The Fecund Abyss

During Lent, we were on a journey toward death. What we discover in Easter is that there is a connection between the tomb and the womb, but what kind? The abyss of non-being has become the fear of modern humanity. Once Nietzsche killed God, we weren’t sure what we were here for. But Nietzsche’s conception of the abyss is both terrifying and peculiarly masculine. If we read the mystics, particularly the female mystics, the abyss is not the terrifying site of our destruction, but a fecund abyss, a deep ocean of love where we become who we are. The abyss is God and God is the God of Life. Thus, the abyss is a nurturing space, a maternal space, a womb.

Isaiah 61.11 tells us that God is like the soil sending up shoots. This is far from a rare reference to God as nurturer and bringer of life. If we have eyes to see – and a little bit of facility with language – we can see that feminine images of God are well represented in the Bible. Before we see what that might mean for us, let’s make the case.

El Shaddai is one of the oldest names for God in Hebrew scripture. It’s so old, we’re not sure where it comes from or what it means. One thing we’re pretty sure it does not mean is “Almighty.” The case for this interpretation relies on it being a conjugation of the Hebrew shaddad, which is a verb meaning “to desolate.” Even the entry for Shaddai in the standard Hebrew lexicon, the Brown-Driver-Briggs, includes a note indicating “etymology dubious.” All the other options in some way point to God as provider and nurturer. It could be a form of shadah, which means “breast.” A reasonable interpretation would be “the many-breasted one,” which puts us in the mind of ancient fertility figures. It could be a form of the verb shidah, which means, “to pour out (or forth);” it is used in connection with both rain and love. There are loan-words that also suggest provision and nurturing. There is an Egyptian word for the monsoon rains that swell the Nile delta to soak the crops. There is an Akkadian word that means mountain, which might not seem like a nurturing and providential image of God until you realize that the rains come over the mountain to water the fields; this is the context in which the word is found. Any way you cut it, the image of God is one of provision and not power.

Thus, we see in the testimony of Scripture a shift from a feminine image of God as nurturer to a masculine image of God as warrior. My working theory is that, as the Israelites went from wandering in the desert to dwelling in the cities of the Promised Land, they shift from reliance on the patterns of the seasons to faith in walls. Once you have an ever-flowing spring and settled agriculture, your task is to protect it. God is no longer the provider, but the protector. Your neighbors are competitors for resources, threats to be abjured or eliminated. For that you need a destroyer, not a mother. It is obscured by translators who buy into patriarchal assumptions, but the thread of the maternal God is there to see.

I wonder if one of Jesus’ unsung reforms was to be the revival of the feminine spirit in the national religion of Israel. The most obvious suggestions of this might be in the Gospel of John. John 1.18 tells us that Jesus knows God because he was close to God’s breast. It is an image of motherhood, of nursing. When Jesus’ side is pierced on the cross, blood and water come out (19.34), an image of birth, of new life for the world through Jesus’ death. But this week we looked at Luke 6.36.

In most translations, this verse is rendered, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” But a better reading is, “Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.” (Pro tip: whenever you are reading the Christian Testament and see the word “mercy,” substitute “compassion.” See if that changes your views of God and your calling toward your neighbor.) Compassion, from the Latin, literally means, “to feel with.” But Jesus would have been speaking Aramaic. In Aramaic, the word for compassion is rahim and is related to the word rehem, which means, “womb.” To feel compassion is what a mother feels for her child in the womb. Thus, Jesus is using some gender-bending wordplay here: “Be like a mother, just as your Father is like a mother.” Our calling is to nurture one another, to feel with one another, to be bound with one another on this journey into life.

But we mustn’t forget that the real call is always toward justice. Returning to Isaiah 61.11, God is compared to a garden, but God does not just grow any kind of life, but a life of justice. (Another pro tip: when you see “righteousness” in Scripture, substitute “justice.” It is not usually a call to personal piety, but to communal well-being.) In Isaiah’s vision of the future, all nations, all people, will stream toward Jerusalem in praise and thanksgiving because God nurtures justice into the world.

In another image of God’s provision, Matthew 6.25-34, Jesus cautions us not to worry. Sadly, this has become another admonition, another area for us to fall short. We worry that we worry too much. But this is not some facile command to stoicism, to ignore suffering, whether others’ or our own. It is an image of God as provider and nurturer, as the seedbed of justice. Moreover, it is a reminder to us to make God’s promises come true. If we are to be compassionate as God is compassionate, then our task is to make sure that people have no reason to fear, to worry whether their needs will be met. To paraphrase Theresa of Avila, we are the body of Christ; we are the hands and feet of God.

The abyss of the tomb can seem frightening, but is also the deep ocean of love out of which we are born. Desolation is not a lesson or a punishment; it’s just bad. However, it can be the occasion of redemption, it can be refashioned into a place of life and growth. Our memory and imagination of desolation can be reshaped and reformed into hope through the compassion, provision, and nurture of God. Each of us is called to be that for one another, to create communities of support that draw people out of death and into life. Each of us is to be a mother to one another, just like God.

Next week, we will be talking about Noah. We can’t read the whole thing in church, so I encourage you to read Genesis 6-10. Our focus will be on the necessity of discerning the good from the bad, so that we can move forward into life. See you Sunday!

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