Stories of Biblical Mothers: Maternal Power in the Hebrew Bible
by Leila Leah Bronner
The mother of the Bible is a figure of power. She influences the course of life in her home and, in some cases, wider society. The biblical mother is a force to be reckoned with in social, political and religious spheres. Her power stems in part from her role as wife, but far more so from the nurturing and influential relationship she has with her children. No other biblical woman, whether wife, sister or daughter, seems to enjoy the same status and power as the mother. As the mother of the Bible cares for her clan, she does so with wisdom and purpose, acquiring authority and position within the household and beyond.
Some feminists assert that a biblical womanís function is to fulfill and sanction the demands of patriarchy. However, as a feminist and biblical scholar I maintain that women as mothers are not merely constructed as male-dependent pawns within the biblical narrative. Though they are confined to the parameters of a patriarchal system, they have room to operate within their own initiative. They accomplish real feats and emerge as memorable biblical figures, as I demonstrate.
What type of power did a mother enjoy in the ancient biblical world? Here we must turn our attention to anthropologists who have commented on the topic of social power. Anthropologists differentiate between "authority," which denotes culturally sanctioned hierarchical control, and "power," which is described as the ability to gain compliance from others. While generally speaking women did not find themselves in a position where they could claim legal "authority," they certainly had access to "unassigned power," that is, unofficial influence and persuasion.
They used unorthodox methods to obtain their desired end since women could not acquire power through conventional means. Their strategies of persuasion and manipulation are a response to the unequal distribution of power and authority in society. A mother often used her ingenuity to influence people around her because she was not granted official authority by society. She challenged her cultural, social, political and religious environment and made a livable reality for herself.
The unofficial power women exercised has largely gone unnoticed, due to limitations within the historical records. With few exceptions, women did not feature prominently in the history of any civilization.
History has traditionally recorded the achievements and trials of the powerful elite, while the institutions that affect individuals on the social level, such as marriage and family, have remained, until recent times, outside the scope of historical inquiry.
Indeed, it has been asserted that "social history deals with the banal; historical sources prefer the extraordinary."
Because the vast majority of women were conditioned and limited to marriage, motherhood and home, their talents in other spheres remained largely untapped, underdeveloped and unrecorded. However, the Bible is not altogether silent regarding the importance of women. What the Bible chooses to record about the mothers of ancient Israel deserves close attention.
At no time were biblical women entirely dominated and disempowered by a society that restricted a womanís legal and public opportunities. As Otwell argues, not only were women held in high regard in ancient Israel, they were not totally relegated, as some have assumed, to an inferior position within the ancient patriarchal system.
In other words, they were able to acquire some measure of power and status. I argue that this was particularly true in their role as mother. As we will discuss below, sometimes mothers of the Bible found power as queen mothers and wise women, caring for and counseling their families and their people.
Feminist scholars have traditionally been bothered by the male-centered tone of the Bible, and studies conducted over the past thirty years have served as correctives to these patriarchal assumptions.
But these feministic analyses are in no way homogenous. Their scope and breadth runs the gamut. Some studies emphasize the patriarchal tone of the Bible and see little positive female figures emerge. Other studies downplay the androcentric nature of the Bible and reclaim the female figure as a model of great significance. My study, acknowledging the patriarchal character of the Hebrew Bible, analyzes the role of the mother within the admittedly limited environment in which she functioned. While some scholars project upon the text a certain agenda on the part of the male writers to limit the power women held in society,
I choose instead to describe the unassigned power of the mother in the literary world of the Bible. I claim that women as mothers emerge as paragons of power, figures of faith, and archetypes of ingenuity.
To my knowledge, no comprehensive book has dealt with the topic of motherhood in the Bible. Although many articles exist, they usually comprise a chapter in a larger study that talks about the place of women within the biblical landscape. My analysis of the biblical mother shows that women had power in the context of their mothering. I appreciate Frymer-Kenskyís question, "Why are there so many memorable women in the Bible [in this androcentric text]?"
