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Talk of God as Mother in the Bible and Christian Tradition
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This is a new kind of book. A book you discuss with others, and with the author, as you read. Not Only a Father is also available as a print edition (conventional “book”). (( Actually a codex or collection of pages bound together along one shared edge. At other times and places “books” were scrolls, or even collections of clay tablets. )) You can if you wish read a paper copy and then write comments or ask questions here :)

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Author

Dr Tim Bulkeley has taught Old Testament at Carey Baptist College and the University of Auckland (NZ) since 1993, before that he was a missionary in Africa and a Baptist pastor in England. This book covers material he first researched for his PhD at the University of Glasgow.

With this book Tim Bulkeley has done us a significant service. We know, if we stop to think clearly, that God is neither mother nor father, neither male nor female. Jesus made that obvious to the woman at Sychar’s well. ‘God is a spirit’ (John 4:24), and spirits do not have human bodies. Besides we can easily recall that both males and females are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and hence neither is more like God. Yet, living in our gendered world, we forget that God is not gend [...]

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Back in the late 1970s when I prepared my doctoral thesis on The Image of God and Parental Images there was little serious discussion of Christians using motherly language to speak of God. Since then, feminist and liberal Christians have promoted this language, which was, and often still is, thought contentious and found rarely among evangelicals. People do not understand that the Bible uses both motherly and fatherly pictures. Since fatherly language is much more common, at least in the New [...]

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The central task of theology, talking about God and discussing the nature of true talk about God, is difficult. How can one express the ineffable? The infinite cannot be contained within human language. Theologians and pastors have used a number of approaches to their impossible task. One approach, the Via Negativa, proceeds by saying what God is not. This avoids actually saying anything false about God. Yet it can only ever be part of an answer, because God is obviously more than just not-so [...]

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The God of the Bible is aniconic,[1] meaning never to be painted, sculpted or drawn. The second commandment forbids all idols, even images of the true God. In a world of gods and goddesses, both sculpted and drawn, the Bible pictures God with words alone. Yet God is person, not an abstract philosophical concept. The Old Testament reveals God as person at the deepest level, using God’s personal name. However, later tradition, through respect and fear, refused to pronounce God’s name, readi [...]

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The New Testament is less cautious about depicting God in human language. Father language is common, particularly in Jesus’ speeches in the Gospels, while mother language is rare.[1] The New Testament, though it contains twenty-seven books out of sixty-six in the Bible, is much smaller than the Old. In one English Bible it has two hundred and sixty one pages, while the Old Testament has eight hundred and ninety. Within this brief space, the earliest Christian writers had to struggle with th [...]

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Matthew 23:37-39 and Luke 13:34-35 Both Matt 23:37-39 and Luke 13:34-35 report one saying of Jesus in almost identical words. It pictures God as mother. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to it! How often I desired to gather your children as a bird gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you [desolate]. And [For] I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who co [...]

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Modern readers of the Bible commonly believe God is in some sense male, or at least masculine, yet in the Bible Yahweh is closely associated with wombs and fertility. "He" opens barren wombs (Gen 29:31) and causes barrenness (Gen 20:18; 30:2; 1 Sam 1:5-6).  The "blessings of the womb" come from "him" (Gen 49:25, cf. Deut 7:13; 28:4). People thought of Yahweh as a divine midwife. In ancient Near-Eastern society, midwives were doubly maternal. They were mothers themselves, though they were of [...]

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The most common biblical word for a woman’s womb is racham. The word for God’s love or compassion is rachamim. This looks like the plural of racham. James Barr’s powerful warning against the "etymological fallacy", assuming that the origin of words tells us their meaning, is still valid,[1] so we must not exaggerate the connection between these words. However, Phyllis Trible notices two stories suggesting deeper than etymological connections between racham and rachamim.[2] When Joseph's [...]

