In Genesis 3:20, after Adam and Eve have earned themselves a one-way trip out of the Garden of Eden, we read:
The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all the living.
I am struck by that phrase, “The mother of all the living.” Each year Mother’s Day brings to mind mothers with two, three, and more children, not to mention grandmothers and great-grandmothers with a growing number of grandchildren. But “the mother of all the living”?
If we take this Bible story literally (which I don’t), there can be only one mother of all the living. She is the first woman created by God. As the story goes, she and her husband Adam are the only people created directly by God. All the rest are created through the reproductive ability God gave to humans. So Eve becomes the mother of all the people on earth, in all their succeeding generations, right up to the billions who are on earth today.
Of course, science would never support such a proposition.
Or would it?
There is a scientific theory called “Mitochondrial Eve,” which says that we can all be traced back to one woman who lived in ancient prehistoric times.
Of course, the theory does not say that this “Eve” was a special creation of God. And it does not consider her to be the only woman who was alive at that time. Rather, as the theory goes, if you trace back every human being alive today through their mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and so on, all the way back through the matrilineal side, they will all eventually converge on a single woman who lived 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. (A parallel theory posits a “Y-chromosomal Adam.”)
Other women are represented in the genes of various segments of the human race. However, this particular woman would be the ancestor of all people who are alive today, everywhere in the world.
A fascinating theory! And it offers the possibility that there actually was a literal, human “mother of all the living,” even if it did not happen quite the way the Bible describes it.
Sometimes religion and science make strange bedfellows!
Who are Eve and Adam?
As fascinating as the Mitochondrial Eve theory is, it only scratches the surface of the “mother of all the living” as found in the Bible. God has no need to give us a textbook of biology and cosmology. We can figure those things out for ourselves. From a spiritual perspective, arguments about whether the world was literally created in six days, and whether there were two literal individuals named Adam and Eve, are not worth the paper (or the pixels) they are written on.
There’s something much more precious in these stories. They offer us the story of our spiritual origins, and of our relationship with God.
The original Hebrew in the book of Genesis suggests that Adam and Eve are not two individual human beings. The Hebrew word sometimes translated as the name “Adam” can also be translated as “humankind.” And it is often referred to in the plural: as people, not a single person.
The text itself begs us to think of this narrative as the symbolic story of an early race of human beings and their relationship with God.
What is our original relationship with God?
That relationship is stated compactly in Genesis 1:26–27:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. . . . So God created humankind in his image. In the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
The Hebrew word here translated “humankind” (and traditionally translated “man”) is adam.
First, this passage is saying that humankind was created by God. We have a relationship with God as created beings with our Creator.
But we are not separate and unrelated creations. We have a special relationship with God because we are created in the image and likeness of God.
In a superficial sense, we are created to look like God—whom people commonly (and rightly) think of as being human.
But the image and likeness of God goes much deeper than our physical form. Being created in the image and likeness of God means that we are created with a mind and a heart—with the ability to understand and love, and to act from our understanding and love. This is precisely how God created the universe. From love, through wisdom, God acted to create the universe.
- God’s love was an infinite love for other beings whom God would create.
- God’s wisdom, at the most practical level, was the knowledge of how to go about creating a universe with human beings in it.
When these two—God’s love and God’s wisdom—got together, they resulted in the act of creation.
Male and female in the image of God
There is one more message about our relationship with God in these two brief verses.
We are not created all the same in the image of God. We are created male and female in the image of God.
For Christians who have trouble with the idea that God is both male and female, there is no need to look farther than this passage in the very first chapter of the Bible to find that God does indeed have both male and female aspects. We could not be created male and female in the image of God if both male and female did not exist in God.
This does not mean that people who grew up with a male image of God have to toss that image out the window and put a picture of a female and male God before their mind’s eye when they pray. God can and does appear in many different forms to many different people.
However, it does mean that it’s a good idea for us to be open to the possibility that our own limited view of God may leave vast areas of God uncharted. We finite human beings will never be able to experience all of the infinite and eternal nature of God. Our conscious mind can hold only a limited view of God, depending on our particular background and experience. It is good to keep our mind open about how vast and varied God is. There is no need to reject others’ conception of God if theirs may be primarily female, or encompass both male and female—both father and mother.
Who are our father and mother?
In his book Sacred Scripture (#67) Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) mentions several ways of understanding the commandment, “Honor your father and your mother” as found in the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20:12):
People think of “father and mother” as their father and mother on earth, and all who serve as parent figures. They understand honoring father and mother to mean respecting and obeying them.
Spiritual angels think of God as their father and the church as their mother. They understand honoring them to mean loving them.
Heavenly angels think of God’s divine love as their father, and God’s divine wisdom as their mother. They understand honoring them to mean doing good things from God.
Let’s look at each of these ways of thinking about our father and mother.
