Models for motherhood – can we look to God for that?

Nicky Lock

Do we just look to our own mothers for that modelling? Or is there something we can learn from scripture about being a mother? When I go there, I can almost feel ripped off - it's all so blokey - 12 good men and true as the disciples, like some masculine football team, and all that talk of ripping lions apart with your bare hands.  It’s all about being shepherds, farming vines and wheat, going fishing, drinking red wine, fighting for position and mucking around in boats. 

Some biblical commentators, like John Piper, have extolled the masculine feel of Christianity:

“God revealed Himself in the Bible pervasively as king not queen; father not mother. The second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son not daughter; the Father and the Son create man and woman in His image and give them the name man, the name of the male… God has given Christianity a masculine feel."

So where does that leave us as women – can we look to scripture for both the feminine and “motherly” characteristics of God?

My mother was a reluctant mother: an intelligent woman who got a first class degree in German just after the second world war, she had worked in the top secret field of radio intercept. She didn't like cooking, managed the laundry incredibly badly and escaped into a world of books. Only later in life did I realize how deeply unhappy she must have been. She was a stay at home Mum, but there was no joy in it for her. She put a meal on the table each night and ran the chauffeur service for us children, but that was the extent of her mothering. There was limited modelling for me there to find out how to be a mother. So when I became a mother I had to work it out for myself.

As a practising Christian, maybe I could find some help in the bible?

There are some difficulties with that: references to women and the feminine in scripture are fleeting and disjointed under the influence of a long tradition debating the physical, moral and intellectual capacities of women,  which I have discussed previously.  A first-century rabbi, Eliezer, put the point sharply: "Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman... Whoever teaches his daughter the Torah is like one who teaches her lasciviousness.". We are forced to piece together references to the feminine and maternal, using Girard’s mimetic theory to “to analyse and interweave the historical fragments in order to discern wider systemic patterns at work” to create a clearer picture.

When one starts looking with this premise, there are some extraordinarily intimate and vivid pictures of the feminine and maternal aspects of God.

Arguably, rather than having one gender, God is the source of all gender. We are told that God created “humanity in his image,” “a male and a female he created them” (Gen. 1:27, 5:1–2). Thus, in order to understand God’s nature, males and females together are needed to reflect God’s image. God uses the characteristics and roles of both males and females to help people understand God’s nature.

God likened to a Mother:

1. As a woman in labour (Isa. 42:14) whose forceful breath is an image of divine power. In this Isaiah passage, God is threatening to come against Israel in power, a power likened to the forceful air expelled from the lungs of a woman who is in the final throes of labour.

2. As a mother who is nurturing and protective and does not forget the child she nurses (Isa. 49:14-15)

3. As a mother who births and protects Israel (Isa. 46:3-4). In contrast to idol worshippers who carry their gods on cattle, God carries Israel in the womb. God's maternal bond of compassion and maternal power to protect, guarantees Israel's salvation.

4. As a mother who gave birth to the Israelites (Dt. 32:18) NRSV: “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”

5. As a mother who comforts her children (Isa. 66:12-13).

6. As a loving mother who calls, teaches, holds, heals and feeds her young  (Hosea 11:1-4)

7. As a mother who works at feminine tasks:

• God as a midwife attending a birth (Ps. 22:9-10a, 71:6; Isa. 66:9) a role only for women in ancient Israel.
•  As a woman working leaven into bread (Lk. 13:18-21). This feminine image is equivalent to the image of God as masculine in the preceding parable of the mustard seed.
• God as a woman seeking a lost coin (Lk. 15:8-10).This feminine image is equivalent to the image of God as masculine in the preceding parable of the shepherd seeking a lost sheep.

What does this mean for us?

Firstly, as a mother I’m daunted… somehow the bar seems to have been lifted on my mothering. So it’s not just fathers who have to seek to follow God in their parenting, but it’s also mothers. That’s a high standard to follow. If my model for mothering comes from the way that God fiercely loves and protects us, constantly and consistently nurtures us, works persistently in building the kingdom of God, then I’ve got some self-examination to do of the ways in which I mother my children. There will be no room for slacking off, for telling myself that “good enough mothering is enough”. Maybe I go too far  – but there does seem to be some pressure of accountability when I consider this.

However, much more importantly, when we consider the fullness of God in Him not being defined by gender and gender roles: rather He is the source of those roles, we can be comforted. When we fully grasp the wonder of our God having both paternal and maternal aspects, our lives are enriched, along with being challenged.

The challenge may be for us to truly accept the loving nurture of our Lord and God in the intimacy of the feminine  - God being likened to a mother who carries us, suckles us, protects us, “binds us in cords of love” demands that we become like little children to be able to accept this level of care and nurture. We must give up our independence, and allow ourselves to be vulnerable in order that we can let God be the maternal to us. For those of us who are ardently independent, this is a real challenge.