I attempt to provide an answer to this question by analyzing the unforgettable mothers of the biblical narrative. I look at prominent figures but also deal with lesser-known characters. My study includes both named and unnamed mothers within the Bible. My investigation goes from Eve to Esther, Rahab to Ruth, Bathsheba to Nahushta, and includes many other maternal figures. I show that all these mothers are unique in personality and behavior and manage to impact their respective homes and communities, yet at the same time are connected in that they all rely on skillfully acquired, yet unassigned power.
When one begins to consider mothering, one often begins with marriage, a strong social tie within a complex kinship system that entails the merging of two or more families and possibly two or more traditions.
To tap into any potential power, a woman must transition from daughter to wife to mother. Becoming a wife is the usual prelude to becoming a mother of future children. For this reason alone the woman who is taken as a wife is empowered by the importance of her eventual role; she is the progenitress of the future, bringing with her a set of beliefs and customs to impart to her children. As Frymer-Kensky notes, a wife/mother goes from being "outside the family into its very heart as the bearer and caretaker of its future children."
Through the institution of marriage a comparatively powerless daughter rises to the respected stature accorded a mother. This is the kind of unofficial power referred to above, in the familial relationships of the Bible where a mother figures prominently. A woman in her lifetime, may go from the position of vulnerable daughter to the position of wife, and finally, reach the most powerful position, that of Influential Mother.
The book contains seven chapters, with an introduction and conclusion. These chapters chronologically deal with a wide range of mothers in their different familial relationships and settings. Each individual has her own outlook on life, style of mothering, and degree of piety. The theme of motherly influence governs our agenda and we examine different aspects of the overriding premise in each of the chapters of the book.
Chapter One, "The First Mothers," deals with the ancient mothers and foundational matriarchs of Genesis, who live in a close-knit clan society. These mothers exercise their influence within a familial setting. This chapter mines the biblical text for the intimacy displayed between the various mothers and their sons. Because these relationships exist more between the lines than explicitly stated in the text, I discover intimations of relationship from the charactersí names, which often in the Bible shed light on an individualís personality and behavior. In the Genesis stories, the presence of God and the themes of covenant and faith inform the beliefs, actions and longings of these early matriarchs. They are nurturing a family that is on the brink of becoming a people.
Chapter Two, "Mothers of a Budding Nation," notes the different relationships between mothers and sons found in the books of Judges, Samuel and Kings as compared to those found in first five books of the Bible. These mothers are living during an age of transition. They are nurturing sons who go on to contribute to the birth of a nation. In contrast to the view of motherhood in the Pentateuch, the mothers of these later books exhibit a broader range of maternal attitudes. Although women like Hannah echo the Genesis matriarchs desire for children, other women, such as Samsonís mother and the Shunammite, do not yearn desperately to give birth.
Chapter Three, "Wise Women and Queen Mothers," explores how some women experience their motherhood more in terms of nurturing a nation than raising a child. In these examples of wise women and queen mothers, motherhood extends its influence beyond the immediate family into the halls of wisdom and the corridors of royalty. The mothering these women do has far-reaching impact in that they often influence a whole people group by their actions. They employ motherly concern and intuition to bring about social, political and religious change.
Chapter Four, "Mothers and Daughters," addresses first the metaphor of the daughter of Israel used throughout the Hebrew Bible to express the relationship between God and his people. Then the chapter delves into the personal and domestic realm of mothers and their daughters. The Bible relates only three stories that feature a daughter whose motherís name is specified. I have added to these stories the example of Rebecca and her mother in addition to examples from Ruth and the Song of Songs where the central relationship can be identified as one between a mother and daughter. These stories show another dimension to the topic of motherhood. Though the Bible is replete with mother-son accounts, the little information on the interaction between mother and daughter often goes unnoticed. However, these important relationships show that biblical women can empower one another to be strong in the face of great hardship.
Chapter Five, "The Metaphorical Mother," delves into a new area of study, exploring the exceptional role a few notable women play as large scale leaders. They are not biological mothers, but become symbolic mothers through their outstanding devotion to their people. The chapter begins with a discussion of Deborah and offers her as an important paradigm for other women leaders of the Bible who can be characterized as "mothers in Israel." These women are unique in social standing and behavior. Their "mothering" becomes a style of leadership, which differs significantly from how their male colleagues govern their people.
