While we often are prompted to think of the formation of Scripture as linear, from the first book that appears in the Old Testament canon (Genesis), to the last book of the New Testament (Revelation), students of the Bible know better. The Holy Script was not written in order of the way the books appear, and moreover, most books of the Bible were written in part, rather than the whole. For example, Exodus, often called the centerpiece of the Torah, is one of the oldest books of Scripture, as many scholars posit that chapter 15 of Exodus, better known as “The Song of the Sea,” may be one of the oldest of all scriptural writings. Interestingly, this particular “song” is credited to Miriam, Moses’ oldest sibling, as its composer. Miriam sings , with a chorus of women around her, about Yahweh’s mighty deliverance of a tribal/slave people from the hands of the Egyptians.
The idea of the birth of a “new people” is a recurring and prominent theme of the great book of Exodus; however, seldom are we led to think of this “birth” in terms of the way in which we may image God:
“Thus, metaphorically, the Israelites journey through the watery womb of the Great Mother and emerge reborn on dry land. The Torah describes how they are saved by the cloud of Shekhinah placed between the Hebrews and the Egyptians, so that the attackers are in the dark and the pursued are in the light. The all-powerful protective Mother destroys the Egyptians pursuers, fulfilling her assigned role as mobilizer of the armies of God and punisher of the wicked.” (“On the Wings of the Shekhinah – Rediscovering Judaism’s Divine Feminine” – Rabbi Leah Novick)
This metaphor for God, connecting the “Great Mother” and “The Womb” will be a primary consideration for the non-traditional considerations of this bible study.
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And YHWH passed in from of him and called: “YHWH, YHWH, merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and faithfulness, keeping kindness for thousands, bearing crime and offense and sin; though not making one innocent: reckoning fathers’ crimes on children and on children’s children, on third generations and on fourth generations.”
(Exodus 34: 5-7) (translated from the Hebrew Text to English – Rabbi Richard Friedman – Commentary on the Torah)
Notation of R. Friedman: “This formula, expressed in the moment of the closest revelation any human has of God in the Bible, is the closest the Torah comes to describing the nature of God.” (pg. 28 – Friedman)
Exodus 34: 6-7 is one of the most insightful and evocative texts in the entirety of Scripture because as J. Carl Laney correctly observes: “This passage is one of the most important theological texts in Scripture because it is the [ONLY PLACE] where God actually described Himself, listing His own glorious attributes.” (“God’s Self-Revelation in Exodus 34: 6-8,” J. Carl Laney).
“Yahweh, Yahweh, an El” “El” translated as “God.” (Deity/God)
The passage begins with the pseudonym or tetragrammaton (YHWH) which possesses a self-descriptive meaning:
“The Self-Existent One”
One word in Hebrew is translated in English as “I AM” or “To Be.” This means God is the “Self Existent One” depending upon nothing or no one except for God’s own self or God’s own will.
This self descriptor precedes God’s offering to Moses of God’s own character. Often called “The Thirteen Attributes,” God begins God’s resume of sacred characteristics with “compassion.” Instead of a punitive, revengeful, judging God, the only time in Scripture where God provides God’s full characteristics to the great prophet Moses, God begins this holy pronouncement with the word: “Compassion.”
Meaning in Hebrew: “rechem” – “rehem” (from Studylight.org): “mercy, compassion, love, pity, merciful.” Also means “womb,” or “bowels.”
“In its singular the noun, “rehem” means “womb” or “uterus.” In the plural, “rahamim” expands to the abstractions of compassion, mercy, and love….Accordingly, our metaphor lies in the semantic movement from a physical organ of the female body to the psychic mode of being. It journeys from the concrete to the abstract. “Womb” is the vehicle; “compassion,” is the tenor. To the responsive imagination, this metaphor suggests the meaning of love as selfless participation in life. The womb protects and nourishes, but does not possess and control. It yields its treasure in order that wholeness and well-being may happen. Truly, it is the way of compassion. “ (“God and Rhetoric of Sexuality- Phyllis Trible).
