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Editor’s Note: The following first appeared on Common Consent and was delivered as a Mother’s Day talk in Sacrament Meeting.
As a man tasked with speaking on Mother’s Day, I feel that my job is to “look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen,” in the sense that I have to testify of things that I have grown up not knowing how to see, but which I believe are true. So, I begin in gratitude for the women in my life who have taught me to see, although for my part it is still through a glass, darkly.
In the first creation account in Genesis we read: “So God created humankind in his image, / in the image of God he created them; / male and female he created them.” One question that this passage immediately raises is what it means for women to be created in the image of an apparently male God. On Mother’s Day, this question seems worth pondering. Can we think Lorenzo Snow’s couplet—“As man now is, God once was; / As God now is, man may become”—beyond the ostensibly universally-human “man” and toward something specifically feminine? In Mormon terms, if we cannot imagine exalted womanhood, I do not think that we can imagine women fully human. I have friends—faithful churchgoers 51 weeks out of the year—who stay home on Mother’s Day because they see the version of motherhood presented in our discourse as too cramped and narrow for their experience. Perhaps there are women in our own ward who make a similar choice (if you know one, go knock on her door and give her a hug, or a fist bump, or whatever seems right). Our talk of “angel mothers” seems exalted, but is it really “image of God” material? My friends’ experience suggests not.
Why does this matter? When asked about the greatest commandment in the law, Jesus answered: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” If we collectively do not know what it means for women to be created in the image of God, can any of us—female or male—truly see the image of God in ourselves, enough to love ourselves as we ought? Are we then loving our neighbors in impoverished ways? Is our love of God, however ample it may be, only half of what it could be?
Whatever the answers to those questions, God surely loves us fully, and the scriptures convey a crucial part of that fullness by describing God in feminine terms. Isaiah—whose words Jesus counseled us to search diligently—gives us images of God as a nursing mother and as a laboring woman. These remarkable scriptures can guide us toward an understanding of the image of God that includes femininity—and that therefore also opens our hearts to a more capacious love of ourselves, our neighbors, and God.
The image of the nursing mother is familiar from the Book of Mormon, where Nephi quotes Isaiah 49 in 1 Nephi 21. In a modern translation, the biblical version reads: “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, / my Lord has forgotten me.’ / Can a woman forget her nursing-child, / or show no compassion for the child of her womb? / Even these may forget, / yet I will not forget you.” This section of Isaiah addresses Israel in exile. In the ancient Near East, people understood their wars with other tribes as wars between their respective gods, and the losers would often turn to worshiping the victors’ gods rather than continue worshiping the gods that had so obviously failed them. When Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and hauled its inhabitants into captivity, then, abandoning Yahweh for Marduk might have seemed like a perfectly sensible thing to do. Isaiah, though, writes prophetically to urge Israel’s continued faithfulness to a God he suggests has not abandoned them at all.
The image of nursing mother is appropriate to this purpose, for several reasons. First, it serves as a fitting counter to the hyper-masculine image of a warrior god. In contrast to other cultures in the region (and arguably also to its own past), Israelite monotheism insists that the masculine and the feminine must be part of the same god. If the male warrior seems not to have fared too well, the nursing mother still remains. God, in other words, is claiming the role of a person whom war tends to leave very vulnerable. War may bring glory to men, but it often brings intense suffering to women. (Yes, men at war suffer, too, and yet talking about that suffering seems unmanly. There’s a place for soldiers to see their own image in God the nursing mother, too.)