Podcast featuring Luther Seminary professors Eric Barreto, Cameron Howard and Amy Marga.
Article by Amy Marga.
The Bible offers a picture of God who mothers through the work of birthing, preserving, and nurturing God’s children. But such imagery is not without some tension.
God’s mothering work begins in childbirth, as most mothering work does. The sea leaps out of God’s womb (Job 38:8), and the ice is brought forth from God’s womb (Job 38:28-29). Creation thus is not just a spoken event, but a birthing event that comes from the whole being of God.
In other places, the language of birth and the female body is less clear, but ancient readers would have understood it as birthing language. Genesis 14: 19 and 22 speak of God as the “maker” of the heavens and the earth. The word, “maker” is the same Hebrew word that Eve uses when she gives birth, or “produces” her son Cain in Genesis 4:1. God also births Wisdom, as described in Proverbs 8:22-25.
Birthing language continues as a description of how creation experiences sin and its future. In Paul’s famous imagery of female groaning in active labor, the creation groans as it labors towards redemption and new life in Romans 8:22. Such mothering language also underscores the nurturing vitality of God’s creation.
Jesus Christ speaks of himself in terms of birthing a new humanity. Before his arrest and crucifixion, according to John 17:1, Jesus states that “the hour has come” -– a phrase that was used frequently to refer to the moment when active labor starts for a woman in childbirth. Christ’s use of mothering imagery in the throes of death point to the new humanity that he brings forth for the sake of the world.
Once mothers bring children into the world, they work to preserve and save their children from harm and death. Israel’s cry to God, possibly recorded while in its Babylonian exile, offers imagery of how God as a mother preserves God’s child, Israel (Deuteronomy 32:18, see this explanatory note on the Song of Moses). In Isaiah 49:13-15, God responds to the people’s cry by reassuring them with the question, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?”
Preserving children also entails feeding them. God the mother feeds God’s children in Isaiah 49:15. But in Numbers 11:12-13, God may have forgotten God’s children were hungry! Moses complains that God gave birth to Israel, but God has now left it up to Moses to feed them.
And we must not forget the birth narratives of Jesus Christ. Not only does God birth the world, God was born by a woman. Centuries of Christians have seen Mary’s body and breast milk as a symbol and sign of God’s motherly care for humanity.
Another aspect of “motherwork” in the Bible is the training and nurturing of disciples, as children are trained and nurtured by their mothers. The Gospel of John suggests that those “born of God” (John 1:12) and those “born in the Spirit” (John 3:6) are to imitate the caring acts of God. The apostle Paul imagines his own discipleship as the imitation of God’s mothering work. In Galatians 4:19, Paul writes that he must “go through the pain of giving birth” to the Galatians “all over again until Christ is formed” in them. To the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 2: 7-8) he says that his devotion to them is “like a mother feeding and lookin2g after her own children.”
The maternal language for discipleship in the New Testament was so compelling that medieval monastic leaders such as Bernard of Clairvaux urged his fellow monks to be “mothers” to those in their care.
Perhaps one of the most touching mothering images of God in the Bible comes in Hosea 11:4, where God is depicted as saying (about Ephraim): “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” This brief passage depicts the essence of mothering, namely, a woman’s relationship to the child she loves. Such imagery describes a God who has the capacity and the desire to bend down, to lift up and hold, to stroke, to cover, hug, feed, bathe, and to hold us.
Despite the Bible’s mother imagery for God, it must be acknowledged that among women who are mothers, there is ambivalence about images of divine mothering. Human mothers tell stories of exhaustion, irritation, anger, and helplessness –- feelings that are less than divine.
If maternal imagery for God deepens the pressure that is put on mothers today to be perfect or to be ideals of motherhood, or if it suggests to mothers that their struggles are signs of failure, then such biblical imagery will only oppress and alienate human mothers.
The maternal imagery for God in the Bible must be seen as a way to describe God’s care for humanity within the domestic, micro-narratives of our lives -- including care for mothers themselves! In this sense, the motherwork of God is work that can be done by men or women. It is a work of care that preserves and protects all humanity, especially mothers and their children.
Amy E. Marga is associate professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minn.
Image credit: "Mater" Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.