Feminine Images of God in Scripture
It was Mother’s Day and I asked the congregation to describe with one word a mother’s love. People began to shout out words like “unconditional,” “enduring,” ”strong,” “faithful” “never ending,” etc. I then commented, “What you are describing sounds like God’s love.” I went on to ask, “What is the source of this kind of love? Is it fleshly? Is it merely human? I then proceeded to show that, because woman, as well as man, was created in the image and likeness of God, that a mother’s love is every bit as much an expression of the heart of God as is a father’s love.
This is clear from Genesis 1:26-31 where God created both the man and the woman in His image and likeness. That both were created in God’s image and likeness is borne out by the fact that the word translated “man” in Gen. 1:26-27 is adam, a gender-inclusive word that means “people” or “humanity.” The Hebrew word for man as male (ish) is nowhere to be found in this account. That this is about the creation of humanity, and not the first male, is confirmed by the Septuagint (an early Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), which translates adam as anthropos the Greek gender-inclusive word that includes both sexes and also means “people” or “humanity.” In addition, the pronouns used of this adam in the succeeding verses are all plural, clearly indicating that this account of creation is about “them,” and not “him.”
This is important to understand for, throughout history, it has been taught that only the man bears the full image of God. For example, the famous church father, Augustine (354-430) wrote, “The woman herself alone is not the image of God whereas the man alone is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman is joined with him.” (S. Hyatt, In the Spirit We’re Equal, 53).
This sort of misogynist thinking has continued in the church to the present day. Although often unspoken, the idea quietly prevails that only a man or a father can fully and adequately represent God. This is unfortunate for it has provided an opening for pride and arrogance in Christian men and feelings of inadequacy and defectiveness in Christian women. This erroneous and phony idea of woman’s defectiveness is really the basis behind the faulty interpretation of Paul and the exclusion of women from roles of leadership in the Church. It is an idea that needs to be purged from the thinking of every truly born again saint of God.
The point I am making here is that both male and female are created in the image and likeness of God. Although in the fall this image has been diminished and marred in both male and female, it has not been erased. A mother’s love, therefore, is as much an expression of God’s love as is a father’s love; and this is borne out by the use of feminine and “mothering” images of God in Scripture.
Mothering Images of God in the Old Testament
In Deut. 32:18 God chided His people because they had forgotten the One who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth (NKJV). This verse is obviously picturing God as giving birth and this mothering image is even more stark when we realize that the word “fathered” is a gross mistranslation of the Hebrew word chiyl, a word that carries the meaning of “writhing in labor pains.” The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, commenting on this word, says, "This verb expresses the writhing movements of labor contractions" (vol. 1 of, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 270). The use of “fathered” by the NIV and the NKJV is not just a poor translation, but a bad translation and shows the obvious bias of the translators. This entire verse is a stark mothering image of God in labor pains giving birth to His people. The NRSV has a good translation of this passage, which reads, You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth. This is clearly a female/mothering image of God in His relationship with Israel.
Isaiah 66:12-13 is another Old Testament passage that pictures a mothering God. A picture is first painted of a re-born Jerusalem as like a mother providing nourishment for her infant children and bouncing them on her knees to cheer them up. This is expressed by the word dandled in vs. 12, which means to "please" or "amuse." The final summary statement of verse 12, however, shows that it is God doing all this in and through Jerusalem. And God summarizes it all by saying, As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you. This is clearly another Old Testament mothering image of God.
Then there is the name by which God revealed Himself to Israel, El-Shaddai. Some Hebrew scholars point out that Shaddai is likely derived from the Hebrew word for "breast" which is shad. Perhaps this is why, as vol. 2 of the Wordbook of the Old Testament points out, that the traditional Jewish/rabbinnic analysis of Shaddai has been that it is a compound word composed of the relative "she" and the word for "enough" or "the one (she) who is self-sufficient." If this is the case then Psalm 91:1, which uses El-Shaddai and translates it as the "Almighty" pictures God as like a nursing mother who nourishes and sustains her infant child with her own life.
Jesus Uses Mothering Images of God
Jesus used a feminine/mothering image of Himself when He compared His deep concern for His people with that of a mother hen for her chicks (a rooster would just not work here). As He wept over the city of Jerusalem, He lamented,
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.
