I’ve just got to Ruth in my current voyage through the Bible. I’ve been looking forward to it for quite a while, and when I got to it I couldn’t resist reading the whole thing at once rather than chapter by chapter :) Why do I like it so much? I guess that, like most women, I’m a sucker for a love story…
But it’s more than that: Ruth convinces me that God isn’t so masculine that He doesn’t get me. God knows what it’s like to be a woman.
Please don’t mishear me. In the Bible, God has primarily revealed Himself as ‘male’ – He is Father, Son, King, Bridegroom…. And I’m not at all keen on diminishing that. It seems to me that those who want to refer to God as (S)he or ‘It’ are trying to erase or relativise an aspect of God’s character that He is quite consistent about. I don’t think gender is just a construct and I don’t think that the creation account allows us to argue that it is. And so, if gender is real and meaningful, then God describing Himself as masculine displays something real and meaningful about Him to the world. As a woman I think that the doctrine of God’s masculinity is something to be defended and celebrated.
Equally, though, Genesis 1:27 describes the LORD creating human beings this way:
‘In the image of God He created him;
male and female He created them.’
The parallelism between the first and second lines, a typical feature of Hebrew poetry, means that the second line further explains the first. In the image of God…male and female… Both maleness and femaleness are integral to mankind’s image-bearing role. So God’s character is not fully revealed to the world by either sex individually. There are glimpses of this throughout the Bible, as God compares Himself, for example, to a nursing mother (Isaiah 49:15), and Jesus describes Himself as a mother-hen (matt 23:37). So femininity has something to reveal to the world about who God is too.
But most of us know that, at least in our heads. Yet at heart level things are often different. For some reason I often still find myself asking “does God know what it’s like to be a woman?” On one level, the answer’s obvious: of course He does, He made women women. But you don’t have to be a feminist (and I’m not) to appreciate why this is such a loaded question for many women. Women have spent much of their history feeling misunderstood, side-lined, even being used and abused, by male-dominated society. There’s a lingering fear, here, that maybe God’s just like every other man. Maybe all this female language He applies to Himself is just so much extended metaphor, with little real content. After all, God has been a man, in Jesus, but He’s never been a woman. Is the God of the Bible secretly just as paternalistic and prejudiced as the cultures into which the Bible was written? Does He have a cardboard cut-out understanding of feminity? People often claim that He is and that He does.
Which is where Ruth becomes so precious. It would be impossible to do justice to the way the Bible portrays womanhood in less than a full-length book, and I’m not the person to try. But Ruth is a reassurance, if we need one (and I often do) that God does understand women. The action happens in a women’s world – one that centres on human relationships, not power-play. And the women in it aren’t wimpy but courageous. I think women sometimes reject the God of the Bible because they’ve been fed a caricature of ‘Biblical feminity’: Jesus wants you to be dutiful and busy and plain. And they reject that vision of womanhood, either because they don’t want to be that woman, or because they know they can’t be that woman (they’re too messy, too loud, too…something). And if that view of womanhood was God’s idea… well I wouldn’t want that God. Would you?
But the women in Ruth aren’t like that. They’re fiercely devoted, brave, strong, beautiful and vulnerable. God wants me to be a Ruth sort of woman? Then He’s a God I’m willing to commit my whole self to, even as a woman; He’s a God I’ll choose to trust with my femininity, as well as with everything else.