Motherhood in the Bible: Society as one's maternal parent

Source: https://www.abarim-publications.com/Dictionary/a/a-m-mfin.html

Motherhood in the Bible

— Society as one's maternal parent —

Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary

אמם  אם  אמה

The forms אמם ('mm) and אם ('m) and אמה ('mh) are closely kindred and appear to largely overlap in meaning. So much even that for all practical purposes they could be considered one and the same.

The core idea of these words is that of motherhood (אם, 'em, means mother; see below). In our modern worlds, our personal identity is dominant, and our mother is merely someone who brought us into life and hopefully cared for us during the first few years of it. In the Hebrew mindset, however, the collective identity was dominant, and a mother was that within what one was conceived (instead of born out of). A person's mother was literally the social group this person was part of, and he remained 'a son of his mother' until he married and 'became one' with his wife (Genesis 2:24).

This may seem somewhat foreign to our modern emancipated sentiments, but a similar process may have provided us with the word 'mother'. Its origin is somewhat disputed, but it most likely comes from the same very ancient root as the familiar Latin word mater and, less obvious, the words 'matter' and 'material'. And this word 'material' is not simply the stuff from which a product (a child) was once made, but rather the stuff in which the product remains perpetually expressed. In other words: a clay vessel is not simply taken from clay and thus removed from clay, but will never cease to be clay and will always testify to the nature and usage of clay. All clay vessels together represent what a potter (the 'father', or אב, 'ab) may do with the material clay, and thus in essence equal to the nature and applicability of the mother substance.

Some scholars believe that our root is kindred to the root עמם ('mm), from whence comes the noun עם ('am), meaning people. Also note the similarity between our root אמם ('mm) and אמן ('mn), which expresses certainty and firmness (hence the familiar word Amen, which in Hebrew sounds like 'Yo Mamma!').


The root אמם ('mm) is formally of unclear origin and meaning because it isn't used as verb in the Bible. But it probably expressed the core activity of mothers, whatever that might have been perceived to be — BDB Theological Dictionary claims that Assyrian cognates have to do with being roomy.

This root's derivatives are:

  • The important feminine noun אם ('em) meaning mother. It's used for:
    • The biological, human mother (Genesis 20:12, Exodus 2:8, Psalm 51:7).
    • A not-biological mother (in English this would constitute a metaphor, but in Hebrew this is still a literal usage of our word, as explained above):
      • Of Eve it was said that she was אם כל־הי (em kol hay), meaning the mother of all life (Genesis 3:20). Contrary to popular understanding, Eve was not the 'first human female' but rather is the whole biosphere.
      • Of Deborah it was said that she was אם בישראל (em b'israel), meaning a mother in Israel (Judges 5:7). By placing this lady under a tree (Judges 4:4-5), the author indicates that she ran a wisdom school (like Abraham at the oaks of Mamre, or even Zaccheus in the sycamore tree) and this school appears to have involved military studies.
      • Of a city, also called a mother in Israel (2 Samuel 20:19).
      • Of Israel at large (Hosea 2:4, 4:5), of Judah (Isaiah 50:1), of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 16:3). The apostle Paul uses this same imagery when equating Hagar to Jerusalem as the mother of slaves (Galatians 4:21-31).
    • An animal mother (Exodus 22:29, Deuteronomy 22:6)
    • A point of departure or division of roads. This particular usage occurs only once in the Bible, in Ezekiel 21:21, and marvelously illustrates the Hebrew core concept of motherhood.
  • The feminine noun אמה ('amma), meaning mother city (2 Samuel 8:1). This word is probably a variant of אם ('em) listed above.
  • The identical noun אמה ('amma), meaning cubit, the Bible's standard smaller unit of length. How the word for mother came to express a unit of length isn't clear, but one may surmise that this unit of length started out as a bag of pebbles (after all, one pebble every, say, two steps easily measures a field). In that sense, this word אמה ('amma) is like our word 'knot' as unit of speed.
  • The identical noun אמה ('amma) of unclear meaning. It's used only once, in Isaiah 6:4, where it denotes a collection of סף (sap), which in turn probably denotes a place of gathering on the outside of a building, near its entrance(s); probably something like a fire-pot on the porch. Our word obviously refers to these items in the sense of them forming a single thing, and could probably be translated as 'the porch lighting'.
  • The highly similar noun אמה ('umma), meaning tribe or people (Genesis 25:16, Numbers 25:15, Psalm 117:1), an obvious extension of the word אם ('em).


The common hypothetic particle אם ('im) means if (Genesis 13:16) or "isn't such and such . . . ?" (Judges 5:8) or "Oh that . . . !" (Psalm 81:8) or something to that order. Dictionaries normally deny any relation between this particle and the root that expresses motherhood, but that's clearly not warranted. Our particle inquires about inclusion, or expresses the wish for it and is obviously animated by the spirit of Hebrew motherhood.

