There are a few moments from my childhood I can remember with perfect clarity. Reaching deep into the back of the cluttered pantry of my memory, out comes a lesson that my dad taught me about God. We were in the car, a Volkswagen Quantum station wagon with leatherette seats that stuck to my thighs in summer and door locks that looked like black plastic golf tees. I was a child prone to asking many questions, and on this occasion I was asking about how we prayed before dinner. We would pray the Lord ’s Prayer, but sometimes we started, Our Father who art in heaven, and sometimes we started, Our Mother who art in heaven—why do we do that? After considering, he said, “God isn’t just a man like I’m a man and like you will someday be a man. God is also a woman, like your mother is a woman. God isn’t limited like we are. So when we sometimes think of God as our father, and sometimes think of God as our mother, it helps us to respect God and it helps us respect women too.”
I wasn’t raised in the church, but I had a good private tutor.
I carried my dad’s early theology lesson with me into my adult faith. But though I believed my dad was right about God not being exclusively masculine, I figured that the bible probably represented God exclusively as being like a man and that any understanding of God as being like a woman would require me to fudge the numbers a bit.
So I was honestly surprised to find that not only was my dad correct, but that the bible itself supported what he said. The idea that God isn’t exclusively a man appears in greatest Technicolor splendor in the most unusual of places, in the book of Proverbs. I did not expect to find any feminine language for God in the book of Proverbs, because as the name implies, Proverbs is a collection of advice, rules to live by such as:
A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water.
Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
Better to meet a she-bear robbed of its cubs than to confront a fool immersed in folly.
It’s practical advice about how to succeed in life, and there are hundreds and hundreds of these sayings. So what does this have to do with a feminine image of God? Well, the book of Proverbs is about Wisdom. Here I need to pause and clear up some very likely confusion in translation. In English, Wisdom is a very broad concept, almost to the point of being vague. But not so in Hebrew. The Hebrew word for Wisdom is Chochmah, and when it is applied to a person, it means something like technical skill, but to adequately capture it you need to combine the ideas of intelligence, and logic, and specialized knowledge, and the whole of scientific endeavor, and the art of influencing people.
An auto mechanic has wisdom about engines, and a doctor has wisdom about the human body, and a pilot has wisdom about flying airplanes. To be wise is to understand the laws that undergird how the world works and to use that understanding to shape the world and control the unfolding of events.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of Wisdom because Wisdom itself is a part of the fabric of the universe according to the bible. Wisdom is not a human trait like height or hair color. In the book of proverbs, Wisdom is a divine being. Wisdom is like a person who assisted God in the act of creation. The existence of Wisdom precedes the creation of the world, and it is Wisdom through whom and with whom and according to whose design God created the world. Wisdom’s fingerprints are all over creation, and Wisdom is woven into the fabric of existence. More than woven in, actually, Wisdom is the weaver of existence, the choreographer of the dance of the stars and comets, the architect of the social order of bees, Wisdom is the judge whose ruling established that the laws of physics shall everywhere and eternally be the same. Wisdom is the divine being who designed the laws governing the world, so to be wise is to grasp those laws, and to use that understanding to shape the world and control the unfolding of events.
Oh, one other thing. Wisdom is a woman. Without any anxiety at all, the book of Proverbs describes there being a divine woman who was present with God during the creation of the world. Proverbs 8: “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out: Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth, then I was beside God, like a master worker.”
At the first, before the beginning, She was with God, remind you of anything? In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him and without Him not one thing came into being.”
Twice the bible describes there being a co-creator during the creation of the world, something like a person through whom creation occurred. In the gospel of John it is the Word made flesh born that we no more must die, in the book of Proverbs it is Lady Wisdom, giving all who follow Her life.
There were not two separate creations, one overseen by a woman and the other by a man. The Word and Wisdom do not point toward separate and competing truths, they point toward the same truth. Within the very being of the eternal and infinite God, there is something like a human person. And men do not have a superior or truer claim to that. The co-eternal, co-creator of all that is can equally well be understood as a man or a woman.
The Word who was in the beginning and in whom was life and light. We need Him to understand God true. But to understand God, we also need Lady Wisdom the master worker who was ever the delight of God as She drew a circle on the face of the deep and sunk the foundations of the earth in immutable law.
That is the witness of scripture, and so, it is idolatry to exclusively portray God as being like a man. It is idolatry because it cuts away the femininity of God that is presented in the bible. Exclusively portraying God as a man does not glorify God, it glorifies men and degrades women.
So do not engage in that idolatry, and resist it if anyone tries to peddle you an idolatrous image of God as a man. Women are equally imbued with divine dignity and God is best known as including the masculine and feminine in equal spirit. If we wish to be true to scripture, we must vehemently and unwaveringly champion the equal dignity of women. To do less shows that we don’t understand human nature, and we don’t understand God’s nature either.
Or maybe my dad said it best after all in that summer car ride: God isn’t just a man like I’m a man and like you will someday be a man. God is also a woman, like your mother is a woman. God isn’t limited like we are. So when we sometimes think of God as our father, and sometimes think of God as our mother, it helps us to respect God and it helps us respect women too.
Thanks Dad, I’ll remember that.