Mourner Mother Midwife: A Book Review

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Juliana Claassens’ book Mourner Mother Midwife is a breath of fresh air. Claassens liberates her readers from limiting language about God, which she argues has molded society in unhealthy ways. She offers several il_340x270.270587613alternative, biblical images for talking about God and re-imagines some of the images we already use. For example, the image of God as a liberator-warrior has historically been interpreted as ‘liberation’ to the detriment of the marginalized of society.  In other words, those in power use this image to further their own social and political agendas. Yet in the Bible, the liberator-warrior was a motif used by the marginalized Israelites struggling under a succession of brutalizing powers-at-be. In her book, Claassens suggests alternative images to this empire theology; God as a deliver is an image about a God in touch with human pain and scars, a God who brings forth life not death.

The first female image of God Claassens talks about is the mourner. When the prophet Jeremiah attempts to make sense of the horror of exile, he imagines God as an aggrieved, abusive husband and God as the architect of war. However, these aren’t the only images the prophet uses to express desolation. He also images God as weeping a fountain of tears (Jer 8:21-9:1). This image is beyond powerful. As Claassens notes, it is easy to break apart when crying alone- but when you know God cries with you? Then the sufferer is strengthened and the perceived gap between God and us is bridged. Claassens connects this mourning God with the ANE role of women in lament and professional mourning.These wailing women took the “first steps of a long journey toward healing and recovery” within a community of grief.[1] The wailing woman is also the witness and survivor who is “left behind, tormented and bruised, yet who is still able to stand up and speak about calamity.”[2] God becomes the wailing woman, clueing in the remnant community of Israel that now is the time to mourn. God begins the process of healing by beginning the process of grieving. This alternative metaphor of God as Wailing Women challenges theological constructions that explain God in terms of divine retribution, which have dominated much of biblical interpretation.”[3] God doesn’t just sit back and watch the trauma—the trauma affects him deeply.

In chapter three, Claassens picks up on a second image of God: God as a mother in Deutero-Isaiah. In Isaiah il_fullxfull.23781840542:13-14, God is both liberator/warrior and also a woman in labor. Likewise in Isa 45:9-10, God is pictured as both a mother in labor and a father who begets. This image of God in labor, God as a life-giver, is especially potent for an audience longing for new life and new beginnings: exodus from exile. This image assures the audience that God identifies with their pain, yet he moves beyond it to deliver them into new life. In Isa 49:13-15, God is pictured as a nursing mother who will not forget to comfort her child. God responds to the pain of exiled Israel, yet reassures them of her love. Finally, in Isa 66:10-13, God again is imagined as the nursing mother who comforts her child by restoring him to Jerusalem. The nursing mother metaphor assures the exiled audience that not only does God empathize with their pain, not only will God deliver them, She will continue to care and provide for them once they have returned to Zion. “These maternal metaphors,” Claassens says, “with their emphasis on new life, nurture, and care—offer rich resources for people recovering from trauma.”[4]

The next metaphor for God that Claassens highlights is God as a midwife, which is found in two passages: Ps doula-art22:9-10 and Ps 71:6. In ancient societies, the midwife was incredibly important to the birthing process. Claassens notes that memory of God’s past deeds of rescue from suffering spur on continued prayer and reliance. She also notes that God as a midwife changes “deliverance” to an offer of life and hope instead of just violence.

Claassens concludes her book by noting:

This alternative understanding of the Deliverer God that we gain from the metaphors of God as Mourner, Mother, and Midwife may present resources not only to survive but also to take up the task of living.”[5]

She argues that the exclusively male interpretation of the Deliver God simply falls apart in the midst of utter tragedies like the Holocaust, which left its victims wondering where in the world their deliverer-God was while they suffered and died so horrifically. Yet God as a mother, mourner, and midwife is God present in our suffering. It is God present though every instance when personhood is honored, in every woman who adopts children not her own, in every act that gives hope or offers compassion, and in every story where life is given not taken away. As Claassens concludes:

God’s deliverance does not consist of a divine warrior intervening to smite the enemy and to free the captives, but rather in the small salvific acts in the midst of pain and suffering that offer the possibility of redemption.”[6]

b172222a0dcc057c7ad67c9a857c3f66Claassens book is a wonderful, fresh insight into not only broader metaphors about our non-gendered God, but also the importance of language and its influence. Yes, God is a warrior. God is a being to be feared, his judgment terrible, his righteousness uncompromising. Yet, God is also the God of mercy, compassion, and empathy. The life-giving God. If you think about it, which images describe Jesus’ earthly ministry better? God as an avenging warrior or God as mother weeping over her lost children (Luke 19:41-45, 23:28)? God is both, not one or the other. Claassens is entirely right: we should stop limiting God in the box of preconceptions and exclusively male language and metaphors.


[1] L. Julianna M Claaaaens, Mourner Mother Midwife: Reimagining God’s Delivering Presence in the Old Testament.  (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012),28.

[2] Ibid. 29.

[3] Ibid. 33.

[4] Ibid. 46-7

[5] Ibid. 82

[6] Ibid. 86.

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5 thoughts on “Mourner Mother Midwife: A Book Review

  1. I think this is worth looking into, especially in light of the metaphysics of Kabbalah and the “contraction of existence.” While G-d is no gender at all, I do feel that the masculine was so prevalently demonstrated because it relates to first cause.

    When a women ends up with a baby bump, people normally ask who the first cause is.

    Furthermore, women are reckoned as cyclical as is nature, whereas G-d many times tells people that the cycles they are observing are abominable without repentance; seeming to demonstrate an independence from natural cycle in the greater scheme.

    I believe G-d is neither, but might have found that in this world, He could best explain Himself (Itself?) most saliently as “male” based on causality. That said, I am very amenable to feminine interpretations. It bothers me to suggest that doing so would “shame” G-d.

    1. The problem with language about God is it’s hard to get around the either/or. I occasionally use feminine metaphors of God where they are more appropriate, which is Claassens point. She’s not arguing (like many do) that we should swing the pendulum to the far side and speak of God only in the feminine terms. Her point is that exclusively masculine metaphors leave something wanting for many people (as for Holocaust survivors or for the women who grew up abused by a father figure and cannot connect to a Father-God). The God who nurtures in the unique way only a mother can, who weeps with us when help does not come, and who struggles to give us life are ideas utterly foreign to masculine metaphors by their very nature. Just as warrior, king, and father are alien to feminine metaphors and, while they speak to many situations (like the desire for Messiah), they cannot speak to all. Balance and care is needed.
      Finally, while women are indeed cyclical, woman and man were once one being, at least according to many Jewish mystics. God created cycles, both human and cosmic. They are part of the order of the universe.
      That said… I still prefer to think of God in terms of Father. 😉

  2. Love your blog and this post! Read about you as I follow Candler on Instagram! I’ll have to read this book. I work in organ donation and am always looking for books to give me a deeper understanding of compassion, grief, and the presence of God! Thanks for the post!

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