The Maternal Heart of God

The Maternal Heart of God [2]

The concept of maternal instinct and compassion in relation to the being and character of God is found very early in biblical writings. Moses first refers to God as the God of compassion – (“El Rachum” – from the Hebrew word for womb) in Deuteronomy 4:31. A further example is found in Deuteronomy 32:18 – “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” [1]

Interestingly however, it is through the Old Testament prophets that God most clearly reveals the various maternal aspects of his heart. Perhaps nowhere is this so obvious as in the prophecy of Isaiah.

Through Isaiah God speaks clearly to his people regarding their sin, wayward behaviour and rebellion. This is a book that outlines the consequences of rebellion while at the same time holding out a message of hope and restoration. Most significantly, the  the book is prefaced by a brief summery that outlines the complaint of God with his people. It reveals the pain of his heart – the thing that hurt him most and the reason for all that will follow – “The children I raised and cared for have turned against me”.[2] In this picture I would suggest God is represented as a mother, grieving over her rebellious children.[3]

Later, God, speaking again through the prophet Isaiah and referring to his compassion for Israel, states – “Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love a child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you”. [4] He also refers to God variously as a nursing mother, a midwife and a woman in labour. [5] One of these references is particularly poignant as God proclaims to his people – “I will comfort you there (Jerusalem) as a child is comforted by its mother”. [6]

Jeremiah also reveals this maternal theme. Again, through the prophet, God states his complaint against Israel in the following terms – “To an image carved from wood they say, “You are my father”. To an idol chiselled out of stone they say, “You are my mother.” [7] Here again God is clearly jealous of inanimate idols taking the place of true father and true mother in the hearts of his people – a place that should be reserved for him alone.

If the prophets reveal a maternal aspect of God – David used maternal imagery to describe his relationship with God. For instance in Psalm 131 he describes himself being in the presence of God as “a weaned child with its mother”.[8] Elsewhere he states “You are the one who took me out of the womb: you made me trust while of my mother’s breasts. I was cast upon you at birth”. [9] And, these are only a few of the references we could turn to in this regard.

All of the above clearly indicate that God is the source of pure maternal instinct and compassion (“Rachum”), love and tender mercy.

[1] NRSV. The translation of the some versions which use the term “fathered you”, obscures the feminine action of the verb, more accurately rendered “gave you birth”. One commentator notes – “The Hebrew word in the first line can be translated as either “begot” (male activity) or “bore” (female activity); the context must provide the key. The word in the second line can only refer to female activity. Scholars have taken these two lines either as a male and a female image of God back-to-back, or they take both of them as female, due to the way this verse is located in the overall poetic structure of Deuteronomy 32. This poem is in the first person, where in Hebrew there is no distinction between male and female forms; the speaker can be either male or female. The series of activities are those that a mother would be likely to do: “it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I was to them like those who lift infants [lit., suckling children] to their cheeks [OR: who ease the yoke on their jaws]; I bent down to them and fed them.” (NRSV)”.

[2] Isaiah 1: 2

[3] This conclusion is borne our by the last chapter of this book which is replete with similar maternal imagery.

[4] Isaiah 49: 15

[5] See – Isaiah 66: 12 – 13, Isaiah 66: 9 and Isaiah 42:14

[6] Isaiah 66:13

[7] Jeremiah 2:27

[8] Psalm 131: 2 – NKJV

[9] Psalm 22: 9 and 10

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