Particularly striking is Rachel's use of this word when she exclaims unto Jacob: 'give me sons ואם אין I will die!' which both means (1) 'and if there aren't any, I will die' and (2) 'not being mother will be the death of me'.


Dictionaries list a root אמה ('mh), but there is no proof that it ever existed separately from אמם ('mm) and here at Abarim Publications we doubt it did. Its sole Biblical derivative would be the common feminine noun אמה ('ama), which describes a certain type of maid-servant or female servant, corresponding with the masculine word עבד ('abed), which literally means 'worker'. Our noun אמה ('ama) is used for female servants or handmaids (Genesis 20:17, Exodus 2:5), but also as an expression of humility, corresponding to our modern phrases "yours truly" or "at your service" (Ruth 3:9, 1 Samuel 1:16).

The common translation of 'slave girl' is somewhat unfortunate since our English word 'slavery' brings to mind large groups of abducted and terribly mistreated people in chains and tears. Of course those things happened back then as well, but on average the world back then was surprisingly civilized (in fact, folks in the Bronze Age were generally much more enlightened than us moderns — read our riveting Brief History of Theology, attached to our article on the root פלל, pll). Then as much as now, human resources were considered commodities and were appreciated and deployed according to skills. Theft of property including human resources has been illegal since the beginning of written history, and probably since long before that, and where an aspiring thief might get away with a stolen camel, a stolen human might at any moment begin to explain things, to the subsequent detriment of the perp.

Forced slavery happened sporadically as the result of conquest, but most conquerors benefitted much more from levying taxes from an indigenous work force than from forcibly displacing the whole bunch. Most other servants and servant girls were simply employees; folks who worked for a tribe/company out of economic necessity, not unlike most of us today. The rule was then as simple as now: if you get to keep the money your labor generates, you are free. If you get a compensation (a salary) for your labor but the actual proceeds of it goes to enrich someone else, you're a worker.

A notable difference was that unlike today, employees were not hired or could quit at will, but were bought for periods that customarily lasted years. This too is not that odd considering that back then the average geographic region had a much lower employer density than regions do today, and the options were largely limited to settling in with a boss-run tribe or wandering without company through the wilderness (Genesis 21:14).

At least in late Bronze Age Canaan, service contracts could initially not exceed six years (Exodus 21:2) and employees had the opportunity to buy themselves off if they happened upon the money (Exodus 21:8). People that showed up as married couples could not be separated (Exodus 21:3). If a chief had no biological heir, a worthy employee could be considered to inherit the outfit (Genesis 15:2), and could even be opted to marry into the family (1 Chronicles 2:35).

Mothers and maids

Our word's apparent derivation from the root meaning mother seems to have caused considerable consternation among early Scripture theorists (hence their refuge in an otherwise unattested root) but this is probably because these scholars operated in a world in which the employ of servants was utterly common, and the unplanned impregnation of maids an unfortunate evil of the day and looked down upon with great judgmental momentum. Still, a less biased observer might be excused to conclude that our word was formed from אם ('em) meaning mother, and the common particle of direction ה (he), meaning 'to' or '-ward' as in 'home-ward'. In other words: the term 'mother-ward' would be spelled identical to our word אמה ('ama), and this particular position obviously involved a woman's work with children: a nanny.

Since breeding was both a popular pastime and a dire necessity, children were everywhere in Bronze Age societies — when Lot was abducted and Abram gave chase, the latter had at his disposal 318 grown men who had been born in his house (Genesis 14:14). And since humans aren't herd animals (as many believe) but rather a super-organism like bees and ants (see Proverbs 6:6 and the name Deborah), children, like anything else, were cared for by specialized workers.

As in Europe until recently, employ in the Bronze Age was a 24/7 arrangement and employees lived with their employers. There was no distinction between leisure time and work time, save for the Sabbath — the Hebrews literally invented the weekly day-off; something Europeans had to wait for until last century and still doesn't exist in many other parts of the world — and there was no such thing as being unemployed because everybody naturally pulled their weight in whatever outfit they were part of (whether bought or born; see Genesis 17:23).

Society appears to have consisted largely of autonomous clans that consisted of a boss (the 'father') and his wife (the 'mother') and all others (the 'sons'). These societies were famously polygamous and there were countless distinct ranks and offices among the female side of affairs. And just like a boss could assign his male employees to whatever job he chose including warfare (Genesis 14:14), so he could assign his female employees to child-bearing duties without anybody finding that unfair or degrading (Exodus 21:4). The whole romance generated by the modern baby industry was new to the 20th century, and prior to that, childbirth was a job. It was necessary to make up for high mortality rates and was performed by people who had the physical faculties for it. People of the masculine persuasion would in equal stead find themselves strapped to plows or sicced upon enemies. But in the end, all that mattered was security of life, limb and offspring, and the means to that was a road paved with very few lofty feelings. (It's also prudent to note that Jewish doctors were the marvel of antiquity as only they were able to retrieve a child via what later would be called a Caesarean section, but with spectacular preservation of the lives of both mother and child).

