Mother’s Day is a hard day for many people, for a variety of reasons. If anything, this is amplified in Christian circles, where motherhood is often treated not as a sacred vocation but the sacred vocation for all women, accompanied by a lot of underlying expectations as to what that should look like. Always falling on a Sunday, Mother’s Day is often treated as if it belongs to the church calendar, and well-intentioned attempts to honour mothers from the pulpit instead bring painful experiences to the surface for many people.

The Bible is full of stories of childless women—Miriam, Deborah, Esther, Mary of Bethany and her sister Martha, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and many others. The sheer number of single or childless women who fill the pages of Scripture should give pause to anyone who insists that the “biblical mandate” for women is to marry and have children. The family of God is not biologically determined, and the women in this family may or may not procreate but they certainly prophesy, protest, praise, and preach.

But the Bible is also full of stories of childless women who desperately want children—women who are past menopause, women whose wombs are “closed,” women who pray fervently to become mothers. Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, Samson’s mother, the Shunammite woman, Elizabeth—in each of these stories, the impossible happens and the “barren” woman conceives. For contemporary readers who are childless, these biblical barren women narratives might be either comforting or painful to read—or perhaps a bit of both. There is comfort in the unabashed acknowledgment of the grief of childlessness and in the text’s recognition that part of the suffering is caused by the expectations of the cultural script that these women inhabit. But each of these women is given a child in the end. What about the women and men who never get that happy ending? 

These “surprise birth” narratives littering the biblical text are not isolated stories. Instead, each one gathers up the previous story and carries it forward, forming a trope that serves to set the stage for the most unexpected, impossible birth of them all: God’s own birth into our midst. Several of these narratives have their own “annunciation scenes,” creating a motif that will be picked up in the account of the Annunciation to Mary.[1] Yet the annunciation scene that most closely parallels Mary’s is not the one we might expect. It is the annunciation to Hagar, the enslaved Egyptian girl that Sarai offers to her husband Abram as a forced surrogate mother to conceive a child for her in Genesis 16. Hagar is not a barren woman, but rather an enslaved single mother, abandoned by the father of her child and mistreated by his wife. Hagar runs away into the desert, where she is “found” by the angel of the Lord. “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son,” she is told, in phrases that the angel Gabriel will echo centuries later. Hagar is to name the child Ishmael, which means “God hears,” because, as the angel tells her, “the Lord has given heed to your affliction.”[2] The encounter closes with Hagar naming not her son, but God. She gives God the name El-roi, which means “the God who sees me.”

On this Mother’s Day, perhaps you are full of joy and thankfulness for the children you are nurturing or the woman who raised you. But perhaps you are feeling any number of other feelings: tension as you negotiate unreconciled relationships or expectations that aren’t met, grief as you remember a child or parent or grandparent who is no longer here, anxiety as you watch the child of your womb face a world that is unwelcoming, loneliness or exhaustion as you face yet another week of pandemic parenting, heartbreak as you mourn the dreams you carried for a child of your own, uncertainty as you wait in the space between hope and disappointment. Whatever your circumstances, the God who heard Hagar hears you, too. Your hurt, your joy, your anxiety, your grief—it may not be seen by others, but it is seen by the God who sees. May we who seek to follow this God grow in our ability to see and hear those around us.

[1] The births of Isaac (Genesis 17-18), Samson (Judges 13), the child of the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:8-17), and John the Baptist (Luke 1) are all heralded by divine, angelic, or prophetic announcement. See the chapter “Biblical Type-Scenes and the Uses of Convention” in Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1981) for a discussion of how type-scenes like the annunciation narratives figure in the biblical text.

[2] Genesis 16:11, NRSV.

Photo by Dom Aguiar on Unsplash

2 thoughts

  1. Hello,
    This post is amazing and it evoked so many emotions in me. I must say I am thankful that I was able to conceive and bear children, yet I know many women who never bore children and they are remarkable people and have many God-given talents which God has used to bless humanity. I think the reason child bearing is so revered in the past and the present is that a new life has always represented hope and unending possibilities. After all, this is what Jesus’ birth represented to all human kind. When a child is born, only God knows all the potential in that child. With the birth of each child there is the possibility that this is the “one.” Maybe the one who will find the answer to the search for peace, or the cures for diseases, or the ability to help others walk in their destinies,
    I can tell a great posts by how much it inspires me to write. Thank you so much for your post and the research you are doing for the advancement of women in theology.
    Joan Okon ( I am a seminary student, thank you for the inspiration.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing these reflections, Joan! I agree – children are a sign of hope in the world, for which we give thanks. All the best with your seminary studies!

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