Title: Nursing Rocks and the Image of God
Texts: Isa 46:3-9, Deut 32:1-18, Gen 1:26-27, 2 Cor 3:12-18
Date: Nov 13, 2011
Author: Catherine Lee
I’m going to talk tonight about God, the mother of Israel.
That statement invites a few qualifications, especially at this point in our sermon series and discussion.
For one thing, Nate already talked about that. He did a beautiful job last week of inviting us to think about God as our mother who draws us close and feeds us from her body. I’m running the risk tonight of covering the same ground we’ve already trod.
In addition, motherhood is not our only feminine image of God, or even the most important one. It is the metaphor discussions of God and gender gravitate towards, and there are a few problems with that.
As we’ve noted before, and it’s important, I think, to note again, the category of “mother” excludes a lot of people, including an awful lot of women, who for an awful lot of reasons are not mothers. Motherhood is not the qualifying, defining characteristic of being female. We are not simply reproductive vessels. That’s an important truth to hold and repeat to ourselves. Important, I would add, to repeat to the mothers among us. And as it is not the essence of being female, motherhood is not the essence of the feminine image of God.
Feminist theologians get a little cranky about the tendency for discussions on feminine images of God to drift towards motherhood, and with good reason. Sometimes, it’s a little too easy. “Tired of that old male image of God and all that Father language? Well, just call him ‘mother’ sometimes and everything will come out alright.” The motherhood of God, alongside a smattering of inclusive language is sometimes used by Christians as a quick fix to flawed notions of God and gender. Saying “she” (or at least dropping the “he’s”) and “mother” in church: full proof linguistic, theological band-aid. But it’s not enough. “Adding an image of God/ess as loving, nurturing mother, mediating the power of the strong, sovereign father, is insufficient.” Mother language for God can end up codifying our own, usually rather flawed, notions of traditional gender traits and roles, rather than transforming our notions of what it means to be humans, male and female, created in the image of God. Instead of subverting and transforming patriarchy, sometimes mother language strengthens it. Or, it sets up an alternative, equally flawed cosmic matriarchy. Or, it imagines the enthroned couple, father and mother who rule their distinctive spheres; we go to them as they play good cop/bad cop with the children of the universe. We set up new idols in place of the old male ones. There’s a host of problems we can walk straight into despite the best of intentions.
Have we mentioned lately how hard it is to talk about God?
And I should probably come clean from the start about another hesitation I have. You see, as a woman, as a mother, I get a little cranky at God-talk about motherhood too. I get a little defensive and concerned when our images of God as female and God as mother look an awful lot like an idealized, perfect, nurturing, self-sacrificing woman. Picturing God as Donna Reid doesn’t do much for me in the context of worship. I don’t think it does much for women or for men.
Despite all of this, despite how hard it is to talk about God, we keep going. Despite all of this, I’m going to talk a bit more about God as our mother, specifically as Israel’s mother. Because there are a couple more images in Scripture that we haven’t looked at yet and they are remarkable and often overlooked and worth our attention. And, because they are a little odd. They are feminine images of God, but they fall outside the bounds of our “traditional” images of motherhood.
The first is in Isaiah 46. The prophet speaks of Israel who “has been borne by [God] from [her] birth, carried from the womb.” Even into old age God will continue to carry Israel, always. “I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and I will save” (Is 46:3-4). God gives birth to Israel. She carries Israel in her womb. Martha, Celia, and Laura, they all know something recent and firsthand about what it means to carry a child in a womb. What it means to carry a child at the end of pregnancy, when the burden becomes, well, unbearable, and that baby must be carried from the womb. But mothers never stop carrying their children. “Even to your old age,” says God, “it is I” who carries you (v.4). It’s a beautiful image of the constancy of God, of her unending devotion to her child. Of God’s promise and ability to bring deliverance, to save (vv. 4, 13).
And it’s a stark contrast to the rest of the chapter which speaks of idols. Idols are objects which Israel must carry, straining under their dumb and impotent weight. Idols are things that Israel makes and has to haul around, and they aren’t able to save her from trouble (v. 7). But God, she is different. “To whom will you liken me and make me equal?…I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me” (vv. 7, 9).
We could leave it there. We could meditate on the image of God the mother who carries her child in the womb, from the womb, and who, as she does later in Isaiah 66, dandles her child on her knee. But there is more, more to this particular notion of God carrying Israel.
The words here for “carrying” are used elsewhere in Scripture too, not for bearing children, but for “bearing a burden or load.” Here are some of the pictures this word “carry” conjures: oxen pulling loads, laborers carrying building materials like animals, children bearing punishment for their parents’ sins, forced labor, the yoke an oppressor lays on subjects’ shoulders, the toil of the Israelites under the Egyptians. These are pictures of carrying. And, just a few chapters away in Isaiah, the suffering servant, “who carries our sorrows…who bears our iniquities” (Is 53: 4, 11).
