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.

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

Contested space

This past week I spent several days in the Negev (the desert in the south of Israel). The flowers were blooming, and the baby camels were frolicking; it is lovely to be in the desert in spring.

Before heading south, I visited St. Mary of the Resurrection Abbey in Abu Ghosh, near Jerusalem, one of the possible sites of Emmaus (Luke 24). The church here dates back to the Crusaders. When they lost the kingdom to Salah al-Din in 1187, the church was abandoned, but survived the centuries to be restored as a Benedictine community in the early 1900s. Somewhere along the way, however, the frescoes in the church were defaced (literally): St. Mary of the Resurrection Abbey, Abu Ghosh

The defacing was most likely done long, long ago by aniconic Muslims (that is, Muslims who believe it is wrong to picture the human form in sacred art because it is idolatry—as in Judaism, and the icon wars of eighth century Christianity).

While I was in the church, I overheard an Israeli guide telling his American tour group that the defacing was a sign of Muslim contempt for other religions, and an indication that in Islam it is okay to disrespect the sacred space of Christianity or Judaism. The guide’s comments implied that Christianity and Judaism are different; that Christians and Jews would never do such a thing. But of course this implication is incorrect. That very day, in fact, Deir Rafat, a Christian monastery near Jerusalem, had been vandalized by Israeli settlers, all Jews (as reported here); mosques have also been graffiti-ed and damaged (see this report, or this one). Christians don’t have a better track record. Though the Church has not been blamed for any recent vandalism in Israel or Palestine (as far as I know), the Crusaders certainly did not respect the holy sites of the Muslims or Jews in Palestine, and in the States Christians have burned Qur’ans and damaged mosques (see here or here, for instance).

These examples of vandalism mark sacred space as contested space. Beyond vandalism, this contesting also happens through the taking over of sacred space: an ancient synagogue or Jewish memorial might have become a church when the Christians gained power in Roman Palestine; the church might have become a mosque when the Muslims took over; and that mosque might have become a synagogue again when the Israelis returned. Dome of the Rock

The Temple Mount or Haram al Sharif is precisely such a contested space. The Jewish temple was destroyed by the Romans, who built a temple to Jupiter on the site in the second century; the Muslims built the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque in the seventh and eighth centuries; the Crusaders took over the site and turned the Dome into a church; later the Muslims took it back, and today Israeli visits to the site are often understood as attempts to reclaim the space (as in this incident two weeks ago). Similar recycling has happened at the Tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem, the Tomb of David on Mount Zion, the Mosque of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, and numerous other sites. The current claimants of these spaces may limit or refuse access to others—an attempt to limit the holiness of the space to only one religious community.

The challenging of sacred space is (obviously) very political here. Laying claim to sacred space suggests the right of that particular community to be in the ‘holy’ land; denying access to those of other religious communities equally suggests that ‘they’ do not belong in the land. But restriction of sacred space is not the only option. The Tomb of Abraham et al. in Hebron, for instance, has been divided into Jewish and Muslim sections so that people from both faiths can worship there. Even better, some sites are open to all faiths. In Syria several years ago, I saw a Muslim family bringing a sheep to sacrifice to the Virgin Mary at the Convent of Our Lady, Seidnaya, in acknowledgement of answered prayer. Convent of Our Lady, Seidnaya, Syria

The same sharing of space by Muslims and Christians happens in Palestine (as at the Monastery of St. George near Beit Jala, or at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem). I’ve seen Jews visiting the Armenian Cathedral of St. James and the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth (though I don’t know that they were worshiping). And I’ve heard of a group of Israelis and Palestinians who have turned the Separation Wall into a sacred space of sorts, joining together there to pray for peace.

The contesting of political space and sacred space are intertwined. On my way out of Jerusalem Tuesday, I was delayed by John Kerry’s motorcade (which required the closing off of one of the main streets in Jerusalem), on the way to the latest Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. This round of negotiations seems to have been remarkably unsuccessful. Wouldn’t it be nice if the sharing of sacred space could become a model for the sharing of political space, rather than another stone to cause politicians and citizens to stumble?

Mothering Sunday, and mothers and daughters in Palestine

Today marks the halfway point of Lent. In the Anglican church, it’s ‘Mothering Sunday’—way back when, the one Sunday a year when people would return to their homes and home churches (thus visiting their mothers as well as ‘mother churches,’ according to the Diocese of Ely); now, a day to honor mothers. Mother’s Day was celebrated here in Palestine a week ago Friday (21 March). The Beit Sahour municipality handed out fancy wallets to the women in town, and the mothers in my Palestinian family received new clothes, jewelry, even a television. My upstairs neighbors held a big family dinner, and the men did at least some of the cooking. (As a side note, the table was, as usual for a Palestinian meal, crowded with numerous dishes, and yet everyone kept apologizing to me and asking if I was disappointed in the food – I finally figured out that there was no meat because of Lent, so they were worried that I would be dissatisfied and hungry! Needless to say, I was not.)

