When I was a child, I attended our parish’s elementary school along with a vast swarm of other Catholic children. I learned a lot about God - I learned that he had a son who died for our sins, and there’s another part of him, the Holy Spirit, which is very mysterious. I learned that he sometimes got angry, and destroyed cities and sent monstrous floods that wiped out almost all life. And I learned that he did not like people who didn’t live according to his laws, and that meant more terrible things, like women getting stoned to death, and his son getting hung up on the cross to die.
I listened respectfully when the nuns talked about our faith and how it worked, but when they told Bible stories, especially stories from the Old Testament, I was mesmerized.
Like all children, I loved stories. I learned about God’s test to make sure Abraham was a good enough servant, by asking him to kill his son. And about the epic battles that took place when God was finding a home for his chosen people, and so had the Israelites kill everyone who was living where he wanted them to live. And about Eve, listening to the snake and biting the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Because of Eve, I learned, everything went to hell for all of us.
I was a little sponge, absorbing those stories and along with them, a way of seeing the world.
It never occurred to me to say, “Why are almost all the Bible stories about men?” Or, “What if Mary didn’t want a baby?” Or, “Why didn’t God have a daughter instead of a son? Or, “Why didn’t God and Mary have lots of kids, like he wants us to?”
My religion was based on acceptance of all those stories and the doctrine based on them. Catholic children are taught to have blind faith. To believe, not to question. And so I certainly never raised my little hand and asked, “Sister, why is God a man?” It never occurred to me that this was even a question.
But isn’t it an interesting question to ask?
Living as we do in a country that guarantees our freedom to question and freedom to think, we can ask this question, and we can ponder it: Why is God a man? If he’s a supreme being, why does he have a gender at all? And if he does have to have a gender, why isn’t he a woman?
The Bible is a collection of stories that are foundational to many of our planet’s civilizations, and those stories are all about men – a male god, his male child, his male apostles, his male prophets. Power and influence are for men. Authority is for men. Right of ownership is for men. And for women? Our male God created laws that give men the power to treat women like livestock. And though today’s Catholic church and other Christian churches have tried to soften those laws, and have declared women’s equality and value, the source text hasn’t changed, and the stories children are taught haven’t changed. God hasn’t changed. The stories are still about men. And God is still a man.
I suspect that if I asked this question of the nuns who taught me about the Bible, they would have said, Well, that’s just the way it is. God is eternal, he has always been, and he has always been our heavenly father. According to Catholic doctrine, that would be correct.
But according to the historical and archeological records, it’s incorrect. Because before God was a man, God was a woman.
Yes, you read that right. Contrary to what we were taught, God has not always been a man. Once, God was a woman.
This is something I was never taught. While I have come across mentions of the old goddess-worshipping Middle Eastern religions, and images of the female deity statues with their large thighs and breasts, I never paid much attention because I didn’t know the story of what happened - until I came across Merlin Stone’s book, When God Was A Woman.
In the book's preface, Stone writes:
How did it actually happen? How did men initially gain the control that now allows them to regulate the world in matters as vastly diverse as deciding which wars will be fought when to what time dinner should be served? This book is the result of my reactions to these and similar questions which many of us concerned about the status of women in our society have been asking ourselves and each other. As if in answer to our queries, yet another question presented itself. What else might we expect in a society that for centuries has taught young children, both female and male, that a MALE deity created the universe and all that is in it, produced MAN in his own divine image— and then, as an afterthought, created woman, to obediently help man in his endeavors? The image of Eve, created for her husband, from her husband, the woman who was supposed to have brought about the downfall of humankind, has in many ways become the image of all women. How did this idea ever come into being? (1)
Stone spent 10 years on research before publishing her book. She looked at historical references, archeological evidence, and the interpretation of that evidence by 20th century male scholars. The story her book tells is fascinating – about how, in the Middle East where the Bible was written, religion was originally based on a female God who created the world, and then created men and women together, as pairs, as equals. Women were priests and leaders and property owners. They had a great deal of sexual freedom, because their fertility and sexuality were worshipped as gifts from their female God. And they had high standing in society.
And then, the historical record tells us, down from the north came an invasion of warrior tribes who worshipped a male God. This God instructed those warrior tribes to kill all inhabitants of their new lands, to prevent the old religions – the worship of a female God - from infecting them. [I have vague recollections of being very disturbed by, this Bible story – of God telling the Israelites to go into Canaan and kill everyone there, to “save alive nothing that breathes” (Deut 20:16).]
The Old Testament also tells us that once established in their new home, the chosen people were directed to stamp out all evidence of the previous religion (Deut 12:2,3) and put to death anyone found still worshipping the old female God (Deut 17).
