This is part FIVE, where look, at brief, at a few Biblical terms for God.
Part ONE of the series, which will served as an overview and introduction to the ideological issues at hand, can be found HERE.
Part TWO, where we talk about the concept of liturgy itself, can be found HERE.
Part THREE of our series, which will trace the development of our Prayer Book, can be found HERE.
We also have a part 3.5, found HERE, which summarizes the third part and talks a bit about the ethos of Prayer Book revision in The Episcopal Church.
Part FOUR, where we look at the notion of “inclusive and expansive language” as it pertains to the doctrine of the Trinity, can be found HERE.
We’d talk about, say, different passages where animals talk, or whether or not Ezekiel encountered UFOs, or even on passages about ghosts and the undead for Halloween.
This particular class marked a sort of turning point for me. See, I had grown up being taught that God was always spoken of in masculine terms. “The Bible couldn’t be more clear,” Sunday School teachers and fellow church-goers might say.
Then I went and became Episcopalian.
Becoming Episcopalian presented me with a number of personal challenges. First, I had grown up being told that Catholicism was a borderline cult that had corrupted Christianity and therefore anything that smacked of Catholicism was evidence of something deeply wrong—which included both the liturgy and sacramental theology. And, second, that liberalism had infiltrated a church like The Episcopal Church and liberalism was an anti-God and anti-American state of mind. Ordaining gay people? Ordaining women? All of it was off-limits. As was anything related to feminism—which was only a form of liberal “perversion” that had twisted women’s minds.*
So, here I was, going to a church with chanting and vestments. People referred to Sunday as “the Mass.” And on top of that, there was quite often a woman preaching and celebrating that Mass!**
My first obstacle was coming to terms with the theology of the Eucharist. In case you don’t know, Baptists are pretty strict memorialists, meaning that they tend to view “the Lord’s Supper” as a thing we do in memory of Jesus. There’s nothing more to it than that. The idea of “transubstantiation” (which comes from Saint Thomas Aquinas and holds that the bread and the wine of the Mass/Eucharist actually becomes the flesh and blood of Jesus) was quite anathema—a doctrine rejected by all good Christians of the Protestant Reformation.***
On top of the celebrant’s stall in Bethesda-by-the-Sea sits a carving of a pelican, wings spread out, two chicks at her sides. When I first saw it, I had mistaken it for a chicken, thinking it a reference to Jesus’ words in Matthew’s gospel (of which I’ll speak in a bit). I later learned that it was a common symbol of medieval Christianity, based in the belief (later proven to be untrue) that in times of scarcity a mother pelican will rip open her own flesh and feed her young with her blood. The Eucharistic parallels of this should be clear.
This image did two things for me. First, it set me on a trail of study that led me to a richer sacramental theology (particularly noting that Jesus quite literally refers to the bread and wine as His flesh and blood in the Bible—I’d grown up a biblical literalist, but here was a passage where biblical literalists suddenly start getting comfortable with metaphor and interpretation…). It also made me realize that, at least going back to the Middle Ages, Christians were okay with feminine depictions of God.
Remember that I mentioned how I confused the pelican-in-her-piety (the name of this kind of image) for the chicken in Matthew? It suddenly dawned on me that Jesus Himself used a feminine image to refer to Himself—and, thus, to God.
In other words, there were references to God as female in the Bible. This stuff wasn’t just made up, or drawing from extra-biblical sources!
I decided to tackle this in a paper for a class in college, citing a few references from the Bible. But I hadn’t done anything in-depth. But I knew there had to be more.
By the time I had graduated seminary, become a priest, I had become comfortable with feminine language for God. I could say “it’s biblical.” But I didn’t know just how biblical. So when That’s Really In The Bible?! came around, I saw an opportunity.
Forgive me for not writing all of this out, but here’s a link to a PDF of my references from that class. As you can see, there are many references. You can also see that they are mostly in the Old Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures).
It seems that Jews of antiquity were largely comfortable with feminine language for God. Not only do we have numerous references for God being described in mothering terms, we also have names for God that are overtly feminine.
Shekhina is a Jewish-rooted concept that is feminine in grammar as well as ideology. The shekhina is the "glory" of God, or God's presence and that presence is understood to be feminine. The shekhina has also been seen as synonymous with the Holy Spirit. As is stated in this article, the shekhina is light (glory). As would be fire, which was poured out on the disciples on the day of Pentecost. Jesus says, in John’s gospel, that He would be sending the Paraclete (translated as Helper or Advocate in some English Bibles)—The Holy Spirit—as an ongoing presence for His disciples.
El Shaddai is another name this is frequently translated as "God Almighty" in English.
Additionally, There’s Eloah, the feminine, singular form of the word Elohim. It is used most often as applying to God, and appears 41 times in the book of Job.
That’s a powerful index of references—again, from the pages of the Bible—that refer to God in feminine terms.
In the New Testament, as you can see from the linked document above, Jesus uses a few references Himself (mother hen, God as a woman looking for a lost coin, etc.). But things also get kinda weird when you start scratching the surface a bit.
