BY EMILY STONE
I feel that women bear an additional burden as Christians beyond the customary trials of faith. Speaking for myself, I have experienced trouble disclosing myself to someone who appears to be an overwhelmingly masculine, patriarchal God – the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, Jesus the son of David, etc. The Bible places such an emphasis on mannishness – an Old Testament saturated in testosterone, and a New Testament regaling further tales of men’s journeys and adventures.
How can I possibly conceive that God empathizes with my plight, or with the plight of women in general, given the virtual female obscurity in the Bible, day-to-day battles with societal roles and images, misogyny, sexual equality and so on? How can my Father help me when I struggle with sexuality, relationships, my female identity in the Christian community, and this body to which I am assigned?
The earthly template prescribing the role which a father fulfills for his daughter causes God the Father to appear even more alarmingly detached from a woman’s experience. Support regarding these subjects is not normally provided for in father-daughter relationships, so how can I expect to feel comfortable approaching God about these problems? Why should He care? He’s never experienced any of this woman-stuff before. I also bashfully rationalize – based, again, on worldly experiences – that these subjects ought to be taboo for discussion with the Heavenly Father, since mortal fathers don’t particularly relish hearing about the physical and emotional development of a once pure, simple, unproblematic little girl. I often get the impression that God genuinely does not want to deal with women, or at least the writers of the Bible didn’t seem to, and there is certainly small attention paid to our problems in a good number of Christian congregations. I’ve quit trying, many times, to forge a connection with Him when I am fighting a temptation or insecurity, saying plainly to Him, “God, you can’t possibly understand!” Such was my strained relationship with a seemingly aloof, inapplicable God – inapplicable to my life and experiences, inapplicable to my sex.
A while back, a small passing comment in a pastor’s sermon began to change my opinions: One of the titles for God, El-Shaddai, usually translated as “The Almighty,” ostensibly has its roots in the Hebrew word for “breast,” giving El-Shaddai the alternate meaning of “The Breasted One” or “The One who nurtures.” The notion of a father with breasts had never once entered my mind until then, but such is the uniqueness of our God, who manifests himself in the strangest of ways at times. Taking a look at where this title appears in the Bible fortifies this argument, for it is normally used when God is bestowing fruitfulness and accompanied with explicit references to female anatomy. Genesis 49:25 is a prime example, where Jacob’s blessing on his son Joseph includes an invocation to “The Almighty who will bless you with the blessings of Heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies beneath, blessings of the breasts and the womb.” The use of this title in general intends to portray a God who is almighty in His fertile, nurturing abilities. It is also strikingly un-masculine, a scandalous contrast to the Deity whom most envision as man, ancient and geriatric, yet physically fit, with an impressive beard. The insight was certainly cause for me to be taken aback yet thrilled. Clearly, if God associates Himself with the female body then I have no cause to be ashamed of mine; if the Lord can celebrate the female physique, its contours and its functions, then I ought to do likewise.
Beyond the association of breasts and wombs with God, plenty of passages exist in the Bible that depict the Lord as a loving mother in order to emphasize His unyielding compassion. For instance, in Isaiah 49:15, “The Lord answers, ‘Can a mother forget the baby who is nursing at her breast? Can she stop showing her tender love to the child who was born to her? She might forget her child. But I will not forget you.'” And even Jesus likens himself to a mother hen who would cover her chicks under her wing (Matt. 23:37).
It isn’t often that I think of God as my Mother, for the idea of Him as a Father is a far more prevalent notion in our culture. But by what other means can we come to recognize the absolute, unconditional, abounding love that He has for us? God knows us better than we know ourselves, we are His delight and His constant preoccupation, He feels our pain and our joy as keenly as though it were His own, He listens attentively to our every thought and prayer, He will always be there with arms wide to cradle us in our distress. When we have strayed, He will go to any lengths to seek us out: To have us safe with Him, He would give anything, He would subject Himself to the worst torture, He would lay down His very life. And there is nothing – nothing that can separate us from that unrelenting love and devotion.
Not even being a woman, it seems, can separate me from God. Indeed, realization of His feminine character gives me confidence that women hold far greater importance in the Christian scheme than is normally let on, that God is more applicable to my sex than I could ever have imagined. Now, instead of merely ignoring or glossing over these insightful passages with female imagery in the Bible, I study them: I cherish them. Through the verses, I hear God telling me how precious, important, and dear I am – for my sex in addition to my status as His human creation. I see Him revealing Himself and behaving in a manner that is applicable to my own femininity, when I once thought that the Bible had no relevance for me in that sense. Thinking of the facets of God’s female personality inspires me to be like Him in those ways: His loving heart drives me to be more compassionate and affectionate; His nurturing Spirit gives me cause to protect and encourage; His creative genius drives me to produce art, appreciate His natural world, and make a positive impact on my surroundings. Just as men can have “man-to-man” conversations with God, I feel that I can have “woman-to-woman” communion with Him, and even a Mother-daughter relationship. There is nothing to be filtered in my prayers and so there are no awkward topics I feel uncomfortable discussing: God knows me.
Of course, it is essential to remember that all metaphors for God are like small portraits which capture mere fragments of His deep, infinite character. God is neither man nor woman – He is more than man or woman – and plant and animal associations abound nearly as frequently throughout the Bible. The important awareness that I gain from my newfound knowledge is a reaffirmation that I, too, am made in God’s image. The female qualities of which I am comprised are not foreign to my Creator – quite the opposite, they are drawn from Him. This knowledge gives me a very good foundation on which to heal and grow with a God who does not feel so far away anymore. Rather, I am relishing my faith in an Almighty, inclusive God who is not just the God of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but of the matriarchs Ruth, Esther, and Mary. He is the God of all man- and womankind. I can offer praise now, without restraint, to my Almighty Creator, my breasted Father, my Mother Hen.