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When I was very young, I once heard adults talking about a couple who had left a church because they felt that the church was no longer being faithful to the Bible. The only detail I remember about the supposedly unfaithful church was this comment, made in a shocked and disdainful tone of voice: “They were calling God ‘Mother’!”
I processed this tidbit of information and concluded that thinking of God as a mother must be very bad indeed, a conclusion that was subtly confirmed by the churches where I grew up. But here’s the rub. If God is, indeed, exclusively (or even primarily) our Father instead of our Mother, then fathers offer a clearer, more accurate reflection of God’s relationship with us than mothers do.
As a child I managed to ignore that logical conclusion, but as I became a mother myself I could not escape its implications. If fathers were a clearer reflection of God’s love for his children than mothers, that would mean that my children could see God’s love for them more clearly in my husband than in me. If that was the case, was I truly created in God’s image to the extent that my husband was? Was I not somehow a lesser picture of God?
So I began investigating these rumors about God revealing himself as a father rather than a mother. And it’s true that God never specifically says, “I am your Mother.” But it’s also true that the Bible is full of vivid maternal imagery about God, imagery that is only meaningful if we allow ourselves to think of God as a mother as well as a father.
God’s Self-Revelation as Father
As a child, I was taught that my father’s love for me was meant to be a picture of God’s love for me. God’s love remains perfect even when earthly fathers utterly fail to love, but for me God’s fatherly love was easy to grasp because my dad was an amazing guy who loved me well. My mom was just as amazing and loved me just as well, and I was taught that motherhood was one of the most important jobs on the planet, which I still believe it is. But I didn’t grow up consciously seeing my mom’s love for me as a reflection of God’s love for me, and I continued to believe that it would somehow be sinful to think of God as Mother. I heard people say that God chose to reveal himself as our Father, so we ought to respect his wishes and view him as Father, not Mother.
As I investigated this idea, I discovered that God first refers to himself as a father in Deuteronomy 32:6: “Isn’t [God] your Father who created you?” (NLT). The first time that a name, title, or description is used often sets the tone for its use later, so the first time God calls himself a father is a good thing to pay attention to.
This introduction of God as Father is even more significant because it occurs in the song that God told Moses to teach to all the Israelites so that it would “never be forgotten by their descendants” (Deut. 31:21, NLT). This song, traditionally called the Song of Moses, gives us God’s own words about who God is and how God wanted to be remembered by all the future generations of Israelites. Yes, God wanted to be remembered as their father. But what follows is fascinating. Immediately after referring to himself as a father for the very first time, God goes on to describe himself with three distinctly maternal images.
God’s Self-Revelation as Mother
In the churches where I grew up, Father’s Day sermons were full of wonderful illustrations about God as our Heavenly Father, and how our earthly fathers are supposed to give us glimpses into God’s amazing love and care for us. Those were great sermons, full of truth. But the Mother’s Day sermons focused mostly on what an important, influential job moms have. Those sermons were also full of truth, but it was never suggested that our earthly mothers could also give us glimpses into God’s love and care for us. And this was not an accurate reflection of how the Bible describes God. Let’s look closer at how God is described in the “Song of Moses.”
First, in Deuteronomy 32:10–11 God is described as an eagle caring for her young: “He found them in a desert land, in an empty, howling wasteland. He surrounded them and watched over them; he guarded them as he would guard his own eyes. Like an eagle that rouses her chicks and hovers over her young, so he spread his wings to take them up and carried them safely on his pinions” (NLT).
When it’s time for a baby eagle to fly on its own, the mother eagle forcibly pushes it out of its nest high on a rock and allows it to fall. The first time this happens, the baby would likely fall to its doom if the mother did not rescue it—so she does. She hovers nearby and, when it’s time for the lesson to end, she swoops under her baby and carries it, on her wings, back to the nest.1 This is what God did for Israel; God hovered near them through the wilderness and, each time they fell too far into thirst, hunger, despair, or sin, God swooped down to rescue them and carry them along.
From the mother eagle metaphor, God flows seamlessly into the next image and says that God has also cared for Israel like a woman breastfeeding a baby. Deuteronomy 32:13 in the NLT says that God “nourished them with honey from the rock,” but the verb there can be translated “to breastfeed.”2 It’s not a complicated word, and it doesn’t have a lot of different meanings. It just means to breastfeed a baby. This verse could also be accurately translated as, “God breastfed them with honey from the rock,” and this translation emphasizes further the motherhood imagery. God self-describes God’s relationship with Israel as that of a nursing mother.
But, says God in verse 18, “You forgot the God who had given you birth” (NLT). Not only is God like a father, and an eagle caring for her young, and a woman breastfeeding a baby, God (in God’s own words) is also like a woman giving birth. The verb used in this phrase carries the connotations of painful labor3—God says that God is the person who gave birth to Israel through a painful delivery. Only one person can give birth to a child, and that is the child’s mother. By definition, your mother is the person who gave birth to you. “The God who has given you birth” is your Mother as surely as “your father who created you” is your Father. Both titles are metaphors, and both are equally true about God.
God Is Our Father and Mother
All those people who told me that we needed to respect God’s wishes and view God the way God was revealed in the Bible—they were right. We do. But it turns out that the Bible does not describe God as only a father. The first time God calls himself “father,” that description is immediately followed by not one but three maternal descriptions: God is also portrayed as an eagle caring for her young, a woman breastfeeding a baby, and a mother who has given birth through painful labor. If we truly want to respect God’s wishes, we must embrace God in the way that God says God wants to be remembered by future generations—and this includes viewing God as a mother.
As I have discovered these facts and allowed them to sink into my soul, these truths have set me free to relate to God as both my Father and my Mother. The freedom to think about God as a mother and talk to God as a mother has dramatically deepened and vitalized my relationship with God. Not only that, but it has also given me a deep sense of joy and purpose in my own role as a mother. Knowing God as my Mother has given me the confidence that I, as a mother, do indeed have one of the most important jobs on the planet—the job of giving my children glimpses into the amazing love and care of their Heavenly Mother.
1. Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 21:10–34:21, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 6B (Waco, TX: Word, 2002), 797.
2. As translated in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, thêlazô “to nurse an infant,” and other English translations, as “nursed” (CEB, NRSV) and “suckled” (ESV).
3. Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, and Johann J. Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, trans. Mervyn E. J. Richardson, 4 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 1994–1999), s.v. חיל.
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