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Isaiah chapters 40-55, speaking to exiles in Babylon, and chapters 56-66 addressed to those re-establishing national life in the Persian period, use maternal pictures of God. Exiles at the heart of empire saw the majesty and might of the imperial city and its gods. They risked losing faith in Yahweh, who might seem a conquered people’s petty god. The "return" too was difficult, struggling at the empire’s fringe. The despondency of both these groups meant they needed to understand God in a wa [...]

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Father language prevails in the New Testament (and there is almost no direct mother language about God there). This is a fact we shall return to in the next chapter, discussing the use of "father" as a name for God. In that chapter I will also point out a central New Testament metaphor which thinks of God in a motherly way which is very popular in Evangelical piety today. For now, as well as drawing attention to the variety of explicitly motherly language and word pictures in the Old Testamen [...]

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The New Testament provides an image of God as motherly which is very influential in later Christianity, though the imagery is not often recognised today for what it is and very seldom exploited. Thinking of a move from an old life to a new one, birth imagery is natural. It is used in a number of places, but most particularly in John 3 in Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus. However, the image was already signalled in the prologue to the gospel. John 1:12 speaks of those who have believed on the w [...]

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The Bible authors use motherly language of God, and use mothers (including mother birds) to picture God, and this use is more frequent than is often recognised. Although motherly language and imagery is less frequent than fatherly, it is a significant biblical image of God. The Bible is reticent concerning both images, and both are surprisingly rare before Jesus. In the New Testament the strong focus on Christ almost, but not entirely, precludes the use of mother language. Motherly and father [...]

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The Old Testament uses both father and mother-language to speak about God, but it uses each of these images only rarely. Language such as shepherd, kinsman-redeemer, king, rock, lion and other pictures are preferred, perhaps because they are less likely to require that God had a partner. A father can only be a father if someone else is a mother, and the reverse. For this reason both father and mother language presented a greater danger of a descent into polytheism than did many other verbal imag [...]

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Some German scholarship from the middle of the last century represented the father-language of the New Testament as a unique contribution made by Jesus. It was, they said, unlike both his Jewish forebears and his Early Church followers, because it was more frequent, personal and intimate than either. Much was made of Jesus' use of abba (Mark 14:36, cf. Gal 4:6; Rom 8:15), which was presented as being a baby-talk version of ‘father’ (and so more intimate and personal). They claimed, in the li [...]

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It is also useful to examine how Jesus in fact used the picture of God as father. What did he mean by calling God "father"? To set this question in context it is helpful to consider the cultural stereotypes of father that were common in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean and the Roman Empire. Authority and discipline (especially the disciplining of male children) were strong and frequent overtones of father-language in the ancient world. Pilch explained the cultural stereotypes of parents in the [...]

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The Bible uses both motherly and fatherly language and pictures to describe God and consistently resists picturing God in ways that might reduce the incomparable creator to a gendered being like the pagan gods. Yet it is often claimed that in the New Testament "Father" is used as a name for God (or at least for what later theologians think of as the first person of the Trinity). Indeed today, along with "Lord", "Father" has become one of the most frequently used names for God among Christians. D [...]

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This chapter has considered objections made by many Christians to the use of motherly language to speak about God that are based on the way in which Jesus spoke of God as Father. These arguments misrepresent Jesus’ use of the image of God as father. Firstly this usage was not something Jesus initiated; he took up a picture of God that was already present in Judaism. Secondly, he seems to have spoken of God as father less than the early Christians remembered him as doing, because their understa [...]

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In Chapter 2 we examined places where the Bible describes God in motherly ways. In spite of this biblical usage, calling God "mother" still seems strange to many. We have become so used to calling God "he" and "Father" that we have begun to picture "him" as male. Our image of God is more sophisticated than the child's old-man-in-the-sky-with-a-long-white-beard. Yet, if calling God "mother" seems wrong, somehow or other, we are still thinking of "him" as male.

