Many of us are used to talking about God as if God were male. We use images such as “our heavenly Father” or “Lord” or “king”, and refer to God as “He”. I could go on with many more examples. But a close reading of the Bible gives us many glimpses of different images for God — God’s feminine side, as it were.
Any halfway decent theologian will tell you that God is decidedly not an old man on a throne in the sky. Nevertheless, this image of God persists somehow in the popular imagination, most likely because of some of the language we find in the Bible, which was written over the course of many centuries in a patriarchal culture.
It takes some effort and imagination, but if you are willing to dig around a little or look at things from a different angle, you can find many glimpses of a God not defined by patriarchy.
The biblical authors were well aware that words were not sufficient to speak of God. They reach for many different images: God is a lily, a rose, dew, wind and fire. God is a mother bear and a lion. On the other hand God is not a lion, but a lamb. God is not in the fire or the wind, but in the still small voice. God is in the images of birthing and bird — these are especially fruitful.
God comes to Job in a whirlwind and asks, “Where were you … when the sea burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment, the dense clouds its wrap? … From whose belly does ice come; who gave birth to heaven’s frost?” Obviously not Job’s belly. Where was Job when God pushed and groaned — in the waiting room smoking a cigar?
When God speaks from the whirlwind, God doesn’t talk of slaying Leviathan or Behemoth. God speaks adoringly for quite a long time about Leviathan’s chest and feet and skin — and about Behemoth’s belly and bones and mouth. God doesn’t sound like a moral accountant or a distant king here, God sounds like a mother smitten with her children — however strange or ugly they may seem to others.
In Isaiah, God says “like a woman in labour I will moan; I will pant, I will gasp.” God is in the process of giving birth to her people here, and it is not an easy delivery. The birth image continues in the gospel of John. Jesus tells Nicodemus that if he wants to see God’s kingdom, he must be born anew. This metaphor has often been equated with a personal decision one makes to have a relationship with Jesus.
There is suffering and risk involved in birthing, both for the one giving birth and the one being born. This seems like a pretty good way to talk about God in relationship to God’s people — about creation and redemption.
And then there are the birds. Female deities were often depicted by birds in the ancient Middle East. You can find traces of this sort of imagery all over the Bible. God lifts the Israelites on her wings and shelters humanity under her protective pinions. The Roman Empire exalted the eagle — a strong and powerful mighty killer of a bird. It’s striking in this context that Jesus would compare himself to a hen. You could hardly come up with an animal less evocative of imperial might. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.”
It’s a loving image, but it’s not especially dignified. The chicken is not a magnificent bird. A hen is a fussy old woman — a fat–bottomed grandma in an apron pickling cucumbers. It is vastly different to be a chicken than it is to be an eagle, or for that matter, a cock.
Much of the world worships power — if not a powerful, all–knowing deity, then just power. Power rules. If there is a God, then God must be muscular and brawny. In fact, some preachers have begun to talk about Jesus as if he were more like Rambo than a mother hen. “Jesus is coming back,” says one such preacher, “and he’s going to kick some butt.” He’s wrong, of course.
Many theologians would argue that Jesus reveals God’s essential being is not power — but love. Like the hen with her wings over her chicks, there is some fragility in this picture. But perhaps images of a vulnerable God are important if we hope to have a world that is not overrun by bullies and corporate kings.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook.