There is a Rosh Hashanah blessing for the Jewish New Year in September that I like to use with my family and any group I am with. You give each person a slice of apple dipped in honey and say ‘May it be the Lord’s will to renew for you a year that is good and sweet’. I told my eleven year old granddaughter that we would be doing this as a blessing from God. She said ‘male or female?’ Interesting question. I said ‘both or neither’.
We know God is not exclusively male or female, and not man or woman. We only have three 3rd person singular pronouns in English, he, she and it, and we believe God to be personal so ‘it’ wouldn’t do. In the bible there are male warrior allusions to God and female mothering allusions, but the biblical God is always called ‘He’. What effect does it have to read the bible and sing Christian hymns which portray God as male?
We have been part of a patriarchal system for so long that it is difficult to imagine anything different, or to recognise what part the bible has played in promoting this. If our interpretation of the bible is in any way shoring up a toxic patriarchy, can we re-imagine it now and let loose the healing that it describes?
My understanding of prehistoric archaeology is that for thousands of years, up until the iron age when warrior bands became dominant (about 800BC in the UK), human society was matriarchal and they honoured the divine as goddess. Their lives were intricately connected to the earth and its seasons and they were very aware that life came from mothers and from the earth so earth too was Mother, the great provider and protector. Honouring the Mother was honouring the sacredness of all life.
A male god was introduced by the patriarchal warrior tribes such as the Hebrews. Initially it was often a consort to the female goddess before eventually supplanting and then reviling her. There is biblical and archaeological evidence that before the return from exile in the 6th century BCE, Asherah continued to be worshipped in ancient Israel as the mother of heaven and the consort of Yahweh. Goddess worship was part of state religion and Asherah poles were placed in the temple next to the altar. Inscriptions from the 8th/ 9th century BCE read ‘I have blessed you by YHWH and his Asherah’. Later biblical writers and editors introduced the extreme reaction against Asherah worship that we read in parts of the Old Testament today.
The given name of God in the bible, Yahweh, is a combination of both female and male grammatical endings, “Yah,” is feminine, and “weh,” is masculine so Yahweh embodies both. Yahweh means ‘the one who is’ or ‘I am’, not ‘Lord’ as so often translated following the Jewish tradition that the name of God is too sacred to be spoken. Of the many other names for God in the Old testament, El Shaddai is interesting as ‘shad’ means female breast (or mountain) so El Shaddai is the God who nourishes and provides.
For female images of God, there is Zeph.3.17 ‘The Lord will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.’ Or Isa.49.15 ‘Can a mother forget the baby at her breast, and have no compassion on the child she has born? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.’ Or Isa.66.13 ‘As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you, says the Lord.’ And Jesus in Mat.23.37 said ‘How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.’ Also note Gen.1.27 ‘So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’
Let us also look at the bible’s view of women because a patriarchal view of God called He can feed an imbalance in the way we view both God and women. Eve has had a bad press as the first one who sinned and who doomed women to their present state. But she is the equal of Adam and his helper. Gen.2.20-22 says ‘For Adam no suitable helper was found…so God made a woman’. The word for helper is always used for God or for an equal in the bible, and suitable means comparable or corresponding so this does not refer to a subordinate. In ‘the fall’ both Adam and Eve disobeyed and ate the fruit, but Adam blamed Eve which rather ruined their relationship (Gen 3.16b) and the consequence for both of them was the same – hard toil (etzev) whether in childbirth or in tilling the ground (incorrectly translated ‘pain’). Israel was a patriarchal society but there are instances of women in positions of authority such as Miriam who together with Moses and Aaron led the Israelites out of Egypt, and Deborah who was a judge.
Jesus’ story starts with a visit of the magi (there would have been a group of them not just three) who were Zoroastrian priests and at this time included women. By the time of Jesus women in Israel were treated as inferior to men but Jesus always went against this custom. He touched women, included women in his stories, valued women, taught them and they were among his disciples. But they can be invisible to us. Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet (Luke 10.39) was a rabbinical term for a disciple. Simon Peter is known and praised for recognising that Jesus was the Christ (the Messiah), yet Martha also said this (John 11.27), and the only person Jesus told he was the Christ was a woman and a Samaritan at that (John 4.26). It was a woman who recognised Jesus would die and who anointed him for his burial (Mat.26.6-13). It was a woman he appeared to first after his resurrection, Mary Magdalene, and who was told to be the bearer of this news, an apostolic task (Mat.28.10). The 72 Jesus sent out to preach and heal the sick were likely to include women as they were part of the group who followed him (Luke 10.1 and see Mark 15.40-41). The Passover meal (the last supper) was likely to include women as it is a family occasion. And it is likely that the couple on the road to Emmaus who met the risen Jesus were man and wife as they lived together (Luke 24.29).
Jesus’ twelve main disciples were all men as a reference to the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel so linking Jesus’ ministry with the foundations of Judaism, but Jesus was establishing a new order (Luke 5.37 No-one pours new wine into old wineskins). Paul too linked Christianity with its Jewish roots but showed it was wider and more inclusive. His sayings that seem to treat women as inferior are usually addressing cultural issues. He ministered with women (two thirds of those he greets in Romans 16 are women), he addressed husbands and wives separately and equally (1 Cor.7), and in the oft quoted verse about submission, the husbands as well as the wives are included in the sentence in Greek, Eph.5.21-22 ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives to your husbands as to the Lord’.
What do we lose if we lose the divine feminine? We can lose the more intuitive, inner aspects of faith, the importance of stillness, silence and listening. We can lose an emphasis on collaboration and flexibility, on empathy and community, on patience and gentleness, on inspiration and creativity. The divine feminine represents a sacred link with the earth and with our own bodies, with sensuality in its best sense. It is a healing, nurturing energy and is for all, for men as well as women.
How can we address all this in our use of language? We could omit references to God as ‘he’ and repeat the name of God instead. However this is clumsy and it would not undo a history of thousands of years of viewing God as male. Or we could alternate God with Goddess. It is interesting how many Christians think using the term Goddess is heresy, whereas it is no more incorrect than only using God as a male term. There is a resurgence of interest and engagement with the divine as Goddess at the moment, bringing a much needed balance. But as actresses are now called actors, and ordained women are priests, we could still use the word God but include female pronouns, alternating he and she. For example Gen.2.2 ‘By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day she rested from all her work.’ And ‘Dear Father Mother God’. If this feels strange or wrong, it shows how masculine our notion of God is.
Our understanding of the bible, of God and of ourselves is always evolving. Some Christian doctrines are quite new. Christians used to think God supported slavery. They used to think the bible had to be read in Latin. If we read the bible wrong we can’t know the fullness of the God contained within. And if we read the bible wrong we can so easily fall into the trap of demeaning women. If we do either or both of these then we not only dishonour God and women, we dishonour ourselves.