The Mothers

The Abrahamic Mothers

All these Abrahamic mothers—sisters, cousins, slaves, Israelite and foreign, despairing, determined, powerful—must conceive children or die, as Rebecca laments.

Sarah & Hagar

Sarah Hears and Laughs

by James Tissot circa 1896-1901

SARAH ~ half-sister & wife of Abraham, mother of Isaac

Sarah Presenting Hagar to Abraham

by unknown artist French school circa 18th c.

Sarah is defined as the mother of God’s promise in contrast to Hagar, the Egyptian, who is indisputably an “other”,  just as Hagar’s son, Ishmael, is transformed from family to “other” by Sarah. The claim of Sarah and Isaac to unequivocal kinship status is solidified through the greater “otherness” of Hagar and Ishmael.

And Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? ~ Genesis 21:6-7

Sarai Sends Hagar Away

by James Tissot circa 1896-1902

HAGAR ~ Egyptian slave & concubine of Abraham

Hagar and Ismael in the Desert

by François Joseph Navez 1820


by Maurycy Gottlieb circa 2nd half of 19th c.

REBECCA ~ cousin & wife of Isaac, mother of Esau & Jacob

Rebecca Meets Isaac by the Way

by James Jacques Joseph Tissot circa 1896-1902

And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them. ~ Genesis 24:60

Rebecca at the Well

by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot circa 1838-1839

When Rebecca becomes pregnant, it is with twin boys (Jacob and Esau) who, God tells her, are warring nations in her womb. Indeed, Esau is born first, yet Jacob immediately follows, grasping the heel of his brother’s foot to pull him back and gain the first-born position. We might be forgiven for thinking this is probably not what she wished for: her very womb becomes a battleground in the male struggle to be chosen as God’s favored seed.


Bilhah & Zilpah

Leah & Rachel

Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah

by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1855

LEAH & RACHEL ~ sisters & cousins/wives of Jacob

Leah and Rachel are sisters and they too become Abrahamic mothers, giving birth (along with their slaves Zilpah and Bilhah) to twelve sons, whose descendants become the twelve tribes of Israel. It is a foundational story of great significance in the history of Israel. However, none of this happens without a good deal of desperation, determination, and trickery on Leah’s and Rachel’s parts, including their use of their slaves, as Sarah before them had done, to conceive sons.

These four mothers birthed the 12 tribes of Israel.

Then God remembered Rachel, and God heeded her and opened her womb.  She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” ~ Genesis 30:22-23

Abraham's Journey from Ur to Canaan

by József Molnár 1850

BILHAH & ZILPAH ~ slaves & concubines of Jacob

Jacob and Rachel at the Well

by James Tissot circa 1896-1902

The Davidic Mothers

The Davidic Mothers’ actions continue generations of assertive interventions by the Abrahamic mothers of the Genesis narratives, who repeatedly take matters into their own hands to conceive children of the promise.

Lot and his Daughters

by Orazio Gentileschi circa 1622

The story of Lot’s daughters is difficult to absorb for many readers today, for several reasons: First, because it features sex between Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his daughters and second, because Lot’s daughters are bartered for their sexual/procreative purity because Lot values the spiritual ideal of righteous hospitality to guests above his own daughters’ bodies.

Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, so that we may preserve offspring through our father. ~ Genesis 19:32

Lot and His Daughters

by Gerolamo Forabosco circa 1604-1679

Lot's Daughters



by Dr. Lidia Kozenitzky 2009

What holds Tamar back is not a womb closed by God, but the failure of the chosen fathers to follow God’s laws. Tamar conceives the forefather of King David through her own desperation and righteous determination, all through sexual subterfuge that is by the norms of her day highly condemnable. And in doing so she ends up furthering God’s plan for Israel.

Tamar Led to the Stake

by Jacopo Bassano circa 1566-1567

Then Judah acknowledged them and said, “She is more in the right than I." ~ Genesis 38:26

Judah and Tamar

by Horace_Vernet 1840

Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab

by William Blake 1795

What is so interesting about Ruth’s story is that the female competition and mutual betrayal that characterized the other mothers’ stories is absent. Here, again, we have an Israelite woman and a foreign woman at risk and in need of a man’s protection, and yet they are tied together in solidarity and love. Naomi and Ruth do not abandon each other.

He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” ~ Ruth 3:9

Ruth and Naomi

by Philip Hermogenes Calderon 1886


The Virgin Mary

Mary’s story is most foregrounded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.


Mater Dolorosa

by El Greco circa 1590's

THE VIRGIN MARY ~ daughter of Israel, mother of Jesus of Nazareth

The Christian depiction of Mary and her de-sexed, obedient motherhood was a response to, and attempted resolution of, the Hebrew Bible’s ambivalence about the sexuality and religious obedience of Israel’s mothers… Any genuine interest in Mary, her body or her feelings, if any existed at all, is overridden by the need to use her as a proof God was made man, became flesh, and died for human sin on a Roman cross. As a result, Mary and her body had to become more like Jesus, other-worldly, asexual, pure in mind and heart… How else could she become worthy of birthing a god? How else to prove that Jesus is God?

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” ~ Luke 1:38

La Madone

by Herman Richir circa 1866-1942

Mary Virgin and Child with Angels

by unknown artist circa 600