Saint Paul writes to the Church at Corinth: “[Jesus] became wisdom from God for us.” (I Corinthians 1:30, CEB). Now it’s important to know that that word “became” is a form of the Greek word “γίνομαι” (ginomai—where we get the word for “gene,” among other things), which is a word used for the Incarnation (most notably in John 1, where it says that “the Word became flesh”). So, in other words, Paul is saying that Jesus has incarnated God’s wisdom.
Now, here’s where things get interesting.
Paul was, of course, a Jew. He was also a rabbi, a teacher of Jews. Which means that he not only deeply knew the scriptures of his people, but also how to interpret them. When he became a Christian, he applied that Jewish framework to his theological writing.
Paul is the first great theologian of The Church. His writings make up the bulk of the New Testament and are the first articulations of how Christians understand God and the relationship between Jesus and God (namely, that Jesus is God). And he articulated that from a mostly Jewish framework—teaching us how Jesus fits into the Jewish conception of God.
Paul would have known the Wisdom literature: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Wisdom of Ben Sirah (known as either Ecclesiasticus or Sirach), and the Wisdom of Solomon, among others.
In the Jewish religious tradition, Wisdom is spoken of in feminine terms. “Wisdom shouts in the street,” Solomon‡ writes, “in the public square she raises her voice.” (Proverbs 1:20 CEB)
So, Wisdom is feminine. Keep that in mind.
In his letter to the Colossians, Saint Paul includes this masterful hymn about Jesus:
The Son is the image of the invisible God,
the one who is first over all creation,
Because all things were created by him:
both in the heavens and on the earth,
the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.
Whether they are thrones or powers,
or rulers or authorities,
all things were created through him and for him.
He existed before all things,
and all things are held together in him. (Colossians 1:15-18 CEB)
There is some rich theology in those words.
Now, let’s compare them to these words:
I now know everything, visible and hidden,
for Wisdom, the designer of everything that is,
has taught me.
Wisdom is the warm breath of God’s power.
She pours forth from the all-powerful one’s pure glory.
Therefore, nothing impure can enter her.
She’s the brightness that shines forth from eternal light.
She’s a mirror that flawlessly reflects God’s activity.
She’s the perfect image of God’s goodness.
From my youth, I loved her and sought her out.
I sought to make her my bride.
I burned within for her beauty.
She honors her dignified birth by sharing her life with God.
The master of all loves her.
These are the words of Wisdom of Solomon 7:21-8:5 (Common English Bible, also somewhat amended here for length—you should really check out the full passage). Do they sound familiar?
“Perfect image of God’s goodness who shares God’s life?”
“The designer of everything that is?”
If we took out the “she” in there, you could almost think that it was a hymn written about Jesus. And that is precisely Saint Paul’s point! When he writes that Jesus incarnates God’s wisdom, he’s making a pretty shocking claim that Jesus is an incarnation of a feminine aspect of God.
All of this goes to show that we’re missing some pretty important language—language and images used by the biblical writers themselves—if we only stick to talking about God in masculine terms.
Again, the Bible is not shy about this. We’ve had this tendency in the West to think of God as an old white guy up in the sky somewhere. But that is not really all that biblical (let’s be honest, how many white guys have you ever met that have skin like burnished bronze or hair like wool? Because that’s how God is described in many of the prophetic writings).
Yes, God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is Lord. God is Jesus.
The Bible is also quick to tell us that God is a rock (the Psalms are rife with this and take a look at Paul in I Corinthians 10:1-4); God is a refreshing water-brook (Psalm 42:1); God is a lion (Revelation 5:5); God is a lamb (John 1:29, among many others); God is a mother bear and a mother hen; God is spirit and God is love.
The biblical language for God is rich, quick to talk about God in terms other than “old man.” And because of that, our understanding of God is enriched.
We would do well to remember the textured language of God. After all, it was God who gave us this language for Himself in the first place.
(Click HERE for Part SIX)
* Let me be fair and say that, save for maybe one or two particular individuals, this second notion about feminism and liberalism was not overtly expressed in such terms. This was more my perception of a general ethos. My perception could have been incorrect. So, if you’re reading this and you’re from my childhood church, I hope you don’t feel offended. I’m trying to articulate my own experience here, which might not have been the same as yours.
** In case you’re wondering, I’m talking about Bethesda-by-the-Sea. And that priest was Rev. Lynne Jones, who was ordained out of The Chapel of Saint Andrew. Connections!
*** It needs to be noted that John Smyth, the founder of the Baptist movement, took things a little further than the more popular Reformers (Luther and Calvin). Both Luther and Calvin articulated a sort of sacramental theology. Smyth, following the so-called “Radical Reformation,” was able to reject this on the grounds that such a doctrine was not spelled out in the Bible. It is also interesting to note that memorialism appears to be the functioning doctrine of The Church of England during the reign of Elizabeth I, according to the 39 Articles of Religion (see Article 28 on p. 873 of BCP).
‡ Solomon is the traditional author of the book of Proverbs, but historians tend to doubt the accuracy of this.