29
Jun
09

God as Mother – More traditional than you might think

As a preface to this series, I would like to be open about my journey with feminist interpretation and theology. Because of my terrible relationship with my father, I could not grasp nor find comfort in the image of Father God, which is the language I grew up with. “Father” and “God” were not words that could go together, since “father” was the equivalent of abuser, torturer and imprisoner – concepts I could not reconcile with my concept of God. As a result, I spent a long time away from church. As I was being pulled back into church by God, I had to somehow deal with my cognitive dissonance. What helped me immensely were materials normally reserved for women who have experienced sexual abuse by a father or father-figure. I then began an amateur study of feminist and womanist theologies. Several years later, when I started seminary, I met the woman who is now my wife, Rev Jenna Zirbel. She was two years ahead of me in seminary and lightyears in thinking. 

ORTHODOXY – GOD THE FATHER, FATHER GOD, FATHER

Modern orthodoxy views God as male – basically through the various characteristics of Father-hood.  I don’t know about you, but my childhood recollections of God were as an old, white man with a flowing pure white beard, long white hair and distinctly European features. I always thought this must be the way the Bible describes God. Imagine my surprise when I found out that nowhere in scripture is God ever described like that. Imagine my further surprise when I finally figured out that the iconic “God the Father” is a gross mischaracterization of the biblical God. Well, I was shocked enough to actually return to church after a twenty-three year hiatus.

Now, I’m going to tip my hand before I get started. I’m going to tell you a few things that surprised me when I learned them 15 years ago, before I start really delving into the flaws in the idolatry evidenced in the name “God the Father.”

  •  There are only three instances that I recall in the Old Testament of God being described specifically as “Father”, and that’s in English. Hebrew is, well, less patristic. By identifiable function, there are more references to a mothering God than a fathering God.
  • Jesus is the first person we encounter in scripture that calls God, “Father” directly.
  • While the church has long said the Trinity is “Father, Son & Holy Ghost”, the phrase “God the Father” did not enter into common usage as the “preferred” name of God in the Christian Church until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It actually developed with the fundamentalist movement.
  • This one I’m not sure about (wink) – did the affinity for a male God drive the need for all-male clergy, or did the need to limit women in ministry in the Imperial Church drive the need for a male God? Does a priest being called “Father” give us a clue?

There is always a reason that tradition develops – it never occurs in a void. Traditions are developed to either promote a specific idea or pattern of behavior that initially is different, even radical, or to protect an idea or behavior that is at risk of becoming obsolete. Every well known, and I dare say every virtually unknown, theological tradition has developed out of conflict of some kind.

Each of these conflicts had a lot more at stake than simply the victor’s rights to the winning idea – the penalty for losing was, many times, being called a heretic and being put to death. Dem’s some pretty big stakes. So, what was at stake? Power, prestige, profit, position and, of course, perpetuity. Actually, even as I write this, I have started looking over my shoulder. But, never mind, where do I begin?

Steven’s comments on this unfinished work have helped put me on the right track – well, at least a track. [Thank you, Steven – I like getting intelligent and thoughtful comments.] So, I’ll start with the Hebrew Scriptures (HS) except, don’t worry, I’ll save you the Hebrew lessons. I’ll try to make sure the points I make don’t require you to study Hebrew for two years. I enjoy it, but that makes me just kind of scary, I think.

There are no instances in HS in which God is named “Father”, “Father God”, or “God the Father.”  There are two instances in Jer 3:4 & 19, in which God is referred to directly as “my father”, but neither is in the context of a name or title, the word form is relational. Apart from that the word translating as “father” is used 6 more times in relation to God. 2Samuel 7:14 is in this category, as is Psa 68:5, 89:26, 103:13, Isa 63:16 and 64:8. In each case, the proper translation would be “as a father” or “like a father”. The word is used descriptively and/or with distinct masculine functions. Interestingly, in Psa 27:10, God is compared to both a father and a mother.

There exist in HS no references to God being called mother as a name, nor any that would translate as “my mother” or something similar. There are, however, 18 instances when God is compared to a mother with stereotypically feminine tasks being involved in the description. Some English translations prefer to use the word “woman”, even though the Hebrew word is specifically “mother”. (Dt 32:11-12, 18; Num 11:12; Psa 22:9, 131:2; Prov 8:22; Isa 42:14, 46:3 & 4, 49:14 & 15, 66:9 & 12; Job 38:8 & 29; Hos 11:1 & 4; Neh 9:21 – I would not consider this list exhaustive, since it was a relatively quick search.)

I have left out the multiple instances of God being likened to a female bird or, less commonly, other animal, since there is little to compare to in a male category.

Many Jewish Rabbinical talmuds and commentaries address God in both male and female terms, sometimes almost seemlessly and indiscriminately. While Christians call themselves New Testament people, and rightly so, it must be remembered that Jesus was both Jewish and a rabbi. The HS were Jesus’ scriptures, and the rabbinic tradition was that within which Jesus studied and taught. Rather than perceiving a genderless God, it seems that the traditional understanding is of a God who is fluid in gender – being both rather than neither.

To be continued.    Return to Table of Contents

Series authored by Revs Jenna Zirbel & Andy Little. Written by Andy Little.

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3 Responses to “God as Mother – More traditional than you might think”


  1. January 20, 2009 at 8:44 PM

    Interesting post. First point: Not sure about issues of Hebrew/English. I’m no Hebrew scholar so I can’t appropriately comment on that. I see father in my English Bible (2 Samuel with God to David, numerous places in the Psalms), but I’m not sure about the Hebrew.

    My thought on the second point is that Jesus’ use of the term is reason enough to assume that the role of Father is one that God takes. If anyone was to know what roles God took, Jesus would be the one.

    That last bulleted point is a really interesting thought. That’s something I’ll have to think about more.

    I’m actually more in favor of what you’re saying than what my first two paragraphs may have implied. I think the God as Mother imagery is very important to the Bible (and to Christians). It’s something I probably need to think about much more – I guess I’ve just shrugged it off in the past. Thanks for the post.

  2. 2 Rev Andy Little
    January 20, 2009 at 8:56 PM

    Steven,
    Thanks for commenting on this. It is a work in progress. I had it all laid out in my head, but then the flow didn’t make sense. So, I’m rearranging my thoughts as I write this.

    To your first point, I am going to research OT to make sure I haven’t missed any, but I already know most of the Psalms use a Hebrew word that means parent – it is non-gender specific, and much of the phrasing, if it points to gender at all, points to the feminine.

    I’m with you on the second point – and that has been a bit of a stumbling block sometimes. I think I will be wrestling it out to satisfaction, but we’ll see. Theology being what it is, there’s always room for improvement.

    Thanks for the last point, as well. I will end up by reasoning that God is all, and all people are made in God’s image. I don’t think that image is a gendered part of our being, so I don’t think it’s healthy to rely exclusively on a male or female God.

    Anyway, check back again later and see if I’ve gotten anywhere.

    Andy

  3. 3 Jennifer
    August 28, 2011 at 11:47 AM

    I can identify with you about not been able to see God as a father. I didn’t have a good father and I was verbaly abuse by my ex-husband, who told me that God view women as second class. Of course that’s a lie but I still find it difficult to relate to God as an all male figure and I am searching for his femine person. Than you very much for writing this. Did you do more research in the subject?


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... or, preaching from both ends

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That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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