Excerpts from my most recent paper on Mother Mary, the Gevirah Role in Ancient Israel & the Heavenly Mother Connection….going beyond the apparitions to give a reason for my faith in our Mother in Heaven.
by Michelle Wiener
The Gevirah Role in Ancient Israel
Mary is often referred to by Catholics as the ‘Queen of Heaven’ in conjunction with Revelation 12:1, where she is described as “a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” (KJV). As Jesus’ earthly mother, Mary serves as the gevirah, or heavenly advocate to her son, with the twelve stars being a reference to ancient Israel; thus she reflects the ancient royal customs from which this imagery is derived. In ancient Judea/Israel, the gevirah served in an advisory capacity to the king “as a cultural and spiritual image for the Israelite people” (Hammer 2008, 13), although the official capacity of this role remains a matter of debate among biblical scholars. According to the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, “Of the sixteen queen mothers named, seven appear to be Jerusalemites, at least two were foreigners, and five may have come from the provinces of the country” (Andreasen 1983, 191). While a considerable amount of debate has surrounded the cultic function of the gevirah as it pertains to the hieros gamos, or sacred marriage rituals practiced in the Ancient Near East, the primary function of the gevirah was “to be a counsellor and a source of wisdom” (Andreasen 1983, 188). Certainly the Queen Mother was one of great influence upon her royal subjects as she served in an advisory capacity to the king.
In her doctoral dissertation, Ginny Brewer-Boydston argues for the regnal formula of the gevirah (gebira) in I&II Kings as a operating as a force for either good or evil concerning the moral direction of the kingdom, with the Queen Mother also bearing the responsibility for the sustaining or downfall of the nation, as “a son’s success directly reflects upon her and her instruction” (Baylor University 2011, 1-2). One of the biblical examples apart from the Kings is that of the instructions given by the mother of Lemuel in Proverbs 31:1-9, in which she advises him against strong drink and ‘lewd’ women in hopes that he remains focused on his primary role as ruler and his obligations to the kingdom. Though unnamed, the mother of Lemuel serves as a force for good to her son’s kingdom. This address is rare, given the fact that “manuals of instruction for kings and princes such as this one are well known from the Ancient Near East, but nowhere else is it addressed to a king by his mother” (Andreasen, 1983, 192). In my observation, inclusion of this set of instructions in the Hebrew Wisdom Literature would alone suggest the level of influence of the gevirah in ancient Judea, along with possibility of the official recognition of her role in the kingdom. With Proverbs itself being connected to King Solomon, I believe the Chokmah connection may even suggest a cultic function, as Wisdom is mentioned in Proverbs chapter eight.
Brewer-Boydston notes the influence of Bathsheba, King Solomon’s mother, as a force for good among the nation of Israel. Although Bathsheba is brought into the king’s palace against her will by way of scandal, she finishes the course with great strength of character, as she, under the direction of the prophet Nathan, “helps to effect Solomon’s succession, ensuring her status as the queen mother” (Baylor University 2011, 190), later crowning, and even serving, as chief advisor to her son. In this instance, Solomon is clearly not the crown prince, yet Bathsheba is able to secure her son’s throne by reminding the dying King David of a prior oath he made, even though the content of that oath is not entirely clear. If she had not done so, David’s son Adonijah would have reigned instead and she might have lost her position, as well as having endangered her own life and that of her son. By advocating for herself and her son, she saves the kingdom as well, which might help explain why her son, the king, bows down to her and places her at his right hand as his counselor, as “the right hand was symbolic of honor, power and authority” (Baylor University 2011, 199). In doing so, King Solomon lends credence to the role of the Queen Mother, setting this regnal formula paradigm in place for future Judean courts.
Unfortunately, more Queen Mothers proved detrimental to the kingdom rather than beneficial, being credited along with the king for the nation’s moral and political demise. According to Brewer-Boydston, “They propagate a foreign cult, counsel their sons wickedly, ensure the death of their sons, and kill possible heirs, all of which bring a negative judgment upon their sons’ reigns” (Baylor University 2011, 174). Jezebel is the most familiar of the wicked biblical Queen Mothers, although initially she served in the Northern Kingdom of Israel as wife of King Ahab, but the lesser-known Queen Mothers included Maacah, Athaliah, Nehushta, and Hamutal, among others located in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Athaliah, who is mentioned in II Kings 11, was so powerful that she “was able to usurp entirely the throne in Jerusalem and hold it for some six years” (Andreasen 1983, 180) before being killed in the Jerusalem Temple by her political rivals. As Athalya Brenner points out, “Both 2 Kings 11 and I Chronicles (especially chap. 24) connect Althaliah with Baal worship, even though her name contains the theophoric element yah[u] (yhwh), like the other names of figures in the story” (Jewish Women’s Archive, 2009; italics/parentheses belong to author). Both Athaliah and Jezebel share in common their connection to the Baal cult, which brands them as ‘bad’ from the perspective of the Deuteronomistic writers.
