Dwelling on the feminine side of God this Mothering Sunday...

    Isaiah 66:12 For thus says the Lord, ‘ . . . you shall be nursed, you shall be carried on her hip, and be trotted on her [God’s maternal] knees . . .’

    I'm not actually responsible for the sermon on Mothering Sunday but if I were I would dwell on scripture's portrayal of the mothering God!

    This is what I'm hinting at in the poster I've created for the service. Creating the church's posters, as well as being great fun, can lead to some interesting reflections. (pic by eldest daughter when she was four - ahhh!)


Peter Kirk said...

Aren't you jumping the gun? 1st March is the first Sunday of Lent. Mothering Sunday is the 22nd.

Rachel said...

I know - I can be such a dope - I've changed it for church but not for the blog - it should of course read 22nd March - it was quite funny seeing the look on my husband's face though, panicking because he hadn't booked the restaurant yet - he has more time now.

Thanks Peter
God bless

Jane said...

Looks fun but did you know that March 22 is also World Water Day - I've been away from the UK so long I'd forgotten about the link to mothering Sunday - now I'm going to have to try and think up a connection btwn water and mothering

Rachel said...

Water and mothering - could be profound - the first thing that came to my mind, weirdly enough, was 'waters breaking' and what this means in the life of a woman, my mind then went to baptismal waters...

Rachel said...

Just came across this in the CEN
After the Flood, God made a covenant with Noah and his sons, that such a thing should never happen again. The rainbow is a sign to us of this enduring promise, and after so many centuries we wonder how it could have happened at all? But the Creation belongs to God, and he chose to cleanse it from the sin and shame of the human race, whose capacity for disobedience to our Creator has been demonstrated again and again in the wars which blight our humanity, and in our refusal to provide for one another and for our planet. If our ancestors deserved the Flood, then so does our present generation, greedily competing
for the world’s finite resources, ignoring the plight of the hungry nations, building ever more powerful weapons, and threatening the survival of our civilisation. But Noah is a sign that God our Creator is at work in our history, and has chosen in time to redeem us rather than destroy us.
Water holds a central place in this salvation history, from the Flood, through the waters of the Red Sea, to the baptism of the nations which Jesus commands in the Great Commission. We can lose our life in water, as did our ancestors, but water also cleanses and gives life. The Flood prefigures baptism, in which we die to sin and rise to life in Christ. Those who once were swept away by the Flood are now to hear the gospel proclaimed by the Lord, and the water which brought destruction to the sinful is now the sign of salvation, as the Church carries out its witness to the whole earth, baptising the nations in the name of the
Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Truly God makes all things new.
The pivotal moment in salvation history is seen when Jesus is baptised by John in the Jordan, marking the beginning of his ministry which inaugurates the kingdom of God. Elijah once parted the waters of the river on his way to heaven, and now heaven itself is revealed to mankind at the baptism of Jesus in the same river. Straight away Jesus faces the challenge of evil, which desires to have mastery over him just as it seeks to rule this world, but every attempt to deceive him and to lead him into disobedience is confounded by the Son of God.
A new kingdom is coming into being, in which Jesus is Lord, a kingdom which
is to be proclaimed throughout the earth. We need no longer be enslaved by sin and in bondage to death: there is good news for all the world to hear. War, hunger, poverty, exploitation and suffering must give way to the just and gentle rule of God, who is Father to all his children.

The Rev Stephen Trott

Revd John P Richardson said...

However ... Isaiah 66:12 is referring to Jerusalem.

Rachel said...

Hi John
Just quickly looked up 'The Message' on Isaiah 66:12 where these words are used:
As a mother comforts her child,
so I'll comfort you.
You will be comforted in Jerusalem.

The Amplified Bible translates it thus:
Isaiah 66:12 (Amplified Bible)
12For thus says the Lord: ...then you will be nursed, you will be carried on her hip and trotted [lovingly bounced up and down] on her [God's maternal] knees.

But yes, the New living Translation confirms your viewpoint with:
“I will give Jerusalem a river of peace and prosperity. The wealth of the nations will flow to her. Her children will be nursed at her breasts,carried in her arms, and held on her lap.

The feminine imagery for God is interesting, though. God as nursing mother, God as a midwife, God as a mother bear, God our Ezer, God as mother eagle and mother hen, God as Dame Wisdom etc

St. John Chrysostom uses allusions to God's motherhood in his Homilies on the Gos­pel of Saint Matthew. Chrysostom says that "Just as a woman nurtures her offspring with her own blood and milk, so also Christ continuously nurtures with His own blood those whom He has begot­ten."

