Several years ago, I presented a paper at an academic conference about how literary classics owe a debt to the Bible. I pointed attendees in my workshop to content in works such as Pilgrim’s Progress and Les Misérables, The Divine Comedy, and Robinson Crusoe. I mentioned how Dickens and Dostoevsky drew on themes, imagery, and phrases from the Old and New Testaments. I spoke with admiration of the Bible’s metaphors, similes and other figures of speech. And I used examples such as God represented as a protecting hen, nursing mother, and angry mother bear.
Afterward, a scholar approached and stated that imagery for God as female in Scripture is only ever referenced in simile—which comes with words such as “as” or “like.” He went on to say that full-on metaphor, in which God is something—such as “Jesus is the Door” or “the Branch” or “the Good Shepherd”—is never used to reference God as female. For example, Jesus did not say “I am a mother hen,” but that he wanted to gather his people “like a mother hen.” This man’s implication was that God was directly masculine but only indirectly feminine.
I won’t even bother to disect his assertion about metaphor vs. simile. We'll go straight to the biblical text to test his hypothesis. But let's begin by first looking at some similes, because these too are instructive in helping us comprehend God's self-revelation:
Hosea records God as saying, “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder…” (Hosea 13:8). Um—this mother does not limit herself to nurturing!
Moses tells readers that “Like the eagle that stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young, God spreads wings to catch you, and carries you on pinions” (Deut. 32:11–12). Interestingly, the same author spoke in Genesis 1 of the Spirit hovering over the unformed void. I wonder if “the Spirit of God hovered” (Gen. 1:2) is perhaps a metaphor being repeated here in the form of a simile. (The Syriac cognate term in the latter verse does mean "to brood over" or "to incubate.")
Isaiah recorded these words as coming from the mouth of God: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (Isa. 66:13). Here we have a simile for God using nurturing imagery. And Isaiah recorded God as also saying this: “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept myself still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant” (Isaiah 42:14). Through Isaiah's similes we see God being strictly female—as a woman in labor.
Interestingly, the Gospel writers recorded the Word incarnate referring to himself as, once again, a mother hen (see Matt. 23:37, Luke 13:34), this time also using simile: “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 wings, and you were not willing!” (Was he borrowing the image from Gen. 1 and Deut. 32?)
What lovely similes these are!
Next we consider some metaphor-ish statements:
Back to Hosea. The prophet quotes God as saying: “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them” (Hosea 11:3–4). Certainly we have simile here—as seen in the word “like.” But doesn’t this instance include both metaphor and simile? God is a mother or nanny who took his people in his arms, healed them, led them, bent down and fed them. And He was also like one who lifts and holds infants cheek-to-cheek.
And what about this from Isaiah: God as speaker says, “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” (Isa. 49:15). In v. 15 we don’t exactly have straight-up simile or metaphor. God is, by way of analogy, a female. How ever we may categorize this example, God likens himself to a nursing mother.
Later the psalmist writes this: “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is within me.” Again we find female-specific imagery of God as nursing mother. But while the word “like” suggesting simile appears here, notice it refers not to God, but to the psalmist himself as being like a weaned child. By implication, God is the nursing mother.
The psalmist also says, “As the eyes of a servant looks to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to you, YHWH, until you show us your mercy!” (Psalm 123:2). This time God is depicted as the mistress of the house with maidservants. And while there is a simile in the picture, notice again that the simile refers to the human in the scenario, not God—who is the mistress in this image.
While the above verses include image-rich statements, the metaphors are buried and implied, while the similes appear overtly. But let's look at some places where we find direct metaphor:
“You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth” (Deut. 32:18). Via metaphor, God is both rock and mother who births.
Jesus’s story about the woman with the lost coin is also of interest: “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). When I ask listeners “Who is the woman in this story?” they answer “God.” No simile here, only extended metaphor.
But the most convincing metaphor of all takes us back to where we started. In the first chapter of Genesis we read: “So God created ‘adam in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (v. 27).
There is something not only directly male but directly female that images God. And in fact, the Christian tradition has a long history of using both metaphor and simile to refer to God as female:
Clement of Alexandria (AD 150–215) In “Salvation to the Rich Man” wrote of God, “In his ineffable essence he is father; in his compassion to us he became mother. The father by loving becomes feminine.” Clement also wrote this in “Christ the Educator”: “The Word is everything to his little ones, both father and mother.”
Gregory, bishop of Nyssa (335–395) wrote, “The divine power, though exalted far above our nature and inaccessible to all approach, like a tender mother who joins in the inarticulate utterances of her babe, gives to our human nature what it is capable of receiving.”
Augustine of Hippo (354–430) said, “He who has promised us heavenly food has nourished us on milk, having recourse to a mother’s tenderness.”
John Chrysostom, c. AD 407, in Antioch, Turkey wrote this in his “Homily 76 on Matthew,” personifying his speaker as Christ: “What can be equal to this munificence, I am Father, I am brother, I am bridegroom, I am dwelling place, I am food, I am raiment, I am root, I am foundation, all whatsoever you will, I am. Be thou in need of nothing, I will be even a servant, for I came to minister, not to be ministered unto; I am friend, and member, and head, and brother, and sister, and mother; I am all….”
Anselm, who went on to become archbishop of Canterbury, wrote this c. 1070:
And you, Jesus, are you not also a mother?
Are you not the mother who, like a hen,
gathers her chickens under her wings?
Truly, Lord, you are a mother;
for both they who are in labour
and they who are brought forth
are accepted by you.
You have died more than they, that they may labour to bear.
It is by your death that they have been born,
for if you had not been in labour,
you could not have borne death;
and if you had not died, you would not have brought forth.
For, longing to bear sons into life,
you tasted of death,
and by dying you begot them.
You did this in your own self,
your servants, by your commands and help.
You as the author, they as the ministers.
So you, Lord God, are the great mother.
And lest all examples come from church fathers in my cursory sampling, I'll include this from Lady Julian of Norwich (1342–1416): "For the Almighty Truth of the Trinity is our Father, for he made us and preserves us in himself; the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our mother, in whom we are enclosed; the lofty goodness of the Trinity is our Lord, and in him we are enclosed and he in us."
Doubtless due to our culture-wars debates about gender, we are working so hard to distance ourselves from female imagery relating to our triune God that we are in danger of heresy, forgetting that even male metaphors for our Triune God—words such as "Father" and "Son"—are figures of speech.
Listening to a dramatic presentation in an evangelical church one morning, I heard the voices of two men read this verse: “Let us make mankind in our own image.” Two males. A more accurate reflection of God’s self-revelation would have been male and female.
This is not radical feminism. This is orthodox Christian teaching. Let us be quick to discern the difference.