God’s Womb by Joyce Zonana

Joyce Zonana
The first time I came across the phrase, I thought I must be making a mistake. “Que Dieu l’enveloppe dans sa matrice,” the passage read in French, “May God’s womb enfold her,” or possibly, “May God enfold her in His womb.” His womb?

I’d just started translating Ce pays qui te ressemble [A Land Like You], Tobie Nathan’s remarkable novel of Egypt’s Jews in the first half of the twentieth-century, and I couldn’t be sure I was correct in thinking that “womb” was the proper rendering for “matrice.” But a quick search confirmed my hunch. Matrice (from the Latin matrix < mater) might be translated as “matrix” or “mould,” but that made no sense here. “Uterus or womb” was the anatomical meaning, and it was the first meaning listed in my French dictionary.

The phrase, or something very like it, kept turning up, always after a dead person was named:  

Que Dieu accueille son âme en sa matrice.

Que Dieu l’enveloppe dans sa matrice.

Que Dieu la berce dans sa matrice. 

May God’s womb welcome his soul.

May God’s womb enfold him.

May God’s womb cradle her.

In all, “God’s womb” is mentioned seven times in this novel set in Cairo’s ancient Jewish quarter, Haret al-Yahud. Each time, it’s part of a ritual prayer, a formulaic wish for the wellbeing of a departed soul. But what extraordinary wellbeing is wished for here, what a remarkable envisioning of God as the possessor of a welcoming, warm womb.I was stunned by the image, which I could not help but take literally. The God invoked by these Egyptian Jews (Dieu, a masculine noun) possessed a uterus (matrice, a feminine noun). So was this deity somehow an androgyne or hermaphrodite, embodying both masculine and feminine attributes? I struggled to grasp what the words led me to see. Could this really be what the author had in mind?

Although I’ve long considered myself a devotee of the Goddess, I’d never actually thought of the Divine as possessing a womb; although I’ve embraced the embodied theology of Carol Christ and others, I’d never thought of the Divine itself in such a strikingly physical way. To imagine God or Goddess as having a womb, a womb from which we are born and to which we might return: somehow, that changed everything for me. I’d previously envisioned the Goddess as a Divine Mother, yes, but I’d always seen that Mother as a separate being, not as the very cradle of existence, the all-encompassing source. Clearly, I hadn’t been paying enough attention. And here it was not Goddess but God who was endowed with a womb. 

I asked Tobie Nathan about the phrases I’d found so striking. Was he inventing something? Or was he simply reflecting a reality the Jews of Egypt had taken for granted?

He explained that he had tried to literally translate the Arabic phrase used by Jews and Muslims alike in Egypt when speaking of the dead—Rabena yer’hamou: “Rabena, our god. Yer’hamou from the noun rahem, which literally means womb.”

Yer’hamou, Nathan told me, is usually translated as “compassion,” or “mercy” (miséricorde in French), as in “May God have compassion on her soul,” or “May God grant her mercy” (Que Dieu lui accorde sa miséricorde). But Nathan felt that this missed the deep meaning embedded in the Arabic words. He wanted to return to the source: 

The fact is, the Arabic language seems to think that when a man or a god shows mercy or compassion, it’s because they have something within themselves like a woman’s womb.

And, he added, “it’s the same in Hebrew.”

Indeed. Over forty years ago, Phyllis Trible, in her chapter “Journey of a Metaphor,” in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, observed how in the Hebrew Bible “an organ unique to the female becomes a vehicle pointing to the compassion of God.” She notes that the singular Hebrew noun rehem means “womb” or “uterus.” But in the plural, rahamim, the “concrete meaning expands to the abstractions of compassion, mercy, and love.” As Trible puts it, there is a clear “semantic movement from a physical organ of the female to a psychic mode of being.” Over and over, throughout the Hebrew scriptures, Yahweh is referred to as rahum—a word usually translated as “merciful” or “gracious,” but a word that also carries the memory of a maternal Goddess, most likely absorbed when patriarchal monotheism triumphed.

The familiar Qu’ranic phrase—bi-smi llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm, “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful”—reveals a similar semantic shift: God’s mercy and grace are conveyed through transformations of the root rhm, “womb.” Both Judaism and Islam, then, both in Hebrew and in Arabic, envision a God (male or perhaps transgender) with a female womb, the source of compassion and mercy.

Nathan’s translation of the Arabic—and my translation of his translation—returns us to the literal meaning of the Semitic root rhm. We are invited to see and feel this welcoming, enfolding, cradling womb of God—a place of absolute safety and warmth, nurturance and peace; a place not abstractly metaphorical but concretely physical, a place where one might experience primal oneness. What is implicit in Hebrew and Arabic is made explicit in French and English. 

