Tis the season (or week) when teachers and preachers think about a lesson featuring the feminine images of God in the Bible. I may be a bit late with the help, but in the spirit of better late than never – here are a few notes I’ve compiled over the years. As long as you promise to avoid the following sermon titles I am happy for you to use this material – if you use either one I promise to hunt you down and haunt you someday (and no need to mention me, just preach). These forbidden titles come from actual sermons (not mine), long ago and far away: 1) “Proverbs 31, Mothers, and Tugboats.” Yes, from a coastal community but still… And 2) “How God our Father is like a Mother.” My fingers cringe typing this title. I hope you see the problem or I’d humbly suggest that you are probably not yet ready to tackle this subject.
Yes, the Bible uses the image or metaphor of “Father” to refer to God, but it is only an image; one way of communicating what God is like (a God that is neither male nor female). To give preference to one metaphor (Father) above all other images takes a step well beyond scripture and flirts dangerously close to breaking the second commandment: make no image or idol for worship. How can that be? (Glad you asked.) At issue behind the second commandment is what happens when we fixate on a single image to contain a God who cannot be contained. Whether a golden calf (Exod 32:4-5) or a single word, when we make this move (intentional or not) we try to fit God within our favorite box; requiring or allowing us to cut every idea about God that won’t fit. Suddenly, God is tamed and looks like our preferred image of God.
Wondering where your church might be? (again, you ask the best questions) Try this test: listen carefully and list all the ways God is addressed or explicitly described. Then check your list for diversity. For example, back when I was teaching it was a rare day (or week) when students prayed without consistently addressing God as Father God. Please don’t misunderstand my concern. Alone these words are fine. But when the same image is repeated over and over — to the exclusion of every other image or when every other image is forced to fit within Father God, well: Houston, we have a problem. We are putting our God into a nice, neat box of our own making— to which we can fasten the lid and keep God from getting out of our control.
So, with this “brief” prologue, here’s a sketch of some texts in which we find feminine or mother imagery used to describe God:
- Numbers 11:10-15 (v. 12 key)— Moses points out that he did not conceive or give birth to Israel. He’s not their mother—the Lord is their mother. So the people are not Moses’s problem, but the Lord’s problem.
- Deuteronomy 32:16-20 (v. 18 key)—the Song of Moses asks who “fathered you” (18a NIV), using a term that could express a male or female role (yld). The second half of verse 18, however, uses an explicitly maternal or female image, “who gave you birth” (18b NIV), the same Hebrew word is found in Isaiah 13:8, 26:17, 51:2, 54:1).
- Job 38:25-30 (vv. 28-29 key)—verse 28 uses male imagery to describe God’s relationship to the rain: “Has the rain a father” (CEB). Verse 29 then uses female imagery, “who gave birth” to the frost (CEB). Both verses describe God’s roles – as a father (v. 28) and as a mother (v. 29).
- A number of texts make brief reference to the image of childbirth in order to describe God or what God is doing: Isaiah 42:14, 46:3, 49:14-15, Deut. 32:11-12 (“nursed him”), Hosea 11:1-4 (vv. 2-4 describe what women or mothers typically did).
- The term “compassion” derives from the Hebrew term for “womb” (rhm). We must be careful here not to make the mistake of the “root fallacy” in which we look up a word in a dictionary, it tells us the word or words from which our term derives (ekklesia = ek (out) + kalleo (called) = called out), then we declare our word’s meaning based on it’s origin or root word(s): ekklesia means “those called out” (a terrible, awful practice—and misleading too). Words take their meaning from the context in which they are used. This said, we are left to weigh whether “compassion” (rhm) has any sense of “feelings of the womb,” or “motherly feelings” in texts such as Hosea 2:21,23, and Jeremiah 31:20 (note: rhm occurs in many other texts).
- Proverbs 8:22-30 (vv. 22-25 key verses)—In this text Woman Wisdom (a personification of wisdom) claims that her origin is from God, more specifically that she was “given birth” by God (vv. 24,26 NIV) or “When I was born” and “my birth” (vv. 24,25 CEV). Despite the translation we use, the meaning is crystal clear: God gave birth to a bouncing baby girl named Wisdom. Yes, it is imagery… but so are all of the other descriptions of God in scripture, including Father.
I make no claim of an exhaustive list. In fact, at least one other term deserves serious attention: “El Shaddai,” a name given to God in Genesis—and in every instance the context has to do with procreation or fertility. If you are interested, I’ll let you run with this idea. I only offer this list is as a place to start and welcome additions to the list through your comments. (Post here please, not on Facebook – some may not see your addition.)
May the God of Sarah, the God of Rebekah, and the God of Leah and Rachel bless your work.
Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.