Today is Mother’s Day, but I prefer to call this Sunday Mothering Sunday than Mother’s Day. Until we as a church can fully recover images and names for God that include the feminine, it will continue to be difficult for many to see the face of God in women and girls. We need to explore a different way of thinking theologically and imagining God. So, today is an opportunity to explore and proclaim feminine names, attributes, images and activities. Today God is calling us to be the church that embodies love, that sees the sacred worth of those struggling to escape situations of abuse. So, the challenge is thinking theologically,
which the biblical stories require us to do.
This means more than just interpreting our given orthodox biblical tradition and creedal statements. It also means being willing to think differently now than in the past!
But in reality, not a very new way, because the feminine image of God, around for generations, was successfully buried by church patriarchy as ‘pagan’.
Dr Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish feminist, in her book The Bible, Women and Violence states that well-meaning rabbis and priests and pastors play a part in perpetuating violence against women when they fail to address victims’ spiritual concerns embedded in the pages of their holy scriptures. “Many rabbis and pastors and priests fail to use the biblical text as a basis to speak out about and against domestic abuse, rape and incest.”
There they are in plain sight – stories of brutality and horror, of rape and incest and murder, of calculated cruelty and unspeakable, unjustifiable abuse against even the great King David’s daughter and many other utterly innocent women. The Bible is filled with violence against women and girls. Why? What does it mean? Are we simply to accept that this is how the world is? We misread the texts and miss the point entirely when we read these as justification or even as endorsements for such violence.
There are many troubling and misunderstood texts often cited by women struggling in the midst of marital violence, and also dangerously misconstrued text, that puts women in a place of subservience and oppression. It becomes easy to see why these passages are ignored.
The Bible is filled with many stories of violence because it was part of the culture and part of the time, but rather than endorsing the violence, or ignoring it, these stories confront the violence and condemn it. “They do not teach that women are property, rather they show the dangers of such a view.” The brutalizing of women is not a norm but a signal that a society is descending into ruin. These stories come to us as a sombre warning that we need to pay attention to the cowardice and the selfishness and the callous sense of entitlement that destroy people and families and nations.
“The worst thing the authors of the Bible could think about in terms of social disintegration [was] the rape and murder of women. The Bible recognizes that. Perhaps it’s about time the church and our society did as well.”
These stories in the Bible are intended to leave us asking the right questions, the tough questions about justice and mercy and entitlement and anger… about the roots of violence and the families in all parts of the story, about the multigenerational damage that needs to be addressed in systems, and… about forgiveness. The potential cruelty and abusiveness of blindly seeking forgiveness in place of wrestling with the larger issues that have no easy answers but engage us in the right concerns. The story of Hagar is one such example.
Slavery. Forced marriage. Surrogacy without consent. It’s no wonder I never heard the story of Hagar growing up in church! Now it’s one I often turn because it speaks to the experiences of countless women and girls today whose lives are ravaged by domestic violence, labour trafficking, child marriage, sexual slavery, and other abuses.
When the story begins in Genesis 16, Sarai and Abram have been struggling with infertility for a decade. But Sarai sees a solution: she will have Abram take her slave Hagar “as a wife” (16:3), and she will become Sarai’s surrogate. When Hagar becomes pregnant, however, Sarai does not feel relieved; she feels threatened. Hagar’s pregnancy is not the root cause of Sarai’s anger; it is merely the trigger. If we turn back a few chapters, we’ll recall that Sarai herself was a victim of sexual coercion. While she and Abram were in Egypt, her husband worried that being seen with Sarai was a liability. She was too beautiful, he explained (Genesis 12:11). Being married to her put his life in great danger because Pharaoh would become jealous once he saw them together. If she did not want him to die, she had to pretend that they were not, in fact, husband and wife, but that they were brother and sister. If you love me, you’ll do this for me. What choice does Sarai have but to go along with Abram’s lie?
I try to imagine the impact this abuse has on Sarai. First, she is unable to conceive children. Then she is abandoned by her husband and forced to marry Pharaoh (Genesis 12:15-19). If Abram could offer her up willingly to another man as if she were a commodity to be bought and sold, what purpose would she have in Abram’s life if she cannot be the mother of his children? Feeling powerless over her own body and life, Sarai wields what little sense of control she does have against Hagar, the only one inferior to her. The abused becomes the abuser, and the cycle of violence continues.
When the abuse escalates, Hagar escapes into the wilderness and heads back to her home in Egypt. Even though she is pregnant and vulnerable to any number of dangers, Hagar risks everything in search of freedom. In Genesis 16 we see the first Annunciation of Hagar. Like Sarah, Hagar would become the mother of nations. But as our parable begins the women are estranged and Hagar has run away, she’s taken flight.
Hagar calls God El-roi, “the God who sees” (Genesis 16:13a). She names God “El” which implies the feminine. The Hebrew word Elohim may be the result of a broadening of the generic El to include an ancient Semitic female god Eloah. Another term we are familiar with is El Shaddai, which is used as the name for God six times in the book of Genesis (17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; 49:25). The Hebrew “El Shaddai” can be translated: “She Who Has Breasts”. Although translators remain unsure as to the meaning of Shaddai, two possibilities which can be translated as both breast and mountain which leads to the translations of El Shaddai as “god with breasts” or “god of the mountains”. Convincing arguments can be made for both translations.
Most biblical translators choose not to translate El Shaddai as “She Who Has Breasts”, but as “God Almighty”. In the reading, I have replaced “God Almighty” with “El Shaddai”.
When we read Hagar’s story, we have an important opportunity to reflect on and better understand the disturbing realities of domestic abuse – that for those whose lives are wracked by violence, bringing an end to the cycle of abuse is never simple or easy. Just as Hagar names God as “El-roi”, the one who sees, so must one “see” Hagar. As one “sees” Hagar, one “sees” others in the church, our community hearing stories of victims as they emerge from the narrative wreckage of domestic trauma. Failure to name domestic abuse, failure to call its perpetrators to account, failure to speak frankly about the problem of domestic violence, and failure to meet victims in their wilderness of their “narrative wreckage,” is to be complicit in violence.
Miriam Therese Winter, a Catholic sister and theologian has a continuing invitation to us all is to consider the feminine image of God. Not in some cheap Hallmark Mother’s Day card theology, but addressing God in relational ways.
In one of her many reflections she offers this:
The God of history,
The God of the Bible.
is One who carries us in Her arms
after carrying us in Her womb,
teaches us how to walk,
teaches us how to soar upward
just as the eagle teaches its young
to stretch their wings and fly,
brings to birth,
clothes the lilies of the field,
clothes Eve and Adam with garments newmade,
clothes you and me
with skin and flesh
and a whole new level of meaning
with the putting on of Christ… (Winter 1987:20).
1 The Bible, Gender, and Sexuality: Critical Readings
Rhiannon Graybill and Lynn R. Huber (eds)
2 Women of the Bible – From Text to Image
Guadalupe Seijas (ed), T&T Clark 2022
3 The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic
John Shelby Spong, Harper Collins, 2013
4 The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings Paperback
John Philip Newell.
Lecture by Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, The Guibord Center