The Mothers of Jesus

Listen or read below.

The following is an excerpt from a Bible study I am writing on the women of Genesis. I thought it was a more fitting topic this Monday before Christmas than my usual “Mondays in Mark.” I’ll be back in Mark next Monday. I hope you enjoy this unusual reflection on the theological importance of mothers at Christmas.

The First Mother

God’s first promise in Genesis 3:15 was about a woman who would become a mother. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” God would battle evil through her family. Throughout the ancient world and in many cultures today, there is an emphasis on the succession of family which is akin to an eschatological vision. The hope of the future resides in children linking past family members to those yet to come. Obviously, it takes both man and woman to make a baby, but it is in a mother’s body that we see the fruit grow. The womb is where a family propagates. The family is nurtured at the mother’s breasts. The promise God made in Genesis 3:15 would take thousands of years to be fulfilled in Jesus. God fulfilled that promise through mothers. Mothers are vital to God’s long-game promise.

“I will greatly multiply…” Genesis 3:16

Genesis 3:16 is the verse in which God gives the consequences of sin to the woman. The nature of sin is to pollute everything it touches. It spreads chaos and suffering. Adam’s rebellion against God started a chain of events that corrupted the entire cosmos. The whole verse is a minefield of translation opinions. However, any translation and resulting interpretation of this verse must aim at being consistent with God’s promise verse 15. God told the serpent that the woman was its enemy and that ultimately her seed would destroy it. The woman is not the enemy of God, but an ally. God does not inflict punishment on her, but he does reveal the high cost she would bear as his instrument of redemption.

The first phrase of Genesis 3:16 says that God tells the woman, “I will greatly multiply.” These words are repeated so often in the book of Genesis that they form a “blessing of fertility” theme for the book. God wants his creation to be fruitful, to multiply and to fill the earth. He says this to the sea creatures and birds as well as the humans in Genesis 1. After the flood, he instructs all the living things coming off the ark to multiply and fill the earth, as well as to Noah and his family. God tells Hagar that he will “greatly multiply” her seed (Genesis 16:10). He tells Abraham the same thing twice (Genesis 17:2, 22:17). He repeats it to Isaac and Jacob four more times for good measure (Genesis 26:4, 26:24, 28:3, 35:11). The opening of Exodus affirms that God has done what he said. Exodus 1:7 says that “the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.” Genesis is the story of how God multiplied Eve’s seed.

Not only is it important to notice the theme of fertility that God’s words to the woman continue in Genesis, but it is also important to place them in the immediate context with his words to the serpent and the man. God says to the woman, “I will greatly multiply your toil and your pregnancies.” These two ideas are repeated in the other verses to the serpent and the man. The word translated as “toil” is found also in God’s words to the man in Genesis 3:17, “…in toil you will eat…”. God describes life outside the Garden as painful, grievous labor. Also repeated is the idea of the woman’s seed from the previous verse in God’s words to the serpent. God tells her she will be fertile which is a good thing – after all her seed will defeat the serpent, but he clarifies that “in pain/sorrow/grief you will bring forth children.” The consequential toil of greatly multiplying is a broader concept than the pain in having a baby. God has already established that the woman is entering a battlefield (Genesis 3:15). Now he warns her how hard her fight will be.

Fertility as the blessing of God

Family size has reduced drastically in the last 100 years in the western world. Because of this, we might miss the unquestioned conviction of those before us that a large family is a good thing. We are privileged to live in modern times where much of the harsh reality of maternal, infant, and child mortality has been mitigated through modern science.  We sometimes forget that giving birth and being born has been a deadly ordeal for most of history. Johan Norberg says in his book Progress that “a child born today is more likely to live to retirement age than his forebearers were to live to their fifth birthday.” Children died, often. Because of this, couples had as many children as possible to increase the likelihood that some would survive to adulthood. Can you imagine the pain and grief that would tinge a mother’s life in pre-modern times? And yet, an ancient Jewish woman’s greatest expectation was to become a mother. Bearing children was a sign of God’s blessing.