Girdlestone defines [compassion] as expressing “a deep and tender feeling of compassion, such as is aroused by the sight of weakness or suffering in those that are dear to us or need our help.” (“God’s Self-Revelation in Exodus 34: 6-8,” J. Carl Laney).
So, we understand compassion “to be” positional. Compassion compels us to step into the circumstances of the sufferer, feeling their woundedness, and desiring to affect their circumstances to relieve their pain.
As Jesus advises His followers in Luke 6: 35-36:
“Love your enemies! Do good to them! Lend to them! and don’t be concerned about the fact that they won’t repay you. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as sons of God: for He is kind to the unthankful and to those who are very wicked. Try to show as much compassion as your Father does.”
Or in Hebrew: “Be ye a womb, as your God is a womb.”
This is why God continues the resume of God’s characteristics with the attributes of: “slow to anger, great in lovingkindness to thousands, taking away iniquity, transgression and sin.”
Therefore, BEFORE we arrive at the godly characteristics of justice/judgment, God established the first order of God’s holy, self-described 13 attributes: compassion before a person sins, compassion after a person sins, giving compassion to all creatures according to their needs, merciful, slow to anger, plenteous in kindness, truth, forgiving iniquity, forgiving transgressions, forgiving sin, and pardoning.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COMPASSIONATE GOD
However, he will surely not acquit the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents on the children and their children unto the third and fourth generations.” (NRSV)
HOWEVER………………………starts the juncture where God informs Moses that God is both compassion AND justice. Rabbi Richard Friedman weighs in via this rabbinic observation:
“In eight (or nine) different ways we are told of God’s compassion. The last line of the formula (though not making one innocent”) conveys that this does not mean that one can just get away with anything; there is still justice. But the formula clearly places the weight on divine mercy over divine justice, and NEVER mentions divine anger. “
Here the words of God to Moses remind us that sin has consequences. God never states, as it is often implied and taught, that God punishes the children of the guilty. Instead the word is “visiting.” This seems to imply that the consequences of sinful behavior in the parents’ lives will inhabit their children’s environment, so to speak. The iniquities of the parents, i.e., their actions and their consequences will “sit” or visit with their children.
As Friedman further observes: “This does not mean that an individual’s bad deeds will be duplicated by his or her children and grandchildren. But, it may recognize that such deeds, for better or worse (pride or embarrassment, stigmas, conscious and unconscious imitation) that persist through generations.“
We learn in this unprecedented self-description of God, that God, “The Self-Existent One” is first and foremost the God of compassion and secondarily the God of justice.
Ultimately, as Phyllis Trible writes: “God molds in the womb all human beings………This organ (the womb) is the place of human equality, and equality is based in the creative work of a God who also governs life outside of the womb….. Thus, the female organ becomes a moral and theological event.” (Trible, pg. 36).Therefore, when Moses requests of God – “Show me your glory” (kavod in Hebrew), God does just as Moses requests. The glory or Shekhinah of God is offered to the great prophet through the divine, feminine, and all-encompassing womb love of God who bends down, with patience, lovingkindness, grace, and compassion to parent all of her children.
Questions and considerations for our discussion
How does re-imaging God as The Womb help or hinder your perspective of God and God’s properties toward humanity?
How can we begin (or can we) to introduce this new perspective to our families, our friends, and our churches?
What are some of the other non-traditional metaphors you use to image God?
Our Sending Prayer (Our Sacred Work) – The Midwife’s Prayer
Yet, it was You who took me from the womb; You kept me safe on my mother’s breast. In You, I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me, You have been my God. For You, Oh Lord, are my hope and my trust. Oh Lord, from my youth, it was You I have leaned upon. My praise is continually of You. Now, let me be a blessing to my sister. Let my prayers for her life, her vision, and her destiny be heard and honored, Oh God. Help me to keep her in my mind and in my heart, that I may call her name and her vision out to You, and You, Oh God, who heareth every prayer will answer and bless her vision. May Your Kingdom come, may Your will be done. Amen & Ase’
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