The Maternal God
In my recent reading I came across an article entitled, “Terms of Endangerment.” In the article the author made the argument that God is male and any references to him as female are to be rejected out of hand.
His argument is that God is called Father in the scriptures, the pronoun used of him is always “He” which indicates that He is the male of the species, and since Jesus was the very image of God and was a man, so God must be a male too.
I understand the point he is trying to make, but I am not sure I agree. So though it is a minor digression from the Apostles’ Creed I want to speak about the Motherliness of God. I also want to widen our concept of God so that it is true to the whole of scripture and not just a part of it.
1. God as our Father
When God revealed himself to the nation of Israel He revealed Himself as the creator, the ruler, and the leader of the nation. But he also reveals himself as a “he”. The masculine pronoun “He” is used throughout the scriptures when ever God is referred to. Never is the pronoun “it” or “she” used of God.
There were important reasons for this. The religions of the ancient near east were usually fertility religions. The people of that society were preoccupied with farming and raising animals and having lots of children. Because of their interest in the fertility of their crops, their cattle and their spouses, religion became very sexual and quite sensual. For every god there was a goddess, and the goddesses were the most popular. Temple worship involved sacred prostitution and other erotic rites.
In that ancient world there were also idols galore that were made out of wood, metal or stone. The common people worshipped their idols as though they had power. But the idol was an “it” a thing. It was something dead and inactive.
When God, however, is ready to reveal himself to Abraham and Moses and later the prophets, he avoided any inference of God as a “she” or an “it” because of the tendency to pervert what was most essential about God. For God is not an “it” but a person who is living and interactive with his people. Nor is God a “she”, whose primary function was seen to be fertility.
But it is interesting to note that God, in the Old Testament, is very rarely ever called father either. Only 14 times in all 39 books is God called “father” and again, that may be due to not wanting to be associated as a male God of fertility. He is quite prepared to call Abraham the “Father of nations” but God is not prepared to use that title except as it means “the creator of all that exists”. But it exists by his word, not by his giving birth to it.
It is in the New Testament that Jesus makes the word “Father” the dominating word about God. That is to arrest a different trend in Jewish society. God has become an “IT” to many of the Jewish people. He was perceived as a remote and distant creator who was not active in day by day affairs. His primary function seemed to be that of fruit inspector at the end of history.
Jesus says “NO” to that. God is not the aloof. critical and censorious deity. Instead He is fatherly, compassionate, caring and giving. He is ABBA Father. The dear Father. He is the best father we could ever know. It is right to call him Father. But be careful, it is a metaphor, a symbol. Its purpose is simply to underscore that God is a person who cares for his children.
2. The Maternal God.
He is more than a father, however. And the scriptures give us other images that intimate that he is a mother to us all.
About the very first moments of our creation, the passage in Genesis is very clear, God is heard to say, “Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness…. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them, and God blessed them, and God said to them, “be fruitful and multiply… and have dominion… upon the earth.”
He made both man and woman in his own image. God is the image of both man and woman. But be careful: he not a half-and-half. He is not some strange mutation. He is, however, a person who is more than any one of us.
Did you know that God has a womb? In the Hebrew language the parts of the body indicate the ways that we respond to life. The heart is the seat of the will, And God therefore has a heart. The kidneys are seen as the seat of the emotions, and God is described as having kidneys. And when it says “God is merciful”, it really says “God has a womb”. Now in real fact that is not true, but the scriptures are not at all hesitant to describe God with such feminine images. For God is tender, he is gentle, he is merciful and he is kindly.
With Jesus He says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not.”
In the Old Testament there are times when God is called El Shaddai, particularly by Abraham. It meant originally “The breasted one”. The one who nourishes children. Abraham understood that God was not just a king, but was like a mother feeding her child.
God is our father. He is also our mother. But, He is not male or female though He may be masculine and feminine. He is, however, the pattern for every man to model himself by, and he is pattern for every woman to model herself by.
Human language is very brittle. When we speak about God all language is bankrupt. We do not have words big enough to even point out with accuracy all that God is. Listen to C.S. Lewis as he speaks in one of his poems:
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable name, murmuring “Thou”,
Yet dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols, I know, which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme,
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou, in magnetic mercy to thyself, divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, to their target beyond desert;
And all men are idolaters, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if you take them at their word.
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord in Thy great
Unbroken speech our limping metaphors translate.”
He is saying that every word we use is our best attempt to understand God in the coinage of our own thoughts. But God is more than any picture we have of him.
I have no desire to call God a “She” even though some think it would be an improvement, due to the poorer image of men in our day. But when I call God “He” neither do I want him to be thought male or macho. I feel no compulsion to talk to God as Dear Parent, or Dear Mother, but I also know when I call him “Dear Father” it may be the best language I can find, but I also know that to think of him at times as my mother may be exactly what I need. It would be well worth reading “The Shack” by William P. Young and note his references to God as “Poppa” only to find that when “Poppa” is encountered She is a rather large black Momma! If that image shocks us, I suspect that seeing God would be even more stunning.
When the Psalmist wrote Psalm 131 he pictured God this way, because that was the image that was helpful to him at the time. Let me close this chapter with this psalm of the reliant child.
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like the weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time on and forevermore