Saturday, November 3, 2007

Feminine Imagery of the Divine

Feminist readers of the scriptures are well aware of the passages in Proverbs 8 which personify Wisdom (GK Sophia, HEB Hokhmah).
These passages affirm that Sophia was there when God made the earth and acted as a partner with God in the creation. This idea fits in well with my conceptualization of the male/female duality of the Divine. The passages can be interpreted as instructions to the earnest seeker to discover and follow the promptings of a Heavenly Mother:

The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old.
I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was.
When there were no depths, I was brought forth;
When there were no fountains abounding with water.
Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth:
While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world.
When he prepared the heavens, I was there:
When he set a compass upon the face of the depth:
When he established the clouds above:
When he strengthened the fountains of the deep:
When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: When he appointed the foundations of the earth:
Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him;
Rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth;
And my delights were with the sons of men.
Now therefore hearken unto me, O ye children:
For blessed are they that keep my ways.

Hear instruction, and be wise, and refuse it not.
Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.
For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the LORD.

In the scriptures, there is additional female imagery which tends to support the existence of a feminine counterpart to God. I hesitate to use them as proof-texts for a Mother in Heaven. These passages can just as well be interpreted to mean that a male Deity has loving and nurturing characteristics. However, if one believes, as I do, that "Elohim" consists of both a Mother and a Father God, the verses that follow add welcome insight into possible roles and characteristics of a Divine Mother Goddess.
One of the early titles for God in the Old Testament is El Shaddai. This word has been translated "Almighty God," or "God of the Mountains." It may have linguistic ties to the word "breast," prompting some to translate El Shaddai as "the breasted One." Though I might not go as far as to use this translation, I enjoy the word play which is typical of Hebrew writing and which connects this title of God to breasts and nurturing. In the language used in Jacob's blessing to his son Joseph in Genesis 49, El Shaddai gives him
"blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lieth under, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb: The blessings of thy father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the hills: they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren."

Isaiah uses many feminine images of God in his writings. Consider the following:

The following poem in Hosea 11:1-4 is in the first person, presenting God as a mother who calls, teaches, holds, heals, and feeds her son.

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
And out of Egypt I called My son.
The more I called them, the more they went from me;
They sacrificed to the Baals,
And burned incense to carved images.
Yet 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 drew them with gentle cords,
With bands of love,
And I was to them as those who take the yoke from their neck.
I stooped and fed them.

It is possible that Hosea is indirectly presenting God as mother over against the fertility goddess of the Canaanite religion that he is challenging.
Interestingly, Hosea presents God as the husband figure in Hosea chapter 4, and the mother figure in chapter 11. These paired images suggest the male/female duality of God.

Searching for feminine images in the scriptures is a fruitful pursuit. There are many other examples too numerous to list here. I realize that different conclusions can be drawn from the presence of the Divine Feminine in scripture. Some faith traditions have posited that God is genderless, yet "accommodates to human limitations by using physical, relational, gender-laden images for self-disclosure." Others believe that God is solely masculine and patriarchal but possesses qualities that we culturally see as feminine. I present this view as one which aligns with the Proclamation on the Family where it affirms the eternal nature of gender: "All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose."


journeygal said...

Thanks, BIV - I found this post very enlightening and learned several new things. I'm reading this right before turning off the lights and it will give me something to ponder as I fall asleep! :-)

J G-W said...

I personally find the belief in a literal Heavenly Mother -- which LDS theology requires -- far more comforting and empowering than Nicene Christian notions of a genderless, bodyless God.

It's been suggested that we simply don't talk about Heavenly Mother out of respect for her. I think it has more to do with the fact that most Christians simply aren't ready to deal with such a notion. It strikes them as shocking and pagan. When Joseph Smith introduced this concept, how could it not have seemed simultaneously mysterious and frightening to those accustomed to god-language and god-images of the time, of early 19th-century Protestantism? For LDS to talk about Heavenly Mother even now sets us at odds in a dramatic way with the rest of Christianity. It underlines in an undeniable way our very embodied notion of deity. This is embarrassing to Mormons who want to "just be normal." I think all these reasons have far more to do with why leaders counsel us (and we for the most part readily agree) not to discuss Heavenly Mother.

For me the significance of belief in a Heavenly Mother is that there is an equal place in the eternities for women. Based on what we understand about the proper relationship between men and women in marriage (i.e., mutuality, equality, complementarity), we may assume that such is the relation between the genders in the eternities. We just haven't fully learned to live it yet down here.

A key for me is D&C 121... God here is telling us that the true order of the cosmos requires those with power and authority to relinquish any form of "domination." True power is a letting go of power. Any man who takes this seriously will pattern his life in a way that runs against the grain of cultural gender roles. Men who think that maleness should be about making decisions and bossing people around have to learn something radically different if they want entry into the presence of our Heavenly Father and our Heavenly Mother. Doesn't this upset everything we think we know about gender? Doesn't it suggest something about how we as mortal men and mortal women need to relate to each other if we want to become like our Divine Parents??

Those are my two cents...

Bored in Vernal said...

John, I hope there is an equal place in the eternities for women. My angst comes from the fact that we simply don't know. Mormon doctrine doesn't allow us to search any more for the Mother and her place than has already been given, and any ideas I have about her equality are merely conjecture. In fact, the way we treat her existence in the Church actually argues against her equality with the Father. In my theology she exists as a Goddess coequal with the Father, and I agree that this might bother some part of the Christian world. So perhaps this is why Mormon leadership is reluctant to search for more revelation on this subject for their constituents. But the rejection of the Christian world has never stopped them from revealing other conflicting doctrines...

J G-W said...

What does your heart tell you?

But if you really need more than that, I suggest:

"If any of you lack wisdom, let her ask of God, that giveth to all women liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given her."

Bored in Vernal said...

J--My heart tells me a few things that are different from mainline teachings. But that's your experience, too--isn't it?! I trust my heart, but it may cause a bit of tension with the institutional Church.

J G-W said...

Wait till you see the current issue of Sunstone. (Will you be able to GET that in S.A.??) You'll love it, devoted to "Women's Voices." Lot's of food for thought along all these lines.

xJane said...

I find it problematic to read a female gender into passages where the Divine is described as being "nurturing". While any passage that indicates the possibility of a Divine Feminine is comforting, reading Her presence into gender neutral passages merely reinforces the Divine Masculine as a Warrior. There was nothing in the passage you quoted from Hosea that was specifically feminine.