Living, researching, and writing behind a wall

This is the final post of my year as a Fulbright scholar in the West Bank. I returned to the States last week, and I’m taking off the next month to cuddle my new niece (well, new to me!) and play with my ‘old’ niece and nephew and sit on my parents’ front porch swing watching the corn grow, and other important tasks. Today’s post is a brief reflection on the impact of life in the West Bank on my research over the past ten months.

This year was not my first experience in Israel or the West Bank. I lived in Jerusalem through the first year of the most recent intifada, and I traveled there with students and alumni just two years ago. I knew that living in the occupied territories would have an impact on my research and writing this year: seeing heavily armed soldiers on the streets, passing through the checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the occasional whiff of tear gas on the wind, the stories of neighbors and friends. My expectations, however, revolved around academic questions of statistics, rhetoric, other people’s stories and experiences, interpreting ancient texts through, in part, the lens of modern war. I had not really considered how living in an occupied land, behind a very large wall, amidst constant reminders of ancient and modern wars, would affect me on a personal level, and how that effect would influence my research.

The Herodion

The Herodion

The Herodion is one of Herod the Great’s fortified palaces, built to protect him from his real and imagined enemies (Herod was a bit obsessed with his own safety). The site was captured and partly destroyed by the Romans in the First Jewish Revolt; the rebels of the Second Jewish Revolt used it as a fortress and hide-out, and visitors today can see the remnants of their war—a foundry, boulders stockpiled for use as weapons during siege, and tunnels for sneak attacks against the Romans. Every time I walked through Bethlehem or hung my sheets to dry on the balcony, I could see this reminder of ancient wars.

The Herodion is south of Beit Sahour. Just to the north is this modern version of Herod’s desert fortress:

Har Homa

Har Homa

This site was developed for housing in the late 90s. It’s either an illegal settlement (according to the Palestinians, the European Union, and the United States), or a legal neighborhood of Jerusalem (according to Israel). It’s built in part on land taken from the residents of Beit Sahour, and whether it’s legal or illegal, the security fences for the site cross Palestinian land—cutting Beit Sahouri farmers off from their fields—and it’s growing. I was shocked this year to see (from the road from Jerusalem to Beit Sahour, or from my gym, or even from my own street) how much of the surrounding farmland has turned into apartment buildings and private homes and shopping centers.

Beit Sahour is a rather quiet, peaceful town these days, completely within the area of the West Bank under Palestinian control (‘Area A’). Even so, it’s impossible to avoid the constant visible presence of ancient battles and modern occupation. The views of the Herodion and Har Homa remain views, though. Security barriers at Har Homa prevent Palestinians from entering the site (unless they’re working construction), and Palestinians also are forbidden to visit the Herodion, although it’s located inside the West Bank (the site is now an Israeli national park).

Area A Warning Sign

Area A Warning Sign


Every time I went to Jerusalem this year, upon my return my neighbors would remind me that they cannot go to Jerusalem—at least not without going through a long, uncertain application process. My landlady’s daughter lives in Ramallah, about twenty miles away, just north of Jerusalem; they only visit over long holidays, because the journey through roads and checkpoints accessible by Palestinians takes at least an hour and a half (if not longer, depending on how many ‘flying checkpoints’ are set up by Israeli soldiers, and how many other people are waiting to cross).* I could travel freely and quickly to Jerusalem, depending on traffic, but I carried a load of guilt with me every time I passed through the checkpoint.

The Wall around Bethlehem

The Wall around Bethlehem


The wall around the West Bank is not just a physical barrier. It’s a psychological weapon, too. I had easy passage through the wall with my American passport, but even so I felt closed in and limited; how much more for those who are not allowed out? According to Israel, on the ‘other’ side of the wall, it was built for security—to prevent suicide bombers and other violence. But that security only goes one way; the wall does not prevent Israel’s army or Israeli settlers from carrying out acts of violence within the West Bank. Violence is a constant threat hovering over cities and villages and farms. Olive trees are ripped up, homes and businesses damaged, cars stoned, children harassed and attacked on their way to school, protestors shot and killed. The attacks following the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers near one of the settlements around Hebron showcase the lack of safety for Palestinians.

In response to the kidnapping, the Israeli military blockaded Hebron and initially prevented any Palestinian from crossing the borders into Jerusalem. I visited Nablus, in the northern West Bank (the opposite end of the occupied territories from Hebron), a week after the kidnappings (and, we now know, the murders of the three teenagers by Palestinian militants**). At Balata refugee camp, we heard about nightly raids from the Israeli soldiers and visited two homes that had been raided—furniture overturned and ripped open (to see if anything was hidden inside), carpets thrown on the stairs, shelves and wardrobes and refrigerators emptied onto the floor. In one of the homes, the soldiers had blown a hole through a wall to see if anything was hidden inside, and shot the tv for good measure on their way out the door. The mother of this family showed me around the apartment. I’m sure I missed some things, because she was speaking rather quickly (in Arabic), but she told me that her daughter-in-law was still in the hospital from injuries sustained in the attack. The men in both households had been arrested, one because he was an official in the Palestinian government, but the other, according to his family, was ‘nobody.’

