Biblical Maternal Images for God

Shiao Chong

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BIBLICAL MATERNAL IMAGES FOR GOD

Mother’s Day makes me think about God’s maternal side.

Christianity has been guilty of a patriarchal history that has been oppressive of women. Our conception of God as masculine, e.g. God as Father or King, certainly contributes to our slide into patriarchy. Although written in patriarchal contexts, the Bible itself does not refer to God exclusively in masculine metaphors. There are, albeit few, feminine metaphors used to describe God in the Bible. In this post, I want to highlight the maternal or motherly metaphors used.

God as Mother Bird & Mother Bear

One of the common images is God as a mother bird sheltering her children under her wings. We see this in Ruth 2:12 – “May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” (All references are from Today’s New International Version.) The Psalms used this imagery a number of times:

“Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.” (Psa. 17:8)

“… I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.” (Psa. 57:1)

“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge …” (Psa. 91:4)

Jesus picks up these images when he laments over Jerusalem:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34)

These images paint God as a protecting and sheltering God for his people. But a variation of this image paints a God who also pushes his children to be independent and to grow stronger. Mother eagles are known to teach their young ones to fly by deliberately pushing them out of its nest but catching them before they plunge to their doom: “[God] guarded [Jacob] as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft.” (Deuteronomy 32:10-11)

Before we claim that the Bible only reinforces stereotypes of motherly warmth and care with these images of God, check out Hosea 13:8 – “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and rip them open,” says the Lord. Here, we see that the maternal instinct to protect the children can produce wrath as much as warmth. Beware the fury of a mother! No sentimental mother-image here.

God as Human Mother

Of all the prophets, Isaiah seems to be the fondest in painting God as an actual human mother as these three verses attest:

“For a long time I [God] have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.” (Isa. 42:14)

“As a mother comforts her child, so will I [God] comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.” (Isa. 66:13)

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I [God] will not forget you!” (Isa. 49:15)

That last verse is one of my favourite verses for use in the assurance of forgiveness in a worship service. I like it for its compassionate and faithful portrayal of God but also because it is one of the few feminine images of God that I can use in a service. It reminds the congregation that God is beyond gender; the gender pronouns are simply metaphors to help us understand God who is always beyond our full understanding. As theologian Lynn Japinga wrote, “Language about God should help us to understand and encounter God, but we should not confuse the reality of God with the limits of our language.” (Feminism and Christianity: An Essential Guide, Abingdon: 1999, p. 64)

I know there are many conservative Christians who are uneasy with using feminine images for God. But using female metaphors for God is not a radical feminist innovation as the biblical passages above show. It is also part of early Christian history. Here, I refer again to Japinga:

In the second century Clement of Alexandria mixed his metaphors in his description of Christians nursing at the breast of God the Father. Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart described God’s activity: “What does God do all day long? God gives birth. From all eternity God lies on a maternity bed giving birth.” (Feminism and Christianity, p. 65)

But Never Called Mother God

It is true, however, that despite these maternal images, the Bible never used the feminine gender for God, and never called God “mother”. In an ancient patriarchal culture, it is not surprising that the ancient Hebrews used masculine pronouns for God. But I don’t think that was to suggest that God has a masculine gender.

According to the Hebrew scholar Samuel Terrien the reason the ancient Hebrews never called God “Mother” was that “they reacted against the allurement of the Mother Goddess cult because they somehow sensed the difference between true divinity and deified nature.” (Till The Heart Sings: A Biblical Theology of Manhood and Womanhood, Eerdmans, 1985, p. 60) According to Terrien, ancient mother goddess worship, unlike certain modern-day revivals, was never about empowering or glorifying women. It was about glorifying Nature, with a capital N. It was born not from a veneration of female humanity but rather born from a confusion of the divine with nature; in essence, Mother Earth was worshiped as Mother Goddess.

Thus, all that are primary issues with nature, i.e. fertility, sexuality, life, health and death, were associated with the ancient Mother Goddess cults. These religions tend to merge sex with religious ecstasy and economic security (agriculture and husbandry). It is not surprising, then, that many of their religious rituals involved sexuality, even temple prostitutes.

Hence, the Old Testament’s refusal to call God “mother” was not a misogynist act. It was an attempt to emphasize God’s transcendence over nature and to steer away from the ancient goddess religions that over-emphasized divine immanence in nature. Neither was calling God “father” a glorification of human fathers or males but rather, the Old Testament consistently merged the images and metaphors of the fatherly God with motherly compassion and love, as the maternal images above suggest.

Something True About God

Mother’s Day is as appropriate as any occasion to recapture the biblical maternal images for God to help us see further truths about God. “People described God in feminine terms, not because God is actually a woman, but because feminine or maternal traits say something true about God and about their experience with God.” (Japinga, Feminism and Christianity, p. 66) The same must be said of masculine and paternal images for God. We must not confuse these metaphors with God’s reality.

Your Turn:

  • What do you think of the concept of God as a mother?
  • Have you heard it used in a worship service? How did you feel or react?
  • What other images for God are found in scripture?

Image Credit: Polar Bear Mother and Cubs, Alastair Rae, 2006, Flickr

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Shiao Chong

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7 Comments

  • Thanks so much for this post Shiao Chong. I really appreciated waking up to it early on Mother’s Day! I’ve put together some of my thought to add to this valuable discussion:

    God’s maternal side –
    You mention several instances of God’s maternal side. The thing is, beyond those are the parental images of God taught as paternal, are images which I have echoed as a Mom. The most poignant to come to mind is Hosea 11: “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms” ….v3 and v4: “ …I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them.” Parents, both fathers and mothers, know the both the ache and the joy depicted in this chapter.

    But Never Called Mother God –
    Besides the Mother Goddess cult your article refers to, I think about how in the Hebrew world women were lesser, powerless property. They were invisible and not worthy of mention – rather subsumed under a male’s identity with little, if any, status of their own. It does not surprise me that the men in leadership did not use Mother as a title for their Beloved Almighty God. In their mindset it would have signified weakness and been been demeaning. But Jesus came and modeled a new way of being human. Jesus showed respect for women. Today, to know God as both Father and Mother is not demeaning.

    Your Turn:
    • What do you think of the concept of God as a mother?

    I think it is beautiful and meaningful and necessary to reflect humanity created in God’s image. I might add that this wasn’t always so. Now a great grandmother, I spent most of my life accepting that God was to be known only as male, our Heavenly Father, and the related, lesser role/value of women. There were many steps on that journey, a crucial one being this: A workshop leader asked me to read a prayer calling God Mother. I wasn’t ready for this but didn’t want to make a scene by refusing. I felt like vomiting – that I had fouled my mouth and blasphemed and demeaned my God. Afterward I spoke to him and he just looked at me kindly and wondered what that said about my Mother. It broke my heart and opened my eyes.

    God is still my Father. God is my Mother as well. Beyond Gender, God is my Beloved Parent. I no more wish to worship with all feminine terms and pronouns than with the exclusive masculine terms of traditional worship. Worship has become painful, not because we pray to our Father, but because we are not allowed to mention the image of God that our mothers reflect. It saddens me no end to see yet another generation of children absorbing this view week after week simply through the language we use to teach about God.

    • Have you heard it used in a worship service? How did you feel or react?
    My church (CRC) does not allow us to call God Mother. But the few times I’ve heard it in other worship settings, I melt with joy and recognition. As a worshipper I use it all the time as I quietly translate the hymns we sing, the prayers we offer and the messages I hear. And in personal meditation.

    • What other images for God are found in scripture?
    A few that come to mind are:
    God as a Rock and a Birther: “I am the rock that bore you … the God who gave you birth.” Deut 32:18
    God as a nursing Mother in Psalm 131
    God as a midwife in Psalm 22:9
    God as a Shepherd – Wasn’t Rebekah a shepherd?
    God as Master and Mistress in the first two verses of Psalm 123:
    I lift up my eyes to you, to you who sit enthroned in heaven.
    As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master,
    as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress,
    so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy.

  • I understand that the words used for the Holy Spirit are feminine, showing that this aspect of God is where we see more of the feminine side of His nature. I have not studied this out extensively yet, but it makes sense to me that it would be that way.

  • I was so very surprised that in my “soft comp” church this morning the sermon was essentially about the motherhood of God. It was beautiful (and almost exactly what I would have preached if they let women preach – yes it’s true that I plan sermons even though I will never be invited to give them! ). Then during a time of congregational prayer one of the more firm voices against egalitarianism thanked God for being both Mother and Father. I was both floored and blessed!

  • This entirely true. If women are made in the image of God where do you think our nature comes from? Just as men are also made in the image of God. So-called female traits are just another facet of God’s image in us, as are so-called male traits another facet of God’s image…it is all ONE image of God in us, and as females and males also share traits it is only because we are all in God’s image.

  • Wow! Such a thought provoking post, I’ve never really thought about God being described as a motherly character, but it really does make sense! Thanks!

  • Very good, thanks. Let us pray for the churches that have yet to clarify the conflation of patriarchal gender theory with the Christian faith.

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