How God is Our Mother
Scriptures: Isaiah 66:6-13; Isaiah 63:15-19
I once saw a bumper sticker which said, “God is coming to judge the world, and She is not pleased.” I thought about that when I read our second scripture lesson this morning. It starts out, “Listen, an uproar from the city! A voice from the temple! The voice of the Lord, dealing retribution to his enemies.” It sounds like God is coming to judge the world. But in this case Isaiah uses a masculine pronoun for God: “dealing retribution to his enemies.”
But let me explain something about Hebrew pronouns. In Hebrew, as in Spanish and many other languages, all nouns have gender. All nouns are either masculine or feminine. For example, the word “bird” in Hebrew (tsippor) is a feminine word and takes a feminine pronoun whether it is talking about a female bird or a male bird. A bird in Hebrew is a she, even if it is a male bird. In Hebrew the word “God”—Elohim—is a masculine noun, which means it takes a masculine pronoun, but that does not necessarily mean that it refers to a male. In fact in I Kings 11:33 the same word “Elohim” is used in reference to Astarte, a fertility goddess of the Sidonians. The word is masculine, but it does not necessarily refer to a male.
The Bible actually makes the point that God is not exclusively male. Genesis 1:27: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The verse uses masculine pronouns—“his” and “he”—because God is a masculine noun. But the point of the verse is that God is not exclusively male or female. Both males and females are created in the image of God.
Which brings me back to Isaiah 66. Right after announcing God’s judgment, Isaiah shifts and begins talking about childbirth. Verse 7: “Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she delivered a son.” Who is giving birth here? The first answer is Jerusalem. Verse 8: “Yet as soon as Zion [Jerusalem] was in labor she delivered her children.” The point is that the people of Israel will be reborn after their time of captivity in Babylon. A new people of God will come forth from Jerusalem. And yet, in this process, it is the Lord who is giving birth to this new people. Verse 9: “Shall I open the womb and not deliver? says the Lord; shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb? says your God.” I found it intriguing how this verse blurs the line between the midwife and the woman who is giving birth. God is pictured as the midwife but also as the one giving birth. This is confirmed in verse 13: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” There are certainly places in the Bible when God is pictured as a father, but here is a case where God is pictured as a mother.
Another good example is in Luke 13:34. Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wing, and you were not willing.” Like the prodigal son running away from the father, we are prodigal chicks running away from the mother hen.
And that brings me to the real issue in all of these scripture readings. The real issue is not whether God is male or female. The real issue is not whether God is our father or mother. The real issues is whether we have a parent at all, or whether we are orphans, children left to fend for ourselves in an empty universe.
A few months ago I read a best-selling novel by Delia Owens called Where the Crawdads Sing. The main character is a girl named Kya living in a shack on the marshes of North Carolina. Kya is the youngest of five children born to an alcoholic father and a severely abused mother. All of the children, as well as the mother, are battered by their alcoholic father, until one by one the children get old enough to run away. Then when Kya is ten years old, her mother also runs away, leaving Kya to fend for herself. When her father is around, she must avoid him to keep from being hit, and when he is gone for weeks at a time on his drunken binges, Kya must figure out how to survive as an orphan, living off the edible plants and wildlife of the marsh.
Kya’s case is extreme, but over the years I have met numerous people who as children were abused, neglected, or abandoned by one or both parents. Once I talked to a nine year old boy, not in this church but somewhere else. He was living with his aunt. I asked him what it was like for him living with his aunt, and he said, “It’s okay.” Then he said, “My mom doesn’t want to be my mom. She’d rather use drugs.” I was afraid to ask where his father might be.
Sometimes people don’t have happy memories of their father or mother. I know that many of you do have happy memories of your parents, but some don’t. So for you calling God father or mother may not be a happy association.
But what the Bible wants you to know is that you are not an orphan. You are not alone in this world. Maybe your mother did not want to be your mother, but God does. Maybe your father was absent from your life, or abusive. But God wants to be there for you like a hen gathering her brood or like a mother comforting her child.
As I have mentioned before, my father was a career Air Force sergeant. He was sent overseas four different times while I was growing up, each time for about a year to a year and a half. I once figured out that my father was gone for six of my first eighteen years of life, almost one third of my childhood.
I didn’t blame my father for that. My father grew up during the Depression. He knew viscerally the fear of not having a job, the fear of not having enough income to provide for your family. So he did whatever it took to make sure he had a job and kept it, and if that meant being away from his family for months or years at a time, that was the price.
The effect, however, was that my father missed a significant part of my childhood. But my mother was always there. She may not have always been a perfect mother, but she was there. When I was riding my bike too fast around a curve and my tires slid out from under me, and I scraped one side of my body across the asphalt, my mother was there to bandage me up. And when I got an appendicitis and was throwing up all night, my mother stayed up with me, and when it didn’t get better she took me to the hospital, and after surgery she was the first person I saw when I woke up. My dad was overseas during these times.
I have no trouble calling God father. I have no trouble praying the Lord’s Prayer. But for me God will always be more like a mother, the one cheering for me when I do something right, the one bandaging me up when I do something stupid; the one who will be there when my job is over and my home is sold and my body has quit working. For me God will always be like a mother. She will be there when I wake up from that greatest of all surgeries called death and will celebrate with me the birth of a new life.