The following is a talk I gave on Mother’s Day, May 8, 2022. See the notes below the post for links to additional resources.
Eighteen years ago, May 8th 2004, it was Mother’s Day, just like today. Except then, my mother had been in decline with dementia and a host of problems. On that day, my mother spoke her last words to me: “I love you Mark, I love you Mark.” She passed away a week later.
It’s remarkable to me that she said these words — not that she didn’t love me — I knew she did, very much so. But she hadn’t been able to articulate anything for a few months prior, and continued to be incable of speech until her death a week later.
So for me, Mothers day has real significance. I would like to explore with you three aspects of this mothering stuff, starting with the idea of who and what mothers are in the family, then how the role of mother applies to the divine, and then ultimately, to talk about my personal experience, the idea of the Mother within.
But first, I must confess my sins. I became a father some 42 years ago this month. I remember the occasion well. We were poor students in Provo, without insurance, and somehow we were able to get in and out of Utah Valley Hospital in a day.
Then, we got this little bundle of joy home.
So my first sin of parenting. Elizabeth was fed, burped, diaper changed—every possible need was taken care of…but she was screaming at the top of her lungs, particularly, as I thought, directed at me. I was powerless over this “bundle of joy.”
I had a vision at that moment—not a very good one—about why child abuse happens. I confess: I did not do anything to harm my children, but I had a fleeting thought about it, and it scared me.
So that leads me to my second sin of parenting. Delegation. I mean, the Family Proclamation makes it quite clear: “Husbands provide…wives are responsible for the nurturing of children.” Got it. Dear, you’re in charge of the kids. Feeding? I don’t have the plumbing. Dirty diapers? I get nauseous. They’re daughters, so they’re really yours.
So, yeah, I delegated, which leads me to sin number 3: I provided. Yeah, I took my job seriously, and often to the extreme. When it came to work things, I was in charge, and I did not always consult her on decisions I made professionally that might affect my family. If this meant being deployed on travel, it was necessary for the job.
Now don’t get me wrong: I truly appreciated Susan’s amazing mothering skills. She was fantastic. “Practically perfect in every way,” to quote Mary Poppins. And every Mother’s day, I would lavish praise and do the breakfast in bed, the special dinners, cards, and flowers. I put Susan each year up on a pedestal.
Mother’s Day: A time to worship mothers.
Somewhere along the line, Susan gave me a wise perspective on all this: she said, “Perhaps we should have one day when we don’t worship mothers, and have 364 days when we actually give mothers the help they need.” This whole idea of pedestalizing mothers is actually quite condescending: we appreciate what they do, we put mothers in a special box, but it’s really just a box, a limitation, an idea that role responsibilities are rigidly defined.
So now, as I confess my sins to you, I realize that my reading of the family proclamation and of scripture, has been entirely wrong.
What does it actually say?
“Husband and wife have a solemn responsibility to love and care for their children. Parents have a sacred duty to provide. Fathers and Mothers are obligated to help one another as EQUAL PARTNERS.”
So in other words, any thought of delegated parenting by virtue of hierarchy or patriarchy is actually NOT in harmony with the gospel or the Family Proclamation.
Equal Partners. Where does this idea come from?
Our scriptures say, “It is not good for the man to be alone, that God would make a help-meet for the man.” Now a “helpmeet” sounds like a subordinate position, a delegated position. But here’s what the text really says in Hebrew. “It is not good for the HUMAN to be alone, therefore we will make a partner equal to the human.” (adam in Hebrew simply means “human” – See note 2 below)
Not only is this partner equal, but the term for this partner is “ēzer”—a word meaning also “savior”, as in “Ebenezer” the rock of salvation. (1 Sam 7:12)
This idea was nothing new. The creation account in Abraham (4:27) says: “So the Gods went down to organize man in their own image, in the image of the Gods to form they him, male and female to form they them.” To be created in the image of God as both male and female says something about the nature of God. It’s all about the gender of the word “us”: the plural word “Elohim,” meaning, as Joseph Smith pointed out, “the gods.” (see note 3)
Again, our Family Proclamation speaks of gender as an eternal attribute. I want to take this very seriously, particularly as we speak of God.