Isaiah 49:15 would have worked, but not so well for a poster about Mother's Day!:
"Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget,I will not forget you!

I recommend the online book The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott; Crossroad, 1994.

I think seeing God purely in masculine terms does not always help people in their spiritual journeys, neither for that matter, would it work to dwell on God as solely feminine either. God transcends gender, of course. It is good to be aware of all the ways in which humanity has struggled to articulate God, as I am finding out from Barth, language will always be an insufficient vehicle.

Thanks for your contribution

Revd John P Richardson said...

Rachel, perhaps you could also speak on the feminine side of Paul: "As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, 7 but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children."(1 Thess 2:6-7)

The trouble with contemporary discussions of God's feminine nature is that there is a subtext undermining the traditional understanding of God and gender.

We have to ask, very seriously, what we mean by calling God "He". Is it a convenience or an insight?

Rachel said...

Thank you John

The trouble with discussions of God's masculine nature is that there is a subtext.

We have to ask, very seriously, what we mean by calling God "She". Is it a convenience or an insight?



Revd John P Richardson said...

Worshipping a God who could be referred to as 'She' would not have a sub-text. It would also not be Christianity.

Rachel said...

It can be insightful, though, to dwell on the motifs used in the Bible which describe God,which one would consider are generally more feminine? Would you not agree?

Peter Kirk said...

John, I think you ought to consider a bit more carefully how gender specific pronouns are used, or not used, in various languages including the original biblical ones.

Many languages, for example Turkish and Persian, do not indicate gender in any way in pronouns and so the same pronoun is used for God and for women. Does that mean that worship of God in those languages is not Christianity?

In Hebrew the word for "Spirit" is feminine and so the Holy Spirit is referred to with a feminine pronoun and feminine adjectives and verb forms, for example the word meaning "hovering" or something similar in Genesis 1:2. Is it not Christianity to worship God the Holy Spirit in Hebrew?

It is in fact only a linguistic convention that God is called "he" rather than "she" in Hebrew and Greek, because the Hebrew and Greek words for God are grammatically masculine. In these two languages, unlike English, grammatical gender is almost entirely arbitrary and quite often conflicts with natural gender. If you want to find arguments for the maleness of God, you need to do much better than that.

Rachel said...

Thank you, Peter, I couldn't have put it better, myself! ;) There was something very unsettling about John's idea that a God without male gender could not be Christianity!

Revd John P Richardson said...

Peter, I have to say (wouldn't I) that you are wrong. First, meaning a language which does not have a gender distinction cannot be compared to one which does, such as English (or Hebrew or Greek).

What the latter means by calling God 'She', as distinct from 'He', is not the same as what the former means by not making an unavailable distinction.

Secondly, we have to take account of the reality of 'gendered' gods of the Ancient Near East and Roman Mediterranean worlds. The option of feminine gods was available, but was not adopted.

You also make too much of Hebrew genders. Hebrew, like French, uses gendered language for 'neutral' objects. In fact you cannot make absolute decisions about the gender of the object referenced from its grammatical gender in Hebrew.

Our understanding of gender in relation to God, however, does not (of course) rest merely on the use of the masculine pronoun (He). Rather, it derives from a multitude of relational references, culminating in Ephesians 5's presentation of Christ and the Church, and leading towards the 'marriage supper of the lamb' at the revelation of Christ, when the New Jerusalem descends from heaven like a Bride dressed for her husband.

The ideas behind this are so deeply embedded in Christian theology that to tamper with them is to unravel the whole.

Tampering with them, however, is precisely what we are doing.

Rachel said...

If Barth were still around, wouldn't he say that our language only fails to capture God - our pronouns, whether they be masculine or feminine are insufficient? Isn't it useful to dwell on the character of God in terms of the feminine and masculine attributes s/he exhibits, always ready to guard against creating a God in our own image, of course.

Deuteronomy 4:15-17, therefore watch yourselves carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourself an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or woman…

We have an intellectual understanding that God can be described with multiple metaphors, if we only use our default gendered names for God, are we not shoring up the idols?

Revd John P Richardson said...

Just on Hebrew (specifically) and gender, I copied the following bits from A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar:

B(iblical) H(ebrew) allocates a ‘grammatical gender’ to each noun that does not necessarily correspond to its sex in real life. When the gender of a noun is described in BH, the level of description must be indicated, namely morphological, syntactic or semantic ...

... Some words are feminine on the semantic and syntactic level, but masculine on the morphological level, for example, [women] is a masculine form but refers to female persons.

