2 Biblical Talk of the Motherly God: A Personal God without Icons

Image from a pot found at Kuntillet Ajrud above the inscription mentioning "Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah" (from Wikipedia)

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. Indeed, later tradition, through respect and fear, refused to pronounce God’s name, reading simply “Lord”, so that we no longer know how people pronounced the consonants yhwh. The best guess is “Yahweh”.

The name of the not-to-be-pictured-God even had abbreviations “Yah” and “Yahu” (a nickname?), in the exclamation “Halleluia”2 (“Praise Yah!”) and in names like “Elijah” (Eli Yahu in Hebrew). In a previous generation, an Old Testament scholar would say, “His personhood… is involuntarily thought of in terms of human personality… not the spiritual nature of God.”3

The people of Canaan and every other ancient near Eastern culture, except that portrayed in the Bible, depicted gods and goddesses with statues based on human and animal forms. People thought of them as either male or female. Only the Bible’s aniconic God could avoid being of one sex or the other.

Biblical history shows that Israel’s folk religion was seldom as pure as biblical law demanded. At “high places” across Palestine and even in Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, Jews worshipped the Lord alongside Asherah poles representing a goddess. Popular religion often confused the real God, the Lord, Yahweh, with the Canaanite god, Ba‘al (whose name means “lord” or “master”). Yet archaeologists have found no proof of Yahweh in pictorial form. (Some people claim that one picture shows Yahweh, and his wife! The drawing is on an ostracon4 from Kuntillet Ajrud, an Israelite fortress in Sinai occupied early in the monarchic period). The text speaking of Yahweh and “his Asherah”, has with it three stick figures, two presumed male and female, and a seated (female?) figure playing a lyre. The text reads, “I bless you by yhwh and his ashera”. Yhwh is God’s name and Ashera could be the goddess. If this is so, and if the stick figures represent the text, though they are crude beside a beautifully written text, then here is an Israelite picture of God. That this is unique, and from a distant outpost, at least shows how strongly Israelites prohibited carved images!5

Psalm 131

The Bible wanted people to imagine God in words. In the Old Testament, word-pictures about God refer to mothers, fathers, other humans, animals (including lions and mother bears) as well as inanimate things like a rock or fortress. Psalm 131 is a short but delightful example of motherly language.

1. Lord, my heart is not proud,
nor my eyes haughty;
I’m not concerned with things
too great and difficult for me. 

2. But I’ve calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul with me is like a weaned child.

3. Israel, hope in the Lord
now and forever.

Verse 2 poses problems for translators and I have followed NRSV and NIV6 . The picture is a “weaned” (the passive of gamal) child. Compared with the more usual picture of a child feeding at the breast, later the common motherly image of relating to God, this picture suggests a less demanding (even more mature) relationship, the weaned child who still depends on a parent but not on mother’s milk. In other Ancient cultures divine beings were represented by sculptures, such gods or goddesses in human form must be either male or female. Biblical writing, by contrast, shows a human clinging to God in a way that does not rely on a parent being either male or female. Why? The aniconic God is not limited by belonging exclusively to one sex or the other.

  1. Aniconic, comes from the Greek word “ikon” an image or picture with a prefix meaning ‘not’, so not-to-be-depicted. The Jewish and Muslim religions have obeyed this commandment strictly, Christianity has often understood it as forbidding images of other gods! []
  2. The form “alleluia” is a version for Latin speakers, the Hebrew transcribes as hallelu Yah, “hallelu” being a plural imperative form of the verb “praise”. []
  3. Eichrodt (1961) 211. []
  4. An ostracon was a piece of broken pottery. Since writing materials like leather or later papyrus were expensive, these fragments became writing surfaces for all less important occasions. []
  5. See e.g. the review article Freedman (1987) 241-249. []
  6. But compare e.g. Dahood (1970) 238ff.. []

Not Only a Father: 1. Talking Pictures: c. Why NOT call God “Mother”?