To quote a prophetess, Eliza Snow, “I had learned to call thee father, through thy spirit from on high, but until the key of knowledge was restored, I knew not why.” (see note 4)
Latter-day Saints have a unique understanding of God as being a real, live, exalted HUMAN father. I believe this with all my heart: this doctrine is the key of knowledge. But in saying “Father” as in a literal human father, I have to realize that humans do not procreate without both “genders” involved. I cannot be a father unless there is a mother.
Again, Eliza Snow’s words: “In the heavens are parents single? no the thought makes reason stare. Truth is wisdom, truth eternal, tells me I’ve a mother there.” (see note 5)
This becomes really powerful when we realize, as Elder Renlund said in last month’s General conference, that the doctrine of Mother in Heaven as uniquely stated in Eliza Snow’s words in her poem are revelation. (see note 6) It confirms the idea that while salvation is an individual matter, exaltation is an family matter. (see note 7)
But how does this eternal principle apply to everyone? How is the gender of Elohim/the Gods relevant to us today? Let me go back to the family proclamation: Fathers provide, mothers nurture. But we have already realized that both provide, and both nurture. This is where “gender” actually matters.
In English, we don’t have gender as it applies to things, to nouns. We say words like “creation” or “nurturing” as if these words are not gendered. In many other languages, these words have gender: they can be masculine or feminine. Hebrew is one of these languages, and the gender of the words used in the Old Testament has perhaps been one of the plain and precious truths that have been lost in translation. (see note 8)
So the creation account says that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. But the moment after that creation, the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. Or as the Hebrew and Joseph Smith’s translation has it, the Spirit brooded over the face of the waters.
The gender of God in the singular is typically masculine, But in this case it is plural word “Elohim.” And the gender of the Hebrew word for Spirit, “ruach,” is a feminine noun. In addition, the word “brood” here comes from an image of a mother hovering above her newborn children. (see note 9)
I want to picture in my mind what this means. In the very act of creation, God provided, and the Spirit nurtured. They didn’t do it as fully delegated roles, but rather, as what appears to be truly equal partners in creation.
In other words, to say “Father,” in a sense of prayer, is to realize that the act of nurturing, the feminine idea of “Spirit” in this case, is inherent to the title Father. One cannot pray to a Father without also implicitly invoking and acknowledging the Mother.
By convention and the traditions of our fathers, we use this masculine language, because — well — language often embedded into it the idea of patriarchy.
This leads me to realize that the masculine and the feminine are not just roles assigned to biological males and females, but that we all, every one of us, have the image of the gods — the heavenly father and the heavenly mother — graven in our hearts, and it is in fact in the very blueprint of our humanity, our DNA. (see note 10)
So the idea of the divine feminine is everywhere in scripture. The very word “life” and “living” in Hebrew is “chava”, the name of Eve, the mother of all living. (see note 11). So to have the “breath of life” again where both terms “breath” and “life” are feminine nouns in Hebrew, is to realize that we have the entire blueprint of God of Heavenly Father and Mother in each one of us. Wisdom and love are also feminine nouns in Hebrew. Are these divine feminine attributes restricted to women? of course not!
Is creation, judgment, prophecy, and priesthood leadership restricted to men in scripture? Women are the great movers and leaders of events throughout. Think of Eve moving the plan of salvation forward. Think of Deborah as the prophetess and chief Judge in Israel. Think of Esther, or Ruth, of Mary the mother of Jesus, think of the woman who anointed the Savior. Think of Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrection and apostle to the apostles. Think of another named woman Apostle, Junia, think of Joanna and Susanna, who provided for the savior and apostles in their ministry. Think of Emma Smith, of Eliza Snow, of Susan Porter, now general president of the Primary, who once accompanied the choir here in our ward.
In the divine order of things, women and men are equal partners before the Lord.
So what does this mean for us?
As I realize that idea that husbands and wives are equal partners, then perhaps my mother’s day devotion should be less about how I put my beloved Susan on a pedestal, but rather, how I can better support her and be a true partner with her in my own decisions and actions through the 364 days of the rest of the year.
As I realize that exaltation is a family matter among equals, then I perhaps I can embrace Elohim as both Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother; that they have embedded into me the image of both.