The foreign status of at least three of the aforementioned women – Jezebel, Athaliah, and Maacah, in particular, most likely had some bearing on the biblical narrative’s evaluation of their role as Queen Mothers, thus casting them in a negative light. Maacah is deposed of her post as Queen Mother by King Asa as part of his religious reforms, due to her erecting an image to the goddess Asherah as “an alien element introduced by her in the Judean cult” (Ackerman 1993, 390), although as Ackerman attests, the strictly foreign status of the Asherah cult is debatable, as there is room to suggest that Asherah worship may have been incorporated into the Jerusalem Temple as “part of the state cult” (Ackerman 1993, 390). The successive religious reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah suggest that the Jerusalem Temple itself housed a representation of Asherah – most likely a pole –or perhaps even several cultic objects, as they kept getting destroyed, along with the vessels and garments weaved by the women in honor of the Mother Goddess mentioned in II Kings 23:4-7. Since the political and religious establishments were intricately connected, it would seem to me that the reforms of these three Judean kings would have a direct bearing on the political structure and its representation in the cultic life of ancient Judea, thus the deposing of the Queen Mother would suggest some connection to the goddess Asherah, along with her banishment. Perhaps this connection between Asherah and the gevirah was much more intricate than originally assumed.
Mother Mary as Celestial Gevirah
Whether the gevirah is the mother, grandmother, or perhaps even the consort of the king, her influence upon the male leading figure makes her a powerful figurehead in the life of the nation. Mary is traditionally viewed in Catholicism as simultaneously “Daughter, Mother and Spouse” (“Mary, Queen of Heaven,” Slide 3) in terms of her relationship with the various members of the Trinity. Within the context of ancient Judea, the gevirah not only exercised great political authority, but most likely retained a connection with the Jerusalem Temple, although the exact nature of this role is not entirely clear. Nevertheless, the figure of Mary remains shrouded in mystery, and her role as the Theotokos, or Mother of God is prefigured in the Old Testament through various cultic images connected with both the Temple and Tabernacle, and as reflected in the lives of the Old Testament matriarchs, of which include Sarah, Rachel and Hannah, even Esther, and Judith, as typologies that “point to future realities” (Feingold 2015, “Mary Prefigured”) concerning God’s plan of redemption. Mary has also been called the ‘New Eve’ who will crush the head of the serpent, according to Genesis 3:15. Certainly, the cultic nature of her role is emphasized, along with her political status as a member of the Davidic line.
The reference to women weaving hangings for Asherah in II Kings 23: 7 may offer some clues into the nature of Mary’s role as gevirah. The Infancy Gospel of James gives some additional insight into the early years of Mary that are not contained in the four Gospels. According to the Infancy narrative, Mary is chosen by lot among “the undefiled virgins of the family of David” (ch. 10) to weave the veil of King Herod’s refurbished Temple. The veil was gold, white, blue and scarlet, and the lot fell upon Mary to weave the purple and scarlet threads. While Mary was doing so, the angel Gabriel appeared to her to announce she would be overshadowed by the Most High to give birth to the Messiah. Once again, Mary’s link to David in the Infancy narrative is crucial, along with Mary being specially chosen for this role within the Temple context. Although not strictly a Queen Mother, Mary was called to be a mother in the celestial realm beyond time and space, as the veil represented the “hidden state of eternity” (Barker 2011, “Mary and the Temple”). The theological implications for this role are astounding when one considers the possible Asherah connection, if indeed Asherah worship was part of the cultic life of ancient Judea as Ackerman suggests.
Traditionally, Mary’s title has been that of intercessor, which implies her status as chief advisor to her divine son, a role especially reserved for that of Queen Mother. As it is explained from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, “If the Lord is petitioner and high priest in His capacity as the one offering Himself in sacrifice, she is the petitioner before Him….as an intercessor before the Son, as the humanity of His divine humanity” (Bulgakov 2009, 76). As such, Mary is Co-Redemptrix alongside Christ. The Third Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus in 431CE declared Mary to be Theotokos, or the Mother of God, in reaction to Nestorius’ Christotokos doctrine in keeping with the view that the divine and human nature of Christ operated independently of one another, and therefore Mary could only give birth to Jesus’ human nature. Although Theotokos had more to do with Christ than Mary, “The Council of Ephesus acted as a spur to devotion to Mary throughout the Roman Empire, initially in the East but spreading to the West.” (Llywelyn 2016, 11). It would appear to me that Mary’s role as ‘God bearer’ elevates her to the role of the heavenly gevirah, giving her unparalleled status in the history of redemption.
