Fathers, Sons, and Mother Hens (Pt. 1 of 2)
We believe in one God,
A long, long time ago (before my finals… and midterms, for that matter… I know, I know, a hiatus this long is simply unacceptable), I discussed the problems (and benefits) of the image of God as Father for those with various experiences with their parents. But there’s another Father issue that may trip up some of you: the question of God’s gender.
Many people, when they hear God called “Father,” assume God is male. For some people, God’s gender is of no consequence, but for others, thinking of God as a man is deeply problematic. Some of us wonder why if God is good, he is called our Father, rather than our Mother, or even simply our Parent. After all, men have traditionally been in power in our world, and they have sometimes misused that power. God has more power than any of them—who’s to say he won’t misuse his power, as well? And anyway, we want a God we can relate to and who can relate to us. Can a “Father” really understand the experience of half the population?
If you’ve ever felt this way, I have good news for you today: the idea that God has a gender is a warped view of the Christian God, not based in the Bible or traditional Christian theology. In contrast with other Ancient Near Eastern religions, the ancient Israelites did not (typically) attribute sexuality to YHWH. (And I say typically because there were Israelites who worshipped foreign gods and goddesses in addition to YHWH, which may have colored their views of God’s gender… but this practice is condemned as idolatry in the Bible itself and not considered normative within monotheistic Judaism, despite its place in Israel’s story.) Instead, gender seems to be part of the created order only—a category which God transcends. That’s why unlike Zeus or Baal or other gods from the ancient world, YHWH needs no female consort. Both men and women are said to be created in God’s image, and there is no room for considering one of them “closer” to reflecting God’s nature.
Furthermore, there are, in fact, many instances of female imagery for God throughout Scripture. For example, the Bible contains metaphors in which God gives birth (Deut. 32:18; Is. 42:14; Is. 46:3-4) or a mother nursing (Num. 11:12, Is. 49:14-15). Other imagery is based on women’s work and other experiences: A seamstress, a midwife, a woman in charge of a servant (Ps. 123:2), woman baking, a woman looking for a lost coin (Neh. 9:21; Ps. 22:9-10, 71:5; Is. 66:9; Mt. 13:33; Lk. 13:20-21; Lk. 15:8-10) all represent God. Even Jesus, who had biological sex compared himself to a mother hen caring for her chicks (Mt. 25:37; Lk. 13:34).*
This post is part of a series on the Nicene Creed.
*For a more extended discussion of these passages and others containing female imagery for God, see Margo G. Houts, “Images of God as Female,” in The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Catherine Clark Kroeger & Mary J. Evans (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002), 356-358.