The same status of ‘nobody’ is true of a family in Beit Sahour, my neighbors’ relatives, who had the same experience. The soldiers came with five enormous military dogs at 2 a.m., pounding on the door; they overturned furniture to rip open the backs, threw clothes and toys and food on the floor, and arrested the teenage son of the family (he was released a few hours later). This family was not in the military or police force, not in the government, and certainly not in Hamas—they are Christians. But in an occupied land, as Palestinians have been reminded over the past weeks, no one is safe. While my group was in Balata, the guide asked one little girl (perhaps six or seven years old) if the soldiers had visited her house; she replied, ‘Not yet.’

Much has been written by Palestinians, Israelis, and foreign observers about the daily indignities, violence, and dehumanization of the occupation. It has been striking to me this year, as I’ve worked through the ancient situations of women and children during war, how much continuity there is between the biblical and modern worlds of Israel and Palestine, in terms of rhetoric (the emphasis on the violence against women and children in the press, for instance) and lived experience (the effects that the violence of war necessarily has on those who are not involved in fighting, planning, or decision-making).

Children and kin are by the law of nature each man’s dearest possessions; they are swept away from us by conscription to be slaves in other lands: our wives and sisters, even when they escape a soldier’s lust, are debauched by self-styled friends and guests… (Tacitus, Agricola 31, Loeb Classical Library)

Children and trembling mothers rounded up in a long, endless line… (Vergil, Aeneid 2.951-952, Penguin Classics, on the destruction of Troy)

Living behind the wall, among and with people who are living the experience of occupation and war, has kept me from ‘ivory-towering’ texts like these. They’re rhetoric, for sure, but they’re also reflections of the horrors of war. I can’t emotionally disengage from Luke’s woe to the pregnant women and nursing mothers, because I know a pregnant woman who was scared she might miscarry when the soldiers came to raid her home; carrying out my research and writing here this year has made the daily experience of war more real.


A flow of blood: Mark 5:25-34 in context

Last week, I visited the Samaritan community on Mt. Gerizim, above the city of Nablus (where Jesus met the Samaritan woman). The Samaritan guide did his best to convince me (and the other visitors) that the Samaritans are the oldest, best, most pure religious community in the world, certainly far superior to the Jews. There was a lengthy lecture on the language—the Samaritans still use ancient Hebrew for their sacred texts, not that Aramaic-based ‘square’ Hebrew script developed in the third century B.C.E. We also heard about the maintenance of traditional celebrations of feasts (including the sacrifice of the lamb at Passover), the ancestral lineage of the Samaritans, and of course the size of the community (around 700 people living in two communities, one on Mt. Gerizim and one near Tel Aviv) and the political status of Samaritans (they are citizens of Palestine, Israel, and Jordan).

The guide did not have much to say about the status of women in the Samaritan community. His comments were limited to religious regulations concerning purity. Samaritan women are required to keep separate from society for a full seven days each month during menstruation. Following childbirth, they are isolated as well—forty days for a son, ninety days for a daughter. They can continue to live in their homes, but they cannot touch their family members (husband or children). They cannot eat from the same dishes that the rest of the family uses (their food is put in a special bowl, which is set on the floor so that the family table will not become unclean). This also means they cannot prepare food for the family, or clean the home—the guide thus presented this regulation as a gift to women, since the husband has to do the housework while the woman is “impure” (though I’ve also read that it’s customary for another female relative, a sister or cousin perhaps, to come into the home to do the wife’s work during the time of impurity). Finally, the women cannot worship with the community, even if it’s a major festival like Passover.

These regulations come from biblical law:

When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body [that is, when a woman has her period], she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. Everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean. Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. Whoever touches anything upon which she sits shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening; whether it is the bed or anything upon which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening. If any man lies with her, and her impurity falls on him, he shall be unclean seven days; and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean (Leviticus 15:19-24 NRSV).

If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed. If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; her time of blood purification shall be sixty-six days (Leviticus 12:2-5 NRSV).

The purity regulations for women, called ‘niddah,’ are also kept in Orthodox Judaism. In fact, in Orthodox Judaism, women are impure from their periods for at least twelve days, from the first day until the seventh ‘clean’ day, without blood. As in Samaritan practice, husbands and wives should not touch each other during the woman’s impurity. Orthodox Judaism emphasizes the prohibition of sex during this time, especially (cf. Leviticus 15:24, 18:19, 20:18). Some families might have a separate bed for the woman to sleep in. Husbands and wives are not supposed to hold onto the same object (e.g., a husband could not put a plate into his wife’s hands, or play ping pong with her [seriously!]), or sit on a moving object together (like a swing). Women also have a separate section in the synagogue so that they can attend services without making the men impure. In part as a result of such regulations, Orthodox men will not sit next to a woman on the bus, and in general they avoid deliberately touching women who are not part of their family. It’s just so hard these days to tell when someone is “unclean”…

I was surprised this year to find that similar practices exist among Christians in Palestine. An older friend told me that her mother taught her that she could not attend church during her period. My friend thought that was excessive, but she taught her own daughters that they could not participate in the Eucharist during their periods (I’ve since found out that this is a customary teaching in Eastern Orthodox churches). In my friend’s family, the women would carry a special cushion to sit on during menstruation as well, because a woman is not clean during that time.

