Should We Fear the Feminine Descriptions of God?

In this excerpt from Holy Labor: How Childbirth Shapes a Woman’s Soul, Aubry G. Smith shares how feminine descriptions of God in the Bible are not something to fear, but rather a way of knowing more about his character:

The God Who Gives Birth

In Deuteronomy, Yahweh is described as the one who gave birth to Israel:

You deserted the Rock, who fathered you;
you forgot the God who gave you birth.
The Lord saw this and rejected them because
he was angered by his sons and daughters. (Deut 32:18–19)

In the New Testament, James writes:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created (James 1:17–18).

In both passages, God is presented as Father and Mother, first to Israel and then to the Church. The image of God giving birth may surprise us who typically call God “Father,” but he is clearly portrayed with the traits of a mother, too. In the Deuteronomy passage, Moses also says that God nursed Jacob with honey from the crag (32:13).

Amid heated gender debates in the church, we can miss what these passages actually tell us about God: that he is a loving and caring parent worthy of our faithfulness, that he is jealous for our love and obedience, and that he is a giver of good gifts and has our good in mind. The biblical writers aren’t trying to put boundaries around God’s gender; they are describing his character and nature in ways we humans will understand.

Yahweh is elsewhere compared to a fierce, protective mother bear (Hos 13:8), and Jesus compares himself to a mother hen longing to gather her chicks to herself (Matt 23:37). God is described as a tender parent who taught his children to walk, who bent down and brought this beloved child to the cheek (Hos 11:1–4). God is even described as a midwife attending a birth, bringing the psalmist out of the womb safely into the world (Psalms 22:9–10; 71:6). God describes himself as having a womb: “From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens?” (Job 38:29).

These are earthy images that listeners and readers would understand. We have seen mothers round with new life. We know what a mother giving birth is like, groaning and waiting and panting, enduring pain for the love of her child. We understand the tenderness and generosity of a nursing mother offering her breast to her open-mouthed, needy baby. We have seen the firm but loving hand of a mother guiding, disciplining, and teaching her children the way they should go. We see the mother’s anger and pain when that child rejects her. These images of motherhood are lifted from our mundane lives and applied to God so that we can understand an aspect of his nature. These characteristics (compassion, love, nurture) are not exclusively female characteristics. They are godly characteristics, and because men and women image God, they display these characteristics. But certain characteristics may shine more clearly to us in some images more than others. A mother nursing her baby shows nurture, but so does a father giving fish to his sons when they ask (Luke 11:11).

Describing God

Any metaphor for God runs the danger of confining him in such a way that we think we understand him. Mother, Father, warrior, midwife, rock, shepherd, bread, water, light, wind—these are ways people have reached for God with human words and experiences, the ways they have compared God to things they see around them, often under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And it’s the way God has graciously revealed himself to us, using images we can comprehend, so that we can know him in a way that portrays his nearness as well as his transcendence. . . .

We need not fear feminine descriptions of God. God gave them to us in Scripture as another way of knowing something about him. These passages convey God’s compassion, his care and loving-kindness, his fierce and protective love, and his gentleness to us—his frail and needy newborns. But ultimately, they are just a few descriptions that kinda, sorta describe God without encompassing all that he is.

***

Read Holy Labor and see childbirth in a profoundly different way—as a theological and spiritual partnership with our Creator. Or check out more Christian books for moms through Faithlife Ebooks.

Share
Written by
Karen Engle

Karen Engle is a copy editor for Faithlife. She has a master's in biblical studies and theology from Western Seminary and frequently takes groups to Israel.

View all articles
Written by Karen Engle