God is bigger than just a man. God is exalted because God is the full blueprint of divine humanity: Father and Mother, male and female, parent and child, white and black…God is One in the diversity of humanity in all of its forms. We all, every human, have this blueprint written in our heart and in the very framework of our cells.
But more, I realize that the Father and Mother are embedded into each one of us as we provide and nurture each other. This way, I have seen single parents, non-parents, humans in all their diversity reach out to others to provide and nurture, to act for God in God’s heavenly parenting role. This is the very essence of our being Latter-day Saints. This is how we build Zion: This is how we summon the Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother within each one of us.
To close, I would like to return to that Mother’s Day 18 years ago. Just a few years ago, I was contemplating the Last Supper at Easter time. I imagined myself there in the upper room with the Savior. As he told his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you,” I struggled to accept it, because I have often not loved myself because of my sins, because of my failings, because of my shortcomings.
In my mind, the Savior looked at me, penetrating my soul. I heard him say, in my mother’s voice, her last words: “I love you Mark, I love you Mark.”
I do not know much about the doctrine of Heavenly Mother, what I have said today is just my personal experience. But this I now know, with all my heart, that I have a Mother in Heaven, and I know her name, as She dwells within my heart.
May all of us, brothers and sisters, find the Divine Mother within each one of our hearts.
Notes and Resources:
- Dan Wotherspoon, Derek Knox, and Kajsa Berlin-Kaufusi provide valuable insight in to God and gender in the latest Podcast Episode #127: Experiencing a Gendered God…or Not.
- Strongs Hebrew #820 adam means “human being,” and does not always convey gender. By tradition, the default translation is “man”, but should not be interpreted as the male gender, but rather, “human being.” The terms help meet are not a singular concept, but two very distinct Hebrew terms: first, the “help” is “ezer” as noted in the talk, and the word “meet” is “k’negdo” deriving from “neged” and meaning “parallel to” “corresponding to” or “face to face.” The King James translators used the term “meet” to convey this “face-to-face” sense. The sense of “ezer” as not merely help, but salvific help raises the notion that the partner for the human was to be a full partner in every sense, and connects with the human face-to-face as an equal. The simplest modern idea of “equal partner” best conveys the Hebrew meaning here.
- Elohim as “the Gods” reflects Joseph Smith’s Hebrew education by Joshua Seixas. He learned the Elohim is the grammatical plural of El/God. However, most, if not all Jewish scholars then and now do not interpret “Elohim” as “gods” when referring to YHWH. There is a complex evolution of Jewish understanding of God over time, first recognizing that the Israelite understanding of the divine prior to the exile was first polytheistic, then henotheistic, as reflected in the use of the term “elohim”–not capitalized, not referring to YHWH–as the standard term referring to the Canaanite pantheon. Each nation had its own national God, and for Israel, this was YHWH, one of the “elohim”/gods, and often with Asherah as his female escort. So while there were many “gods”, worship in Israel was to be exclusively YHWH–this is formally called “henotheism”: the preference of one god above all other [existing] gods. During the exile, Jews adopted Persian monotheism, ultimately rejecting even the existence of the Canaanite pantheon, and especially the feminine deity Asherah.
So in a very direct sense, Joseph Smith is calling out an “elephant in the room”: that the very name “Elohim” is not a singular, male entity of “God”, but rather, was and properly should be understood as “the Gods”. And to put an even finer point on this, the personal pronouns to be used for “Elohim”/God/the Gods are “they/them” and not “he/him.”
- This is the third verse of the popular Latter-day Saint Hymn, “O My Father.” When the lyrics first emerged in 1845, Eliza was likely influenced by the theology of the King Follett discourse, speaking of God the Father as a literal exalted human man. This was radically new theology, and raised important questions that Joseph Smith could never answer and finish this theology, as he was assassinated months after the discourse. Prior to this time, and consistent with most other Christian understandings of God, God was not a physical human being, but rather, as the Lectures on Faith point out, “a Personage of Spirit.” Joseph Smith’s understanding of God evolved over time, and his reflections in updated versions of the First Vision reflect his evolving theology. But in revealing that God was an actual exalted human man, then the theology of God he proposed would be entirely incomplete, because a male human cannot, alone, create children. Brigham Young would later literalize this male-female relationship proposing that Adam was actually the Father in Heaven, having lived on another world, having multiple wives, and coming to this world with one of his wives, Eve. By his own admission, however, Brigham was more of “yankee guesser” rather than having prophetic insight. In parallel, Eliza Snow’s insight, first penned in 1845, a year after Joseph Smith’s death, was that there was *a* Mother in Heaven. She later entitled her poem, “INVOCATION or the HEAVENLY FATHER AND MOTHER.” So both Brigham Young and Eliza Snow were motivated to “finish” Joseph Smith’s theology of God. Today we recognize Eliza Snow’s poem as revelation, and Brigham Young’s Adam-God theory has been formally repudiated by the Church.
