Not Only a Father #2: God as Mother in the Bible


6 April 2013 by thaliakr

A warm welcome back to Dr Tim Bulkeley who is posting this series based on his book, Not Only A Father, looking at gendered language for God. For more on Tim’s background, see the first post.

Not Only a Father, Dr Tim Bulkeley on seeing God as Mother |

In the previous post I started with an assumption:

…[t]he One True God is beyond human understanding. God is beyond all talk, pictures and even thought. Anything less is merely a god, an object within the sphere of human thinking and understanding, even invention.

The Old Testament protected this understanding of God in the Ten Commandments. In the opening section, which talks about the exclusivity of Yahweh, we read:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exo 20:4)

The word ‘idol’ (pesel in Hebrew) refers to a carved object which is used to represent a god. Both the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and later Jewish people have tried to keep this commandment strictly. It allows not only no statues of Yahweh, but also no drawings or other pictures. The archaeological record is striking. In a region and time when divine images were common, there is only one object claimed by some scholars to present an image of Yahweh, though there are many female images which seem to represent the goddess Asherah.

English: Painted on a jar found in Kuntilat Aj...

Image from a potsherd found at Kuntilat Ajrud above an inscription mentioning ‘Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah’ (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Picturing God

By contrast with this aniconic (no pictures) approach, the Bible is full of word pictures of God. Often these combine imagery in ways a representational painting would find difficult. For example in Isaiah 40:10 Yahweh is pictured as a conquering warrior king, but verse 11 describes ‘him’ cuddling little lambs and carrying them. Either picture on its own gives a dangerously lopsided view of God, but together they are less misleading.

If you try to picture your god with an image, or drawing, it is difficult to avoid identifying the god’s gender, race, hair colour etc… however if such physical representations of God are forbidden word pictures are more flexible. So the Bible sometimes combines male and female imagery in one verse or passage:

If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up. (Psa 27:10)

28 ‘Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew?
29 From whose womb did the ice come forth,
and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven? (Job 38:28-29)

(In Not Only a Father see 2.7 Two Parents Not One for more on this.)

Figurine from ancient Judah, The Jewish Museum, New York (via Wikimedia Commons)

Figurine from ancient Judah, The Jewish Museum, New York (via Wikimedia Commons)

Gendering pictures of God

Perhaps just because most Canaanite and Babylonian gods were presented as male or female, human word pictures of God are not as common in the Old Testament as we might expect. Although ‘lord’ is common, rocks and lions are too!

One word picture that is very common today, ‘father,’ is surprisingly rare in the Old Testament, and ungendered parenting pictures (How can you do that? Isn’t parenting all about [en]gendering?) sometimes replace ‘father.’

Hosea 11 begins:

1 When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.

2 The more I called them, the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.

3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.

4 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.

The picture in your mind (or the mind of the writer) here might be of a mother or a father but no words are used that betray the gender of the parent. Despite this, when I wrote my PhD, most Bibles and commentaries still entitled the section in ways that named God as ‘father.’

The poem, ‘The Song of Moses,’ that closes Deuteronomy begins picturing God as father:

Do you thus repay the LORD, O foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you? (Deu 32:6)

But soon adds mother to the thought:

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you;
you forgot the God who gave you birth. (Deu 32:18)

(The Hebrew verb translated ‘bore you’ here, chul, means ‘to give birth to,’ not ‘carry.’)

The Bible uses motherly as well as fatherly pictures of God

Picturing God as a mother who gives birth and nurtures may seem strange to 21st century people (calling God ‘she’ still raises a titter) but it was not strange to the writers of Scripture.

Sometimes it is indirect. Jesus talks of the new life he brings as new birth. Being ‘born again’ has become a very popular image among Evangelical Christians. If we are born again who is our new mother? The early Aramaic-speaking Christians (Syriac Fathers) often took Nicodemus’ facetious question (from John 3:4) seriously and spoke of baptism as the ‘womb of the Spirit.’

Motherly pictures are used several times, in very different ways, in Isaiah 40ff. In the traumatic situation of exile, after the brutal destruction of Jerusalem, faced with the complaint:

‘The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’ (Is 49:14)

As a picture of God’s constant unchanging love the prophet replied:

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. (Is 49:15)

This use of motherly imagery may seem conventional, but what about the gasping panting woman in labour in Isaiah 42? There it describes God as a soldier bent on destruction:

13 The LORD goes forth like a soldier,
like a warrior he stirs up his fury;
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
he shows himself mighty against his foes.

14 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.

15 I will lay waste mountains and hills,
and dry up all their herbage;
I will turn the rivers into islands,
and dry up the pools. (Isa 42:13-15)

Though as the following verses suggest the thought that this violence may give birth to something new is also present.

(These other passages are just examples, see 2.6 Old Things and New in the Latter Part of Isaiah for more.)

