In Judges 5, Deborah is called ‘a mother in Israel’. As far as we know, she didn’t have children which raises the question of what this ‘mother’ role is. How did Deborah mother Israel? What characterised motherhood in Israel and how was it understood? Cheryl Exum’s ‘”Mother in Israel”: A Familiar Figure Reconsidered” asks these questions, taking the narratives of the matriarchs (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah), the mothers of the Exodus (Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses’ mother) and another mother from the period of the Judges (Samson’s mother) as paradigmatic in exploring the concept.
Exum points out that the story of the Bible is the story of sons and that the mothers discussed derive their significance from having given birth to their famous sons. There’s a patriarchal bias there. However, she also notes that while important events in Israelite tradition are experienced by men, they are often set in motion and determined by women. For example:
- Sarah guaranteeing Abraham’s line by neutralising the threat of Ishmael for example
- Rebekah’s action in ensuring that Jacob gets the blessing
- Rachel and Leah competing to have the most children which ends up building Israel a might house.
- Moses’ mum, the midwives and Pharaoh’s daughter, who all disobey Pharaoh’s command to expose baby boys in the River Nile, thereby saving Moses, the leader of the exodus.
- Samson’s mother (Judges 13), who receives the instructions about who her son will be, with very little action taken by Manoah, Samson’s father.
Exum doesn’t want to overplay the importance of women in the narrative: she’s critical that these women are often ‘behind the scenes’. However, she notes that their actions are often daring, enterprising and tenacious.
Turning to Deborah, she dismisses (rightly, I think) the notion that Barak is the real judge. Instead, she compares Deborah’s function as judge and prophet to Samuel who also led Israel but summoning a military leader to fight for Israel and held them accountable. She notes that her accomplishments include counsel, inspiration and leadership. Thus “a mother in Israel is one who brings liberation from oppression, provides protection and ensures the well-being and security of her people.” It’s in this sense that Deborah can be considered a mother in Israel.
Exum claims that this reading of motherhood “enables us to read the stories of Deborah or Miriam as a critique of a patriarchal culture that produced too few independent female leaders and it allows us to praise the strengths of those women who appear in stereotyped, subordinate roles.” One of the things I liked about this was that Exum didn’t feel the need to reject women who appeared in traditional roles. Being in a patriarchal society didn’t nullify their contribution. However, I thought more attention needed to be given to what those ‘strengths’ might be. What about the ethics of lying to get what you want, in the case of Rebekah for example? I suspect that Exum’s approach puts the focus of the actions of women rising above their circumstances and less on the God who works even in fallen situations and through fallen people.
Exum notes that there’s more to being a woman than being a mother but I thought her characterisation of motherhood was helpful for a more general understanding of being a woman as well. Motherhood in the Old Testament is more than being a baby-machine and it’s also more than nurturer within a family context. It isn’t limited to biological mothers and it’s bigger than being confined to the sphere of home and children. Michael Jensen’s approach to the Bible is vastly different from Exum’s but he made a similar call recently: to think creatively about gender, beyond roles, situations and stereotypes. You can be an ‘essentialist’ on either end of the scale – wanting to confine women to the home; or de-valuing women whose contribution is primarily domestic. Both Exum and Jensen work hard to take in the whole picture, amidst the complexities.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.