There’s so much to consider here – the identification of menstruation, which is a rather common, natural occurrence for women, as something unclean that makes others (particularly those poor, helpless, ‘pure’ men) unclean; the implications of such regulations for family life; the consequences of the “impurity” of menstruation for a woman’s understanding of her own body and identity. And then there are the more emotional effects of separation. Say, for instance, that a woman has a miscarriage. She’s “impure” after, unable to touch her husband, in a time of serious trauma. Say there’s a family tragedy—no hugs, no comfort. Say a woman experiences a flow of menstrual blood for twelve years. What would that do to her emotional and psychological health?

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse… (Mark 5:25-26)

If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity [see Leviticus 15:19-24 above!], she shall be unclean. Every bed on which she lies during all the days of her discharge shall be treated as the bed of her impurity; and everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her impurity. Whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening (Leviticus 15:25-27).

The purity regulations in this woman’s day, the early first century C.E. while the temple was still standing, were not limited to family life, as in modern Orthodox Judaism. The Samaritan community’s practices might get us closer to the separation this woman may have experienced, though we don’t have a lot of evidence for the time period. Certainly, as in Samaritan and Greek Orthodox practice, the woman would have been limited from participation in worship; whether people would have avoided touching the woman, or whether her family would have separated from her, are more difficult questions to answer.

The story in Mark 5 provides a few clues. The woman appears alone. In stark contrast to the story that ‘sandwiches’ her story, she has no father to speak for her (cf. Mark 5:22-23).* She has spent all her money in search of medical help—she does not seem to have the support of family. She also does not seem to have a husband. Quite apart from physical pain, her condition has prevented her from participating in or fulfilling the traditional expectations for women in a first century Jewish community: She’s not a wife, and she’s unable to be a mother. And this has been her life for twelve years—not just twelve weeks a year, as in Samaritan custom, or twelve days or so a month, as in Orthodox Judaism, but twelve years.

She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has saved you; go in peace, and be wholly well from your disease” (Mark 5:27-34 NRSV, slightly modified).

Perhaps my favorite feature in this story is that the woman acts for herself. She comes up behind Jesus in the crowd; she reaches out and touches his clothes. She doesn’t ask for healing, or ask permission to touch him—she just does it, despite her twelve years’ experience of the consequences of impurity. And then she has the courage to admit it, despite her apparent fear. In response, Jesus completes her healing. Her physical condition has already been healed (the involuntary flow of her blood is stopped by the involuntary flow of Jesus’ power); Jesus restores her emotionally and psychologically and socially, calling her daughter (she who has no father to speak for her), attributing her salvation to her own faith (which is active here in her approach to Jesus, and her touch), and sending her home in peace and wholeness.

The story of Mark 5:25-34 does not attempt to change purity regulations or practices for menstrual women. But it does, surprisingly and shockingly, show a woman’s agency in spite of any religious, cultural, or traditional practices that might limit or isolate her. It provides a clear example of a woman’s faith in action. And within the story, the male audience is confronted with the praise, healing, and restoration of the woman—made even more upsetting for customary expectations by the fact that the woman’s action interrupts Jesus’ progress towards the home of the synagogue leader, the man of high status who’s seeking healing for his sick daughter. Jesus, the synagogue leader, the disciples, the people crowding around—this woman, who should be off on her own keeping her impurity to herself, brings them all to a halt. They are forced to recognize her as a person, a member of the community, a model of great faith.

On behalf of Samaritan women, Orthodox Jewish women, Greek Orthodox women, and other women everywhere who have been taught by religious and social tradition to see themselves as unclean pollutants, thank God for this woman.


* ‘Sandwiching’ is a highly technical term for Mark’s habit of sticking one story inside another story (you may also know it as ‘intercalation’). The bread and cheese, or pita and falafel if you prefer, interpret each other. There are remarkable connections between the two stories in Mark 5:21-43, and also remarkable differences. Jairus is a man of high status in the community, in contrast to the woman who by gender and physical condition would be of low status in the community. Jairus speaks for his daughter, who remains in the home; the woman goes out into the streets on her own behalf, and she does not ask for healing. The daughter is twelve years old (the age of eligibility for marriage, and the beginning of puberty and thus fertility); the woman has been bleeding (and thus ineligible for marriage, and infertile) for twelve years. Jesus chooses to touch Jairus’s daughter; the woman touches Jesus. Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet when he asks Jesus to heal his daughter; the woman falls at Jesus’ feet when she admits that she has been healed by Jesus’ power. These connections and contrasts emphasize the woman’s agency in the story. One of the most powerful effects of the interweaving of the stories comes in verse 34, when Jesus calls the woman ‘daughter,’ giving her the place in the community that the ‘bread’ of Jairus’s daughter’s story so clearly shows she lacks.


Teaching in the West Bank

Bethlehem University, main gate

Bethlehem University

This year, every time I arranged a meeting with administrators or professors at the university, or set up lecture schedules, or discussed plans for specific classes, the final word of the conversation would be “inshallah.” Inshallah means “if God wills”: inshallah I will see you later this afternoon; inshallah the computers will be working for a power point presentation; inshallah there will be a translator available; inshallah the lecture we’ve scheduled for tomorrow will actually happen; inshallah the students will learn something.

