I lost my mother to cancer when I was eleven. And still I yearn for her voice. I mourn that my memories of her are limited; I keep reviewing the moments I can remember, and there are no new ones.
When she died, the warmth left our house. Even though an older woman, Lucille, was hired to keep house and to cook, the fire went cold. Lucille made cakes and the mandatory Minnesota hot dish, but they could have been store bought. While she kept the house technically clean, it was empty—for its soul was gone.
Few words have helped me more over the years in dealing with grief that those of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written from prison—where he would be executed by the Nazis— in 1943:
First: nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try and find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; he doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.
Yet gifts can come out of emptiness; that is how grace works. Listening into the wind of silence for my mother’s voice has brought the joy of discovering other women’s voices, particularly women of the Bible. I’m a genealogy buff, and have come to think of Anna and Elizabeth and Mary and Rebecca and the rest of them as spiritual foremothers.
In them, I have found courage, strength, audacity, hope and love. And I have also come to realize, sadly, that like the empty house Lucille cared for, our churches risk an empty, soul-less spiritual house unless the voices of biblical women are brought back into our consciousness.
Toward that goal, four of us in Minnesota spent three years doing something that, surprisingly, no one had done before: we counted and documented all the words spoken by women in scripture. We discovered that there are 93 women whose words are recorded in the Bible—and each had a story. We thought of them as neighbors. What were their personality traits? Why did they make the decisions they did? What challenges did they face? And why do they matter today?
Some Bible women were brilliant. Some were particularly brave. A few, like Jezebel and Athaliah and Herodias, were audaciously badly-behaved. All were bold.
Some had children. Some didn’t. Yet all of their actions have influenced generations of daughters in the faith. Voices like those of Deborah, Rahab, and Mary of Bethany paint a clear picture of what it means to it means to be a mother in the Bible, regardless of offspring. DNA? Of course DNA is one piece of motherhood, and yearning for children is a substantial theme in the Bible. Women such as Rebecca, Hannah and Sarah begged and pleaded with God to give them sons, and eventually God did—even at the age of ninety, in Sarah’s case.
But being a foremother of the faith is more than DNA.
Deborah: A Mother of Israel
Take Deborah: the first female warrior in the Bible. Was she a mother in the traditional sense? The Book of Judges does not say if she gave birth. Rather, the Bible calls her “a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7) — meaning that she mothered an entire nation by nurturing its people, keeping them safe, and risking her life for theirs.
Her story: In the twelfth century BCE, in those violent and tumultuous years before Israel had its first king, Deborah was judge of Israel—not just a judge, but Judge: in charge, spiritually and politically. And Israel was under attack. Marauding groups of Canaanites were destroying towns and carrying off young girls. She could stand no more. Ordering Barack, Israel’s general, to call up 10,000 soldiers, she promised to draw Canaanite leader Sisera into a place of vulnerability.
“Take 10,000 men and head up to the River Kishon. Meanwhile, I will give Sisera into your hand,” said Deborah. (How much easier could that be? ) Yet it was not enough for Barack. “I will not go unless you go with me,” he said.
“Fine,” responded Deborah. “But God is not particularly happy with you right now, and another woman will be needed to finish the battle.” (paraphrase of Judges 4:6-10)
With Deborah’s presence on the front lines, and with God’s help, the Israelites won the war. All enemy soldiers —except for Sisera—were killed, who escaped and limped into a nearby town—and then made the mistake of entering the tent of a woman named Jael. After he had fallen asleep on her floor, she nailed a tent peg into his head.
Protecting one’s own. Taking risks to protect the future of one’s offspring. Teaching. Leading by prayer and example. No wonder the Bible refers to Deborah as mother.
Mary and Martha: Mothers of hospitality
Numerous mothers of hospitality dance throughout the Bible, including the widow of Zarephath, Sarah, and Lydia, out of whose home Paul and Timothy ran their missionary enterprise. Topping the list, though, are Mary and Martha of Bethany. Martha might have been married at one point, but no spouse for Martha is ever indicated. Imagine Martha cooking for Jesus and his disciples. Houses were small, electricity had not been invented, and neighbors shared cooking grates in a common outside area. (No wonder Martha—as the only one making dinner— became irritated with Mary.) We forget that Martha had a wonderfully warm and welcoming presence. Jesus would not have kept coming back were that not the case, especially the week before he died.
