Can womanhood be defined through nurturing? The scriptural case

Neither womanhood qua nurturing nor motherhood qua nurturing are explicitly present in the LDS canon. This is unsurprising because women are just not frequently mentioned in the scriptures and when they are they are rarely the protagonists. Where women more than a bit-part in a particular narrative they almost never demonstrate the qualities of nurturing. In terms of developing a scripturally informed view of gender (which, in fairness, we may not want to do), this absence problematizes the association between womanhood, motherhood and nurturing.

On the basis of this absence, it might be possible to argue that nurturing is not an important virtue for women to possess. This is misguided because nurturing is valued in the LDS canon but it draws its value through the divine Father (God). By using a number of different scriptural texts to illustrate this point I am going to be intentionally a little sloppy.  I do so because I think this reflects the current hermeneutic of the LDS Sunday School and I want to read these texts with a similar method in order to draw out a theological point which I believe stands to scrutiny, even under a more textually nuanced approach. Here I will just outline a few passages dealing with both Christ and YHWH as Father/Nurturer.

Jesus

In both the NT (Luke 13.34; see also Matt 23.37) and the Book of Mormon (3 Ne 10.4-6) Jesus describes himself as a hen who protects and nourishes her chicks.[1] Below are the NT texts:

“O ye people of these great cities which have fallen, who are descendants of Jacob, yea, who are of the house of Israel, how oft have I gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and have nourished you.”

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!”

Obviously there are textual problems to consider in reading these NT text passages – such as the priority of Matthew or Luke and their dependence on another text (possibly Q) – and those in the BoM; but it is clear that in both the NT and the BoM, Jesus serves as a divine father and also a nurturer.

YHWH

Similarly, three OT texts assert that the qualities of nurturer should be applied to a male-God.

In Hosea 11.1-9, YHWH speaks as a parent (‘When Israel was a child’) whose reminiscience of Israel’s youth softens his anger toward the backsliding nation. For example, the LORD remembers how he ‘loved’ his son and ‘called’ after him, He remembers how ‘it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms’. This is a tender text and one that should have some resonance for parents who feel that: ‘the more [the parents] call [after their children], the further they went from [the parents].

Similarly, in Jeremiah 31.20, the LORD declares: “Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him.” This declaration follows a passage where the LORD recounts the lament of the children of Israel at being sorely disciplined and here we see God referring affectionately to Ephraim as His child.

Finally, I want to draw out Isaiah 49.14-15. In this text, the LORD makes a comparison between Himself and a mother who nurtures and breastfeeds her child. YHWH is reminding Israel of his steadfast love by affirming that part of that caring commitment is rooted in a relationship involving nurture. Certainly, as the text implies, this steadfast love is not reducible to nurturing alone but it is one feature of it.  Once again, in a fashion similar to the passage where Jesus identifies Himself as a hen, here God describes Himself as being involved in an act of nurture almost solely associated with being a woman.

The OT view of God asserts that He is both father and mother, provider and nurturer. Jesus also is willing to position himself as a care-giver and a nurturer. These texts reinforce the virtue of nurturing as a divine attribute while complicating the association between motherhood and nurturing. The scriptures are not the only source for an LDS theology of womanhood, motherhood and nurturing but if our theology is to be informed by LDS scripture then we should at least take these texts seriously.  At the very least, Latter-day Saint scripture does not provide material that would allow us to define womanhood or motherhood in terms of nurturing.

Notes:

1. Here ‘her’ refers to the gender of the hen but this ambiguity highlights the way in which gender, God, and the capacity to nurture are presented in complex ways in our scripture.

Comments

  1. Emily U says:

    Yes, that’s an interesting observation. These passages you cite certainly would support the idea that nurturing is not a virtue to be exclusively cultivated by women.

    Jesus compares himself to a hen – and to take the bird analogy a little further, it’s interesting to consider the nesting habits of bald eagles. In a gigantic nest 5-6 feet across and weighing a ton and a half, the female and male birds take turns sitting and warming their hatchlings while the other hunts for food. It’s remarkable to see such a powerful bird shifting its weight, grooming its nest, adjusting its feathers, and patiently positioning and re-positioning itself as it nurtures its young, while on the other hand it’s other, equally important job is to catch and shred a squirrel into bite-sized pieces.

    Jesus is a creator, judge, master, and whatever other powerful descriptors you want to use, and also a nurturer. Certainly both male and female human beings who strive to be like Him are capable of modeling themselves after multiple facets of His nature.