Inshallah is a good summary of my experience at Bethlehem University this year. I’ve ended up offering lectures in other people’s classes, rather than having my own classes—which is not what I had expected to do. I taught on women in leadership around the world today, family structure in the modern United States, the history of feminism in the West—topics far outside my own field. Students have included undergraduates at the university, and mothers and grandmothers in the local community. And planned lectures, with the requested (and carefully prepared) accompanying power point presentation, have been derailed by students’ questions and demands.

From the administrative side, I’ve grown accustomed to lengthy meetings over tea or Nescafe or sometimes real Arabic coffee (the strong, sweet kind served in espresso cups half-full of coffee grounds), in which we talk about life, the universe, and everything in it, but put off making decisions or scheduling lectures “until next time.” Inshallah, of course. Halfway through the year I gave up developing my own ideas for lectures; it’s much easier to let the administrators and professors tell me what to prepare. And I also learned to call before leaving home to reconfirm lectures or meetings—because inshallah is a serious matter; who knows what last-minute emergency may have intervened to change plans?

In the classroom, I’ve found the undergraduates to be curious and eager and very, very talkative. Lecturing is not really possible; students want to jump straight into discussion, and they will (and did) interrupt a lecture to ask questions. Active engagement like this is something I appreciate in students—the problem is that the questions rarely related to the material. In a lecture on the history of feminism in America, for instance, the students were not all that interested in the philosophy and theory and social impact of the various waves of feminism in the States (the issues I had been asked to address by the professor of the class). So they interrupted the lecture (despite the lovely, meticulously-prepared supporting slides!) to ask about my impressions of Palestine, women’s position in society here and how it compares to America, my age and marital status and salary, and other important issues.

In general, the undergraduates are very practical. They want to know why a particular topic matters, how it relates to their life in Bethlehem or Jerusalem or Hebron today, and what they can do with the material. They are not interested in philosophies or historical developments as much as life in the world today. They are interested in hearing about America, and what Americans do, how they think, why they act in certain ways. They are interested in hearing about Palestine from an American’s perspective. And they are very interested in the private lives of professors (it’s not just me, either—my upstairs neighbor, a Palestinian who teaches in a local high school, says he also gets alarmingly personal questions from his students).

Lectures for the women in the local community were completely different. The mothers and grandmothers listened and took notes to lectures, and it was more difficult to get them to ask questions or discuss the material. They were taking time out of their days—away from children and husbands and mothers-in-law, possibly time away from family businesses or jobs—and they wanted to learn, not to talk themselves. They also did not challenge my authority or right to be teaching, like the (mostly conservative male) students did. However, once the lecture ended, the women were just as interested in my life, my family, and my impressions of Palestine. As my neighbor says, “privacy” doesn’t really exist here.

Of course these are broad generalizations. There were individuals who were engaged with lecture material, and asked insightful questions that furthered the discussion (rather than derailing it). There were broad ranges of opinions represented in classes—Muslims and Christians, men and women, those who hold more conservative and traditional values and those who want to challenge and change society. And there were mothers and grandmothers who played Candy Crush throughout entire lectures (in the front row, nonetheless). Overall, though, I learned to use “inshallah” as a mantra in preparing and delivering lectures—inshallah we will stay somewhat close to topic, inshallah someone will be interested in this material, inshallah the questions won’t get too personal.

My year at Bethlehem University has certainly not been what I expected before I came, but it’s been delightful in surprising, challenging, and occasionally frustrating ways. Can’t we skip the tea and talking and just make the plans? No! The relationship is what’s important here, not the business. Do I really have to explain yet again why I’m not married? Yes, yes I do, because the ability to be a single adult woman, living alone far from my parents, supporting myself, is a major cultural difference between Palestine and the States, and it opens up fascinating discussions on women’s roles in society and family, the opportunities for women in education and the professional world, and perspectives on “equality.”

I’m certainly grateful to the administrators, professors, and students who have been so talkative, curious, and welcoming this year. I said farewell to the professor with whom I’ve worked the most, and his assistant (perhaps the most helpful woman at the university), a couple weeks ago. The final word we exchanged? Inshallah, of course: Inshallah we will meet again.

Bethlehem University courtyard



I’ve said many goodbyes in the past week — I had my last meeting with the students at the university (a celebration of their year-long course on leadership), and also with the professor and administrative assistant with whom I’ve worked this year; I had my last Arabic lesson; my landlady left for a visit to family in the States (she’ll be returning a day after I leave). Last week, I went up to Nazareth for a few days to say goodbye to friends there.

As a result of these numerous “inshallah I will see you agains,” I’m feeling a bit displaced and out of sorts. So this week, in lieu of a real post, here are some photos of my holiday for you to enjoy… Pretend you’re sitting in my living room, watching slides click through a home projector, stifling yawns as I drone on about all the buildings/food/bridges/flowers/etc. I saw on my trip to the Holy Land.

This is a picture of the cliffs of Arbel, above the city of Migdal on the Sea of Galilee. It was a bit hazy, as you can see, and so windy (but luckily the wind was keeping me on the cliff tops, rather than pushing me off). Josephus claims that one of the first “manly” actions of Herod the Great was clearing “bandits” (e.g., rebels) out of the caves in these cliffs, which the army did by lowering soldiers in baskets from the top of the hills. Today, you have to hike down… and back up… if you want to visit the caves.

