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The Law of the Mother

A curious idea about mothers hides in the quirks of translation for Proverbs 1:8. The sophisticated cultural wisdom of the ancient Hebrews shines in its original language, but is often veiled in its translations into English. Consider this rendering from the ESV which is representative of most modern translations: “Hear, my son, your father's instruction, and forsake not your mother's teaching.” That rendering sounds redundant. In English, instruction and teaching are different words, but they mean essentially the same thing. Now consider its rendering from the KJV: “My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother.” This rendering retains the educational element provided by the father, but changes the mother’s contribution to the word law.

While both translations capture the very basics, it is likely that neither translation captures the fullest meaning. The Hebrew word, musar, has strong connotative links to discipline and correction, but is translated in Proverbs 1:8 as instruction. The word translated in the same verse as either teaching or law is the word tora, sometimes spelled torah. If you’ve studied the Judaic roots of the bible, then you know that The Torah is the Jewish name for the first 5 books of the Old Testament, frequently referred to as The Law. This Law is both a collection of precepts, commands, and edicts, as well as a collection of stories that tell us about life, struggle, relationship, and the ultimate truths of God and our place in his creation. That law teaches us our basics, and is divinely sacred. The blessed person meditates on it day and night (Psalm 1:1-2).

With this in mind, the verse can be read as, “Hear, my son, the discipline and correction of your father, and do not forget the law and teachings of your mother.” One way to frame that rendering is that we should heed the father’s rebukes so that they can instruct us to return to the wisdom that our mother has already taught us to obey through precepts, commands, edicts, and perhaps most importantly, stories that build and reinforce the best of our culture. If we obey the law of our mothers, then we do not experience the rebuke of the father. But if we are rebuked by the father, then we can be blessed with an experience that helps us understand that wisdom fully.

Mothers bear the divine office of installing in us a fundamental wisdom that will impact us for a lifetime. Fathers, be sure that you and your wife share and understand your values. Mothers, be sure to appreciate your awesome power and duty. Sons and daughters, be sure to honor your mother’s awesome burden.

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