Pregnant women, nursing mothers, and war

When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled (Luke 21:20-24 NRSV).

This post is the second part of a series on Luke 21:23, the woe to pregnant and nursing women in Luke’s version of the ‘Little Apocalypse.’ Today’s topic: pregnancy, motherhood, infancy, and war in the biblical worlds. As we saw last week, Luke connects Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse with the siege of Jerusalem. During the First Jewish Revolt, the Roman response started in Galilee and worked south. When they reached Jerusalem, they surrounded it with military camps and walls that kept the residents penned up; Josephus, our primary source for the siege, reports that people tried to flee from the city, but mostly got stuck between a rock (=the rebels in the city) and a hard place (=the Romans outside the city).1 Days of vengeance indeed:

While the temple blazed, the victors plundered everything that fell in their way and slaughtered wholesale all who were caught. No pity was shown for age, no reverence for rank; children and greybeards, laity and priests, alike were massacred; every class was pursued and encompassed in the grasp of war, whether suppliants for mercy or offering resistance… For the ground was nowhere visible through the corpses; but the soldiers had to clamber over heaps of bodies in pursuit of the fugitives (Josephus, Jewish War 6.271, 275-276).2

The army now having no victims either for slaughter or plunder, through lack of all objects on which to vent their rage—for they would assuredly never have desisted through a desire to spare anything so long as there was work to be done—Caesar [Titus] ordered the whole city and the temple to be razed to the ground, leaving only the loftiest of the towers… All the rest of the wall encompassing the city was so completely leveled to the ground as to leave future visitors to the spot no ground for believing that it had ever been inhabited (Josephus, Jewish War 7.1-4).2

Not everyone in Jerusalem died; Josephus says when the soldiers grew tired of the slaughter, they started collecting the young and able-bodied prisoners to be slaves (or, if they were attractive enough, they were selected for Vespasian and Titus’s triumph in Rome; Jewish War 6.414-418). The sort of wide-scale destruction Josephus describes is not unusual in narratives of Roman sieges. If a siege was particularly difficult or the Romans faced severe losses, at the taking of the city the soldiers turned their wrath and frustration into violence: “They slaughtered the unarmed and the armed alike, women as well as men; cruel anger went even so far as to slay infants… so delighted were they to destroy even the traces of the city and to blot out the memory of their enemies’ abode” (Livy, History of Rome 28.20.6-7; see also Caesar, Gallic War 7.28; Appian, Roman History 6.6.32, 12.6.38; etc.).

Jesus’ prediction of the fall of Jerusalem within Luke’s narrative thus presents a scene understandable to the Romans, who were quite familiar with the theme of absolute, merciless destruction as punishment for rebellion, and also to the Jews — who, according to the evidence of Josephus, 4 Ezra, the rabbis, and others, interpreted the defeat of the revolt and destruction of the land and people as divine judgment. Of course, the connection of the destruction of Jerusalem with the rejection of Jesus in Luke’s gospel is not what a non-Jesus-following-Jewish author would claim, but at least the logic of the connection would make sense.

Notably, however, while Josephus, Livy, and the others list women, children, and infants among the victims of war, pregnant women and nursing mothers only rarely appear. Josephus does tell the story of a pregnant woman in Jotapata, hit so hard by a projectile that her fetus is torn from her womb (Jewish War 3.246), and we meet one nursing mother in besieged Jerusalem, maddened by famine to the point that she kills and consumes her baby (6.204-208). Among Greek and Roman authors, I’ve found only a handful of references to pregnant and nursing women in acres of stories and images of war.3 In Homer, Iliad 6.57-60, vengeance on the Trojans includes killing unborn babies to wipe out the very memory of Troy. Cassius Dio, writing a century after Luke, claims the Romans massacred unborn male babies (discovered by divination, the ancient equivalent of a sonogram) to punish the rebellious British (Roman History 77.15.1-2; cf. 54.22.1-2). On the other hand, Tacitus, a close contemporary of Luke, identifies attacks on pregnant women as barbaric—the Romans instead identify pregnant women as vulnerable and in need of special protection (contrast, e.g., Annals 1.40 with 12.10, 51).