Arbel CliffsOne day I visited Gamla, a city besieged and destroyed in the First Jewish Revolt. This is the spot the Romans broke through the walls — and into a house that had been built into the wall for extra fortification. There’s very little left of the city beyond the hole in the wall, which makes it a nice desolate place to read Josephus’s description of the fall of Gamla: “at that moment the rage of the Romans was such that they spared not even infants, but time after time snatched up numbers of them and slung them from the citadel. Thus on the twenty-third of the month of Hyperberetaeus was Gamla taken…” (Jewish War 4.82-83, Loeb Classical Library).

Gamla My holiday was not entirely taken up with sites of war, destruction, and suffering. I also saw lots of rock hyrax (hyraxes?), including these at Korazim. I did  not know they squeaked at visitors; I was slightly nervous at first, hearing all these squeaking noises, since I thought I was the only one at the site.

Korazim rock hyrax (2)

Here we have a tree growing out of the ruins of the cultic site at Dan; the ruined foundations of the Temple/Tomb of the Sacred Dancing Goats (yes, really) at Banias; and a hungry lion on a sarcophagus at Bet Shearim (where many, many rabbis were buried way back when).

Dan cultic site Banias tomb temple of sacred dancing goats (1)Bet Shearim cave of the coffins sarcophagi (18)

I was rather surprised to find corn growing in a small patch of garden outside the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. It was a little taste of home.

CornTwo of my very dear friends took me to a local ice cream parlor in Shefa’amr, an Arab city near Nazareth. They ordered the largest size for me — pistachio, mastic (gum arabic), and lemon. I was almost too late to get back into the convent guesthouse (with a 10 pm curfew) because of the traffic jams on the streets leading to the shop… It had been a very hot day, and everyone wanted ice cream.

ice cream with Ibtisam Shefar'amI have a few hundred more pictures, if you’re interested. Just let me know.


Postscript: Pregnant women, nursing mothers, and the “ethics” of war

Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days!

I thought I was finished with this series on Luke 21:23 last week, but almost as soon as the fourth post was published I realized I was wrong. Somehow, in a month of posts on pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy in the history and rhetoric of warfare in the biblical and classical worlds, I barely touched on the ethics of the traditions. Or unethics, perhaps.

According to a number of traditions from different periods and cultures in the ancient Mediterranean world, targeting pregnant women and infants in war is a horror. In 2 Kings 8:11-12, Elisha weeps because he knows that Hazael will burn Israelite fortresses, kill Israelite youths, dash infants into pieces, and rip open pregnant women. According to Amos 1:13, the Ammonites face divine judgment for ripping open pregnant women in Gilead. Tacitus identifies violence against pregnant women as barbaric, beyond the boundaries of the legitimate violence of war (Annals 12.10). The death of infants during siege is noted as extreme, excessive violence: “When the troops poured in, a scene of wholesale massacre ensued, for the Romans were infuriated by the length of the siege… No quarter was given to infancy, to age, or to helpless womanhood” (Josephus, Jewish War 1.351-352).

By the standards of biblical and classical antiquity reflected in texts like these, violence purposefully directed against pregnant and nursing women and infants is wrong. Within this context, Luke 21:23 warns of unethical behavior in war; the endangerment of pregnant and nursing women is a sign of how devastating the destruction of Jerusalem will be.

But at the same time, there is also a long tradition of violence that does target women and infants with no obvious ethical qualms:

Of them let not one escape sheer destruction and the might of our hands, nay, not the man-child whom his mother bears in her womb; let not even him escape, but let all perish together out of Ilios, unmourned and unmarked (Homer, Iliad 6.57-60 LCL).

O daughter Babylon, you devastator! … Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock! (Psalm 137:8-9 NRSV)

A great and pitiless slaughter ensued in Athens. The inhabitants, for want of nourishment, were too weak to fly, and Sulla ordered an indiscriminate massacre, not sparing women or children. He was angry that they had so suddenly joined the barbarians without cause (Appian, Roman History 12.6.38 LCL).

Vengeance and punishment on the fathers falls also on their wives and children, even their unborn children. Pregnant women and infants become targets of violence in order to destroy a people entirely, leaving them with no future and no memory. This violence makes a terrible sort of sense in antiquity. Patriarchs do not precisely own their women and children, but women and children are part of the patriarchal household, and under patriarchal power, authority, and care. By destroying the women and children, the victor devastates the husband and father. Within this context, Luke 21:23 warns that the coming judgment-by-war will be comprehensive, including even unborn children—who, despite their obvious (individual) innocence, bear the (collective) “punishment” for the wrongs done in Jerusalem.

There are obvious ethical questions to raise here about blanket violence that wipes out all people in war, or targeted violence against pregnant women and infants (well, there are obvious ethical questions to raise about violence period, no matter who the target is, but that’s a slightly different conversation). Vengeance, retributive violence, punitive violence—the victims in these texts deliberately include the innocents who had no voice in shaping policy, no presence in the battles, no part in the apparent wrongdoing.

