A God with Breasts
The last three Episcopal priests to lead my Connecticut congregation have all been female. You would never suspect that the ordination of women aroused such fierce opposition within elements of the Episcopal Church only a few short decades ago. When the first woman priest showed up in my parish as an assistant, there were a few diehard parishioners who refused to take communion from her. Stripped of its theological finery, the argument against women’s ordination was that Jesus’ apostles were all men. (Never mind that none actually functioned as a priest per se.) The apostles were male; Jesus was male; God the Father was, by definition, male. There was seemingly no room in this all-boys club for anyone lacking a Y chromosome.
How things have changed! There is now a move afoot within the Episcopal Church to expunge all masculine pronouns referring to God from its Book of Common Prayer. These would be replaced by more “gender-inclusive” language. Sooner or later, however, you run up against the fact that the Bible itself is chock full of gender references to the deity that are manifestly lacking a Y chromosome. There seems to be no getting around the fact that the God portrayed in the Old and New Testaments is unambiguously male — or is she?
We could perhaps lay this issue to rest if we have some idea what God actually looked like. We can only do that by a bit of reverse engineering, since we know from the creation story in the Book of Genesis that our kind was created in God’s image and likeness. Yet immediately we run into difficulties, since our kind comes in two varieties, male and female. The relevant verse states unequivocally that God’s image applies to both: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” If the issue of ordaining women as priests comes down to which gender bears the greater resemblance to God, it would appear that women have an equal claim.
Appearances aside, it’s hard to ignore the maleness of the Lord Most High as portrayed in Scripture. Indeed, there are notable displays of what can reasonably be described as unbridled testosterone, particularly in the Old Testament. Consider how God is introduced to the Hebrew people in the Book of Exodus. The Hebrews had reluctantly followed Moses into the wilderness to escape slavery in Egypt and now were confronted by a fire-breathing demiurge who thundered from atop Mount Sinai. They were told in no uncertain terms that they risked annihilation if they came too close. There was little danger of that. They were terrified. It’s frankly hard to imagine that a female deity would reintroduce herself to the Hebrew people after 400 years of bondage in Egypt by scaring them half to death.
Moses had the presence of mind to ask God his name when he first encountered him at the Burning Bush. God replied, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” Significantly, the name in Hebrew (YHWH or Yahweh) has no gender, either grammatically or in meaning. It is sometimes translated as “Lord,” but the literal meaning is closer to “the one who is,” without reference to gender.
Yahweh identified himself to Moses as the God of his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However, he had undergone a name change in the intervening centuries. The God who originally made a covenant with Abraham had introduced himself as El Shaddai, which is usually translated as “God Almighty.” Yet there is mounting evidence that the name change may, in fact, have been a sex change as well. The rendering of El Shaddai as “God Almighty” is based on the assumption that Shaddai comes from the Hebrew word shadad, meaning “to violently destroy.” This would certainly comport with the deity who rampaged through much of the Old Testament. However, recent scholarship suggests that Shaddai is derived from the plural form of shad, or “breast;” in which case, El Shaddai may have been a god with breasts — or should we say a goddess with breasts?
Scholars have long known that ancient Hebrews were polytheistic. After all, there was a reason why the prophets were forever accusing them of “whoring after other gods.” At one time, Yahweh may have had a consort named Asherah. As for El Shaddai, much depends on the derivation of the name. Does to come from shadad (“to violently destroy) or is it shad (“breast”)? One clue is that the name appears most often in Genesis in connection with fertility blessings, an activity more closely associated females than unbridled displays of testosterone. If so, this will take some getting used to. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob can’t have breasts, can she?