Before he dies, Jacob blesses each of his sons. In the blessing for Joseph, we have some unusual language.
The God of your father who helps you,Genesis 49:25
And Shaddai who blesses you
With blessings of heaven above,
Blessings of the deep that couches below,
Blessings of the breast and womb.
This isn’t the only place we see breast (both directly and as “Shaddai” which also means breast), womb, and deep, but it’s perhaps the most striking. Most of the traditional commentators (who are male) interpret this, unsurprisingly, as blessings for those things (not those people, not those who perform the work) which allow the nation to grow in population.
The breasts are blessed at which thou wast suckled, and the womb in which thou didst lie.Targum Jonathan on Genesis 49:25
Some are even more oblique.
Jacob likened the breasts to heaven and the womb to the earth, its meaning being that Joseph will be blessed with many children. (Footnote: Our verse reads, With blessings of heaven…Blessings of the deep…Blessings of the breasts, and of the womb. According to I.E. breast and womb are similar to heaven and earth in that they produce life-giving substance and bring forth fruit. Hence they are included in the same verse.)Ibn Ezra on Genesis 49:25:3
Are these not blessings of a Mother God? Could there be anything coded more strongly as female than milk-giving breasts and a life-giving womb? How exactly do we read this and conclude that breasts and wombs ought to get added to the many offerings of a Father God?
In the other part of the blessing, the blessings of the deep (tehom), the commentators even tell us the deep is feminine. Though somehow they only mean it grammatically (and even then, only sometimes).
The word tehom (the deep) is feminine both in our verse and in Deut. (33:16). It is similarly feminine in The deep (tehom) made it to grow (Ezek. 31:4). The meaning of With blessings of heaven above, Blessings of the deep that coucheth beneath is that rain will descend from the heavens above upon the land of Joseph and that the deep which coucheth beneath the earth will fill its rivers and springs with an abundance of water. (Footnote: Our verse reads, tehom rovetzet (the deep that coucheth). Deut. 33:13 reads, u-mi-tehom rovetzet (and for the deep that coucheth). Rovetzet (coucheth) is feminine, hence tehom (the deep) must be feminine. Ezek. 31:4 reads, tehom romematehu (the deep made it to grow). Since romematehu is feminine, tehom, too, must be feminine. I.E. makes this point because tehom is masculine in Ps. 42:8. Thus we see that tehom is both masculine and feminine.)Ibn Ezra on Genesis 49:25:2
What is tehom, the deep? Beyond the mere surface water of irrigation and hydration.
This endless ocean already exists before Creation even starts, and Torah doesn’t explain how it got there. It is primordial, powerful; it rivals God for primacy. This is the water of the Flood. Forty days of rain are nasty, but the destruction comes from the unchaining of the previously subdued Deep. It is the pre-Creation order coming to reclaim its place.On the Sea. Itzik’s Well. Rabbi Irwin Keller. October 9, 2021.
We see tehom as well with the parting of the Red Sea and in the story of Jonah. All stories where the actors or main players are male. I don’t find a single reference (but surely there are some) that gives tehom as the source of Miriam’s well. But how could it be otherwise? If tehom is what fills rivers and springs, is it not what supplies the endless well Miriam brings forth in the wilderness? Enough water to supply tens of thousands of people, plus cattle and other livestock. Enough to drink and bathe and purify for nearly 40 years.
Tehom is living water. Water that moves from the depths. A womb also holds living water, the amniotic fluid. Breastmilk is living water as well.
I won’t quibble over what is male vs female because, in my mind, God (or Goddess, if you prefer) has no gender (or all gender) anyway. Despite the masculinization of God in this narrative (though it’s often Elohim, or Gods instead of God), the reality is that it describes a God which is both male and female (and presumably every other gender).
And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.Genesis 1:27
The problem isn’t assigning some things which sustain life—womb/earth, breasts/heaven, water/tehom—to a masculine God. It’s that our culture, both the authors of the Bible and the commentators/readers through to the modern age, assign everything to God as male. The female has been systematically erased.
There is so much more I could say. From the amazing course on the Sacred Feminine in Judaism on offer from my synagogue to the scholarship of countless women and others opening my eyes to the female God in front of me. But I’m not writing a dissertation. I’m only looking at how my travelers would have experienced the Exodus. Its fullness, its reality. Its connection to God and spirit before the codification of Torah many centuries later.
- Targum Jonathan on Genesis. Primary Targum on the books of the Prophets, read publicly in synagogues in talmudic times and still today by Yemenite Jews. Targum (“translation”) is the name of a category of texts that translate the Tanakh into Aramaic, originally transmitted orally and committed to writing between the 1st and 6th centuries CE.
- Ibn Ezra on Genesis. Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, a 12th Century Biblical commentator from Spain.
- On the Sea. Itzik’s Well. Rabbi Irwin Keller. October 9, 2021.
- Tehom. Wikipedia.