Look, Yahweh, and consider! To whom have you done this? Should women eat their offspring, the children they have borne? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord?

The young and the old are lying on the ground in the streets; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword; in the day of your anger you have killed them, slaughtering without mercy.

You invited my enemies from all around as if for a day of festival; and on the day of the anger of Yahweh no one escaped or survived; those whom I bore and reared my enemy has destroyed (Lamentations 2:20-22 NRSV).

Woe to the pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days, indeed.

What do we do with texts like these—especially, what do we do with biblical texts like these? What do we do with an entire biblical and classical tradition of turning women and children into victims of violence, and the influence of such traditions on the lives of actual women and children? What do we do with texts that exploit women and children for pathos, drama, propaganda, stereotypes?

Sometimes violence against women and children is dismissed as an example of the rampant violence in the ancient world. Most often, I’ve found, scholars simply skim over the violence—it’s mentioned only in passing, on the way to discussions of much more important issues like men’s battle plans and weaponry and political negotiations. Sometimes the violence is identified as “merely rhetorical,” as if rhetoric is not as important as “history,” or as if rhetoric does not have serious implications for the lives of women and children in antiquity (or today, for that matter). Sometimes (particularly in commentaries on biblical texts) the women and children are identified as guilty by association, part of a rebellious community and thus deserving of the violence they receive—but even in antiquity this sort of collectivism was questioned and critiqued (Jeremiah 31:29-30; Thucydides, Peloponnesian War 3.36; Polybius, Histories 2.58.10).

While I’m dissatisfied with these responses, I’m not sure I have anything better to offer (except to join the prayer offered by Pope Francis yesterday, visiting the Syrian refugees in Jordan, that God will “convert those who seek war”). But recognizing and raising the ethical questions is an important beginning. We need to question the potential implications of wartime violence against women and children, the gendering of warfare, and the use of the suffering of women and children as propaganda to elicit pity or create fear. We should take seriously the rhetoric and the realities of violence against women and children in the biblical worlds. Luke’s pregnant women and nursing mothers are symbols of destruction and devastation; to recognize the realities of violence against women and children in war makes us aware of the dangers of such symbolism.



Pregnant women and nursing mothers in the Gospel of Luke

Giving birth in the Roman world

Giving birth in the Roman world

Nursing mothers and observant fathers in the Roman world

Nursing infants in the Roman world


Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days!




This is the final post in a series on the pregnant and nursing women in Luke 21:23. In case you’ve forgotten what we’ve done so far, here’s a quick recap:

  • The first post of the series compared three different interpretations of the ‘Little Apocalypse’ in the synoptic gospels (Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21): the futurist interpretation, which suggests Jesus is predicting the end of the world; the more literary interpretation, which understands it as an apocalyptic interpretation of the crucifixion and resurrection; and the more historical (or ‘preterist’) interpretation, which identifies the events of the Little Apocalypse with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. While I prefer Mark and Matthew’s interweaving of the apocalyptic discourse with the crucifixion and resurrection, Luke chose to connect it with the Roman siege and destruction of Jerusalem during the First Jewish Revolt.
  • The connection of the Little Apocalypse with the siege and fall of Jerusalem means that in some way, the pregnant and nursing women of Luke 21:23 represent the horrors of war. The second post in the series surveyed women and children’s experience of siege in the first century, including in Josephus’s narrative of the siege of Jerusalem. We also looked at references to pregnant or nursing women in biblical and Greco-Roman imagery of war. Luke’s pregnant and nursing mothers symbolize the future—a future that is threatened by the destructive violence of siege. Their suffering in war is particularly poignant and powerful within the patriarchal perspective of the biblical and classical worlds.
  • The third post returned to the apocalyptic context of Luke 21:23. Pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing infants are somewhat common in prophetic and apocalyptic texts. The imagery and metaphors represent pain, anguish, fear, vulnerability, suffering, danger. This literary theme is also important for understanding Luke’s pregnant women and nursing mothers. Luke’s version of the Little Apocalypse reflects the historical siege of Jerusalem in the first century, but it makes that siege an apocalyptic event. The woe to the women provides one of the hinges between history and apocalypse.

So, the pregnant and nursing mothers in Luke 21:23 provide one focal point for the horrors of war and apocalyptic judgment. Pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy are powerful images for what was, in the first century, a time of great danger for mother and child, and also a time when hopes for the future crystallized in the birth of the next generation. In this sense, the pregnant and nursing women of Luke 21 may remind the reader of some other pregnant and nursing women: Elizabeth and Mary.

Luke’s story begins with a barren woman. Elizabeth and Zechariah were righteous; they lived by God’s law. But they had no children (a state which might, in that time, indicate divine judgment—this is why Luke tells us that they were good people). Zechariah meets an angel one day in the temple, and he learns that his wife is going to bear the prophet who will prepare the way for the coming of God:

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse (Malachi 4:5-6).

With the spirit and power of Elijah John will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord (Luke 1:17).

The “him” before whom John will go is introduced in the next part of Luke’s narrative. A few months after visiting Zechariah, the angel goes to see a woman, one whose fertility is not yet in question; she’s betrothed, but the marriage isn’t finalized yet. In a surprising twist on the usual biblical birth announcement, the angel tells this young woman that she too will bear a son, who will be known as the son of God and the son of David; this baby will be king.

