A flow of blood: Mark 5:25-34 in context

Last week, I visited the Samaritan community on Mt. Gerizim, above the city of Nablus (where Jesus met the Samaritan woman). The Samaritan guide did his best to convince me (and the other visitors) that the Samaritans are the oldest, best, most pure religious community in the world, certainly far superior to the Jews. There was a lengthy lecture on the language—the Samaritans still use ancient Hebrew for their sacred texts, not that Aramaic-based ‘square’ Hebrew script developed in the third century B.C.E. We also heard about the maintenance of traditional celebrations of feasts (including the sacrifice of the lamb at Passover), the ancestral lineage of the Samaritans, and of course the size of the community (around 700 people living in two communities, one on Mt. Gerizim and one near Tel Aviv) and the political status of Samaritans (they are citizens of Palestine, Israel, and Jordan).

The guide did not have much to say about the status of women in the Samaritan community. His comments were limited to religious regulations concerning purity. Samaritan women are required to keep separate from society for a full seven days each month during menstruation. Following childbirth, they are isolated as well—forty days for a son, ninety days for a daughter. They can continue to live in their homes, but they cannot touch their family members (husband or children). They cannot eat from the same dishes that the rest of the family uses (their food is put in a special bowl, which is set on the floor so that the family table will not become unclean). This also means they cannot prepare food for the family, or clean the home—the guide thus presented this regulation as a gift to women, since the husband has to do the housework while the woman is “impure” (though I’ve also read that it’s customary for another female relative, a sister or cousin perhaps, to come into the home to do the wife’s work during the time of impurity). Finally, the women cannot worship with the community, even if it’s a major festival like Passover.

These regulations come from biblical law:

When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body [that is, when a woman has her period], she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. Everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean. Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. Whoever touches anything upon which she sits shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening; whether it is the bed or anything upon which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening. If any man lies with her, and her impurity falls on him, he shall be unclean seven days; and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean (Leviticus 15:19-24 NRSV).

If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed. If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; her time of blood purification shall be sixty-six days (Leviticus 12:2-5 NRSV).

The purity regulations for women, called ‘niddah,’ are also kept in Orthodox Judaism. In fact, in Orthodox Judaism, women are impure from their periods for at least twelve days, from the first day until the seventh ‘clean’ day, without blood. As in Samaritan practice, husbands and wives should not touch each other during the woman’s impurity. Orthodox Judaism emphasizes the prohibition of sex during this time, especially (cf. Leviticus 15:24, 18:19, 20:18). Some families might have a separate bed for the woman to sleep in. Husbands and wives are not supposed to hold onto the same object (e.g., a husband could not put a plate into his wife’s hands, or play ping pong with her [seriously!]), or sit on a moving object together (like a swing). Women also have a separate section in the synagogue so that they can attend services without making the men impure. In part as a result of such regulations, Orthodox men will not sit next to a woman on the bus, and in general they avoid deliberately touching women who are not part of their family. It’s just so hard these days to tell when someone is “unclean”…

I was surprised this year to find that similar practices exist among Christians in Palestine. An older friend told me that her mother taught her that she could not attend church during her period. My friend thought that was excessive, but she taught her own daughters that they could not participate in the Eucharist during their periods (I’ve since found out that this is a customary teaching in Eastern Orthodox churches). In my friend’s family, the women would carry a special cushion to sit on during menstruation as well, because a woman is not clean during that time.

There’s so much to consider here – the identification of menstruation, which is a rather common, natural occurrence for women, as something unclean that makes others (particularly those poor, helpless, ‘pure’ men) unclean; the implications of such regulations for family life; the consequences of the “impurity” of menstruation for a woman’s understanding of her own body and identity. And then there are the more emotional effects of separation. Say, for instance, that a woman has a miscarriage. She’s “impure” after, unable to touch her husband, in a time of serious trauma. Say there’s a family tragedy—no hugs, no comfort. Say a woman experiences a flow of menstrual blood for twelve years. What would that do to her emotional and psychological health?

