In my previous two posts I dealt with biblical metaphors that use maternal language to speak about God. The Old Testament presents Yahweh mostly in masculine categories. For instance, Yahweh is spoken of as a father and Israel as his son: “Thus says the LORD: Israel is my firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22). The same idea is present in Jeremiah 31:9, “I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.”
God as a Compassionate Mother
However, when Yahweh wants to express his care and compassion for Israel, Old Testament writers use motherly language to let the people know that Yahweh cares for them. In my post, “The Motherhood of God,” I studied four passages in Deutero-Isaiah where the exilic prophet used maternal language to speak of God.
One text that I mentioned was Isaiah 66:13: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” The prophet speaks of Yahweh’s care for his people because, as a mother cares for her child, Yahweh will comfort Jerusalem with tender care.
Another passage in which the prophet speaks of God as a mother is Isaiah 46:3: “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb.”
In this passage, Yahweh speaks of carrying Israel “from the womb.” The Hebrew word for “womb” is rāham, the same word from which the word “compassion” comes. By using the maternal language of “carrying from the womb” and giving birth, “born by me,” Yahweh shows that he is a God of compassion, a God who cares for his people just as a mother cares for the child which she carried in her womb.
God as a Nursing Mother
One passage that speaks of God as a nursing mother is Numbers 11:12: “Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth so You should tell me, ‘Carry them at your breast, as a nursing woman carries a baby,’ to the land that You swore to give their fathers?” (Numbers 11:12 HCSB).
In my post “Feminine Language for God,” I wrote the following about Numbers 11:12:
After the people of Israel left Egypt, they experienced the rigors of life in the wilderness. When the people complained to Moses about the lack of food, Moses in turn complained to God with language that presents God as a mother and a nurse: “Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them?” Moses could not take all the responsibility for the people; God had to help him in his task.
Because “Moses places responsibility on Yahweh for having conceived (hrh) and given birth (yld) to Israel” (Brueggemann 1997: 258), Moses is urging God to take care of his people: “Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child.”
Dennis Olson (1996: 66) wrote: “The female and maternal imagery is striking. The implication of Moses’ words is that God is the mother who conceived and gave birth to Israel. God is the one who ought to take responsibility for carrying Israel as a wet nurse cares for a breast-feeding child. Such female imagery for God is unusual in the Old Testament, but it is not unique.”
Another passage that speaks of God as a nursing mother is Isaiah 49:15: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”
Commenting on the metaphor of Yahweh as a nursing mother in Isaiah 49:15, Brueggemann (1997: 259, note 47) wrote, “this passage indicates that Yahweh remembers the child, because the mother feels the need to nurse as much as the child. Thus, the metaphor of nursing mother bespeaks something about the physical condition of the mother and not simply unconditional love.”
God as a Nursing Father
The King James Bible avoids comparing God with a nursing mother; instead, the KJV compares God with a nursing father: “Have I conceived all this people? have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers?” (Numbers 11:12 KJV).
Most old commentaries on the book of Numbers followed the KJV and identify the nursing father with a foster-father who brings up a child instead of its own parent. The reluctance of the KJV, of older commentators, and many present-day Christians to compare God with a nursing mother is because of a preconceived notion that the Old Testament only speaks of God in masculine terms. However, as I have shown in my two previous posts, the Old Testament speaks of God using maternal language without denying the masculinity of God. In an upcoming post, I will have more to say about the masculinity of God.
One reason the KJV compares God with a nursing father is because the Hebrew word ʼōmēn can be used for both men and women. The word for “nurse” in Hebrew is ʼōmēn. The word ʼōmēn is used to describe different roles for men and for women.
For instance, in 2 Kings 10:1, 5, the word is translated “guardians” to identify the persons who took care of the king’s sons: “Now Ahab had seventy sons in Samaria. So Jehu wrote letters and sent them to Samaria, to the rulers of Jezreel, to the elders, and to the guardians of the sons of Ahab” (2 Kings 10:1).
