Sunday, May 08, 2011

Re-discovering the Divine Mother in the Torah

[I originally posted this several years ago; I thought I'd post it again for Mother's Day this year.]

Let me show you something interesting.

In the King James Version of the Bible Deuteronomy 32:18 is worded this way: "Of the Rock that begat thee thou art unmindful, and hast forgotten God that formed thee." Note well the verbs used here: to beget (to father, to sire) and to form. Both masculine expressions of the act of creation.

Why is this interesting? Because here is the Hebrew original from which it was translated:
צור ילדך תשׁי ותשׁכח אל מחללך׃
transliteration: tsuur ylaadkhaa teshii wa-tishkah! el mh!ollekhaa.

A more accurate translation of this would be: "You were unmindful of the Rock that brought you forth, and you forgot the God who labored to give birth to you." The Hebrew verbs used are yalad (to bear, to bring forth) and h!iyl (to writhe, to twist, to be in labor, to give birth to), both feminine expressions of the act of creation.

How did such a discrepancy come about? Ah, therein lies a tale!

Long ago in the mists of time the ancient Hebrews were polytheists, like everyone else in the world at the time. Their monotheism based on the High God YHWH emerged only gradually, and even after it triumphed as the "official" national religion a polytheistic folk religion existed side by side with it. When a scriptural canon was eventually compiled and written, elements of the old polytheism, including expressions of the Divine Mother, survived embedded in the text, due to the magnitude of the job and the wide diversity of the materials being compiled. Deuteronomy 32:18 is an example of those old expressions slipping through the editorial net.

Much later on Christianity, which grew out of Judaism, claimed the Hebrew canon as the "prequel" to their own canon. But Christianity was virulently misogynistic; the early Church Fathers, most notably Augustine of Hippo, even argued that women had no souls. Naturally a religion so anti-female couldn't accommodate the idea of the Divine Feminine, so translations of the Hebrew canon buried the Mother under masculine terminology. This is reflected in the Latin Vulgate translation by St. Jerome - "Deum qui te genuit dereliquisti et oblitus es Domini creatoris tui." - and the English translation of the Vulgate, the Douay-Rheims version, which was the Catholic Church's answer to England's King James translation: "Thou hast forsaken the God that beget thee, and hast forgotten the Lord that created thee."

[Note: Oddly enough the Greek Orthodox canon preserves those expressions of the Divine Feminine. There was a pre-Christian Greek translation of the Tanakh (the Hebrew name for the Hebrew Bible) which came out of Egypt and was called the Septuagint, or LXX, and was intended to be used by Jews living in the Graeco-Roman world outside the traditional Hebrew homeland. The Greek church adopted the LXX as its "Old Testament" unmodified, and so preserved the original intent of the Jewish canon. Deuteronomy 32:18 runs thus in the LXX:
θεον τον γεννησαντα σε εγκατελιπες και επελαθου θεου του τρεφοντος σε
transliteration: theon ton gennesanta se engkatelipes kai epelathou theou tou trephontos se.

This translates as: "The god who brought you forth you abandoned, and you forgot the God who nurtured you." As you can see, the feminine expression survives.]

Since the 1950s Biblical translation has gotten more accurate and honest. The expressions of the Divine Mother embedded in the Hebrew text are being restored, at least in most English translations. The ESV (English Standard Version), which is the 21st Century update of the Revised Standard Version of the 1950s, translates Deuteronomy 32:18 thus: "You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth."

Hopefully Christianity, which has accepted the Father all along, is now beginning to discover the Mother as well. After all, a healthy, functioning Family of Humanity needs both the Mother and the Father, something the rest of us accepted long ago.

© 2008 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. Absolutely fascinating, Roy. Not sure how modern Christians (the relatively sane ones, not the holier-than-everyone-else nuts) would reconcile that duality with the "one God" image, but outside of a convenient mental image, I -- and I'm a Christian, as you know -- don't actually think of God as being a physical, tangible being who's actually able to be viewed as identifiably male or female... never mind a composite. I don't think of humans being literally "in God's image," either, for if that phrase truly meant that human males were created thusly, why would human females have a form so distinctly different from the males? Just some further food for thought, I guess...

  2. This is very interesting to me.

    And I'm not a bit surprised.

  3. I agree with the Foxter - quite fascinating. A different direction for you but you bring to it your usual gifts of clarity, form and great interest.

  4. Excellent post, Roy. I've been thinking a lot about the divine feminine lately.