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Such a quasi-male God would not have been acceptable to the early Christian teachers. They were quite clear that God transcends both sexes. They understood that, "God is neither male nor female."[1] Moreover, "Sexual categories do not apply to the Godhead."[2] These sentiments are not isolated, nor mere slogans, for "the fathers" were not ashamed to speak of God as mother. Early Christian writers picture God’s teaching as breast-feeding. This picture was common in the Hellenistic world, and [...]

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Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (c. 130-202) Breast-feeding imagery came naturally to Irenaeus (perhaps the most influential Christian theologian of the second century). For example, discussing humanity’s imperfection he writes: For as it certainly is in the power of a mother to give strong food to her infant, [but she does not do so], as the child is not yet able to receive more substantial nourishment; so also it was possible for God Himself to have made man perfect from the first, but man cou [...]

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In the New Testament epistles, the apostles Paul and Peter spoke of themselves as "mothers" to the churches in their care. This idea, though not speaking of God as mother, stimulates later writers to use such imagery. The picture is found for example in Gal 4:19. "My little children, with whom I again suffer the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you." As an apostle, Paul is a mother, giving spiritual birth to his converts. In another place, Paul uses the same imagery in another way [...]

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As Jerome reminded his hearers, the word for Spirit, though masculine in Latin, and neuter in Greek, is feminine in the Semitic languages.[1] It is natural in these languages to speak of the Holy Spirit as "she". Although the Christian Church began in Palestine, it was not long before most churches spoke Greek or Latin. However, in one area a Semitic-speaking Church developed. The language was Syriac. The fathers who wrote Syriac retained also an Eastern or Asian style of thought that "is expres [...]

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Not only did these early Middle Eastern Christians speak of the "womb of the Spirit", but the astounding and paradoxical phrase "the womb of the father" appears in Syriac liturgy. Not surprisingly, it occurs in connection with the sending of the Spirit. Some texts of the Syrian Orthodox baptismal service, usually attributed to Severus (465-536), contain this invocation.[1] Have mercy on us, O God the Father almighty, and send upon us and upon this water that is being consecrated, from your dwel [...]

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Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) Anselm the great Archbishop of Canterbury was too careful and systematic a theologian to use such an unsystematic phrase as "the womb of Christ". Yet, Anselm left a collection of deeply devotional prayers, expressed in excellent Latin. In one, addressed to St Paul,[1] Anselm discovers Christ as his mother. The theologian leads us on a pilgrimage of faith. First he recognises his sin and unworthiness. In view of this, Anselm finds no reason to permit him to dar [...]

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Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) The writings of Julian, an anchorite, stand out, even in a century particularly fruitful in English mystic writings, for they are both simple and deep. There are two versions of her Revelations. The longer speaks of itself as the result of almost twenty years' reflection and further enlightenment. The contents and style also suggest that this longer draft is indeed likely to be later, and in it her thought is more developed. It discusses more fully her motherly u [...]

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At the end of this chapter we find the great theologians from the formative age of Christianity were clear that sexual distinction does not apply to the Godhead. None of "Father", "Son", nor "Holy Spirit" is either male or female. Rather both male and female language and pictures are used to speak of each of them. Male language predominates, as we might expect in patriarchal cultures. Motherly language was particularly common and developed in the Syriac church, and among monastics of the [...]

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Talk of God as mother is not new. The Bible and great theologians of the Christian church both provide examples. This chapter examines the systematic foundations for such talk under six topics that affect our thinking: Grammatical gender and sexual nature. If people confuse these, then thinking concerning God, and concerning God as Father or Mother, becomes muddled and unorthodox. The nature of Yahweh, God of the Old Testament. Is Yahweh in some sense masculine? If "he" really is he and no [...]

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The tendency, encouraged by some feminist thinkers, to speak of "gender" when talking about distinctions between women and men introduces confusion. Several theologians, who should have known better, fail to notice that grammatical gender and biological or social sexual distinction are not always the same.[1] The ambiguous uses of the words "masculine" and "feminine" reinforce this confusion. Sometimes they refer to linguistic gender, and sometimes to sexual characteristics or cultural stereotyp [...]

