Genesis 1:24-27, 31
May 14, 2017
Rev. Chris Mereschuk
I want you to think about God for a minute. If you’re comfortable closing your eyes, then close your eyes for a minute. We’ll do a little divine free association. I want you to think about your image of God.
What is your image of God when you hear the word “God?”
What image of God comes to mind when you sang or listened to the Doxology and Gloria Patri?
How about when you pray or hear the Lord’s Prayer?
When you’re taking communion?
What image of God comes to mind when you heard the scripture this morning?
What image of God comes to mind when you are in distress, danger, or despair?
What image of God comes to mind when you are lost and grieving, uncertain or in turmoil?
When you’re happy and hopeful?
What image of God comes to mind when you feel love and loved?
What image of God comes to mind when you are in a place where you feel affirmed, protected and safe?
When you’re ready, open your eyes.
Through those various scenarios, I would bet that many of you shifted through multiple images of God – – some more clear than others, some more comforting and familiar, some mysterious or even uneasy. To my mind, each one of those questions brings about a different image of God – – an abundance of images that highlight the myriad characteristics ascribed to God and the ways in which we are invited to relate to the Divine.
I believe that we need as many images of God as possible if we are going to even come close to understanding God. And I believe that every human attempt to create a definitive and singular image of God falls short. Truly, the best we can do is catch glimpses of God’s nature by combining a diversity of images. It is also important to really think about and critique the images we hold and the images we are taught, because the images we use for God have a tremendous impact on our relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves.
In his book “The God We Never Knew,” Marcus Borg – – patron saint of Questioning Believers – – suggests that if a person’s image of God is of a mighty and vengeful warrior, then that person may be inclined toward war and vengeance. An image of a compassionate and shepherding God nurtures empathy and care in the believer. The image of a God concerned with justice and liberation empowers the believer to decry injustice and work for justice. You can quickly see the importance and influence of our images of God. In fact, it may be that the image of God we hold is the single greatest determining factor in the nature of our faith and how we live out our faith in the world.
There are many scripturally and spiritually sound images for God, and we ought to feel empowered to use whichever image or images brings us closer to the Divine. At the same time, we must be careful not to confuse the image of God for God’s actual identity.
When considering images of God, Marcus Borg distinguishes between two categories: non-humanlike and humanlike. The non-humanlike images come from nature: a rock, cloud, bear, eagle, fire, wind, or fortress. Each image draws us to the object’s defining characteristics: the rock is sure and steady; the cloud, above us and fleeting; the bear, a ferocious protector; and so on.
Then there are the humanlike images: God as a parent, a spouse, a ruler, judge, warrior, shepherd, and artisan. While these human roles, identities, or occupations are not the exclusive [function] of one gender or another, we know well that scriptural imagery and traditional or orthodox Christianity has skewed heavily toward male or masculine imagery for God and the Divine. And we must now work to right that wrong.
The Divine Feminine is deeply rooted in the story of the Judeo-Christian faith, all the way back to the Book of Genesis. But centuries of translation and scribal changes influenced by patriarchy have diminished or completely erased the feminine aspects of the Divine. This happened because Ancient Israelite culture was patriarchal. Coupled with that, the early Israelite scribes and religious leaders sought to make a sharp distinction between the religion of The God of Israel and the surrounding Canaanite religions – – some of whom worshipped feminine gods such as Ashera. So to explicitly portray God as feminine was much too close to worshipping Ashera, which was an act of apostasy that incurred God’s deadly wrath.
This combination of patriarchy and fear of apostasy in both scriptural translation and faith practice continued as patriarchy continued, and was then reinforced by Roman adoption of Christianity. And in some Christian traditions, the use of feminine imagery for God remains heretical and blasphemous to this day.
But in more progressive and primarily western Protestant Christian denominations, there has been a reclaiming of the feminine nature of the Divine over the past few decades. The campaign for Inclusive Language took root in the feminist movements of the 1970’s, seeking to bring the fight for equal gender representation into the church itself, slowly but steadily nudging liturgies and Bible translations away from the androcentric toward a little closer to inclusive and expansive.
While it remains controversial in some settings, even within the United Church of Christ, this attention to gendered language and inclusive and expansive images for God has been critical and holy work that has enabled many people to rediscover the Divine. Because, again, how we talk about God, the images we hold of God, and how religious texts, teachers, leaders, and preachers portray God has a direct and deep impact on how the individual believer relates to God, and by extension, relates to themselves, others, and the world around them. Any image we hold or any image put forth that blocks our relationship to God is a barrier the needs to be torn down. And for centuries, exclusively masculine language and imagery has been a major barrier.
If you believe that God embodies only one specific human-like image, you may elevate and privilege that human image above others – – with humans who match that image claiming superiority, and all others on the receiving end of oppression and disenfranchisement on an institutional level, and alienation from God on a personal level. To make it very plain: Consider the damage done when God is imaged as a male (and strangely enough, a White, English-speaking male), to the exclusion of all other gender identities, and how that impacts women and others on the gender spectrum who do not identify as male. If God is male and I am not, how am I a reflection of God? How am I made in God’s image? If God is male and exclusively male, does that then mean that only a male can reflect the image of God?
But we can quickly dismantle the argument that God is exclusively male within the first chapter of Genesis, in the first account of the creation of humanity. Look again at our reading today from this Inclusive Bible translation:
Humankind was created as God’s reflection:
in the divine image God created them;
female and male, God made them.
