Saturday, February 27, 2016


I AM    February 27, 2016

The 1st reading on the third Sunday in Lent is Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15. It contains the best definition/description/summary of God in the Judeo/Christian tradition—I AM. God also says in this passage, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” But the name of God for these patriarchs was El Shaddai, the Breasted God (Exodus 6:3).

Unfortunately, Bible translations commonly render El Shaddai  as "God Almighty," following early influential translations. But "God Almighty" subverts the original meaning, as shown by David Biale in a February 1982 article for the journaal, History of Religions.

The ordinary Hebrew word shad means “breast.” In ancient Akkad (north of Babylonia) shadu meant both “breast” and “mountain,” a link easily understood. The Egyptian word, shdi, meant “to suckle.” The ending –ai, an Ugaritic feminine ending, occurs in the name of Abraham’s wife—Sarai.

Biale adds that the term’s context in biblical texts supports the conclusion that El Shaddai should be translated “God, the Breasted One.” Genesis 49:25-26 asks that El Shaddai bring
blessings of the heavens above,
blessings of the abyss below,
blessings of breasts [shadayim] and womb [rehem]
blessings of fresh grain and blossoms,
blessings of the everlasting mountains,
delights of the eternal hills.
Mountains and hills follow breasts and womb, just one verse of seven in Genesis indicating that “God, the Breasted One” inhabits the Book of Genesis. She is the fertility Goddess, the One who generates and regenerates.

More evidence of the Goddess in the Bible comes from Phyllis Trible in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. She tells us that the Hebrew word for "womb"—rehem—is metaphorically and grammatically linked to the Hebrew word for compassion or mercy. Womb metaphors saturate the scriptures, suffusing them with female images of the Holy One. Trible observes,
The entire process of birthing has been attributed to the deity. In various passages,
God conceives, is pregnant, writhes in labor pains, brings forth a child, and nurses it.
Translations often conceal the feminine power.

David Biale, who makes the case for Shaddai being the Goddess without ever using the word “Goddess,” concedes that for exilic and postexilic authors in later scriptures, the name meant a storm and war god. He considers it
understandable that the Septuagint and the Vulgate [two influential translations] should render Shaddai as the ‘Almighty.’
But Biale thinks that Shaddai as “remote, mysterious, and destructive” may have been adopted “because it so thoroughly contradicted the fertility interpretation.” In other words, to counter any hint of the Goddess.

The word Yahweh also is the product of sexism. Scholars think it derived from the verb “to be” and originally carried no gender bias. Scriptures write the name of God as YHWH, four consonants of the Hebrew name of God, because ancient Hebrew was written without vowels. Out of fearful reverence, the ancestors of the Jews avoided pronouncing the name and substituted Adonai, translated “Lord” in English. The original pronunciation of YHWH is lost. 

Today the name of God in the Old Testament is written and pronounced Yahweh. "The Lord,” a male individual, emerged from patriarchal pressure and the human inclination to personify God. But imagining Holiness as a lord subverts the meaning of the revelation in Exodus 3:14.

October 3, 2013
During the last half year I spent at the School of Theology I had gotten so fed up with HeHimHis God-talk that I started saying in classes, “God is not three guys in the sky.”  I didn’t know then and don’t know now how much this sank in to fellow classmates (I know professors fully understood the implications), but one day a man I assume was a seminarian handed me a little pamphlet entitled, “El Shaddai: A Feminine Aspect of God.” It was my introduction to a fascinating subject.

David Biale in “The God with Breasts” examines in more detail El Shaddai, the Goddess of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob invoked in the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus. He manages to do this without ever using the word “Goddess,” no doubt to gain entry to Christian minds, for whom “Goddess” is a dirty word.

El Shaddai was the Hebrew name of the Goddess worshipped around the globe in ancient times, which thought of what we call “God” as female. To people not conditioned as Christians, it seems entirely natural for the Creator to be imagined female rather than male. Bible translator Rodney Venberg learned this when he struggled to translate the Bible for people in Chad, Africa. For The Bible Translator, 35, he wrote:
To speak of God (Ifray) with such terms as “he” and “Father” was totally inconsistent with their grammar and went against their whole notion of the creation (after all had a man ever given birth to a child?).   
Phyllis Trible in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality was the first to teach me that the Hebrew word for “mercy” is the word for “womb.” And David Biale elaborates. He finds that five of six Genesis passages invoke El Shaddai in fertility blessings, following the “be fruitful and multiply” pattern. In the exception, Genesis 43:14, “the author senses the association between rahamim (mercy) and rehem (womb).”  Genesis 49:25-26 asks that El Shaddai bring
the blessings of the heavens above,
the blessings of the abyss below,
the blessings of breasts [shadayim] and womb[rahem]
the blessings of fresh grain and blossoms,
the blessings of the everlasting mountains,
the delights of the eternal hills.
**As I research this, I find variant spellings of the Hebrew words.
Biale notes that this passage gives not only a fertility blessing but also a wordplay suggesting a meaning for the name El Shaddai.  In ancient Akkad (north of Babylonia) shadu meant both “breast” and “mountain,” a link easily understood. In fact, as Biale pointed out, we can easily see the association in the blessings quoted here, where mountains and hills follow breasts and womb. He informs us further that shdi meant “to suckle” in Egyptian.

