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Sara Stone is a first-year PhD student at the University of Glasgow looking at blame-shifting in the Hebrew Bible. Her MLitt dissertation, also looking at blame-shifting in the Hebrew Bible, has recently been published as a book chapter in: Zanne Domoney-Lyttle and Sarah Nicholson (eds.), Women and Gender in the Bible: Texts, Intersections and Intertexts (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2021, see here). 

Sara can be found on Twitter: @wordsfromastone. Her earlier Shiloh post (on shifting blame in Genesis 3:12) can be found here.

Images of God as a maternal deity are sprinkled throughout Jewish and Christian writings, such as God as birth-giver (Isa. 42:14), God as a comforting mother (Isa. 66:13) and God as nursing (Hos. 11:4).[1] However, Hosea 13:8a depicts God as mother-bear – ‘I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs and will tear open the covering of their heart…’.[2] Hosea 13:8a portraying God as a ferocious mother-bear is a verse that contrasts with the usual depictions of a calm and compassionate mother. 

The purpose of this post is to explore what the description of divine ‘mother-bear’ entails, its significance, and to consider some of the ramifications of overlooking Hosea 13:8a. Ultimately, I argue that Hosea 13:8a is a verse that takes the traditional images of ‘feminine’ (i.e., soft, nurturing and gentle) and adds them to (‘masculine’?) images of violence, strength and power – an all-loving, fierce and ferocious mother-bear. 

‘God as Mother-Bear’ is a striking image that breaks down the typical ‘mother’ stereotype which culture-bound preconceptions dictate, and the imagery used further blurs the gender binary that society has established, particularly regarding parental roles.

Hosea 13:8a is not the only place where the description of a mother-bear appears in the biblical text; it occurs three other times: at 2 Samuel 17:8, 2 Kings 2:24 and Proverbs 17:12. Notably, in all instances where the depiction of a mother-bear appears, it is a portrait of rampaging fury – including in Hosea 13:8a. 

Initially, when the idea to examine Hosea 13:8a first came about, I intended to explore how commentators had previously interpreted the verse. However, I was surprised to discover that little has been mentioned about the arguable significance of ‘God as Mother-Bear’. There were a couple of comments regarding the idea that Hosea 13:8a is a portrayal of God’s rage (see Stuart, 1987: 204; Davies, 1992: 291), but nothing substantial; and in a lot of other commentaries, the image has been overlooked altogether.[3] The silence surrounding God’s illustration as mother-bear raises the question of why interpreters find the imagery so insignificant, and what are the benefits of highlighting the significance of the imagery now?

So, what does the depiction of a mother-bear entail? In pre-modern times, the Syrian bear was fairly common (see King, 1988). We can also assume that the ancient Israelites were aware that the bear was a dangerous animal, due to references to it in the biblical text.[4] Notably, one may see that Amos 5:19a – ‘as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear’ – is equivalent to the idiomatic expression ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’. When bear imagery is utilised in the biblical text it points to violence and power and is usually in conjunction with a lion. Hosea 13:8a is no exception to this as Hosea 13:8b depicts God as a lion – ‘…there I will devour them like a lion, as a wild animal would mangle them’. Allegedly, the lion is less of a threat than the bear, because the behaviour of a lion is more predictable (see King, 1988: 127). 

Indeed, Hosea 13:8a depicts the mother-bear (God) as profoundly attached to her bear cubs (the people). But because God is bereaved of human gratitude, he turns in rage on those who have ‘robbed [her] of her cubs’ and withheld thankfulness. Virginia R. Mollenkott (2014: 50) states that the image in Hosea 13:8a projects internal ripping and tearing, and captures the bitter sensations associated with fragmentation and alienation from the ‘Source of our being’. In other words, when one allows oneself to become ungrateful for the gift of life and liberty (as Hosea 13 describes), one proverbially feels torn to pieces. 

Mollenkott (2014: 51) also notes that the bear is associated with the constellation Ursa Major – a constellation that never sets. Therefore, the imagery used in Hosea 13:8a could also be associated with the constant watchfulness of God-the-Mother-Bear. So, ‘God as Mother-Bear’ can depict his/her/their omnipotence and be understood to connote God’s omniscience, alongside being proverbial for his/her/their rage. 

While there is not a wealth of scholarship about what it means to be described as a mother-bear in the Bible, I argue that the significance of the imagery used in Hosea 13:8a is compelling. The Bible is hugely patriarchal and has been used time and time again to reinforce gender role stereotypes, historically and currently. The image of God as Mother-Bear is an image which breaks down the stereotypes that are usually associated with how a woman, particularly a mother, should behave. 

Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1992: 164) notes that the concept of parental roles tends to assign attributes and behaviours according to ‘gender lines’ and gender binaries. For example, culture-bound preconceptions encourage a person to think of ‘the father’ as authoritarian and punitive and ‘the mother’ as compassionate and/or nurturing. So, it is unsurprising to see that interpreters have the tendency to label the passages in which God expresses compassion and nurture as ‘mother passages’, and passages where God expresses judgement or pronounces punishments as ‘father passages’ (Frymer-Kensky, 1992: 164). 

But it is not the biblical text that assigns these rigid categories: it is the gendered thinking of the reader, or the set of assumptions determining parental roles that does so. However, Hosea 13:8a does not fit neatly into the stereotypical boxes of what is considered a ‘mother’ passage or a ‘father’ passage; it does not fit neatly into traditional gendered thinking. 

Maybe this is one factor contributing to the oversight of Hosea 13:8a. Does the verse sit uncomfortably for interpreters, so it is easier to bypass the verse than to engage with it? It is worth remembering when questioning the oversight of Hosea 13:8a that the biblical text has been subject to centuries worth of patriarchal interpretation.

Where feminized metaphor is concerned, the depiction of an infuriated female God has never achieved the same popularity as the gentler, more sentimental imagery of God as a ‘loving and self-sacrificial’ Mother (Mollenkott, 2014: 51-52). Centuries worth of patriarchal interpretation of the biblical text continuously associate female God images with the stereotypical feminine image of nurture and supportiveness – imagery which better fits the culture-bound preconceptions of gender norms. 

However, Frymer-Kensky (1992: 164) notes that God-as-parent transcends gendered thinking, because the same parent is ‘both judgmental and compassionate, punitive and emotional’. In other words, God is beyond the culture-bound preconceptions that we have created for ourselves. Yet, we are insistent in making passages regarding God-as-parent ‘black and white’ so that they can fit into a neat little binary box. God-as-parent transcends the gendered thinking behind parental roles, and Hosea 13:8a blurs the gender binary which culture-bound preconceptions have assigned. 

Indeed, our culture-bound preconceptions have assigned the father as punitive and the mother as nurturing. In Hosea 13:8a, however, both these parental qualities are exhibited together. The ‘mother-like’ nurturing quality is expressed through the image of a female-bear protecting her young, and the ‘father-like’ punitive quality is expressed through the gruesome image of God the Bear ‘tear[ing] open the covering of their heart’. 

Caroline W. Bynum (1982: 225-226) states that, ‘fathers feed and console, as do mothers: mothers teach, as do fathers; the full range of such images applies both to God and to self’. This reiterates the idea that God is capable of being both mother and father, he/she/they can possess multiple parental qualities. 

Ultimately, Hosea 13: 8a portrays an image illustrating the fury of God. However, by looking at the verse in more depth, we can see that the verse can show us more than simply describing the rage of God. It is a verse that can break down stereotypes, blur gender binaries, and illustrate that God can be both mother and father simultaneously. Hosea 13:8a takes the traditional images of ‘feminine’ (i.e., soft, nurturing, and gentle) and adds them to imagery of violence, strength, and power – portraying God as an all-loving, fierce, and ferocious mother-bear.

References

Bynum, Caroline W. (1982). Jesus as Mother. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Davies, G. I. (1982). The New Century Bible Commentary: Hosea. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdsmans Publishing Company/London: Marshall Pickering.

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. (1992). In the Wake of Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth. New York: Fawcett Columbine.

King, Philip J. (1988). Amos, Hosea, Micah – An Archaeological Commentary. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 

Mollenkott, Virginia R. (2014) [1984]. The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

Stuart, Douglas. (1987). World Biblical Commentary: Volume 31, Hosea – Jonah. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.


[1] The title of this post took inspiration from an episode of Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness (2022) on Netflix, titled ‘Can we say Bye-Bye to the Binary?’.

[2] Biblical quotations follow the NRSV.

[3] This post is based on an essay I wrote as part of my MLitt degree. Due to various factors, I have been unable to go back and recall which commentaries overlooked the image of God as mother-bear at Hosea 13:8a. On reflection, noting which of the commentaries overlook the bear would have been helpful as part of my research and for this post.

[4] For example, 1 Sam. 17:34, 36-37; 2 Sam. 17:8; Amos 5:19; Is. 11:7; Prov. 28:15; Lam. 3:10; Rev. 13:2.

Tags : bears in the Bibledivine metaphorfeminine metaphorgender stereotypingHosea 13:8lion and bearmother-bearparental imagery

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