A warm welcome back to Dr Tim Bulkeley who is posting this series based on his book, Not Only A Father, looking at gendered language for God. For more on Tim’s background, see the first post.
In the previous post I started with an assumption:
…[t]he One True God is beyond human understanding. God is beyond all talk, pictures and even thought. Anything less is merely a god, an object within the sphere of human thinking and understanding, even invention.
The Old Testament protected this understanding of God in the Ten Commandments. In the opening section, which talks about the exclusivity of Yahweh, we read:
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exo 20:4)
The word ‘idol’ (pesel in Hebrew) refers to a carved object which is used to represent a god. Both the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and later Jewish people have tried to keep this commandment strictly. It allows not only no statues of Yahweh, but also no drawings or other pictures. The archaeological record is striking. In a region and time when divine images were common, there is only one object claimed by some scholars to present an image of Yahweh, though there are many female images which seem to represent the goddess Asherah.
By contrast with this aniconic (no pictures) approach, the Bible is full of word pictures of God. Often these combine imagery in ways a representational painting would find difficult. For example in Isaiah 40:10 Yahweh is pictured as a conquering warrior king, but verse 11 describes ‘him’ cuddling little lambs and carrying them. Either picture on its own gives a dangerously lopsided view of God, but together they are less misleading.
If you try to picture your god with an image, or drawing, it is difficult to avoid identifying the god’s gender, race, hair colour etc… however if such physical representations of God are forbidden word pictures are more flexible. So the Bible sometimes combines male and female imagery in one verse or passage:
If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up. (Psa 27:10)
28 ‘Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew?
29 From whose womb did the ice come forth,
and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven? (Job 38:28-29)
(In Not Only a Father see 2.7 Two Parents Not One for more on this.)
Gendering pictures of God
Perhaps just because most Canaanite and Babylonian gods were presented as male or female, human word pictures of God are not as common in the Old Testament as we might expect. Although ‘lord’ is common, rocks and lions are too!
One word picture that is very common today, ‘father,’ is surprisingly rare in the Old Testament, and ungendered parenting pictures (How can you do that? Isn’t parenting all about [en]gendering?) sometimes replace ‘father.’
Hosea 11 begins:
1 When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
2 The more I called them, the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.
3 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.
4 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.
The picture in your mind (or the mind of the writer) here might be of a mother or a father but no words are used that betray the gender of the parent. Despite this, when I wrote my PhD, most Bibles and commentaries still entitled the section in ways that named God as ‘father.’
The poem, ‘The Song of Moses,’ that closes Deuteronomy begins picturing God as father:
Do you thus repay the LORD, O foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you? (Deu 32:6)
But soon adds mother to the thought:
You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you;
you forgot the God who gave you birth. (Deu 32:18)
(The Hebrew verb translated ‘bore you’ here, chul, means ‘to give birth to,’ not ‘carry.’)
The Bible uses motherly as well as fatherly pictures of God
Picturing God as a mother who gives birth and nurtures may seem strange to 21st century people (calling God ‘she’ still raises a titter) but it was not strange to the writers of Scripture.
Sometimes it is indirect. Jesus talks of the new life he brings as new birth. Being ‘born again’ has become a very popular image among Evangelical Christians. If we are born again who is our new mother? The early Aramaic-speaking Christians (Syriac Fathers) often took Nicodemus’ facetious question (from John 3:4) seriously and spoke of baptism as the ‘womb of the Spirit.’
Motherly pictures are used several times, in very different ways, in Isaiah 40ff. In the traumatic situation of exile, after the brutal destruction of Jerusalem, faced with the complaint:
‘The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’ (Is 49:14)
As a picture of God’s constant unchanging love the prophet replied:
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. (Is 49:15)
This use of motherly imagery may seem conventional, but what about the gasping panting woman in labour in Isaiah 42? There it describes God as a soldier bent on destruction:
13 The LORD goes forth like a soldier,
like a warrior he stirs up his fury;
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
he shows himself mighty against his foes.
14 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 labour,
I will gasp and pant.
15 I will lay waste mountains and hills,
and dry up all their herbage;
I will turn the rivers into islands,
and dry up the pools. (Isa 42:13-15)
Though as the following verses suggest the thought that this violence may give birth to something new is also present.
(These other passages are just examples, see 2.6 Old Things and New in the Latter Part of Isaiah for more.)
Jesus pictured himself as a mother hen. The word he uses in Matt 23:37-39 and Luke 13:34-35 (ornis) is expressed as feminine, underlining that this is a mother hen, not a cockerel.
St Anselm’s prayer to St Paul was a key medieval text for understanding Jesus as our mother (see 4.6 Christ as Mother in the Middle Ages). He saw the writers of the New Testament epistles regularly picture themselves as ‘mothers’ of the churches they founded (1 Cor 3:1-3; Gal 4:19; Heb 5:12-13; 1 Peter 2:2-3 etc.). He concluded that if they are like mothers, then Jesus who died so we might come to new life is surely our mother.
Conclusions and Questions
- Scripture is happy to picture God as a mother, in labour, giving birth, feeding etc.
- Jesus describes himself as a mother hen protecting her chicks.
- The apostles speak of themselves as giving birth to, and feeding, the churches they founded.
- If these pictures are biblical, can imagining a merely male god be biblical?
- Why do you think such language and pictures are hardly heard today?
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