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.