Like the Hebrew word ʼav (father), the word ʼem (mother) is probably a mimetic word, one of the first lip sounds of a baby. It is used to designate the immediate mother of an individual, possibly a stepmother (Ge 37:10; compare Ge 30:22-24; 35:16-19), and also an ancestress, since Adam’s wife Eve was “the mother of everyone living.” (Ge 3:20; 1Ki 15:10) The Greek word for “mother” is meʹter. In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for mother is used in a number of figurative ways.
The desire to have a large family was especially strong in the heart of Hebrew women because of God’s promise to make Israel a populous nation and the people through whom the seed of promise would come. (Ge 18:18; 22:18; Ex 19:5, 6) For one to be childless was considered to be one of the greatest of misfortunes.—Ge 30:1.
Under the Law covenant a woman was religiously “unclean” after the birth of a male child for 40 days (7 plus 33), and after the birth of a female child for double this amount of time, or 80 days (14 plus 66). (Le 12:2-5) For the 7 and the 14 days respectively she was unclean to all persons, including her husband, but for the 33 and 66 days respectively she was unclean only as to holy things and things connected with religious services at the sanctuary.
Hebrew mothers breast-fed their children till they were three years old and sometimes up until the age of five years or longer, in the belief that the longer the child was suckled the stronger it would grow. (See WEANING.) Where the mother died or could not provide a sufficient supply of milk, a nurse was employed. Hence, “babes and sucklings” of the Bible could include those old enough to be weaned, old enough to have some knowledge to be able to praise Jehovah and to be trained at the sanctuary.—Mt 21:15, 16; 1Sa 1:23, 24; 2:11.
There was a special closeness between the mother and the children because the mother took immediate care of the children until the time after weaning when the father would begin to guide the child’s education more personally. The mother’s position in the household was one of recognized importance. She was to be respected even in her very old age. (Ex 20:12; 21:15, 17; Pr 23:22; De 5:16; 21:18-21; 27:16) Of course, her position was always secondary to that of her husband, whom she was to respect and obey. As a child, Jesus kept in subjection to his adoptive father Joseph and his mother Mary.—Lu 2:51, 52.
Where the father had more than one wife, the sons would distinguish their real mother from their father’s other wives by using the designation “mother.” Full brothers were distinguished from half brothers by the expression “sons of my mother.”—Jg 8:19; Ge 43:29.
The mother was required to transmit the instructions and commands of the father to the children and see that these were carried out. (Pr 1:8; 6:20; 31:1) The mother was the manager of her household under her husband’s headship. Bearing and rearing children in a right way kept her busy and protected her to a great extent from becoming a gossiper or a meddler in other people’s affairs. As long as she continued in the faith, this proved to be a very great safeguard for her. (1Ti 5:9-14; 2:15) A good mother had to prepare food and make cloth as well as articles of clothing for her children and other members of the household, and her husband as well as her sons could well commend and praise such a woman before others.—Pr 31:15, 19, 21, 28.
Figurative Use. The word “mother” is applied at Judges 5:7 in the sense of a woman who assists and cares for others. Paul referred to his gentleness toward those to whom he brought God’s truth, his spiritual children, as that of “a nursing mother.”—1Th 2:7; see GENTLENESS.
Because of the close spiritual relationship, Christian women are likened to mothers and sisters of their fellow Christians and are to be treated with the same respect and chastity. (Mr 3:35; 1Ti 5:1, 2) Christian wives who follow the good example of Abraham’s wife Sarah are termed her “children.”—1Pe 3:6.
Since man’s body was made “out of dust from the ground,” the earth may figuratively be likened to his “mother.” (Ge 2:7; Job 1:21) A city is depicted as a mother, the inhabitants of which are considered her children. In the case of Jerusalem, the city as the seat of government stood for the entire nation, and the people of Israel as individuals were considered her children. (Ga 4:25, 26; Eze 23:4, 25; compare Ps 137:8, 9.) Also, a large city was considered as a mother to her surrounding “dependent towns,” or, literally translated, her “daughters.” (Eze 16:46, 48, 53, 55; see ftn on vs 46.) Babylon the Great, “the great city,” is called “the mother of the harlots and of the disgusting things of the earth.”—Re 17:5, 18.