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.


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.

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).

Pregnant women, nursing mothers, and the apocalypse

A group of Westmont students has been in Jerusalem the past couple weeks, finishing up a semester abroad. I spent a few days with them in Jerusalem and Galilee, which was great fun—and a great challenge to my sabbatical mentality, as they kept zinging questions concerning biblical texts, events, and interpretation at me. Oh yes, I do have to return to the classroom in a few months, don’t I…

One question that came up several times related to the interpretation of the apocalyptic discourse in Mark 13, and its parallels in Matthew 24 and Luke 21. This post is inspired by the students’ interest in these texts, which made me pay more attention to the presence of war in Luke’s version.

Remnants of the Roman destruction of the temple in 70 CE, Jerusalem

Remnants of the Roman destruction of the temple in 70 CE, Western Wall excavations, Jerusalem

“Do you see these fabulous buildings? Not even one stone will be left on another here–every last one will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2, my own loose translation). In Mark 13, Jesus warns his disciples about the destruction of the temple, the persecution of his followers, and the apocalyptic upheaval about to come. There are several different interpretations of this ‘Little Apocalypse.’ Some think it is about the end of the world—events that are still yet to come, nearly two thousand years after Mark was written. This interpretation picks up on the grand language of the text: suffering the world has never seen (v. 19), the heavenly upheaval (vv. 24-25), the coming of the Son of Man and gathering of the ‘elect’ (vv. 26-27). It runs into a problem with verse 30: “Amen, I say to you that this generation will most certainly not pass away until all these things happen” (my own translation). The use of ‘amen’ here insists on the truth of the statement, and the Greek behind ‘will most certainly not pass away’ is the strongest negation possible in the language. If Mark 13 is about the future, which is now our future, ‘this generation’ demands some fancy interpretive work.

In general, Jewish apocalyptic texts like Mark 13 were addressed to their immediate audiences (not to people living thousands of years later). These texts use very dramatic imagery (like the sun going dark) as symbols or metaphors to emphasize the dramatic changes coming to God’s people, but the apparently universal or cosmic scope of the imagery is not necessarily meant to be taken literally. In fact, a second interpretation of Mark 13 notes the repetition of its words and imagery in the rest of the gospel: for instance, the warning to keep awake in Mark 13:35-37 is repeated in Gethsemane (Mark 14:34, 38); the betrayal of brothers in Mark 13:9 has an immediate fulfillment in the betrayal of Jesus by his ‘brother’ Judas; the coming of the Son of Man in Mark 13:26 is repeated in Mark 14:62; at Jesus’ crucifixion, the sun goes dark. It is very possible (and I think, very likely) that Mark 13 is an apocalyptic interpretation of the crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus’ death and resurrection are the turning point of time, from old creation to new.

Matthew’s version of Mark 13 emphasizes the connection with the crucifixion and resurrection—for Matthew, as for Mark, Jesus is the apocalypse. Luke’s version goes a different direction, representative of the third major interpretation of the Little Apocalypse. According to this interpretation, probably the most popular among scholars, the text is about the events of 70 CE, when the Romans besieged Jerusalem. Mark’s ‘abomination of desolation,’ an image borrowed from Daniel 9:27, 11:31, and 12:11, is taken to be the destroyed temple; the famines and wars and suffering refer to the First Jewish Revolt, a time when (according to Josephus, anyway) many false prophets and messiahs were running around Palestine. In Luke 21:5-36, the connection of the Little Apocalypse with the revolt and destruction of Jerusalem is made clear through the insertion of a reference to revolt in verse 9, the image of Jerusalem surrounded by armies in verse 20, and the warnings that the residents of Jerusalem would die by sword and be taken captive and that Jerusalem would be trampled by Gentiles in verse 24—as all happened in the Roman siege and capture of the city.

Luke includes several warning of the destruction of Jerusalem. During the triumphal entry, Jesus pauses to weep over the city. Since the city has not recognized him—the “things that make for peace,” and the “visitation from God”—the city will be besieged by the enemy, surrounded and hemmed in on every side, crushed and destroyed along with the residents, totally flattened (19:41-44 NRSV). Even earlier, Jesus lamented Jerusalem’s refusal to receive the messengers of God, and unwillingness to receive him. “Behold, your house is left to you” (13:35, my translation): This odd statement suggests the city is abandoned by God, left in the (incapable) hands of the residents. Luke’s version of the Little Apocalypse in chapter 21 completes this message. Jerusalem will be utterly destroyed, Jesus tells his disciples; war is coming.

Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse, its integration with the crucifixion and resurrection in Mark and Matthew, and Luke’s association of it with the First Jewish Revolt and the siege of Jerusalem are fascinating in and of themselves. Much can be said—and much has been said—on the details of the Little Apocalypses in the three synoptic gospels, the historical development of the texts, their theologies and potential interpretations. But what really interests me, in the context of my own research this year, is Luke’s deliberate inclusion of a warning for women and children in the midst of his account.

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).

