Imaging the Biblical God

Rachel Held Evans has drawn attention to John Piper’s recent declarations that Christianity has a masculine feel, and that this is, of course, great news for everyone–even women, whose feminine feel isn’t, apparently, part of what God intended for Christianity.

Piper’s point is that God intentionally depicted Himself in masculine imagery, and that this sets the character for what Christianity is: God is Father and Son, God is King not queen.

In this post I want to outline some ways that scripture leads us to see that Piper’s view is selective to the point of being misleading. Tomorrow I want to tackle a much more serious issue: the way that Piper reads the Gospels as underpinning his theology demonstrates a fundamental failure to understand the stories themselves.

The very first indication we get in scripture of how the nature of God maps onto human gender is Genesis 1. When God creates humanity in God’s own image, we read, “Male and female he created them.”

This is significant for two reasons. First, in what is the clearest connection of God to human gender, perhaps the only clear and intentional such connection in all of scripture, it is both male and female, together, who mirror God to the world.

This means that a “masculine” church or a church with a “masculine feel” is inherently lacking in its ability to reflect the image of God to the world.

But Genesis 1 isn’t simply about “being like” God in some general way.

To bear the image of God is to be the person to whom God has entrusted the rule of the world on God’s behalf. The purpose of humanity, “Let them rule the world on our behalf,” is inseparable from the categorization of these creatures as those made “in the image of God.”

In other words: it is not merely as humans that we reflect God together as male and female, but as those who rule over the world as male and female we bear the image of God. The kind of rule God has in mind is not a “masculine” rule, but a masculine plus feminine, male plus female, rule. Only this kind of shared participation in representing God’s reign to the world is capable of doing justice to the God whose image we bear.

Another dynamic of God, as God is reflected in the story of ancient Israel, is worth considering. As a religion without official goddesses, it falls to the one God to do the typically “feminine” duty of ensuring fertility.

In the ancient world, where being a woman was specially tied to bearing, nurturing, and rearing children, feminine images of God (and, of course, goddesses) were often tied to either literal or figurative bearing and nurturing of a people and/or of children.

This may lend some credibility to the idea that when the OT speaks of God as El-Shaddai. Although this is sometimes translated “God almighty,” other options have been suggested, including “God of the mountain.” But it’s worth noting that El-Shaddai is a term that appears in tandem with the covenant blessing of seed, offspring.

In Gen 17:1, God self-identifies as El-Shaddai and then institutes the covenant of circumcision which is tied to the covenant promise of offspring. Why does Genesis 35:11 say, “I am El-Shaddai, be fruitful and multiply” (cf. Gen 28:3)? Why this title for the God of fruitfulness and multiplication?

It has been argued that El-Shaddai is less a reference to God as all-powerful and more a reference to God as the one who grants fertility.

Genesis 49:25 reads:

by God, your father, who supports you,
by the Almighty (shaddai) who blesses you
with blessings from the skies above
and blessings
from the deep sea below,
blessings from breasts (shadayim) and womb.

It has been argued that Shaddai is related to the Hebrew word for breasts. Although alternative translation of “shaddai” has been “God of the mountains”–as someone who lives in a city with “twin peaks,” it seems to me that the options of “God of the mountains” and “God of the breasts” are not mutually exclusive.

In Gen 49:25 we may very well have an intentional juxtaposition of God as Father and God as nursing mother. The God of Israel is the God of womb and breast as much as this is the God of war and rain.

El Shaddai is the God who makes God’s people fruitful and multiples them. This is the God of fertility.

Good on the bra, but more "mountains" needed...

And so, when we see the Son appear in all His glory in Revelation, we are, perhaps, not entirely surprised to find this:

“His breasts are girt up with a golden girdle” (Revelation 1:13)

Ok, we are surprised to find it. So surprised, in fact, that the translations won’t have it! But mastoi are breasts. (Thanks are due to Jesse Rainbow for his article on the Son of Man’s breasts in JSNT 30 [2007] 249-53.) The great warrior king of Revelation? It’s the Son of Man, prepared to be nursing mother.

So when Paul says that he and his fellow apostles were present among the Thessalonians like a nurse or mother, perhaps we should understand that there is something distinctly “feminine” about leading the church of God. And, that this femininity is part of what it means to bear the image of God and manifest the presence of Christ.

Who is the Father of our Bible? Who is the Son? It is not only the king and conqueror, but the nurturer and nourisher, the one who cares for and holds close. Not only (I should say, stereotypically) “masculine” but also the (stereotypically) feminine.

It is the God who is only rightly and fully imaged as male and female. Together.

55 thoughts on “Imaging the Biblical God”

  1. Good words, Daniel. I am generally helped by Piper, and identify with the more moderate elements of the complementarian position. But this is unwarranted, unhelpful and needs to be undone in Reformed circles. If I remember correctly, C. S. Lewis says similar things about the masculine ethos of Christianity in a few of his essays, and his reasoning seems outlandish to me. Yes, there is another growing extreme in our culture that feminizes everything, and in which many men feel like outsiders and that they can’t be themselves. But trading one false extreme for another is unwise and can only lead to distortions.

