Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Maternal Manifestation of God

Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother, Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death. (Genesis 24.67)


Sooner or later it falls on every believer to assess the Bible’s accuracy and completeness. Some accept it fully, going so far as to insist impeaching its factuality or questioning its gaps is a faithless act. Others grant that inaccuracies and oversights pock Scripture, if for no other reason than likely error by human writers and transcribers. Either way, Christians typically regard the Bible as sacrosanct text that stands “as is”—whether perfect and absolute or flawed and inadequate. Judaism takes a more canny approach. It starts by conceding inaccuracies and omissions are unavoidably there. Then it seeks to restore what’s mangled or missing by drawing on details found in comparable passages. Jewish believers call these extrapolations midrashim, or “studies,” and look to them for legal clarification or spiritual edification that would otherwise be lost when reading the literal text.

As any thoughtful reader knows, the Bible is woefully skewed to favor the male perspective. With very few exceptions, women are cast in secondary roles as wives, mothers, and daughters. Furthermore, those who appear without ties to a man most often are portrayed as helpless victims or harlots. While gender imbalance in Scripture went ignored by Christian scholars until very recently, it’s been a perennial concern for their Jewish counterparts. Yesterday, I clicked onto Fran’s post on the above-cited passage and discovered an extraordinary midrash intended to rectify the diminution of women in the Bible—specifically, the importance of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, and Rebekah, the wife of Isaac. The author focuses on the significance of Sarah’s tent, which has stood empty since her death three years earlier. Yet it’s remaining untouched, coupled with Isaac’s decision to marry Rebekah inside it, plainly designates it as a sacred place.

The midrash connects Sarah’s tent with Israel’s Tent of Meeting. According to Exodus 33.9, “As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses.” The cloud consistently reappears whenever God’s presence is evidenced in the Tent. The midrash retrofits this to place its origins at Sarah’s door: “All the days in which Sarah lived, there was a cloud attached to the entrance of her tent. Since she died, the cloud ceased; and when Rebecca (sic) came, the cloud returned.” With that, things get truly fascinating.


Connecting visibly divine presence with Sarah, Israel’s matriarch, is not at all far-fetched. The Jews named this holy cloud Shekinah, a feminine noun that translates as “dwelling” or “settling.” Thus, they defined Shekinah as the maternal manifestation of God—the Mother Who dwells with Her children, settling over them to protect and care for them just as a hen broods over her young. Contrary to common thought, Shekinah wasn’t an extraordinary occurrence. It was a fixture in Israel’s daily life. The Hebrews relied on it to guide them through the desert. Numbers 9.17 reports “Whenever the cloud lifted from above the Tent, the Israelites set out; where the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped.” They clung to their Mother, trusting Her to lead them to places where their needs would be met and their safety assured. She was the Source and Keeper of their lives.

The midrash links Shekinah and Sarah by witnessing Isaac’s chosen site for his marriage. The text includes no detail about the wedding itself. None is needed. Entering Sarah’s tent sets a precedent we respect to this day by opening the marital rite with “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God…” Isaac’s return to Sarah’s tent has nothing to do with sentimental attachment to his earthly mother. As the sole carrier of seed that will bring forth a nation from his union with Rebekah, he’s instinctively drawn to Shekinah, the motherly Presence that will bless and sustain his offspring for generations to come. This is what the midrash means by suggesting the cloud reappears at the tent’s entrance when Rebekah becomes Isaac’s wife.

Now suppose we do a bit of midrash-ing of our own to update the Old Testament’s Shekinah to New Testament times. Not surprisingly, the story begins with a blatant allusion to Shekinah. When Mary questions how she can conceive the Christ Child without sexual congress, she’s told, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1.35) The maternal nature of God supernaturally manifests itself through Mary and in Jesus. When we see Christ gather children to Him, restore their prematurely stolen lives, and multiply their lunches to feed thousands, we’re looking at Shekinah. We hear Shekinah when He tells us to come to Him as children, when warning us not to harm young ones, and when He mourns Jerusalem’s rebellion: “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (Matthew 23.37)