The human womb from which I was born was a place neither of safety nor of peace. Before my conception and birth, my mother had several miscarriages. During her pregnancy with me, she had to remain in bed for most of the nine months to avoid yet another loss. Outside, in Cairo, the first Arab-Israeli war was raging, and her anxiety—about our survival as Jews in Egypt, about this pregnancy that meant so much to her—must have been overwhelming. I’m certain that even while I developed in the warmth and darkness of her womb, I absorbed my mother’s anxiety and fear. I was born from and into a world that never felt safe. Which must be why the image of God’s womb is so striking and comforting to me now. 

I’ve learned much from my work on Tobie Nathan’s extraordinary novel–a novel that insistently points to the importance of recognizing and honoring sources, be they linguistic, ancestral, cultural, psychological, or spiritual. Certainly, the novel has returned me to my own history and heritage. But I’m most grateful to Nathan for his stunning image of the Divine womb, an image that returns us all to a vital, healing source.

nathan a land like you

Joyce Zonana‘s translation of Tobie Nathan’s A Land Like You is available from Seagull Books. Joyce is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey. She served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual, and is also a contributor to the Abbey of Hope’s Reflectionary.



Categories: Bible, Divine Feminine, Embodiment, God, God/des, Goddess, Healing, Islam, Judaism, Motherhood

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27 replies

  1. What a great post! I enjoyed a new image of the divine feminine. Thank you.

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  2. When I discovered the goddess through Marijia Gimbutas’s work the goddess seemed to be the Womb of the universe.

    Because of my relationship to nature I can’t make a foray into the forest without seeing nature as womb – every dead log is sprouting seedlings while storing carbon in the soil and enriching the latter – this womb I find utterly mind bending – concrete – and real – nothing abstract here!

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  3. Thanks for your comment Sara. Your vision is so strong. I should have seen this a long time ago . . . perhaps what brought it home so strikingly was the attribution of a womb to the male God. I had to really stop and think about it!

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    • Fascinating – but I think there’s more – although I have accrued a few degrees I am not an academician – but more a storyteller kind of woman – as an intuitive it is not natural for me to think logically etc! This is why i appreciate genuine scholarship like yours.

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  4. Thank you and thank Tobie Nathan for restoring the meaning of these words. I am inspired and comforted!

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  5. It’s lovely to think of a god with a womb that holds his followers in some kind of safety. The words “May God’s womb enfold her” are comforting when one needs some comfort. I think I understand what you and Tobie Nathan are getting at: that even though the universe has a Father, we all still need a mother. Is this correct?

    But it still sounds to me like the patriarchs were stealing the womb of the Goddess just as they discarded the rest of Her. Well, over the millennia, the old men took everything else from the women, so why not their wombs, too?? Oh, gee–might the womb-of-God idea be used in an anti-abortion argument? No no no–let’s try to keep it a comforting concept: when we die, we go into a womb to rest until we’re born again. Does that work?

    Many thanks for your post and your good work. Something to think about this morning. It’s always good to have something to think about. Bright blessings and thanks again!

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  6. Well, I’m not sure that either Nathan or I think the universe has a Father. But if it did, it would be a Father with a womb. The point is really that the language seems to encode a memory of the Goddess. And, yes, it sure seems that there’s some appropriation at work here, but I’d rather think of it as an opening of our notions of what “male” and “female” might be. “God” as trans or binary.

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    • A story I like to re-tell comes from The Kingdom of Women about the Mosuo. Choo Wai Hong makes an appointment with a male elder to discuss issues related to the book she is writing. When she arrives on time, the elder tells her she must wait while he bathes, feeds, and puts the twins to bed. He does not have a womb and he does not need to pretend that he does, but he puts nurturing the weak above what some might consider “more important matters,” including honoring time-based commitments and speaking about ideas.

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    • God as trans or binary? I don’t think I even want to go there. Encoding a memory of the Goddess sounds good, though.

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  7. I share this article on my facebook page WEEK-ENDS FEMMES BATTANTES

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  8. By coincidence, yesterday I was translating a short Sanskrit extract from the Upanishads. The last two lines of the extract translate as:

    the ocean is its kin
    the ocean is the womb (yoni)

    Yoni also means origin or source. The Upanishads were written within patriarchal times.

    To me it seems likely that these are memories of earlier times when the norm was to see the world having its origins in the womb, and perhaps there is a sticky cultural memory which remained around 2000-3000 years ago but with much lying and changing of language, it shifted to more solid patriarchy in the later Abrahamic religions and those of India.

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  9. Thanks so much for this comment. It’s fascinating that yoni also means source . . . It would be very interesting and instructive I think to trace all these words & their transformations in the ancient languages & religions.

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  10. In sociologist Nancy Jay’s book, Throughout Your Generations Forever, she discusses the ancient appropriation of reproductively female people’s gestation capacity by patriarchs, literally in wives, and by male ritual leaders, metaphorically in sacrifice, such that the patriarchs and sole male gods are understood to procreate all those in the patriline. This ensures their patriarchal ownership and control of the people and associated wealth, which means that the reproductively female people could not be autonomous beings or control wealth circumstances for themselves or their children. In parallel, according to Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s In the Wake of the Goddesses, monotheistic male-god religions came to represent the one god as having goddess traits and capacities, but subsumed under the one, understood to be male.

