August 17, 2022

Motherhood’s Vast Possibilities: Four Biblical Mothers

By Sari Fein

While the modern observance of Mother’s Day almost universally presents a one-dimensional version of what it means to be a mother, the biblical construction of motherhood shows much more diverse constructions. You certainly won’t find anything in the Bible quite like the greeting cards that declare, “When a mother says ‘I love you,’ she means ‘I’ll do anything for you,’” and “Moms do it all, and they do it with ease,” but you will find complex, nuanced versions of motherhood that resonate with us today.

The same critique can be made of the popular understanding of Jewish motherhood. Stereotypes of the American Jewish mother have persisted for nearly a century. She is frequently depicted as an overbearing “Yiddishe mama” nudging her offspring to eat, to become doctors (especially sons) or get married and have babies (especially daughters). These caricatures sometimes veer into meanness, making the Jewish mother “a universal metaphor for nagging, whining, guilt-producing maternal intrusiveness,” according to Joyce Antler in You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother. The caricatured Jewish mother appears regularly in many comedic settings, such as the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” (2007-2019), where Mrs. Wolowitz (who is only ever heard, and never seen) provides many opportunities for laughter at her expense.

In full disclosure, I’m a mother of two young daughters, and I’d happily receive the praise of the greeting card or a good Mother’s Day brunch.  But, how we imagine mothers on Mother’s Day comes nowhere near the full spectrum of mothering experiences or the actual history of the American holiday of Mother’s Day, which is much richer and more complex than contemporary practice might suggest, dating back to the Civil War era, and taking some inspiration from the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Motherhood, as we know, is much more complicated than sitcoms and cards suggest. Jewish art and literature, as far back as the pages of the Bible, provide wildly diverse portraits of motherhood, each one rich and multifaceted. They challenge our contemporary understanding of both Jewish motherhood and motherhood in general as something natural, innate, and universal. In my dissertation project, I investigate four case studies of early Jewish texts that “retell” stories about biblical mothers. These investigations reveal variant depictions of motherhood that are uniquely constructed by social, cultural, and intellectual forces. Such revelations beg the question—if depictions of motherhood throughout history are so diverse, can we open up our understanding of motherhood today to allow for alternative expressions of what it means to be a mother?

Mother as a Prophet: Hannah

Early Jewish audiences, in attempting to work through what it meant to be a mother, turned to the framework of maternal prayer. Targum Jonathan, a Second Temple-era Aramaic translation of the biblical book of Samuel and other prophetic texts, greatly expands the prayer of Hannah, originally found in 1 Samuel 2. Surprisingly, Targum Jonathan’s expansions effectively make Hannah an apocalyptic prophet. The biblical text of 1 Samuel 2 relates a prayer supposedly uttered by Hannah at the occasion of her dedication of her firstborn son Samuel at the local temple. Her prayer can be categorized as thanksgiving to God; it offers general praise of God’s power, especially God’s ability to raise up the lowly, which readers are left to assume refers to Hannah’s particular situation as she has been raised from a barren woman to the mother of a favored child. Targum Jonathan elevates the urgency of Hannah’s prayer and adds an eschatological dimension to it. It explicitly states that Hannah prays “in a spirit of prophecy,” making Hannah one of Jewish tradition’s few women prophets. Targum Jonathan also makes extensive additions (noted in bold, below) to Hannah’s prayer, in which Hannah predicts divine destruction of the cosmic enemies of Israel, which will result in a new, messianic age. She prophesies:

“The Lord will shatter the enemies who rise up to do harm to his people. The Lord will strike down on them from the heavens with a loud voice. He will execute vengeance of judgment against Gog [considered a cosmic enemy of Israel], and the armies of the robber nations who come with him from the ends of the earth, but He will provide strength for his king, and he will increase the kingdom of his Messiah.”

These changes shift the text’s portrayal of Hannah from a mother singing a song of thanksgiving and praising to the Lord, to an apocalyptic prophet predicting the arrival of the messianic age. By describing Hannah speaking “in a spirit of prophecy” and inserting additions which describe the defeat of Israel’s enemies and the rise of God’s messiah, Targum Jonathan suggests that she not only gives birth to the child Samuel, but she also gives birth on an additional, cosmic level to a new eschatological age. Targum Jonathan expands the possibilities of the maternal body to imagine the birth of a whole new world.

Mother as Activist: The Widow

Another model of motherhood in the early Jewish imagination was the maternal activist. An example of this model can be found in the wall paintings of the Dura Europos Synagogue, a third-century synagogue on the banks of the Euphrates. On the western wall of the synagogue, one painting depicts a scene from 1 Kings 17, which scholars have called “Elijah Reviving the Widow’s Child.”

