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Motherly Joseph, Motherly God

November 8, 2013

When she’s a mother, even a mother in question, then readers and Bible translators have little trouble having her act motherly.

For example, in the biblical story of the man, King Solomon, and of that wisdom of his, there are women who are unnamed and unknown and whose character is called into question.  What I hope we can all see is how the womb of an unnamed woman functions, in a literary way, to highlight the man and the brilliance of the man.

And so we may also be able to see how the male NET Bible translator also brings forth his translation, relying on the woman to mark what serves the decision of the man. Here comes 1 Kings 3:26a for the New English Translation Bible:

The real mother spoke up to the king, for her motherly instincts were aroused. She said, “My master, give her [the other mother] the living child! Whatever you do, don’t kill him [the male child]!”

Such arousal of motherly instincts even comes across and through the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, that “Old Greek” version of the Septuagint (which is also known as ΒΑΣΙΛΕΙΩΝ Γ or 3 REIGNS 3:26a). So then born out of that Hebraic Hellene comes the NETS (or New English Translation of the Septuagint) rendering by Bernard A. Taylor:

And the woman whose was the living son answered and said to the king —- because her womb was troubled over her son —- and she said, “With regard to me, my lord, give her the boy, and by death do not put him to death,”

The original Hebrew phrase in question is נכמרו רחמיה /racham kamar /, and its Greek phrase counterpart here is ἐταράχθη ἡ μήτρα αὐτῆς / eTaraCHTHē hē Mḗtra Autēs /. In the English of the NET Bible and of the NETS translation this means something exactly like these noun phrases: “her aroused motherly instincts” and “her troubled womb.”

When we read the Hebrew text carefully, and if we notice the Hebraic Greek translation as well, then we understand how the “womb” here functions rhetorically for (male) readers. It’s the device that gives the Judge, the King, the Man, his insight. The unknown woman is there to give birth to this wisdom of his. She, of course, needs not be a protagonist in the story. And her reputation is only at stake when compared with another woman whose reputation is worse. These women are there in the story for the Kingly Judge (and for the readers themselves) to judge. Then at one point in the narrative, there is that something that’s telling, the revelation of the something that’s “motherly,” the demonstration and protestation of the aroused “womb.” Out of this motherliness marked in the text is birthed the male Monarch’s wisdom. Solomon is a wise man, the wisest man in all the land.

When we shift our reading back to the Torah (to the first of the Five Books of Moses), and when we fast forward to the Prophet (to the Book of Isaiah), then we see something similar.

There, however, both in Genesis 43 and in Isaiah 63 we find something quite different. The Hebrew demonstrates this. And some translations do too. This is where the man Joseph is the protagonist (in Genesis) where God is in the dock, is on the stand in the court of judgment (in Isaiah). The problem is that there is no explicit woman in either context. Hence Joseph and the LORD become surrogate mothers in a literary and a rhetorical sense.

Reader’s and translators alike tend miss how motherly the man Joseph and the LORD Himself are in the Hebrew.

Just by way of illustration, the NET Bible translator himself has the following respectively for Genesis 43:30 and Isaiah 63:15 –

Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome by affection for his brother and was at the point of tears. So he went to his room and wept there.


Look down from heaven and take notice,
from your holy, majestic palace!
Where are your zeal and power?
Do not hold back your tender compassion!

To be sure, the NET Bible translator does see something in Genesis akin to what he saw in 1 Kings. Thus, he offers his readers his footnote on the Genesis verse, saying:

Heb “for his affection boiled up concerning his brother.” The same expression is used in 1 Kgs 3:26 for the mother’s feelings for her endangered child.

“The same expression” for the NETS Bible translator must be, nonetheless, translated differently. For Joseph is a King, a Man, the Judge, in this context.

Joseph is not the unnamed mother being judged. Or isn’t he? Readers of the Bible can judge just how motherly the Hebrew language of the Torah makes him here. The verse before describes Joseph this way (as translated in the King James Version) –

And he lifted up his eyes, and saw his brother Benjamin, his mother’s son, and said, Is this your younger brother, of whom ye spake unto me? And he said, God be gracious unto thee, my son.

The eyes of readers, even readers of this old English, are directed to the fact that Benjamin is described not as Rachel’s son but as his “mother’s son” (where the possessive pronoun his ambiguously refers to either brother); and we all can see how Joseph calls Benjamin, “my son.” A new ambiguity is introduced. The man Joseph is assuming the position of a parent, perhaps a father; and perhaps more implied is that Joseph is serving as mother.

Indeed the Hebrew of the very next verse, Gn 43:30, uses the same expression for Joseph as it does for the unnamed mother in 1 Kgs 3:26. The very response of Joseph at seeing “my son,” this “mother’s son,” is certainly a motherly response generated by profoundly aroused motherly instincts. (The Greek used by the Septuagint translator[s] is also the same for both 1 Kgs 3:26 and Gn 43:30. The NETS translation of Genesis [by Robert J. V. Hiebert] can only, nonetheless, manage just to hint at something like the labor of childbirth by making the Hebrew-to-Greek-to-English rendering the following: “And Ioseph was troubled, for his insides were twisting up over his brother, and he was seeking to weep. And going into the chamber he wept there.”)

Now to the Prophet. The Hebrew used about Joseph in Genesis and for the unnamed mother in 1 Kings is also the Hebrew used in Isaiah 63 for the LORD. Craig Smith’s The Inclusive Bible is the only translation that I have found that picks up on the motherliness of God in this rhetorical context of Isaiah 63:15 –

Now look down from heaven,
and see us from your holy and glorious dwelling place!
Where is your zeal, your strength,
your burning love and motherly compassion?
Why do you hold them back from us?

Compare this with what the NET Bible translator himself has –

Look down from heaven and take notice,
from your holy, majestic palace!
Where are your zeal and power?
Do not hold back your tender compassion!

And note how the Greek Isaiah translation has τὸ πλῆθος τοῦ ἐλέους σου (for which the NETS translator Moisés Silva has “of your compassions“).

At the very least, the Hebrew context of Isaiah shows G-d as a Parent. With the use of the same phrase as for the mother in the Solomon story and for Joseph in the story of his laboring physically over his “son,” the rhetorical question of the Prophet is as if a son’s question to a Mother, or at least to a Motherly God.


7 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 8, 2013 7:32 pm

    Really great work, Kurk. I love it. I have heard lots of people say that racham doesn’t really mean literally “womb” but just refers to emotions. But then why call it a motherly emotion when it is used for a woman. Cannot both fathers and mothers have a birth parent emotion about someone?

    The notion that men and women are intrinsically different in their emotions is not demonstrated by the Hebrew Bible.

  2. November 8, 2013 11:38 pm

    That’s fascinating. So the Hebrew has at least a connotation of womanliness in the use of this word, whether it’s used of a man or of a woman? I’ve noticed before that the writers of the Bible just aren’t hung up about using feminine words descriptively of men, the way we seem to be today. Even in the New Testament, Paul compared himself to a woman giving birth. And Jesus compared Himself to a mother hen.

    Why are guys so hyper-sensitive about feminine descriptors in the modern US, anyway?

  3. December 8, 2013 11:55 pm

    Very interesting post.

    Numbers 11:12 indicates that God wanted Moses to lead in a maternal way.
    Moses complains and says: “Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse [i.e. a breast feeding woman] carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors?”

    I mention this here:


  1. wombly ties | BLT
  2. Whose Lord’s Prayer? Whose Same Womb? | BLT
  3. Words on the Word | Septuagint Studies Soirée #4
  4. Conceiving Moses: Birth Mother, Wet Nurse, Author, Translator | BLT

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