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.