The ancients believed that God showed his favor through babies. In Psalm 127:3, God calls children the “fruit of the womb” and says that they are a reward. In Genesis 49:25, Jacob bestows an unusual blessing on Joseph. “The breast and the womb,” which was symbolic for motherhood, became its own idiomatic fertility blessing for grown men. This emphasis on fertility also houses a latent truth lodged in Jewish culture. The breast and womb were vital to the whole community. To be Jewish, it is your mother who matters, not your father. Contrary to inheritance traditions, Jewish lineage is transferred from mother to child, not from father to child. Maurice Lamm says in his book, The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage, that “Jewish paternity does not lend any special merit” because the father must be proven legally, whereas a mother always knows that her child is hers. Think of Timothy in the New Testament. Even though his father was a Gentile, he was a full-blooded Jew because his mother and grandmother were Jewish. Even though Abraham had two sons, Sarah was chosen to be the mother of the promised one. Because of her, Isaac is called the only son of Abraham (Genesis 22:2).

As sexist as it sounds to our modern ears, it was a pervasive belief that mothers had a special blessing from God. I propose that this concept has its roots in Genesis 3:15-16 where God promised the woman many seeds, one of whom would defeat the serpent. God planned to use the mother’s womb as his agent to bring redemption into the world. Faithful Jewish women looked to their children to fulfill the first promise to Eve. The Old Testament stories of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Tamar, Jochebed, Manoah’s wife, Ruth, Hannah, and Bathsheba relate the significance of mothers bearing a notable child. So, when we come to the opening of the New Testament and we are presented with two mothers, we understand the implications.

Mary was chosen by God to fulfill His promise to Eve. Mary’s son would slay the serpent. Mary’s “breasts and womb” became the channel for God’s redemption; as did all the mothers giving birth to children who became the fore parents of God’s son, Jesus. While Matthew records the names of the forefathers of Jesus, here is a genealogy of Jesus’s foremothers. As you read through the names, reflect on God’s faithfulness to his promise to Eve.

The Maternal Genealogy of Christ

(Adapted from “A Genealogy of Jesus Christ: Alternative to Matthew 1” was complied by Ann Patrick Ware of the Women’s Liturgy Group of New York, who has graciously put this text in the public domain for all to use.)

A genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of Mary,  the daughter of Anna:

Eve was the mother of Seth,

Noah’s wife was the mother of Shem,

Sarah was the mother of Isaac,

And Rebekah was the mother of Jacob,

Leah was the mother of Judah,

Tamar was the mother of Perez.

The names of the mothers of Hezron, Ram, Amminadab, Nahshon and Salmon have been lost.

Rahab was the mother of Boaz,

And Ruth was the mother of Obed.

Obed’s wife, whose name is unknown, bore Jesse.

The wife of Jesse was the mother of David.

Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon,

Naamah, the Ammonite, was the mother of Rehoboam.

Maacah was the mother of Abijam and the grandmother of Asa.

Azubah was the mother of Jehoshaphat.

The name of Jehoram’s mother is unknown.

Athaliah was the mother of Ahaziah,

Zibiah of Beersheba, the mother of Joash.

Jecoliah of Jerusalem bore Uzziah,

Jerusha bore Jotham; Ahaz’s mother is unknown.

Abi was the mother of Hezekiah,

Hephzibah was the mother of Manasseh,

Meshullemeth was the mother of Amon,

Jedidah was the mother of Josiah.

Zebidah was the mother of Jehoiakim,

Nehushta was the mother of Jehoiachin,

Hamutal was the mother of Zedekiah.

Then the deportation of Babylon took place.

After the deportation to Babylon

the names of the mothers go unrecorded.

These are their sons:

Jechoniah, Shealtiel, Zerubbabel,

Abiud, Eliakim, Azor and Zadok,

Achim, Eliud, Eleazar,

Matthan, Jacob and Joseph, the husband of Mary.

Of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.

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