen of eternity; it is a name and filial term of address revealed by God himself in the person of his Son.” Well, actually, Father is a metaphor that Jesus used to describe His relationship with God, as a human male in a patriarchal culture, and as God’s unique “only begotten Son” (John 3:16).

There are many other titles for God, besides Father, but they, too, are simply attempts to use language to describe the ineffable, beyond-language God. No single for-all-time title for God gets everything about God.

And that’s because not a single word of the Bible can escape culture and language. That’s why scholars spend half their lives working on exegesis and hermeneutics, chipping away at the true meaning of the text via what the text meant to certain people at a certain time and place, and from that point, what it means to us today.

To say that Jesus revealed a title for God that is set apart from its social context, eternally true and “correlative” about God in the term “Father” is just inaccurate. And flirting with heresy. Does God have genitals? Does God have a wife who bore Jesus? Does God have testosterone flowing through his veins? Does God need to eat meat three times a week and have sex every night? (Just kidding. Plenty of men don’t fit that description, but “Father” conveys many physical realities if taken literally).

As OT scholar Tim Bulkeley and Rev. Paul R. Smith both write, “Father” says something not true about God as well as something true in terms of Jesus’ relationship with God as God’s Son. Just like “Warrior” or “Shepherd” or “Rock” or the antiquated but well-loved term “Lord.”

In other words, Father is a metaphor and can be nothing else. It is not “revelation.” And in fact, the early church avoided using Father, as far as recorded prayers go. They preferred Lord and God in prayer, according to Paul Smith’s New Testament research.

And the early church fathers and medieval theologians reached out of their patriarchal cultures to draw from the Old Testament and Paul in using mother and breast-feeding imagery to describe God’s love. They would not have done this so consistently if Father was a sacrosanct, solitary way to think about God that precludes calling God Mother, too.

Changing up the Debate

Elizabeth Achtemeier’s second point still needs an answer, however. Does a metaphor about God convey a stronger, truer truth than a simile?

Whatever we conclude about the emotional, meaning-strength of a metaphor over a simile, the debate assumes that the Old Testament writers only used similes to talk about God as mother. However, a review of the texts reveals that they often used mother as a metaphor for God.

Sometimes the Biblical writer uses the metaphor with a motherly action of God. Other times, God takes the first person voice through the prophet, and speaks as a mother. Yes, She takes on the entire persona of a woman to describe something about Her, in the first person.

The Evidence

Let’s look now for ourselves at the verses for the strength of the comparison between God and being a mother (or a woman). I put in bold the parts where either the writer-in-third-person or God’s own voice identifies God with the woman’s actions or voice:

“As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him; no foreign god was with him. He set him atop the heights of the land, and fed him with produce of the field; he nursed him with honey from the crags, with oil from flinty rock…”–Deuteronomy 32:11-13

This passage starts out with a simile and ends with a metaphor. The pronouns are masculine. Anything else would be wildly out-of-place in a patriarchal religion and culture. However, the clear mother metaphors are so unexpected in such a culture that we should pay attention to them. See the next example for, again, a complete identification with “mother,” just a few verses away from the last example:

“You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”–Deuteronomy 32:18

There is no simile here at all. There are no masculine pronouns. God is the God who gives birth. That makes God a mother, metaphorically speaking. And here’s more:

“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?– when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band. Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?”–Job 38:8-9, 28-29

Again, God is completely identifying with a woman, with a womb, who gives birth. That is a metaphor, not a simile. Let’s keep going:

“I [Wisdom] was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be. When there were no oceans, I was given birth [by God], when there were no springs abounding with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth.”–Proverbs 8:23-25

In this example, the voice is Wisdom’s, the offspring of God, the Mother, an implied metaphor.

Next, in Isaiah, the prophet gives God the first person voice as a mother who is promising to always be a mother:

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb, even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you. I have made, I will bear; I will carry and will save.”–Isaiah 46:3-4

And in the next passage, God again speaks in the first person, as both a mother and Someone like a mother:

“When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me….Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them….My compassion grows warm and tender. I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”–Hosea 11:1-4, 8-9

Other verses do use only similes, such as the following, but the comparison with a mother is a strong complement to the above metaphors:

“But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul within me is like a weaned child.”–Psalm 131:2

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”–Isaiah 49:15

“For thus says the Lord:…As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”–Isaiah 66:12-13

New Testament Mother Metaphors for God

We have heard the phrase “born again” so often that we forget the Mother who is needed for the metaphor to work. Jesus clearly describes God the Spirit as a spiritual mother. There is no simile.

“Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.'”–John 3:5, 6

And in the next example, the simile is for us, who are like God’s babies, but the metaphor is for God and God’s milk:

“Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation–if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”–I Peter 2:2-3

What’s a Meta Phor?

I hope this will help those of you who, like me, get taken by arguments that seem to make perfect sense but actually have inaccurate assumptions based on false evidence. The Old and New Testament have all the metaphors you will ever need to show that God identifies Herself as a mother, and not only a father.

As Professor Bulkeley says, it is the god Baal who is male, not Yahweh, the invisible God in whose image She made both men and women. He writes, “Paradoxically, if Achtemeier and [C. S.] Lewis, great defenders of orthodox Christian belief, win this battle, and we accept that God is in some sense male-not-female, then Baal wins the battle lost on Mt. Carmel in about 850 BC! Those who defend the notion that talk of God as mother should be similar to talk of God as father are not the dangerous heretics. They are rather, like Elijah, defenders of the true God against human idolatry. The idolaters are those who would make God male or father alone!”

It is god with a small “g” who can only be Father, only be King, only be Lord or any other exclusively masculine metaphor. A movie like The Shack is a prophetic push for more balance in our word pictures for God, whether intended or not.

In summary, calling or praying to God as Mother makes you more Biblical than using Father only. And you have the metaphors to prove it.

Experiment: If you’re used to listening to God’s voice, ask Her what She thinks about being called Mother. Or ask Him what He thinks about being called Mother, whatever you’re now comfortable with. Listen for God’s answer. And if you hear that God takes offense at being called Mother, ask God why.

No Word Picture Is an Island

“Bridle of untamed colts, Wing of unwandering birds,

Ship’s sure helm, Shepherd of royal lambs…

Christ Jesus, heavenly milk

from the sweet breasts of the bride of grace,

squeezed from your wisdom.

The childlike, with tender mouths,

are cherished, filled with the dewy spirit

of the Word’s breasts, sing together simple praises,

true hymns to Christ the King….”

–“Hymn to the Tutor (Christ)”, 2nd century

Trying to Picture God

Clement of Alexandria, an early church father (c. 150-230 A.D.), often used mother and breast-feeding imagery to talk about God. Above, he uses many word pictures, several of his own making, in this hymn to attempt to describe the Christ he loves so much. Clement compares and contrasts aspects of God whose varying characteristics stand out to us according to our need.

The Bible, too, has blessed us with word pictures for God. However, as Old Testament scholar Tim Bulkeley says, no one picture can stand on its own; they need each other.

John Chrysostom, a fourth century Greek church father, speaks of God as mother at times, here using some Biblical and extra-Biblical (e.g. sister) word pictures together to begin to create an adequate sense of God: “Father, brother, bridegroom, dwelling place, food, raiment, root, foundation…sister, mother.” Bulkeley notes that this list starts with “father” and ends with “mother.” Chrysostom mines the Bible, and his own imagination, for feminine references to God to create the fullest picture of God, even in the fourth century.

God is Not Exactly a Rock

We need many ways to image God to even begin to fathom the ineffable. For example, if God were only Rock, we would misrepresent God’s nature. Is God a thing? Is God hard? Is God unmoved with compassion? No. Rock is inadequate to portray God fully. It tells of God’s power to give refuge and stability–only.

So, we have another word picture, Shepherd. Oh…now we see God clearly. God cares about us like sheep, right? She’ll search for one of us if we are lost, She knows our names, and we know Her voice. But is that all God is? Someone who protects and feeds? No. Shepherd is inadequate to portray God fully, as well. It tells of God’s care for us–only.

As pastor Paul R. Smith writes, “To say ‘Our God is a consuming fire’ (Heb. 12:29) is no more literally true than saying ‘God is our Father.’ Both analogies reveal some authentic truth about God, but both also say some things that are not true.”

God is Not Only a Father

And so, to speak of God as Father only will lead us to an inadequate portrayal of God. It will lead us down the path of idolatry, which the Hebrews were careful to avoid. As Bulkeley says in Not Only a Father, “While idols must be either male or female, neither male nor female alone can portray God.” This is why the Old Testament writers felt free to use mother language for God overlaid on the masculine language. It was Baal who was a male god, not Yahweh.

