After she retired, my friend the Rev. Dr. Barbara Thorington Green spent a year away from organized religion so that she could open herself to thinking about the Sacred in new and different ways. Her year off resulted in poetry that became the book “Calling God She? Reflections and insights of a great-grandmother, retired clergywoman, and doctor of theology.” This is one of my favorite poems in it:
Perhaps God is a quilter,
The quilter creates something warm and beautiful
out of bits and pieces of fabric,
using a variety of colors and designs.
The quilter takes things apart and puts them together again
creating something new, unpredictable, unique,
and perhaps never envisioned.
The quilter uses what is at hand
to create a blessing, sometimes planned,
sometimes created in the process.
You can see yourself as a piece of fabric
being used as part of the whole,
or you can envision the various times of life
as the fabrics and yourself as the end product.
Of course more will be added tomorrow
and the next day.
The quilt of our lives is ever changing.
Fabrics we would never chose
often add interest and character.
There can be many shapes and designs
as well as many fabrics in a quilt.
Each quilter has her own style
and way of being and doing.
The marks of the quilter
are everywhere on the quilt.
Hours of labor are required.
The results are always different,
yet in the end there is warmth and comfort.
When God is the quilter,
working internally and externally
Her marks are everywhere
creating beauty, warmth, and comfort.1
For me, Barb’s work offers freedom and respite. The ways it offers to conceive of God make space for a broader and fuller picture. I’ve spent years thinking about Barb’s assumption that she couldn’t make space for the feminine aspects of God while being connected to the institutional church – because the church’s God is too masculine. I’ve always wanted to be able to argue back at that point, but I’ve yet to find a truly valid point to use 😉
Institutional religion promoting a masculinized version of God is not new. Unfortunately, it may be a particular facet of OUR faith tradition, to start with. The ancient near eastern neighbors of the ancient Jews liked to keep their deities in gender balanced pairs. Judaism’s monotheism was particularly odd because it proposed a stand-alone MALE deity. (We may want to acknowledge that God isn’t gendered, but that’s not the same as saying that the way the ancients saw God lacked gender.) Jeremiah seems to be speaking of a masculine deity in 585 BCE, in today’s passage. He is speaking to Judean refugees, people who escaped Jerusalem during the Babylonian siege in 587-586 BCE and are residing in Egypt. These are traumatized people, as is the prophet, who have all seen the destruction of their homeland and way of life.
Jeremiah is sometimes called the prophet of the Exile. He is believed to have lived and prophesied before, during, and right after the Babylonian siege that started the exile. His early work was an attempt to convince people to change their behavior something terrible happened. In Bible Study we wondered if he got stuck in that message and forgot to update it after the terrible things all happened.
I cut most of his diatribe from our reading this morning, it is particularly miserable to listen to. His speech makes God sound like an abusive spouse. Jeremiah is angry that the Egyptian refugees are worshiping a Goddess. Now, seemingly every commentator in every Bible commentary in existence takes Jeremiah’s side in this argument, supporting the idea that worshiping a Goddess is idolatry and God had a right to act like a jealous (raving lunatic) spouse.
So, I’m going take on all of them! (Although not just for fun. I think they’re all wrong.) The women respond to Jeremiah’s furious accusations in a quite unexpected way. They respond, “Nope, we’re not doing that.” Actually, their words are even better than my summary. They respond, “‘As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we are not going to listen to you.” GIGGLE. I love the contrast between Jeremiah ranting and raving and expressing fury (I imagine him spitting a little bit at the sides of his mouth while he speaks) and the women calmly denying his authority over their lives.
The women go on to say that they’d worshiped the Goddess for generations, and that she’d always taken good care of them. The women say that things were going fine for them until they stopped worshiping the Goddess, and that everything went to hell when they stopped. Thus, they say, they’re going back to what worked.
Now, early in Jeremiah’s ministry, he got the young King Josiah to listen to him and they instituted serious reforms. The reforms including monotheism, which most scholars think is the first time it was practiced in the history of ancient Judaism. (I could proof text this for you, but I’m not going to. Let me know if you want references later!) Monotheism mean that only YHWH was to be worshiped, and that meant that the long term worship of the Goddess was suppressed. (More on this theory of the long-term worship of a Hebrew Goddess to come.)
Now, I think the theology of both Jeremiah AND the women is flawed. Judea sat on land that was the cross-roads of the ancient world and every empire that existed wanted to control it. Both groups assume a Deity who micromanages and who punishes the people for lack of faith by destroying their nation. I don’t believe in such a Deity, rather I think it stunk for the Jewish people that the “Promised Land” was such a highly prized crossroads. But, to be fair, I think that both Jeremiah and the women’s arguments are EQUALLY problematic.
