Greater Men and Women of the Bible by James Hastings: 008. The Mother

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Greater Men and Women of the Bible by James Hastings: 008. The Mother

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The Mother

1. If it is the doom of woman by virtue of her spiritual leadership to involve mankind in sin, it is also her fate to bear in her person the penalties of the Fall. The knowledge of good and evil brings for the man toil-hard and unremitting toil-against a reluctant earth and the hostile elements which he must subdue. But in toil there is gladness. In vanquished obstacles there is exhilaration. If he is circled with a crown of thorns, the crown is transformed into a crown of kingship, and shines with the light of achievement. It is very different with Eve. For her the fatal knowledge brings the surrender of her crown to the man, who only after long ages will learn to look chivalrously on the prostrate form of her humiliation. And, worse even than this, her perennial service of motherhood is to be accomplished in travail and anguish to which man is a stranger. She is to be Eve, the mother of all living; she is to be also the mater dolorosa. The happy creatures of the forest and the field achieve their motherhood lightly; for her it is to be a peril, an inward anguish a martyrdom.

Eve stands in the dim doorway of history appealing to the generations of men: “Was there ever sorrow like unto my sorrow? I broke the charmed circle and led you into the knowledge of good and evil. Through me came the first dim movement of man towards his mysterious destiny. The serpent that tempts and haunts and would destroy the race involved me in his toils. And I bring forth children, and continue the race of man on the earth through travail and heavy sorrow.”

One wept whose only child was dead,

New-born, ten years ago.

“Weep not; he is in bliss,” they said.

She answered, “Even so.

Ten years ago was born in pain

A child, not now forlorn.

But oh, ten years ago, in vain,

A mother, a mother was born.”1 [Note: Alice Meynell, Poems (1913), 107.]

2. It is not the manner of the Bible to expatiate on the familiar incidents of life; it tells the story in a style so pregnant that unless we expand it a little we may easily miss the full meaning. Thus in the names which Eve gives to her sons all the passionate hopes and sorrows of motherhood are revealed. Man is already fallen when the first birth takes place; the sorrows of conception are already the portion of the mother. But when the first birth takes place man is already expecting a redemption which God has promised, and the mother looks into the eyes of her firstborn with the eager query, Is this He? This thrilling truth is implied in the name which Eve gives to her child, though the curious timidity of translators will not allow us to understand her prophetic cry. Luther was bolder, and in his plain way ventured to render the words as they stand in the Hebrew Bible. The root of the name Cain signifies “to get” or “to possess.” It is the sense of a vast possession, that inner opulence of motherhood, which dictates this first name. “I have gotten”-a treasure compared with which all things and creatures in this beautiful world seem nothing; even the lost Paradise is not so desirable as this little helpless babe.

Women, mothers, of the wealthy classes! The salvation of the men of our class from the evils they suffer from is only in your hands! Not the women who are busy with their waists, bustles, hair-dressing, and fascination for men, and against their will, by oversight, in despair bring forth children and turn them over to wet-nurses, nor those who attend to all kinds of lectures and talk of pyschomotor centres and differentiation, and also try to free themselves from bearing children, in order not to have any obstacle in their dulling of sensibilities, which they call development, but those in whose hands, more than in those of anybody else, lies the salvation of the men of our class from the calamities which are overwhelming them. You, women and mothers, who consciously submit to the law of God, you alone in our unfortunate, monstrous circle, which has lost the human semblance, know the whole real meaning of life according to God's will. You alone can by your example show to men that happiness of life in the submission to the will of God of which they deprive themselves. You alone know those raptures and joys which take hold of your whole being, and that bliss which is predetermined for man who does not depart from the law of God. You know the happiness of love for your husbands, a happiness which does not come to an end, nor break off, like all others, but forms the beginning of a new happiness of love for the babe. You alone know, when you are simple and submissive to the will of God, not that playful, parade work in uniforms and illuminated halls, which the men of your circle call work, but that true work which God has intended for men, and you know the true rewards for it and the bliss which it gives. You know the conditions of true labour, when with joy you await the approach and intensification of the most terrible agonies, after which there comes bliss which is known to you alone. You know this, when you without rest, without interruption, pass over to another series of labour and of sufferings, to nursing, when you at once reject and submit to your duty, to your feeling, the strongest human necessity, that of sleep, and for months and years at a time do not sleep through a single night, and frequently stay awake whole nights and with benumbed arms walk about and rock your sick babe, who is tearing your heart asunder. And when you do all this, unapproved and unseen by any one, expecting no praise and no reward from any one, when you do this not as an exploit, but as the servant of the gospel parable who comes back from the field, thinking you have but done what is right, you know what is the false parade work for people and what the real work for the fulfilment of God's will, the indications of which you feel in your heart.1 [Note: Tolstoy, What Shall We Do Then! 333.]

