The nature and understanding of the character of the God of the Bible are highly misunderstood by people of faith. The questions about God, his nature and gender, are seldom answered in light of biblical revelation. For example, one blogger wrote, “God does not have a body and therefore does not have gender in the technical sense.”
In his article on God’s gender, Professor Marc Zvi Brettler said that this statement “is an assertion, not an argument; the Bible often, and in many different ways, depicts God in very human terms.”
In her book, When Gods Were Men: The Embodied God in Biblical and Near Eastern Literature, Esther J. Hamori discusses the times when the God of the Old Testament revealed himself as a man. Mark S. Smith wrote an article titled “The Three Bodies of God in the Hebrew Bible” in which he discusses the body of God.
Although all the authors of the Hebrew Bible speak of God as a “he,” there are several places in the Bible where God is addressed with feminine language. In my previous post, “Feminine Language for God,” I discussed several passages where feminine language is used to describe God’s care for his people.
Today’s post focuses on the message of Deutero-Isaiah and his use of maternal language to speak about God’s concern for his people. Some Christians are uncomfortable with the use of maternal language when referring to God. However, the biblical writers did not see any problem using feminine language to address their God. As Professor Brettler said, “the Bible speaks with multiple voices and holds differing conceptions of God.”
This post on “The Motherhood of God” was originally posted on June 27, 2013 under the title “Maternal Language for God in Deutero-Isaiah.” The post has been renamed and revised for republication. Next week my posts will address the gender of God and the masculinity of God.
The Motherhood of God
The biblical writers believed that God was beyond human limitations, and yet they referred to him in words that denote both male and female roles. Although God transcends sexuality, male terminology abounds when describing God’s actions and character. However, the feminine imagery for God also appears side by side with male terminology primarily when the biblical writer wants to describe God’s care and God’s compassion for his people.
In my previous post, “Feminine Imagery for God,” I studied four passages in which the God of the Old Testament is portrayed with feminine roles. In that post, I excluded Deutero-Isaiah from the discussion. My post today deals with Deutero-Isaiah’s portrayal of God as a mother.
Since the expression “Deutero-Isaiah” is unknown to many Christians, a brief introduction is in order. Who was Deutero-Isaiah? The book of Isaiah is divided into two sections. Isaiah 1-39 was written by a prophet who lived in the eighth century B.C. during the Assyria crisis. This section of the book is generally known as First Isaiah. Isaiah had a group of disciples who probably carried out and preserved his work longer after Isaiah finished his ministry (Isaiah 8:16-17). Scholars believe that one of Isaiah’s disciples wrote the second section of the book.
Isaiah 40-66 was written by a disciple of Isaiah at a time when Judah was in exile. The context of the second section of the book is clearly Babylon. Since the name of this individual is not mentioned in the book, this unknown prophet is called Second Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah.
Although the Old Testament presents God in all kinds of male roles, and although feminine imagery for God exists in other sections of the Old Testament, it is this unknown prophet who prophesied in exile who used the word “mother” and maternal language to describe the work of God on behalf of Israel. The way Deutero-Isaiah uses maternal language to refer to God does not appear anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible.
There are several texts in Isaiah 40-66 where the prophet uses maternal language to describe the work of God. I have selected four of them to study how Deutero-Isaiah refers to God.
“For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant” (Isaiah 42:14 NIV).
In this passage, the prophet compares God to a woman about to give birth to her child. The description used by the prophet reflects the process of natural childbirth. During the time of labor, the woman cries, pants, and gasps for air.
God is overcome with agony like a woman giving birth to a child. He is identifying himself with the suffering of his people. This declaration comes after the people in exile had complained that God had kept silent in the face of the people’s agony and their suffering in a foreign land.
Yahweh had been quiet for a long time, like a pregnant woman is quiet for nine months. God had remained silent while the people had suffered in their exile. Now, God declares that he will break his silence and will begin to cry out, that he will utter loud groaning, gasp and pant like a woman about to give birth to her child. God’s pain is no less severe than the pain of a woman in labor.
