Though the American holiday of Mother’s Day is only about 100 years old, various cultures have set aside time to pay homage to mothers for millennia.
For Christians, this celebration involves honoring motherhood through the lens of God’s revelation at the heart of our faith. Our scriptural narrative discloses the inclusion of mothers in God’s divine purposes from creation to new creation.
God’s original plan is that humans would fill the earth and steward it (Gen. 1:28). That project is unsustainable without mothers who give birth to the humans who will cultivate God’s good creation. Even after the first created woman (and man) tarnishes the goodness, beauty, and simplicity of that plan with disobedience, God never gives up on her or the plan.
It is after their transgression and the entrance of pain, division, and even death that Adam sees evidence of God’s grace in his partner—who is fittingly named Eve (3:20). because she will be mother of the living (Eve and living are closely related in Hebrew). Death will not have the final word, and the hope of God’s plan will continue through her because she will bring forth life. The narrator allows her to proclaim God’s grace in the birth of her children (4:1, 25).
Mothers recede into the background as most of the genealogies focus on fathers and sons—but without mothers, of course, these family lines would not continue at all. Over and over again, God invites the participation of women in the divine plan of life.
At times, however, the narrative spotlight of Scripture does fall upon mothers. Time would fail me to recount all the mothers in the Bible who heard and accepted the call to join God’s mission on earth—but some stories are too good not to mention.
Early on, the divine plan for a good creation focuses on one family—and a scandalously imperfect one at that. Abraham and Sarah are admittedly the focus of the drama, but for a while Hagar steals the show.
Not only was she born outside of the chosen family, but she is their slave. As such, she has no rights over her body but is made to play one role of motherhood that Sarah could not. Her story is painful, infuriating, and more complex than I trust myself to navigate, but she belongs in the hall of faithful mothers.
When she and her son are cast out, God sends an angelic messenger directly to her. And as Adam recognized and proclaimed the hopeful truth about Eve by naming her, Hagar recognizes and names the hopeful truth of God’s identity—by declaring God to be El Roi, the God who sees (Gen. 16:13).
God hears her cry and saves her and the boy from death so that he too might multiply and fill the earth. In this act, God sees and cares for a despised Egyptian slave mother.
If we fast forward to the part of the biblical story where the Egyptians are no longer the slaves but the enslavers, another mother grabs our attention.
Jochebed finds herself pregnant in an era of genocide—but instead of throwing her newborn infant into the Nile, she hides him for three months.
In addition to the physical weariness and lack of sleep in the early weeks after giving birth, she shoulders the constant fear for his life. And when she can no longer hide his cries, she again resists the forces of death by placing him in a homemade basket on the banks of the Nile. We know this placement is not haphazard since Pharoah’s daughter often came to that part of the river to bathe.
But Jochebed returns home by this point, leaving her daughter to keep watch. As a mother, I imagine she could not bear to stand by and hear the cries of her increasingly hungry infant. I can also imagine the relief of this breastfeeding mother, emotional and physical, when her daughter Miriam returns with her baby and says, He’s alive! You can feed him, and you will be paid for doing so!
As one who was given the incredible blessing of nursing my own children, I cannot read this story without feeling it in my body. Jochebed protects her baby Moses—whose name sounds like the Hebrew word for “to draw out.” This baby becomes the man God chooses to lead the people of Israel out of slavery. And yet without Jochebed’s ingenuity, care, and grit, God’s deliverance through Moses would not have happened.
At another pivotal moment in the biblical story, the fervent prayers of one woman open the pathway leading to the king of Israel. The book of 1 Samuel opens to Hannah, a barren woman who expresses her longing to be a mother to God with great cries and tears, year by year. While she prays at the temple, she is so earnest in her distress that the priest Eli thinks she is drunk.
When God grants her request and opens her womb, she cares for her son until he is weaned and then delivers him to the temple so that he might serve God. The boy is attentive to the voice of the Lord—a skill befitting the child of a praying woman—and he grows to be the very prophet who anoints the famous shepherd-turned-king-of-Israel David due to a word from the Lord.