... Epicene nouns
a. Some words bear semantic reference to a mixed gendered group, but are either morphologically masculine or feminine.

dog masculine form refers to both male and female

dove feminine form refers to both male and female

... The word for god(s)/godess(es) is also regarded as an epicene noun.

So now we know! Spirit, I guess, would qualify also as an 'epicene noun'.

Revd John P Richardson said...

"If Barth were still around, wouldn't he say that our language only fails to capture God ...?"

I don't think so, but in any case ...

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Then God said ..."

"Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. And teach them to your children and your grandchildren, especially concerning the day you stood before the Lord your God in Horeb, when the Lord said to me, ‘Gather the people to Me, and I will let them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.’ Then you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire to the midst of heaven, with darkness, cloud, and thick darkness. And the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; you only heard a voice."

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

"And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe."

Rachel said...

The Word - logos incarnate - Jesus Christ - perfect articulation of God in JC's divinity.

Human language - the metaphors which the Bible employs, whilst revelation in themselves are not the Word - revelation which is Jesus Christ. Not to be Christomanic - no - trinitarian yes - but not so bibliocentric and if bibliocentric - I will pay attention to all the language vehicles with which God has described self through the power of the Holy Spirit and God has revealed himself to us by his Word (Jesus Christ).

Peter Kirk said...

John, I'm confused, because you say I'm wrong, and then seem to almost completely agree with me. My main point, although not so well expressed, was precisely:

... you cannot make absolute decisions about the gender of the object referenced from its grammatical gender in Hebrew.

Our understanding of gender in relation to God, however, does not (of course) rest merely on the use of the masculine pronoun (He). Rather, it derives from a multitude of relational references ...

Where I would differ from you is in seeing the images of Christ as the bridegroom as basically extended metaphors rather than literal descriptions of gender - and anyway they refer to only one of three persons (personae, feminine in Latin and neuter in Greek) of the Trinity. And, as we have seen, there are places where feminine metaphors as well as masculine are used of the divine persons.

I also disagree with this:

Spirit, I guess, would qualify also as an 'epicene noun'.

That would imply that there are male spirits and female spirits. I would suggest that it is part of the nature of a spirit entity not to be gendered.

Revd John P Richardson said...

There are two separate, but related, issues here. One is the status of 'word'. The consistent biblical position is that God reveals himself through the word spoken and, above all, written. Moreover, as Peter Jensen argues (I think very helpfully) that the essential aspect of the Bible as the 'word of God' is that it is the means by which God holds us in his Covenant.

Thus the word of the gospel calls us into relationship with him, and his word, revealed as Scripture, keeps us in relationship with him. This, I would suggest, is also borne out by experience. Where Scripture is accorded the status of "God's Word written", and where Scripture is the source of our preaching and the standard of our doctrine, we find faith and spiritual health. Where we do not, we don't.

The point is, we have no Christ outside Scripture. In Martin Luther's terminology, we have no 'naked God', and Christ does not come to us other than through the word.

Connected with this, we have to understand what is conveyed by the word of Scripture speaking of God as the husband of Israel and Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church. If we call this a 'metaphor', we have to ask, "A metaphor for what?" What does the word reveal?

I would suggest Scripture shows us that gender as we know it provides an 'image' of God as God is. God is not a 'biological' entity. But God is imaged by biological entities.

We need also to remember that gender is relational. Thus we need to know what God is 'male' in relation to - and the answer provided by Scripture is, 'in relation to his created, redeemed people'.

Where we would hit real problems would be if we simply said that the 'imaging' could be swapped around, so that Christ was the bride and the Church the groom. The understanding conveyed by this 'image' would be quite different from that conveyed by the true image. Indeed, I suggest it would not be an image but an idol.

I'm glad Peter and I essentially agree on this (I think!).

Rachel said...

Thanks John.

Still - not a problem if I look at the images used to describe God with more feminine attributes. If the Church fathers dwelt on this and it wasn't heretical, then I am assuming I am safe to do so.

Peter Kirk said...

Thanks, John. But don't forget that male and female were both created in God's image, Genesis 1:27. So I still struggle with the idea that God is male even relatively. Don't forget that there are also pictures of God relating to his people in a feminine way - maybe not as a bride but certainly as a mother, e.g. Matthew 23:37.

Rachel said...