Hen with ducklings she hatched (photograph by Tim Bulkeley)

Hen with ducklings she hatched (photograph by Tim Bulkeley)

Jesus pictured himself as a mother hen. The word he uses in Matt 23:37-39 and Luke 13:34-35 (ornis) is expressed as feminine, underlining that this is a mother hen, not a cockerel.

St Anselm’s prayer to St Paul was a key medieval text for understanding Jesus as our mother (see 4.6 Christ as Mother in the Middle Ages). He saw the writers of the New Testament epistles regularly picture themselves as ‘mothers’ of the churches they founded (1 Cor 3:1-3; Gal 4:19; Heb 5:12-13; 1 Peter 2:2-3 etc.). He concluded that if they are like mothers, then Jesus who died so we might come to new life is surely our mother.

Conclusions and Questions

  • Scripture is happy to picture God as a mother, in labour, giving birth, feeding etc.
  • Jesus describes himself as a mother hen protecting her chicks.
  • The apostles speak of themselves as giving birth to, and feeding, the churches they founded.
  • If these pictures are biblical, can imagining a merely male god be biblical?
  • Why do you think such language and pictures are hardly heard today?

5 thoughts on “Not Only a Father #2: God as Mother in the Bible

  1. A conversation on Facebook in response to this post, copied with permission:

    Myk Habets That is why it is so profound that Jesus refers to God as his Father, his Abba, and he does this in the most imtimate ways. Jesus does it, it is not the invention of a later theological community. And so why do so many today want to reject that, or weaken that to merely a symbol rather than a proper name, so to speak? (A general comment on scholarship, not aimed at anyone here.)
    Unlike · Reply · 1 · 12 hours ago

    Tim Bulkeley Did Jesus intend “Father” as a proper name? In the Lord’s Prayer he says “our father” not “Father” i.e. in that key passage (at least) it is a description not a name.
    Unlike · 1 · 11 hours ago

    Thalia Kehoe Rowden Tim Bulkeley will be addressing that question soon, Myk. But are you saying that God is ontologically male? If not, we do need to do something to stop our language for God implying that. It seems to me that the choices are basically expand to use female and non-gendered imagery and language more often, use male imagery and language for God less often, or start speaking about God in Mandarin, which doesn’t have gendered pronouns If Abba is about intimacy rather than gender, maybe we can figure something else out?
    Like · Reply · 11 hours ago

    Myk Habets. Gendered language for God does not imply gender, as the early church brought out very clearly. ‘When we say Father of God he is not like any father we have known.’ That Father and Jesus are proper names is, yes, the point. If it is good enough for Jesus to call God Father then why is it not good enough for us? And Tim (hi!), I think the Lord’s prayer is to discples – ‘this is how you should pray…our Father.’ Our Father is the sum of the Gospel is it not? The Father is only literally Father of the Son, but he becomes our Father by adoption, by grace, by union with Christ by the Spirit so that Christ’s relationship with the Father becomes ours by participation. So if God is the Father of Jesus, and we are in Christ by the Spirit, then his Father is our Father. Father is thus not a gender, nor is it a function, it is a pure relation of a person to another person (which is what ‘person’ means in theology anyway).
    Unlike · Reply · 1 · 5 hours ago

    Tim Bulkeley Myk, yes but. As a theological construct, if qualified by the appropriate careful theological niceties I entirely agree. (Except, I need convincing that Jesus used “father” as a name. It’s a problem I also have in conversation with my children, when is “mum” a name for Barbara and when is it a description of a relationship. I.e. when should it have a capital M
    BUT 95%+ of Christians are not aware of all those theological niceties, and treat the exclusive talk about God as “Father” as if it were a gendered description. This is frankly idolatry, it makes God into a member of the class of male beings – a god. And, from my perspective it is not merely that 95% that do this, some theologians who ought to know better do too! (I am thinking of E. Achtemeier and CS Lewis among the 20C examples.)

    • brookwarner1986 says:

      I agree with the 95% comment. We need to begin a conversation that opens this up to people in the pews, who have never thought about this before. “Not only a Father” is a great way at eliciting dialogue even if we don’t agree in the end!

      • Tim Bulkeley says:

        Thanks, Brook, I’m not (mainly? really, I hope)) looking for agreement but do want to stimulate conversation. I’m not good at that, better at polemic. So I do hope you’ll continue to join a conversation, or argument – as long the arguing is done with respect. The two Christian thinkers I disagree with by name are both writers I respect enormously, both better theologians and better writers than me, but I think very seriously wrong on this issue!

  2. […] Welcome back to our guest poster Dr Tim Bulkeley, and welcome, readers, to perhaps the most controversial bit of this series (see the debate on today’s subject in the comments on the previous post)! […]

  3. […] Not Only a Father #2: God as Mother in the Bible […]

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