First Presbyterian Church
May 12, 2013
Female Images of God in the Bible
“Humankind was created as God's reflection: in the divine image God created them; female and male, God made them."
God: “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. 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.”
"Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder...”
“Like the eagle that stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young, God spreads wings to catch you, and carries you on pinions.”
“You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”
God: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”
God: “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.”
God: “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept myself still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.”
“Thus says…the God of Israel: You and your wives have accomplished in deeds what you declared in words, ‘We are determined to …make offerings to the queen of heaven and to pour out libations to her.’ By all means, keep your vows and make your libations!”
“But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.”
“As the eyes of a servant looks to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to you, YHWH, until you show us your mercy!”
Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34
Jesus: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Jesus: “Or what woman having ten silver coins, is she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’"
The Bible is a patriarchal text.
The images for God or of the Sacred are almost exclusively male. Pronouns for God are male. The tradition has overemphasized this in its theology, liturgy, and prayer. Even the symbol for God in Christianity, Trinity, is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Two of these “persons” are obviously male, and even The Holy Spirit has been personified as male for most Christian theologians.
When I was in seminary my children were pre-school age. I was taking a course in feminist theologies and becoming conscious of the power and the importance of language. I was learning how our language of the sacred shapes our attitudes and our ethics, so decided to try this new knowledge out on my kids.
I said a prayer before bedtime and addressed God as mother. Zach, who was about four at the time, made a scowl, interrupted me, and said, “God isn’t mother, God is a man.” I knew then that what I was learning in seminary was true, that we are immersed in patriarchal imagery and symbolism. That despite the protests that God is beyond male and female, in practice, as my four-year-old understood, when God or the Sacred is personified, in Christianity at least, the personification is gendered, and the gender is male.
Mary Daly, an impressive theologian who died in 2010, knew the importance of this gendering. She said,
“When God becomes male, the male becomes God.”
I noticed this especially during chapel when some of the more creative students would offer prayers to Sophia, a personification of Divine Wisdom, or use terms in prayer such as Goddess, Mother, or any other female image, that the reaction by many male students (and some female students) as well as male faculty would be angry and visceral.
Many conservatives in our denomination are still in a fuss over a paper released several years ago that took some very modest steps in my opinion, to make language for the Trinity more inclusive by using more expansive imagery than only being restricted to Father, Son, Spirit. The paper entitled, “God’s Love Overflowing” provided theological rationale for this work plus some examples such as
This paper was mocked, ridiculed and railed against. Based on the continuing reactions to this document released for study in 2006 you’d think the anti-Christ had arrived at the Presbyterian headquarters in Louisville.
Mary Daly was right. Language has power. If you change the language the power structures will follow. It is not a surprise that the biblical texts I used today were gathered by a group called “The Women’s Ordination Conference: A Voice for Women in the Catholic Church.”
Women’s ordination in the Roman Catholic Church is certainly an uphill climb. Yet so much sweeter the victory when it comes. Marie Pendzich, one of our members, has a sister, Rev. GabriellaVelardi-Ward, who was ordained as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church in New York City. The Vatican did not approve, but she was ordained anyway. On April 28th of this year, a Kentucky woman,Rosemarie Smead, was ordained at the age of 70.
These ordinations remind me of the scripture itself. When I look for female images I am first of all reminded how sparse they are in the biblical text. Like these ordinations they are rare. Then when I do find female images, like these gathered by the Women’s Ordination Conference, again I am surprised, but this time, to find more than I would expect.
Despite the ongoing patriarchy of our tradition and the patriarchy embedded in the biblical texts themselves, there are some intriguing minority voices that challenge this patriarchal domination and invite a new way of envisioning and thinking about the Sacred and about how we might structure our lives, our power relations, and our ethics.
The images of the divine feminine in the Bible are of a particular kind. They reflect determination, strength, and a fierce protection as a mother of any species has for her young. For example,
Hosea 13:8"Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder...”
I think that would make for a lovely sentiment on a Mother’s Day card.
Don’t be messin’ with Mama Goddess.
…And especially her cubs.
What if we were consistently and collectively to discover and embrace our inner Mama Goddess, our inner Mama Bear in regards to the treatment of the most vulnerable in our society? When resources are taken from the poorest in our country and used to fund war what would Mama Bear do? When politicians go against the will of the people and bow down and worship the gun lobby instead of protecting children what would Mama Goddess do?
