Eve and the Femininity of God
The dust has settled and the waters have risen. Upon the ground from which life finds its source, a garden is planted and roamed by the image of God reflected in the form of a human. The year is creation’s dawn, and the conclusion is that it is good. In the creation account of the first chapter of the book of Genesis alone, the word “good” is used to describe creation seven times — a number of great significance in Hebrew, denoting perfection. It is this original blessing that provides the framework for the true nature of all that is except for one thing according to the creation story recorded in chapter 2.
In Genesis 2:18, God remarks, “It is not good that the human should be alone; I will make them a helper as their partner.” The first and only mention of something being contrary to the divinely endowed goodness of creation is Adam’s solitude, humanity’s lack of community. So, God seeks to rectify the situation, creating every living creature of the air and the field, but none were found to be suitable partners until God creates another human being from the being of Adam. It’s a foundational story filled with egalitarian principles and a beautiful portrayal of just how united we are with one another and with God from the very beginning.
And yet, this story and the following events that happen in the garden have been weaponized over millennia in order to degrade, subjugate, scapegoat, and limit the very reflection of God in the form of a woman — as if the feminine was an afterthought destined for inferiority as a mere supporting role. After all, the text says that Eve is supposed to be “the helper,” which has been used to imply a place in the background and a purpose of being at the beckoned call of man. But oh how quick we are to run to forgetfulness and to use ignorance as an excuse for mistreatment. How quick we are to forget that Eve is an image of God, too.
So how does Eve reflect the image of God?
- Diversity of the divine
- Eve takes action while Adam is passive
- Equality of creation
- Challenging traditional values of femininity
Growing up amidst the desolation of the Black Death and the turmoil of political unrest in the 14th century English city of Norwich, Julian of Norwich was well acquainted with suffering. Despite society being plagued by instability and a disease that would wipe out half the population of her town, though, Julian would go on to lead a remarkable life of profound spiritual insight and theological optimism but not before dancing with her own immanent death. In the first recorded instance of a work that was written by a woman in English, Julian describes an experience she has after contracting some undisclosed illness that brought her to the very brink of her demise. Gravely ill upon her deathbed, Julian proceeds to receive a series of sixteen visions in which she encounters the crucified Christ, who intimately shares with her revelations pertaining to the nature of God and humanity’s relation to the divine. It was a profound near death experience, which, upon her recovery, prompted Julian to renounce her former life and take on the life of an anchoress — a Medieval term referring to an individual who willingly withdraws from secular society in order to lead a secluded life of prayer and spiritual devotion.
Not much is known about Julian aside from what we read in her own written work and from piecemeal biographical records. We’re not even sure if her name was actually Julian. What we do know, though, is that she took up residence in a small, enclosed room adjoining the Church of St. Julian where she would live out the remainder of her life in contemplative devotion to Christ. As the story goes, this room that she cloistered herself inside contained three windows. Through one window, Julian could gaze upon the altar within the sanctuary of the Church of St. Julian. Through a second window, Julian could receive necessities for her sustenance and hygiene like food and water. And through a third window, Julian could look out upon the streets of Norwich and engage with the individuals who approached her hermitage for spiritual direction and encouragement.
Even though she lived a life of dramatic solitude, Julian remained connected with community — supporting the seeking souls who graced her window pane by offering consolation and guidance and imparting the knowledge revealed to her about a God who is love and a God who promises that all shall be well in a world so intimately interconnected. Julian had an intuitive sense that true spirituality was just as much about our relation to others as it is about our relation to God — a God who models care, support, and love through Christ, whom Julian refers to as Mother.
In addition to masculine imagery of God, Julian includes feminine imagery of God in her writings as well particularly when it comes to Christ. For Julian, only a mother would give of herself for her children like Christ gave of himself for the world. She speaks of mercy and compassion as portrayals of the Motherhood of God, displaying an enlightened knowledge of the feminine as essential to the nature of the Divine. Contrary to popular belief, this was actually not all that new for the time. Feminine imagery, especially maternal imagery, shows up in other Medieval works as well — especially in those by Christian mystics and monastics. And no, this is not blasphemy; it’s biblical.
Our very scriptures are filled with feminine portrayals of God preserved throughout the millennia despite their patriarchal context. The Divine is described as a nursing mother; as a mama bear fiercely protecting her cubs; as wisdom in the form of a dancing woman; as feminine, life giving breath; as the very ground from which Adam was formed (yes, Adam comes from Adamah, the ground, which is feminine in Hebrew). Even Jesus describes himself as a hen gathering her young under her wing. There is an overwhelming diversity to the depiction of God — a diversity hinged upon the inclusion of the feminine as a theologically necessity. For we limit God if we consider the divine devoid of the feminine, and we limit the feminine if we consider it devoid of the diversity of the divine, which brings us to Eve.
In our scripture for today, Eve is described as being created from Adam in order to be a “helper.” This word, “helper,” and the circumstances surrounding Eve’s creation and humanity’s activities in Eden have been used to imply that Eve is somehow secondary, meant to play a supporting role and be dependent upon man. Undoubtedly, the treatment of Eve over the centuries has led to the destructively misguided permission to subjugate, objectify, and scapegoat women as inferior, less than, and mere property for the purpose of procreating, but this is nothing short of sacrilege. The church has relegated women to motherhood and meekness, domestic life and dependence, while pinning sin on the feminine in the process. I mean, Eve is just a “helper” after all, right? — a background attendant waiting upon the bidding of Adam. Well that could not be further from the truth, and the Hebrew agrees.
When we read the word “helper” in Genesis 2, the Hebrew word is ezer. Though it might be the first time this word shows up in scripture, it is certainly not the last. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, this word shows up again and again and not in the ways you might think. Its meaning ranges from helper to protector, rescuer to aid in battle. It’s used to describe the strength of a warrior and is used 16 times to describe God Herself. It shows up in 11 Psalms alone, reflecting an essential characteristic of the divine as responding to suffering not from a place of fear or dependence but from a place of empowerment, strength, and sufficiency, oftentimes as humanity’s only hope.
“Helper” does not mean child-rearer, cleaner, or cook. While there is nothing wrong with those roles, there is so much more to the image of God in the form of the feminine. “Helper” means protector of the protector-less, help for the helpless, strength for the weak; it means a leading role in helping God usher in the Kin-dom. That is who Eve represents as a woman — an image of a God who loves and protects, who holds space and who holds accountable, who raises life and who raises a voice for justice, who listens and teaches and leads and creates. To be a woman is to be the image of God — a God who cannot be limited. How dare we think that we ever could by limiting the image of God herself.
May we celebrate, empower, and give thanks for the women in our lives and for the diversity of what it means to be a woman, without whom our image of God would be utterly incomplete.