Mary’s song celebrates the blessing of a lowly slave, the scattering of the proud, the dethroning of the powerful, the stuffing of the hungry and the empty bellies of the rich. These reversals build on the world-turned-upside-down idea of a pregnant virgin, and a barren elderly woman with a fetus leaping in her womb; God’s salvation comes through the same image the prophets and apocalypticists used for judgment and restoration—pregnancy, childbirth, infancy. Elizabeth and Mary, pregnant women and nursing mothers; Luke begins with childbirth and infancy as images of salvation and hope, and closes with childbirth and infancy as images of judgment and destruction.

The birth narratives of Luke incorporate language of judgment, too, a foretaste of what is to come. John prepares the way for the coming of God to judge, and the reversals Mary celebrates are not such good news for the rich and powerful. These hints of judgment in Luke 1 tie in with the whole of Luke 21. The chapter begins with the picture of a widow making a small contribution to the temple; Jesus praises this woman for her great sacrifice instead of praising the rich for their more valuable contributions, a comment which leads directly into the praise of the beauty of the temple—and Jesus’ warning of its judgment.

Pregnant women and nursing mothers get one more mention in Luke’s gospel, though in the inverse, and in a comment directed at women rather than men (as in ch. 21). As Jesus is on the way to his execution, he tells the women who weep for him that they should save their tears for themselves and their children. “For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed’” (Luke 23:29). In the first century, whether in Palestine or Rome, a woman’s primary responsibility was to bear children for her husband’s household; for the Jews, fertility was a blessing from God (cf. Deut. 28:4, or Psalm 128). To say the barren and childless are blessed is rather shocking, and would surely shock the ‘daughters of Jerusalem.’ But, according to Luke, it’s better to have no children, with all the disparagement and devaluing that state would engender, than to watch them suffer through war. The apocalyptic war coming to Jerusalem is no place for infants. Or their mothers. Or anyone, really.

Luke’s story begins with the pregnancy of a barren woman past the years of childbirth, and the pregnancy of a young unmarried woman. These women and their divinely blessed wombs are signs of restoration, of God’s salvation—but it’s salvation laced with judgment, and the judgment comes to the surface as the story progresses. By the time Jesus gets to Jerusalem, judgment has become a major theme, and pregnant women and nursing mothers become signs of the horrors of judgment and destruction. Woe to the pregnant and nursing, blessings on the barren: This reversal of basic cultural norms and theological teaching is a vivid warning of the apocalyptic upheaval of the siege of Jerusalem.



Pregnant women and nursing mothers in “those days”

Luke 21:23, part 3: It’s time to return to the apocalyptic context of the woe for pregnant and nursing women (foreshadowed in this post on birth, destruction, and restoration in the Christmas narratives… but lest you think I’m being repetitive, that was a long time ago, after all). The more thoroughly apocalyptic context of the woe in the parallel passages (Mark 13:17, Matthew 24:19–see the first post of the series) is not entirely omitted in Luke 21, despite Luke’s connection of the Little Apocalypse with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. There’s still eschatological language like coming days (v. 6), signs (v. 7), the end (v. 9), cosmic upheaval (vv. 11, 25-26), and so on. Luke’s version weaves the apocalypse and the destruction of Jerusalem together; we might call it a historalypse.

The reference to ‘those days’ in the woe to pregnant and nursing women, in fact, explicitly reminds us of the apocalyptic flavor of this chapter. So, while Luke 21:23 certainly reflects the biblical tradition of using the imagery of pregnancy and infancy to depict the horrors of war (see last week’s post), it also evokes another tradition—the use of the imagery of pregnancy, nursing, and infancy in apocalyptic scenes. This tradition is rooted in texts like the covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28, and in the prophets:

Therefore thus says Yahweh: See, I am laying before this people stumbling blocks against which they shall stumble; parents and children together, neighbor and friend shall perish. Thus says Yahweh: See, a people is coming from the land of the north… equipped like a warrior for battle, against you, O daughter Zion!

‘We have heard news of them, our hands fall helpless; anguish has taken hold of us, pain as of a woman in labor. Do not go out into the field, or walk on the road; for the enemy has a sword, terror is on every side.’

O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only child, most bitter lamentation: for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us (Jeremiah 6:21-26 NRSV).

Judgment texts like this include more ‘literal’ references to the suffering and massacre of pregnant women and infants, and they also use childbirth, nursing, and infancy as metaphors of judgment, destruction, and restoration (though sometimes, perhaps even often, the line between the more literal and more figurative is blurred—as in Hosea 13:16, a prophetic announcement of judgment embodied by the massacre of pregnant women). While these kinds of texts are not eschatological themselves (they’re about the ‘judgment’ brought by the Assyrians and Babylonians and the ‘restoration’ enabled by the Persians in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE), their language and imagery were easily adopted within eschatological texts that looked forward to a final, worldwide judgment, and a more perfect restoration.

This shift happens already in some of the prophets, including Isaiah:

Like a woman with child, who writhes and cries out in her pangs when she is near her time, so were we because of you, O Yahweh; we were with child, we writhed, but we gave birth only to wind… Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead (Isaiah 26:17-19 NRSV).

