Motherhood in the Ancient Near East by Kristine Henriksen Garroway

What was motherhood like for a woman in the ancient world?

A mother today can walk down the baby aisle at a store and find everything she might possibly need to prepare for motherhood and to raise a child: pregnancy tests, pregnancy vitamins, diapers, formula, bottles, baby toys, pacifiers, and more. What about ancient mothers?

A hymn to the Babylonian goddess Gula describes a woman’s life cycle as a daughter, bride, spouse, and housekeeper. The most significant role of a woman, however, went without saying: motherhood. The unstated significance of bearing children is highlighted in the tradition of giving a dowry and bride price; both payments were not due in full until the birth of the first child, emphasizing the fact that a woman’s ability to bear children was of utmost importance.

The Hebrew Bible demonstrates the importance of motherhood through barren women narratives. Rachel, for instance, sobs: “Give me children or I shall die!” (Gen 30:1). Barrenness brought with it mental and emotional trauma, along with the social alienation of not fulfilling an expected social role.

Women could pursue means of curing their barrenness via magical-medical practices. Babylonian texts suggest herbal preparations that could be used to “unblock” the womb, and in the Bible, Rachel turned to mandrakes, a plant thought to provide fertility (Gen 29:14-22).

Women could also become mothers in other ways. Sarah gives her handmaid Hagar to Abraham, so that she may “build up” a family through her (Gen 16:2). This practice is akin to how we might understand surrogate motherhood today. Adoption was also a possibility (Gen 30:3; Gen 48:9-12), and adoption contracts from Mesopotamia attest to formal adoptions of both boys and girls. While most legal documents were contracted by adult males, some adoption contracts are done by couples, and some solely by women

When it came to feeding their children, most women nursed, but wet-nursing was an available alternative (Exod 2:7-9). Babylonian wet-nurse contracts indicate that a child was nursed for two to three years. Discoveries of little feeding cups and juglets with cloth impressions covering the spout suggest that bottle feeding may also have occurred.

Images from Mesopotamia and Egypt, and possibly biblical texts (Isa 66:11-13), indicate that attachment parenting was known and practiced. Baby-wearing was a way for mothers to care for their young while completing their daily tasks.

Mothers strove to keep their babies safe through intangible means, like prayers and lullabies, and tangible items, like birth wands and amulets of protective deities (Pazazu and Bes). Yet, with a high infant mortality rate, a woman had to face the fact that her child might succumb to an early death.

If a child reached adulthood, texts suggest that a mother would enjoy care and respect. Inheritance contracts from Ugarit state that children who cared for their mothers would get an inheritance, while children who dishonored their mother would be disinherited. Similarly, biblical texts exhort children to honor their mothers and find pride in them (Exod 20:12, Prov 17:6).

Kristine Henriksen Garroway, "Motherhood in the Ancient Near East", n.p. [cited 1 Oct 2022]. Online:



Kristine Henriksen Garroway
Visiting Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Union College

Kristine Henriksen Garroway is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. She is the author of Children in the Ancient Near Eastern Household (Eisenburans, 2014), Growing Up in Ancient Israel (SBL Press, 2018), and coeditor of Children and Methods (Brill, forthcoming 2020). Her research is on children in the bible and the ancient Near East at the intersection of texts and material culture.

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

Gods or goddesses; powerful supernatural figures worshipped by humans.

ability to bear offspring

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

A song or poem that is religious in nature.

someone who stands in as a substitute for another individual; a woman who bears a child on behalf of another woman or man

A Canaanite city-state on the Mediterranean coast in what is today western Syria. Ugarit was at its peak as an important regional center in the 15th to 13th centuries B.C.E., during which time it developed its own system of writing (an adapted cuneiform alphabet) and a rich collection of literary texts, many of which bear remarkable similarities to some biblical texts.

Gen 30:1

1When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!”

Gen 29:14-22

14 and Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” And he stayed with him a month.
Jacob Marries Laban’s Daughters
15 Then Laban said to Jacob, “B ... View more

Gen 16:2

2and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” ... View more

Gen 30:3

3 Then she said, “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her.”

Gen 48:9-12

9 Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” And he said, “Bring them to me, please, that I may bless them.” 10 Now the eyes of ... View more

Exod 2:7-9

7Then his sister said to Pharaoh's daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”8Pharaoh's daughter said to her, ... View more

Isa 66:11-13

that you may nurse and be satisfied
    from her consoling breast;
that you may drink deeply with delight
    from her glorious bosom.

12 For thus says the L ... View more

Exod 20:12

12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Prov 17:6

Grandchildren are the crown of the aged,
    and the glory of children is their parents.

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.