Here on earth, our ordinary idea of father and mother is that they are our parents, or whoever raised us. Our father and mother give us a pattern that becomes part of our character. This pattern influences our later, more spiritual ideas of father and mother. This is one of the challenges that mothers and fathers face: being the primary role models that will shape the attitudes of their children toward the world, and toward God and spirit.
The next level of mother and father is that God is our father and the church is our mother. This also comes from the Bible, where the church—meaning the whole community of believers—is often symbolized as a woman. The church is pictured as the bride and wife of God. This is why many Christians think of God as their Father, and the church as their mother. We all are God’s children. And for people who grow up in a churchgoing family, the church is like a spiritual mother, raising and nurturing us in our life of faith.
The third way of understanding father and mother—which is how the highest, heavenly angels think of it according to Swedenborg—is much less common in Western religious thought. That is to see God as both father and mother. And in a reversal of the traditional association of love with women and understanding with men, Swedenborg says that the highest angels think of the God’s love as their father, and God’s wisdom as their mother.
Our spiritual mother
What does all this have to do with “the mother of all the living”?
At the literal level, perhaps we do have a common biological mother whose genes we all carry. For our spiritual life, though, it really doesn’t matter whether there was some literal Eve in our human ancestry.
Moving to the next level, we can see a deeper meaning in the idea of Eve as the mother of all the living. Consider that in these early mythological and symbolic stories, the Bible is really talking about the spiritual development of the human race. Adam and Eve represent the development of our earliest spiritual orientation when we first became human beings. They represent our very earliest spiritual era, and our relationship with God at the dawn of humanity.
In Secrets of Heaven #287, Swedenborg explains the meaning Genesis 3:20 (the translation of the Bible passage is a little different than the one used earlier in this article):
The human here means the individual of the earliest church, or the heavenly person. His wife and the mother of every living thing mean the church. The word mother is used because this was the first church, while the word living is used because this church believed in the Lord, who is life itself.
This brings us to a deeper level of meaning for “the mother of all the living.” Spiritually, those who are “living” are those who believe in God. Without faith in God, any spiritual life we may think we have is dead. We are cut off from the source of all life and all faith. Our belief in God is what makes us come alive spiritually.
Where do we find that faith?
We find it in our church, our religion, or our spiritual beliefs. Our spiritual beliefs, and the community of people we share them with, are the mother of all who are spiritually living. We learn what it means to believe in God from our spiritual community, and from the spiritual teachers and guides we turn to for understanding and inspiration. Our church or spiritual community nurtures that faith into a living, moving force in our hearts and minds.
If we open ourselves up to that living force and receive it into ourselves, it gradually transforms our entire life so that we can truly be in the image and likeness of God.
We are in the image and likeness of God when:
- We love other people as much as we love ourselves.
- We do our best to understand each other’s feelings, thoughts, and needs.
- We serve others’ needs in ways that help them and give them happiness.
In a spiritual sense, religion and spirituality of all kinds is the mother of all the living. It is from our religion, and from our spiritual beliefs and practices, that we are conceived as spiritual beings. And our church or spiritual community is the mother who cares for us and raises us to spiritual maturity.
Our divine father and mother
And yet, there can be only one final source of all things. There can ultimately be only one father and mother of all the living. That father and that mother are one and the same: they are God. All of our other ideas of mother and father melt into our single divine parent when, like the highest, heavenly angels, our life becomes focused on God.
As we move from childhood through adulthood and into our elder years, we can continually move upward in our idea of who our mother is.
Those of us who were raised by good and loving earthly mothers can always hold that mother with affection in our hearts.
As we move into adulthood, there is another mother that we can turn to for the spiritual nurturing and support we need to continue growing to emotional and spiritual maturity. Our church, or the community of people who share our spiritual beliefs and practices, can take up where the human being who mothered us through our childhood left off.
And finally as we approach spiritual maturity, we will find that just as a good mother will lead us toward the church, or toward some spiritual community as the source of deeper care and nourishment for our souls, our spiritual community exists to lead us to a still higher mother and father.
We all share a common divine parent. That parent encompasses both the qualities of father and the qualities of mother. God is both the mother and the father of all the living. We are all God’s children. And only by looking up to God’s love and wisdom can we grow into full spiritual maturity as truly human beings.
This article is edited from a talk originally delivered on May 10, 1998.
This is also one in a series of articles on the theme “The Bible Re-Viewed.” Each article takes a new look at a particular selection or story in the Bible, and explores how it relates to our lives today. For more on this spiritual way of interpreting the Bible, see “Can We Really Believe the Bible? Some Thoughts for Those who Wish they Could.”
For further reading:
- What is the Biblical Basis for a Heavenly Mother?
- Is the Bible a Book about Men? What about Women?
- Which Tree is in the Middle of Your Garden?
- Curses or Consequences: Did God Really Curse Adam and Eve?
- Man, Woman, and the Two Creation Stories of Genesis
- Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?