Mothers are some of the most underappreciated people in the world. A mother knows what it’s like to sustain and nourish another human from her own body. A mother knows what it’s like to give her body and her strength, to give up her waking hours and her sleeping hours, and even to give up her life for the care of her children. A mother knows what it’s like to deplete herself to the point of exhaustion, to give all of herself for the little people who depend on her for their very life but treat her with such disregard and disrespect all day long, always demanding more and never showing any appreciation or giving anything in return. Mothers, if this is any encouragement, God knows exactly how you feel.
God identifies himself with mothers and motherhood in at least three ways. First, in His sufficiency; second, in His self-sacrificing tender-kindness and loving-care; and third, in His unrequited love. By examining how God identifies Himself with mothers and with motherhood, we can learn a little about God and we can draw comfort from knowing more of God’s companionship with us and His care for us.
God chooses to identify Himself to us primarily in masculine terms, He wants to be known as the Father. But God, as the perfect parent, is the one who protects and provides for His children and nourishes and sustains them. Furthermore, human fathers and mothers both are created in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 says, “In the image of God, He created him; male and female he created them.” It follows then, that God’s parenting of His children has the characteristics of both fatherhood and motherhood.
God identifies Himself with motherhood most strikingly in the use of His name, El-Shaddai. El-Shaddai is the second name by which God chooses to identify Himself to man. He reveals this name to Abraham in Genesis 17:1-2, “When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty (El-Shaddai); walk before me and be blameless that I may make my covenant between me and you and may multiply you greatly.’” The name El-Shaddai is mistranslated as God Almighty in our English Bibles. The name El signifies strength, power, or might and is used through the Old Testament as the word “God” or “god,” it indicates to us the power of God Himself. Although there is still some ambiguity around the origins of the name Shaddai, it is believed to be derived from the Hebrew word, shadaim, for breast. This indicates sufficiency or nourishment. Some have made the ill-advised suggestion that the name El-Shaddai be further translated as “the many breasted One.” A more appropriate translation might be something like God All-Sufficient. God introduces Himself to Abraham as El-Shaddai with the promise that He will “multiply [him] greatly.” God also introduces Himself as El-Shaddai to Jacob, repeating the same promise to him in Genesis 35:11, “I am God Almighty (El-Shaddai): be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body.” God introduces himself as El-Shaddai and associates this name with the promise of offspring. Later, Jacob, now known as Israel, invokes El-Shaddai in his blessing to his children, most notably in his blessing on Joseph in Genesis 49:24-25:
“His arms were made agile by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob (El-Shaddai, God of Jacob) … by the God of your father who will help you, by the Almighty (El-Shaddai) who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that crouches beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb.”
Jacob, looking forward from the brink of the population explosion he has been promised in Genesis 35:11, appropriates the name of El-Shaddai, and calls down distinctly maternal “blessings of the breasts and of the womb” to his children and grandchildren. God, does not only provide multiplied offspring—blessings of the womb—but also promises to nourish and sustain them—blessings of the breasts. Of the Patriarchs it is Jacob who is most associated with the name El-Shaddai. Jacob himself calls El-Shaddai “the Mighty One of Jacob,” and afterwards, through the Old Testament, the name El-Shaddai is often used next to the name of Jacob. We can imagine Jacob, who was so close to his mother, having a particular appreciation for God as El-Shaddai, the God who nourishes and sustains. The prophet Isaiah invokes the same maternal imagery when he writes, “You shall suck the milk of nations; you shall nurse at the breast of kings; and you shall know that I, the LORD, am your Saviour and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob (El Shaddai, God of Jacob)” (Isaiah 60:16), and
“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her; that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious abundance. For thus says the LORD: ‘Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem’” (Isaiah 66:10-13).
Through the prophet Isaiah, God promises to comfort the people of Israel with the restoration of Jerusalem, “as one whom his mother comforts.” In this translation it seems the consoling breasts belong to the city of Jerusalem, but still, it is God who provides the nourishment that flows through them; God is the true comforter and here he is a maternal comforter, comforting His children like a mother. The breasts are a metaphor for both nourishment and comfort, like a mother comforts and nourishes her child with her breasts, God will comfort and nourish His people. The Bible does not use this imagery reluctantly, God is not afraid to be identified with motherhood.
As we see in the passages quoted, El-Shaddai is the God who nourishes and sustains. His power is sufficient to all His children’s needs. He provides for them abundant blessings. He uses the imagery of breasts as metaphors for the way He nourishes His people from Himself. El-Shaddai is the God who provides Manna for the Children of Israel in the wilderness. He is the God who, through Jesus, says, “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35) and invites us to feed on His body and drink of His blood (John 6:54). This is the God who gives life by the breaking of His body and the draining of His blood. He is the God who, by His own self, nourishes and sustains life.
