Don’t Mess with Mama!

This Sunday, Catherine Robinson will be preaching on Psalm 91, a powerful psalm about trusting in God. The other thing that underlies what is happening in this psalm that most people don’t catch is just how feminine the imagery for God is. There are lots of little hints, but they are only apparent in the original Hebrew.

First of all, the name used for God in this case is, “El Shaddai.” Not only is this a very popular Amy Grant song, but it is also a very feminine reference to God. “El” in Hebrew means, “God,” and Shaddai roughly translates “of the Mountains.” Now, because the history of translation has typically relied on old men to do the translating, this metaphor has often been interpreted to be “Almighty,” which is how most English translations handle the word. However, if you look at other poetic uses of “Shaddai,” it is often linked with the feminine—specifically it is poetic language meant to invoke images of the female anatomy–if you catch my drift. One thing we always have to remember about Hebrew writing is just how poetic it is—far more poetic than English! This kind of evocative writing is used all the time, however, the old men who have historically translated these passages either tried to avoid the allusion to women, or weren’t nearly as poetically inclined.
Secondly, there is the feminine imagery of God as Mama Eagle sheltering her chicks with her pinions. That ought to be straightforward enough.Third, another thing we miss because we don’t understand the interplay between Hebrew and Babylonian culture is the other references to “terrors at night,” or “sickness that prowls in the dark.” In the Babylonian pantheon of gods, goddesses and demons (which the Israelites lived with on a daily basis), these are specific references to female demonesses or “Lilith,” in the Hebrew adoption of the mythology. The Hebrew word this late night period is  “Lilah,” and refers to the female demon of the night (Sorry Lillith Fair, it wasn’t just about the medieval story about Adam’s first wife, she was a demon first–perhaps because old men were scared of the sacred feminine?). One thing we don’t always realize, is that the Israelites were a fairly superstitious bunch, and often had personifications of things like the evil that might lead someone to dying in their sleep. In this case a feminine evil! Not only that, but often times, the superstitious elements of the Israelite culture were part of a woman’s realm. Take a look at the book, Rav Hisda’s Daughter if you are interested in an historical fiction that deals nicely with these realities. It is no accident that the reference in this passage is even focused on feminine forms of evil!

Finally, the Hebrew word in verse 14 (khashaq) that is translated as love or devotion is not used very often. When it is used to describe a relationship, it is often about a man’s desire for a woman. In this case, it is about our desire for God.

The point of all this is that there is plenty of feminine imagery about God in our scriptures, but we have to stop depending on old men to tell us what the scriptures mean. Let’s face it, old men have had a history of translating our scriptures to only reflect the values of old men. Of course, that means those are the values that are handed down as “Christian,” values, even though there is a lot more to it than that!

The other problem this addresses is our history of seeing the God of the Old Testament as being violent, brutish and downright nasty. That is a very selective reading of the Hebrew Bible. There are plenty of texts like this one that reflect the loving, motherly, nurturing, caring, protecting God. God is, more than once, referred to as the Mama bear or Mama Eagle that will go after those that would threaten her children. This is truly powerful and wonderful imagery that we miss out on because old men tend to remake God in their own image.

Finally, take a moment for a though experiment: what would the world look like if we did have this broader and deeper understanding of God? What would our households look like if we didn’t attach masculinity to God? What would our cities look like? What would foreign affairs and global conflict look like? This is exactly why theology is important—I would argue a drastically different view of God that is deeper and wider and less attached to male values of power and strength would mean a very different culture! I thought it was telling when StephenColbert reflected on hearing a female priest preside at communion and hearing a female voice say, “This is my body broken for you.” God is so much bigger than the petty, male war-mongerer that we have made her out to be in the Hebrew Bible.

Read Psalm 91 again, and this time, envision God as fierce Mama protector. How does this change your understanding of God and of scripture? How does this effect your faith?

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