According to a recent poll,* Mother’s Day is second only to Christmas and Easter for church attendance. So when Johnny and Jimmy and Debbie take their mothers to church this Sunday, chances are they will hear a pleasant sermon, see pretty flowers, hear upbeat music. And perhaps enjoy a nice lunch afterward.
Yet that sense of “nice,” so prevalent in the sugar-coated view of Christian women today, has little to do with the real mothers of the Bible, the ones who fought the forces of hell—and more—to create and protect their children.
Here are my top 10 picks in the category of “Real Mothers of the Bible.”
This is not a competition. One is not better than the other; the numbers are simply chronological. Think of these woman as in a circle, a holy and sacred circle of mothers. And yes, there is at least one woman here who didn’t give birth (that we know of). But who says you have to be a biological mother to be a real mother? Not me, not the Bible, and not God.
And step in. Join the circle, for it remains open.
1) Lot’s oldest daughter (Genesis 19). Times were brutal. In the midst of Sodom and Gomorra chaos, she (and her younger sister) ply their father with wine and seduce him so that they can get pregnant. Don’t be too judgmental here, (although, to be fair, the word “rape” could probably be used as well as “seduce”). Her world was exploding. She’s just watched her mother be turned into a pillar of salt, her father had just volunteered her to be gang-raped, and her village was destroyed—by the hand of God.
Real mothers seek, create and sustain life in the face of death, destruction and disappointment.
2) Tamar (Genesis 38). Tamar married Judah’s oldest son, Er. God did not like Er and struck him dead (thanks, God). According to the custom of the time, Tamar was given to Onan, Judah’s second son, so that Er’s line might continue. Yet Tamar understood that it was not just Onan’s offspring at stake—it was hers as well. Onan didn’t like the whole idea and ejaculated onto the ground. Tamar could have slunk home to her father’s home at that point, humiliated and shamed. Yet she claimed life and went after it, aggressively. Dressing as a prostitute, she seduced Judah. She saw family sperm as her due, and her right. And she has top credentials: she’s one of Jesus’ maternal ancestors.
Real mothers do not stop claiming what is their right—to bear a child.
3) Deborah (Judges 4, 5). Picture her on horseback, riding out to battle, leading 10,000 troops, and waiting for God’s word—for she has realized that unless the country’s leaders act, the Hebrew people will be annihilated. A judge, prophet, warrior and woman of prayer, she was wise and discerning, brave and beautiful–and she credited other women with helping to win the battle. We do not know if she gave birth, but Judges 5:7 says she was a “mother in Israel”—a high and rare compliment acknowledging that she was a fierce mother on behalf of the whole Hebrew nation.
Real mothers love their people, forecast imminent danger, take steps to fight it, and serve on the front lines, ready to lay down their lives.
4) Hannah (1 Samuel 1-2) Infertile, and filled with grief because of it, Hannah pours out her heart to God at the temple in Shiloh. Negotiating with God to give her a son, she promises to turn him back to the Lord when he has finished nursing. Hannah conceives, bears little Samuel, and as promised, brings him back to live and serve permanently in the temple. Little Samuel grows to be the last judge and military leader of Israel at a time when the nation is particularly violent and morally corrupt. Like his mother, he is faithful and just, committed to serving God and country.
Real mothers are courageous in letting their children step confidently into their future.
5) The Widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17, Luke 4:25). While scavenging to make a fire for her dying son, this starving woman encounters a stranger who asks for food. Although there is none to spare, and she wants to give her son the attention and food he deserves, she somehow finds resources to make a meal. Unbeknownst to her, the stranger is the prophet Elijah. Her grain bins miraculously overflow and her son’s health is restored. Little acknowledged fact: Jesus refers to her strength and kindness when he returns from his 40-day journey in the wilderness (Luke 4:25)
Real mothers minister to others even in the midst of desperate circumstances.
6) Job’s wife (Job 2, Job 19:17, Job 31:10). It must have been hard being married to Job. Yikes. Tortured by the devil (with God’s full permission), Job lost his ten children, his health and his livelihood—but never his faith. Through tremendous personal misfortune, he never criticized God, unlike his wife. Only eleven words are credited to her: “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die!” So why is she listed here? Because those were her ten children as well, and her grief was bottomless. Yes, she and Job did go on to have ten more children, but you really can’t replace children like bowling pins. Like King David, in some of his more eloquent Psalms, she is upfront and direct.
Real mothers speak up and voice their pain, especially in times of tremendous grief.
7) The Mother of Seven Sons (2 Maccabees 7; 4 Maccabees 16-18). An almost totally unknown woman, yet incredible in her faith and witness. She is forced to see her sons be tortured to death, one by one, because of their faith, yet she urges them not to waver from it. She is then killed herself, but goes to her death praising God, and being one of the earliest biblical witnesses to the concept of resurrection. (2 Maccabees 7; 4 Maccabees 16-18)
Real mothers raise their sons and daughters to be faithful people, and to remain true to their teachings and values.
8) The Syrophoenician/Canaanite Woman (Matthew 15:21-18, Mark 7:24-30). This woman loves her demon-possessed daughter so much that she takes Jesus to the mat—and her daughter is healed. She identifies Jesus as Lord, shouts at him, kneels at his feet, and listens to him reject her, calling her a dog. She throws his words back at him, saying that even dogs get to eat the crumbs under the table. Boldly she perseveres—and Jesus healed her daughter because of it.
Real mothers unleash their deepest desires at Jesus’ feet—and when seemingly rejected, persevere in pursuing healing.
9) Salome, the mother of James and John (Matthew 20:20-23, Matthew 27:55-56, Mark 15:40-16:8). Contemporary scholarship points to Salome as being the sister of Jesus’ mother, Mary. As such, Salome was witness to Jesus’ entire life, and accompanied him on the road, stood by the cross, and went to his tomb. She requested that her sons sit at Jesus’ right and left hands when he reached Paradise. Some may think that a shallow request—yet James was the first disciple to be martyred for his faith (Acts 12:1-2)…and Salome believed in the concept of eternal life while others didn’t…and what good mother wouldn’t want that for her son? Her other son, John, was the framer of the Gospel of John—a talented boy indeed. Runs in the family.
Real mothers stand up for and stand by their children and families, pursuing for them their best goal and godly vocations.
10) Mary, mother of Jesus and Theotokos (Greek for God-bearer)**. (For citations, see end of article). Mary could have refused Gabriel’s request. God would not have demanded that she bear his son. After all, God is the primary believer in free will and designed this world to have it. What might have happened had she say no or run away? We don’t know. God invited Mary into a radical, world-transforming experience. She agreed and opened herself to love, self-sacrifice and divine intervention in world affairs—plus deep, heart-wrenching grief.
Real mothers, sometimes, at great personal expense, say Yes to God—and the the world is transformed.
**Mary’s story is found here: Matthew 1:16-23, 12:46-50, 13:54-58, Matthew 2: 11, Mark 3:31-35; 6:1-6, Luke 1:26-56, 2:1-52, 8:19-21, John 2:1-12, 19:25-27, Acts 1:-12-14.
Illustration: Deborah, one of the real mothers in the Bible. Painted by Karen N. Canton for The Scarlet Cord: Conversations with God’s Chosen Women. Author: Lindsay Hardin Freeman. Publisher: John Hunt Publishing, London, England.