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse… (Mark 5:25-26)

If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity [see Leviticus 15:19-24 above!], she shall be unclean. Every bed on which she lies during all the days of her discharge shall be treated as the bed of her impurity; and everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her impurity. Whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening (Leviticus 15:25-27).

The purity regulations in this woman’s day, the early first century C.E. while the temple was still standing, were not limited to family life, as in modern Orthodox Judaism. The Samaritan community’s practices might get us closer to the separation this woman may have experienced, though we don’t have a lot of evidence for the time period. Certainly, as in Samaritan and Greek Orthodox practice, the woman would have been limited from participation in worship; whether people would have avoided touching the woman, or whether her family would have separated from her, are more difficult questions to answer.

The story in Mark 5 provides a few clues. The woman appears alone. In stark contrast to the story that ‘sandwiches’ her story, she has no father to speak for her (cf. Mark 5:22-23).* She has spent all her money in search of medical help—she does not seem to have the support of family. She also does not seem to have a husband. Quite apart from physical pain, her condition has prevented her from participating in or fulfilling the traditional expectations for women in a first century Jewish community: She’s not a wife, and she’s unable to be a mother. And this has been her life for twelve years—not just twelve weeks a year, as in Samaritan custom, or twelve days or so a month, as in Orthodox Judaism, but twelve years.

She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has saved you; go in peace, and be wholly well from your disease” (Mark 5:27-34 NRSV, slightly modified).

Perhaps my favorite feature in this story is that the woman acts for herself. She comes up behind Jesus in the crowd; she reaches out and touches his clothes. She doesn’t ask for healing, or ask permission to touch him—she just does it, despite her twelve years’ experience of the consequences of impurity. And then she has the courage to admit it, despite her apparent fear. In response, Jesus completes her healing. Her physical condition has already been healed (the involuntary flow of her blood is stopped by the involuntary flow of Jesus’ power); Jesus restores her emotionally and psychologically and socially, calling her daughter (she who has no father to speak for her), attributing her salvation to her own faith (which is active here in her approach to Jesus, and her touch), and sending her home in peace and wholeness.

The story of Mark 5:25-34 does not attempt to change purity regulations or practices for menstrual women. But it does, surprisingly and shockingly, show a woman’s agency in spite of any religious, cultural, or traditional practices that might limit or isolate her. It provides a clear example of a woman’s faith in action. And within the story, the male audience is confronted with the praise, healing, and restoration of the woman—made even more upsetting for customary expectations by the fact that the woman’s action interrupts Jesus’ progress towards the home of the synagogue leader, the man of high status who’s seeking healing for his sick daughter. Jesus, the synagogue leader, the disciples, the people crowding around—this woman, who should be off on her own keeping her impurity to herself, brings them all to a halt. They are forced to recognize her as a person, a member of the community, a model of great faith.

On behalf of Samaritan women, Orthodox Jewish women, Greek Orthodox women, and other women everywhere who have been taught by religious and social tradition to see themselves as unclean pollutants, thank God for this woman.


* ‘Sandwiching’ is a highly technical term for Mark’s habit of sticking one story inside another story (you may also know it as ‘intercalation’). The bread and cheese, or pita and falafel if you prefer, interpret each other. There are remarkable connections between the two stories in Mark 5:21-43, and also remarkable differences. Jairus is a man of high status in the community, in contrast to the woman who by gender and physical condition would be of low status in the community. Jairus speaks for his daughter, who remains in the home; the woman goes out into the streets on her own behalf, and she does not ask for healing. The daughter is twelve years old (the age of eligibility for marriage, and the beginning of puberty and thus fertility); the woman has been bleeding (and thus ineligible for marriage, and infertile) for twelve years. Jesus chooses to touch Jairus’s daughter; the woman touches Jesus. Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet when he asks Jesus to heal his daughter; the woman falls at Jesus’ feet when she admits that she has been healed by Jesus’ power. These connections and contrasts emphasize the woman’s agency in the story. One of the most powerful effects of the interweaving of the stories comes in verse 34, when Jesus calls the woman ‘daughter,’ giving her the place in the community that the ‘bread’ of Jairus’s daughter’s story so clearly shows she lacks.



