Our Mother, who art in Heaven….
Hmmm, why is that so disconcerting? Why do we assume God is a male? The great image of God as an old man, white beard aflowing, floating up in the clouds…is that the truth?
Well no, you say, technically God is not a male…technically he’s just God…
You just said “He.”
Try it. Try to describe God without using a male pronoun.
I’ll give you a few moments…
It’s hard, isn’t it?
I just finished reading Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of The Dissident Daughter. I love Sue Monk Kidd. She is my idol because at the age of thirty, she walked into her kitchen and announced to her husband and two small kids that she was going to become a writer. She had worked as a nurse all throughout her life, finally saying “This is not who I am.” Which, of course, is exactly how I feel.
Personal lamentations aside, her book really opened my eyes to some of the ways women have been left out of religion. And not just in a “women aren’t allowed in the pulpit” sort of way, but in a “this wasn’t the way that God intended it to be sort of way.”
When I visited St. Thomas University in Minnesota, the woman who hosted me was a doctor and scholar of the bible. She told me how she was currently working with the church on some early translations. She said that in the language of the Bible, a pronoun differentiating between male and female simply did not exist. “He” “his” “hers” “she”–they just didn’t exist. “Can you imagine the implication of that?” she asked me, “If every sentence in the Bible did not have a ‘his’ or ‘he’ attached to it?”
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his (her) blood, you have no life in you; he (she) who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He (She) who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (her)…. (John 6:53-53)
No, I couldn’t.
It is ingrained in us that when Jesus spoke, he spoke to males as the default. It is ingrained that God is best described as a Heavenly Father. If you happen to be Catholic, then you have Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as a powerful feminine presence in faith, but she is not divine. She is the ultimate saint, sinless, glorified as the Mother of Jesus, and therefore, the driving force behind Jesus. Mary really is seen, in a sense, as more powerful than Jesus because she is Mom. She is revered for her womanhood. Mary is at once superior (as the Mother of Jesus), but still inferior to God. Which is interesting, now that I am thinking of it, because if you believe Jesus is God, then Mary is technically equal or even superior to God, since she birthed him? This is getting confusing…But still, the point is is that God is never seen as a woman.
Side note: Kidd’s book also described how the ancient definition of the word “virgin” did not mean what it has come to mean today. The ancient definition of a virgin was not synonymous with sexuality, but merely spoke of a woman who belonged to herself. It was used to describe an autonomous woman, one who did not belong to anyone else. An interesting meaning in a world where women were once seen as property.
Of course, now we realize that the Bible speaks to women as well. It was just the culture at the time, right? Everything was addressed to the males just to get through to their puny little brains, right? Well, as I came to see, no, maybe not. Maybe the message just got lost in translation.
Kidd discusses feminine allusions in the Bible starting on page 146 of her book:
- There are 48 references to God in the Bible as El Shaddai, a Hebrew phrase roughly translated as “God, the breasted one.”
- When the Bible speaks of God’s mercy, Hebrew thought suggested that God had “womblike” qualities, as the root word for mercy is “rechem,” or womb.
- In the chapter of Matthew, Jesus appears as a mother bird.
- Deuteronomy 32:18 reads “You forgot the God who gave you birth.” (Some versions translated this to “You forgot the God who fathered you. See what I mean?)
- Starting with Hebrew tradition and the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit was feminine. The spirit of God is the word ruah and occurs 378 times.
- The New Testament referred to the female image of God with the Greek word Sophia, while Jesus was described as Logos (The Word). In translating the New Testament, many references to Sophia were simply replaced with Logos. (There is more to this story that roots back to the formation of Christianity as we know it today. Basically, an early group of Christians that didn’t believe that Jesus’ death was important also believed in Sophia. Therefore, when the Christianity that believed Jesus’ death was redemptive took over, they got rid of Sophia to avoid association with that other religion).
And the one that I found most stunning. Hokhmah, the term for the Wisdom of God, is actually personified as a woman. The references to her in the Old Testament far outweigh all the male references we have heard of, such as Moses and Abraham. Of Wisdom, Kidd states:
‘Over and over in the Bible and in Jewish wisdom literature, Wisdom is spoken of in Godlike ways. She’s portrayed as an entity, persona, or manifestation of god, one who was brought forth from God before creation. Preexistent with God, she participated in creating the world, She is said to order all things as well as to permeate or inspirit all things. She is referred to as a teacher, a lover, at one with trees and plants. She is the one who mediates God’s love and work in the world. She guides and reveals God’s will. For example she is the one who guided Noah through the flood and led the children of Israel through the Red Sea.’
So basically, she does it all? That sounds about right.
What does all of this mean to us today? I’m not sure. I know that God is “he, she, both and neither” but I can admit that I have a hard time thinking of God as anything but male. Kidd talks about how her book made a lot of people mad. It’s funny…I’m a little afraid to publish this post, wondering if anyone will think I’m being irreverent, too crazy feminist. But why should it matter if we describe God as a he or a she? I love the idea that Christianity does value the beauty of womanhood in the divine sense, even if it got a bit diminished along the way. I love reading stories about the women of the Bible. Little known stories, like Dinah, the sister of Joseph with the coat of many colors. Or the fact that Ada was both of their grandmothers, the mother-in-law of Jacob. I hate to describe looking at all these references as “the female side of God,” because again, that places God as a male by default, but there is both a male and female component to The Divine.
Either way, I’d like to be more open to thinking of God as a female. To not place any subconscious thought in my daughters minds that God is solely a “he.” Because really, if all you hear is “he this” or “he that,” isn’t that sending some subliminal message that boys are more important? That male is the default, even if everyone knows girls are included in that?
It’s going to be interesting. I’ve started teaching my oldest about God, but I floundered about miserably when I tried out this new idea of God as a woman on her. “Well, you see, God isn’t a boy..He’s also a girl…Oh, shoot, I didn’t mean, He, I meant He/She, no, She/He…oh, forget it.”
Is that why they used “Thy” so much in the Bible? So much easier.