Thursday, May 1, 2014

Mothers in the scriptures: Looking beyond the stripling warriors.

Eve Naming the Birds (detail), William Blake
For Mormons, the classic Mother's Day scripture is Alma 56:47-48. These verses praise the mothers of the stripling warriors, an example of successful motherhood that has been referenced in countless sacrament meetings, lessons, and church publications.

If you're not familiar with the story, here's the background: In the Book of Mormon, a group of people found God and became pacifists, taking a solemn oath against violence. Years later, those men would have rather died than defend themselves against the invading army. But their young teenaged sons had never taken the oath of non-violence and so they went to battle to protect their families, trusting God to deliver them.

The young men believed that God would protect them because of the faith of their mothers, saying, "We do not doubt our mothers knew it."

Why does this particular passage of scripture get so much attention? These nameless women seem to represent our Mormon ideal of motherhood: As the behind-the-scenes force for good, they are powerful in their faith and beloved by their children. They inspire their sons to be courageous and righteous, and they inspire us to create a legacy of faith for our own families.

But what can we learn from other mothers in the scriptures? We have many stories in the scriptures of women bearing, raising, and influencing their children. Some are substantial narratives, and some are only brief glimpses.

In the New Testament, Timothy was influenced by his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois, both Christian converts praised by Paul for their "unfeigned faith."

In the Old Testament, Naomi, bereft of children and husband, had such a close bond with her daughter-in-law Ruth that their relationship was immortalized in these poetic words, from Ruth 1:16.

Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.

Eunice, Lois, Naomi, and the mothers of the stripling warriors are inspiring examples of successful mothers. But we also find women in the scriptures whose experiences with motherhood were complicated, painful, even tragic.

There is Sariah, the first woman mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Sariah, who was overwhelmed with anxiety for her sons when their return from Jerusalem was delayed. Sariah, whose older sons repeatedly tried to kill their brother. She had two more children in the wilderness when she was old enough to be a grandmother. Later, she was so devestated by her sons' abuse of their brother that she fell ill and was not able to care for her youngest children.

There is Eve, the "mother of all living." At her first son's birth, her words expressed the universal sense of awe at holding a new child, a new person: "I have gotten a man from the Lord." As an adult, that son murdered his brother.

There's Rebecca, whose twin boys were rivals, even in the womb. Rebecca, who was inspired to help her younger son trick his father and cheat his older brother out of the birthright that would have been his.

There's Hagar, Abraham's concubine, who was banished from the home with her child after Sarah (Abraham's first wife) bore a son in her old age. Hagar, who wandered in the desert with her son until they ran out of food and water. She could not bear to watch her son die and left him to take his last breaths alone, or so she thought, before an angel saved them both.

There's Leah, married to a man who loved her sister Rachel, whose saving grace was that she was able to bear children, even when her sister was barren. But her sons sold their half-brother into slavery, and lived lives full of moral and sexual scandal.

There's Rachel, who was able to have two children after years of infertility, but died giving birth to her second son. There's Bilhah, Rachel's handmaid, who was given to Jacob as a concubine in order to bear children upon Rachel's knees, children that Rachel would count as her own.

There's Hannah, who brought her son to serve at the temple as soon as he was weaned. There's Jochebed, who put her son Moses in a basket into the river to save his life. There's Elizabeth, who gave birth to John the Baptist in her old age and then had to raise her son as a widow after her husband was murdered.

There is Mary, mother of the Lord. We read about the annunciation, her pregnancy, and the miraculous virgin birth. We see her again as Jesus turned the water into wine at Cana, and later at the crucifixion. But the only glimpse we have into Mary's experience actually parenting her son in his boyhood is the story of Mary and her husband mistakenly leaving him behind at Jerusalem.

The family had gone to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. When they started home, Mary and Joseph did not realize that their son had stayed behind until they had already traveled a day's journey. It took them three days to find him. He was "in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions."
And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.
And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business? 
And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them. Luke 2:48-50
This passage contains the only words of the young Jesus recorded in the Bible. And in this moment, mother and son seemed to be talking past each other. Mary had seen an angel, she was raising the Son of God, and yet she did not fully understand her child or his remarkable mission. As a mother myself, having experienced the miracle of giving birth and the frustrating realities of parenthood, this story is particularly poignant for me.

In the scriptures, we see mothers suffering through infertility, mothers who are widowed or abandoned, mothers who witness rivalry and violence between their sons, mothers who lose their children through death or separation. Mothers in the scriptures were sometimes confused, they were sometimes depressed, they sometimes feared for their children's lives. They inspired their children, but they also failed them. They raised prophets, but they also raised scoundrels and murderers.

This is the complicated picture of motherhood that I see in the scriptures. This is what helps me get past the idealized expectations that we mothers in Zion sometimes have for ourselves. Motherhood is glorious, but it is also painful. Success in the home is mixed with failure; joy is mixed with sorrow.

1 comment:

  1. I love this. The scriptures (and people described in them) are rich, complex, and often ambiguous, just like life.