Yahweh was neither male nor female, surpassing sexuality, and could encompass both sets of (stereotyped) characteristics, similes and metaphors.

Jesus Is Not a Man’s Man (Or, Now, Even a Man)

Likewise, in the New Testament, masculinity is never an essential characteristic of Jesus. His human maleness is a given, but stereotyped masculinity is almost rejected by Jesus in the gospels. He exhibits balanced gender characteristics while he repeatedly confronts sexism and any exclusion of women as equal image-bearers and ministers.

And, we can be sure the second person of the Trinity does not currently possess male genitals. Jesus is Spirit, too.

A More Balanced Way to Picture God

To avoid the implication that God is a male god, and to avoid the idolatry of the male itself, using both masculine and feminine metaphors for God leads us to the fullest picture of God.

That’s why I keep referring to God as “She.” Believers are stuck in our word pictures, unbalanced toward a masculine-only God. The only way to even begin to bring balance is to over-use “She” and “Her” and “Mother” for a while, until those feminine pronouns and metaphors start to feel good and not feel so uncomfortable.

Then we can go back and forth like many of the early church fathers, using either gender according to the need, to picture the God who is both personal and a Spirit, entirely encompassing both genders, but who is without bodily sexuality.

In summary, God is Spirit (John 4:24), but we too often use only one human gender, the male one, to picture God. This is unbalanced and dangerous to a true understanding of God and a complete understanding of the worth of women.

To more fully see God, and not the male god of our own making, we need the feminine word pictures, too.

How are you doing in your journey of expanding word images for God to include the feminine? Is it still difficult and even impossible? Or is it opening up your understanding of God?

My next blog post: tackling the metaphor vs. simile debate.

 

 

 

Why Gender-Neutral Language Is Not Enough

God is spirit, Jesus told Photina, the woman at the well, in John 4:24. I’ve been reading snippets of Near Death Experiences, and consistently, people agree that God is spirit, electric with light and love. Not human, not male, not female. So why do we need to call God Mother? Why not just do away with Father and all the other masculine language for God, including masculine pronouns, and call God, “God”?

“I Hear The Word ‘God’…as Male”

Lauren Winner, author of the excellent Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God, addresses the masculine-God-language problem by mostly avoiding gendered pronouns and nouns. She writes: “About four years ago, I made a conscious decision to try to set aside third-person singular pronouns for God, except when they appeared in prayers and hymns written by someone else or scripture translated by someone else.” That “except” would mean she would not be setting masculine pronouns aside very often.

However, she says this small act of curbing her own speech heightened her awareness of how her “community’s prayers, hymns, and sermons are saturated with masculine language.” She also noticed that “I tend to hear the word ‘God’ not as somehow beyond gender or as betokening the diversity of divine life; rather, I hear it as male.”

Winner almost thinks out loud in her book, as she suggests that the “antidote to this formation is…to sometimes use feminine pronouns and sometimes masculine pronouns.” It’s uncomfortable for her, she admits, but she tries it out now and again in her book, because she believes “the uncomforting is holy and blessed.” Good for her! Enduring the discomfort is the first step in changing the male God image to become female, too.

Like Winner’s gradual and subtle conclusion to her “Short Note on Gender and Language for God,” I, too, think there are good reasons for why we humans can’t keep God unbound by gender, despite the fact that She is a spirit.

The Personhood of the Trinity

First, God is a person. For example, my Sunday School theology tells me not to call the Spirit an It, but rather a He, though it’s tempting because the Spirit seems neuter. And the basic reason we use a personal pronoun is that God is a person not a thing. And persons have a sexual distinction.

It’s true that language around gender is changing, thanks to the insights given by the LGBTQ community. However, we don’t really have a way to relate to a person who is a Spirit without also referring to that person with a gendered pronoun. (We could call Her “They” but that would evoke all kinds of theological broohaha). And even if we manage to say God and Godself several times in a row instead of saying He or Him, the echo of the masculine pronouns we have always used speaks of an ancient man behind the scenes, like the Wizard of Oz behind the big voice and curtain.