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From the point of view of grammatical gender, the God of the Old Testament, when called by whatever name, is masculine singular. Yet the Old Testament was written in a world where gods were notably sexual, and the Bible fought against Canaanite fertility cults. One must ask whether this grammatical masculinity is accidental or essential to the Old Testament understanding of God.[1] Hebrew has only masculine and feminine with no undefined or neuter option. God has a name, Yahweh. The other com [...]

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The debate about the ordination of women also used the fact that Jesus was male to imply that there is a sense in which God (or at least the second person of the Trinity)[1] has male characteristics by very essence. And, along with this, people drew attention to the fact that Jesus called God "Father" to say this implies the essentially male character of God. Chapter 3 was devoted to examining Jesus' talk of God as father, so here I will focus on his own maleness and what it says about the gende [...]

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Does biblical use of masculine language of God, especially in the New Testament, mean that God is in some way male, or more like male than female, as Anselm seemed once to imply? A number of respected theologians and Christian thinkers of the twentieth century appear to have believed it does. They include, surprisingly, figures like C.S. Lewis (see above) and more recently, Elizabeth Achtemeier[1] in an article in Christianity Today entitled "Why God is not Mother". There she recognises that: I [...]

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[*] (Neither Male nor Female alone can Portray God) Central to my argument is the claim that the God of the Bible is different from any god. While humans picture idols in drawing and sculpture, which must be either male or female,[1] the Bible’s "different God" is not limited in such ways. Jürgen Moltmann notes that talk of God as father should distinguish two areas: "the patriarchal world-view, and the trinitarian understanding of Christ."[2] The first, which is thoroughly metaphorical, exp [...]

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As we come out the other side of the detailed argument, we can reach some conclusions: While, in English, grammar forces us to speak of God as "he", this does not represent the "gender" of God. The way the Bible uses parental (and especially fatherly) imagery to describe God, often minimises the gendered aspects of the metaphor or balances two differently gendered images. That Jesus was a man does not imply that God is male, any more than the use of masculine pronouns and verbs suggests [...]

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Though you may read this chapter on its own, it is best read after looking, at least, at earlier chapters. In this chapter, I will not attempt to convince you that talking about the God of the Bible as mother is possible – the arguments are in the earlier chapters. Here we will approach the question in a more devotional way. Ideally, the material will suit a group where you can discuss and pray with others, beginning to enjoy calling God "Mother"!

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Psalm 131 A "song of ascents" – belongs to David 1 O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, nor are my eyes haughty; I am not concerned with things too great and too difficult for me. 2 But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul that is with me is like a weaned child. 3 Israel, hope in the Lord now and forever. Readers of earlier parts of this book may feel that they have been "concerned with things too great and too difficult" (Ps 131:1), thou [...]

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Psalm 131 may remind you of a line from another psalm, "Be still and know that I am God!" This comes from Ps 46. Interestingly, the whole tone of that psalm is very different from Ps 131, which gives us something else to learn. Read Psalm 46 Belongs to the leader, to the Korahites. According to Alamoth.[1] A Song. 1 God for us is refuge and strength, a well tried help when troubles come. 2 Therefore we will not be afraid, when the earth changes, and the mountains shake at the heart of [...]

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Numbers 11:1-15 Read verses 1-15 in a good recent translation to get the feel of what is happening. Then look at the fairly literal version below. 11 So Moses said to the Lord, "Why have you treated your servant so badly? How have I deserved this? You lay the weight of this whole nation on me. 12    Did I conceive this whole nation? Did I give birth to them that you say to me, ‘Carry them in your arms, as a nurse carries a baby she feeds, to the land you promised on oath to thei [...]