That is the kind of carrying that the mother of Israel does here: she carries Israel like a pack animal, like a slave. She carries the sorrow and sin and weight of Israel. She is bowed down. The root of the word implies a crushing load. This carrying—it’s a far cry from dandling.
I’m not trying to suggest that children are a dreaded burden, that motherhood is oppressive, that mothers are necessarily weary and crushed. Hear me, that is not what I’m trying to say. earHeAnd I’m not saying we don’t dandle our children too. But there is a weight to a child. Any mother, any father, anyone who has ever known a child and seen them in trouble, seen them doing things that will harm them in the long run, seen others hurt them—we all know something of that weight. It is the weight of the mothers I meet when I work in the hospital. Mothers of very sick children, their shoulders sag and their eyes are tired. But they never let go. They carry, they bear, and if there is any way they could, they would save. Like God.
We also associate this work of carrying with the Spirit of God. Classic Trinitarian theology often speaks of the Spirit as performing the work of bearing and carrying, of sustaining God’s people. Isaiah keeps our ears pricked for language and metaphor that evokes God’s work, the work of all her persons, including the Spirit. And there is this astounding connection between this particular mother image and the well-known prophecy in Isaiah 53 about the suffering servant “who carries our sorrows…[and] bears our iniquities” (vv.4, 11). It is beautiful fodder for a maternal image of Christ himself: this mother God carries Israel, just as the suffering servant will carry her sorrows and iniquities.
In Deuteronomy 32 we have another maternal image for God, also striking, and perhaps even stranger. God is the rock who gives birth to Israel. I mean, really, can you think of a less “classically” maternal image than a rock? It is cold, hard, immovable, inanimate. There is nothing soft and nurturing, nothing tender and receptive about rock. But there it is, the rock, the mother of Israel.
It’s not that rock doesn’t have redeeming traits practically and metaphorically. Biblically, when we think of the image of the rock we think of a place of refuge and safety. We think of miraculous provision, as when Moses strikes the rock and water flows. We think of shade and shelter in the desert, memorials set up to worship God, holy mountains. In the New Testament we think of Christ the cornerstone, faith built on a firm foundations, Peter “the rock on whom I will build my church” (Mt 16:18). Fortresses and strongholds, God the rock “who trains my hands for war,” the Psalmist declares (Ps 144:1). There are more than 100 references in Scripture to rock, many of them metaphors for God. And while they are not all masculine images, most of the rock words and prayers to God are spoken by men, most of the stories involve men. Rock is generally pretty “manly” stuff. This is the only clearly female rock in the Bible.
This rock is the central image of chapter 32 in Deuteronomy. The word is repeated 7 times. It is the primary metaphor for God in the song that Moses sings to Israel just before she passes into the promise land. It is striking that here, now, at this climactic moment Moses—a great patriarch speaking in his patriarchal culture—Moses of all people would speak of God as she, the one who gives birth to Israel.
And while the rock is clearly maternal, she is not only maternal, or maternal in a regular sort of way. The rock here in Deuteronomy is also a father, in verse 6. God the rock is an eagle, stirring up its nest and carrying it to safety. The rock nurses Israel too, but not like a woman. The Rock nurses Israel with honey and oil from its crags and flinty crevices. That image alone blows my mind when I really think about it: Israel feeding, not just on milk, but drawing out the richness of honey and oil. A baby suckling, breastfeeding from a rock.
God, the mother of Israel, the rock who nurses and gives birth.
We have these two images of God as a mother. Odd images. Where can they lead us? What do they do?
I like the fact that we have these unusual images of a feminine God, the strong mother bearing difficult burdens, the breastfeeding rock dilated to ten centimeters. They expand my notions of the feminine as it is found in God, rather than trap them in “traditional” image of “the” good mother.
I think these texts mess with our notions of mothers. They keep us thinking freely about what “maternal” means in the first place. They mess with our notions of gender. They remind us that “females” aren’t just soft, that they can carry loads. Even as we begin to attach the labels of “mother” and “feminine” to God, these texts mess with us.
And they mess with our notions of God.
For me, that is a good thing. If this sermon series is about nothing else, I think we’d all agree that it is about getting ourselves out of our boxes. About recognizing and getting God out of the boxes we put him in, particularly the boxes of gender. Particularly the box of masculinity. Liturgically, theologically, and personally we carry some deep images of God as male. We may not want to, we may even try actively not to, but most of us probably do. I know I do. And there is deep value in the mental and emotional and worshipful exercise of stretching our theological and liturgical muscles, of exploring new and forgotten and buried images. Of speaking of God as “she” over and over for 6 weeks. It’s valuable. Will that make up for the years of “he” we have heard and spoken before? Maybe not. But it’s a start. It gets us out of our boxes.