Mark and Matthew both also have a warning directed at pregnant women and nursing mothers. It’s a more general warning, though, and it’s also part of a list of warnings to others in each gospel—the women are just one of many groups who will suffer terribly in the coming days (check out Mark 13:14-20). Luke singles out the pregnant and nursing women, making them the prime representatives of the horrors of the desolation of Jerusalem. Luke also associates the warning explicitly with war, even more specifically with siege. The focus on pregnant women and nursing mothers in an apocalyptic text, in the context of war, deserves particular attention—more attention than this already long post can offer. In the next few posts, I want to address this image in the context of war in the Bible and in the Roman world, and in the context of biblical eschatology. Stay tuned!


Triumphal entries

For the past few months (though part of a longer pattern), various Israeli settlers and right wing politicians have been entering the Haram al-Sharif (the area formerly known as the Temple Mount), exploring and praying under police protection. These visits have the explicit aim of recovering the site for Jews to rebuild the temple. Unsurprisingly, the presence of the settlers and politicians has sparked demonstrations and protests from worshipers at Al Aqsa Mosque.

It’s Palm Sunday today, the day the Church celebrates another incursion of sorts, another challenge of sacred space—the same sacred space, in fact. Palestinians today refer to Jerusalem as “Occupied Jerusalem.” In Jesus’ day, Jerusalem was also an occupied city. There would have been Roman soldiers everywhere, and in fact more than usual because of Passover; much like today, when Jerusalem is crawling with soldiers and police, security in those days was increased during festivals in response to the crowds of pilgrims. Although the First Jewish Revolt did not break out until 66 CE, tensions were simmering all through the first century. The concentration of people in Jerusalem during festivals also concentrated the political upheaval.

The stories of the triumphal entry in the Gospels reflect the political and religious tension of the Roman occupation and Jewish nationalism. Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, a royal mode of transportation in Gen. 49:10-12 and 1 Kings 1:38-40. Matthew makes sure we get this point by quoting Zech. 9:9; if you read that particular text in its context, you find it’s about a warrior king defeating Jerusalem’s enemies, bringing peace, and ruling the nations. The kingly imagery is also part of the people spreading their cloaks and palm branches on the road—this was also done for Jehu in 2 Kings 9:13, and it also happened during a Hasmonean celebration of the expulsion of foreigners from Jerusalem (held in the temple itself – 1 Macc. 13:51).

Jesus, in other words, enters Jerusalem as a conquering king, a symbol of political revolution. And the crowds understand what he’s doing: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mark 11:9-10 NRSV). No wonder the Jewish authorities object (Matt. 21:15-16). This is precisely the sort of thing to which the Romans would respond with violence.

The political tensions remain central throughout the events of Holy Week. The challenges posed to Jesus by the priests, scribes, elders, Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees show that they understand Jesus as a political revolutionary. The disciples themselves agree—John and James ask for prime seats of power in Jesus’ government (Mark 10:35-37), and the disciples have swords with them in Gethsemane (Mark 14:47; cf. Luke 22:38). In part, the disciples’ distress after the crucifixion lies in the apparent failure of their hope for the restoration of the political kingdom, something they continue to expect after the resurrection (Luke 24:19-21, Acts 1:6). They think the whole Jesus thing has been about Israel’s independence from Roman rule.

Jesus’ own actions and words, ‘cleansing’ the temple, cursing the fig tree, the parable of the wicked tenants, and foretelling the apocalyptic disruption and destruction of Jerusalem, suggest something else is going on. In Mark’s gospel (my favorite), Jesus has been trying to redirect the expectations of his disciples, the crowds, and the authorities for several chapters by the time we get to Jerusalem. This redirection defines another “way” (ὁδός, hodos, which is sometimes translated as ‘road’ or ‘path’):

  • In Mark 8:27, Jesus asks his disciples along the “way” to Caesarea Philippi who they think he is. Peter says he’s the messiah—by which he would mean the king who would restore Israel. Jesus immediately tells them that his way of kingship is suffering (verse 31), and their way of following him will also be the way of suffering (verses 34-35).
  • In Mark 9:33, Jesus asks his disciples what they were arguing about on the “way.” They hem and haw, not wanting to admit that they were arguing about who was the greatest among them. Jesus knows anyway, and he tells them that the way to be great is to be the least, and to be the slave of all (verse 35).
  • In Mark 10:32, Jesus is on the “way” to Jerusalem. Everyone is amazed and afraid—and Jesus again takes the opportunity, for the final time before they reach Jerusalem, to warn the twelve disciples of the suffering to come (verses 33-34). Immediately after this, John and James show that they, and likely the other disciples, still don’t get it—they still think Jesus is going to overthrow the Romans (verses 35-37); Jesus responds by again telling them of his suffering, and teaching the disciples to serve each other as he himself serves them, to the death (verses 38-45).

Mark 11:8 is the last mention of Jesus’ “way” in the gospel. It establishes the context for the rest of the story; it reminds us that the triumph and conquering and joy of Palm Sunday have a great cost. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”—even when the coming is unexpected, surprising, and full of suffering.

Preparing for Palm Sunday in the Old City, Jerusalem

Preparing for Palm Sunday in the Old City, Jerusalem

The finished product, St. George's Cathedral, Jerusalem

Celebrating Palm Sunday, St. George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem