The House of the Mother

The Social Roles of Maternal Kin in Biblical Hebrew Narrative and Poetry

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Cynthia R. Chapman
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , November
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Cynthia Chapman’s engaging, meticulously researched book brings to bear the fruits of two decades of reflection and interdisciplinary research on the interpretation and theorization of the biblical bêt ʼēm—the “house of the mother”—and associated maternally specific Hebrew kinship terms. Chapman’s goal is to disrupt the normative view of biblical society as configured exclusively by patrilineages, showing the often-determinative importance of maternal kin. While readers hopeful of uncovering hints of gender equality hidden within the Hebrew Bible will be disappointed, Chapman offers a nuanced view of biblical women, not as mere passive or peripheral objects of men, but as active participants in the society of their time.

An introductory chapter draws on currents in anthropological kinship studies that are moving away from static and universalizing essentialist concepts, recognizing in many patriarchal societies the simultaneous preservation of narratives of mothers and maternal kin alongside an articulated emphasis on exclusive male patrilineal genealogies. Furthermore, kinship terminology is now recognized as functioning on many levels—ranging from ideals to actual practices. The author claims to be the first to identify and analyze a collection of biblical “indigenous Hebrew kinship terms for maternally related kin” (19), and to show their significance for the historical narrative of the Hebrew Bible.

A chapter on bayit (“house”) shows that this term can connote a physical space, a social grouping of related people, and a symbolic embodiment of collective memory and ideology. The dominant patriarchal bêt ʼāb (“house of the father”), it is argued, divides into maternally defined subhouses nested within the house of the father. The following chapter identifies the bêt ʼēm (“house of the mother”)—a  term which appears four times in the Hebrew bible—as such a subhouse, arguing that it refers to a uterine family unit, namely a mother and her biological and adoptive children nested within, distinct from, and yet supportive of, the house of the father on which it depends. Chapman distinguishes this understanding of the bêt ʼēm from that of Carol Meyers, who has argued that the bêt ʼēm is the same social unit as the bêt ʼāb, but viewed from the perspective of the women who live in it.

The six chapters that follow each analyze a further maternally-related kinship term that appears in the Hebrew Bible. The “chamber of her who conceived me” (ḥeder hôrātî) is shown to designate an actual private physical space within the father’s house which is associated with sexual activity, conception, childbirth, and the negotiation of the marriage of a daughter. The phrase “my brother, the son of my mother” designates maternal alliances between uterine siblings, characterized by heightened emotional ties, public displays of physical affection, mutual loyalty, and the perceived duty to exact revenge on one another’s behalf—as Simeon and Levi do on behalf of their sister Dinah. The term “son of my womb” points to womb-based kinship and to the fact that the Hebrew Bible recognizes that the mother provides not just a mere container for the father’s “seed,” but also contributes to the child’s physical, ethnic, and character composition.

The phrase “like a brother to me, one who had nursed at my mother’s breast” indicates the existence of the concept of milk kinship in the world of the Hebrew Bible; that is, children who nursed from the same mother had the same connection as uterine siblings, regardless of whether they were born of that same mother. Milk kinship, for example, ensures a proper ancestry for Isaac, Moses, and Ruth’s son Obed—in each case, by an “outlandish story of breastfeeding” (144). “One who opens the womb” (peṭer reḥem) is the maternal parallel to the paternal “first fruit of his vigor” (re᾽šît ᾽ôni), signifying a wife’s need for a son who would guarantee her economic maintenance and social prestige in the household of her husband. “Womb-opening sons” had special status, especially in struggles over royal succession, as amply illustrated by the struggle for succession between the houses of Saul and David. Finally, the phrase “house of the father of his mother” indicates ties that a wife would maintain with her natal house, especially her uterine brothers, even after she had relocated to the house of her husband. Her sons could thus find refuge with their maternal uncles in times of crisis—as Jacob does with Laban.

A final chapter explores the symbolic role of mothers as nation builders and kingdom founders. Much of the analysis here concerns the hierarchical relationship of the various tribes of Israel as they are configured as offspring through Jacob’s four wives. The tribes deriving from the sons of maidservants are marginalized as “satellite houses” on the periphery of the Promised Land. Foreign mothers, such as Abraham’s wives Hagar and Keturah, became female ancestors of nations foreign to Israel. By contrast, when the sons succeed in carrying on the proper lineage, their mothers disappear from the narrative.

Chapman supports her largely convincing analysis with comparative anthropological data, close readings of biblical texts, and Akkadian and Ugaritic parallels. In addition, a boon to the reader are the numerous helpful diagrams of the various kinship relations discussed in the book. Extensive footnotes and fulsome indexes of subjects and sources round out this volume, which is sure to be a landmark reference on the “breasts and wombs that defined social and political alliances within the house of the father” (228).

About the Reviewer(s): 

F. Volker Greifenhagen is professor of religious studies at Luther College, University of Regina, in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cynthia R. Chapman is the Adelia A.F. Johnston and Harry Thomas Frank Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Oberlin College. She is the author of The Gendered Language of Warfare in the Israelite-Assyrian Encounter. Chapman lives in Cleveland, OH.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.