I have been wondering for the last couple weeks if the texts of these feminine images of God have anything in common. I don’t know if there is one thing that holds them together, but several of them are prophetic in one sense or another. And the two passages today in Deuteronomy and Isaiah have the same immediate context: a polemic against idolatry. Idolatry in its simplest form is making an image of God. Genesis tells us, “God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God God created them; male and female, God created them” (Gen 1:27). Idolatry takes that early, foundational Biblical and theological statement and twists it around: instead, we make God in our image. Idolatry gets it backwards.
That is the danger of metaphor, especially human metaphors for God. That in seeking to imagine the invisible God, we start to create God in our own image. The image of a man. Or a woman. The image of a mother. Or a father. The whole concept of gender is a notoriously “boxed” idea. We have our boxes of what it means to be “male” and “female.” They are culturally shaped and contain varying degrees of accuracy. But if we try to stuff God into those boxes, whatever they look like, we get it backwards. We don’t get enlightened, freeing metaphors for the divine; we get new, if different, idols.
And, and, this is the part that gets me, we miss the invitation to be transformed into the image of the living God. The good news of our gospel isn’t that we get to make God into the image of what we think it means to be male and female. Or what our culture think is means to be male and female. It’s that we reflect the image of God in our maleness and femaleness, and that we are being transformed more and more into God’s image.
All language for God is metaphorical. We can’t talk about God any other way, and I’m not suggesting that we stop talking about God for fear of falling into idolatry. With metaphors we start with something familiar, something we know. We use that familiar thing or idea to make a connection with the divine. The connection is important, and good. It is a holy moment to touch the living God.
The problem isn’t with the metaphors. It is what we do with them. Metaphors are meant, I think, to be fairly fluid. We can play with them, use them to imagine. As adults, especially as intellectuals, we don’t give ourselves much freedom to play. But language and metaphor could be our (metaphorical) playground: a place of freedom to worship and wonder and search for God.
This is all getting very theoretical, so let me tell a story and see if it helps.
In the hospital I met a boy named Caleb. He was 9 months old and having seizures. When he stopped breathing they called the entire medical team in. He started breathing again on his own, but the seizures kept coming in milder waves for the next hour. Caleb had spent a lot of time in the hospital and had contracted an antibiotic resistant infection, so we were all supposed to have on gloves and gowns to keep the infection from spreading. But Caleb’s mom didn’t bother with all that. “Whatever he has I have by now anyway,” she said. She would hold him up between seizures, her arms extended above her head trying to help him focus his eyes. His body was limp and drool pooled out of his mouth, trailed down onto the face of the one who carried him, ran into her mouth, mixed with her tears. There we were, the health professionals, our bodies careful sheathed in sterile plastic, shielded from this little boy. But not the one who carried him. Bodies and tears and drool ran together and strong arms held him up with love and determination. I said as I left later, “I hope you can get some rest.” Tired eyes looked back into mine, the head shook, and a strong voice replied, “I won’t sleep tonight.”
That is an image of the motherhood of God, this rock who carries her child.
Except it wasn’t his mother. It was Caleb’s father.
And that is the invitation of being made in the image of God. That a man could so clearly image the Mother of creation.
This doesn’t strike me as unlikely or unusual. It strikes me as good and true and right. I don’t think Caleb’s father was being “maternal” that night; he was being paternal. Beautifully, heartbreakingly father-like. Father-like as he reflects an image of God which is unmistakably female.
There is something there, it’s hard for me to articulate, and forgive me because I’ve been trying all week to nail down the words and I’m still floundering…but there’s something there that reflects the image of God in whom we were created. 2 Corinthians tells us, “we all, who with unveiled faces reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into God’s image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord” (3:18).
Our God is, among other things, strong and nurturing. Women can be strong, like God. Men can be nurturing, like God. If women are not “usually” strong, if men are not “stereotypically” nurturing, it may have less to do with our natural, essential tendencies than with our failure to recognize and call on each other as the people of God to realize who we are, made in God’s image. As we re-imagine our God, in whose image our genders were created, we can also re-imagine what it means to be the people of God. We have been asking week after week what it all this gender stuff has to do with our daily lives. How does it change us? How does in change how we are in the world? I wonder if part of the answer lies here.
Not that we are called to an androgynous, sex-less and gender-less existence. Not that the men become women and the women become men.
But that we all become more like God, who looks like both genders. Who looks like Cameron. And baby Anna. Who looks like Caren and Dirk and Meghan and Eric and Ben and Rebecca. We can remind each other that we look like God. We can be free to imagine God in new ways, and then, to re-imagine ourselves as the people of God created in her image. In his image. And that, Lord have mercy, we are “being transformed into God’s image with ever-increasing glory.”
 Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk (Beacon Press, 1983).