Chapter Six, "The Unconventional Mother," looks at women who become mothers through unusual means. We study the "daughters of men" of Genesis 6 who mate with divine beings and give birth to demigods. We also examine Lotís daughters who procreate with their father to give birth to the eponymous ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites. Finally, we investigate the unorthodox coupling of Tamar with her father-in-law, Judah. The unconventional method these women use to conceive deserves explanation and commentary.
Chapter Seven, entitled "The Motherly Role of God," portrays the aspect of God that mirrors the tasks and activities typically attributed to the mother. That the biblical writers utilized female, and particularly maternal images for God I believe shows that the role of the mother was held in high esteem. The Hebrew Bible rejects the idea of God as either exclusively male or female. According to this theology, God the Creator transcends both sexes. In this chapter I focus on the nurturing and maternal imagery describing Godís interaction with his people.
My study is a literary one in which I engage in narrative criticism, examining each biblical periscope to determine the role the mother plays. I consider the mother stories as a group, thematically studying each in reference to the other, analyzing their composition and purpose, in an attempt to give as comprehensive view as possible of the biblical mother. Every mother story differs in context and situation. In doing a wide-ranging study of most of the mothers of the Bible, I show that biblical women are remarkable, and make valuable contributions within their respective communities. They transform themselves, their children, and often their entire social world.
As I mention above, this study employs first and foremost literary criticism. Literary criticism, or narrative criticism, analyzes the features that the narrator uses to develop not only an individual narrative, but also to deliberately link it with other stories in the larger context for distinctive design. In order to bring out the subtle nuances of the literary record, I compare and contrast how various characters interact and behave. Instead of focusing on the patchwork of documents scholars have recognized as the Bible, I emphasize the final form of the text. My approach uses the canonical shape of the Bible as a starting point, thus I study each mother chronologically, as presented, with the few exceptions noted.
This book aims to offer a new appreciation for the mothers of the Bible. For the most part I discuss biological mothers, but the study also includes women in the Bible who act in a mothering capacity by caring for symbolic children. These women, although not mothers on a physical level, appear as mothers on a metaphorical, or symbolic level. In studying the mothers of the Bible, I seek to recognize the extraordinary in the ordinary. The mother is a powerful force within the family, and indirectly her influence resonates at times within the public domain. On the other hand, at some crucial moments, we do not hear the motherís voice. We can only speculate at the dialogue that might have occurred within the family behind closed doors, which might have led to actions taken on the part of the husband or brothers. The objective in my research is neither to extol nor to denigrate, but to make the implicit in the text explicit.
My research begins by studying the original languages, as I believe that examining the Hebrew and Aramaic offers a major clue to interpreting the women of this tradition. I employ a literary critical technique of close reading to examine grammar, syntax and etymology and to interpret linguistic connections. I also, when possible give a translation for a characterís name, often relying on the popular meaning rather than strict linguistic interpretation in an attempt to offer a new dimension to this study. At the same time, I do not hesitate to supplement the biblical stories with related historical and social phenomena in an interdisciplinary analysis of what these biblical texts may mean to us. I draw both from traditional Jewish sources, such as the Talmud and Midrash, and contemporary critical analysis to situate my investigation within the parameters of rabbinic tradition and modern biblical studies. Since my interest is the final form of the text, I do not distinguish documentary sources nor discuss in detail problems of authorship. I cull from various versions, consult many, and in the final analysis, many of the biblical translations are my own.
This inquiry on biblical motherhood was undertaken because of my desire to study a little-explored topic. I hope through this study to bring to the forefront an overlooked figure in the Hebrew Bible. In doing a wide-ranging study of most of the mothers of the Bible, I show that these biblical women are remarkable figures of fortitude, and make valuable contributions within their communities. Indeed these amazing women continue to wield influence today in the on-going analysis of the literary testimony of their lives. The ancestral mothers of Israel truly are extraordinary women. Through their example we are encouraged to be stronger, wiser, more assertive, more courageous, in short, proactive in our posture toward life.