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.