Having gone through this series on feminine language for God, I realize now I should have started with this post rather than ended with it. Following an almost Lutheran model of Law then Grace, I wanted to impress upon us the depth of the problem first, and then give us the “Good News” that the solution is both available and faithful. This may not have been the most helpful way to do it. My apologies.
Nevertheless, here I’ve tried to provide a comprehensive list of Biblical and historical references to the Feminine Divine. The Biblical texts are mostly in order that they appear in the Bible, the historical quotes are roughly chronological. Some pieces may seem stronger than others. I offer them with little or no commentary. Due to the length of this, significant quotes are in bold. If you have any questions, feel free to ask below and I can provide further sourcing, answers, etc. as needed. I hope this helpful.
Many people know that the most common name for God in the Old Testament is Elohim, and many know that this is a plural word. What a lot of people don’t realize, though, is that this same plural ending can be either male or female. This is probably why Elohim, says, “Let us make humanity in our image and likeness”, and then it goes on to say, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1.27). God, from the very beginning is kept ambiguous in terms of gender, and says explicitly that both male and female make up his image.
“And God’s Spirit fluttered [like a mother bird] over the face of the deep” (Gen 1.2)
Throughout the Scriptures (both Old and New Testaments), the words used for the Spirit of God are all feminine. Their accompanying verbs and adjectives are as well.
“God also spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name ‘The LORD’ I did not make myself known to them.” (Ex 6.2-3, the name “El Shaddai” in ancient Hebrew colloquially means “Breastfeeding/Birthing God”–expectedly, a translation like this is disputed by some)
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” (Ex 19.4)
“Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child, to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors’?” (Num 11.12)
“As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him; no foreign god was with him.” (Deut 32.11-12)
“You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” (Deut 32.18)
“[T]he root of the Hebrew word for God’s mercy, rhm, also means a woman’s uterus, so that when scripture calls upon God for mercy, it is actually asking God to forgive with the kind of love a mother has for the child of her womb.” (Elizabeth Johnson)
“Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?” (Job 38.28-29)
“Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.” (Ps 22.9, God as Midwife)
“Let me abide in your tent forever, find refuge under the shelter of your wings. Selah” (Ps 61.4)
“Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you.” (Ps 71:6, God as Midwife)
“As the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he has mercy upon us.” (Ps 123:2, God as Mistress)
“My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” (Ps 139.15, God as Weaver)
“For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.” (Isa 42.14)
“Listen to me, house of Jacob and all the remnant of the house of Israel who have been borne by me from the belly, carried from the womb, even until old age I am the one, and to gray hairs am I carrying you. Since I have made, I will bear, carry, and save.” (Isa 46.3-4)
“Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the child of her womb? Yet even if these may forget, I will not forget you” (Isa 49.15)
“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” (Isa 66.13)
“‘Is Ephraim my dear son? My darling child? For the more I speak of him, the more do I remember him. Therefore my womb trembles for him; I will truly show motherly-compassion upon him.’, says the Lord” (Jer 31.20, literal translation by Phyllis Trible)
“The above passage is a key one in a larger poetic structure where the very form expresses a superiority of the female over the male in that the male came forth from the female’s womb, is “surrounded by” the female, therefore. The passage Jer 31:15-22 reaches its climax with the statement: ‘For Yahweh has created a new thing in the land: female surrounds [tesobeb] man.’ (v.22) This ‘female surrounding man’ has manifold referent: Rachel the mother embracing her sons (v.15), Yahweh consoling Rachel about Ephraim (vs.16-17), Yahweh proclaiming motherly compassion for Ephraim (v.20), the daughter Israel superseding the son Ephraim (v.21).” (Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Woman)
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them, the more they went from me…
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.
I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.” (Hos 11.1-4)
“I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs, and will tear open the covering of their heart; there I will devour them like a lion, as a wild animal would mangle them.” (Hos 13.8, interesting because it’s a feminine image coupled with wrath and justice, not stereotypically “feminine”)
“[Jesus said,] ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!'” (Mt 23.37)
“And again he said, `To what shall I liken the reign of God? It is like leaven, which a woman, having taken, did hide in three measures of meal, till that all was leavened.'” (Luke 13.20-21)
In my research, I noticed something. Many times that Jesus tells a parable or gives some image about God or God’s work in the world, he will tell a few in a row and will often retell the same story or image using women instead. He seems to be at pains to show that women and their experience is perfectly capable of being used to express who God is and how he works in the world.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15.8-10)
“[Jesus] cried out, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me! Let him come and drink who believes in me! As scripture says, ‘From his breast shall flow fountains of living water.’” (John 7.37-38, the word translated “heart” in many translations is most commonly translated elsewhere as “womb”, though in Greek, in the context of feeding or drinking, it can refer to the breasts)
It has often been pointed out that Jesus uses a unique word for God. By adopting the word Abba for God, he affirms a primary relationship to God based on love and trust….[I]s it enough to conclude from this use of Abba that Jesus transforms the patriarchal concept of divine fatherhood into what might be called a maternal or nurturing concept of God as loving, trustworthy parent? (Rosemary Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk)
Look at this historical progression of the Hebrew idea of “Lady Wisdom” and how it gets identified with Jesus. These quotes are in chronological order:
- “I, wisdom, live with prudence, and I attain knowledge and discretion….For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord” (Prov 8.12,35)
- “For she [Wisdom] is the breath of the power of God and pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty….For she is the reflection of the eternal light, and a spotless mirror of the working of God and an image of his goodness.” (Wis 7.25-26, a Jewish apocryphal text between the testaments, showing the mindset of Jews around the time of Jesus)
- “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” (Matt 11.19)
- “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10.10)
- “[We proclaim] Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1Cor 1.24)
- “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” (Heb 1.3)
The History of God’s People
The Mishnah, the written down accounts of the oral tradition of the rabbis from the Exile to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE, has over ninety names for God that are not in the Jewish Scriptures. Faithful people of God that are in love with the word of God can faithfully build on Scripture to use new names and images for God. This isn’t wrong.
The root for the word “Tabernacle” is the word Shekiniah, which becomes one of the most common names for God’s presence used by Rabbis–and it’s feminine. There is even a liturgy for Sabbath, which celebrates God’s people becoming one with this settling of God in their midst. It casts God, through his Shekinah, as a Bride for his people to “comingle” with.
“Even so my mother, the Holy Spirit, take me by one of my hairs and carry me away onto the great mountain.” (The Gospel of Hebrews, Christian writing, early 100sCE)
“For what is more essential to God than the mystery of love? Look then into the womb of the Father, which alone has brought forth the only-begotten Son of God. God is love, and for love of us has become woman. The ineffable being of the Father has out of compassion with us become Mother. By loving the Father has become Woman.” (Clement of Alexandria, “Quis Dives Salvetur”, mid-2nd-century)
“O Jesus Christ, heavenly milk from the sweet breasts of the bride, expressed from the favors of your wisdom, the infants, reared with tender lips, are filled with the tender spirit from the nipple of the Word.” (Clement again, Christ the Educator)
“Bread of Life…we name over thee the name of Mother of the ineffable mystery of the hidden dominions and powers.” (Acts of Thomas, early 200sCE)
“And the deaconesses shall be honored by you as a type of the Holy Spirit.” (Didascalia Apostolorum, circa 230CE)
“The soul is handmaiden to her mistress, the Holy Spirit.” (Origen, early 3rd-century)
“A man who is yet unmarried loves and honors God his father and the Holy Spirit his mother.” (Aphraates, Homily XVIII.10, early 4th-century Orthodox father)
“[Jesus] is the Breast of Life and the Breath of Life; the dead suck from His life and live.” (Ephrem the Syrian, 4th-century)
“[The Psalmist] made himself a child of God; to him God was Father, and God was Mother. God is Father because he calls, orders, and rules; God is Mother because he caresses, nourishes, gives milk, and embraces.” (Augustine of Hippo, Enarratio on Ps. 26.2.18 [Psalm 27.10], 4th-century)
“Then my mother the Holy Spirit took me in one of my hairs.” (Jerome, the same quote from the Gospel of the Hebrews above, but he quotes it approvingly in a few commentaries, late 4th-century)
“But thou also Jesus, good Lord, art thou not also Mother? Art thou not Mother who art like a hen which gathers her chicks under her wings? Truly, Lord, thou art also Mother…. Thou, therefore, soul, dead of thyself, run under the wings of Jesus thy Mother and bewail under her feathers thy afflictions. Beg that she heal thy wounds, and that healed, she may restore thee to life. Mother Christ, who gatherest thy chicks under thy wings, this dead chick of thine puts himself under thy wing.” (Anselm of Canterbury, “Oratio ad sanctum Paulum”, 11th-century)
“What does God do all day long? God gives birth. From all eternity God lies on a maternity bed giving birth.” (Meister Eckhart, 13th-century German theologian)
“Christ…nurses us from his own breast, as a mother, filled with tenderness, does with her babies.” (Gregory Palamas, early 14th-century Greek Orthodox theologian)
“As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother … I understand three ways of contemplating motherhood in God. The first is the foundation of our nature’s creation; the second is Christ’s taking of our nature, where the motherhood of grace begins; the third is the motherhood at work in the Spirit. And by the same grace everything is penetrated, in length and in breadth, in height and in depth without end; and it is all one love.” (Julian of Norwich, Showings, 14th-century)
“And thus is Jesus our true Mother in nature of our first making; and he is our true Mother in grace by his taking of our made nature. All the fair working and all the sweet kindly offices of most dear Motherhood are appropriated to the second Person [of the Trinity].” (Julian again, The Revelations of Divine Love)
“Our Lord for his part becomes more familiar with us than anything else. He is like a nurse, like a mother. He does not just compare himself with fathers, who are kind and good-natured to their children. He says he is more than a mother, or a nurse. He uses such familiarity so that we shall not be like savage beasts anymore.” (John Calvin, “Sermon on Job 22:1-22”, 16th-century)
“God is our father; even more God is our Mother. God does not want to hurt us, but only do good for us, all of us. If children are ill, they have additional claim to be loved by their mother. And we too, if by chance we are sick with badness and are on the wrong track, have yet another claim to be loved by the Lord” (Pope John Paul I, Osservatore Romano, 9/21/78)
[image credit: “Enclosed Garden”, by Meinrad Graighead]