If Mama Goddess is revealed in scripture, and we are created in Her image, then we are invited, challenged, charged, and commissioned with her work to protect the most vulnerable from the most greedy. The most greedy can sometimes be ourselves.
Deuteronomy 32:11-12“Like the eagle that stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young, God spreads wings to catch you, and carries you on pinions.”
Goddess is Mother Eagle. Stirs, hovers, spreads, catches, carries…
I think Mama Bear, Mother Eagle and Mama Goddess were revealed in the actions of 83 year-old nun, Sister Megan Rice, and her two colleagues, 64 year-old Michael Walli and 57 year old Greg Boertje-Obed.
They are in jail now for breaking into the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, armed with white roses and Bibles. This is from theWashington Post. In addition to breaking in to the facility, the three are…
…charged with causing damage in excess of $1,000 at Y-12, a contractor-run government facility that stores and processes highly enriched uranium, a radioactive fuel for nuclear weapons. Together, the two felonies carry a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. The three anti-nuclear activists say they violated the law to call attention to the possession and maintenance of nuclear weaponry, which they consider a greater injustice, and are therefore not guilty.
Mama Goddess, revealed in the texts of scripture, is not happy being silent in the midst of madness, fear, and really bad ideas such as nuclear weaponry. Here is Mama Goddess speaking in Isaiah 42:14:
Isaiah 42:14“For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept myself still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.”
She will inspire others to risk jail in order to raise awareness and our collective consciousness against a civilization bent on self-destruction.
Jesus, too, was inspired by Mama Goddess. In fact, we might consider him theologically to be the incarnation of Mama Goddess, of Divine Wisdom, Sophia. He spoke to his own city and his own people in his time:
Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
The reason these prophets were stoned and killed is because they called the leaders to enact justice for the poor. Jesus, himself, was convicted by established authority because he stood for something. Mama Goddess wouldn’t let him watch the greedy and the powerful destroy lives without resisting. Caught up in Her spirit he saw himself as a mother hen wishing to gather and protect his people. The sadness and the tragedy of his story is that the leaders didn’t want to hear.
Yet his parables described Goddess as determined, as in this parable:
Luke 15:8-10“Or what woman having ten silver coins, is she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’“
The symbols of our faith, resurrection, and life in the Spirit or life in Christ, call us to continue to live out our image as created in the image of Goddess, to remember who we are and whose we are and what we are to be and do, as Mama Goddess says…
Isaiah 49:15“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.”
In her important book, Blessed Are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint, theologian Sallie McFague writes:
Here we come to the heart of the matter: empathy for others that includes responsibility to act. Just as a mother who hears her child’s cry of pain responds immediately and totally to relieve it, or as friends lay down their lives for each other, so…we are called to respond from the heart, from the gut, from our very bodies…The mother-child bond is a metaphor for the universal self, the highest form of human behavior we can imagine. Pp. 127-8.
What Sallie McFague is writing about is our situation regarding our ecological home in general and climate change in particular. In the news thisweek, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million.
"The last time we're confident that CO2 was sustained at these levels is more than 10 million years ago, during the middle of the Miocene period," said climate scientist Michael Mann.
What does Mama Goddess have to say about that?
In response to this milestone, 350.org founder, Bill McKibben, perhaps speaking for Mama Goddess said,
"The only question now is whether the relentless rise in carbon can be matched by a relentless rise in the activism necessary to stop it."
Changing our habits and
even being aware
that our current habits are harming all of Earth’s children,
is an uphill climb.
But that is what Mama Goddess does.
She climbs uphill.
She faces a tradition of patriarchy that doesn’t even call her by name,
that seeks to mock and ridicule her voice,
that marginalizes her presence
and yet she speaks,
ordaining women to the Catholic priesthood, one by one,
going to jail to call attention to the madness of nuclear weapons,
sounding the alarm for Earth’s temperature and health.
Mama Goddess keeps at it.
When we get discouraged she comforts us.
Isaiah 66:13“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”
She reminds us who we are,
loves us fiercely,
and calls us to courageous and compassionate lives.
She summons us to be our best selves.
She is after all, a mother.