Then Old Testament lays out a series of laws, given to the chosen people by their male God, regarding the treatment of women. Here are just a few:
- Women who were unmarried but found to have lost their virginity were to be stoned to death (Deut 22:21).
- Betrothed virgins who were raped were to be stoned to death along with the rapist (Deut 22:23-24).
- Virgins who were not betrothed, but who were raped, would then become the wives of their rapists (Deut 22:28-29).
- Married women who no longer pleased their husbands were to be cast out of his household (Deut 24:1).
The worship of a female God was stamped out by this combination of laws requiring the destruction of all evidence of the female God, death to all found practicing the old religion, and reduction of the status of women to that of livestock. But this process took thousands of years to complete.
I’d guess so long because women wanted to keep worshiping a God who was like them, and who gave them freedom and rights. They didn’t want to become livestock, and so they resisted. It took a long time and it also took a lot of killing before women finally gave up and accepted God the father, instead of God the mother.
But this is ancient history. Why does it matter?
Here’s where we are today: a very long time ago people worshipped a female God, and then invaders came and their God changed to a male God. And there was a lot of bloodshed during the transition, and women lost all their rights
But wait, you might say, women today aren’t treated like livestock, at least not in my part of the world. The law (in my part of the world) doesn’t require that a woman is killed for sleeping with a man who’s not her husband. Women today (again, in my part of the world) have rights. So why should I care about ancient history?
I think we should care very much, because the stories we were taught as children haven’t changed. Despite the advances in women’s rights (in some parts of the world), the foundation laid by our male God and his laws hasn’t changed – especially for Catholics.
We were taught through the Catholic catechism, but especially through those Bible stories we were told. Stories are a deeply effective method of indoctrinating children with a particular view of how the world works. As Merlin Stone writes,
"So many of the stories told to us from the time we are just old enough to understand deeply affect our attitudes and comprehension of the world about us and ourselves. Our ethics, morals, conduct, values, sense of duty and even sense of humor are often developed from simple childhood parables and fables. From them we learn what is socially acceptable in the society from which they come. They define good and bad, right and wrong, what is natural and what is unnatural among the people who hold the myths as meaningful. It was quite apparent that the myths and legends that grew from, and were propagated by, a religion in which the deity was female, and revered as wise, valiant, powerful and just, provided very different images of womanhood from those which we are offered by the male-oriented religions of today." (2)
We who were raised Catholic were taught through stories that men have rights and woman have no rights, as decreed by God. Men came first, and women were created to be men’s companions. Men are protagonists, the ones who do important things, and women stay in the background. Men run the world, and women bear and raise children, in silence. Because this is what God wants.
The creation myth of Adam and Eve, along with its companion, the story of humanity being cast out of the Garden of Eden, lays out a belief system that defines gender roles, elevates men, and teaches us what to believe about women - that we are disobedient, untrustworthy, weak-willed, and seductive. (You can find a very interesting analysis of how the story of Eve is the foundation for the church's "measures and laws to curtail and limit the actions, rights, and status of women" by following this link.)
And so, even though we know we are equal because we can vote, and have a job, and choose not to get married or have children if we don’t want them, what we know and what we believe can be very different.
Even though we have been educated alongside men, to be equal to men, we can carry deep doubt about our identity. This doubt can manifest in many ways: stepping back from competition with men, choosing safe professions that focus our energies on serving others, feeling unworthy and undeserving. Because this is the seed of belief we received as children: we are, as created by God, less than men, not because of anything we do but because of who we are.
God is a man because a long time ago, there was a war, and his side won. And the winners found effective ways to brainwash women to believe that this is the way the universe is, and should be. And if the brainwashing didn’t take and women resisted, they were killed.
God is still a man because his side continues to benefit, and so continues to indoctrinate. The killing business, well that’s stopped (at least in some parts of the world).
I know so many women who stand up for their friends and who would fight to the death for their children, but who falter and yield when it comes to what they need and especially what they deserve.
For us, the burden of being raised Catholic is that seed of belief about ourselves that was planted and nurtured when we learned the Catholic catechism and all those Bible stories. And even though we know we’re equal, and we know we deserve, deep down we can believe otherwise.
Our journey, then, is to dig deep to find that seed of belief, and then to uproot it. And in its place, to plant a different seed, a different belief about ourselves – the belief we would have if we’d been raised with stories about a Goddess who created women at the same time she created men. Who created laws to ensure that we value ourselves, because we are valuable. Who taught us that the feminine is god-like. That we are god-like.
(1) Stone, Merlin. When God Was A Woman . Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
(2) ibid, pp 4-5