  2. themormonbrit says:

    I’ve always felt that there is a danger in assigning particular virtues to particualr genders. Surely, a religion that encourages its adherents to seek after perfection must also advocate that all virtues are to be equally cultivated by both genders.

  3. Aaron, in Sunday School recently, this exact topic came up. It was interesting that the men were obviously quicker in defence of the generalization than the women were. One brother gave the standard, “Women are nuturers more naturally, and men have the Priesthood to help them learn to serve,” to which I responded that I know lots of women who don’t like it when they hear that because nurturing is something they don’t do well naturally. It was interesting how many women I saw nodding in agreement.

    I like the new language in the Proclamation to the World saying husbands and wives are to help each other in “these” responsibilities as equal partners – and that “individual adaptation” is left up to couples.

    I just wish more members (men and women) believed it and allowed for varying manifestations of equal partnership and individual adaptation.

    Also, amen to #2. If part of our accepted definition of “perfect” is “complete, whole, fully developed” . . .

  4. Kristine says:

    Yeah, I especially like to bring up the story of Jael when people talk about women’s “natural” nurturing proclivities. And Jezebel. And Delilah…

  5. Mark B. says:

    I worked with a man whose Israeli wife was named “Yael.” It took me longer than it should have to realize that her name was the same as Jael from the Book of Judges. But she seemed to be perfectly nice.

    But you forgot Rahab, Kristine. Can it get any better than a nurturing harlot?

  6. Interesting study on how attachment to one’s father is arguably more important than to one’s mother:

    http://psr.sagepub.com/content/16/2/103.full.pdf+html

  7. themormonbrit says:

    Hahaha Kristine. That made me laugh. I might bring that up the next time people start making generalisations.

  8. CarminaB says:

    I do not consider myself “the nurturing” type at all. I am a mother of 6 boys. My mother was not the nurturing type either. She was divorced (in the late 60’s in South America, divorce not very accepted at that time) and had to work full time. She was exhausted when she got home. She provided for us well. In my case, my husband works long hours and I stay home. There is so much to do and I get exhausted too.
    What rqt said about attachment to fathers being more important is true in my life with my “absent father”. Not having a father was the source of stupid mistakes and the perception I had of men. My brother talks about my Dad a lot more that I do and still feel “connected “to him somehow and a lot of times talks about what “my dad didn’t do”.

  9. Perhaps a definition of “nurture” is needed for all those women who do not feel they are nurturers. CarmineB why did your mother work to support her children? It would have been much easier to just walk away, but she didn’t, she gave them what they needed most, support. Why do you care for your six boys? Nurturing, does not mean you don’t suffer from exhaustion, it means you do what is needed, whether you feel like it or not. The human race would have died out eons ago, if someone didn’t in some way care for helpless infants. Had Eve taken one look at the slimy little lump that had just pushed itself out of her body, causing her great pain in the doing, and said “Ugh, boy am I glad to be rid of that thing” and walked away, how long would that slimy little lump have survived? Because we give birth, and produce the milk, it falls to women to care for the helpless little things. It doesn’t mean the men can’t, I have four sons who are fantastic at nurturing, better than their wives in a couple of cases. The scriptures don’t mention women as nurturers because it is considered a given. Perhaps Jael, Jezebel, and Delilah are mentioned because they go against what is considered as normal.

  10. Devorah says:

    Thanks for this excellent post! I’ve often thought that Jesus’s most celebrated qualities are the ones that are traditionally thought to be most feminine: he facilitates “birth” (through baptism), he feeds, he teaches, and he bleeds/sacrifices himself so that others will have life, as a woman might die in childbirth.

    As for what we can conclude about women from OT scripture, the characteristic I see the most is that of the manipulator, the one who breaks rules for [what she sees as] the greater good. It’s not just that we have a lot of accounts of women manipulating; it’s that for many women in the OT, her act of manipulation is a defining event, and sometimes even the reason why she gets mentioned at all. An incomplete list:

    -Eve convinces Adam to eat the fruit
    -Lot’s daughters, believing their father to be the last man on earth, try to save the human race by getting him drunk so that he will impregnate them
    -Rebecca convinces Jacob to fool Isaac so that Jacob ends up with the blessing of the firstborn
    -Rachel and Leah conspire with their father to get Leah married first (Later, Rachel fools her father to get his household idols when she and Jacob et al. are leaving Laban’s house, but that’s less a defining act of Rachel’s life.)
    -Tamar fools Judah into impregnating her after Judah’s sons failed to bring her children
    -Potiphar’s wife tries to get Joseph to lie with her. (One tradition says she foresaw via astrology that she would have descendants by Joseph, but her interpretation of the vision was wrong–Joseph was to marry her daughter, not her.)
    -Shifrah and Puah trick Pharaoh to save the lives of the Hebrew babies
    -Yocheved saves Moses by sending him down the river in a basket when the law required he be killed
    -Miriam fools Pharaoh’s daughter into letting Moses’s mother nurse him
    -Apparently, Zipporah grudgingly takes the task of her son’s circumcision into her own hands–even though mothers don’t generally circumcise–to deliver someone (Moses?) from immediate danger.
    -Rahab deceives the city guard to save Joshua’s spies
    -Yael appears to be inviting to Sisera, but makes him sleepy with milk before driving a stake through his skull
    -Delilah sweet-talks Samson until he tells her his vulnerability, which she promptly uses against him
    -Michal frustrates her father Saul’s plans to kill her husband David by helping David escape out the window and then fooling the assassins her father sent by lying to them and stuffing David’s bed with pillows
    -Bathsheba uses her relationship with David to oust her rival’s son Adoniyah and put her own son Solomon in power
    -Naomi encourages Ruth to, well, stalk Boaz (sorry for the pun) until he shows an interest in her
    -Esther conceals her religion to marry the king (intermarriage was totally against the rules of the time), and then uses her position to get the king to save her people
    -Judith uses Holofernes’s desire for her to gain entrance to his tent, where she makes him thirsty, then drunk, and finally headless

    Interestingly, Sarah and Deborah, two prominent OT women, don’t seem to be manipulators. They’re also in positions of “hard” power (as opposed to the “soft” power held by the women on the list). Similarly, many men in the OT who don’t hold hard power get what they need through manipulation. If women are to learn about the nature of womanhood from stories of women in the OT (and I’m not convinced that’s a good idea), I suppose the lesson is that women do what’s needed and never let the rules get in the way. But I think the real lesson to be learned is that people of both genders who lack hard power can achieve their goals in more creative ways, and sometimes good things come of it.

  11. themormonbrit says:

    Devorah, that’s a very interesting point. Regarding your point about Jesus’ qualities, it definitely needs to be emphasised that these are only traditionally thought to be feminine qualities. They are, as Christ Himself demonstrated, qualities that are equally necessary for both genders in our quest for perfection and divinity.

  12. Devorah says:

    Yes indeed! I am fully in favor of getting rid of the traditional-but-limiting idea that some good qualities are just for girls and others are just for boys–it’s not helping anyone! Emma Jung, in her analysis of the legend of the holy grail, has a fascinating theory about exactly this topic. I’ve been enjoying reading through her book, The Grail Legend, and you might enjoy it too if you’re into this kind of thing. As I understand it, Jung’s theory is that the problem with Christianity around the year 1000 is that the feminine aspects of the perfected/divine self were getting suppressed by the church (that is, the church didn’t want people to talk about them), but they found symbolic expression in stories about the holy grail.

  13. Devorah says:

    Um, just to clarify my last comment, part of Jung’s theory is that everyone, whether male or female, must cultivate both “masculine” and “feminine” aspects in order to achieve whole-person-hood.

  14. themormonbrit says:

    That sounds like an interesting book. In fact, I am unsure whether I might have read it at one point. I definitely agree that virtue is virtue, and describing one as ‘masculine’ and another as ‘feminine’ is unnecessary and unchristlike.

  15. You could have stopped the title after the first four words! But to your larger point of nurturing, I too have noticed how Jesus was concerned about things that at the time were considered very feminine traits. The hunger of the masses for one, hence the loaves and fishes. It goes along with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Jesus knew that the people would have a harder time concentrating on his words and feeling his love with hungry tummies. Just like parents today know that FHE & scripture study happens only after dinner or before breakfast, with the promise of refreshments afterwards. Love the OT examples of nurturing I was unaware of to go along with the examples I knew of in the NT.

  16. themormonbrit says:

    I’ve always disagreed somewhat with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In my opinion, if some of the biggest questions (ie. the meaning and purpose of life) are not answered by philosophy or religion, then sustaining life through eating, drinking, and looking for shelter or warmth becomes somewhat pointless. People who undergo existentialist crises are generally in a state where they wonder, if life has no purpose, then what’s the use in sustaining it? So I would argue that the most fundamental need for human beings is actually one fufilled by philosophy and theology – the need to actually believe that life has some kind of meaning or purpose.

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