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!



A friend here was telling me about various Palestinian Easter traditions (especially the special Easter cakes), including the following legend: On the very first Easter, early in the morning, people were out doing their shopping in the markets in Jerusalem—bargaining for only-slightly-wilted vegetables with traders who had come up from Jericho, maybe, and buying fresh eggs from urban chicken farmers. Just then, Mary Magdalene raced into the market, laughing, waving her arms around in her excitement, and telling everyone that Jesus, who had been crucified on Friday, was alive! She raced out just as quickly, on her way to find the other disciples.

Well, no one believed her. “What a nut!” said one shopper. “Yes,” her friend added, “perhaps grief has driven her mad.” Just then, the sellers and buyers of chicken eggs noticed something strange: The eggs had all turned colors! Shocking pink, deep purple, green as the weeds sprouting out of cracks in the walls—shoppers all over the market gaped at the eggs in their baskets, and the chicken farmers scratched their heads in confusion. This strange occurrence made people think twice about Mary’s message. Perhaps she wasn’t so crazy after all… and that, my friend, is why you dye eggs at Easter.

Celebrating the mystery of the resurrection in Beit Sahour

Celebrating the mystery of the resurrection in Beit Sahour

Of course, my friend added, this is just a story for children, to explain Easter eggs. I like this story, though, for its reminder of the unbelievable strangeness of resurrection. In Luke, no one believes the women’s story of the empty tomb:

It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them—they were telling the apostles these things [about the stone rolled away from the tomb, the missing body, and the message of the two men in bright white clothing]. But to the apostles, these words seemed like nonsense. They did not believe the women (Luke 24:10-11, my translation).

In part, the unbelievability of the women’s message comes from basic distrust of women’s testimony, especially when it’s about strange events in cemeteries. It was women’s work to care for the dead, as the women among the disciples are doing on the first Easter Sunday. But the association with the dead was reason for suspicion too. Cemeteries were unclean space for the Jews, and being in that space, touching dead bodies, made the women ritually unclean. And across the Mediterranean world, cemeteries were also places of witchcraft. Since it was women’s work to mourn the dead and maintain tombs and memorials, women could be accused of witchcraft (cf. 1 Sam. 28!). The Marys et al., with their story of an empty tomb and angelic visitors, could be dismissed by the male disciples as examples of female hysteria.

The disbelief of the reports of Jesus’ resurrection also, however, reflects the fundamental unbelievability of the idea of resurrection. After all, the male disciples’ stories are also greeted with derision. In John 20:24-25, Thomas famously refused to accept the other disciples’ reports of meeting the risen Jesus; Paul spends fifty-eight verses in 1 Corinthians 15 arguing for the reality of this crazy, topsy-turvy idea of resurrection (both Jesus’ resurrection in the past, and the physical, embodied resurrection of all believers “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet”).

According to Matt. 28:17 and Luke 24:36-42, some of the disciples doubted even as they were in the presence of the risen Jesus. For Jews and Gentiles, the idea of Jesus’ physical resurrection was madness. For the Greeks, physical resurrection was impossible—the reason Paul has to spend so much of 1 Corinthians insisting on the possibility of physical resurrection. For (at least some of) the Jews, physical resurrection was an acceptable idea, but it was not going to happen until the end of time, on the day of judgment. To have Jesus being raised from the grave in the middle of time was incomprehensible. The world had clearly not ended; the general resurrection of the dead had clearly not occurred; what were these followers of Jesus talking about when they said Jesus was alive again?