The Mother’s Day celebration reminded me of the celebrations for married daughters at the beginning of Advent. The local Christian families invited their daughters with their families back to the parents’ home for a big meal; there was singing in honor of the daughters, and they were given gifts. Similarly, International Women’s Day at the beginning of March was a government holiday, and women again received special gifts from the municipality. There are no equivalent celebrations for fathers or sons—they don’t keep Father’s Day here.

In some very obvious ways, then, women are valued and honored in local culture. Women are present in society as shopkeepers and shoppers, working in and managing restaurants, on television and online. Every pharmacy I’ve been in has been wholly staffed by women (okay, I’ve only been in three pharmacies, so it’s not a great sample size!), and my gym is run by women, for women. There are women on the Palestinian police force. There are a number of businesses run by women for the production and sale of handiwork made by women—traditional embroidery, pottery, jewelry. Seventy percent of the student body at Bethlehem University is female. The mayor of Bethlehem is a woman, and there are several women who serve as ministers in the Palestinian government.

When you dig a little deeper, though, it becomes evident that the visibility of women masks their marginality in society, politics, the economy, and the family. 70% of the student body at the university is female because families prefer to send their sons abroad. According to recent data from the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics (for 2013), only 17% of women are in the workforce (compared to an international average of 52%, according to UN report ST/ESA/STAT/SER.K/19), and for every shekel earned by a man, women earn only eighty cents (agarot). The majority of women in the workforce hold lower ranking jobs—secretaries instead of professors, shop attendants instead of business owners; only 13% of the doctors in the West Bank are women, for instance, but 59% of jobs in the service industry are held by women. 35% of women were unemployed last year (compared to 20% of men); among women with at least some college education, the unemployment rate skyrocketed to 47% (reflecting the wider availability of work for women in the service industry, I would suspect).

Women on average spend about six hours a day cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, compared to less than two hours for men. In 2012, as reported in AI Monitor, 37% of married women experienced domestic abuse in Palestine (51% in Gaza alone)—and those statistics are based on the number of women who report abuse, but not everyone does. The police spokesperson in Gaza claims the police force “refrains from publishing statistics about the number of women who file complaints against their husbands, as well as the number of those subjected to violence, so as not to encourage more women to speak up, as it is not socially acceptable.” Even more alarmingly, there has been a surge of violence against women over the past two years (according to Al Jazeera): in 2011, five women in Palestine died as a result of ‘honor killing’; in 2012, thirteen women died; in 2013, twenty-six women died; so far in 2014, eight women have been killed by family members for offenses against ‘honor.’

A few comments from students in the lectures I’ve given at the university this spring reflect the realities of these statistics. One lecture addressed the history of feminism in the United States and its effects on society, including women in the workforce. One male student questioned the necessity for women to work. He said he wanted to be the provider for the family; his future wife certainly could work if she wanted to, but her wages would be for her own use only (to buy clothes, or special treats). His salary would support the household. I had the sense that this student thought his plan should be praised—he values women so highly that he would not want his wife to be forced to work. But actually, his plan turns his future wife into an ornament; she will not be an important or essential member of the household. (None of the women in the class greeted his plan with any enthusiasm.) The limitation of women to low-paying, low-ranking jobs across Palestine likewise limits their power and influence in society and the family.

Another lecture was on the family in America today. Several of the students had done study abroad programs in the States in high school (and I’d imagine most of them have family members in America). One woman had stayed with three different families during her study abroad year—all of them headed by single mothers with multiple children, sometimes with different fathers. Based on her questions, I think she was still working through the ramifications of being a single mother. It’s not possible here. Women who get pregnant out of marriage may get married right away, like the high schooler in my neighborhood whose parents found out about her pregnancy on a Monday, and married her off by Friday. Alternatively, they might leave town to stay in convents who care for pregnant women or go abroad to stay with family members until the baby is born, and then give the baby to an orphanage. Adoption is not common here (partly by culture, and partly for religious reasons).

After class, the student told me she wants to change the system to make adoption more available—even for single women. She herself is not sure she wants to be married; I’ve heard the same from several university students and recent graduates (all women, though that may simply be a result of my own gender rather than reflective of a male-female divide). It’s quite difficult to be a single woman in Palestinian society, though; the cultural norm is marriage. The average age at marriage for women is twenty (twenty-four for men), and the rate of marriage for women under age 19 is still quite high at 45% (in 2012). Women who choose to remain single face a long struggle against social opinion and family expectation (there are no special celebrations for unmarried daughters or childless women).

I certainly don’t want to say that the situation is wholly oppressive or denigrating for women in Palestine. There are women who hold positions of power in society, even if they are few in number; women can be very important in the family, and they have the power to shape the future through their children (an opportunity the mothers in the university leadership program eagerly embrace). But there is still a long way to go, as the students realize. This Mothering Sunday, coincidentally the last Sunday of Women’s History Month, is a chance to remember all the women of Palestine—to honor those who have gone beyond the traditional expectations of society, those who thrive within the traditional expectations, and those who suffer from the constraints of tradition.


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).