Blind Spots and New Vision: Virginia Mollenkott’s The Divine Feminine
The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female
By Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2014 (reprint of 1984 edition)
Paperback, 120 pages
Reviewed by JoMae Spoelhof
Dr. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott’s book, The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female, has recently been reissued, and I am eager to recommend it. It beautifully illuminates the feminine images of God as portrayed in the Bible. First published in 1984, it remains a valuable tool for glimpsing a view of the Godhead that tends to be glossed over and invisible in traditional Christianity. As Mollenkott writes, “For those who accept trinitarianism, it will be striking that all three persons of the divine triad [the Creator God; the eternal Christ; and the Holy Spirit] are depicted in feminine as well as masculine images”(p. 4).
The author guides the reader through familiar scripture passages, pointing out an underlying presence of God’s feminine face. For people like me, raised in a deeply embedded patriarchal/hierarchal mindset, Virginia Mollenkott is a godsend. She addresses the power of such patriarchal teaching, power to keep one from being able to see the feminine in God. She helped me grope through layers of my own blind spots to recognize that our Creator does not recoil from language referring to God’s womb or labor pains or countless other examples of identification as female, as I once believed. Our God loves us as Mother as well as Father And Mollenkott doesn’t just tell us this, she shows us, carefully referencing each passage that points to this truth.
Her book discusses numerous instances in the Bible where God is spoken of in feminine terms. She cites many references to God as giving birth, nursing an infant, and carrying out other maternal activities. Referring to Acts 17:28 (where Paul explains to the Athenians that God is not far from anyone for “it is in God that we live and move and exist” as God’s offspring), Mollenkott points out that “although the apostle does not specifically name the womb, at no other time in human experience do we exist within another person” than our time in our mother’s womb (p. 16). Another motif the author examines is God as midwife, actively involved in delivering new life (chapter 6). And the whole of chapter 7 is devoted to teaching about the Shekinah, a grammatically feminine term referring to God’s glorious presence, as manifest in the tabernacle (and temple later on), and as the pillar of fire by night and pillar of cloud by day that guided the Israelites out of slavery.
Along with showing Christ’s affirming and empowering interactions with women, the book is full of both familiar and less familiar images unpacked to reveal fresh meaning, including Lady Wisdom, God as female homemaker, the bakerwoman God, and analogies from nature (mother eagle, mother bear protecting her cubs, mother pelican). Mother Hen, for example, so familiar to Christians from Jesus’ desire to protect Jerusalem’s children “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (Luke 13:34), is especially underscored. Through the highlighting of several Old Testament passages such as “I take shelter in the shadow of your wings” (Ps 57:1), we are reminded that Jesus’ words would have been very familiar to his Jewish listeners. Ruth and Boaz lived with that familiar image as well, and I was delighted to read of Ruth’s wonderful response to Boaz’s blessing, in which Boaz had praised Ruth for caring for her mother-in-law Naomi. “May the Lord recompense you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge” (Ruth 2:12). Mollenkott writes, “Later, Ruth takes Boaz up on that blessing, urging him to “spread your wing [Kānāp, the same word used in 2:12] over your maidservant, for you are a redeemer” (p. 94).
New to me was the prevalence of early church leaders who addressed and referred to both Creator God and Jesus Christ as Mother, embracing rather than avoiding feminine images and metaphors for God. I’d heard some of this, but the names and quotes documented in this book surprised me, as did how long this practice went on— beyond the early centuries of Christianity and well into the Middle Ages. However, while these leaders spoke of God as both mother and father, they still considered female qualities to be inferior to the male. Writes Mollenkott, “But if we can teach ourselves to value the roles traditionally associated with the female on a truly equal level with those associated with the male, the result will be the enrichment of all humanity. Inclusive God-Language is a step in the direction of that enrichment” (p. 13, italics added). She then challenges religious leaders to recognize “the female presence in their grammatical choices” and to utilize “biblical references to God as female.” She sees this as a way for these leaders to “demonstrate the sincerity of their commitment to human justice, peace, and love, and therefore to psychological and social health” (pp. 13-14).
Virginia Mollenkott later explains how we see what we expect to see in Scripture.
“All of us approach any written text with certain expectations and those expectations govern what we are able to see in what we are reading. Perhaps it is helpful to think in terms of an interpretative grid, a grid that gives clear focus on some things and blocks us from seeing others. A patriarchal interpretative grid has simply made it impossible for most people through the ages to be able to perceive the many images of God as female which are the subject of this study.” (pp. 64-65)
She further reminds us that for those whose expectations have been blocked by language teaching the exclusive maleness of God, many layers of misinformation will need to be peeled away. Looking back, I can see how true this has been in my own life. When I first read The Divine Feminine several years ago, it addressed questions I barely knew to ask. It began to open a new understanding and to bring some clarity to my questions about God and gender. But moving beyond deeply instilled patriarchal teachings took a long time. After living with these new ideas and letting them percolate, while gradually increasing my comfort level with loving God as both Mother and Father, I picked the book up again some years later. By then I was ready to take in more details, better understand my yearnings, and thereby gain the confidence to speak out. Each time I read, its message met me in a new place on my journey; and at each reading, more layers of patriarchal “blindness” fell away so that I could notice truths I hadn’t been ready to absorb before. It takes a long time for old layers of thinking to fade away and a new reality to feel normal.
Now, having read it a third time to prepare this review, even more has fallen into place. If you are grappling with lifelong patriarchal teachings about God and Christianity, pick up this gentle book! It is packed with information that will help. It will enrich your life. It has truly enriched mine. Through these pages, I see that my precious God and Savior not only is reflected in my father, but is also a God who “looks” like my mother —and me! Both male and female are created in God’s image, an image that is both masculine and feminine. I’m so glad this book is available again to enlighten the lives of a new generation.
JoMae Spoelhof lives in Rochester, New York, with her husband of 55 years, John Spoelhof. There they raised five children and cared for several more as foster parents. Reading and writing have long been her mainstay for sorting out life’s questions— whether exploring her faith or raising a family. More of her work on gender equality can be found here.