Luke 1: Women, Wombs, and the Feminine Divine

Karen D. Austin teaches composition courses at University of Evansville and gerontology courses at Southern Indiana University. She’s on staff at Segullah as a writer and social media maven. She also maintains a blog The Generation Above Me about healthy aging and supporting older adults. She sometimes slings food at the other sentient beings in her home, but mainly she keeps house by moving towers of books and papers from one room to another.

Let me preface my post with a little context. Michael spent some time preparing commentary for the BCC Gospel Doctrine Lesson and discovered that, after introducing Matthew, he didn’t have any time or word count for the assigned reading from Luke. I was astonished. I told him, “Well, then I’ll just have to write something because you cannot leave out the women who are most central to the birth of Christ.”

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By the time readers of the Bible get to the Gospel of Luke, they’ve read many passages foreshadowing the birth of Christ. Male voices in public venues dominate with descriptions of the lineage and the legalities, the prophecies and the politics. Even though John declares that Jesus is the Word made flesh, it’s Luke who describes specific women, their gestating bodies, and their conversations in domestic spaces. I experience God in private, domestic spaces that often are filled with a lot of bodily fluid. Like the contents of Mary’s womb, I feel closest to the eternal in places where the divine and the mortal co-mingle.

Luke has the distinction of including more detail about women than any other Gospel author, and the first chapter establishes that focus with great detail about Elizabeth and Mary. Before the good news is sent forth by John and Jesus, Luke introduces their mothers. But this first chapter also contains echoes of many other women from the Tanakh.

Personally, I am grateful for this gospel as an additional testimony and its focus on the women in Jesus’s life. The Gospel of Luke includes accounts not just of Elizabeth and Mary but also the prophetess Anna, the sisters Mary and Martha, the woman who washed Jesus’s feet, the woman of faith who had the issue of blood, several stories about widows–including the widow’s mite–and the women who went to prepare Jesus’s body for burial.

The book starts with a preface. In the original Greek, Luke 1:1-4 is one long, complex sentence. The writing style is elevated. It also stands outside the narrative of the births of Christ and His forerunner as meta-commentary about why he’s adding another account of Jesus’ ministry. Theophilus means lover of God or friend of God, so the audience could be a person with that name or a title of a devotee.

Basically, Luke is saying, “Devoted one, let me tell you what I know in order to shore up your belief.” And much of what Luke knows includes the witnesses of several women.

After framing the entire gospel, Luke starts with parallel stories about two women who will be surprised to learn that they will bear children—one because she is past childbearing years, the other because she has never slept with a man. But they, their friends, and their family–as well as the readers of Luke’s gospel–will gain a vivid understanding that “with God nothing shall be impossible” (1:38).

First, we meet Elizabeth wife of Zacharias. She and her husband are both of priestly lineage as well as “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (1:6). This couple is halakhic, or followers of the rabbinical law. This couple is childless and well past childbearing. These details allude to other childless women—Sarah who was also past childbearing years and Hannah, whose son Samuel was born after a time of infertility and raised in the temple. Allusions to these well-known women from the Tanakh tie Jesus and John to God’s covenant people, to the temple, and to divine acts.

As part of his priestly duties, Zacharias works in the temple twice a year. His responsibility at this time was to burn the incense, which is a symbol of the presence of God. When Zacharias is working in the temple, the angel of the Lord visits him and announces the forthcoming birth of John whose role is announced as one who will “be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb” (1:15). This use of incense foreshadows the birth of Christ—the presence of the divine–as well as the birth of his son John, who will be filled with the Holy Spirit.

God will come dwell with his people, and John will be filled with that Spirit from conception.  Elizabeth, his mother, articulates this when her womb leaps as Mary comes to visit.

One of the most tender exchanges in Luke takes place when Elizabeth and Mary meet. I love this passage for its attention to the divine acts of mortal women. Here we have a priestly woman and the mother of God, greeting each other as they labor as co-creators with God—Mary a little more directly than Elizabeth since she’s gestating the son of God.

Elizabeth: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. . . .For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine years, the babe leaped in my womb for joy” (1:42,44).

Mary: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour” (1:46-47).

Not only do I sense Hannah and Sarah within this story, I sense the feminine divine. I often feel as though many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints resist seeing traits of the divine mother in Mary and other women of scriptures for fear of becoming “too Catholic” or for fear that this will distract attention away from God, the Father. I disagree. My faith in God increases when I ponder on how the female divine works in cooperation with the male divine, not by framing the two as being in competition for attention.

There is a wealth of scholarship about the feminine divine in the Old Testament, from images of a God who travails and gives suck to the Children of Israel, to a mother hen who gathers who children under her wings, and to the wisdom of God gendered female and translated into Greek as Sophia. (For an hour plus long lecture on images of the female divine, listen to this lecture by Dr. James Rietveld (Ph.D. Claremont). But I am also drawn to the post-Tanakh writings of the Kabbalah who describe the divine feminine as Shekhinah, the presence of God that travels with the children of Israel and dwells with them and is described as brooding, nurturing, and female. She is a mist, a cloud, a fire, a radiant light, a winged one. The feminine divine is also sometimes depicted as a bride, which intersects nicely with Mary’s narrative here in Luke 1.

Levine and Brettler’s commentary on Luke 1:15 ties the use of Holy Spirit to the account of Samuel and to the presence of the divine as depicted by the “Shekhinah.” This Hebrew word means “divine presence” and is “a cognate of the Hebrew ‘mishkan,’ or ‘tabernacle’), the feminine presence of God that dwells with Israel” (p. 98). Shekhinah was more fully developed as a manifestation of the divine feminine in years after the Tanahk was completed through Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) teachings.