In another instance, found in Luke 15:8-10, Jesus tells a parable of a woman who searched diligently until she found a coin that had been lost. This is one of three parables all presented together to teach God’s care for that which is lost. This parable is sandwiched between the parable of the shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep in the fold and went out searching for the one that was lost, and the parable of the lost, prodigal son who returns home to a loving father who welcomes him home with great fanfare and celebration. We all agree that the shepherd and the father in the other two parables are meant to represent God. So why are we so slow to accept that the woman who diligently searched high and low until she found the missing coin is also a representation of God diligently seeking for that which is lost?
I think it is also interesting that Paul describes his own concerns for the Thessalonians in mothering terms. In his first letter to this church he describes his concern for them as being like that of a nursing mother." He writes,
Nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, when we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her children. (I Thess. 1:6-7).
The Inadequacy of Human Language to Define God
We must remember that all human language of God is metaphorical and analogical. God is spirit and He transcends all human attempts to categorize Him in terms of gender and sexuality. Words like father, judge, king, shepherd, etc. are metaphors that tell us something of what God is like; they are not words that describe His essence or being. Images of God as father are more numerous in Scripture than those of mother, but only because in the fallen culture of the day, where the father held the authority and ability to provide, he provided a better representation of God and His authority and ability to provide for His people. Nonetheless, God warned his people to not reduce him to the image of anything in creation, whether man or woman, mother or father.
In Deuteronomy 4:15, for example, God reminded Israel that when He spoke to them from Mt. Horeb they did not see any form. Based on this fact, He then commanded them not to make a carved image to represent Him in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal, etc. (Deut. 4:15-19). Isaiah expresses this same idea of God's magnificent transcendence by saying, To whom then will you compare God? What image will you compare Him to? (Isaiah 40:18). Then, in Isaiah 40:25, God Himself says, says, To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” As the popular worship chorus written to be sung to God says, “There is none like You.”
In spite of this very clear command, Christian art throughout history has depicted God as a male. Michaelangelo’s famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is typical. He depicted God as a bearded male with obvious Italian features; influenced, no doubt, by the fact that he was Italian and was painting for an Italian pope. But, before we are too critical of Michaelangelo, we should pause to consider if we too have not been guilty of domesticating and reducing God to “our” image and, thereby, making ourselves a god with whom we are comfortable.
This idea of the transcendence of God is expressed in the revelation of God to Moses as the "I Am," which is the simple Hebrew verb "to be," like the English "I am." Moses, talking to the Being who was speaking to him from the burning bush, asks who He is--what is Your name? Who will I tell the children of Israel has sent me to them? God's response was "I am that I am." Tell them that "I am" has sent you. In other words, when God looked at all His creation there was nothing to which He could compare Himself that would to justice to who He is. The most profound thing He could say about Himself was simply, "I Am."
God Transcends Fatherhood & Motherhood
Interestingly, my parents never taught me to look at them to learn what God is like. For my parents, God was “other than” what they were and they pointed me to the Scriptures and prayer to get to know God. Jesus too taught that earthly parents—both father and mother—are poor, inadequate representations for who God is.
For example, Matt. 7:9 in the NKVV has Jesus saying, Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone. “Man” is not an accurate translation, for the Greek word is anthropos, which is the gender-inclusive word, best translated here as “person” or “parent,” which is how the NLT and the NRSV translate the phrase. Jesus goes on to say, If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him.
Jesus says that the love of the most caring earthly parents, when juxtaposed alongside God’s love, appears as evil. This shows that neither a human father nor a human mother can adequately represent God and His love. This means that the only thing we learn from caring parents is “how much more” does the God whom we worship and serve care for His children.
My point is that we have sold ourselves short in setting up a “father’s love” as the real representation of the heart of God. This is not true. Although male and father images of God are numerous in Scripture and Jesus taught to pray Our Father who art in heaven, there is more than adequate Scriptural evidence to say that women too can represent God for women too were created in His image and a mother’s love is as much an expression of the heart of God as is a father’s love.
by Dr. Eddie L. Hyatt