    Hence, we probably have to distinguish between a) the positive seeing of divinity in general as diverse and complex in sex/gender/sexuality, which furthers equality and liberation for all, and b) the problematic appropriation/exploitation of specifically reproductively female labor capacities by deities labeled as male, which furthers patriarchy. While the traditions give us route b on the surface, we can carefully recover from them and express route a! Thanks, Joyce, for furthering that process.

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  11. Thank you for this very helpful explication Elizabeth. Yes, while the traditions have indeed given us route b–appropriation and control–we can choose route a and find images that nurture us. Your analysis is so useful! I read Frymer-Kensky years ago, and will go back to her book again now. The Nancy Jay book sounds fascinating and important.

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  12. I love this post and the conversation that it has started. The significance of the Goddess’ womb as a place of safety and love is wonderful. It reminds me of a qigong exercise I used to perform, in which ultimately the image was of being breathed — breath so subtle, fine, and slow that it felt like not breathing for oneself — by the matrix of the womb. This is a marvelous practice, especially for anyone whose mother was traumatized during her pregnancy. My mother didn’t have to deal with war and potential genocide, but she was pregnant with me while being disowned by her mother and her older sister, who was also her best friend. This would have been traumatizing enough, but I’m sure it also brought up her abandonment by her father when he killed himself. All alone in a new town, with no family support, supposedly happy to be pregnant, and so repressing the trauma she was experiencing: I’m sure that affected me as a fetus. So experiencing being within a safe and loving womb is a healing practice.

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    • I love the practice you describe, Nancy, and thank you so much for your post. Your mother’s (and your) experience sounds devastating. I wonder how many of us would benefit from such a practice and this image of safe nurturance?

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  13. Ancient physiology (articulated by Hippocrates, Ibn Sina) located the source of emotions in the different organs. We feel that strange and wonderful materiality in the phrase “may God’s womb enfold her.” I love Nancy’s description of what that experience of ultimate compassion might be, a qigong image of being breathed by an encompassing womb, not even having to draw one’s own breath. It reminds me also that this knowledge encoded by Hippocrates came west from India and China and that ancient bodies were porous, drawing in subtle enspirited air that circulated vitality to all the parts (before blood was known to circulate). To be enfolded in God’s womb, breathed by God’s womb, to absorb life-giving spirits effortlessly…I’m wanting to lend that sense of ancient porousness to your powerful image of returning to the Divine womb.

    This poignant journey you send us on to source; restoring this ancient Arabic phrase shared by Jews and Muslims, lifting up the memory of the Goddess encoded in the language of divine compassion, sourcing Phyliss Trible!!!, and gesturing to non-binary diversity in the divine (yes to route “a”!), this journey heals and inspires all the way.

    I really hate to add what feels like a desecration in tone and content but thought you might be interested to know that the writers of the Christian Gospels also describe emotions as arising from the organs, however now stripped of the powerful intimations of the Goddess (Ishtar, Astarte, Ashtoreth, Esther). The womb has become the guts: “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? (1 John 3, 17). We are robbed of all the primal comforts and the endlessly generative potentials of the Divine’s womb. I’m diving back into vital healing source.

    There is so so so much more I am wanting to think through here, that’s how rich this essay is.

    Thank you for this amazing gift, Joyce

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    • “ancient bodies were porous, drawing in subtle enspirited air that circulated vitality to all the parts” — such a wonderful image, Liz. Thank you for the reminder. Thank you too for the reference to the Christian Gospels . . . but I wonder, what was the original word that is translated as “bowels”? I want to go back to the source again here!

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  14. Fascinating post and discussion. Thank you Joyce for this.

    My take on the nature of divinity is this – from our earthly POV, there is duality and thus male and female god figures. But from a heavenly POV, there is no duality. For this reason, I tend to use the terminology of divinity or creation when speaking of the divine rather than a name.

    Most of the ancient divine names for the divine are power syllables – ya-ha-wah, al-lah, budd-ha – that are vibrational essences that make excellent chanting foundations for connecting us. Just like bi-smi llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm are wonderful power vibrations. We have assigned gender to these figures but I think they more likely are not gendered in their original conceptions.

    I have put this book my reading list. I always love the expansion of thoughts I gain on this site. Again thanks

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    • Thanks for your comment, Janet, and for your insight about the divine and divine names. Just this weekend, I heard a remarkable talk by Rabbi Mark Sameth, author of THE NAME: A HISTORY OF THE DUAL-GENDERED NAME FOR GOD, who argues that YWVH was actually once pronounced, and that it meant “He-She” in Hebrew! It’s a book I need to read now. (And I’m glad A LAND LIKE YOU is on your list. It’s truly a remarkable read.)

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