We Reflect God

Secondly, sexed people reflect God. (And I am differentiating here between having a sex, which is the mechanics of being a woman or man that lead to differences, and having gender, which is all the societal stuff we take on making all girls like pink and fluffy stuff and all boys prefer blue and mud.) The author of Genesis (1:27) tells us that men and women alike are made in God’s image. God didn’t have to create a man and a woman. She could have found another way. The two sexes inform us of Her very being.

Bringing Down a False God

Third, we’ve already made God thoroughly male (and white, but that’s another post). It’s simply too late to neutralize the word, God. Thousands of years, and most religions, give God a basic masculine identity. It’s time to chip away at that false image, that false God. We have simply got it wrong about God. Jesus’ appearance on the scene was, in part, supposed to enlighten us to the feminine within God, but we didn’t get it.

It’s only taking the uncomfortable, unpopular yet Biblically-rooted stand that God can be She, God can be Mother, or any number of feminine metaphors, that will begin to pull down our false male God and put up the True One before us, the one who is represented well by both female and male.

What the Mother Metaphor Reveals about God

Why call God Mother?

Mother God bugs people. She rocks the church-boat. She downright infuriates some. So, how can calling God Mother help us?

The loving, safe associations we often have with Mother change our inner image of God, or feelings and attitude toward God, sometimes dramatically. The mother metaphor helps us form a truer picture of God than using only the father metaphor. I’d like to explore three ways it does this.

With You Always

The first is immanence, which refers to the nearness of God, as opposed to God’s transcendence, or greatness in comparison with creation. Jesus showed us that He is Emmanuel, God with us (Matt. 1:23). He said He would always be with us, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). In the Old Testament, God first named Herself as I AM, conveying presence with the Israelites and Moses (Exodus 3:14). Jesus identified Himself with the Present God when He said, “Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am.” (John 8:58).

But most of us have a Jesus/Father God split, at least to some extent. Jesus is the good guy, interceding for us, and Father God is the distant, enthroned one. He is the final authority with the power to punish.

Jesus came to undo that thinking, because He and God are one (John 10:30), but it persists for most of us. Calling God Mother allows us to finally understand that Jesus really did come to show us who God is, that God is near, God is present, God is tender and loving toward us. (Of course, God is “other” too. God is still transcendent, but most of us have that deeply embedded in our psyche already and it trips us up as we try to relate to God.)

Embodied

The second reason has to do with the first. God is near, and God came to meet us in human flesh. Calling God “Mother” reminds us that God came in a body. Being a Mother can never be ethereal; it is always an enfleshed experience.

And it’s crucial we see God through the lens of the Incarnation, that God came to feel and experience many of the things we do, and that God came to relieve our physical pain. Jesus healed, Jesus delivered from spiritual oppression.

Jesus didn’t just show up and say I’m God, worship me. He lovingly cared for our bodies, like a mother.

The Image of Woman

Thirdly, calling God Mother reminds us that God made women in Her image (Gen. 1:27). This means that within the Trinity, there is the image of woman. Birth, nurture, love-poured-out, and whatever else is commonly thought of as feminine, is within God. The Bible depicts this, though we tend not to see its importance due to our belittlement of women within the church and in society.

The word pictures usually depict the motherliness of God, because that was the common reference point for women at that time, but the image of God is in all women and girls, not only mothers. Even the Bible includes comparisons between God and non-mothers. God as midwife and God as “mistress” (see verses below) depict a woman who was usually unmarried. The writer of Proverbs describes Wisdom as being birthed by God, putting Wisdom in the role of divine daughter.

The Biblical images below powerfully claim that God made women, too, in Her image. And so does calling God Mother.

The God Who Gave You Birth

“You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” Deuteronomy 32:18

“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?– when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band. Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?” Job 38:8-9, 28-29

“Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.” [God as midwife]. Psalm 22:9

“As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God.” [God as mistress]. Psalm 123:2

“I [Wisdom] was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be. When there were no oceans, I was given birth [by God], when there were no springs abounding with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth.” Proverbs 8:23-25

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb, even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you. I have made, I will bear; I will carry and will save.” Isaiah 46:3-4

“For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.” Isaiah 42:14

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” Isaiah 49:15

“For thus says the Lord:…As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” Isaiah 66:12-13

May we all come to know God, who is our Mother as well as our Father, more closely.

See these and more feminine Biblical images here:

Feminine Images of God in the Bible