At the end of our Isaiah passage, God declares the shortcomings of all metaphors: “For I am god and there is no other, I am God, and there is nothing like me.” We are talking about gender and God – how is God like a man, how is God like a woman, what are God’s masculine attributes, what are God’s feminine attributes – and this, in the end, is about metaphor. God isn’t either, or God is both. Either way, we are likening God to what we know. And yet God says “nothing is like me.”
But talking without metaphor, whether it is about God or about any other topic, is almost impossible. Amy Hempel’s short story “Sing to It” begins with the line “At the end, he said, no metaphors! Nothing is like anything else. Except he said to me before he said that, Make your hands a hammock for me. So that was one.”
That’s God too. “No metaphors!” God says, but then compares Godself to lots of things. Birds, fortresses, hiding places, shelters, armory. The comparison that stood out to me were the verbs Isaiah uses, all the synonyms for carrying: “I have worked and I will carry. I will lift the load and I will deliver.” God has and will carry, lug and haul Israel, all the way from birth to old age, from the womb to gray hairs.
I thought at first these verbs, the carrying verbs, were maternal, that they referred to pregnancy. And many commentators see in this passage maternal imagery. After all, wombs are definitely mentioned. But then I started investigating these verbs, and they are not, as I thought, associated with childbearing. Or rather, they are not primarily associated with childbearing. Instead, they are verbs that describe the activity of pack animals and humans who perform hard labor, be it physical or the hard labor of carrying the iniquities of others. For example, one of the carrying words, sbl, is used to describe Issachar, in Jacob’s poem to his sons in Genesis 49:14-15: “Issachar is a strong donkey, lying down between the sheepfolds. He saw that a resting place was good…so he bowed his shoulder to the burden, and became a slave at forced labor.” Pack animal and hard labor. The noun associated with this verb, sbl, just means “hard labor,” and describes what Israel did in Egypt.
God refuses to be compared to other gods – “nothing is like me” – but God invites a comparison with donkeys, cows, with slaves and dayworkers. And God’s accusation against the other gods, the ones made by godsmiths, is that they are not like donkeys. Instead of carrying, they must be carried. Instead of bearing loads, they themselves are loads. When put down, they stay in place. They answer no one, deliver no one. God even accuses these gods, Bel and Nebo if you look to verse 1, of making livestock and cattle tired!
When I read this passage, what I see is not a God described as a man or a woman, but instead a God who works. A God who does all the tasks required to keep humans alive, the routine, everyday labor of survival. A God who is proud of this work. “I have worked and I will carry. I will lift the load and I will deliver.” Like there is nothing better to do or be.
The Bible has few female images of God, so it is tempting to read this work as maternal. God feeds us, dresses us, and houses us like a mother. God looks after our health like a mother. And I don’t think this is an incorrect reading. But I have two caveats.
The first is that the text itself does not gender God’s work. The verbs are masculine, but then all verbs describing God’s actions in the Bible are masculine, so that is neither here nor there. The emphasis of the text is that God does all this work, not that God resembles a man or a woman when God labors.
The second caveat relates to an issue Shenandoah mentioned last week. By calling some of God’s characteristics masculine and some feminine, we run the danger of essentializing gender. God works hard to meet Israel’s physical needs, women work hard to meet the physical needs of those in their care, therefore God is like a woman. Yes, but that does not mean that this hard work is baked into the female DNA, or is lacking from the male DNA, or that these two (male and female) are the only ways of being human.
It is still very much true that the bulk of care work falls to women. On average, women do more housework than men, spend more time with children, are more likely to be nurses and teachers and care assistants. Women are more likely to take care of elderly parents, to do emotional labor in offices and schools, are more likely to be a shoulder to cry on. But this is not because women have a greater capacity for caring. These are long-standing structural conditions, cultural and societal expectations that form all of us. Men too can take care of children and the elderly, and many men do. I want to celebrate the passages in which God resembles a woman, but I don’t want to give scriptural warrant to gendered ways of living that serve neither men nor women well. So when God says “I have worked, I will carry,” I see an invitation to everyone who works and carries to see themselves as reflections of God, as doers of God’s work, regardless of their sex or gender.
I work with undergrads, and they are, many of them, earnestly and intensely trying to figure out the meaning of life. They want fulfilling careers, they want to save the world, they want to make enough money to pay back their loans or make their parents feel like the Duke bills were worth it. Their struggles to figure things out are often endearing, often quite thoughtful and nuanced, and often make me feel exhausted. Every minute is supposed to be productive, goal-oriented, purposeful. Sometimes I want to sit them all down and say: much of life is dishes. Much of life is laundry. Every day you have to eat, shower, get dressed. You will have to pay bills, once in a while clean the oven and the bathroom, take out the garbage, go grocery shopping. I don’t say this to be depressive. I don’t mean that life is full of meaningless tasks. Instead I mean that these are tasks for which you do not have to figure out the meaning. They come to you, already given. The meaning of meals and showers and taking your vitamins is to stay alive. A good portion of your time is dedicated to maintaining and nurturing life. You can pay others to do some of these tasks, but all you’ll do is offload what has to be done, one way or another. These are not things to be done in order to get to the really meaningful bits. Great art, humanitarian interventions, scientific breakthroughs – these are meaningful, but so is unloading the dishwasher.
And if we think of work that way, of care work this way, it is also easier to look past a strickly gendered understanding of work. We all offload aspects of staying alive. On any given day, I depend on a host of other people, many of whom are women, many of whom are not. Farm workers grow and pick my food, the people at the grocery store sell it to me. Sometimes I order pizza. People come to get the garbage every week, so that I don’t drown in my own refuse. Most of my clothes are made by other people, and all of my clothes are made of fibers milled and processed by others. I keep no sheep and grow no cotton. Teachers care for my child every day and nurses make sure my grandparents are comfortable in their old age and declining health.
“Nothing is like me,” says God, and in one sense, that is true. Nothing is like God. Except my garbage man is a bit like God, carrying heavy loads. My son’s teacher is a bit like God, Forest on her hip. The farm working, picking fruit, is a bit like God, and the nurses supporting my grandfather from his wheel chair to his bed is a bit like God. Me, cleaning Forest’s bottles every day, Tyler making the coffee and moving over the laundry, we are a bit like God.
“Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all that is left of the House of Israel, who have been carried since birth, supported since leaving the womb. Till you grow old, I will still be the same; when you turn gray, it is I who will carry. I have worked, and I will carry, and I will lift and rescue…For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is nothing like me.”
God is not like anyone or anything. But we, when we work, when we carry loads, are a bit like God.