The Womb of God
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
23 September 2007
As I have prepared for this sermon series, one thing that became clear is that the Book of Jeremiah is filled with feminine and transgendered imagery. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's work our way up to that, by starting at the beginning.
In the passage read tonight from Jeremiah 1, we heard,
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.
Then I said, "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."
But the Lord said to me,
"Do not say, 'I am only a boy';
for you shall go to all whom I send you
As I prepared for this study I began to focus on the image that runs through Jeremiah of being formed or shaped by God. And so I began to focus on this text as a clue to a God-shaped life. Of course, one meaning of this is the life of Jeremiah himself. We learn much about Jeremiah's inner state in this book as he struggles with his calling and his faith. Here is wonderful literature about the human spiritual and emotional life.
But more than Jeremiah is being shaped in and by this book.
Jeremiah is the longest book in the Bible. It is a rich text. It is not an easy text. It calls for study and meditation. It requires imagination, because its meanings are not obvious. But it will yield great reward if we engage the text with the energy it calls for. In fact, I think that the very process of engaging this text will God-shape our lives.
Jeremiah, the people, and God are being shaped by their relationships and the events of the wider world. Just like us, they run the gamut of emotions and experiences – ecstatic joy and dark despair. Throughout this text run many themes, including amazement, grief, pain, wrath, sex, terror, suffering, hope, and compassion. Our study will focus on these various themes and how they relate to one another. Not just how they relate to one another in this book of Jeremiah, but, importantly, how they relate to one another in our own spiritual lives.
Now, if our lives are being God-shaped, then that raises some questions. One of those is "what is God like?" Who is this God we are worshipping? Exactly what shape are we taking on?
Now, there are many different metaphors used of God in Jeremiah and throughout scripture. Some have more depth than others. For example, in Hosea dry rot is used as a metaphor to describe God. Now, dry rot is not the most expressive of metaphors. Not a lot you can do with that one in art and liturgy. I've never heard anyone begin their prayer, "We come to you today, O most holy Dry Rot," though if they did, they'd be using a legitimate biblical metaphor. The point is, that some images are richer and convey a greater depth and variety of meaning.
So, as I was preparing, I came across the suggestion by Angela Bauer-Levesque in her commentary on Jeremiah that the womb described her in Jeremiah 1 is not just the womb of Jeremiah's mother, but is also a reference to God's womb. If so, that's a pretty significant metaphor. Can this reading of the text be supported? Is the metaphor of God's womb available to us? Does it help us understand what it means for our lives to be shaped like God's? So, I went exploring, and I want to take you along with me.
Our first clue is found in Jeremiah 31, where we read:
Thus says Yahweh:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
Thus says Yahweh:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
. . . there is hope for the future . . .
your children will come back to the land
You are likely familiar with this passage, since we read it during the Christmas season when the children of Bethlehem are slaughtered by the soldiers of King Herod. But, according to OT scholar Phyllis Trible, this powerful text about motherhood goes on with God identifying as the mother. Now listen to this translation in which Yahweh, the God of Israel, speaks about God's own womb. Remember, God is the one speaking here:
Is Ephraim my dear son? my darling child?
For the more I speak of him,
the more I do remember him.
Therefore, my womb trembles for him;
I will truly show compassion upon him.
The oracle of Yahweh.
If that isn't surprising enough, the next section of the text makes a transgendered move. The people of God who have been called "my dear son" up until now, change and are described as "daughter" by this mothering God:
Return, O virgin Israel,
return to these your cities.
How long will you waver, O tournabout daughter?
For Yahweh has created a new thing in the land:
female surrounds man.
"Virgin," "daughter," even this interesting word "turnabout."
What is this new thing in the land?
Recall what God was about with the people of Israel. It was the creation of a new community, the shaping of a new people. A people who would follow the way of God, a people who would be like God. The God-shaping of lives.
But what might this strange, final phrase mean, "female surrounds man?" Many of the commentators and translators write that this verse is difficult to translate or understand, so they just kinda ignore it. Phyllis Trible, however, thinks it is the key to understanding the passage. Here God is calling upon the female spiritual experience as necessary to understand God's new work in the land.
There is impending doom. Because of their sins, the people of Israel are about to undergo invasion, conquest, death, and exile. Jeremiah is warning the people of the impending catastrophe and providing hope for the future. And Jeremiah 31 seems to be a clue that the female experience is necessary to comprehend what God is doing. So, with clue one we have a suggestion of an idea.
