Maternal Grief in the Hebrew Bible

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Ekaterina E. Kozlova
Oxford Theology and Religious Monographs
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ekaterina E. Kozlova’s Maternal Grief in the Hebrew Bible, a revised version of her doctoral thesis, provides an intriguing analysis of Israelite mortuary culture. She proposes that, in ancient Israel, maternal grief functions as a source of social and political change. Kozlova bases her hypothesis on the psychology of grief. Her introduction, for example, compares biblical texts on mortuary practices with contemporary examples of social and political engagement by women grieving the death of their children. This evaluation highlights the importance of maternal grief, positioning these mortuary practices at the center of scholarly investigation. Building on this premise, Kozlova then dedicates each of the four main chapter to an individual biblical mother: Hagar (Gen. 21:14-21), Rizpah (2 Sam. 21:1-14), the woman of Tekoa (2 Sam. 14:1-20), and Rachel (Jer. 31:15-22). Kozlova discusses the specific mourning rituals in each text and compares these narratives to other sources including Hittite, Egyptian, Sumerian, and Mesopotamian literature. 

Kozlova’s ample use of extrabiblical sources is helpful to readers, not only in grounding her argument in various historical contexts, but in drawing parallels between the depiction of mortuary rituals in multiple ancient Near Eastern communities. Further, Kozlova uses these texts, from biblical and non-biblical sources, to establish that maternal grief is an archetype, serving “as a template for all mourning in ancient Near Eastern cultures” (4). Underlying Kozlova’s analysis is the intricate relationship between the expression of maternal grief and its reception by ancient Near Eastern communities. By framing these mourning women as “trailblazers and leaders,” Kozlova suggests that maternal grief is a religious tool utilized by mothers to “generate far-reaching communal benefits” (48).

Kozlova divides each chapter into two broad sections. The first addresses a biblical account of maternal grief, often supplying an alternative translation of the text under consideration. The second section incorporates ancient Near Eastern analogues that support Kozlova’s interpretation and supply additional examples of mourning rituals. Together, these sections highlight the religious significance of maternal grief. They stress that these accounts serve as potent agents for “ancient communities in crisis” (87). One good example of this is Rizpah’s bereavement in 2 Samuel 14 and 21. In this chapter, Kozlova offers a translation of Rizpah’s name, “daughter of light/lamp” (96), that relates to other light-related rituals for funerary laments in ancient Near Eastern sources. In this sense, Kozlova suggests that Rizpah’s vigil over her sons’ bodies after their execution serves as “social commentary on David’s actions” (102). Her “lamp” calls attention to the dubiousness of the monarch’s activities, his failure to uphold his covenantal agreement, and therefore operates as a strong critique of the Davidic monarchy. 

Through her analysis, Kozlova helpfully illuminates the ritual significance of maternal grief, in both ancient Near Eastern and biblical texts. Her attention to these mortuary practices, in all its forms in the ancient world, opens up new possibilities for biblical scholars and theologians in feminist and gender studies. Using motherhood as a form of agency, Kozlova challenges the notion that maternity is always subject to gender norms. She views motherhood as a tool of sociopolitical agency, showing how maternal grief can function as a source of social change. Even so, Kozlova’s interpretation is slightly hampered by the fact that most, if not all, of the biblical text she examines are written by men. Her argument relies, in part, on the importance of female agency as a source of institutional critique and social change. Male authorship, therefore raises the question of whether these texts reflect female agency, or if they represent the appropriation of maternal grief by male writers and editors. Despite this minor oversight, Maternal Grief in the Hebrew Bible proves to be a valuable addition to the fields of biblical studies and gender studies. This text sheds new light on the importance of maternal grief as a tool of social change in the Hebrew Bible.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David A. Schones is a doctoral candidate in Hebrew Bible at Southern Methodist University. 

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ekaterina E. Kozlova is an independent scholar.


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