Biblical mothers, a cloud of witnesses
I’m going to give birth in a few months. That’s a very ordinary thing on one hand. After all, women do it every day, and though some women won’t ever give birth, most women in the world do it at some point in their lives. But it’s not ordinary in the same way as grocery shopping or going for job interviews. The ordeal of giving birth is an intensely personal experience for many women. For some, there’s joy in the work, even feelings of power or euphoria. For others, there’s emotional pain or fear alongside the physical pain. Some feel disempowered by their own bodies; others by those around them. It’s complicated. Every woman has a different experience; each birth is a different experience; most are a mixture of emotions.
This is the second time for me. Last time, I took the image of God as midwife (Ps. 22:9-10a, 71:6; Isa. 66:9) into the birthing suite with me. I chose to see giving birth as a sacred task. Despite or perhaps even because of the messiness, both physical and emotional, bringing life into the world is joining with God in his life-giving work, and God is with us as we do it. When I mentioned that to someone, she made an offhand comment about God having seen many women give birth, a cloud of witnesses to birth, and that’s the image I’m picking up on this time. I’m choosing to see myself in a long line of women of God who have done this ordinary and harrowing and sacred task.
There are so many women you could choose from the Bible: Jocabed birthing in secret for fear of the Egyptians, or Hannah giving birth to the son who will lift her shame, or Samson’s mother who knows the life she is bringing into the world will be Israel’s deliverer from the Philistines. But when I got pregnant this time I was teaching on the Old Testament women in Jesus’ genealogy, so they’re the ones I chose for my meditation, bookended by our mother Eve, and Jesus’ mother Mary.
I say their names to myself in order each night as I go to sleep: Eve. Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. Tamar and Rahab. Ruth and Bathsheba. Mary. I imagine them forming a circle around me, and I look at their faces.
Eve has long dark hair in my mind, covering her naked body like in those old-style paintings. I know God gave her and Adam clothes when they left the garden, and her hair is streaked with grey so this probably is post-Eden Eve, but for some reason she’s still not dressed. I see some lines around her eyes and her mouth, hardships of life etched on her face, perhaps made worse for her because she’s known rest as none of we other women will until the Last Day.
Sarah is grandmotherly, long white hair held back in a plait and covered by a shawl. She was so old when she gave birth to Isaac, but I imagine her as wiry rather than frail. She’s dressed in plain colours and coarser fabrics, and so is her daughter-in-law Rebekah, and the sisters Rachel and Leah. After all, they’re shepherdesses from a semi-nomadic family. Rebekah’s eyes are distant and I wonder if she’s remembering Jacob coming out clasping Esau’s heel (that can’t have been an easy birth). When I look at Leah, I notice that she’s cross-eyed, but she seems unaware of my perusal. Motherhood is her domain after all, and she’s comfortable here. She gives an encouraging nod of her head. Her beautiful sister Rachel has an infant strapped to her chest, after many years of waiting. She’s looking down, absorbed in him and I muse to myself about whether it’s Joseph or Benjamin, this downy haired little one sucking at her dress.
Next in the circle is Tamar, a twinkle playing in her eye, for she had to use all her cunning to fall pregnant. Though she dressed up as a prostitute for only a day, I think of her wearing silky, bright colours underneath her brown tunic, and fancy I can see a splash of colour peeking out. Rahab, beside her, actually was a prostitute of course. She’s still wearing large earrings, and her robe is tied with the scarlet cord she used to let the spies down the wall to safety.
Ruth and Bathsheba are two of the wealthier women in the circle, one the wife of a prosperous farmer, the other of course the wife of king. Ruth’s smile is kind and warm and I linger on her face for a moment, because there’s something reassuring. Bathsheba beside her is pensive. Is she remembering the son she lost, or perhaps worried for her young Solomon amidst all the strife in his father’s family? Her grief is only evident in her eyes though. Her skin is smooth, her hair oiled and perfumed and in an up-do, decorated with gold thread.
Next to Bathsheba stands Mary, in blue of course, but looking much smaller than her queenly neighbour. After all, Mary’s just a teenager, probably less than half my age. Her hair’s covered by her veil and her face hard to read even as she makes eye contact with me. There’s strength certainly, and a certain secrecy. Though I know her son and who He is, we know from the gospels he was somewhat perplexing to her, even as she treasured all the angel had told her about him.
Mary looks at Eve, and slips her hand into hers. It’s the action of a daughter reaching out to a mother, but in many ways Mary is the greater one here, she who was chosen to bear the One who would make right all those things that went wrong in the garden so many years before. Together they stand in a circle around me, and I feel safe and known by these mothers, my cloud of witnesses.
Eve. Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. Tamar and Rahab. Ruth and Bathsheba. Mary.
(Image used with permission from the artist, Sr Grace from Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey in Iowa. The print is available to purchase from their store here)
Tamie hails from Adelaide and lives in Tanzania with her husband and two sons. In partnership with CMS Australia, they work with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES). She writes on her blog Meet Jesus at Uni here