Clue number two will help us to understand further what's going on here. Clue two is in Jeremiah 9, where we read,
Thus says the Lord of hosts:
Summon the dirge-singers, the mourning women, let them come;
send for skilled women to come;
let them quickly start a wailing for us,
so that our eyes may run down with tears,
and our eyelids flow with water.
For the sound of wailing is heard from Zion:
How we are ruined!
How greatly we are ashamed!
Ah, we must leave our land,
Abandon our dwellings!
Hear, O women, the word of Yahweh,
let your ears receive the word of his mouth;
teach your daughters a dirge,
and each to her neighbor a lament.
Death has climbed through our windows,
Here in the book of Jeremiah, God calls on the powerful spiritual and emotional experience of women to deliver God's message.
Remember with me. It's the scene in Steel Magnolias when the funeral for Shelby has ended and the only people left in the cemetery are M'Lynn and her friends. Truvy, Clairee, Ouiser, and Annelle are there to comfort M'Lynn.
M' Lynn: I find it amusing. Men are supposed to be made out of steel or something. I just sat there. I just held Shelby's hand. There was no noise, no tremble, just peace. Oh god. I realize as a woman how lucky I am. I was there when that wonderful creature drifted into my life and I was there when she drifted out. It was the most precious moment of my life.
M'Lynn then goes to leave and asks for a mirror. When she checks her hair she laughs that Shelby was right, her hair does look like a brown football helmet. Then she breaks down and starts to cry and Clairee asks if she's alright.
M'Lynn: [crying] I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine.
I'm fine! I can jog all the way to Texas and back, but my daughter can't! She never could! Oh God! I am so mad I don't know what to do! I wanna know why! I wanna know *why* Shelby's life is over! I wanna know how that baby will *ever* know how wonderful his mother was! Will he *ever* know what she went through for him! Oh *God* I wanna know *why*? *Why*? Lord, I wish I could understand!
[then, In a firm tone]
No! No! No! It's not supposed to happen this way! I'm supposed to go first. I've always been ready to go first! I-I don't think I can take this! I-I don't think I can take this! I-I just wanna *hit* somebody 'til they feel as bad as I do! I just wanna *hit* something! I wanna *hit it hard*!
Then Clairee grabs Ouiser by the shoulders and positions her in front of M'Lynn
Clairee: *Here*! *Hit this*! Go ahead M'Lynn, *slap her*!
Ouiser : [Taken aback and confused] Are you crazy?
Clairee: *Hit her*!
Ouiser : *Are you high, Clairee*?
Truvy : Clairee, have you lost your mind?
Clairee: We'll sell t-shirts sayin' "I SLAPPED OUISER BOUDREAUX!" Hit her!
Annelle: Ms. Clairee, enough!
Clairee: Ouiser, this is your chance to do something for your fellow man! Knock her lights
Ouiser : [snatches away] Let go o' me!
Clairee: M'LYNN, YOU JUST MISSED THE CHANCE OF A LIFETIME! HALF O'
CHIQUAPIN PARISH'LL GIVE THEIR EYE-TEETH TO TAKE A WHACK O' OUISER!
Then all the women, 'cept Ouiser, begin to laugh. Ouiser then calls Clairee a pig from hell and storms off, flashing the bird at them when they call for her to come back. As they continue laughing, Annelle says to Clairee, "That's not a very Christian thing to do." To which Clairee responds, "Annelle, you gotta lighten up."
Like anyone who's seen Steel Magnolias knows, God knows that women are best at mourning. Men like to hide their pain and grief. Men often live in denial of their emotions. It is women who often seem particularly suited for compassion. Because mourning is just that – compassion. Which is "suffering together," the meaning of the root words.
Like the women of Chiquapin Parish, the women of Jeremiah know how to suffer together. In this text mothers and daughters mourn together. And women grieve with their neighbor, a word that might more easily translate into contemporary English slang as your "girlfriends" or your "sisters," meaning that close bond of female friendship.
So, clue number one, in its metaphor of the womb and its trangendered language, told us that the feminine experience was key to understanding what God was doing in the land. Clue two suggests that the female experience of compassion is what we are looking for. Clue number 3 is a linguistic clue. Compassion, suffering together, is a particularly feminine trait in the Hebrew language. The Hebrew word for mercy and compassion is derived from the Hebrew word for womb. Compassion, then, in Hebrew is to have an experience with someone else that is similar to the experience that a mother has with her unborn infant.