Previous post in this series: Not Only a Father: 1. Talking Pictures: a. Introduction
Not Only a Father: 1. Talking Pictures: b. Why Change the Habit of Centuries?

The god Baal about to throw a thunderbolt (from the Louvre photo from Wikipedia)

In view of this pastoral need (see previous post), we may ask why we evangelicals do not talk of God as motherly. Does some clear and strong reason prohibit this? A number of admired evangelical thinkers believe there is. Alongside the feminist argument for equality in God-talk, an opposing literature claims this is unChristian.1 Key figure Elizabeth Achtemeier, a respected evangelical biblical scholar and teacher of preaching, posed a case against speaking of God as mother.2 She claimed, along with others, that the Bible uses “father” not merely as a picture but as a name, so that to speak of God as mother speaks of another God, different from the God of the Bible.

Below, in the section “Yahweh or Baal” in Chapter 5, I argue that her conclusion is precisely the wrong way round. Those who speak of a God who is father rather than mother talk of a different god. Baal the Canaanite god was a male figure, as were half of the gods of the pagans. The biblical God is no more male than “he”3 is female!

  1. Kimel (1992) collected notable examples. []
  2. See Achtemeier (1986, 1987, 1992, 1993) and my critique in “Shall we serve Yahweh or Baal?” []
  3. I will put gender-specific pronouns for God in inverted commas, indicating that, though the use of “he” is traditional for God, this implies nothing about God’s nature. “S/he” and “her/his”, or an impersonal pronoun the worst alternative for the living God seem clumsy. Quotation marks are intrusive, slowing reading, but this lets us examine our unrecognised prejudices. []

Not Only a Father: 1. Talking Pictures: b. Why Change the Habit of Centuries?

Previous post in this series: Not Only a Father: 1. Talking Pictures: a. Introduction

View from the rock fortress of Massada (Photo by pboyd04)

In order to avoid some extremes of politically correct Christianity, and because they lack understanding of the historic and biblical background for a theologically sound talk of God as mother, many evangelicals speak of God as male. Yet there are pastoral, theological and cultural reasons to broaden our God-talk.

All talk of God is picture language; it cannot be literal. “No one has seen God,” as the Bible puts it.1 God the maker of universes is so far beyond the capacity of human experience and language that only metaphor and analogy can provide ways of talking about “him”. And yet all pictures have some deficiency. Picture language depends on our experiences, comparing with some aspect of life to give it the power to be useful. But sadly, many people have not had good fathering, and some fathers abuse their children. Children may grow up in one-parent families. Father may be a distant and less loving figure than mother, and some children prefer one parent more than the other! Boys may be closer to mother and girls may prefer father.2 A God who is father, not mother, risks being lopsided, and potentially unavailable to people who most need to experience divine love.

Despite the numerical prevalence of women in most congregations, many women feel on the margins of church life. The amount of male imagery for God is not the only reason for this, but it contributes. The Bible teaches (Genesis 1:27) that God created both men and women in the image of God. Yet using almost exclusively masculine pictures of God may encourage women to feel (or fear) they are less “in God’s image”. Men have sometimes believed this too.

We cannot think or speak of God without using pictures. Even speaking of God as “creator” conjures up images of “forming mountains” or of “the hands that flung stars into space.” Yet there is a danger in picturing God, the risk of half a picture. If we speak of the divine as rock and fortress, excluding personal imagery, we risk relating to God impersonally. If we picture God as father, but not as mother, we risk relating to God asymmetrically.

