Someday, I will get to the Vatican. I just know it. I’ll stroll through St. Peter’s square, tour the museum, and visit the library. I’ll also pray in the Sistine Chapel, overshadowed by Michelangelo’s famous painting of a male God with flowing white hair, a long beard, and a muscular body. Historical artistic depictions portray a masculine God, but if both men and women are in the image of God, does it follow that there is also a feminine nature within God?
God is trinity and invisible to us, and the Bible commands us not to make a physical image of God. J. I. Packer’s classic Knowing God even advises against picturing God in our minds, simply because our pictures and metaphors will always limit who God is.
Jesus calls God father, but God’s not actually his father, for they are coequal and coeternal. We call God father, too, but when we do so, we must remember that God is like a father but is not actually a father; God is greater than a simple metaphor that denotes close relationship with the divine. The psalmist calls God a rock; God is like a rock, but not actually a rock, for God is greater than a simple metaphor that denotes the dependable and unchangeable nature of God. Metaphor is the only way finite human minds can begin to understand the infinite God, but metaphor is God’s “baby talk” so that humanity can understand only as much as a creature can possibly understand its creator.
Unfortunately, we tend to understand God through only a few biblical metaphors rather than all of them. Because we like to categorize, it’s really hard for us to know God as the creator of the distinction between male and female, and thus not bound by it. Since that distinction did not previously exist, the historical theology of the church has held that God, who did previously exist, is neither male nor female, but contains and transcends both. So when we only recognize the masculine metaphors of God, we limit God. Certainly Jesus was male, but to then assume that the Godhead is limited to maleness as Jesus was limited as a human is a mistake. God is greater than that.
Feminine metaphors for God are peppered throughout Scripture, but our eyes are not always attune to them. Only women give birth, and only women have wombs, yet God is pictured as giving birth, as a mother. In Isaiah, God speaks to the people as their mother “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?” (Isa 49:15) “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem” (Isa 66:13). “But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant” (Isa 42:14).
And it’s not just in the prophets that we see the feminine nature of God. Even Deuteronomy portrays God as a mother eagle who, “stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft” (32:10b–11). In the same chapter, Israel is reprimanded using feminine and masculine metaphor, “You deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth” (Deut 32:18, emphasis added). God is further portrayed as a fierce mother, “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack and rip them open. . .” (Hos 3:18), and a protective mother bird, “He will cover you with his feathers and under his wings you will find refuge. . .” (Ps 91:4a).
Lest we think these are only Old Testament metaphors, please note that the New Testament continues in the same vein. John shows that God gives birth to Christians, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12-13, emphasis added). Jesus even desires to act like a mother bird, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matt 23:37).
Besides acting biologically female as a mother, God also acts as a midwife, a role not limited to women, but commonly associated with them. The psalmist says to God, “Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God” (Psalm 22:9-10). Also, “ ‘Do I bring to the moment of birth and not give delivery?’ says the Lord. ‘Do I close up the womb when I bring to delivery?” says your God” (Isaiah 66:9; the obvious answer is “no”).
Furthermore, Jeremiah is called the weeping prophet; it’s thought that he weeps the very tears of God, showing God’s deep sensitivity, a characteristic commonly thought of as feminine. “Let my eyes overflow with tears night and day without ceasing; for the Virgin Daughter, my people, has suffered a grievous wound, a crushing blow” (Jer 14:17). Jesus weeps over Lazarus’s death (John 11:34), and throughout Scripture, the Godhead is described as compassionate and merciful, words that come from the word womb in Hebrew. And let’s not forget that wisdom is always portrayed as feminine or female.
The feminine nature of God is rather clear in the Bible and has been acknowledged historically, and yet women and femininity have also been devalued throughout history. Today, society teaches that sensitivity, compassion, and mercy should be suppressed in favor of rationality and detachment. Since God is sensitive, compassionate, and merciful, when we agree with society’s devaluation of the feminine, we actually devalue God. I’ve done it.
For many years, since sensitivity got me nowhere in my family and society, I suppressed mine. In doing so, I hid an important aspect of who God is, and the world was poorer because I refused to be myself. This is only one example of the ways I hid my true self, and I’m not alone in this type of hiding. When we devalue and suppress womanhood and femininity, we devalue God and rob the world.
And if you’re still not convinced that women and femininity are valued biblically, let’s consider that God spent nine months inside a woman. If anything would make me value womanhood and motherhood, it’s this. Not only has every human on this earth spent time inside a woman, so did God. The Almighty Creator of the Universe was inside a woman, and received his only sustenance from a woman during this time.
God could have made it so that Jesus just appeared on earth as an adult, but God didn’t. God made it so that God would be inside a woman.
God could have made it so that men gave birth and women had another role, but God didn’t. God made it so that God would be inside a woman.
God was physically inside a woman. God gives birth, is compassionate and merciful, acts as a midwife, and is portrayed as both a human mother and an animal mother. God not only identifies with male experience, but also identifies with female experience. This is the nature of God.
So, when I finally get to the Vatican, I won’t change Michelangelo’s historic painting. No, I will look up at it, bow my head to pray, and remember that God is not limited to that image but is so much greater.
All Scripture references are from the New International Version.