So, where are we with our clues? The first clue told us that God was doing something new in the land by female encompassing male. The second clue was that the unique, feminine spiritual experience is needed at this point in the life of the people. What is that unique experience? Compassion. And compassion is the experience of a mother.
We are closer to answering our question, "Can the metaphor of God's womb help us in understanding how God would shape our lives?"
As we turn to clues four and five, our answer will become clearer. Clue four takes us to Exodus 34:6-7:
Yahweh passed before Moses, and proclaimed, "Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loyalty and faithfulness, keeping loyalty for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty."
This text includes the formula, "Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious." That formula, "merciful and gracious," appears more often in the Old Testament than any other to describe the God we worship. And the word merciful here is interchangeable with the word compassionate.
So, and it is really important that you get this point, every time, and it is often, that scripture reminds us that we serve a merciful, compassionate God, scripture is reminding us that our God loves us with the intimate love of a mother for the child she is carrying in her womb. God's compassion towards God's people is the experience of being carried in the womb of God.
And here's where all these things are drawn together. Clue five takes us back to Genesis 1:27:
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female, he created them
The divine image, we are told from the very beginning of scripture, is both male and female.
I think the answer to our exploration is that yes, the metaphor of God's womb is available to us for us to understand the God who is shaping us.
But what does it mean to be shaped in the womb of God? What is the experience that God is calling us to?
In profound ways, the book of Jeremiah helps us to get in touch with our feminine side. It is the experiences of women as mothers, daughters, brides, lovers, prostitutes, and victims that run throughout this book. At various times God, the prophet Jeremiah, and the people of Israel identify with the feminine in order to comprehend what is going on in their lives.
I believe that part of what God is doing in Jeremiah is reminding the people that if their experience of God ventures too far over into the masculine experiences, then they are leaving out a significant aspect of the divine nature, particularly God's compassion. Both masculine and feminine images are necessary to understand the spiritual life. But maybe in this particular moment in the life of the people, the feminine aspects of compassion are required. This intimate caring for and suffering alongside of one another is what the people really need right now.
And here's where I want to go back to Jeremiah 1 and tell you about the new reading that came to me this week. No commentator made this connection, but in the longstanding tradition of Jewish midrash, where we tell our stories from the text, I think there is a powerful queer midrash on Jeremiah 1.
God, speaking as the divine Mother, tells Jeremiah, that he was formed in the womb and called to be a prophet. Then, Jeremiah responds to this mothering God, "I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."
Only a boy. Traditionally we understand that Jeremiah is talking about his youth as an inability to be a prophet. But that themes doesn't really recur in Jeremiah. What does recur are the gendered and transgendered images. I want to suggest an imaginative reading as a queer midrash for this text. Jeremiah, responding to this divine Mother is saying, "I'm not the one you need right now because I'm only a boy."
And the divine Mother responds, "Don't say you're only a boy, I'll take care of that."
Then we turn to Jeremiah 4 and now the words of the prophet,
My belly, my belly! I writhe in pain.
For I heard a cry as of a woman in labor,
anguish as of one bringing forth her first child.
Jeremiah, worried about being only a boy, now has the experiences of a woman carrying a child in her womb. In a surprising transgendered move, the prophet Jeremiah has the unique female experience of compassion.
So, my conclusion of this imaginative exploration of the text? Part of having our lives God-shaped is identifying with the mothering-compassion of God. Otherwise, we are practicing idolatry by only focusing on one set of metaphors for God. And we are lacking wholeness as human beings. We need to get in touch with our feminine side. We need the unique experiences of the feminine in our church. We need to explore the feminine side of God in our worship and devotion. And we men need to explore the feminine sides of ourselves.
May the feminine and transgendered imagery of the Book of Jeremiah be a liberation and an encouragement to all of us to take a more holistic approach in our lives. After all, our church's mission statement is "to empower all people to experience the presence of God, to grow toward wholeness, and to act in love." And in our statement on inclusive language, we discover that one path to that wholeness is by integrating our masculine and feminine sides: "the more we are able to integrate both parts of ourselves, the closer we draw to the image and likeness of God in which we were created." The womb of God, helpful metaphor for the God-shaping of our lives.