    BTW, I think you are dead on to go to the image of God and its connection to male and female in creation, and the persistent redefinition of God’s identity in the story of Scripture to include both masculine and feminine characteristics–indeed, that the two emphases in fact often mutually interpret one another to guard from one-sided distortions. Helpful.

    1. Great reply, both genders seem to be lost , but with reformed teaching (God’s word in truth)hopefully all will come to the beautiful truth!!!!

    1. Thanks, Tripp. I appreciated your pastoral reply–and your ability to bring in both Isaiah and John Calvin. That pretty much seals the deal, right?!

      Here’s to hoping that my daughter has a better church awaiting her in 12 years…

  2. I think the explanation of shaddai as coming from the word “breast” is pretty unlikely (attestation of the word spelled with shin indicating a divinity in Palmyrene Aramaic suggests the Proto-Semitic consonant was not a {th} as it is for the “breast” word). Still, the use of feminine metaphors in the OT for God are well known. The specifically masculine metaphors for the deity are also present and unsurprising coming from a patriarchal society, but they are surprisingly few and far between. In fact, Piper fails to point out one of the single aspects of the God of the OT that distinguishes him most strongly from his counterparts in the ANE: his asexuality. If Piper really wants a “manly man” of a deity, Baal and El from Ugarit wear their masculinity far more overtly than Israel’s deity (as presented in the OT).

      1. I don’t know what the translation should be, I’m just pretty sure it isn’t “breasts.” It appears with the seed because the promise of offspring is central to the rather laconic P narrative in Gen and the use of the name El Shaddai in the patriarchal period reflects P’s understanding of revelation history (Exod 6).

        This doesn’t mean there isn’t a pun in Gen 49:25, by the way, which can be just as good as a real etymology.

  3. Thank you, Daniel, for your thoughtful post. Nathan, ISTM that, even if you are completely correct and Shaddai cannot be etymologically linked to “breasts”, it isn’t any stretch at all to see the Scripture verses Daniel linked as word-playing to make a connection of significance. That type of word play is characteristic of Hebrew poetic literature, according to Wilson & other scholars. Gary Burge of Wheaton & I corresponded re the distinction that the God who is Spirit (coram humanibus – “asexual”) is imaged in creation as both male and female humanity. The fact that the Spirit is emphasized rather than a favoring of gendered god was unusual in the ANE, was it not?

    By the way, Daniel, perhaps your photo should have been of the Grand Tetons, for which the explorers made that direct connection even if Shaddai doesn’t? :) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Barns_grand_tetons.jpg

    1. I agree about the word play. And yes, other gods in ANE were highly sexualized. God as portrayed in the OT relatively less so. Funny that Piper has latched on to an aspect of the presentation of God that is remarkably deemphasized in the bible. That’s why I (somewhat) facetiously suggested that people like Piper and Driscoll are really thinking more of the Canaanite El, who loves the ladies and enjoys a beer as much as the next guy, than the biblical YHWH.

      1. Thank you, Nathan! We do tend to project onto god(s) that behavior which we see in ourselves and people around us (anthropomorphism). IMHO, this is the perversity of an innate awareness that we’re made in God’s image, but which awareness has been distorted by sin and evil.

        As a hospice chaplain, helping folks who sought to detangle their assumptions about god from Godself necessitated listening well enough to hear exactly what their understanding of God is. (Which is one of the reasons why proselytizing irks me, so, because if we don’t listen well to our neighbors, how can a new understanding be anything but an overlay onto misunderstandings and erroneous assumptions or preconceptions? But, that’s another thought for Daniel to engage, perhaps!)

  4. Great stuff JR. My pastor and his wife team-taught this past Sunday about the nurturing qualities of God. When he got to the Thessalonians passage you mention, my pastor said that men need to grow a pair as he gestured at his chest.

  5. Hi: I’m new here but very much like this topic. It is interesting that the Aramaic word that Jesus would have used for Spirit is a feminine noun, thus…if for no other reason…prompting him to refer to the Spirit as ‘she.’ The joint identity of God as male and female in Gen 1, as you point out, is a very powerful reason to seek a way to express the feminine qualities of the Divine, Piper notwithstanding. I suggest we use the Holy Spirit as that opportunity, after all, her roles are surely consistent with what is generally prescribed as feminine roles, e.g. companion, nurturer, comforter, etc. Good article. Too bad patriarchy has biased against the divine gift of femininity.

