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Mother in Israel: A Familiar Figure Reconsidered

 A Précis, by Jesse Brown

Common literary synopsis of the Old Testament (OT) exuberates a woman’s role being significant on the basis of childbirth. However, close examination reveals something different. Although the quantity of text signifying the importance of women may not amount that of patriarchs, their qualitative roles are equally important and often determine the destinies of their male counterparts and Israel.

Analysis is given by examining the motherly figures of the OT. From patriarchal perspective the OT displays the importance of men, but through matriarchal eyes it can often be seen that major events genesis and drive is through women. Often these stories exemplify matriarch insubordination to husbands, but subordination to God.

When Sarah’s servant Hagar flees the oppression that is brought on her from Sarah, she is outwardly being disobedient to her role as serving Sarah and Abraham. However, Hagar is thus rewarded for refusing oppression, in a promise from God to build a great nation through her. Further confrontation between Hagar and Sarah reveals the significance of a woman’s imperative decision making. With divine approval, Sarah despite Abraham’s displeasure has Hagar and Ishmael sent away, thus keeping the covenantal promises of God for Israel.

The following generation of Isaac and Rebekah again possesses matriarchal cadence signifying how their decisions paved paths for Israel survival and proliferation beyond childbirth. Before having Jacob and Esau, the Lord speaks to Rebekah and she alone is cognizant of the prophecy the elder will serve the younger. This unique knowledge is turned calling upon revelation of Isaac’s intentions of blessing Esau. However, probably not carried out the way God would have wanted her to (similar to patriarch disobedience), she accepts the curse that might come from Isaac uncovering their plan of deception in putting Jacob in Esau’s place for birthright and blessing. Furthermore, Rebekah goes on to direct Jacobs’s escape from retaliation from Esau. This sets the path forward for Jacob and the Israel nation, a course engineered through Godly and matriarchal design.

Other examples of pivotal roles in Israel’s history in matriarchal decision making is exemplified in Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses’s mother in their defiance of orders to kill Hebrew infants in the Nile. Denial cannot be made to the importance and correlation of Moses’s mother building an ark for this endeavor preserving Gods covenant like Noah during the flood.

The final arguments for matriarchal significance are characterized in the stories of Samson and Deborah. Samson’s mother, similar to other matriarchs is spoken to directly by God in revelation for direction and divine intervention. However, this example seems to stress further importance of the mother’s status, when her husband Manoah asks for similar revelation. In response to this request God does speak to him, but in essence only to affirm the mothers importance in receiving divine revelation. The matriarch in this story not only controls the instructive directive from God, but also better comprehends these interactions.

Finality to this perspective is Deborah being classified “a mother of Israel,” even though she is not recounted as having children. Deborah holds many significant roles often performed by patriarchs. She is a prophet, a judge and military leader. She is also represented in contrast to other judges whom display feebleness and folly. From a patriarchal perspective, Deborah’s authoritative status climaxes when her military commander, Barak refuses to go to battle without her. In doing so she prophesies Barak will not receive credit for Israel’s victory, which in fact is given to another woman, Jael.

Moving matriarchal significance away from childbirth and towards someone whom “brings liberation from oppression, provides protection, and secures the well being of her people” is important to correct many patriarchal views of the past and present. However, equal portrayal to the importance of each could be emphasized. Controlling the decision to receive a husband for child rearing in combination with divine revelation in raising a child is abundantly powerful and puts the matriarch in almost dominant position to the patriarchal role. Talk about having the keys to the bus. Furthermore aspects of equality are personified in God repeatedly giving responsibility to one man and one woman for His purposes of Israel’s survival and perseverance. Thus displaying equal importance and personification that best decisions are made in monogamy between one husband and one wife, but I guess that’s a different sermon for another day.

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