According to the early church, the crucifixion and resurrection did, in fact, mark the end of the world, the turning of the times, the apocalypse—the beginning of the new creation. One of my favorite traditions of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is the location of Adam’s grave directly below the site of the crucifixion, with cracks in the rock that allowed Jesus’ blood to drip onto Adam’s bones. This tradition is historically implausible, but theologically it is spot on.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for just as everyone dies in Adam, in the same way everyone will be made alive in Christ (1 Cor. 15:20-22 NRSV, slightly modified).

Jesus’ resurrection was unexpectedly ahead of time, according to Paul, but truth nonetheless, and a foretaste of the harvest to come. And Jesus’ resurrection marked the beginning of the end of the story of humanity that started with Adam and Eve. Adam brought death into the world—Jesus, the new Adam, brings life.

Christ is risen; he is risen indeed. Happy Easter, everyone.

At the well

Today’s gospel reading in the lectionary is John 4:5-42: the story of the woman at the well. I have to confess, when I saw it listed in the church bulletin, I cringed a little. The Samaritan woman is one of my favorite characters in the Gospel of John. She’s theologically astute, politically aware, clearly respected in her community, and feisty. Traditional Christian interpretation, however, has turned her into a lazy, slutty sinner, an outcast in her community:

The Samaritan woman at the well is no angel. Mixed up with a wrong crowd, this poor woman from Samaria has quite a reputation. She had been married five times and was living in sin with a man who wasn’t her husband. Through her story comes the lesson that people shouldn’t live by carnal pleasure… Jesus has a lengthy but candid dialogue with her. He makes her understand that she needs to confess her sins and change her life before she can obtain this life-giving water — grace. (John Triqilio and Kenneth Brighenti, Women in the Bible for Dummies1)

The priest at St. George’s went another direction with his sermon this morning, barely touching on John 4 at all. But since I have your attention, oh reader, let’s think through the woman’s story.

The story starts with Jesus, tired from a long morning walk, sitting by a well, when a woman approaches to draw water. This scene sets the stage for the classic biblical meet-cute: Rebekah and Isaac’s marriage broker (Genesis 24:10-27), Rachel and Jacob (Genesis 29:1-12), Zipporah and Moses (Exodus 2:15-17)—they all met at wells. It’s a good place for a thirsty man to pick up a woman. The introduction to this story in John’s gospel raises these expectations for the audience.

The expectations are immediately challenged, though, by the woman’s identity: she is a Samaritan! And, as the narrator reminds us, Jews won’t have anything to do with Samaritans. The Jews saw the Samaritans as ritually unclean, and thought that contact with Samaritans would make them unclean too (see Mishnah Niddah 4.1-2). The woman is understandably surprised to find this Jewish man at her village’s well, talking to her and asking her for water. She may have even been afraid to find herself alone with a Jew, considering the very negative view of Samaritans held by the Jews—Josephus, for instance, calls them evil, envious, and enemies (Antiquities 11.84, 114; cf. John 8:48, Luke 9:52-54), and Jewish-Samaritan violence was common.

The second surprise comes in John 4:18: the woman is not single. She has been married five times, and she’s currently living with a man to whom she is not legally married. This summary of the woman’s marital status is the source of the assumption that the woman is a vile sinner. But consider this:

1. Sin is not mentioned in John 4:5-42. Jesus is not exactly shy about addressing sin in John’s gospel (e.g., 5:14, 8:24, 9:41), so if this story is about the forgiveness of a sinful woman, we would expect to have reference to her sin, or at the least a command to go and sin no more. The absence of sin from John 4 suggests the story is not about sin after all.

