All language about God is metaphor. It has to be because we cannot understand God. Our languages are all limited to our understanding of our world. This is illuminated by current and reoccurring discussions about the proper language to use when referring to God (inclusive or exclusive). How should one proceed? Does it matter if images and language always refer to God in the masculine? What, moreover, does the Bible actually say on the matter?
We see, and understand, only a small part, and do that imperfectly, but with great confidence in our own perceptions. Plato understood this when he write his Allegory of the Caves. What we think we understand is often merely the shadows of what is real.
Like those people staring the shadows, we define our understanding of God in a feeble and limited manner. Our hubris is a need to define things, measure, describe, and classify. In this process, we assume control of the surrounding chaos of unknowing. All our attempts to characterize our world, our God, and ourselves are really only our attempts to control.
What we control we think we own.
What we own we seek to dominate.
What we dominate we often abuse.
What is abused is without value.
The origin of the word ‘definition’ refers to limiting or ending something. Thus, when we define we limit further understanding by drawing a boundary around it. We humans sit back and define. Then, we expect our definitions to be final. We also tend to view our definitions, our understanding as the only understanding.
Our finite conceptualizations predominate. The difficulties of new ideas finding a purchase in the scientific realm underscore this process. Once defined, changes in thinking are hard to shift or even be reconsidered.
All of these lines of thought lead back to the multi-gendered image of God found in the Bible. This, however, is also, where the problems are compounded through that layer of language. In that process of interpretation and reading the language ambiguity, misunderstanding, and sheer human ego intersect with understanding.
Take, for example, Deut. 32:18 where Moses told the people that they had neglected the “Rock” who had ,in KJV language, “begat” and in other versions (such as the NLT) “fathered” the people and the God who had “formed them.” The NLT is symbolic of the very process involved in the topic of this paper. The Hebrew term for “begat” is often used to explain lineage…but it can also be used to refer to a midwife. It does not necessarily signify the male parent. In a similar vein, the passive phrase of ‘had given birth’ (pg. 367) hides the Hebrew term used that refers to a twisting as in writhing with pain as a woman struggling to give birth from her essence. The emphasis on the translation is a male God who is a rock who fathered and allowed their birth to occur. Is this, however, what the text intended to convey? That must always be the issue. The term for rock is a figurative word inferring shelter. The issue of meaning is further confused by the ‘study notes’ used in the NLT noting the “rock” is an expression drawing attention to “God’s reliability as Father.” Now, to recap…
In looking at the Hebrew translation ‘begat’ refers to lineage but also to midwife. The term for ‘forming’ or ‘given birth’ refers to a term meaning twisted, as in writhing in pain such as experienced by a woman giving birth.
Look earlier in v.11 God is compared to an eagle that “rouses her chicks and hovers over her young” in a familiar image of a protective parent. Strangely, in the NLT this verse is not commented on, which is a familiar situation encountered in far too many ‘study’ books about the Bible, especially in reference to any verse suggesting a broader frame of reference in our understanding of the nature of God.
As the roles of men and men fractured in society into dogmatic opposing pieces, kept separate through social structures, biological uniqueness, and beliefs of sexual superiority, translation often was less than unbiased.
Women were viewed as ‘something less’, inferior and suited only for reproduction, child care, and sexual gratification. Here ‘sphere’ was the home and hearth. As such, women were relegated to having, caring for, and teaching the children. It is this role, however, that God occupies in Hosea 11:3 “I have taught Israel how to walk, leading him along by the hand…” This nurturing, female only, role is one frequently used in the Bible but one which is so often overlooked or mis-interpreted.
In Isaiah 6:6, God describes his holy city, Jerusalem, symbolic of the presence and relationship of the divine with the people, as a midwife/mother giving birth to a people (v.8f) and later he comforts as a mother (v.13).
In Job 38:28 God challenges Job with questions reflecting God in both father and mother roles in the creation and maintenance of nature.
In Isaiah 42:12-14 God is likened to BOTH a might warrior and a woman panting in labor. Matt. 23:37 (Luke 13:34) which mirrors Deut. 32”11-12 with its imagery of the mother hen seeking to protect her chicks.