Over time, new doctrines emerged concerning the exalted gevirah status of Mary. The Immaculate Conception, declared official doctrine by Pius IX in 1854, along with the Assumption of Mary, were not doctrines that developed overnight, but rather over a lengthy period. Concerning the Immaculate Conception, “It was originally thought, up to at least the time of Aquinas, that Mary was conceived in the normal way” (Svendsen 2001, 30), meaning she carried the taint of original sin and went through three different stages of cleansing during the conception and pregnancy of her own son. By contrast, Orthodox tradition rejects the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, as only the West is preoccupied with original sin; nevertheless, “in Orthodoxy, belief in the personal sinlessness of the Mother of God is like fragrant incense, a cloud of prayer condensing out of the incense of her pious veneration in the Church” (Bulgakov 2009, 47). The Assumption of Mary is a more recent doctrine declared by Pope Pius XII in 1950; nevertheless, it is the definitive doctrine confirming Mary’s status as the celestial Gevirah, as well as it “gives us a glimpse of the glory that is yet to be revealed” (Staples 2014, 197). The Assumption, which is “the compliment to the Immaculate Conception” (Staples 2014, 197), is predicated upon Mary’s sinless life, as only in her purity could she be bodily assumed into Heaven in order to resume her preordained role as our advocate before God, as the Revelation 12 ‘sign in the heavens’ attests.
Mother Mary as Wisdom Personified
Revelation 12:1 describes a mysterious woman “clothed with the sun,” which Catholics interpret as a reference to the Virgin Mary taken up to heaven in her bodily form in a resurrected state. Recently, there has been much hype surrounding this passage in the news, with the planet Jupiter moving into the constellation Virgo. While the purpose of this paper is not to prove, or even debate, the accuracy of this celestial event; it is still worthy of noting that this event has been on people’s minds, along with the possible levels of interpretation reflected in the Old Testament typologies found there in this rather mystical text. Nevertheless, the previous verse in Revelation 11:19 pointing to the “ark of his testament” (KJV) seated in the heavenly Temple is often ignored “because of the division between Chapters 11 and 12” (Staples 2014, 201). The biblical typological parallels drawn between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant are striking: (1) Just as the Ark of the Covenant housed the Ten Commandments, Mary housed the Incarnate Word in her own womb, (2) an urn was placed in the Ark containing manna gathered from the Sinai desert, whereas Mary carried the Bread of Life, and (3) the Ark housed the budding rod of Aaron, symbolizing the Aaronic Priesthood, whereas Mary carried the Eternal High Priest (“Mary, Queen of Heaven,” Slide 9). From a Mormon feminist perspective, one could say Mary was the first (and only?) woman to hold the Melchizedek Priesthood in a very literal sense.
Another Old Testament typology that often goes overlooked is the Mary-Wisdom connection prefigured in Proverbs chapter eight in which Wisdom is personified as a woman who describes herself as one who “was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him” (Prov. 8:30, KJV). Here Wisdom is presented as a created being “set up from everlasting from the beginning” (Prov. 8:33, KJV). Lawrence Feingold of the Association of Hebrew Catholics explains that the Hebrew word for wisdom, chochma is feminine with a dual meaning in Catholic theology: “to the uncreated Wisdom in God (the Logos), and to the perfect response of creation to that wisdom, personified in Mary” (“Figures of Mary” 2013, 6; parentheses belong to author). In Mary rests not only the expectation of Israel, but also the hope of the Church as the New Israel, as she holds the title of Co-Redemptrix with Christ; “it was through Mary’s intercessory role that new life is brought into the world” (Staples 2014, 272). Mary is able to stand as a representation of all of Israel as the “daughter of Zion par excellence because she sums up the expectation of Israel for the Messiah” (“Figures of Mary” 2013, 5; italics belong to author). Mary is the personification of Wisdom by virtue of her actions and steadfast faith; she is also the Bride of God who “alone responds with perfect fidelity and correspondence to His gift of righteousness, justice, love, mercy, and faithfulness” (“Figures of Mary” 2013, 6). As personified Wisdom of Proverbs 8, Mary is the antithesis of ‘Lady Folly’ of Proverbs 9 (Smith 1987, 337), just as the gevirahs of the Old Testament are dually represented as wise and foolish, depending on the context.