- The last verse of “O My Father” then actually fulfills what Eliza Snow said the poem was: a prayer (Invocation) to both the Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother: “Father, Mother, may I meet you in your royal courts on high…With your mutual approbation, let me come and dwell with you.”
- Elder Renlund stated, “The doctrine of a Heavenly Mother comes by revelation and is a distinctive belief among Latter-day Saints.” He then quoted Dallin Oaks’ statement, “Our theology begins with heavenly parents. Our highest aspiration is to be like them.” However, Dallin Oaks did not originate the doctrine of “Heavenly Parents,” but rather, the explicit revelation for “Heavenly Mother” came through Eliza Snow’s poem, as repeatedly acknowledged through later Church leaders. “O My Father” is thus unique in its revelation: it is the only statement, declared as “revelation” that presents the idea of “Heavenly Mother” and “Heavenly Parents.”
- The statement “salvation is an individual matter; exaltation is a family matter” originates from Russell M. Nelson’s 2008 General Conference address, “Salvation and Exaltation.” He has repeated this statement often as current Prophet.
- In the Latter-day Faith Podcast Episode #127: Experiencing a Gendered God…or Not, Derek Knox explores how gender is extremely important in understanding the Hebrew scriptures.
- The Hebrew text here can be explored on Blue Letter Bible. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon conveys the full meaning of “rachaf”/brood, in terms not only of the idea of a mother hovering over her ‘brood’, but also, the idea when stated in the masculine of fertilizing. In this very scripture, the role of divine masculine and feminine are deeply expressed in the Hebrew that defies accurate translation into English. That the King James translated “rachaf” as “moved” versus Joseph Smith’s translation, “brooded” is definitely an improvement.
- The biology of genetic gender is complex and well beyond this scope of this talk. In brief, human DNA is fully replicated in both men and women, with the genetic difference being the “Y” chromosome only found in males. In some research, the “Y” derived from a degradation of the “X” chromosome, as the “Y” is about 1/3 the size of the X. When the “Y” chromosome is present, the genetic characteristics of the X, which program biological sex, are dormant with respect to female biological sex characteristics, as are the male biological sex characteristics dormant when only two X chromosomes are present. Thus, both men and women contain all the genetic code of the male and the female, but the genes for primary sex characteristics–biological sex–are typically, but not always, expressed depending upon the presence or absence of the Y chromosome. As well, secondary sex characteristics such as facial hair, mammary fat, voice changes at puberty–are inherently present in both sexes, but are typically, but not always, dependent on XX vs XY gene expression. Beyond secondary sex characteristics, there are a host of other cultural gender characteristics: length of hair, dress, etc., which have absolutely nothing to do with genetics, are too often equated with biological sex. For a comprehensive explanation of these aspects of DNA and gender, please see Greg Prince’s 2017 Sterling M. McMurrin Lecture on Religion & Culture, “Science versus Dogma: Biology challenges the LDS Paradigm”
- Both the scriptures and the Temple account speak of the reason for Eve’s name as being the “Mother of all living” is not a translation, but rather, an explanation. “Chava” does not mean “Mother of all Living”, but rather, simply “Living” or “life” as a feminine noun. This links Eve’s role with the “ruach elohim”/The Spirit of God as being feminine, as well as to the “nismat chavvim”/the Breath of Life/Lives that enables the human to be a living soul in Genesis 2:7. The Spirit as the bringer of life is a consistent theme throughout Christianity, and finds particular image in the Eastern theology of Mary as “God Bearer”, the one who gave life to Jesus. See Jurgen Moltmann’s The Spirit of Life.