By Lindsey Bell
When we think of mothers in the Bible, we often remember Mary, the mother of Jesus, Sarah, the mother of Isaac, or Hannah, the mother of Samuel. We don’t often think about the mother of James and John, who went to Jesus and begged him to give her boys extra honor. We don’t often recall the unnamed mothers in the Bible. We mistakenly assume that because their names aren’t recorded, their stories aren’t important.
The truth is, we can learn from each of these women. Though it’s easy to overlook the lesser-known mothers of the Bible, if we are willing to dig deep enough, we’ll find they can offer us some key takeaways.
Widow at Zarephath
One such example is the widow at Zarephath in 1 Kings 17. In this text, Elijah went to the widow and asked her to bring him water and a piece of bread. Because of a severe drought in the area, the woman had nothing to give him. “As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she told him in verse 12, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”
Elijah then asked the woman to make him something to eat before she fed her son. “Make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son” (v. 13).
I’ve never been even close to starving to death, and my guess is, most of you reading this haven’t either. I have a pantry and a refrigerator full of food to eat. Even during months when the bills are tighter and the budget is thinner, we never go hungry.
This woman wasn’t so fortunate. She and her son were—quite literally—starving to death. I imagine her son’s belly was probably bloated from the lack of nutrients. She didn’t have the luxury of a deep freeze or a pantry full of food.
Even still, when the Lord (through Elijah) asked her to give what she had, she did so willingly. She gave what little she had to God and trusted him to care for her family.
It’s tempting to feel inadequate at times. What do I really have to offer God? This widow had much less to offer than we do. Still, she freely gave what she had. Then God multiplied it: “For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.’”
This lesser-known mother of the Bible could have refused to give her precious food to Elijah. It would have been understandable. She was, after all, starving to death. But instead of keeping her remaining food to herself, she taught her son through her example. She taught him that when we give to God, he takes care of us.
The Shunammite Woman
Another mother of the Bible who is often overlooked is the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4. Anytime Elisha the prophet traveled through Shunem, this particular woman fed him a meal. She also talked with her husband about making a room for Elisha. In verse 10 she said, “Let’s make a small room on the roof and put in it a bed and a table, a chair and a lamp for him. Then he can stay there whenever he comes to us.”
It’s good to be generous when someone asks for something. It’s a beautiful thing to buy a bracelet your church is selling on behalf of a mission overseas or to sponsor a child after learning of the need from a guest speaker at your church. It’s good to be generous when you see a need, but this woman took generosity to another level. She didn’t serve only when she saw a need; instead she went looking for needs.
Can you imagine the lesson on generosity her son must have learned from her? She was generous when asked but also generous when no one asked her for a thing. Generosity was a part of who she was—core to her entire being.
A second thing this woman can teach us is about dependency on the Lord. First it was a miracle from God that she had a child. Then when her son died, she immediately sent for Elisha because she knew he could help her. Even though it appeared all hope was gone, this woman continued to believe. And her son lived again.
It’s easy to lose hope. When you pray for the same thing day after day after day and continue to hear nothing but silence, it’s tempting to give up on God and to stop believing he can help you. But this woman reminds us it’s never too late when God is in the picture. It’s never too late for God to do a miracle.
The Mother of James and John
A third mother in the Bible who is very rarely talked about is the wife of Zebedee, the mother of James and John. We first read about her in Matthew 20. She went to Jesus with James and John and asked him for a favor. “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom” (v. 21).
This woman was thinking about the well-being of her sons. She, like any parent, surely wasn’t purposely being selfish but was instead trying to help her sons. Jesus responded by telling her it wasn’t his place to choose who would sit at his right or left. Instead, the Father would decide.
What I love about this mother is that even though she made a mistake by trying to gain fame and power for her sons, she learned from it. It might have taken her a while, but eventually she learned that the most important thing in life was not success or popularity or power or fame but service.
The reason I believe she learned from her mistake is because of what she did when Jesus died on the cross. She didn’t run away from the conflict for fear of being punished herself. She didn’t continue to seek glory for her sons. Instead she stayed beside Jesus until the end.
“Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons” (Matthew 27:55, 56, emphasis added).
This mother reminds us that there’s always time to fix a mistake. As parents, we are going to make mistakes. The question is not if but when. The mother of James and John was wrong to seek glory for her sons, but she was right to seek glory for Jesus.
These mothers in the Bible might not be well known. In fact, their names are not even recorded in Scripture. Nonetheless, the lessons from their stories are life changing.
Lindsey Bell is the author of Unbeaten and Searching for Sanity and writes regularly on her site (lindseymbell.com).