Any halfway decent theologian will tell you that God is decidedly not an old man on a throne in the sky. That this image of God persists somehow in the popular imagination, most likely has to do with some language we find in the Bible and the layers and layers of patriarchy involved in the whole shebang. It takes some effort and imagination to dislodge this monolithic HE, but if you are willing to dig around a little or look at things from a different angle in the text, you can find many glimpses of a God not defined by patriarchy–a god that is larger (or perhaps smaller), or just altogether different from the Almighty Father.
The writers of the Bible are well aware of the insufficiency of the words available to them to speak of the divine him/her/it, because they reach so wildly. God is a lily, a rose, dew, wind and fire. God is a mother bear and a lion. On the other hand God is not a lion, but a lamb. God is not in the fire or the wind, but in the still small voice. God is in the images of birthing and bird–these are especially fruitful.
God comes to Job in a whirlwind and asks, “Where were you…when the sea burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment, the dense clouds its wrap? …From whose belly does ice come; who gave birth to heaven’s frost?” Obviously not Job’s belly. Where was Job when God pushed and groaned–in the waiting room smoking a cigar?
When God speaks from the whirlwind, God doesn’t talk of slaying Leviathan or Behemoth. God speaks adoringly for quite a long time about Leviathan’s chest and feet and skin–and about Behemoth’s belly and bones and mouth. God doesn’t sound like a moral accountant or a distant king here, God sounds like a mother smitten with her children–however strange or ugly they may seem to others.
In Isaiah, God says “like a woman in labor I will moan; I will pant, I will gasp.” God is in the process of giving birth to her people here, and it is not an easy delivery. The birth image continues in the gospel of John. Jesus tells Nicodemus that if he wants to see God’s kingdom, he must be born anew. This metaphor has often been equated with a personal decision one makes to have a relationship with Jesus. If you’ve actually given birth, this may seem a little reductive: you will have a heightened awareness of the amazing and colorful and messy details of what it takes for something to be born. And though the one being born is obviously part of the process the one doing the birthing is working a bit harder.
There is suffering and risk involved in birthing both for the one giving birth and the one being born. This seems like a pretty good way to talk about God in relationship to God’s people–about creation and redemption.
And then there are the birds. Female deities were often depicted by birds in the ancient Middle East. You can find traces of this sort of imagery all over the Bible. God lifts the Israelites on her wings and shelters humanity under her protective pinions. The Roman Empire exalted the eagle–a strong and powerful mighty killer of a bird. It’s striking in this context that Jesus would compare himself to a hen. You could hardly come up with an animal less evocative of imperial might.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.”
It’s a loving image, but it’s not especially dignified. The chicken is not a magnificent bird. A hen is a fussy old woman—a fat-bottomed grandma in an apron pickling cucumbers. It is vastly different to be a chicken than it is to be an eagle, or for that matter, a cock.
Much of the world worships the Almighty–if not a powerful, all-knowing deity, then just power. Power rules. If there is a God, then God must be muscular and brawny. Many theologians would argue that Jesus reveals God’s essential being not as power, but love. Like the hen with her wings over her chicks, there is some fragility in this picture. But perhaps images of a vulnerable God are important if we hope to have a world that is not overrun by bullies and corporate kings.
Debbie Blue is one of the founding pastors of House of Mercy, a church in St. Paul, Minnesota, that was once named “the Best Church for Non-Church Goers.” Her book “Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible” is available from Abingdon Press. This article is part of a series to celebrate Women’s History Month from the Common English Bible, which employed more women scholars than any other translation to date.
All Biblical references are from the Common English Bible (lily: Hos 14:5, rose: Song 2:1, dew; Hos 14:5, wind: Gen 1:1, fire: Deut 1:33, mother bear, lion; Hos 13:8, lamb: John 1:29, small quiet sound 1 Kings 19:12, Where were you…heaven’s frost: Job: 38, Behemoth: Job 40: 15-42, Leviathan: Job 41: 1-39, like a woman in labor Isaiah 42:14, Born anew: John 3:3, Israelites on her wings: Ex 19:4, sheltering humanity: Ps 17:8, 36:7, 57:1, 61:4, Isaiah 31:5, Jerusalem…under her wings: Luke 13:34)
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