Some of our common English expressions are products of our agrarian past. For example, we all know what it means to say that someone “eats like a pig,” even though most modern Americans have never seen a pig eat. We all know what a “tough row to hoe” is, even though most of us have never hoed a row. Likewise, we know what it means to say that someone is “chicken” even though most of us don’t really know how chickens behave.
The reason we say someone is who easily frightened is a “chicken,” is because chickens are easily frightened.
But when we say that someone is a “mother hen,” we mean that he or she is very protective of his or her children. A mother hen is not chicken. Most of us know this even though we’ve never actually observed the behavior of a mother hen.
Because we live on a farm and keep chickens, we know how mother hens act. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been able to see that daily. The personality transformation that a hen undergoes when she has chicks is truly amazing. Instead of being easily frightened, and fleeing at the slightest thing, a mother hen will puff up and hold her ground against all comers. She will charge and peck at anything that she thinks may be a threat to her chicks. At night she gathers them all under her wings to keep them warm. Whereas chickens usually grab food and run away, to prevent having to share it with any other chicken, a mother hen clucks loudly when she discovers food, to draw the chicks to it. To show them that it is good to eat, she grabs it up, then drops it back to the ground for them. She won’t eat until she knows the chicks have.
There are lots of references to birds in the Bible. (The ancient Hebrews were instructed, for example, not to eat eagles and buzzards. I wonder if it was really necessary to tell them not to eat buzzards.) But strangely chickens aren’t mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament. Scholars speculate that chickens were probably not introduced into the Middle East until after the Old Testament was written.
But there is a particularly touching reference to chickens in the Bible. In the gospel of Matthew Jesus is looking at Jerusalem, aware of its fate. He says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…”
So Jesus compares himself to a mother hen. I know what that means.