There are a number of passages in the Tanakh that describe the Children of Israel being cared for by the Spirit of God dwelling with them, the most pronounced being the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22). However, the most salient female image of the divine presence from the Old Testament is the one of a bird gathering chicks under her wings (Psalms 91:4). A New Testament scripture with this concept of a settling, dwelling presence is Matthew 18:20-20: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”  While the word “Shekhinah,” one who dwells, itself does not exist in the Bible, Jewish mystics from several centuries do reach back in to the text and find dozens of examples.

For more about Shekhinah and the feminine divine, read Luke Devine about this history of the term and Chava Weissler about the contemporary use of Shekhinah by participants of the Jewish Renewal moment, particularly Jewish, New Age feminists. (Find full citations below.)

Whether there is scriptural evidence of the feminine divine, this whole chapter is filled with lyric declarations of the divine with women as key participants. The angel Gabriel and Zacharias have beautiful passages that are worth close reading as well. Added to Elizabeth’s and Mary’s psalms, these four speak lyrically about the conceptions, the divine work that these children will perform, the fulfillment of many prophesies, and the glory of God.

I delight in reading this account of the women who help usher in the gospel made flesh—which is taking place in this chapter with two gestating women who display the power of God to open wombs as they fulfill their divine roles as mothers to John and Jesus. I treasure their lyric, female voices in domestic spaces and their embodied faith (their literal blood, water and spirit described as key spiritual metaphors in Moses 6:59). These women, filled with divine purpose, counter New Testament details that concern more public topics about Davidic lineage, Mosaic law, and revolutionary politics and bring the power of the gospel to flesh and blood, to home and hearth.

References:

Devine, Luke. “How Shekhinah Became the God(dess) of Jewish Feminism.” Feminist Theology, vol. 23, no. 1, Sept. 2014, pp. 71-91.

Levine, Amy-Jill and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors. The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New and Revised Standard Version Bible Translation. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Weissler, Chava. Meanings of Shekhinah in the “Jewish Renewal” Movement. Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues. Indiana University Press, no 10, Fall 5766/2006, pp. 53-83.

Photo Credit: Brett Jordan

Comments

  1. emilyhbutler says:

    Thanks for this and thanks, particularly, for the references. Where would we be without Luke?

  2. Kim Powers says:

    What a beautiful commentary on the women in the scriptures. I am uplifted by your words. Thank you Karen

  3. Thank you. I really appreciate this. Just don’t ask me to choose between. I’m a “both and” sort of reader.

  4. thegenaboveme says:

    Thank you–Emily, Kim and Christian–for reading and commenting. This is such a beautiful chapter, rich with detail, implications and applications. I was intimidated by my task, but I didn’t want the opportunity to pass. I’m sure each student of this chapter can offer additional insights.

  5. Thank you for a wonderful post.

  6. lclemesany says:

    Thanks to both you and Michael for both lovely and knowledgeable information. On a personal level, I am actually enjoying my scripture study so far, with the help of you scholars and New Testament Made Harder. Now if I can just get my class members to partipate at a non-surface level!

  7. I love this. Thank you.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Thank you for this.

  9. Thank you for writing this. An analysis of Luke 1 was needed in addition to Matthew 1, and I appreciate the perspective and enjoyed the insights into the text here. But I found myself losing interest in the second half of this post and asked myself why. The other commentary, on Matthew 1, seemed more centered on the text and what it meant, whereas the commentary here on Luke 1 seemed more focused on the commenter and how she felt about it. So I think I found myself wanting more of the textual interpretation and scholarly insights, and less of the personal reflection. Thanks again for the insights, and I look forward to more of them.

  10. I disagree with the prior commentator who wants less “personal reflection.” Yes, scholarly insight and textual interpretation is intellectually engaging, but if the scriptures were mere documents to be studied, then we would reserve them for institutions of higher learning and not our Sunday Schools. Luke Chapter 1 changed my life, because of the juxtaposition of the two verses about Elizabeth and Zacharias’s infertile status and the following verse about them walking “blameless before God.” After years of hearing unhelpful and sometimes cruel comments from (generally) well-meaning church members about my and my husband’s own childless status, it was only on pondering this passage that I realized that my barrenness had nothing to do with God’s judgment on my maternal and spiritual worth. It is personal, but it is everything to me.

  11. thegenaboveme says:

    JKC – Thank you for your kind words. lclemesany – I read several commentaries on Luke 1, but not Faulconer’s. I should get my hands on that. (I took a class from him in the 1990s on how to do a close textual analysis of scripture. I focused on Romans 8. I could use a refresher!.) Tracy M. You are welcome. And thank YOU for being an assuring voice that calls back from the darkness of the Interwebs. Jonovitch. Yes, I spent several hours reading quite a bit of close textual analysis on Luke 1, applying my training in rhetorical analysis. I took 10 pages of detailed notes on several themes within this chapter; however, the domestic, personal, visceral, and lyric manner of the chapter compelled me to respond in kind. It’s not everyone’s cuppa. Leslie S. Thank you for sharing your intimate connection with this chapter. I am glad that the text ministered to you, turning your anguish to peace. May God bless you with every needful thing.

  12. Beautiful! Thank you, Karen.

  13. thegenaboveme says:

    Emma J. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I was very nervous about writing for BCC. (Oh, the neck tension!) It’s comforting to see that this piece resonated with some people. Be well.

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