  1. This is quite striking in John 1:18, even though “God the only son” (Jesus) “has made him known”, it is still true that “no one has ever seen God.” (In Greek as in English “see” is used more widely of understanding and experience and not merely of visual sighting). In other words, even when God was revealed in Christ, eyewitnesses still only knew God through a picture. Even though in this case the picture is God himself in human flesh, they still could not “see God”. []
  2. Could this factor contribute to the 3:2 ratio of women to men in church? []

Not Only a Father: 1. Talking Pictures: a. Introduction

Lion by Leszek.Leszczynski

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? One cannot hold the infinite 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, which can only ever be part of an answer, because God is obviously more than not-something. This argument says that since human language fails, let us not have pictures of God based on what humans are like. Much classical theology did this, stripping away what is inadequate before true talk of God can begin. The method that interests us here, by contrast, is analogy. An analogy says that the thing we do not understand is like something we do understand. In theology it takes things in creation as pictures that illustrate aspects of the creator. The Bible and our worship songs are full of such picture language. 

As well as lords and masters, lions, lambs and rocks, father is a popular picture; Jesus used this picture often. It also answers deep needs within the human psyche. Most of us comfortably call on our father, though the words do have problems. A human father may wound his son or daughter’s capacity to use this language. He may have abused, been absent for work, or separated from the child’s mother. The idea of authoritarian fathers, which lingers in our culture, also limits ways people can relate to God. Some fathers are distant in manner and yet stern in disciplining their children. These fathers present a poor picture of God’s tender and intimate love.
If father is part of normal human experience, understanding the meaning of “mother” is an even more universal for humans. Yet few of us are familiar and comfortable with talk of God as our heavenly mother. We are so unfamiliar with the motherly language for God in the Bible or the writings of early theologians, that we often explain it away or deny it. Fifty years ago, Christians rarely talked of God as mother. The great CS Lewis assumed the very idea was shocking, and the mere thought sufficient to demonstrate that women could not be priests (as Anglicans name their pastors), since they could not “represent” a God whose name was “father”.1

Contemporary Christians tend to fall into one of two categories on this question.
The liberal feminist may promote a notion of the “Great Mother, or speak of “Gaia,” a kind of modern Mother Earth. Evangelicals who believe that “father” alone is the biblical usage, deny all possibility of mother language, though of course people vary within these groups. One variety of liberal seeks to avoid the question, while remaining egalitarian and politically correct, by avoiding sexist language. Like the grammar checker in Microsoft Word, they reject all gender specific terms. Going further than the grammar checker, they even exclude father and mother. However, when people pray using this “PC” thinking, the prayers lack warmth and may not sound convincing, for example, God, Godself, is the creator and sustainer of all life. In my view, God does not create such lifeless prayers! 

Some evangelicals note small signs of God being motherly or feminine while seeing both God and Christ as male. This leaves us with a male God, but a somewhat feminized male! I do not find the view satisfying. Others, rightly, preferring to risk the human end of the equation, occasionally hint timidly that God may be like a mother to us as well as our Heavenly Father.
  1. C.S. Lewis (ed. Walter Hooper) Undeceptions London: Bles, 1971, 193 (article first published in 1948). []

Reconsidering Gender

Last night we launched:

Reconsidering Gender: Evangelical Perspectives
Edited by Myk Habets, Beulah Wood

and two other books edited by my colleague Myk. The man is a book production machine!

I have a chapter in the Gender book: “The Image of the Invisible God: (An)iconic Knowing, God, and Gender”

The publisher describes the book thus:

Questions related to the issue of gender remain insufficiently acknowledged and explored in contemporary theological literature. These issues form the basis of significant unresolved tensions among evangelicals, as evidenced in debates over the nature of the Trinity, Bible translation, church practice, choice of language, mission leadership, decision-making in homes, and parenting, to name but a few examples. The essays in this volume are not meant to provide a monolithic evangelical theology of gender, but rather to provide evangelical perspectives surrounding the topic of gender. To further this aim, each of the main essays is followed by a formal response with an attempt at a concise and lucid perspective on the essay and pointers to further areas for investigation. Some contributors are complementarian while others are egalitarian, although who is what is left to the discerning reader. Regardless of one’s position on the issue, all will benefit from the contributors’ commitment to the further exploration of gender issues from the perspective of a broadly conceive evangelicalism.