Shekinah also literally appears at four pivotal events in Christ’s life. When the angel announces His birth to the shepherds, Luke 1.9 says, “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” At Jesus’s baptism “the heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.” (Matthew 3.16). At His transfiguration, “a bright cloud” envelops Him, along with Peter, James, and John. After Jesus ascends, Acts 1.9 tells us “a cloud hid him from their sight.” We actually hear Shekinah in the second and third instances, both times declaring Jesus as “My Son.” And it’s worth noting in neither case is the voice attributed to His “Father,” even though masculine-skewed tradition prompts us to assume the Speaker is male. This assumption doesn’t jibe with Early Church perceptions of divine presence, though. Like their Jewish ancestors they also chose a feminine noun—the Greek term for “presence,” parousia—to describe the ever-present Spirit that oversees and directs the Church.

Under God’s Wing

This is very intriguing, but what does it signify to us? The main implication seems fairly obvious. When we limit our concept of God to a father figure (whether we picture Him as a gently paternal ideal or an emotionally distant authoritarian), we deprive ourselves of Shekinah’s maternal influence. While our Father provides, our Mother abides. She settles on us, sustaining us day by day. We cling to Shekinah just as the Israelites did, trusting Her to protect us and looking to Her for guidance. When we sense Her presence lift, it’s time to move on. When we hear Her voice, we listen attentively to Her counsel. When we feel Her tender restraint, we don’t take another step without Her approval. And whenever we embark on a life-changing venture, we return to Her tent to seek Her blessing.

But there’s a second aspect that heightened awareness of God’s maternal presence brings to light. The abiding nature of Shekinah invites us to see ourselves as Jesus desired, as we truly are—chicks gathered under God’s wing. The extent to which we experience nurture and growth relies on our willingness to be gathered. Straying from under-wing exposes us to predatory influences and random dangers. It draws us away from the Source and Keeper of our existence. It denies us the comforts and joy of family life. Shekinah beckons us to thrive and luxuriate in Divine Presence, to know God’s love in a distinctly maternal way. It’s an awesome opportunity we can’t possibly ignore.

(Offered with a grateful hat-tip to Fran for her extraordinary, inspiring post.)

An unconventional, yet altogether accurate image of God’s maternal manifestation as Shekinah.


Fran said...

Tim - I do not even know what to say! This is brilliant. I love what you have done with this and where you have taken this theme.

Tim said...

Ah, dear Fran, so much of this was already present in your post, I'm the one who doesn't know what to say. Thank you for opening my eyes to this amazing idea. As children of the same Mother, it's a true blessing and honor to have a sister as wonderful as you!

Blessings, and much love,

TomCat said...

Interesting notion, Tim. I can't comment on whether or not the extra-biblical tradition connecting the tent and the Tent of meeting is valid, but it's certainly possible. The totality of scripture makes it clear to me that God transcends gender.

Tim said...

Tom, thanks for coming by! The whole midrash process remains something of a mystery to me. As I understand it, the point is not to suggest the application revises or enlarges Scripture so much as it enhances it. It might be accurate to say it seeks out symbols and patterns that bring us nearer to undisclosed truth--without being able to verify it.

So you're right. It may not be valid, but is indeed possible.

You're also indubitably correct about God's transcendence of gender. I think many of us lose this by being "male-bound" in our perception of the Divine. The problem with this, of course, is that it dims our awareness of the God's feminine qualities. We end up doing what the biblical writers and scribes did, pushing God's maternal nature into secondary roles, which keeps us from experiencing Presence fully.

One final observation: Knowing God primarily as a Father (rather than a genderless, and hence bi-gender, Parent) is especially hobbling for many GLBT believers, because the coming-out process often alienates one parent more than the other. I've heard countless gay people say, "My mother's accepting, but my father wants nothing to do with me." Or vice-versa. Awareness of God as both Parents opens the door for us to seek and trust Divine acceptance as either, if not both. And for those of us whose parents unilaterally reject us, knowing God as both invites us to find the love and tolerance we can't experience in our natural families.

Finally, I echo my sentiment to Fran. It is a blessing and honor to count you as a brother tucked alongside me (and all of us here) beneath God's wing!

Love, joy, and peace to you always,

Davis said...

I always find Good News here.

Tim said...

Davis, this blesses me more than you know! I hope your summer is going well and your faith is flourishing!

Thank you, brother.