All those Biblical commentators who take Jeremiah’s side claim that the real issue here was the people’s idolatry and that the response of the women shows the hard-heartedness of the people. They claim that the Jewish women were worshiping some sort of Canaanite or Babylonian Goddess, or perhaps a hybrid of the two. The Biblical commentators seem to think that God is justified in the abusive, violent language of a jealous spouse.
Ironically, they seem to miss that the presentation of God made by Jeremiah is HYPER masculine. To be fair, the origins of YHWH are in a warrior God, so there has always been a hyper masculine tone there. But Jeremiah claiming that this masculine warrior is angry and ready to kill and shame is really the very worst stereotype of masculinity imaginable, right? That’s toxic masculinity. Masculinity can be so much more and so much better than that, and it almost always is! But Jeremiah is speaking of God who is violent, jealous, and murderous, as a warrior – he is presenting God in the very worst of masculine ways.
The women are claiming that there is more to life, and more to the Divine than that. So, I’m on their side. In 1967 Raphael Patai wrote seminal book entitled The Hebrew Goddess2. It has been summarized this way, “Raphael Patai argues that the Israelites experienced the same Goddess-hunger that can be found in peoples and cultures all around the world in every age – and Patai insists, too, that the worship of a female deity by the Israelites was not an act of apostasy but rather an integral part of the religion of the Hebrews.‘”3 Patai,and those who have followed in his footsteps in looking for clues about folk religion, think that many ancient Hebrews worshiped a female Goddess they saw as YHWH’s spouse and counterpart. I think this is pretty reasonable. If you conceive of God purely in the masculine, the human need for balance well find a way to also understand God in the feminine.
The Women’s Bible Commentary thinks so too, and take it a step further. They say, “It seems certain that the Israelite women worshiped the queen of heaven. Women were excluded from full participation in temple worship, and the predominate Israelite conception of God was masculine. The queen provided them with a female deity who offered them protection and prosperity.”4I think this passage is the most overt place we can see the women’s faith. There are other places that traces of it can be found (and Patai’s book explains them all), but this is the one where it is in plain sight.
The women admit to worshiping a Goddess, and they think it is not only good, it is imperative. They reject the prophet who claims that only the male version of God can be worshiped. They just won’t! In fact, Patai mentions a letter from 419 BCE written by a military man about the Judean colony in Egypt. The collections given to the Jewish priest are enumerated. 123 people donated in the name of YHWY, 120 donated to the Queen of Heaven.5 Jeremiah appears to have lost this argument.
Now, as a 21st century Christian, I don’t think God is male, nor female. I prefer to think of God as existing beyond gender, but I also recognize that our minds are limited and metaphors are often more powerful with more specificity. Sometimes I need to imagine God as a Latina grandmother, in order to remember God’s fierce protection and love. Sometimes I need to remember my own paternal grandfather and use his unfaltering affection as a way to access God’s acceptance. I suspect most of us need metaphors for God that have gender, but that whenever we limit God by holding one image alone (particularly an image that reflects only one gender expression or only one ethnic identity), we end up missing much of God’s nature. The institutional church has often done this, and as a result, splinter groups have left in order to see God more fully. Particularly, when the conception of God that institutional religion propagates fits in with the authority figures of society (ahem, white supremacy and the patriarchy) we know that religion is NOT reflecting God, but rather its own values.
I do, vehemently, support thinking about Goddess imagery sometimes. (And thinking about God as genderqueer sometimes too.) I think those women in Egypt were right to refuse Jeremiah’s decree and to trust their own experience. I’m so thankful that their voices refuse to associate violence and abuse with the Divine! It really matters that they saw more to Holiness than what Jeremiah was claiming! It also matters that they worked together and trusted themselves more than an external authority figure! Finally, I think it matters that they choose to worship the Sacred they know to call them to life and wholeness, not the one who punished and threatened. Those women knew a lot. May we be wise enough to listen to their wisdom. Amen
1 Barbara Thorington Green, Calling God She (Middleton, DE self-published), 84-85. Used with permission.
2 Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967 first edition, 1990, 3rd edition)
3 Jonathan Kirsch, The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997) p. 224.
4 Katheleen M. O’Connor, “Jeremiah” in Women’s Bible Commenatry edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992, 1998) p. 182
5 Patai, location 1149 in Kindle version (end of chapter 2).
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305
August 13, 2017