Similar imagery appears in the New Testament: “sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3). In Mark 13:8, in fact, the ‘beginning of the end’ is described as birth pangs. Childbirth is a powerful metaphor for judgment and restoration (just as it is for war). It connotes suddenness, and unstopableness; it inexorably induces feelings of pain and anguish and suffering; it conveys danger in a language understandable to all. Especially to women, of course—the metaphor of childbirth in the Bible is a strange beast, a reality experienced by women, but used to vividly depict the coming experience of women and men (sometimes, in fact, deliberately and ironically directed at the most manly men—as in Jeremiah 30:6, 49:22, or 50:43).

Luke 21 omits reference to the imagery of childbirth, however (contrast Luke 21:11 with Mark 13:8). Luke’s woe to the pregnant and nursing instead follows the more literal sufferings of pregnant women, mothers, and infants in apocalyptic tradition (‘literal’ and ‘apocalypse’ don’t really go well together, but I hope you understand what I mean!).

The judgment on Babylon in Isaiah 13 provides a good example of the more literal use of the imagery of pregnancy and infancy. This prophecy is not itself apocalyptic, but it has an apocalyptic feel to it: “Wail, for the day of Yahweh is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty” (v. 6). In this chapter, God musters an army ‘from a distant land, from the end of the heavens,’ which will ‘destroy the whole earth’ (vv. 4-5); as a result, everyone is weakened by fear, and seized by anguish like a woman in labor (vv. 7-8). The day of the Lord will be dark (v. 10), and the heavens and earth will shake (v. 13), and all people will flee (v. 14) – and a good thing, too, because whoever is caught will die by the sword; infants will be dashed in pieces, houses plundered, wives raped (vv. 15-16). The seemingly cosmic scope narrows back down to Babylon in verses 17-22. The whole chapter has been about Babylon, really, judged by God for sin, wickedness, and especially arrogance (note vv. 1, 9, 11, 19).

Notice the similarities with Luke 21? Destruction, earthquakes, darkness; flight; death by sword; the gathering of an army. I wouldn’t want to claim that Luke 21 (or Mark 13, or Matthew 24) are directly dependent on Isaiah 13, but the Gospels are certainly using standard imagery from the prophetic and apocalyptic traditions to develop their own story of the ‘last days’ (whether of Jesus, Jerusalem, or the world). It’s a tradition with a long history—bits of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Daniel; crazy visions like 1 Enoch or Revelation; and 4 Ezra.

4 Ezra was written by a Jew after the Roman destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in 70 CE, later than the Gospel of Luke (but it gives us a somewhat contemporary comparison). The book, which you can find in the Apocrypha in 2 Esdras (chapters 3-14), is presented as a series of visions given to Ezra (of biblical fame—it was common in apocalyptic literature to give a famous biblical hero the starring role), with accompanying explanations from a helpful angel. The visions try to explain what has just happened (the destruction of the temple), and what God’s going to do next (see, e.g., 4 Ezra 4:23-25).

The author of 4 Ezra was particularly fond of pregnancy and childbirth. He (or she, but it was probably a ‘he’) talks about the resurrection as Hades giving birth to the dead (4:40-42), and compares creation with a woman giving birth (5:46-55). A bit later, it is not creation but God who forms new life in the womb, and commands milk to flow in a mother’s breasts to nourish the infant after birth (8:8-10). At one point, Ezra meets up with a woman weeping in the fields; she tells him she was barren for thirty years before she finally had a son, but her son died on his wedding day. Ezra tells her to get over it (not a great model of pastoral care here), and weep for Jerusalem instead—at which point the woman flashes like lightning and turns into the new Jerusalem (when is a woman not a woman? When she’s in an apocalypse…; 9:38-10:27).

Finally, the signs of the end in 4 Ezra include menstruous women giving birth to monsters (5:8), and pregnant women giving birth to very premature babies of three or four months who come out of the womb not only living but leaping about, while their slightly older siblings learn to speak before their first birthdays (6:21). Both images, interestingly, occur in the context of wars (and chaos, heavenly disruption, the usual ‘signs’).

Now, 4 Ezra doesn’t have a warning or woe like Luke 21:23, but the combination of war with pregnancy and the use of childbirth as an apocalyptic metaphor are revealing. They tell us that this imagery was still in use in the late first century; that Jews of the time may well have been drawing on such metaphors and imagery to explain the disaster of the First Jewish Revolt; that pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy retained rhetorical power (these metaphors are not dead, nor is the warning of the suffering of pregnant and nursing women empty).

In Luke 21:23, the woe to the pregnant and nursing women occurs in the context of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. But this siege and destruction are not just any war; this war has apocalyptic significance—divine punishment falls on the temple, an unimaginable disaster for the people of God. And the pregnant and nursing women bear some of that apocalyptic weight. The implication of their suffering is not just a reminder of the horrors of war, but an echo of biblical and post-biblical Jewish eschatology. These women are signs of God’s judgment.

The pregnant women and nursing mothers of Luke 21 are part of a large community in the Gospel of Luke: barren wombs and dry breasts, pregnant virgins, babies of apocalyptic significance—tune in next week to hear more.