The focus on pregnant and nursing women in Luke 21:23 is unusual, then, in the context of Greek and Roman narratives of war. In part, this focus comes from the apocalyptic tradition—next week’s topic. But the connection of pregnant and nursing women with war may also owe something to biblical traditions like this one:

Then the man of God wept. Hazael asked, ‘Why does my lord weep?’ He answered, ‘Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel; you will set their fortresses on fire, you will kill their young men with the sword, dash in pieces their little ones, and rip up their pregnant women’ (2 Kings 8:11-12 NRSV).

In biblical tradition, violence against pregnant women and nursing infants is rare: Deuteronomy 32:25, 2 Kings 8:11-12 and 15:16, Psalm 137:9, Hosea 10:14 and 13:16, Amos 1:13, Nahum 3:10 (there’s also the theme of the starving infants and mothers during siege—Deuteronomy 28:53-57, 2 Kings 6:26-29, Lamentations 2:11-12 and 19, 4:2-5 and 10). It’s not common in other ancient Near Eastern traditions, either.4 Violence directed against pregnant women and infants is only carried out in certain cases. It’s ‘evil’—it makes Elisha weep in 2 Kings, and it is such a horrific act that it leads to divine judgment in Amos 1:13. Luke’s woe to pregnant and nursing women evokes the horror of this biblical theme for the war against Jerusalem.

These women make powerful symbols of the horrors of war. Pregnant women and nursing mothers are particularly vulnerable because of the limitations of their conditions (at least according to men in the biblical worlds—cf. Tacitus, Annals 1.40, and the demands of militarized masculinity). Moreover, they visibly embody the future, both on a national scale and in terms of an individual household. Like canaries in a coal mine, their loss signals danger for all. As such, pregnant women ripped open, infants dashed on rocks, nursing babies starving to death while their mothers watch—these vivid images can be used to encourage the audience’s obedience (to God, or the ruling power), to beg the mercy of the ruling power (or God), and to vilify the enemy. For Luke, the warning to pregnant women and nursing mothers expresses the devastation of war, the thoroughness of judgment (even the baby in the womb…), and the urgency of the exhortation to flee.

I have mixed feelings about Luke’s use of pregnant women and nursing mothers as symbols of the horror of war. On the one hand, it’s exploitation. This imagery implicitly objectifies pregnant women and nursing mothers as defenseless, vulnerable, and in need of protection; it plays into gender stereotypes, especially the limitation of women to being victims of war (and not activists, or survivors, or rebuilders). On the other hand, as the news shows all too often (even today, long after the establishment of the Geneva Conventions, which certainly did not exist in antiquity), pregnant women, nursing mothers, and infants continue to be ‘civilian casualties,’ displaced persons, and outright targets of violence in war. This is obviously far beyond Luke’s purpose, but I wonder—if the horror evoked by this imagery would actually make us think again about going to war, is such exploitation worthwhile?


1Incidentally, the third century Christian historian Eusebius claims that the church took Jesus’ words in Luke 21:21 (and parallels) to heart and abandoned Jerusalem before the siege began (Church History 3.5.3). The historicity of this ‘flight’ is hotly debated, but it’s interesting to note that there is no evidence that Jewish members of the early church participated in the First Jewish Revolt.

2H. St. J. Thackeray, translator, in the Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press, 1928).

3If you know of others, please share!

4There are, as far as I know, only two references—a heroic poem celebrating a victory of Tiglath-Pileser I (VAT 13833), and the Assyrian victory over an Arab camp in the Nineveh palace reliefs, room L (see Peter Dubovský, “Ripping Open Pregnant Arab Women: Reliefs in Room L of Ashurbanipal’s North Palace,” Orientalia 78.3 (2009): 394-419).


One comment on “Pregnant women, nursing mothers, and war

  1. […] 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 […]

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