A Closer Look: Personified Feminine Images

The maternal and other feminine images here fit ancient expectations. Wisdom was often portrayed as a woman, sometimes contrasted with promiscuous folly. Similarly, Dionysius of Halicarnassus contrasts at length Attic rhetoric, depicted as a model, chase, classical Athenian woman, with Asiatic rhetoric, which he portrays as a debased prostitute. Dio Chrysostom rhetorically contrasted two symbolic women, one the spirit of royalty and the other of tyranny. Athenians, believing that they sprang from local soil, count it as their mother; for a loyal Roman, Italy was a mother. A city could be the mother of its region. People normally loved their “mother-fatherland”; one’s home city was one’s mother.

Although the mother goddess was not simply a personification, the prevalence of her cult in Galatia bears mention here. Mother goddess cults were widespread, but the renowned one in the Roman Empire was associated most particularly with Phrygia (see comment on Gal. 4:8). Ancient sources often speak of the earth mother or mother earth, “Great Mother,” “Mother Cybele,” “Mother of the gods,” “Mother of all,” or the Idaean Mother. She was Hellenized even in Asia, but the mother role was retained. Just as Rhea was mother of Zeus in traditional Greek sources, Cybele assumed this role in some contemporary sources.

Biblical prophets often depicted God’s people as a woman, whether as his faithful bride when pure (e.g., Isa. 54:5-6; 62:5,; Hosea 1:2; 2:19-20) or as an adulteress when unfaithful (e.g., Lev. 17:7; Isa. 1:21; Jer. 2:20; 3: 1-9; Ezek. 16: 16-410. Righteous Israel was the mother of the restored future remnant of Israel (Isa. 54:1; 66:7-10; Mic. 4:9-10; 5:3; cf. Isa. 26:18-19; 50:1). Jewish tradition continued the image of Zion/Jerusalem as a mother; her offspring could be the restored or new Jerusalem.

Gentiles could also imagine their homeland or ancestors personified as a woman. A city would often be portrayed as a wealthy goddess enthroned beside a river. Syrian and Phonenician cities’ coins included the Syrian “city goddess.’ Roma, the deified personification of Rome, also appears as a woman on coins. Rome depicted conquered nations as women crushed beneath Rome.

This content is by Craig Keener, but edited and posted by Defenders Media.

For more on the book of Galatians, please check out Galatians: A Commentary.

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