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Published Date: February 15, 2012

Published Date: February 15, 2012

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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 depicts himself in masculine imagery, and that this sets the character for what Christianity is: God is Father and Son, God is King not queen.

Let’s consider some ways that scripture leads us to see that Piper’s view is selective to the point of being misleading. Next week we’ll tackle a much more serious issue: the way that Piper reads the Gospels demonstrates a fundamental failure to understand the stories themselves.

The first indication we get in scripture of how the nature of God is represented by 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 representation of God in human gender, perhaps the only clear and intentional connection in all of scripture, is that 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.

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 whom God has entrusted to rule 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 it is employing feminine imagery. 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 Genesis 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 an 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 Genesis 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.

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.