The Gender of Yahweh

Photo by iandeth

Link now working, sorry :(

I am still gradually expanding the open book Not Only a Father. I have added a section concerning “The Gender of Yahweh” to chapter five which (as a whole) is about “Theology of God as both Father and Mother“.

This growing book is an experiment in publishing as discussion, not merely a blog, but a coherent book-length exploration of a topic, but not merely a book online, since each thought and idea can be questioned, commented, challenged or expanded by the readers. The trouble is that unless it gets people visiting the material it does not get discussed, and unless YOU, or others like you who find the topic of using motherly language and pictures interesting, link to the material no one will find it, and the experiment will fail :(

Mothers’ Day (Yesterday)

Photo by maaco

Mothers’ day yesterday was a double disappointment. It was not that the children forgot to celebrate Barbara, they remembered :) It was not that the service failed to include women who are not mothers, it did include them. But I still had two frustrations.

One was personal, but shared with huge numbers of others in this modern rich world, where so many people live so long. On Fathers’ Day, since my Dad is dead, I can remember his life and celebrate the person he was. But on Mothers’ Day, my Mum is still alive, except she has no memories, of me or of her own life, she is not my mum, and she thinks of me when I visit the UK as a nice man who comes (each day anew) to see her. That pseudo-life can’t be celebrated, yet it seems wrong to remember her as if she were dead…

The other is general, but shared (it seems) by very few. Surely, at the very least on this day of the year, beyond all others, we could talk in church a little (in our prayers and Bible readings if not in our sermon) of the motherly God we meet in Scripture and in the traditions of the Christian church. But no, it seemed that the intention to exclude all feminine language about God is held to equally rigorously even on Mothers’ Day :(

I wish, I really wish, more people would read Not only a Father, and if they disagree comment – or if they agree then make more use in public of the resources Scripture and tradition have provided us!

The censored Bible: translating Psalm 90

Psalm 90 speaks of a God who gives birth. This is a powerful picture the creator God yet several English translations miss it. The Hebrew is quite clear.

Aristotle’s Feminist Subject has a post in which various translations of Psalm 90 are compared. As always I’m astounded by the way most treat verse 2:

בְּטֶרֶם׀  הָרִים  יֻלָּדוּ
וַתְּחֹולֵל  אֶרֶץ  וְתֵבֵל וּמֵעֹולָם
עַד־עֹולָם  אַתָּה  אֵל׃

Before the mountains were born
or you gave birth to the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

It seems quite clear to me. I cannot see how else to render the words!

The nearest to this explicitly (I think) maternal imagery for the creation of our world (among the translations in front of me here) comes from the NASB:

Before the mountains were born
Or You gave birth to the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting,
You are God.

though the NIV comes close:

Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

But the rest fudge it. Why? (There is a fuller, though still aimed at non specialist readers version of my take on it in chapter two of my Not Only a Father. Since the format of that work invites, needs, discussion, please go there and discuss either this or one of the other things I say!)

[PS the discussion feature was little used and because of hack attacks I have had to remove the site.]

Spirituality, Fatherhood and Motherhood

Repost first posted in Sept 2004

Maggi Dawn in her “Three Must-Reads in blogville” drew my attention to John Sloas’ post in Crooked Line titled “motherly spirituality for a dad“. I started to post these thoughts as a comment there, but they grew…

My “kids” are now thoroughly grown and have left the nest. I still love sitting with them, but now it’s more often in the spa than over building blocks. I have no small kids to “parent” except when we borrow some from friends at church.

Holding a baby

Holding a baby by rumpleteaser

There is something really special about looking after a small one that is different, and lovely. Holding a baby or toddler always helps one get in tune with God. Perhaps that’s why parenting (both mother and father) is such a strong biblical picture of what God is like. (On God as mother see my becoming-book: Not Only a Father.)

It is a great shame that so many Western fathers have missed out over the years. And now, keen as we are to provide equal deprivation for all, many mothers miss out as well. Yet these experiences are times when we are open to those rumors of another world. They should not be missed.