Mary’s association with personified Wisdom may offer some clues into her inherent goddess nature in terms of her connection with the aforementioned Hebrew goddess Asherah, who is popularly associated with the Tree of Life, as “the religious symbol of the goddess, the asherah, was in Israel a wooden pole, or perhaps a tree” (Smith 1987, 334). It is important to note that ‘asherah’ is most likely a generic name for a goddess, as well as the name of the Canaanite mother goddess linked with the fertility god Baal. An inscription found on the wall of a tomb at Kuntillat Arjud suggests that Asherah was venerated in the northern Samaria alongside Yahweh (Smith, 1987, 333). Due to these discrepancies, it makes it difficult to reconstruct these images in a meaningful way that lines up with biblical theology without sounding idolatrous, or even polytheistic, for that matter. Nevertheless, images of Asherah remain scattered throughout the Bible through Old Testament imagery like the Tree of Life in Genesis and the burning bush of Moses, as was symbolized in the Temple by the brightly lit menorah, as “the Asherah was the almond tree/menorah….and the servants of the Lord were its branches” (Barker, 2012, 65). The symbolism remains consistent throughout the Hebrew Scriptures; even Aaron’s budding rod is tree imagery.
It is astounding to consider sheer volume of tree imagery that appears throughout both Old and New Testaments, and even in the Book of Mormon where after seeing a vision of the “Mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh” (I Nephi 11:18), Nephi is asked the following question, “Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?” (I Nephi 11:21). The parallels drawn between Mary and Asherah cannot be mistaken. Mormonism is unique among other Christian denominations in respect to having a doctrine of Heavenly Mother in place, although Heavenly Mother is not yet given a name. Bruce R. McConkie, then member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, states that all women are created in the image of Heavenly Mother, adding “mortal persons who overcome all things and gain an ultimate exaltation will live eternally in the family unit…thus becoming Eternal Fathers and Eternal Mothers” (Mormon Doctrine 1958, 409). If the Virgin Mary is our exemplar as women, then she is truly the one who reveals the image of our Mother in Heaven to us as Wisdom personified. This revelation remains true to my own faith, as I am awakening to the holiness of the Virgin Mary as Heavenly Gevirah, an extension of my own personal devotion to Heavenly Mother.
Ackerman, Susan. “The Queen Mother and the Cult in Ancient Israel.” Journal of Biblical Literature 112:3. Autumn 1993: pp. 385-401.
Andreasen, Niels-Erik A. “The Role of the Queen Mother in Israelite Society.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 45:2. April 1983: pp. 179-194.
Barker, Margaret. “Mary and the Temple.” Ecumenical Marian Pilgrimage Trust: Walsingham Anglican Society Shrine, March 2011. YouTube
______________. The Mother of the Lord: The Lady of the Temple. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.
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Brewster-Boydston, Ginny. “Good Queen Mothers, Bad Queen Mothers: The Theological Presentation of the Queen Mother in I and II Kings.” PhD Dissertation: Baylor University, 2011.
Bulgakov, Sergius. The Burning Bush: on the Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2009.
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_______________. “Mary Prefigured in the Old Testament.” Steubenville Fuel, 2015. Youtube
Hammer, Jill. “Queen Mothers and Matriarchs: How the Role of the Gevirah Helps Us Understand Mothers in Genesis.” G. Vanim 4:1: 2008.
Llywelyn, Dorian. “Mary and Mariology.” Oxford Handbooks Online. June 2016.
“Mary-Queen of Heaven and the Ark of the Covenant.” PowerPoint: Euclid University LMS, 2017.
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Meredith, Ian. “Mary in the Old Testament.” Portchester, Hants: St. Mary’s Parish Church, 2013. Sermon
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Smith, Mark S. “God Male and Female in the Old Testament: Yahweh and His ‘Asherah.’” Theological Studies 48: 1987: pp. 333-340.
Staples, Tim. Behold Your Mother: A Biblical and Historical Defense of the Marian Doctrines. El Cajon: Catholic Answers Press, 2014.
Svendsen, Eric D. Who is My Mother? The Role and Status of the Mother of Jesus in the New Testament and Roman Catholicism. Amityville: Calvary Press, 2001.
Photo Credit: “The Sacred Grove” courtesy of Robert and Michelle Wiener