So we have come full circle because, yes, Peter, this was all I was trying to say, in the first place. It somehow all got coloured by the bride/bridegroom imagery, which seems to speak to you in a particularly vivid way, as it does to us all, John, but particularly to you. I think through the power of his Holy Spirit, God has certain Biblical ideas/truths/images impact us in a special way, as was the case for Augustine and Alypius as they sat under the fig tree!

Somewhat circuitous but enriching, nevertheless

Thank you
God bless

Revd John P Richardson said...

Hi Rachel. I only just got back to reading this, and you may be tired of the subject. However, I noticed you wrote in your last post that the discussion of 'the feminine side of God' "somehow all got coloured by the bride/bridegroom imagery, which seems to speak to you in a particularly vivid way, as it does to us all, John, but particularly to you."

However, we have to distinguish which is the "image" here (as in "the imagery"). What you say seems to suggest that "bride/bridegroom" is "imagery" which we apply to God.

The lesson of Ephesians 5, however, is that what God is like is to be applied to brides and bridegrooms.

In other words "bride and bridegroom" is not an image we use to help us think about God but an "image" of God's reality embodied in His creation. That is why Ephesians says that our practice of marriage is to be conformed to the relationship between Christ and the Church, rather than saying that our understanding of Christ and the Church will be 'helped' by thinking about marriage. (In fact, in many cases it would not be helped at all!!)

This relates to your latest post about 'recapitulation'. It is important to note that in Ephesians 1, where Christ is head over all things under his feet, the Church is his body. This is then, of course, taken up again in chapter 5.

Hope this helps.

Rachel said...

We are dealing here, John, with a highly problematic passage. The whole passage is poetic: the relationship between husband and wife is like that between Christ and the church. It is never said or implied that the wife is the church or the husband is Christ. After all both men and women make up the church and so men and women are the bride. It is not persons but relationships; interactions that are compared.

How is Christ head here? As saviour (5:23). He heals and restores to community. The man restores to communion with himself the women throughout the marriage. The 'Christ event' to use Barth's phrase is always reconciling his people to himself. As the bride, the man and the woman are reconciled to Christ their Saviour.

It is because the image is held to influence ecclesiology to such an extent, that I approach it with a hermeneutic of suspicion. Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna in the early second century both give evidence that they knew Ephesians, yet they make nothing of the bridal metaphor (Ignatius Polycarp 5.1; Polycarp Phil. 10.2). Later in the second century, Tertullian and Irenaeus begin to show signs of awareness of its ecclesiological load.

I suspect that this conversation would end up in a discussion of kephale as source or authority figure. Perhaps it isn't quite either or it is to some extent both. How we ever rid ourselves of all our worldly attachments and colourings? Only in the after-life, I think. I can't get back into this now. As I explained to the DDO yesterday, it has taken me a long time to work through these things. In my ministry I feel very called to be part of a ministry team of mutual submission amongst equals, it is good of God to call me to this, so that I can just get on with the job to some extent, without constantly having to analyse it. Analyse it, I must though, which is why I blog, so I thank you for your challenges and your elucidation.
God bless

Revd John P Richardson said...

Again it's taken me a long time to get back to reading this.

I worry about comments like, "I approach [this text] with a hermeneutic of suspicion" - I take it you do mean the text, not the hermeneutics of the text.

That language has usually been used in theological circles when the text under consideration is regarded as itself supporting a viewpoint to which the interpreter takes objection.

I hope and trust that is not the case for you!

Rather, I would urge you to read Ephesians in the light of Martin Luther's comments in his Two Kinds of Righteousness, and see that the issue is ultimately not one of authority but of salvation.

He writes, "In John 11:25-26, Christ himself states: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me.....shall never die.” Later he adds in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” This righteousness, then, is given to men in baptism and whenever they are truly repentant. Therefore a man can with confidence boast in Christ and say: “Mine are Christ’s living, doing, and speaking, his suffering and dying, mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, suffered, and died as he did.” Just as a bridegroom possesses all that is his bride’s and she all that is his — for the two have all things in common because they are one flesh[Gen. 2:24] — so Christ and the church are one spirit."

It is our union with Christ (embodied in the one-flesh union of man and woman in marriage) which forms the basis of our salvation by Christ, just as it is the unified Body of Christ, with Him as the head and the Church as the body, by which all creation is drawn together up to God.

This is surely not grounds for suspicion, but rejoicing!

Rachel said...

Rejoicing indeed - no my suspicion is reserved for what Grudem and Piper and other theologians, like John McArthur, do with this text, stretching it so that it become skewed into some very wild practical applications for women and men and the way that they think that the genders should relate to each other.

God bless


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A little background reading so we might mutually flourish when there are different opinions