A Closer Look: Pregnant and Nursing Mothers

Pregnant women were, like infants and the aged, recognized as particularly vulnerable. Pregnancy increased the difficulties of urgent flight and could make the pregnant more susceptible to death. Pregnancies were sometimes as short as seven months, and some physicians knew that the typical gestation period was nine months. Nevertheless, ancients commonly spoke of a ten-month gestation period as normal. 

Ancient men were not so sheltered at to be unaware that birth pangs are traumatic. Not surprisingly, then, they employed the image of birth pangs to depict various kinds of anguish. The OT often applies the imagery to judgment, and the image was suitable also for the period of eschatological suffering, as scholars often note. Such background informs the image of eschatological travail in 1QHa 11.8-12, but interpretations vary widely, from the Messiah, to something eschatological but not messianic, to the birthing of the community. In any case, this passage illustrates the male recognition that childbirth was usually a distinctively agonizing experience. 

As noted above, in 1 Cor. 3:2 and 1 Thess. 2:7 Paul compares himself to a mother or nurse breastfeeding a baby, and such feminine images for males were neither extremely rare nor necessarily demeaning. Some used milk as a figure for mere elementary studies, but the image could also be more positive, for God’s word, as in 1 Pet. 2:2. 

Jewish mothers usually nursed their own children. Some sages warned against them nursing gentiles, lest they nurture future idolaters, but allowed gentile nurses for Jewish infants. Other Jewish traditions, however, claim that Sarah miraculously nursed gentile babies, and that young Moses accepted only Israelite milk. 

Though moralists often recommended maternal breastfeeding, wealthy gentile homes usually employed nurses. Less financially endowed homes sometimes used them as well. In aristocratic homes the nurses were often slaves; in Egypt they were often impoverished peasants, and elsewhere some took the position only because compelled by financial need. Nursing contracts sometimes required the woman to nurse the child in her own home for a particular period; they could also forbid her to become pregnant or nurse another child. Although the nursing period was most often two years, contracts ranged from half a year to three years.

Nurses were assigned a great formative influence, for good or ill. Children often grew fond of their nurses, with affectionate ties continuing into adulthood; nurses apparently expressed affection for their charges as well, although extant literary sources do not offer us the true voice of slave nurses. Sometimes the child appears closer to the nurse than to parents, but usually attachment to parents remained primary.

This content is by Craig Keener, but edited and posted by Defenders Media.

For more on the book of Galatians, please see Galatians: A Commentary.

Previous Post

Joshua son of–who?

Next Post

Curing bleeding and raising the dead: Mark 5:21-43 (49 min)

Related Posts