Figure 2: Elijah Revives the Widow’s Child;

What scholars fail to capture in this naming is the important role the Widow, the mother of the child, plays in saving her child’s life. In 1 Kings 17, when the poor, widowed woman’s son falls so ill “that there was no breath left in him” (v. 17, NRSV translation), she turns to Elijah the prophet and demands “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” (v. 18, NRSV translation). It is these words that prompt the prophet to act, as he then takes the boy, performs a series of ritual actions over him, and restores him to life and health. The visual interpretation of this scene at Dura Europos expands the woman’s agency in this narrative by depicting her in active physical poses. On the left, she gives her child to Elijah, rather than the prophet taking her from him; she gazes at her child to emphasize the mother-child connection. On the right, after her child has been restored to her, she extends her arm in an echo of the Hand of God above her, suggesting that they are both partners in the miracle of bringing her child back to life. This visual “text” shows another form of motherhood in the early Jewish imagination; a mother who stood up to authority in order to protect her child—and who received divine approval for her bold actions.

Mourning Mother: Rachel

While the Widow’s story has a happy ending, early Jewish communities were also forced to confront the reality of high infant mortality rates in the ancient world, and thus another theme on which they focus in their writing is maternal grief. The rabbinic midrash Lamentations Rabbah from the fourth or fifth century CE imagines a scene where Rachel, one of the matriarchs from the biblical book of Genesis, leverages her grief over her lost children to convince God to return the dispersed Israelites to their land. Because the book of Genesis does not describe the death of any of Rachel’s children, Lam. Rab. takes as its jumping-off point a line from the book of Jeremiah: “Thus says the LORD:

    A voice is heard in Ramah,

lamentation and bitter weeping.

Rachel is weeping for her children;

she refuses to be comforted for her children,

because they are no more.” (31:15, NRSV translation)

Like Jeremiah, the rabbis imagine Rachel as the “mother” of all the people of Israel, whose land has been conquered and who are forced into exile after the destruction of Jerusalem. Rachel is not the only mourning mother in rabbinic literature with a voice—other texts describe Sarah’s grief after she hears of Isaac’s (near) death in the akedah (Midrash Tanhuma, Vayera; Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer; and Vayikra Rabbah), and Sisera’s mother’s grief as she waits for her son to return (though readers know he has been killed by Yael) (Rosh HaShanah 33b). The rabbis compare these mothers’ wails to the sounds of the shofar, the ram’s horn that is blown on solemn occasions such as Yom Kippur. Rachel seems to be unique in that she uses her grief for her children as the basis for an eloquent accusation against God. She castigates God: “How come then you are jealous of idolatry, which is nothing, and so have sent my children into exile, allowing them to be killed by the sword, permitting the enemy to do whatever they wanted to them?” God immediately responds to Rachel’s grief by agreeing to return the Israelites to their land. This text thus imagines mourning mothers like Rachel to be endowed with the power to “stand in the breach” between the divine and human realms, precisely because of the grief they feel for their children.

Valorizing Martyrdom: Mother and her Seven Sons

The aforementioned three narratives of motherhood all assume a mother’s love and devotion for her children leads to prioritizing their health and safety. The story of the “mother and her seven sons” complicates this notion in its valorization of martyrdom. In a tale which appears in 2 and 4 Maccabees and rabbinic texts such as BT Gittin and Lamentations Rabbah (but not in the canonized Jewish scriptures), we learn of a mother whose seven sons are brought before a “tyrant” and ordered under threat of torture to violate the laws of Torah. Rather than attempt to protect her children, as modern audiences might expect, their mother encourages them to stay true to their principles and even sacrifice their lives for them. The texts describe the gruesome tortures and deaths of the seven sons, which culminate in the death (described in different ways in different texts) of the mother herself. 4 Maccabees lauds the mother for these actions in flowery terms: “Yet that holy and God-fearing mother did not wail with such a lament for any of [her sons], nor did she dissuade any of them from dying, nor did she grieve as they were dying. On the contrary, as though having a mind like adamant and giving rebirth for immortality to the whole number of her sons, she implored them and urged them on to death for the sake of religion” (16:12, NRSV translation). This narrative presents yet another contrasting version of motherhood which teaches that a “good” mother is one who raises up children who are so firm in their religious convictions they would rather die than violate them—and she would even encourage her children to do so.

These four texts from the early Jewish period demonstrate that even in antiquity, motherhood was understood to encompass vast possibilities. Different ways of being a mother were valued by different communities at different times, depending on a unique confluence of social, cultural, and intellectual forces. Let us take a lesson from Jewish history and expand our understanding of motherhood to include all the ways it can be expressed. And, let us begin on Mother’s Day.

Sari Fein is an HBI Scholar in Residence, and a Ph.D. candidate in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis University.


  1. Sylvia Fishman says:

    Outstanding! Congratulations to scholar Sari Fein for a fresh and original, nuanced, and extremely learned discussion, and to HBI for publishing this blog.

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