Asma Barlas suggests (in implicit contrast with Christianity) that Islam is not a theological patriarchy, because the Qur’an rejects designations of God as a father.[i] She defines patriarchy as “father-rule and/or a politics of male privilege based in theories of sexual differentiation.”[ii] How then do those of us in the Judeo-Christian tradition understand the use of ‘Father’ in relation to God in the Bible? Does it really reflect an understanding of God that is based on and supports a politics of male privilege?[iii] English grammar patterns can underline the temptation to read it this way. The Father and Jesus are of course referenced by male pronouns, and in English the Spirit also. In Hebrew the Spirit is always referred to with a grammatical female pronoun; in Greek it is a neuter pronoun. These are grammatical terms, not about the essential being of God – and yet they can shape our attitudes, consciously or unconsciously. What does the Bible really say about God’s nature?
We read in Genesis 1:27 that “God created humans to be like himself; he made men and women.” So God is not reflected primarily in the male, but by both male and female: God is not one gender or without gender, but beyond, bigger than gender. The Bible invites us to call God ‘Father’, not just Lord. This is a relationship of parental intimacy that goes beyond slave-master obedience. And the Bible is also replete with maternal images of God.
In Deuteronomy 32:11, God is described as a mother eagle: and in 32:18 as giving birth. The Psalms compare God to a woman (123:2-3) and a mother (131:2). Isaiah also uses rich imagery likening God to a woman in labour (42:14), a nursing mother (49:15) and a comforting mother (66:13). Hosea also describes God as a mother, both nurturing (11:3-4) and as a mother bear (13:8). In a number of contexts the Biblical writers use the imagery of sheltering under the shadow of God’s wings. This is a maternal image of God as the female bird who offers shelter to her chickens from danger. Examples include Ruth 2:12, Psalm 17:8, 57:1, 91:4; and in the New Testament, Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34. So God who is Father is also pictured in maternal images, as nurturing, protective mother, or filled with maternal fury (Hosea 13:8).
There are also two non-maternal female images of God: the woman carefully sweeping her house to find what is lost (Luke 14:8-10): and a woman baking bread (Mathew 13:33, Luke 13:20-21)[iv].
The creative Spirit of God, as we noted above, is always referred to with the female pronoun in the Old Testament. It is the Spirit who comes bringing creation out of chaos (Genesis 1:2); giving creativity and skill in craft to create furnishings of beauty and colour (Exodus 35:30-35); ecstasy (1 Samuel 10:6, 10), new life (Ezekiel 37). And in the New Testament, it is the Spirit of God who births us (John 3:3-8). As with the same metaphor cited in the Old Testament above, it would be hard to get a more female, maternal image of God!
The divine Word of God became incarnate, taking on flesh, as Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God. With a prescience that is both bold and breathtaking, Julian of Norwich, an early English theologian, describes Jesus in maternal terms as mother as well as brother and Saviour (Chapter 63).[v] She links Jesus to the divine Wisdom.
She argues for Jesus as like our mother through four successive premises (Chapter 60).
1. Jesus Christ is the ground of our being. He then took on our being as he became incarnate in the Maiden’s (Mary’s) womb.
2. He brings each of us to birth through the great travail and suffering of his death on the cross – and counts that suffering and cost all joy for the privilege of giving us life, new birth in him.
3. As the mother places her newborn child on the breast, Jesus feeds us, drawing us through his open side, to nourish us with his own body and blood, as we also feed on his word.
4. As a child grows, the mother allows the child she loves to be disciplined when needed so that it can grow in virtue and grace: and so too Jesus in his love for us. It is only when we fall that we can both know our own limits, and more fully know the marvellous love of our Maker for us (Chapter 61).
We find God’s maternal care deeply within the Trinity!
A colleague working in a Muslim community in Central Asia was telling people of God’s unconditional love for them. They told her bluntly, “If you want to tell us of unconditional love, don’t talk to us of fathers – our fathers are mostly drunk or absent or abusive. If you want to speak of unconditional love, tell us of maternal love.”
On the other side, people often talk of the need for those who have had negative experiences of their fathers to find healing as they encounter God as the true Father. He alone is the ideal that our best father models can only try to reflect. Yet it is also importantly true that many people need to find the image of the true Mother in God, in a way that goes beyond the damaged images of motherhood that they may have had in their own families. And as mothers we need to look to God as our model of nurturing sacrificial love, as well as our strength.
Many cultures give a high place to mothers, and the need for their children to honour them. In such a context offers us the opportunity to point more adequately to the fullness of God as the one who loves, births and nourishes us, by drawing on the rich female as well as male images of God that we encounter in the Bible. We have to go beyond grammatical gender to know God as the only one who fully embodies the loving parent, from which every mother and father must take their example.
[i]Barlas, Asma. “Believing Women” in Islam. Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002:96-98. The Qur’anic verses she cites include Al-Nisa4:171; Al-Ma’idah5:18; Al-Taubah9:30.
[ii]Barlas 2002: 93.
[iii]Many writers suggest it is to distance the God of the Bible from goddess cults of the time that emphasized both sexual fertility rituals, and a unity of being between the mother goddess and her children, rather than an essential separation between Creator and creation.
[iv]This parable perhaps includes a side reference to Sarah preparing bread for the divine visitors in Genesis 18:6. In each case the same extravagant measure of flour (equivalent to about 21 kg) is used – bread for a banquet!
[v]Norwich, Julian of. Revelations of Divine Love. Translated by Barry Windeatt. Oxford, United Kingdom: OUP Oxford, 2015.
Moyra is an ethnographer, with a focus on how women’s voices, and how they describe their own realities (her work has included adult literacy, and the women’s mosque movement, both in the Middle East). She is currently based in Melbourne, writing, teaching and training, in cross-cultural understanding and Islam.