Stories of Biblical Mothers: Maternal Power in the Hebrew Bible
Bronner utilizes a narrative critical and literary approach in examining the many stories of biblical mothers. She labels herself “a feminist and biblical scholar.” Yet she challenges the way in which many feminist readers have interpreted these stories. Some “assert that a biblical woman’s function is to fulfill and sanction the demands of patriarchy,” but Bronner maintains “that women as mothers are not merely constructed as male-dependent pawns within the biblical narrative.” She adds, “Though they are confined to the parameters of a patriarchal system, they have room to operate within their own initiative. They accomplish real feats and emerge as memorable biblical figures” (p. ix). This is especially true of the mothers of the patriarchs, who “at first glance have limited power” yet “they find a voice through their sons whose actions they influence, and even at times manipulate to achieve their goals” (p. 120).
Bronner groups biblical mothers into six categories, including (a) “the first mothers” (those in Genesis), (b) “mothers of a budding nation” (focusing on Samson’s mother, Hannah, the Shunammite woman, and the mother of Jabez), (c) “wise women and queen mothers,” (d) “mothers and daughters,” (e) “the metaphorical mother” (focusing on those who carry out a “mothering” function for the community), and (f) “unconventional mothers” (the daughters of men mentioned in Gen. 6, Lot’s daughters, and Tamar). Bronner also includes a chapter on the “motherly role of God” in which she discusses passages that compare God’s care for His people to that of a mother for her child.
The book is filled with useful insights into these biblical stories. Nevertheless there are places where this reviewer takes issue with Bronner’s interpretations. For example her assessment of Samson’s mother as a wise “ideal Israelite mother” (p. 30) is overly positive. She speculates, with little if any textual basis, that Samson’s mother “endeavored to impress upon her son the importance of his status and responsibility as a Nazirite.” She adds, “We might imagine that she directed Samson to lead a holy life” (p. 29). On the contrary Samson’s mother, while certainly depicted in a more positive light than her semi-comical, semi-pathetic husband Manoah, was a catalyst for her son’s failure. When she reported her encounter with the angel to her husband, she focused on the angel’s dietary instructions and failed to say anything about her son’s future military role. She failed to communicate what was most important—her son’s divinely appointed destiny. Her response to the angel’s message foreshadows Israel’s failure to recognize Samson as its God-given deliverer and Samson’s own confusion about his role in life. In the story that follows, Samson never gave any indication that he understood himself as Israel’s deliverer. Once Samson’s mother, who had not asked to be delivered from her barren condition, overlooked this important element, God purposely veiled His intentions, refusing to tell Manoah, who understandably was confused about the boy’s role in life, anything other than what his wife had shared with him. God was content to work behind the scenes, delivering a people who did not seek deliverance through a deliverer who failed to see himself as such.
Bronner sees Samson’s mother as standing in contrast to the three foreign women with whom Samson had a relationship. There may be such a contrast, but Bronner overlooks another important contrast in the larger story. Samson’s mother and Micah’s mother (cf. Judg. 17), to whom Bronner devotes only a single paragraph, are foils for Hannah in the macroplot of Israel’s history. The miraculously conceived Nazirite Samson failed to realize his potential, while the miraculously conceived Nazirite Samuel restored effective leadership to Israel. Micah’s mother, albeit unwittingly, contributed to the rise of an unauthorized cult in Israel, while Hannah’s son was a catalyst for cultic revival.