By Jon Berry
What if we thought of God as female? It’s not so much of a stretch. In addition to all the masculine images in the Bible, there are feminine ones as well.* Psalm 22 compares God to a midwife (“Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth,” v. 9-10). Ps 131 envisions “a weaned child with its mother.” (v. 2) In the New Testament, Jesus compares his work to a hen gathering her brood (Matt 23.37).
George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, 3½ centuries ago challenged the church to recognize that the spirit of Christ spoke “in the female as well as the male.” “The Light is the same in the male and the female,” said Fox. “And it cometh from Christ… And who is it that dare stop Christ’s mouth?” (This passage has been set, remarkably, to plainsong by the Quaker songwriter Paulette Meier.)
There’s good reason one of the movements in Biblical scholarship has been to reimage God in the feminine. Women are, after all, the majority of churchgoers, at least in the Western world. And many come to church with wounds inflicted by men.
I’ve been thinking about this since reading in my professors’ notes on Psalm 23 that a case can be made for reading the Good Shepherd as female. In biblical tradition women as well as men are shepherds. “Zipporah and her sisters came to the well to water their father’s flock. Rachel…arrived at the well with her father’s flock, ‘for a shepherd [was] she.’” In much of the world, young women continue to be shepherds.
I’ve long had an uneasy relationship with Ps 23. I heard it before I read it – before I knew how to read – and never heard the punctuation in the first verse. I thought it read “The Lord is [the] shepherd I shall not want.” Why would you want a shepherd you don’t want?
Since Ps 23 was said so often at funerals – and, from an early age, I went to funerals – I thought it was about the shepherd who led you to death: the Grim Reaper. The shepherd with his crook: death. Laying down in green pastures: death. The river: Styx. The valley of the shadow of death: death. Rather than seeing the anointing and cup-runneth-over as symbols of a happy life, I saw them as funeral rituals. Dwelling in the house of the Lord forever: heaven. Psalm 23 was to me the psalm of death and, frankly, that wasn’t a notion I especially wanted to entertain as a kid; I was more into living.
Seeing the shepherd, instead, as a woman, with the qualities that might entail – strong, watchful, caring, protective, for example – could over time move this Psalm back into the realm of life for me. Ditto some of the nuances of new translations, such as reading the last line of Ps 23, in Hebrew, should not be “forever” but “for many long days.” “The viewpoint of this poem,” writes the translator Robert Alter, "is in and of the here and now and is in no way eschatological. The speaker hopes for a happy fate all his born days, and prays for good fortune to abide in the Lord’s sanctuary, a place of security and harmony.”
For me that works.
* Since I’ve written this essay for a class on Psalms, I am writing about the Western tradition; feminine images of God in other cultures would be another essay.
To read Psalm 23, click here. The link is to the NRSV, but you can toggle to other versions, including the King James (the one many of us grew up with).
To learn about or buy “Timeless Quaker Witness in Plainsong,” Paulette Meier’s wonderful, spare recordings of quotations from early Friends, click here.
The class notes for Psalm 23 quote Ezekial, by Nancy Bowen (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010), p. 213-214; for more on that book, or to buy a copy, click here.
My last paragraph quotes Robert Alter’s wonderful, earthy, new translation, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary” (New York: WW Norton, 2009), p. 80. For more information, or to buy a copy, click here.
Last, women, increasingly, are also "shepherds" of church congregations as ministers; click here for a wonderful essay, by a Presbyterian pastor from Pennsylvania, drawing out this image.