There is a joke – already an old one – in which the Pope is sent by his cardinals to meet God, as things are very bad on Planet Earth and advice is needed. The Pope returns in due course, but is unable to utter a word: he appears to be in a state of total shock. The cardinals take care of him and finally, running out of patience, they say: ‘Now tell us, what did you see?’ The Pope opens his mouth and says: ‘She is black!’
Text by Dr. Aulikki Nahkola
When this joke first started to circulate it caused quite bit of outrage: ‘how does anyone dare to suggest, even jokingly, that God is a woman (let alone a black woman)! For we all know that …’ Well, what do we know? That God is a white man? Thinking about it, very few of us would actually say that or even really draw up a concrete image in our minds. But the joke is funny or outrageous precisely because however we have been taught to imagine God, it is not with feminine characteristics.
So, to put it bluntly, what does the Bible actually say about God and gender? If we can call God our Father, can we also call him – her? – our Mother? And if we can, why have we not done so more often?
The first question is how do we know about God in the first place? The Bible describes what God is like in several different ways. We know about God from his actions: the creator God who also liberated Israel from Egypt. The names of God also tell us something about him: El suggests power and strength, while God’s personal name, YHWH (often translated as ‘LORD’) simply means ‘I am who I am’ (Ex. 3.13-14). God is absolute and unchangeable.
God is also given many titles in the Bible. Lord or Judge emphasises God’s role as the ‘governor’ of the world, while when God is described as a Shepherd, Guard, or even a Servant, we gain insight into how he cares for us. None of God’s actions, names or titles above are gender specific – they do not suggest in and of themselves that God is male. In our culture and traditions we often associate certain jobs with ‘men’s work’. But these perceptions are changeable: there are many female judges today, as there are shepherds, and there have certainly always been female servants.
The Bible does, however, give titles to God that are modelled on family relationships: God the Father (and in the New Testament we can add Son and Brother). These terms of kinship appear unmistakeably masculine. The ‘Father of orphans and the protector of widows’ (Psalm 68:5), The ‘beloved’ Son (Luke 3.22), and the Brother (Matt 12.48) can of course only be masculine.
The Whole Story
It is quite clear that God is at times portrayed with male imagery. The question now is twofold. Firstly, if God is our Father – do we have any evidence that (s)he is also our Mother? Secondly, how should we relate to this kind of family terminology in the first place?
God’s names, the titles attributed to God, or even God’s actions do not tell the whole story. By far the most numerous descriptions of God and his divine attributes are conveyed in the Bible through various types of imagery. There are around twenty metaphors for God in the Old Testament that describe God in exclusively feminine terms, or with obvious feminine association. These descriptions depict God giving birth, as a nursing mother, and as a midwife. Despite the explicitness of this imagery, we have often been disappointingly reluctant to acknowledge the feminine side of God. For some reason we hesitate to rejoice in the richness that these female dimensions of God offer to our spirituality. Let us look at some of these images.
A God Who Bears Children
There are six passages in the Old Testament that describe God as giving birth. In four of these God gives birth to Israel, in two to the whole of creation. In Deuteronomy 32:18, Moses chastises Israel for its backsliding during the wilderness wanderings and says: ‘You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.’ It is difficult to become more explicitly ‘motherly’ than depicting childbirth.
This image of childbirth is taken up even more graphically in Isaiah 42-46. These chapters are full of restorative promises to Judah in Babylonian captivity, but they also express God’s frustration when her people’s stubbornness prevents her from acting. This is precisely what God means with the words: ‘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’ (Isaiah 42:14).
Three chapters later God speaks once more to her stubborn children, making it clear that they have no business challenging her. ‘Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter! Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, “What are you making”? or “Your work has no handles”? Woe to anyone who says to a father, “What are you begetting?” or to a woman, “With what are you in labour?”’ (Isaiah 45:9–10).
In the Isaiah 46, the motherly image of bearing a child is extended. God’s care continues until old age, encompassing the whole span of a person’s life. In the context of Israel this meant that the promise given to Abraham at the conception of the nation would never be revoked. God says: ‘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, and I will bear; I will carry and will save’ (Isaiah 46:3–4).