The TNK translates the word ʼōmēn as foster father: “He was foster father to Hadassah – that is, Esther – his uncle’s daughter” (Esther 2:7 TNK).
The HCSB translates the same word as “legal guardian”: “Mordecai was the legal guardian of his cousin Hadassah (that is, Esther)” (Esther 2:7 HCSB)
When the word ʼōmēn is used to describe the work of a woman, the word means “a nursing woman.” “Saul’s son Jonathan had a son whose feet were crippled. He was five years old when the report about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel. The one who had nursed him picked him up and fled, but as she was hurrying to flee, he fell and became lame. His name was Mephibosheth” (2 Samuel 4:4 HCSB).
The word ʼōmēn carries the same idea in the book of Ruth: “Naomi took the child, laid it on her breast and became its nurse” (Ruth 4:16). In Isaiah 60:4, the verb carries the idea of what a nurse does for daughters: “Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms” (Isaiah 60:4).
The problem in interpreting Number 11:12 is the reluctance by some people to identify Yahweh with maternal characteristics. Even though the word ʼōmēn is used to describe what a man and a woman do, in Numbers 11:12 the word is used in a context where Yahweh is being portrayed as a mother. Since the Hebrew Bible never uses a feminine noun or a feminine verb to designate the gender of God nor his actions, the biblical writer used a masculine singular noun to designate the work of God since God is always identified in the Hebrew Bible with a masculine pronoun.
The reluctance to identify Yahweh with maternal characteristics is the reason some translators refuse to accept the proper context of Numbers 11:12. This is the reason the KJV identified God as a “nursing father.” The translation of the Hebrew Bible published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1917 translates the sentence as “a nursing-father carrieth the sucking child.” The NAB translates the sentence as “a foster father carrying an infant.” The Targum Pseudo-Jonathan has “as the instructor of youth.” Dale Brueggemann (2018: 292) believes that the word is used with a pejorative sense and should be translated as “babysitter.”
Even the Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament is not consistent. The Lexicon translates the word in Numbers 11:12 as “attendant,” thus removing the idea that God could be a nursing mother. The Lexicon translates the same word as “wet nurse” in 2 Samuel 4:4 and in Ruth 4:16. The Septuagint has the same problem in Isaiah 60:4. While the NRSV translates the text as “nurses’ arms,” the LXX has “on men’s shoulders.”
In his article, “Breast-Feeding Practices In Biblical Israel and In Old Babylonian Mesopotamia,” Mayer Gruber said that in ancient Israel breast feeding was done by the mother of the child. In cases where lactation did not occur, the birth mother would employ a wet-nurse since babies required nursing throughout the day and night.
The practice of nursing a child creates a strong bond between mother and child. Breast feeding creates intimacy between mother and child, it becomes a special time for them to bond with one another.
The word of Moses to Yahweh came at the time when the people of Israel had complained to Moses and to God that they were tired of eating manna. They wanted meat, “If only we had meat to eat” (Numbers 11:4). The people wanted to eat, so Moses called on the one who conceived the people; he called on the one who gave them birth to care for them as a nurse cares for a sucking child (Numbers 11:12).
In response to Moses request, Yahweh commanded Moses to tell the people, “Purify yourselves for tomorrow and you shall eat meat” (Numbers 11:18).
As Brueggemann said (1997: 277), “Yahweh as a mother is a God who feeds (Num 11:12).”
The statement in the KJV that God is a nursing father carrying a sucking child (Numbers 11:12 KJV) is not a good translation of the text because it does not reflect the true intent of Moses’ words.
A nursing father cannot breastfeed a sucking child.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Baker, David, Dale Brueggemann, and Eugene Merrill. Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Cornerstone Biblical Commentary. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2018.
Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Gruber, Mayer I. “The Motherhood of God in Second Isaiah,” Revue Biblique 90 (1983): 351-359.
Gruber, Mayer I. “Breast-feeding practices in biblical Israel and in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia.” The Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 19 (1989): 61-83.
Jenni, Ernst and Claus Westermann. Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.
Olson, Dennis. Numbers. Interpretation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.