2. It was not uncommon for women to be married several times. In antiquity, women usually were married when they were fifteen years old or so; their husbands were generally ten to fifteen years older than them. It would be rather common for a woman to be widowed at a young age—and since society operated on the basis of male-centered households, she would need to remarry to gain access to legal, economic, and social connections. The Samaritan woman could have been widowed several times over. She also might have been divorced, though probably not by her own desire. While there is some evidence women could initiate divorce proceedings against their husbands, it was much more common for men to divorce their wives, perhaps to make a more advantageous match, or for more personal reasons. Again, a divorced woman would need to remarry to survive in society.

3. It was also not uncommon for men and women to live together without marriage. Official marriage was accompanied by legal restrictions: slaves could not legally marry, for instance; Roman citizens could not legally marry non-citizens; within Judaism, priests could not marry outside the priestly line. Economic reasons might also limit the possibility of an official marriage. Perhaps the man was wealthy but the woman was poor, or perhaps the man had grown children from an earlier marriage and therefore would not want to dilute the inheritance by adding in children from a second marriage. In these cases, instead of legal marriage, people could simply live together—what we might call a common law marriage today. It was not sinful; it was just another form of marriage without the legal or economic consequences of official marriage.2

The Samaritan woman’s marital status may be unusual; she seems to have been particularly unlucky with respect to her husbands. She is not, however, a sinner. So why does Jesus bring up her marital status in John 4:16-18? The answer is in the very next verse—when Jesus tells the woman her own story, she realizes he is a prophet. As with Nathanael in John 1:47-49, Jesus’ revelation of the woman’s personal history reveals his own identity to her. She later uses his knowledge to encourage her friends and neighbors to meet him (John 4:28-30, 39)—another sign that John does not present her as a sinner or social outcast, since her neighbors listen to her.

So, John 4 is not about sin. It is about salvation, however (see verses 14, 22-24, 35-38, 42). The question of salvation in John 4 centers on the identity of the people of God. Here is where the location of the story in Sychar (ancient Shechem – modern Nablus), at Jacob’s well, becomes important. Apart from the tombs purchased in Genesis 23, this land was the first bit of the promised land owned by Abraham’s family (Genesis 33:18-20). But by Jesus’ day, it was part of Samaria, inhabited by Samaritans. Moreover, the Samaritans had built their temple on Mt. Gerizim, looming over the city. Instead of being the ancient equivalent of a singles’ bar, the well in John 4 symbolizes contested space.

When the woman asks Jesus about worship in John 4:19-20, she is not deflecting attention from her marital status; she’s rather taking her chance to question this prophet on the issue at the heart of the centuries-long divide between the Jews and the Samaritans (cf. Ezra 4:1-5). Should God be worshiped in Jerusalem, like the Jews say? Or on Mt. Gerizim, like the Samaritans say? Which people is truly God’s people, the descendants of Jacob (note John 4:12)?

Jesus tells the woman that the place of worship does not matter; with this simple statement, he dismisses the battle for space, for ownership of the land. He does not dismiss the question of identity completely, however; in fact, he upholds the identity of the Jews as God’s true people (note verse 22: salvation is “from the Jews”). He goes on to say that this identity is changing. “The hour is coming, and now is”: right now, in Roman-occupied Palestine, in the city of Sychar, as Jesus is talking with a Samaritan woman, things are changing. The question of identity is no longer about Jew or Samaritan, but about “spirit and truth” (John 4:23).

In twenty verses, John’s story moves from meet-cute to the specter of racism to a question over national and religious identity, to finally end with the village of Sychar believing that Jesus is “Savior of the world.” And the woman with the unfortunate marital history, the woman who happened to come for water as Jesus was resting by the well, is the center of the story. She recognizes who Jesus is, and she tells her neighbors about him; while Jesus’ disciples are worried about feeding Jesus, she’s doing the work of Jesus’ ministry. Despite the claims of Women in the Bible for Dummies, the Samaritan woman is precisely an angel, ἄγγελος, a messenger to her people.

1Please note, I do not in any way recommend this particular resource for your biblical research!

2If you want to know more about marriage and divorce in the New Testament world, check out Lynn Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Baker Academic, 2009).