The Other Side of Creation
These are the clearest, most explicit texts revealing God as a mother. She has given birth to her children, the nation of Israel, and is close to them the way a mother is to her baby. God also gave birth to the world at creation. These passages give us a different perspective on Genesis 1, where creation is achieved by a word. This is a more rational and perhaps somewhat distant image in comparison to the ‘birth’ of the world: ‘Before the mountains were brought forth [literally: given birth to], or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God’ (Psalm 90:2). God gave birth to the earth like a woman bears a child. Similarly, when God answers Job from the whirlwind, he declares himself as the progenitor, both mother and father, of everything: ‘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 38:28-29).
God’s Motherly Love
Nursing follows naturally from birth. In two further passages God is characterized as a mother nursing her baby. This shows God’s commitment to Israel, which goes even beyond that of a nursing mother to her baby: ‘But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” 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. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me’ (Isaiah 49:14-16). Here Judah is in exile, doubting its deliverance. The image of a God as a nursing mother should assure them that they are not forgotten. The image is well chosen – it is with people everywhere. Unlike the temple that was destroyed or the ark that was hidden, even in exile there were nursing mothers to remind people of God’s faithfulness and love.
Gods love and commitment are made concrete in Isaiah 66:13. Here God’s comfort is reason to rejoice, as the return from exile is pictured. ‘As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.’ This is perhaps the closest God comes to calling herself a mother – for this is God speaking. Although Israel never addresses God as ‘mother’ in the Bible, it is also true that when the intensity of love is talked about, it is motherly love. The more numerous ‘fatherly’ texts tend to have more to do with guidance and discipline.
God the Midwife
Four passages depict God as delivering babies. In ancient societies, and still in many modern ones, this is an exclusively female occupation. In Isaiah 66, the midwife’s skill is extraordinary. ‘Who has heard of such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be delivered in one moment? Yet as soon as Zion was in labour she delivered her children. Shall I open the womb and not deliver? says the LORD; shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb? says your God’ (Isaiah 66:8-9).
Here Zion, the mother of Israel, is about to give birth. Birth symbolises salvation (in this case as return to Judah from captivity), which Zion on her own would not able to bring forth. God steps in and, as a midwife, performs the delivery. She is so good that the mother doesn’t even suffer labour pains. The birth here is miraculous (as salvation also is). The image of birth – the biggest everyday miracle known to all – is used to assure doubters that however big a miracle God has promised, he is able to ‘deliver’.
Two other images of God as midwife emerge from the Psalms. In Psalm 71 the distressed and persecuted writer turns takes shelter in God, and pleads for rescue ‘from the hand of the wicked’ (Psalm 71:4). In the following verses the writer appeals to God’s help, suggesting that God is responsible for her life – the midwife responsible for bringing her into this world. ‘For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O LORD, from my youth. Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you’ (Psalm 71:5-6). The importance of the role of the midwife, exclusively a female domain in ancient societies, is highlighted in both of these texts and strongly associated with God.
God as a Woman
As we can see, a considerable number of texts portray God in unmistakably female imagery. The image of childbirth is also used to depict the deepest mysteries of our relationship to God. As we have also seen, however, the Bible never directly addresses God as ‘mother’. Why not? Firstly, we should remember that the titles given to God are metaphors. They are attempts to describe the indescribable. God is in some ways like a king, shepherd or father. God is not actually any of these things, though we can understand something about God through these characteristics.
Secondly, unlike other Near-Eastern gods, the God of the Bible is never portrayed with a spouse, or described in sexualised language. The Bible consciously steers clear of that kind of imagery, to emphasise the difference between the God who could create with a word and the sexualised idols of the nations. We should then be less surprised that God is not called Mother, but should be surprised that God is ever called Father! In fact, in the Old Testament God is only called a father eleven times. Jesus, in contrast, uses the word some 170 times, but for very different reasons.
Every Image Falls Short
Why would the Bible use family terms at all? This must for reasons of intimacy. Only family terms convey the full depths of human emotion: love, ultimate belonging, dedication, forgiveness. The fatherly and motherly God has all these qualities.
It is tempting to say that these texts show us God is also a Mother, and that we should call her ‘Mother’ accordingly; so let’s do that, and solve some of the imbalance in our image of God (to extent that would be true). But perhaps it is more honest to say that the image of the mother, and of the father, illustrate the impossibility of describing God in terms of gender – or any other identity. Every image only provides a glimpse of God’s being, and confirms its own inadequacy. God is like a father, like a mother, like a judge, like a shepherd. But God is not actually any of these limited things.
Aulikki Nahkola is Principal Lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Newbold College of Higher Education, UK. This article was published (in Dutch) in Advent 3, 2016 on page 4. You can find it here. This article is also available in Papiamento.