Hebrew Word for Mother: Am/Em

by | Feb 9, 2024 | Blog | 0 comments

The modern world perspective prioritizes our personal identity and considers our mother simply as someone who gave us life and cared for us during our childhood. However, the ancient Hebrew language prioritizes collective identity and considers a mother within the context of what one was conceived, not born out of. 

So, what’s the Hebrew word for mother?

The Hebrew language refers to mother as am or em. This term occurs 25 times in the Bible in its original state and about 175 times as variations (his mother, their mother, or our mother). Interestingly, the word can change to emma or immi when we use the word mother with a personal pronoun (my, his, her). 

Pictorial Translation of Am/Em

The Hebrew word for mother comprises two letters, the aleph and mem. Aleph, the first Hebrew alphabet letter, has the literal picture of an ox. The ox symbolizes strength, passion, and leadership. It protects the calves and cows in its herd from predators, leading them to safe pastures. 

On the other hand, mem is the thirteenth letter in the alphabet. Its ancient Hebrew depiction is waves of water. It could refer to life-giving water or destructive, chaotic waters. 

These two letters give the impression of the first/strong wager giver. When we think about conception and birth for a moment, it’s clear that the mother is the first to give life (besides God, of course!) A child develops within the life-giving “womb water” that nourishes them with the necessary compounds for life. Besides this water, the mother continues to nourish her child with breastmilk. 

The Use of Em in the Scripture

The ancient Hebrew context of the noun em is more of a collective responsibility. This term has been used several times in the Bible to infer various meanings around motherhood. But its primary application is about our biological human mother. 

“And she is my sister. We both have the same father, but our mothers are different. And I married her” (Genesis 20:12).

“And the daughter of Pharao responded, “Go!” So the young lady went and came back with the actual mother of the child” (Exodus 2:8).

The term em describes Eve, who was called em kol hay, or the mother of all creation. Adam gave his wife the name Eve because she was the mother of all living beings (Genesis 3:20). The motherhood significance of em is also evident in the story of Deborah. The Scripture refers to her as “a mother in Israel.”

“The inhabitants of Israel’s villages refrained from battle; they hesitated until I, Deborah, stepped forward as a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7).

This character could refer to a biological mother. But the Scripture doesn’t mention children. The phrase likely signifies that she held perennial arbitration powers with authoritative and somewhat maternal attributes, though not necessarily tender.

Deborah, a prophet and the wife of Lapidoth served as a judge in Israel during that period. She resided under a palm tree, situated between Ramah and Beth-el in the mountains of Ephraim. The children of Israel constantly sought her judgment (Judges 4:4-5).

The author places the lady under a tree to suggest she led a wisdom school. This is the same level as Abraham’s oaks of Mamre or the sycamore tree in Zacchaeus’ story. The term is also used to describe a city, also referred to as a mother in Israel. 

“We are Israel’s faithful and peaceful. You want to obliterate a city akin to a mother in Israel. What convinces you to engulf the LORD’s inheritance?” (2 Samuel 20:19)

Other geographical inferences of the word em include: 

Israel at large – You will stumble during the day and fall alongside your false prophets in the night. I’ll destroy Israel, your mother. (Hosea 4:5)

  • Judah – The Lord God says, “Was your mother chased because I sent her away? Did I sell you into slavery to my lenders? No! You went to captivity because of your wrongdoing. Similarly, your mother was taken because of your evil deeds (Isaiah 50:1)
  • Jerusalem – Give her this message from the Sovereign LORD: You are nothing but a Canaanite! Your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite (Ezekiel 16:3)

The Scripture also uses the Hebrew word to describe an actual animal mother:

“If you find a bird’s nest on the ground or tree branches with eggs or young ones with their mother, do not capture the mother with her young ones” (Deuteronomy 22:6).

An Overview of Motherhood in Old Testament Times

The Old Testament uses the Hebrew reference for mother over 200 times. This huge number indicates that the Scripture offers significant lessons on motherhood. Ancient mothers handled various time-consuming responsibilities and roles just like their modern counterparts. The tasks revolved around keeping an orderly home, caring for kids, tending to the garden, and preparing food. 

Even bread preparation took time. Cereal crops required complex operations to turn them into edible stuff, including soaking the grain and milling. Next, mothers had to mix the flour into dough and bake it into bread. Clearly, their impact couldn’t be overemphasized. 

Mothers in the Old Testament did more than manage the home; they also got involved in their posterity’s lives. They trained and instructed their children and significantly influenced their future, as seen in the following scriptures:

“If someone’s defiant son refuses to heed his father and mother’s instructions, the parents should grab him and present him before the elders at the city’s gate” (Deuteronomy 21:18).

“Pay attention, my son, to the guidance from your father. Moreover, do not neglect the wisdom imparted by your mother” (Proverbs 1:8).

We also note that mothers named their children, which was an expression of authority in the Old Testament. Out of the 46 recorded child-naming instances, mothers named their children 28 times (Genesis 30; 1 Samuel 1:20)

Conclusion

We might think that Old Testament mothers played subservient roles compared to fathers. But their societal position was equally important, as evident in the Hebrew name translation. Most were powerful leaders and teachers who nurtured their children and imparted knowledge that would last generations. These matriarchs offer numerous valuable lessons to modern-day mothers.

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About: Ronie

Ronnie Amaya has been actively involved in ministry since his high school and university days where he served as a Christian union leader. After graduation, he worked as an itinerary minister preaching in Schools, Universities, Street Evangelizations, and Churches. In 2018, he led a team in planting a new church in Nairobi, Kenya where he is currently serving as the lead pastor.
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Ronie

Ronnie Amaya has been actively involved in ministry since his high school and university days where he served as a Christian union leader. After graduation, he worked as an itinerary minister preaching in Schools, Universities, Street Evangelizations, and Churches. In 2018, he led a team in planting a new church in Nairobi, Kenya where he is currently serving as the lead pastor.

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