Although the Old Testament portrays God with language that reflects male role models, such as a father (Mal 1:6), a king (Psalm 97:1), or a man of war (Exod 15:3), the biblical writers also used language that describes God in traditional female roles.
Whenever Christians read that the Old Testament uses female metaphors to describe the work of Yahweh, the God of Israel, they are shocked. Since the biblical text generally uses masculine language when speaking about God, some people are skeptical when they read that the Bible uses female imagery to describe God, since God is always described as male and in some texts he is called the father and the husband of Israel.
The use of masculine language to describe the God of the Old Testament reflects the social norms and the cultural background that molded Israelite society and provided the language people used to explain their relationship with God.
However, in ancient Israel, God was described with both masculine and feminine language, although God is neither male nor female.
The Old Testament teaches that both men and women were created in the image of God: “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image’ . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:26-27).
A close exegesis of Genesis 5:1-2 indicates that the Hebrew word ’ādām is used collectively to designate both man and woman: “In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam” (Gen 5:1-2 KJV). The word ’ādām is also used to designate the proper name of an individual.
In his commentary on Genesis, Westermann said that “God created humans corresponding to him, as his counterpart so that something can happen between him and the creatures” (p. 356). Since the woman was created in the image of God, then feminine divine imagery reflects one of the characteristics of God as he relates to his people.
There are several texts in the Old Testament where God is presented with language that reflects feminine roles. The selection below is based on texts that are found outside Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66). In my next post I will deal with Deutero-Isaiah and his use of mother language to describe the God of Israel.
“Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors?”
After the people of Israel left Egypt, they experienced the rigors of life in the wilderness. When the people complained to Moses about the lack of food, Moses in turn complained to God with language that presents God as a mother and a nurse: “Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them?” Moses could not take all the responsibility for the people; God had to help him in his task. Moses said to God: “Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child.”
“As an eagle, teaching her young to make their flight, with her wings outstretched over them, takes them up on her strong feathers, So the Lord only was his guide.”
In this passage Moses compares a mother eagle teaching her young to fly, protecting it with her outstretched wings. If the little bird was to learn how to fly, the mother eagle must force her young out of the nest and teach it how to fly. In the same way, Yahweh brought Israel out of Egypt to teach the people his laws. The mother eagle’s imagery speaks of Yahweh’s protection of Israel as it traveled in the wilderness on its way to the Promised Land: “He came to him in the waste land, in the unpeopled waste of sand: putting his arms round him and caring for him, he kept him as the light of his eye” (Deut 32:10).
A similar metaphor was used by Jesus when he described his concern for Jerusalem: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, putting to death the prophets, and stoning those who were sent to her! again and again would I have taken your children to myself, as a bird takes her young ones under her wings, but you would not” (Luke 13:34). Here Jesus compares himself to a mother bird who tries to protect her young ones against danger. Jesus desires to protect Jerusalem from the catastrophe that will soon come, but Israel rejects the protection that he offered.
“You forgot the God who gave you birth.”
In the Song of Moses, the offense of Israel is emphasized by comparing its apostasy with a rebellious child who forgets his mother. Israel’s offense is magnified by the use of the mother metaphor since dishonoring one’s mother was a serious violation of the covenant.
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. . . . It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”
Even though in chapters 1-3 Hosea uses the imagery of a husband to portray Yahweh’s relationship with Israel, in chapter 11:1-4, the prophet uses the image of a mother who taught her son how to walk, who embraced her child with tender love, who healed him when he was ill, who fed him when he was hungry. All these tasks which God took upon himself were tasks assigned to mothers in Israelite households.
There are a few other feminine imageries for God in the Old Testament. When the biblical writers used feminine language to describe the work of God, this language described one aspect of God as the God who cares for his people and reveals God’s desire to establish a personal relationship with his people.
Although the feminine imagery for God in the Old Testament reflects Israel’s rich tradition of understanding its God, Christians have been slow to understand and accept the significance of this language. The feminine language about God describes God’s care and provision for Israel and calls them to trust him in times of danger. It also calls the people to know that God will provide for them in times of need just as a mother cares and provides for her children.
In my next post I will study Isaiah 40-66 and his use of the mother imagery to describe the work of God on behalf of Israel.
Other Posts on the Gender of God:
Maternal Language for God in Deutero-Isaiah
Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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I have one to add. The Spirit of God, known in Hebrew as the Ruach Hakodesh or the Shekinah glory was always believed by the Israelites to be the feminine aspect of God.
Thank you for your comment. What you said is true, but it is not in the Bible. The Jews do not identify the Shekinah with the Holy Spirit, but with the presence of God among his people or with the glory of God. Some people identify the Shekinah with the feminine side of God, but this idea finds no support in the Bible.
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Hi Dr. Mariottini,
I am enjoying your posts. They are thoughtful and scholarly, which I appreciate.
One of my fav verses regarding YHWH is Hosea 11:9: “For I am God and no man (ish)…”
Related is Num 23:19, “God is not a man (ish)…”
All words to describe the Ineffable are inadequate metaphors; YHWH speaks directly to Moses, telling him “I am Who I am,” a verb of being.
Have you read “God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality” by Phyllis Trible? That is an amazing piece of scholarship.
Thank you for your comment. You are correct in quoting those two passages. God is not a man like all human males, but the Bible insists is talking about God using masculine pronouns. I have read Trible’s book and have used it as a textbook in my course “Women in the Old Testament.”