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Miriam, Deborah and the other protectors of the community

Metaphoric Mothers

 Le madri metaforiche  DCM-011
02 December 2023

In conversations with women’s groups in churches, I frequently ask them to share their impression of “women in the Bible.” Among the most common responses is the view that the Bible values women primarily as wives and mothers. While the Bible does commend these roles, it does not make them mandatory. To the contrary, the Bible celebrates numerous women not for their having married and given birth to children, but for their acts of nurturing, guiding.  and protecting, acts that make them symbolic “Mothers in Israel.” Further, such traditionally maternal roles are also attributed to Jerusalem, the earth, Wisdom, Paul, Jesus, and God.

            The following are among the many women and women-identified figures in the Old Testament remembered because they gave the community life, nurture, and protection.  

1.     The book of Exodus introduces the prophet Miriam, who protected her infant brother Moses (2:4-9) and then lead the Israelite women in liturgical celebration at the Red Sea (15:20-21). Next is Pharoah’s daughter, who not only adopts, names, and raises Moses (2:10) but who also, in protecting this Israelite child, defies her father’s order that all Israelite male babies be drowned in the Nile River. Third are the midwives Shifra and Puah, who similarly disobeyed the law and rescued the Israelite babies. (Exodus 1:21).  

2.     In the book of Judges we meet Deborah, who was both a prophet and a military leader. Although most translations introduce her as “Deborah, wife of Lappidot” (4:4), the Hebrew eshet lappidot means “woman of flames.” In her song, Deborah exclaims: “Champions there were none, none left in Israel, until you, Deborah, arose, arose as a mother in Israel” (5:7). She is a mother because she provides wise counsel, unites the Israelite tribes, and leads her people to victory.  We also meet Jael, who maternally gives the enemy general Sisera milk and covers him (4:19), and then drives a tent-peg into his head.   

3.     The book of Esther recounts how a Jewish woman overcomes the abuse of being conscripted into the harem of the king of Persia, becomes queen, and then uses her brains along with her natural assets to save her people from genocide.  

4.     The heroine of the book of Judith not only gives theological instruction to the community elders as well as rescues her people by beguiling, besotting, and eventually beheading the enemy general (with his own sword), she also leads a celebratory parade to the Jerusalem Temple wherein the women take the lead role and the men follow behind.  

5.     Isaiah 49:22 speaks of Zion (i.e., Jerusalem) as a mother, and Isaiah 66:8-11 offers an extended metaphor of Jerusalem who goes into labor, gives birth and then nurses her children.  Speaking of the heavenly Jerusalem, Paul in Galatians 4:26 draws from this same tradition.

6.     Wisdom of Solomon 7:12 and Sirach 15:2-5 describe Wisdom as a mother.

7.     Among the several maternal metaphors the prophets apply to God, Isaiah 49:15 is exemplary. In answer to their prayers, God responds to the Jewish people exiled in Babylon, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”

These same concerns appear in the New Testament, where along numerous women who are remembered for actions other than pregnancy and childbirth, we find maternal imagery associated with Jesus, Paul, and the church. Here are seven more examples.

1.     When Jesus was teaching, a woman approached him and announced, “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts from which you nursed.” Jesus responds, “No, rather blessed are those who hear the word of Gd and keep it” (Luke 11:27-28).  For women in churches who struggle with infertility and who are not called to celibacy, this verse provides enormous comfort.

2.     Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha, Susanna and Joanna, the woman who anoints Jesus’s head (Mark 14:3-11//Matthew 26:6-16), the Samaritan woman Jesus meets at a well, and other women disciples are important because of their fidelity to Jesus, not because of marriage or children.  

3.     No children are mentioned for Lydia, the first new follower of Jesus on European soil (Acts 16:14), the deacon Phoebe (Romans 16:1), and the Apostle Junia (Romans 16:7).

4.     Jesus himself can be seen as maternal. Not only does he compare himself to a mother hen who gathers her brood under her wing (Matthew 23:27//Luke 13:34), according to John 19:34, when a soldier pierced his side with a spear, “blood and water” came out. The image is one of giving birth.  

5.     In 1 Corinthians 3:1-2, Paul describes his role as feeding his “infants in Christ” with milk; he presents himself to the Galatians as a woman in labor (Galatians 4:19), and in 1 Thessalonians 2:7 he takes the role of a “nurse caring for her children.”

6.     For Paul, even the earth takes on the maternal role, as it “groans together and is in labor” (Romans 8:22).

7.     Finally, in continuity with the idea of Jerusalem or Zion as mother, and the tendency to personify institutions, cities, nations, etc. as female, Christians developed the image of the church as a mother. For example, St. Cyprian proclaimed, “You cannot have God for your father if you do not have the Church for your mother” (Habere iam non potest Deum patrem qui ecclesiam non habet matrem), and St. Augustine spoke of the “Womb of Mother Church” (uterus matris ecclesiae) and the church as “our true mother (mater nostra vera). This metaphor allowed all who are baptized to regard themselves as children of the same mother and so as siblings.

This list, to which many other examples can be added, is not meant to detract from the physical roles related to pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. Rather, the list leads to at least three major points.

First, it assures those who have been told that the most important thing a woman can do is to have children and who, because of physical or personal reasons cannot be biological mothers, that they are not failures. The biblical standard for women is not primarily motherhood: it is fidelity. Women religious, most of whom having not given birth, testify to this point.

Leaders of countries, women such as Julia Gillard, Park Geun-hye, and Angela Merkel , who have not given birth to children, are often accused of lacking in compassion or failing to fulfill their role as women. Like Miriam and Deborah, Esther and Judith, Phoebe and Junia, they should rather be celebrated for leading their communities.  

Third, because the maternal roles of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding are, in the Bible, extended metaphorically to men, we learn that men also have a responsibility to care for children. Childcare should not, given these images, be something only women do.

by Amy-Jill Levine