The Mothers and Daughters of the Bible Speak: Lessons on Faith from Nine Biblical Families
By Shannon Bream.
Broadside Books, 2022.
Hardcover, 288 pages, $26.99.
Reviewed by Annmarie McLaughlin.
In The Mothers and Daughters of the Bible Speak: Lessons on Faith from Nine Biblical Families, Shannon Bream, a news anchor and chief legal correspondent for Fox News, closely examines the lives and relationships of prominent biblical characters. This book comes as a sequel to The Women of the Bible Speak: The Wisdom of 16 Women and Their Lessons for Today. Bream approaches each story with a keen eye for detail and a sincere appreciation for the role of grace as she highlights how God works in, through, and around each character’s challenges and shortcomings. Counteracting some overlap in her choice of characters and the narration of their stories, Bream narrows her perspective in this installment to parental relationships, both biological and spiritual. In doing so, she once again delivers lively retellings of selected biblical tales—some more familiar than others—as well as spiritual insights that are both relevant and profound.
Bream opens by exploring the tremendous love, trust, and bravery displayed by Moses’s mother, Jochebed, who envisions a future so bright for her son that she defies all odds and earthly authorities to save him. The chapter traces the ups and downs of Moses’s life, though with the assumption, which lacks biblical support, that Jochebed is still alive when Moses flees to Egypt. Near the end of the chapter, Bream compares Jochebed’s release of Moses into the waters of the Nile to the importance of freeing ourselves from negative influences, thus mingling Jochebed’s trust in God with a bad habit that needs to be broken. Nonetheless, this somewhat misconstrued comparison need not overshadow the reader’s appreciation for the impact of Jochebed’s faith and quick-thinking defiance of Pharaoh.
The story of Ruth never disappoints. Whereas The Women of the Bible Speak focuses on Ruth’s role as an outsider who penetrates the Israelite community and becomes the ancestor of Jesus, this volume focuses on the more popular aspect of the story—Ruth’s relationship with her mother-in-law, Naomi. Bream reminds the reader that the in-law relationship need not be characterized by strife and discord, and that faith can, in fact, draw out common bonds, such as the love that two women feel for the man who is at the core of their relationship. Here Bream beautifully highlights how the mutual honor and respect between Ruth and Naomi create a conduit for divine providence to penetrate their lives. The only point of contention in this chapter is one that is likely to raise eyebrows among Catholics: the reference to Jesus’s “younger half-brothers and half-sisters.” The translation and interpretation of adelphoi with reference to Jesus in the New Testament is disputed and believed by many Catholic scholars to refer either to Joseph’s children from a previous marriage or to other relatives. Even non-Catholics should question Bream’s inclusion of the word “younger” here, which does not appear anywhere in the biblical text.
Bream appears unusually harsh in her assessment of Rebekah and Jacob’s motives for deceiving Isaac (Genesis 27), characterizing Rebekah as conniving, manipulative, and “selfish to the end.” She opens the chapter with a discussion of Genesis 24, thereby highlighting the confidence, swiftness, and decisiveness with which Rebekah agrees to comply with God’s will and marry Isaac, even before meeting him. Bream also acknowledges the prophecy that Rebekah receives regarding Jacob’s precedence over Esau, as well as concerns about Esau’s character and leadership qualities. Yet Bream refuses to allow these factors to mitigate her assessment of Rebekah’s motives, or to allow for the possibility that the biblical author—while in no way condoning the trickery enacted by Rebekah and Jacob—may have viewed their ploy as a desperate step taken by those who recognize that God’s intentions are on the verge of being irreversibly thwarted. It is not unreasonable to conclude that the biblical author at least intended Genesis 27 to be read in light of the context that both precedes and follows it, which encourages us, if not to condone the behavior, at least to understand it. Instead, Bream offers a somewhat superficial reading of the text that deprives her readers of a more nuanced approach.
Regarding the selected relationships between fathers and daughters, only Mordecai, the spiritual father of Esther, comes across as an admirable role model. Jacob’s dubious reaction to the rape of his daughter, Dinah, certainly does not endear him to the reader; nor does Saul’s manipulation of Michal in the context of his ongoing feud with David. The story of Esther, however, which was also covered in The Women of the Bible Speak, turns the spotlight on a point that Bream emphasizes throughout this sequel: that the most impactful relationships in our lives often come from those who forge a bond with us out of sheer love and commitment. Noting that both her own mother and her best friend were adopted into caring homes, Bream uses the opportunity to underscore the importance of offering support to parents and children in difficult circumstances.
Chapters on Elizabeth and Mary touch on expected aspects of their relationships, such as the pain Mary endures over the suffering of Jesus, as well as on some more unexpected aspects, that is, the “spiritual motherhood” with which Elizabeth nurtures Mary. Here Bream offers an insightful view of the impact older and younger women can have on each other. Particular lines of this chapter stand out, namely, “We often cannot see how God is weaving together the threads of our lives until long after the tapestry is complete,” and “Mothers devote themselves to a future that will outlive them, and they do so in the footsteps of Mary.” In this sense, Bream truly brings her observations full circle, having opened the book with Jochebed’s vision for Moses, and now inviting readers to channel Mary’s dedication to the unknown future, despite the challenges and suffering that such parental devotion entails.
For those already familiar with the details of these biblical stories, the occasionally lengthy summary and retelling may feel a bit redundant, but Bream maintains a brisk pace. Her narration is sprinkled throughout with amusing quips and thoughtful reflections that relate the experiences of ancient women to modern-day struggles. The addition of original prayers (absent from The Women of the Bible Speak) is an especially welcome touch, one that Bream certainly ought to continue should she decide to turn her pair of books into a trilogy. Bible study groups, and book groups in general, will surely appreciate the thought-provoking questions at the end of each chapter and engage in spirited debates about characters such as Rebekah and Bathsheba. Despite some questionable interpretations of the biblical text, Bream is to be commended for her determination to encourage readers to draw life lessons from these ancient but continually relevant characters in the Bible.
Annmarie McLaughlin is Associate Professor of Writing and Research, and Associate Professor of Scripture at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, New York, where she has taught courses on women in the Bible.
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