But my Bibles, both NAB and RSV, translate this name of God as “The Almighty,” following the authors of biblical books after the Babylonian Exile who thought of Her as a storm and war god. The influential Septuagint and Vulgate translations used that treatment and it stuck. But how inappropriate! My Inclusive Bible translates the name El Shaddai as the Breasted One.

Readers of this blogpost, know that “The Almighty” in the first two books of the Bible really is El Shaddai, the Breasted One.

Just as what we call “God” is not 3 guys in the sky, it also is not a female individual. Once we understand the one, we understand the other. “Force” or “Infinity” or “Beauty” might be better names than either Father or Mother. This is certain—the ubiquitous and mandated “father” and “lord” diminish the idea of God. Once we get past the ingrained image of the male god, we may be ready to comprehend Karl Rahner’s statement that God is not an individual. God certainly is not a mere humanlike individual, more certainly not a specifically male individual.

Atheists would be less contemptuous of Christians if more of us understood this.

Funny facts about genderconfusion in Hebrew add piquancy to this topic.  The Hebrew words for womb, breast, and nipple are masculine and the Hebrew noun denoting the foreskin of a penis is feminine. Crazy and amusing, right? But not surprising to me because similar craziness exists in German.
It reinforces something I learned from Carl Jung: each of us has characteristics of both sexes in her or his makeup. And the Creator not only encompasses both genders but invented gender itself.

El Shaddei again, December 12, 2013
When I have a question about scripture, I ask Vincent Smiles, scripture professor at St. Ben’s/St.Johns. I asked Vincent if El is masculine and whether ancient Hebrew had any term for “Goddess.” He wrote,
Yes, El is masculine and the texts suggest a masculine god was envisaged.
I cannot find a Hebrew word for goddess, which is not to say there is no such word.
El Shaddai might mean ‘breasted god’ and have originally been a name of a female deity, but there is no clear evidence that Israel understood the word in that way. The Hebrew Bible uses it exclusively in the sense of a powerful ‘almighty god’ with no hint of feminine overtones, as far as I can tell.

All of this goes along with the fact that even when a distinctly feminine IMAGE of God is present in Hebrew texts, the pronouns and verbs (verbs are ‘gendered’ in Hebrew) are always masculine.
It all just makes clear the rock hard androcentrism of the culture and language of the Bible. The better news is in texts like Luke 15:8-10, the woman who images God in Jesus’ parable.
In my previous post on El Shaddai I quoted scholar David Biale, whose analysis in the journal History of Religions harmonizes with Vincent’s statementExamining the biblical passages in which El Shaddai appears, Biale makes the case for Shaddai being a goddess, but he never uses the word “goddess” because to Hebrew authors in later literature, the name meant a storm and war god.
For this reason he considers it “understandable that the Septuagint and the Vulgate [two influential translations] should render Shaddai as the ‘Almighty.’” 

 He thinks it possible that Shaddai as “remote, mysterious, and destructive” may have been adopted “because it so thoroughly contradicted the fertility interpretation.” He refers to El Shaddai “as a fertility god—a god with breasts” and writes that Israel must “return to the ‘breast’ of the true God. Apparently he understands well the malign influence of patriarchy because he writes about “a surreptitious sex change.”

Biale finds that five of six Genesis passages invoke El Shaddai in fertility blessings, following the “be fruitful and multiply” pattern.  You will find more of his analysis in my previous post, El Shaddai.

Scholars agree that Jewish ancestors, known as Hebrews or Israelites, brought the name of Shaddai with them when they moved to Canaan from Mesopotamia. In Exodus 6:3 God replaces the divine name El Shaddai with the name YHWH.

This tetragrammaton (four letters) was used because the Israelites avoided saying aloud the holy name out of “superstitious fear, according to Biale. We do not know what YHWH stands for because ancient Hebrew was written without vowels.
What we know is that the patriarchy deleted feminine imagery of the Divine. And we are still living with it.
The Israelites did what other patriarchal cultures did—turned feminine imagery of the Divine into male imagery.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Antonin Scalia

I confess that when I heard the news of Antonin Scalia’s death I said “Thank God!” fervently, sincerely, earnestly. I have nothing against the man.  He was a good man who did what he thought was right, and now he is happily in the spiritual realm.

It’s his family and friends who deserve our sympathy.  That’s always the case when someone dies. I don’t feel sorry for the deceased—they are happier on the other side than in this time/space realm on earth. I believe that to be the case no matter what kind of life they led.

I understand Scalia was a colorful, jolly, opera-loving, friendly man, but he led others to wreak terrific havoc on our political system. With his passing we have a chance of overturning the most destructive decisions coming out of the court in the past 30 years.

We can’t undo one disatrous decision of his—putting George W. Bush in the presidency in spite of the popular vote going to Al Gore. Scalia’s claim that he based decisions on originalism—following  the original intent of the text—does not wash with this decision. It’s a glaring inconsistency that he brushed off when confronted about it. By installing his choice in the presidency, Scalia and the justices he led violated the original intent of the Constitution.

Had Gore been president, the U.S. would not have started the disastrous Iraq War that expanded Sunni/Shia rivalry that eventually created ISIS. I hold Scalia partially responsible for the mess in the Middle East that the Obama administration has been trying to manage for 8 years.

Scalia led the ultra-conservative pack in the Supreme Court to unreasonable advocacy of corporation “rights” and gun “rights.” His decision, the inappropriately named Citizens United, is allowing Big Money to corrupt our democracy. It would more aptly be called Citizens Divided or Citizens Corrupted.

Antonin Scalia is eulogized as a giant in American jurisprudence. I don’t deny his outsized influence; I decry it. I hope the country can soon get past the shadow he threw over our political system.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Downton Abbey

I admit it. I’m madly in love with Downton Abbey. Not much gets in the way of watching when it’s on television, twice a week, every Sunday and repeated on Wednesday evening. I plan my evening activities around it. If someone calls, I cut the conversation short.

The costumes, period details, and love stories don’t capture me as much as the quality of the writing and the overriding theme—class pecking order is fading. Already in the first episode in the first season this theme came through to me. A friend didn’t like the show. She criticized it as all about nobles who think they deserve their privileges. I said, “That’s the point.” I expected their privileges to be challenged.

I don’t know how Julian Fellowes managed to convey so effectively at the beginning that things would change. Maybe it’s character development; the acting rises to the level of the writing. I savor every facial expression, every line. Fortunately I can read their dialogues in captions. I asked a friend more technologically savvy than me to fix that mode on my remote because I have difficulty processing oral speech—the British accent often defeats me.

Julian Fellowes draws characters quite unlike one-dimensional Hollywood stereotypes, the downstairs staff in Downton Abbey as comprehensively as the upstairs family, and all are thoroughly human. Each has something to love as well as hate—villainy mixed with nobility. Thomas, a coward in World War I and a schemer against fellow workers, loves children and frolics with them. I’m glad the series discovered early in its development that Fellowes had to be the sole writer. No one else could stay true to the characters while they change.

All Downton characters tug at our sympathy, and Fellowes does not eschew happy endings. Political activist Tom Branson loses his beloved Lady Sybil but gains the love of her whole upper-class family. Fellowes’ characters gain wisdom, are kind to each other, and good things happen to them. Maybe this is Downton’s greatest appeal.

I have asked myself why I’m so taken by Downton Abbey. How does it fit into my passion for religion and spirituality? Julian Fellowes seems to share my fascination with human beliefs and thoughts, how they are formed, what influences them. Downton Abbey explores the evolution of sensibilities in Britain over only a few decades—the demise of the rigid, class-conscious Edwardian era to the beginning of modern democracy. I examine the evolution of religious and spiritual consciousness happening in my lifetime—the gradual demise of patriarchy sanctioned by religion.

In Britain, nobility and church hierarchy are intertwined; they lose power together. Both secular and religious spheres are moving away from top-down authority toward bottom-up authority, which neatly steps away from vain, sputtering attempts to control and simply does what it thinks best. Robert Crawley, 7th Earl of Grantham, tells his mama, the imperious dowager played inimitably by Maggie Smith, “They don’t listen to us anymore.”

Downton Abbey has few explicit ties to religion—prejudice against Jews (when Lady Rose falls in love) and Catholics (when Lady Sybil’s baby is to be baptized)—but God the Father hovers over the entire series, as it is premised on the British system of entailment. Because Lady and Lord Crawley produced no sons, modern viewers would expect the estate to be inherited by their daughters, or at least one of them, the oldest (betraying our training in hierarchy).

But no, women are not allowed to inherit property (a vestige of the Old Testament when women were property). Enter Matthew Crawley, but the actor playing him wants to move on to other roles. So Fellowes kills Matthew, shocking me and viewers around the world. Consequent to Matthew’s death, Lady Mary becomes Downton’s fiscal agent.

Fellowes’ genius for tricking positives out of negatives puts women in charge time after time. Lady Sybil defies patriarchal expectation by marrying the chauffeur, and Lady Edith becomes the owner/publisher of a magazine. Their mother, Lady Grantham, sides against Lord Grantham and with younger family members in financial disputes. That the estate even exists yet depends on the money she brought as an American heiress. Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, defers to Carson, the butler, when he lords it over the servants, but in their one-on-one conversations she often bests him.

Thus do the women of Downton Abbey play out my religious theme of reducing the grip of Father. With my lens so focused, I see the Father defeated in every episode. It seems obvious to me that Fellowes does it deliberately and enjoys it.

Widening the focus of my lens, I look at the expanding chunk of Americans with no religious affiliation—the nones. They are the ones who don’t listen anymore to the Lord. Most don’t marshal virulent arguments against religion, like some atheists; they calmly accept and relate to spiritual reality in their own way.

In Catholicism it is the womenpriest movement that most effectively flouts traditional authority. I await the day when the Vatican will be defied as decisively as women and servants in Downton Abbey defy tradition and become their own masters. Unfortunately, the religious shift cannot unfold as quickly as events in Downton Abbey.