Despite these many instances of the image of mother in relationship to God, concordances such as the one found in the NLT list “mother” only 15 times and “father” 58 times. Dictionaries will ignore the use of the female, mothering and birthing images when describing God’s nature or gloss over it without study or detail.
In Hosea 13:8 God is likened to a mother bear, in Psalms 131:2 as a mother and Luke 15:8-10 as a woman searching tirelessly for a lost coin (symbolic in the parable of God’s efforts to gather his sons and daughters.)
These female related symbols or metaphors are just as valid and important as the images of God in strictly masculine terms. For most of Christian history, however, there has been a superiority at work placing God in masculine terms and hiding the female images. Some early church writers (Augustine, Knox, Calvin, etc.) will use the term of “master” to refer to their wives and to women in general. The paradigm that developed was one of hierarchy, of inferiority, or skewed human value in both church and society. Hosea is significant for an important statement made by God in the second chapter. God wanted, he told the people via his prophet, to no longer be called ‘master’ but to be called ‘husband’. It is a clear indication of the intimacy sought by the divine with his creations. It is also clear how far the human construct fell from the divine ideal. If God no longer wanted to be called “master” but wanted a deeper relationship why did human males in Christendom fall so short in describing their male-female relationships?
What, ultimately, is the result of excluding, minimizing, or ignoring those “other” images of God? There is the suggestion that we have moved into that sphere of human pride where we define God as ourselves. It reflects the weaknesses and limitations of ourselves, and our social units, as part of God and infers values based on gender where no privilege of gender exists.
When the imagery we adopt for God is solely reflective of one gender, the gender assumes the role of defining God. It becomes an example of that tendency to control through definition or limitation to one particular way of understanding.
As an example, if I describe the perfect garden and I feel strongly as to the superiority of roses, I will ignore the mums, tulips, daisies or other blooms. They do not fit my notions (preconceptions) and biases. I believe this is the process used by too many scholars over time. Their biases about the value or role of people will influence their understanding and the subsequent definitions created.
Definitions set limits, create boundaries, and establish or finalize comprehension. Definitions are turned into accepted standards that then preclude other views or ways of thinking. When we define who and what God is, we are limiting understanding of God to that single definition. It fossilizes meaning into an unwieldy construct. Yet, we do not, we cannot, begin to truly grasp the magnitude or nature of God. We see but glimpses, through a waving darkened glass, and without meaning most of the time. Thus, the simple and ordinary metaphors employed by scripture (often from the very mouth of the Lord). In Job, God asks “shall he contendeth with the Almighty, instruct him?” (Job 40:2) and demanded, “who is it that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2). This coming after a series of very wise, educated, spiritual people advised the luckless Job. Here, God vividly points out how unqualified humans are to know the extent of God. From this, comes the clear message that human understanding falls short of total comprehension and is unable to ‘define’ God.
The diversity of images used BY GOD to explain his nature is ignored to support our particular – and limiting – grasp. Our inferior grasp of those images – and their significance – defines the meaning, the form, and values influencing the very structure of the life of faith. Over the centuries, there have always been those who recognized this truth of the incomprehensibleness of God. They could echo the words of Thomas Aquinas that “since our mind is not proportionate to the divine substance, that which is the substance of God remains beyond our intellect and so is unknown to us.”
It is time to revisit the totality of the profile of God given in scripture and discover the immensity of the Creator of the universe. To submit pride and privilege based on gender to the God who is beyond our ken. To strip away the debris of centuries and find the God who is bigger than we think.
Sources (In process):
Thomas Aquinas. De Potenia. Westminister, MD: Newman Press, 1952.
Robert K. Barnhart. The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. New York, Harper, 1995.
Elizabeth A. Johnson. She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York: Crossroads, 1993.
O.T. Hebrew-English Translation, based on the Massoretic Text and the King James Bible at http://www.qbible.com/hebrew-old-testament/
The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, edited by Thomas P. Flint, Michael Rea
Plato. “Allegory of the Cave”, The Republic, Translation and commentary by Desmond Lee. New York: Penguin Books. 1974.
New Living Testament. Nashville:Tyndale House, 2008.
Karl Rahner: Theologian for the Twenty-first Century edited by Pádraic Conway, Fáinche Rya