  6. This is so refreshing to read. I must admit to serious fatigue with the Piper/Driscoll mindset that generally cuts out women as 2nd class (at best) and irrelevant (at worst). The discussion has to begin with Genesis 1 – and it has, eventually and ultimately, to end there, too. If we believe that the salvation narrative, which is the heart and soul of who we are as followers of Jesus, is about restoration as much as it is about forgiveness, then women and men TOGETHER are to build the kingdom, lead the church, preach the word, offer the sacraments, and welcome the stranger. Lopsided in either direction is missing the point. Worse, it is dismissing half the world.

  7. Might want to consider context before picking up the brickbat. A sermon on Paul as a nursing mother could be totally shaped to make it appear like the preacher was espousing Femininity 101. Same goes for God as warrior Methinks Rachel Evans doth protest a little too quickly.

    1. No, John, I think your point demonstrates that the is protesting at just the right time. To say “Christianity is x and not y” because there is x strand of teaching about God (while ignoring y strand) is lopsided and distorting.

  8. This is some great discussion. I especially loved nathan’s bit about the difference between Yahweh and the other highly sexualized ANE gods. I think this is the best way to counteract harmful and lopsided thinking in the church without going to extremes.

    my 2cents?, I think Shalom as a concept really should be highlighted here. its in Shalom that diverse people (like men and women) can be unified in mutually beneficial relationships, without hegemony or oppression in such a way where men can be men (whatever THAT means) and women can be women…just like the gentile does not have to become culturally Jewish en route to his or her union with Christ.

  9. Thanks so much for your measured and thoughtful response. This was very heartening to read. I was so dejected by Piper’s comments, but I feel more hope after hearing from you–hoping that there are other thoughtful, Christian men out there like you!

  10. I was inundated with this form of patriarchical thinking in college through books by Doug Wilson, et al…. However, I quickly came to recongize how much I did not agree with them. There was the focus on “manly” activities, such as hunting and shooting weapons that I had always found to be a way of overcompensating for something missing. I grew up in a rural area that still gives students time off from school for Deer Season. I still cannot fully connect with “Manly hunter stories”. I will be impressed when the individual kills the animal with their bare hands.

    To bring this back to a biblical basis, I remember that same Jesse Rainbow giving a paper at SBL contracting David, the Shepherd King of Israel, with the surrounding kings who were all characterised as hunters. The caring and nurturing aspects of Shepherding contain closer correlations with the “feminine” characteristics in these discussions than with the masculine.

    I have found that often, due to our human nature, we tend to overemphasize one attribute of God against the others. It is extremely difficult to keep them balanced when discussing them.

  11. Daniel, I followed Richard Beck over here. This is so good! A couple of years ago, I actually mentioned this (not your exegesis or knowledge of Hebrew, but the general idea) to a friend who had just given birth. It just occurred to me on the spot that the way Christ nourishes us by giving Himself to us as food — as life — is analogous to the way she was nourishing her child. It sounded a little strange to me (though it was I who said it), but she seemed deeply moved by the idea and I’ve kept it in my heart since then. To see that it actually has some scriptural basis encourages me greatly. Thanks!

    (BTW, I will never see our twin peaks in quite the same way!)

    Blessings, Cindy

  12. Another NT image that evokes the motherhood of God to me, is that of being born again / born from above / born of the Spirit. Which I understand is held as a key doctrine for Piper, Driscoll and freinds.

    The idea of God giving birth to us, and nurturing us in this new life (first with milk as the writer to the Hebrews says), is deeply resonant for me.

    “Ye must be born again” – Amen

  13. I followed the link from Rachel Held Evans and I’m so glad I did. I love your exegesis here–it could go a ways toward explaining some really weird passages from Margery Kempe!

  14. Thank you for this article. In addition to the passage in Genesis mentioned here as indicating how God’s image requires both female and male representation for full reflection, it is worth noting a passage in Malachi 2 that similarly demonstrates this point. In Malachi 2, God makes the point that it is not acceptable for men to divorce, or show violence towards, the “wife of their youth” (their first wife, likely to be discarded by polygamous husbands), giving the reason that it requires both a woman and a man to create “godly offspring”- in other words, that both the woman and the man are equally important in reflecting God’s image as shown in the process of human reproduction and so therefore women are no less worthy of Godly honor than men:

    “13 Another thing you do: You flood the LORD’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer looks with favor on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. 14 You ask, “Why?” It is because the LORD is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.
    15 Has not the LORD made the two of you one? You belong to him in body and spirit. And why has he made you one? Because he was seeking godly offspring.[d] So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.
    16 “I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel, “and I hate it when people clothe themselves with injustice,” says the LORD Almighty.
    (Malachi 2:16 Or “I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “because the man who divorces his wife covers his garment with violence,”)

    This passage in Malachi reinforces the passage in Genesis that asserts God’s image as requiring both genders, and I wish more Christians were aware of it.

    -Christina

  15. Thank you for this! Well said and very needed. I was also thinking of Isaiah 49:15 where God very clearly says he will be a Mother when a mother has forsaken her child.

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