God & Feminine Language and Imagery
If you read the Bible, it is pretty clear that primarily masculine imagery is found throughout the Old Testament in reference to God (“father,” “warrior,” or “jealous husband,” for example). However as Leonard Swidler points out, we also find feminine language and images applied to God, even if to a lesser degree, as well as applied favorably to virtues such as wisdom.
And Yahweh God made tunics of skins for the man and his wife and clothed them. (Genesis 3:21)
Swidler comments: “Already in the most ancient part of the Bible…one finds Yahweh performing a customarily female task in Hebrew society (cf. Prov 31:10-31): Yahweh God acts as a seamstress.”
Mother and Nurse
Was it I who conceived all this people, was it I who gave them birth, that you should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, like a beloved little mother with a baby at the breast?” (Numbers 11:12)
Swidler comments: “When the Israelites in the desert complained of their problems to Moses, he in turn complained to Yahweh with rhetorical questions that by negative implication project onto Yahweh the images of a mother and a wet nurse.”
When Israel was a child I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt. . . . I myself taught Ephraim to walk, I took them in my arms; yet they have not understood that I was the one looking after them. I led them with reins of kindness, with leading-strings of love. I was like someone who lifts an infant close against his cheek; stooping down to him I gave him his food. (Hos 11:1, 3, 4)
O Yahweh, . . . I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child, like a weaned child on its mother’s lap. (Psalm 131:2)
Yahweh’s Motherly Compassion
Is Ephraim my dear Son? My darling child? For the more I speak of him, the more do I remember him. Therefore, my womb [“heart” ESV] trembles for him; I will truly show motherly-compassion (rachem arachamennu) upon him. (Jeremiah 31:20)
Swidler comments: “In Hebrew, rechem means womb. The plural form, rachaim, extends this concrete meaning to signify compassion, love, mercy. The verb form, rchm, means to show mercy, and the adjective, rachum, means merciful. Thus to speak of compassion or mercy automatically calls forth maternal overtones. This motherly compassion is attributed to God in a number of places.”
God in Birth Pangs
Yahweh God goes forth. . . . “But now, I cry out as a woman in labor, gasping and panting.” (Isaiah 42:13-14)
Israel in the Womb of God the Mother
Listen to me, house of Jacob and all the remnant of the house of Israel who have been borne by me from the belly (beten), carried from the womb (racham), even until old age I am the one, and to gray hairs am I carrying you Since I have made, I will bear, carry and save. (Isaiah 46:3-4)
For Zion was saying, “Yahweh has abandoned me, the Lord has forgotten me.” Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the son of her womb? Yet even if these forget, I will never forget you. (Isaiah 49:14-15)
For thus says Yahweh: . . . Like a son comforted by his mother, so will I comfort you. (Isaiah 66:12-13)
Yet you drew me out of the womb, you entrusted me to my mother’s breasts. (Psalm 22:9)
Swidler comments: “In Ps 22:9, Yahweh is depicted in an intimate female role, that of a midwife.”
Wisdom Personified as a Woman
Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks. (Prov 1:20-21)
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed. (Prov 3:13-18)
Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud. (Prov 8:1-3) (Proverbs; Job 28)
In the book of Job, Swidler explains, “the hymn of praise to the feminine Hokmah is continued. She is not subject to the laws of the cosmos but is its mistress. She is inaccessible to humanity, being known only by God. The feminine Hokmah is again both personified and an attribute of God.”
For example, But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Man does not know its [“her”] worth, and it [“she”] is not found in the land of the living. The deep says, “It [‘She’] is not in me,” and the sea says, “It [‘She’] is not with me.” (Job 28:12-14)
I don’t use feminine pronouns to refer to God, but reading these passages make me wonder if I’m being more conservative than the Bible. The main reason I don’t is not because of convictions about gender and roles. It is simply because Jesus didn’t use feminine language or images about God and did use male imagery, specifically “Father.” But as soon as I say that I feel the tension as if I’m pitting Jesus agains the very scriptures that are all about him.
Instead of using feminine pronouns, I prefer to the term “God’s self.” For example, “God reveals God’s self both in Jesus Christ and in the holy scriptures.” I like the awkwardness of using that term. I like that “Gods self” doesn’t seem to fit so well in our linguistic constructions. That seems theologically correct to me.
Of course, God being spirit is neither, strictly speaking, male or female in the embodied human sense. This sort of language is used in the Bible in order to better communicate to us in terms we can relate to. Nevertheless, it’s important to point out that Old Testament descriptions of God encompass both the masculine and feminine.