Hannah’s prayers were answered by his birth, and her own faithfulness contributed to his discernment. She not only plays a vital role in Samuel’s story, but she also voices a powerful and influential hymn of praise (1 Sam 2:1–10). God ordains the words of this mother as Scripture—in an exhortation for readers to magnify the God who lifts up the downtrodden.
In the New Testament, Jesus interacts with several mothers—including his striking exchange with a Syrophoenician woman.
When the woman, who remains unnamed, hears that Jesus has arrived in her territory, she wastes no time in going to him and begging him to heal her daughter. At first, Jesus seems to rebuff her, disassociating her from the children of Israel and associating her with wild dogs (Mark 7:24–29).
But this mama bear will not be turned away. In fierce commitment to her daughter, she calls him out on his own metaphor. If he really is the Lord who brings abundance, there should be more than enough bread for the dogs to enjoy the crumbs that fall from the table of full-bellied children.
In response, Jesus praises her faith (Matt. 15:28) and heals her daughter. It is her bold humility—both kneeling at Jesus’ feet but also expecting God to be who God is, just as in the psalmist’s laments (Ps. 42)—that gives us a template for the kind of faith that pleases God. Her faith, like that of so many others in the gospel, sets the stage for Christ’s restoration of God’s good creation.
In fact, her words are said weekly by Christians across the globe in the Prayer of Humble Access: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table, but you are the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” For herself and countless others, her posture of humble boldness teaches us how to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
To contemplate and celebrate every mother’s story recounted in Scripture would require far more time than a single day on the calendar. But as intriguing and often important as they are in God’s plan, most of these mothers’ brave deeds were not strictly necessary.
God could have chosen a different person to lead the Exodus than a man who was saved by the wisdom of his mother. God could have communicated the necessity of humbly bold faith through someone other than the persistent mother from Syrophoenicia.
The fact that God freely chose to communicate to and accomplish the divine plan through women tells us that the imago Dei in women is expressed by their participation in building God’s kingdom.
But it is Eve who, as mother of all living human beings, provides the template for every mother who followed. God orchestrated the divine design of biological life such that women are necessary to the continuation of the human race. Mothers give of their bodies, their energy, their time, and their love so that new humans can live and flourish.
The same is true for eternal life.
God chose to redeem an errant and corrupted creation by entering into it as a creature when God became human in the person of Jesus Christ—the foundational act that enabled our redemption. Genesis 3:15 is often called the protoevangelium, the pre-gospel. In it, God says to Eve that the tempter will attack her and her offspring—but that her Son would crush the enemy’s head.
God could have chosen to redeem the world in any way aligned with his divine character but chose Incarnation. He chose to invite Mary, a poor young Jewish woman, to participate in that process. The triune God of heaven chose Mary of Nazareth to be the mother of Jesus, the eternal and only begotten Son. From her body, God took on flesh. From her milk, God received sustenance. Under her instruction, God the Son grew in wisdom and favor with his Father and fellow man (Luke 2:52).
The multifaceted stories of mothers throughout Scripture are tethered to this center. As Jochebed protected her son from the threat of death, so did Mary. As Hannah sang God’s praise, so did Mary. The body-and-soul investment of her motherhood was indispensable to a divine redemptive plan realized in Jesus the Messiah—Son of God and Son of Mary.
Motherhood is not something Christians should regard as a mere cultural or familial issue. Motherhood is the vehicle by which God chose to redeem the world. “Women’s issues” aren’t ancillary to Christian theology—they are at the heart of our story!
Celebrating motherhood is a Christian act. Not only do we give thanks to God for our very lives, made possible by our mothers, but we also praise God for accepting Mary’s tenacious faith—and designating her body to bear the source of our eternal life.
Mothers, God honors you. The silent sacrifices that no one else sees—of your body, soul, and spirit—are seen and celebrated by your Father in heaven. These are the very ingredients the Lord uses to accomplish his ongoing reconciliation of all things.
Amy Peeler is associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and associate rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Geneva, Illinois. Daughter of Pam, Amy could complete this essay because her mom came to visit and cleaned her kitchen. Look for her book on Mary, Women and the Gender of God (Eerdmans, October 2022).
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