Rape was always heavily condemned — albeit mostly out of social-economic reasons and not psychological ones (Genesis 34:31, Judges 20:13, 2 Samuel 13:28, for relevant Mosaic legislation see Deuteronomy 22:13-30) — and romantic courtship the slobbery way we know it hadn't been invented yet. Still it is clear that a woman's self-determination and the right to reject any man was self-evident (Genesis 24:5). Copulation was not regarded as an independent event but solely part of a whole package that included a man's perpetual duty to provide for his children and their mother(s), and no man attained the right to breed solely on the merit of his good looks and sense of humor.

Since in any clan the means mostly belonged to the boss, no woman in her right mind would pass on the chance to be impregnated and subsequently cared for by him (Genesis 38). And if, for some reason, she couldn't be a wife to the boss (which would merely indicate a very high social status), she could become his concubine (a lower status but still wholly protected).

Mothers and surrogates

Another form of child-bearing duty could be assigned to a woman whose professional relationship was specifically with the mistress. These mistress-bound servant-girls were known by the word שפח (shipha), which is related to the noun משפחה (mishpaha), which is a word that indicates familiarity of a level that sits in between 'family' and 'tribe'; a clan. A woman known as שפח (shipha) was probably something in between a chief housekeeper and personal assistant to the mistress, whereas an אמה ('ama) appears to have been considered part of the general work force (the common phrase 'male and female servants' consists of the masculine noun עבד, 'abed, or 'worker' and our feminine word אמה, 'ama). Note that Hagar started out as the שפח (shipha) of Sarah (Genesis 16:1) but then became referred to as the אמה ('ama) of Abraham (Genesis 21:10).

Back in the day, a man's lasting love for his woman was proportional to the number of children she produced, which meant that normally the amount of children would indicate the wife's quality in the eyes of the husband. Not having children was rarely suspected to be due to infertility, and would mostly be taken as indicative of a husband's redirected desires — Michal, who mocked David, remained childless probably not by some miracle but simply because David understandably lost his appetite (2 Samuel 6:23). But not only would childlessness be a continuing demonstration of a husband's perceived lack of interest, it also indicated the mistress' failure to provide the larger outfit with a successor to the husband. Everybody else's job revolved around keeping the whole enterprise going and the mistress' most important job was to provide the enterprise with a future. Without it, everybody else's hard work was futile. Then as much as now, companies required proper governance by leaders who were respected by other local bosses. Without a specialized boss (a first born and life-long trained and paraded son of the incumbent boss), the company would disintegrate and its resources be picked up by the competition.

Female infertility appears to have been rampant (Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah, Hannah and Elizabeth where all initially infertile) and all these considerations logically gave rise to the function of surrogate mother: someone who produced a child to go on the record of the employing wife. Since in Europe until the early 20th century, women were considered much lower than men and barely worthy of social, psychological or medical attention, this surrogate-mother principle isn't considered much in theological literature but in fact it's the counterpart of the openly discussed Levirate law (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).

The key to the surrogate-mother ploy was that it required the obviously willful participation of the husband. Besides securing an heir, these proceedings served as demonstration of his love for his wife just as much as proper children would (although these demonstrations of love probably had more to do with maintaining the mistress' social position and authority than with romantic considerations). Hence Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham (Genesis 16:3), and Leah and Rachel gave their maids Zilpah and Bilhah to Jacob (Genesis 30:3 and 30:9).

At this remove we cannot be wholly certain about further details of this surrogate-motherhood procedure, but onlookers would have readily observed that not the mistress but rather her maid had been impregnated. And because a maid's sudden pregnancy would surely be construed as the result of the husband's dalliances, which in turn could be detrimental to social stability and leave the child with very little inherent respectability, the surrogate-mother endeavor was most likely played out via all kinds of ostentatious rituals, show, announcements and celebrations.

Sexual shyness is a modern cultural norm and didn't exist back then — what Isaac's publicly "playing" with Rebekah entailed the story doesn't specify (Genesis 26:8), but it prompted Abimelech to exclaim: 'why, you two are married!' (Genesis 26:9) — and several sources from slightly younger ages report that servants commonly stood by during their owners' lovemaking. Old world society was held together by social norms, rather than by exhaustive regulation as our dissociated modern world is, and jealousy the way we know it wouldn't dawn on anyone. Ergo, as the birth of the surrogate child would apparently occur 'on the knees' of the mistress (Genesis 30:3), it stands to reason that the conception of this child would also be achieved 'on the knees' of the mistress. Either way, the surrogate mother was not the husband's plaything but would normally remain a domestic tool in the care of the mistress (Genesis 16:6).

Associated Biblical names