A couple of things to notice there. First, the proclamation is repeated three times. When scripture writers want you to really catch something, they repeat it closely together. Things that are repeated three times in a row are meant to stand out. You should really pay attention when something is repeated three times – – sorry, that was 4 times.
Second, consider the full implications of the proclamation itself: that Humankind was created in God’s image. Look around at humankind. Does everyone look alike? Same face shape, height, melanin levels, hair and eye color? Does everyone identify the same? Is there just one gender? Are there just two genders? The answer to all of these, of course, is no.
So when I read this scripture that tells me in triplicate that humankind was and is created in God’s image, in the divine image humankind was created, female and male God created us, then I can reach no other conclusion than that I am to believe that God embodies the spectrum of genders. God is not exclusively male, because then you could not claim that all of humankind is made in God’s image. Nor is God exclusively female, because again you could not then claim that all of humankind is created in God’s image. God both includes and transcends gender – – or (let’s be bold and reword that), God is trans-gender. God’s gender identity is as vast as humankind’s, and infinitely more so. That is all to say, we cannot fixate ourselves on an exclusive or exclusionary image of God, especially when it comes to gender.
The beauty of that scripture passage is that it gives us the grounding and the permission to use and explore inclusive and expansive language for God. Up until very recently, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible – – the text we most often use here – – was the best we had in terms of inclusive language. In cases where changing the language did not change the core message, instances of the masculine generic were edited to include both binary genders, on in some cases were changed to eliminate any gendered language. For instance, “mankind” became “humankind.” A letter or speech that opened with a greeting to one’s “brothers” is now addressed to “brothers and sisters,” or sometimes to a plural use of “beloved.”
But the pronouns for God remained unchanged – – exclusively masculine. That is until the creation of “The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation.” Rooted in the 1975 founding of “Priests for Equality,” scholars and translators came together to form the Quixote Center and set out to create, in their words, “a liturgy for all people,” inspired by the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council. In their 1975 founding statement, these activist priests and scholars confesses that the predominantly masculine terms, images, and sexist language used in and by the church was no longer adequate, and that it was “time to build gender equality into the very fabric of church life.”
Writing for the Quixote Center, Joe Dearborn comments that the process of translation was personally and spiritually transformational – – leading the authors to consider the confines of language when attempting to describe the great mystery that is God. We can get a glimpse of this transformational experience and changing perspective when we look at names for God. One name for God in particular stands out.
You may know that names in the Bible are far more than simply names. Names are often titles and descriptions of attributes. Among the many names for God is El Shaddai – – most often translated into English as “God Almighty.” This Hebrew name for God is most often connected to the early ancestors of Judaism – – Sarah, Abraham, Leah, Jacob – – and occurs in passages that relate to abundance, generational promises, and fertility. Shaddai is a derivative of the Hebrew word shad – – meaning breast. So then: El Shaddai – – the God of the breast, the God that possesses the breast, providing nourishment, fertility, and tender care. El Shaddai: the Mothering God. Or, as El Shaddai is translated in The Inclusive Bible: The Breasted One.
Hear these verses from Genesis 28:3, first from the New Revised Standard Version:
May God Almighty [El Shaddai] bless you and make you fruitful and numerous, that you may become a company of peoples.
And The Inclusive Bible:
May the Breasted One bless you; may God make you fruitful and increase your descendants until they become a family of nations.
Genesis 35:11, again from the New Revised Standard Bible:
God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply…”
And from the Inclusive Bible:
God said to [Jacob],
“I am the Breasted One.
Bear fruit, and increase your numbers!”
Finally, when Jacob is nearing death, and gives his final address to his 12 sons, he blesses Joseph, saying:
“through the God of your ancestors who aids you,
by the Breasted One who blesses you:
the blessings of Heaven on high,
the blessings of the Deep down below,
the blessings of breast and womb…
may they all rest on Joseph’s head…”
Outside of these instances of God as El Shaddai or The Breasted One, there is strong mothering imagery for God that – – almost surprisingly – – has remained through millennia of patriarchally-tainted scribing and translation. The unambiguous images of God as a Divine Mother are spoken mostly through the Prophet Isaiah, with God longing for, comforting, and assuring the exiled people of Israel.
When God is longing for Israel to return to God’s ways:
For a long time I have held my peace,
I have kept still and restrained myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in labor,
I will gasp and pant.
When God seeks to assure Israel:
As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
Reminding Israel of God’s enduring presence from the beginning, through all that may come, The Breasted One speaks, saying:
Listen to me, house of Leah, Rachel, and Jacob, and the remnant of the house of Israel:
I carried you from your conception,
I supported you from your birth;
and even when you are old, I am with you,
and when your hair turns gray I will carry you still.
I created you and I will carry you;
I will sustain you and I will save you.
And the promise of God’s steadfastness exceeding all human power:
But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.”
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me.
Much like the image of God as shepherd that we considered last week, God as a Divine Mother, God as The Breasted One who nourishes, nurtures, and sustains us, calls us into a different relationship with God – – and by extension ourselves and others. Honoring this image and adding it to the collection of diverse images of God that we hold gives us a fuller picture of God’s nature, and another way to experience God’s presence. It also invites those of us who identify with the feminine aspects of God – – in body, in gender identity, in the attributes described – – to see a little more of ourselves in God, and a little more of God in ourselves and others.
All of humanity reflects the image of God – – Imago Dei. My prayer for you is that you would find an image of God that allows you to see God’s image in yourself. I pray that you would come to believe that you are created in the image of God. In the image of God, you were created.