A Different Route to the Divine Feminine
God Is Not Alone: Our Mother-the Holy Spirit
By Marianne Widmalm
U.K.: Avalonia Books, 2015.
9 ½ x 7 ½ inch paperback, 452 pp., £24.99.
Reviewed by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Ph.D.
This is a learned book, packed with discussions of interest to Christian feminists who want to teach what the Bible has to say about the nature of God and male-female relationships. For that very reason it is disgraceful that a London publisher did not practice decent proof-reading. Marianne Widmalm grew up in Sweden, so perhaps English is her second language. But there is no excuse for a publisher’s providing a beautiful cover and layout while allowing egregious errors in English grammar. For instance, throughout most of the book the word prophesied is spelled prophesized; meanings are occasionally garbled, as in “they heared others speak in their own language;” and in at least a dozen places the verb does not agree with its subject, as in “The vegetarian claims does present a problem.”
A large percentage of Marianne Widmalm’s thesis is based on her analysis of Hebrew grammar. So it was especially disrespectful for Avalonia Press to publish so many English errors, which reasonably could cause readers to doubt Widmalm’s accuracy with Hebrew grammar as well. Fortunately, we are informed that the renowned Professor Noel Freedman published Widmalm’s article entitled “God’s Wife” in his journal The Biblical Historian (Feb. 2005). So we can feel reassured that Freedman found Widmalm’s Hebrew exegesis acceptable for scholarly consideration.
Having said all that, I want to emphasize some of the remarkable discussions Widmalm provides as she builds up the evidence for her thesis. The thesis itself has several facets: first, that when God said “let us make man in our image” (Gen. 1:26), a male Creator was talking to his wife; “hence, man and woman [are] created at the same time, equal, and I propose, mirroring the prototype couple in heaven” (p. 45). Furthermore, Widmalm argues that Eve “was modelled in the image of the ancient Mother Goddess and wife of El; Asherah, when the two of them together created humans” (p. 56).
Although Widmalm provides an entire chapter about the nature of God and frequently discusses the divine name El-Shadday (or El-Shaddai), she never mentions that one of its possible translations is “the God with breasts,” sticking only with “Lord of the mountain.” Clearly, El-Shadday as “a God with breasts” would undercut Widmalm’s concept that God is male, with a female consort; but some recognition of the “breasts” translation would have been welcome.
Widmalm admits that whenever the Hebrew scriptures mention Asherah, it is with denunciation, urging the people to worship only one God. Nevertheless, “She did survive… in two different subtle yet profound forms” (p. 75). The first of these survivals of God’s wife is the concept of Wisdom, personified as female in Proverbs and prominent in the Apocryphal books of Ben Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon. Then, as part of her lengthy discussion of Wisdom, Widmalm argues that “Wisdom and the Holy Spirit are one and the same” (p. 90)—i.e., both of them were present at the creation, so that Wisdom, the Spirit of God, and Asherah are one single identical “Power” (p. 91). Therefore God the Holy Spirit would be the second subtle survival of Asherah to which Widmalm had referred. Her discussions of Wisdom as a woman and the femininity of the Holy Spirit are valuable because they mention many textual details that are rarely discussed by feminists, not even when they are pointing out that in Hebrew, the word Ruah (spirit) is always feminine gender.
Widmalm includes references from early historians and church fathers and from early sources that were not included in the biblical canon but are very enlightening about what was considered true by many people during the first few centuries of Christianity. In particular, she finds in the Dead Sea Scrolls “a re-occurring theme of a celestial Mother accompanying the Divine Father” (p. 197). And she provides ample evidence that in the first centuries of Christianity, the Holy Spirit was understood as “no less than our Divine Mother” (p. 235).
So how did the God-language of Christians become so utterly male-oriented? Widmalm attributes the change partly to the language change from Hebrew to Greek, so that the Hebraic femininity of the Holy Spirit disappeared into a Greek neuter. And in the Nicene Creed “the Holy Spirit went from neuter to masculine because She was now part of an all-male Trinitarian doctrine. With this, the Mother Goddess’ open presence vanished” (p. 277).
Widmalm provides an excellent discussion of what John’s Gospel says about Jesus and divinity, showing that “In order to defend monotheism, creeds were written that did not just put Jesus on a par with God but eventually made him to be God. This separated Christianity’s [sic] more than anything else from its Hebrew origins and the religion that Jesus himself lived and defended” (p. 377).
Widmalm closes with a plea that Christians “stop overlooking the Divine feminine that is present in the Bible from beginning to end” (p. 398). She reiterates that the Holy Spirit’s female gender has been lost in translation: “If churches worldwide would be true to what the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Aramaic/Hebrew speaking Jesus taught about this, that alone would revolutionize Christianity” (p. 404).
The Christian feminists I know would readily agree that contemporary Christianity needs to be revolutionized in the direction of a divine feminine. But just as certainly, I would argue that the answer is not to worship a male God married to a female Holy Spirit who gives birth to Jesus by the baptism of the Spirit. Rather, many of us would prefer to lift up the many biblical images of God as both our Father and our Mother; of Jesus as an androgynous male (possibly even transgender) and a Child of Wisdom who gives birth through the pangs of crucifixion and resurrection; and of a Holy Spirit who is an androgynous female (possibly transgender) who inhabits and enlivens women as well as men.
Widmalm admits that “If the gender of God is not accurately translated we simultaneously lose the Divine feminine presence that exist [sic] in Scripture and complements the male Yahweh” (pp. 98-99). But she does not seem to realize that by making Yahweh exclusively male, she has already erased the Bible’s allusions to God as a nursing mother and so forth (see my book The Divine Feminine: Biblical Imagery of God as Female).
Widmalm also admits that constructing a Trinity “in an attempt to preserve monotheism” forced the Godhead into an all-male threesome, and that turning the Trinity into “male-male-female” presents “an inherent problem and imbalance” (p. 192). Widmalm is right about that. She has put her finger precisely on the reason that I and certain others prefer to see the female aspects of all three members of the Christian Trinity, rather than accepting Widmalm’s basic thesis that God is forever male and has a wife who has historically been transmuted into Wisdom and the Holy Spirit. We may accept her study as historically accurate without making it the basis of our contemporary language about God Herself/Himself/Itself.
Widmalm’s 450 pages are also worth struggling through (grammatical errors and all) because they give so many flashes of insight into so many related topics. Among them: the dating of various Gospels, canonical and otherwise; the textual sources for Shekinah as God’s female presence on earth; the Essene lifestyle; biblical ecology; Jesus as a Pharisee; the Sibylline Oracles; the concept of the divine Word in Judaism; women’s becoming men in the Gospels of Thomas and Philip; and how John’s Prologue differs from the rest of John’s Gospel.
All things considered, I recommend God Is Not Alone to any reader willing to “wrestle with the angel” in order to attain new insights.
Virginia R. Mollenkott is a lover of inspired writings and human diversities. Her Ph.D. is in English literary interpretation.