Women and the Gender of God by Amy PeelerMar 07, 2023
Book Review by Melissa Ramos
A significant new book by Amy Peeler (Eerdmans, 2022) makes the case that the God of the New Testament values women. Peeler focuses her work on the extraordinary claim of Christianity that the son of God was born of a woman and explores how these narratives from the Gospel texts affirm the value of all women. The book is beautifully written with startling turns-of-phrase that capture the reader’s attention and imagination and its style is highly accessible and easy to follow for students, general readers, and scholars alike.
This book’s importance makes it worthy of a two-part review. This first blog will give an overview of the book’s introduction and first two chapters.
Peeler’s book makes a compelling case that Mary, the Mother of God, needs fresh reexamination in Christian theology. Peeler addresses directly the obstacles and discouragement that women often face in the contemporary church and in Christian history. She writes:
“With each fresh recovery of a misogynistic statement from Christian history, with each new revelation of misconduct in the contemporary church, Christians may wonder why a faith that affirms the divinely created goodness of all humans has so often failed women… Consequently, the claim that God values women sounds audacious given Christianity’s checkered history and, infuriatingly, its tabloid-worthy present.” (1)
The real problem, according to Peeler, is that Christianity understands God as a male. And that this is the core, fundamental issue with both faith and interpretation of Christian Scripture.
“Theology has consequences. It is easier to devalue and then mistreat those humans who are believed to be less like God.” (2)
Peeler writes that dialogue around the gender of God is skewed in contemporary Christian discourse in two important ways. First, that conservatives insist on a masculine interpretation and view of God despite evidence from the Bible to the contrary. And second, that post-Christian dialogue insists that the only biblical view of God is as a male, and should, therefore, be rejected. (3-4). Peeler insists there is a third, redemptive way to address this issue from an orthodox Christian perspective.
This third way, or redemptive way, according to Peeler, is to reclaim Mary as the standard by which God values and honors all women. To reclaim her title as Mother of God, “Theotokos.” (4)
Peeler observes that, in the incarnation, God’s redemptive work takes place through the embodied flesh of a woman. She takes this argument even further to claim that this was God’s choice, and not simply the result of biological necessity. And this fact makes Mary a figure of singular importance, worth consideration by Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox alike. (5)
“The incarnation itself — the fact that God chose to have a mother — proves true the audacious claim: God does indeed value women.” (7)
Peeler's exploration of the gender of God and the significance of Mary unfolds in six chapters. Below is an overview of the first two.
Ch 1 - The Father Who is Not Male
Peeler articulates well what we know instinctively -- that our imaginations are full of male imagery of God and our vocabulary is full of masculine language for God. These are standard elements of traditional and historical Christianity. (10)
Yet Peeler observes that while the Old Testament occasionally uses paternal language for God, it more frequently depicts God in depersonalized metaphors. These include God “causing” the people of Israel to exist as a nation, and God the “Rock” who begot Israel (Deut 32:18). She. notes that the Old Testament also includes more feminine portrayals of God, such as God the Father who nurses Israel (Deut 1:31), or embraces them (His 11:1, 3). (11) [For more on feminine imagery for God, see our blog posts Swollen Breasts and Yahweh's Remembering, God as Mother in the Bible, and El Shaddai: God of the Breasts]
The New Testament, contends Peeler, is even more bold and explicit. The metaphorical language of God "fathering" a nation in the Old Testament becomes more embodied in the New Testament because God fathers a son of flesh and blood in the incarnation of Jesus. Yet, Peeler also argues that the manner in which Mary becomes pregnant is not an episode of divine intercourse as one finds in other religions and myths. (19-20). The Gospel narratives that depict the divine birth “assert that the child is from the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:18, 20), who came over Mary in a way that evokes imagery of light (Luke 1:35). (22).
The theological concept of Mary’s virginity denies intercourse and denies that God acts as a male in bringing about Mary’s pregnancy. (26) In addition, Peeler writes that the involvement of the Holy Spirit further renders this pregnancy unusual and demonstrates that this is not an ordinary pregnancy that is the result of the seed and egg of a male and a female. (28-29)
Therefore, writes Peeler, God caused the pregnancy, and is a father only in this metaphorical sense. She contends that this does not imply that God is male.
Ch 2 - Holiness and the Female Body
In this chapter, Peeler considers the mystery embedded within the corporeality of Mary’s pregnancy.
“As the evangelists tell the story, God decided that women’s bodies are deemed worthy to receive the ultimate expression of holiness, the very body of God.” (33)
Peeler considers the birth of the Son of God and its scandalous affirmation of the value of women and women’s physical bodies. She first addresses the Gospel of Matthew and its lengthy genealogy of Jesus. This list of the forebears of Jesus is primarily a list of men who fathered sons. Peeler observes that the birth of Jesus is marked with a different introduction than the rest of the genealogy. Instead of the phrase "X beget Y," like the other fathers in the genealogy, Jesus was begotten (Matt 1:16). This phrasing is also special and distinctive, writes Peeler, because it includes the prepositional phrase “from her,” referring to Mary as mother. (42)
Peeler observes that the scandal deepens further when we consider that, in the ancient world, birth was viewed “as a dirty and dangerous process.” (56) The humanity of Jesus the Son is then demonstrated not only in his suffering and death, but also in the messiness of birth. (43).
According to Peeler, God’s embrace of the female body, its reproductive cycles, the bodily fluids of birth and the birth canal itself were touched by God in the incarnation. The womb of a woman provided the first home for God’s holiness.
“The Christian confession contains this immovable fact: God was willing to touch the female body… that God invited Mary, in an embodied way, to participate singularly in the salvific plan of the divine life.” (59)
This book is a wonderful addition to published volumes that address the important issue of the gender of God. I highly recommend adding this to your reading list, for your Book Club, or adult education curriculum. Part II will review chapters 3-6. Stay tuned!