These words of the Lord are a declaration that he had been silent, but he was about to deliver his people from exile and return them to their land. As Paul Hanson wrote, through Deutero-Isaiah, Yahweh proclaims the redemption of his people “with language taken from the delivery room. God, like a woman in the final throes of labor, can wait no longer” (p. 52). The use of maternal language by the prophet is to emphasize that God has compassion for his people as they suffer in exile.
“Woe to him who says to his father, ‘What have you begotten?’ or to his mother, ‘What have you brought to birth?’ This is what the LORD says–the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Concerning things to come, do you question me about my children” (Isaiah 45:10-11 NIV).
In some translations the word “mother” is translated “woman.” However, since the Hebrew word ’iššāh appears in a synonymous parallelism with the word “father,” the word “woman” has the meaning of “mother.”
In this passage, Yahweh responds to objections raised by the people in Babylon about his decision to choose Cyrus, King of Persia, as the instrument of Israel’s salvation. Yahweh told the people, “I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward” (Isaiah 45:13). Yahweh again shows his concern for Israel by identifying himself as a father and as a mother (Blenkinsopp 2002: 252).
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15 NRSV).
In Isaiah 49:14 Zion is inconsolable because she believes that Yahweh has abandoned her in her time of need, “like a wife deserted and wounded in spirit, a wife of one’s youth when she is rejected” (Isaiah 54:6).
In Lamentations 5:22, the people cried to God: “Have you utterly rejected us? Are you angry with us still?” In their desperate situation, the people of Judah believed that God had forsaken them, that he had abandoned his people in their time of distress. The people believed that their exile was enough evidence of their complaint that God had abandoned them. In response to Zion’s cry of desperation, God responds by expressing his commitment to Zion in the same way a mother is committed to her child.
Confronted with the desperate cry of the people, Deutero-Isaiah calls the people’s attention to a mother nursing her child. Such an image was used by the prophet to proclaim God’s love and faithfulness to his people.
The prophet is saying that just as a mother does not abandon her baby, her sucking child, the Lord will not abandon his people. The prophet does not portray Yahweh as a breast-feeding mother. Rather, he intends to say that Yahweh is more compassionate than a mother who feeds her child.
The prophet, however, recognizes that a human mother, for some unknown reason, may abandon her baby. This is the reason he says that “even these may forget.” But the Lord is different. It may be possible that a mother may forget her little child, but God’s commitment to his people is even stronger than the commitment of a mother to her child. Although a mother may abandon her nursing child, the Lord will never abandon his people.
God’s words to the exiled community express God’s intense love and compassion for his people. These words say that God’s love for Israel was greater than the love of a mother nursing her child.
“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:13).
The prophet compares the Lord’s compassion for his people with the compassion of a mother for her child.
The reason Deutero-Isaiah is the only prophet who compares God to a mother is unknown. Grubber proposes that Deutero-Isaiah’s use of maternal language may demonstrate “a non-patriarchalizing tendency in post-exilic Judaism” (p. 351).
Deutero-Isaiah had little problem with using maternal language to describe God’s commitment and love for Israel. He probably believed that the people’s understanding of God would be enhanced by using maternal language to describe God’s commitment to the people of Judah. Deutero-Isaiah was trying to convey to the people that God is not simply a mother. God is a special kind of mother. God, like a mother, will not forget her children.
After discovering that the Old Testament uses maternal language to describe God’s commitment to Israel, should Christians call God “she”? Should Christians pray to “Our Mother in Heaven”? The answer is “no” and I will explain the reason why in an upcoming post.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Isaiah 40-55. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 2002.
Hamori, Esther J., When Gods Were Men: The Embodied God in Biblical and Near Eastern Literature. Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 2008.
Smith, Mark S., “The Three Bodies of God in the Hebrew Bible.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134 no. 3 (2015): 471-488.