In this way, God is not being like a mother, rather the imagery works in the opposite direction. Mothers are image-bearers of God, they reflect His tender nurturing heart when they tenderly nurture their children. The mother who sustains her child with her own body, who nourishes her child from her breasts, and who comforts her child with the closeness of her body until that child thrives reflects the God who is our El-Shaddai. The God who is sufficient to all our needs. The God who births us by His Spirit. The God who sustains and nourishes us from His own self. And the mother who exhausts herself for the nourishment, sustenance, and comfort of her children can be sustained, nourished, and comforted from the resources of El-Shaddai who is sufficient to all her needs. Perhaps you, mother, exhausted in the late hours with an unsettled child in your weary arms have been comforted to find yourself cradled in the everlasting arms of El-Shaddai.
God also identifies Himself with motherhood in the way He self-sacrificially cares for His children. This is expressed by Jesus in Luke 13:34; He laments over Jerusalem,
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
He draws on the imagery of a mother hen, sheltering her chicks from danger with her own body. He points to the instinct in mothers to put themselves in harm’s way to protect their children. In His lament, Jesus is referring prophetically to the time when, by the breaking of His body, He shelters His people from wrath. In His sacrificial death, Jesus holds nothing back, thrusting Himself fully into danger to secure the safety of His people. The fact that He likens this to the care that a mother hen has for her chicks is evidence that God has purposely designed motherhood to reflect Himself. The loving care and tender kindness that a mother has for her child reflects God’s care and concern for His children. Like a mother, awake in the night with a troubled child, God is the one who “will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4) as He cares for His people. Like a mother who sets aside her busyness and her work to hold a needy child, God cares for His needy children, “In His arms He carries them all day long.” Indeed, His attention to His children, described in Psalm 121 is a kind of maternal care:
“He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. … The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; He will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” (Psalm 121:3-8).
We can imagine the Heavenly Father, here paying close attention to His small child’s every step as He walks beside His child, He protects His child from the glare of the sun with His body, casting a cool shade. In this way, a mother who forgets her own needs and desires to be diligently attentive to the comfort and safety of her child reflects the tender care of God for His children. Further, God is the God who “swears to His own hurt and does not change” (Psalm 15:4). This is intentional, He does not make promises carelessly, not realizing the cost; no, God weighs the cost, and considers it worthwhile. In this way, a mother who, for the love of her child, endures the pain and labour of childbearing and the personal cost of caring for her child through the day and through the night and considers it worthwhile, is an image of God’s self-sacrificing care for His children.
A mother who gives of her body, her spirit, her attention, and her energy out of love for her child and finds her love unrequited knows something about the love of God. Motherhood is a thankless vocation. To a child, a mother's sacrifices are expected and demanded; her desires are meaningless or nonexistent. Her child openly believes in his own supreme importance: mother is of no more value than a dispensary. Her commands are taken as idiotic suggestions, or completely ignored. She rescues her unwitting child from danger and is thanked with screaming resentment. Her child repeatedly returns to the danger and ignores her mother's warnings. A mother knows exactly what God means when He says, "All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people" (Romans 10:21). God holds out His hands in grace, giving and giving. Each moment of life is a gift from God, each breath, each new day, the food that sustains, these are the least of His gifts but if He withheld any one of them no one would survive. How like small children we are. We depend on God's grace but give Him so little thanks. We complain about the good gifts He gives us because they are not precisely to our liking. We grow bitter towards Him when we don't get the things we want, the way we want them. We often remark on the foolishness of the Children of Israel when they complain to Moses in Numbers 21:5, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” "There is no food ... and we loathe this worthless food," how ridiculous, how like small children they are. But how like them are we? There is no love like God's love, no one could give more than He gives. But His love is unrequited every day. Arrogantly, we receive His gifts with no regard for the giver. Still, God gives. He gives at such cost, He gives His greatest treasure to win us. Jesus, God's great gift, for us. But His gift is largely ignored or rejected. We fail to value it, we don't appreciate the cost. We treat God with the disregard of small children for their mothers. Still God loves us, He chooses to see past our unreceptive hearts and He loves us with the kind of tender love a mother has for her small children. The mother who smiles at her children's petulance, who patiently serves her children with a love that makes her forget their unkindness, reflects the love God has for His children. Our God is kind.