Mary’s special gifts in hospitality, though, were unlike anyone else’s. (See John 12.) No one else, except for Thomas, openly acknowledged that Jesus’ return to Jerusalem would end with his death. No one else had the courage, or even inclination, to take Jesus’ feet and anoint him lovingly with expensive spikenard—and some say that the scent was so strong that it could be smelled up to a half mile away.
Like Martha, Mary’s hospitality was sacramental in nature—for a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In anointing Jesus, she grasped the nature of his kingship and did what Samuel had done so long before for Saul and David: she blessed him. And in doing so, she gave Jesus strength for the biggest challenge in his life: the Cross.
Mary gave Jesus spiritual food. And that is what good mothers do—they give us the inner resources we need to cross the chasms we must all face in life. They give us roots as well as wings, backbone as well as agility. Good mothers introduce us to foundations that will last: faith, humor, love, and learning.
Rahab: A Mother of Courage
Mothers are also courageous. And there are few people more courageous in the Bible than Rahab, a prostitute living in the town of Jericho (see Joshua 2, 6) about the year 1250 BCE. Jericho, the first city in the Promised Land, was used to hostile encounters, thus the high walls around it. Yet the Israelites would need to conquer it in order to proceed to the land that God had designated.
Sheltering two Hebrew spies, sent into Jericho by Joshua to figure out the best way to take the city, Rahab was a survivor. But she was also a courageous risk-taker of the highest order. Hiding the spies, she denied their presence when interrogated by the king’s guards. Then, when they were ready to leave her behind, she demanded they protect her and her family—and they did. One of Jesus’ most scandalous and dynamic ancestors, Rahab was one of only two women St. Paul names a “hero of the faith”: high praise indeed.
Mary: A Mother in Faith
Jesus’ mother, Mary, is clearly the most famous mother in the Bible. She gave birth to Christ and watched him take his final breaths; she followed him on the road and she watched his body be laid in the grave. As the first to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, she is the model for all future disciples.
Mary is the quintessential mother of faith. She ponders things in her heart: the Bible’s way of saying “she worries.” She doesn’t always understand her son. At times she even appears to be rejected by him, (for example, when Jesus says, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”) (Matthew 12:48)
Had she said no to the angel Gabriel, the story might have turned out very differently. Good mothers say yes to love.
Foremothers in the faith
Like Mary, my mother said yes to love and faith, knowing that God would be with her as she raised children while living with cancer. She read her Bible when she couldn’t sleep at night and left it open. She visited the sick and grieving and took me along. She prayed every morning, was active at church, and taught me the importance of belonging to a strong faith community. She had joy in her soul that I believe came from her faith and God.
I hold her biological DNA in my cells, along with DNA from ancestors who lived thousands, and perhaps millions of years ago—for in our very beings we harbor bits and pieces of all those to whom we are related, whether they lived in Africa or crossed the Bering Strait or existed primarily in northern Europe.
But we also hold spiritual DNA within, from our mothers and our biblical foremothers alike. Ruth, Naomi, Susannah, Judith, Bathsheba, Elizabeth, Anna and all the rest—they’re in our family tree, all part of our spiritual DNA. Unlike invisible chromosomes, however, the record of Bible women and their contribution to our spiritual history is in full view on the pages of the Bible.
May we learn their stories, hold them close to our hearts, and pass them on to the next generation of daughters in the faith. If we ignore them, we lose a huge pool of wisdom, as well as our own religious heritage. Instead, may we celebrate belonging to this robust configuration of women—mothers of faith throughout the centuries—who have pointed to God, loved God, and said Yes to faith.
Photo: Bud Holland
This article first appeared in Gather, the magazine for the women of the Lutheran Evangelical Church in America, (ELCA) in May, 2016. Author: Lindsay Hardin Freeman