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Isaiah 42:10-20 Look at the song in Isaiah 42:10-17. Like most of the later chapters of Isaiah, it is part of a longer poem with no clear section boundaries. It preaches the "new things" God will do to deliver the exiles and to give hope to people without hope. The message conflicts with Babylon’s imperial religion and its idols. Imagine you are a Jewish exile in Babylon. You see the power and splendour of the empire around you every day. Yearly processions carry richly decorated, gold-p [...]

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John 3:1-8 Christians are so familiar with the term "born again" that they forget to explore what it means. This time, we will explore it through Isaiah. Having read Isaiah 42 above, read the classic "born again" passage, John 3:1-8. It contains a conversation between Jesus and a well-educated seeker. Nicodemus is not familiar with the concept of being born again. He takes it literally. Or perhaps, being an intelligent person, he is gently teasing Jesus to see how he will respond. Jesus has a [...]

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This chapter, unlike those before it, has not tried to persuade you of something. It has rather tried to enable you to explore God’s motherliness for yourself. Any conclusions will come from you, in the light of what God shows you of what our Creator is like.

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This last chapter sums up my conclusions. Some of this affirms, and some develops the implications. However, I hope you will experience some moments when things "click into place" for you.

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Today talking of God as mother still does not come naturally to Christians. Liberals often seem determined to exploit the shock value, or risk leaving orthodox faith behind, in their search for feminine images. Conservatives fear the unknown dangers lurking in what they see as something new, believing that the twentieth century invented motherly talk of God. Yet in Chapters 1 and 2, we saw examples of motherly talk from the Old Testament, and a large sample from orthodox Christian teachers from [...]

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Nobody can deny that, in the traditions that begin in the Bible, father-talk has always been more prevalent than talk of God as mother. We cannot neglect the fact that Jesus chose "father" as a name for God (see Chapter 3). Yet it was only in the last 500 years that "father" came to almost exclude "mother" in talking of God. The Old Testament evidently tried to avoid exclusively father language. Yahweh was not to be confused with gods like Baal who father offspring. Some of the formative Chri [...]

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It is important to underline and highlight the claim I have been making in this book by using of the term "idolatry". This claim is simple and straightforward. In the Bible, the pagans pictured their gods as human-like; among them were father and mother gods who produced humans or demi-gods as offspring. The biblical God was different from such idols. Not only was God different in tolerating no physical representation, but God created everything that is, from nothing, so that no single created t [...]

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I have tried to show, through the examples in Chapter 6, that the Bible provides starting points to begin nourishing a maternal spirituality to enrich our existing paternal patterns. If we consciously and carefully noticed, took up, and used all the places where the Bible presents God in motherly or other feminine ways, we would protect ourselves against the danger of worshipping a male god, who is no God! If we were to do this, we would celebrate not only the explicit passages mentioned in c [...]

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For our spiritual health, we should use these possibilities. Aside from the danger of idolatry mentioned above, we can damage our spiritual health in other ways if we neglect these clues from the Bible and our Christian ancestors. If our public and private lives picture a god who is male, women cannot, and do not, represent this god as closely as men do. This would be different from the Bible account of women and men together created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). We would diminish our [...]

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We have reached our considered conclusions. In the Bible God is pictured as mother. For most of the time since Jesus, orthodox Christian theologians have pictured God as mother at times, always resisting the notion of God as only male. There are theological reasons why this should be so. There are social and psychological reasons why calling God only "father" can damage some people’s faith. We should cease to preach and pray as if God was just a father. However, the true God who is make [...]

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Achtemeier, Elizabeth “Female Language for God: Should the Church Adopt It?” Pages 97-114 in The Hermeneutical Quest: Essays in Honor of James Luther Mays on his Sixty-fifth Birthday. Edited by Donald G. Miller. Allison Park, Pa.: Pickwick, 1986, abbreviated as: Achtemeier, Elizabeth “Female Language for God: Should the Church Adopt It?” Transformation 4,2, 1987, 24-30. Achtemeier, Elizabeth “Exchanging God for ‘No Gods’: A Discussion of Female Language for God.” Pages [...]

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