Culture At Large

Making room for the Bible’s maternal images of God

Shiao Chong

Mother’s Day makes me think about God’s maternal side. Christianity has been guilty of a patriarchal history that has been oppressive of women. Our conception of God as masculine - God as Father or King - certainly contributes to this. Although written in patriarchal contexts, the Bible itself does not refer to God exclusively in masculine metaphors. There are, albeit few, feminine metaphors used to describe God in the Bible worth highlighting.

One of the common images is God as a mother bird sheltering her children under her wings. We see this in Ruth 2:12: “May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” The Psalms use this imagery a number of times: “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.” (Psalm 17:8.) “…I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.” (Psalm 57:1.) “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge…” (Psalm 91:4.)

In the New Testament, Jesus picks up these images when He laments over Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34.)

These images paint God as a protecting and sheltering God for His people. But a variation of this image paints a God who also pushes His children to be independent and to grow stronger. Mother eagles are known to teach their young ones to fly by deliberately pushing them out of its nest, then catching them before they plunge to their doom: “(God) guarded (Jacob) as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft.” (Deuteronomy 32:10-11.)

Yet before we claim that the Bible only reinforces stereotypes of motherly warmth and care, check out Hosea 13:8: “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and rip them open.” Here, we see that the maternal instinct to protect the children can produce wrath as much as warmth. Beware the fury of a mother! No sentimental mother-image here.

Using female metaphors for God is not a radical feminist innovation.

The Bible also offers images of God as a human mother. Of all the prophets, Isaiah seems to be the fondest of this imagery. “For a long time I (God) have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.” (Isaiah 42:14.) “As a mother comforts her child, so will I (God) comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 66:13.) “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I (God) will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15.)

That last verse is one of my favorite verses for use in the assurance of forgiveness in a worship service. I like it for its compassionate and faithful portrayal of God, but also because it is one of the few feminine images of God that I can use in a service. It reminds the congregation that God is beyond gender; the gender pronouns are simply metaphors to help us understand God, who is always beyond our full understanding. As theologian Lynn Japinga wrote in Feminism and Christianity, “Language about God should help us to understand and encounter God, but we should not confuse the reality of God with the limits of our language.”

Using female metaphors for God is not a radical feminist innovation, as the Biblical passages above show. It is also part of early Christian history. In her book, Japinga notes that Clement of Alexandria mixed his metaphors in his description of Christians nursing at the breast of God the Father. She also quotes medieval mystic Meister Eckhart as describing God’s activity this way: “What does God do all day long? God gives birth. From all eternity God lies on a maternity bed giving birth.”

Mother’s Day is as appropriate as any occasion to recapture the Biblical maternal images of God in order to see further truths about God. “People described God in feminine terms, not because God is actually a woman, but because feminine or maternal traits say something true about God and about their experience with God,” Japinga wrote. The same must be said of masculine and paternal images for God. We must not confuse these metaphors with God’s reality.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Bible, Home & Family, Parenting