3. We see the joy over the firstborn, “I have gotten a man from the Lord.” It is a modern mother's joy. The strong lusty child whom we christen Cain is always a prospect of gladness to the heart of motherhood; it seems to promise great things. Then comes Eve's second-born, and again there is struck a modern chord. We hear, not a mother's laughter, but a mother's sigh. It is no longer the lusty Cain. It is a feeble child-a child that to all seeming a zephyr will blow away. We detect the weeping in her voice as she calls him Abel-a name suggesting “a breath,” “vapour,” “vanity”-and we feel that her experience is repeated in a million maternal souls. Then in the course of years there comes what myriad mothers have seen repeated-the great reversal of the first maternal judgment. The child that woke her laughter becomes a disappointment, and the child that touched her pity becomes a glory. Cain is indeed a strong man, and Abel's life is indeed but a breath; but, for Eve and for the world, the short-lived breath of Abel effects more than the massive strength of Cain. We feel again that we are in presence of the moderns-that the primitive Garden in its fading has passed into the developed city, and that the woman has become one of us in the knowledge of good and evil.

“A woman shall be saved through the childbearing,” said St. Paul; not necessarily her own, but by participation in the great act of motherhood which is the crown and glory of her sex. She is the “prisoner of love,” caught in a net of her own weaving; held fast by little hands which rule by impotence, pursued by feet the swifter for their faltering.1 [Note: Michael Fairless, The Roadmender (1911), 110.]

“Notwithstanding, she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.” I am glad to see that the Revised Version leans to the mystical and evangelical interpretation of Paul's “childbearing.” For, as Bishop Ellicott says, nothing could be more cold and jejune than the usual interpretation. And Paul is the last man to be cold and jejune on such a subject. Yes, I will believe with the learned Revisers, and with some of our deepest interpreters, that Paul has the seed of the woman in the eye of his mind in this passage, and that he looks back with deep pity and love on his hapless mother Eve; and then, after her, on all women and on all mothers, and sees them all saved, with Eve and with Mary, by the Man that Mary got from the Lord, if they abide and continue in faith, in love, in holiness, and in sober-mindedness.1 [Note: A. Whyte, Bible Characters: Adam to Achan, 33.]

The legend says: In Paradise

God gave the world to man. Ah me!

The woman lifted up her eyes:

“Woman, I have but tears for thee.”

But tears? And she began to shed,

Thereat, the tears that comforted.

(No other beautiful woman breathed,

No rival among men had he.

The seraph's sword of fire was sheathed,

The golden fruit hung on the tree.

Her lord was lord of all the earth,

Wherein no child had wailed its birth.)

“Tears to a bride?” “Yea, therefore tears.”

“In Eden?” “Yea, and tears therefore.”

Ah, bride in Eden, there were fears

In the first blush your young cheek wore,

Lest that first kiss had been too sweet,

Lest Eden withered from your feet!

Mother of women! Did you see

How brief your beauty, and how brief,

Therefore, the love of it must be,

In that first garden, that first grief?

Did those first drops of sorrow fall

To move God's pity for us all?2 [Note: Sarah M. B. Piatt.]