Lactation and Breastfeeding in the Old Testament

by Professor Laura Quick

 

Introduction from the Blog Manager:

This intriguing piece is the first "extended blog" on our Trinity Term theme of "Embodied". As Womxn in Theology, we aim to support the variety of research interests across the department and introduce readers to a diversity of emerging ideas. It is wonderful to bring to you this very interesting piece from Professor Laura Quick.

Professor Quick completed her doctorate in Hebrew Bible at the University of Oxford, before taking up an Assistant Professorship in Religion and Judaic Studies at Princeton University in Autumn 2017. She is currently Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Tutorial Fellow in Theology and Religion at Worcester College.

 

In the Old Testament, breasts feature in the context of providing for children (e.g., Ps 22:10; Lam 4:3; Job 3:12). In pre-modern societies, before the availability of infant formula, breastfeeding was incredibly important: if a mother was unable to feed her infant, the baby would die unless a wetnurse could be found. This practice is reflected in the Old Testament, where the word mêneqet describes a wetnurse (Gen 24:59; 35:8; Exod 2:7; 2 Kgs 11:2-3; 2 Chr 22:11): the term is a substantive from the verb yānaq, “to suck.” Naomi also breastfeeds Ruth’s child in Ruth 4:16.



As such, breastmilk was essential for infant survival, and consequently successful lactation seems to have been understood as the converse of infertility: in Hos 9:14, “wombs that miscarry” are paralleled with “breasts that shrivel up dry.” This image recalls a common idea found in wider ancient Near Eastern literature, where curses threaten the frustration of fertility. For example, the Tell Fakhariyah inscription declares “may one hundred women suckle a child but let him not be satisfied” (KAI 309:201). The Sefire Treaties warn “should seven [nurses] anoint [their breasts and] nurse a young boy, may he not be satisfied” (KAI 222: A 21-22). Again, this is coupled with the idea of frustrated fertility more generally: “[should seven rams cover] a ewe, may she not conceive” (KAI 222: A 21). Thus, breasts were a potent symbol of fertility in the world of the Old Testament, with lactation failure utilized as a powerful curse and existential threat.


The Old Testament describes a system of religious practices focussed in the main upon the Jerusalem Temple and the sacrifices which were performed there. Consequently, modern readers may access the religious lives of only a very small subsection of society: the male priesthood. Biblical literature says very little about the religious activities of ordinary males, and almost nothing about women or children. Nevertheless, it is probable that a great deal of additional ritual and religious activities took place outside of the official temple cult described and endorsed in biblical literature – and given the importance of lactation in infant survival, lactation as well as fertility more generally were likely important concerns of women’s religious practices.


In Gen 21:8, a feast marks the weaning of an infant. In Exod 2:10, Moses is weaned from his wetnurse and then brought to his adoptive mother, who only then names the child. It is possible, therefore, that infants were not named until after they were weaned. Infants were breastfed for a much longer period than is typical in the modern world: in 2 Macc 7:27, we learn that breastfeeding took place during the first three years of a child’s life. In 2 Sam 4:4, the five-year-old Mephibosheth still has a wet nurse. Prior to the advent of modern obstetrics, infant mortality was a significant risk, and this is reflected in Isa 65:20 which decries the death of infants during their “nursing days.” But if the age of weaning was somewhere between three and five years old, then reaching this age would result in a significant increase in the likelihood of infant survival. It seems reasonable to assume, therefore, that weaning would be marked ritually as a significant life event, to include a feast, as well as the conferring of a name as an important act of parental legitimation and acknowledgement. While some biblical texts describe the father naming the infant (Gen 4:26; Exod 2:22; Isa 8:3), others attribute this to the mother (Gen 4:25; 16:11; Exod 2:10; 1 Sam 1:20). Other acts of formal recognition and legitimization for the child may have included symbolically seating the child upon its father’s or mother’s knee (Gen 30:3; 48:12; 50:23; Ruth 4:16).


Breastfeeding may be used as a form of natural contraception, since women are less likely to menstruate while lactating. This is reflected in Hos 1:8, where the prophet’s wife only conceives a second child after she has weaned her first. As such, breastfeeding may have provided women with agency in sexual settings, allowing them to have some control over reproduction.


Other rituals are concerned with the promotion of fertility, for example Gen 30:14-16 where Rachel procures a special plant from her sister Leah to try to conceive. In Biblical Hebrew, this plant is described by the term ḏûḏāˀîm, derived from the root ḏôḏ, “beloved,” and so literally meaning something like “love plants.” In the Septuagint, this is translated as mandragóras, mandrakes. The roots of mandrakes resemble human bodies, while the plant has hallucinogenic properties. Some of the effects of consuming the plant include the dilation of the pupils, blushing, and a rapid heartbeat, and so mimicking physical responses to sexual arousal. Consequently, mandrakes have been used in rituals and magic for the promotion of pregnancy and as an aphrodisiac throughout history.


In the wider ancient Near East, female deities were typically associated with lactation, and mythology around human kings developed to utilize divine breastfeeding as a motif to confer a quasi-divine status upon the monarch (Chapman 2012). In the Old Testament, we do not find attestations of a breastfeeding goddess. However, in several prophetic texts Jerusalem is personified as a woman who breastfeeds the people of Israel (Isa 49:23; 60:16; 66:12-13). This imagery draws from the metaphor of Jerusalem-the-city personified as a woman who is married to God – and which itself derives from an earlier ancient Near Eastern conception where the capital city was personified as a goddess married to the patron deity. Indeed, goddesses were clearly worshipped by some individuals in ancient Israel and Judah (e.g., 1 Kgs 18:19; 2 Kgs 21:7; etc.). It has been suggested that the reference to “breasts and womb” in Gen 49:25 may reflect a goddess’ epithet (Becking 1999).


This provides an interpretative framework for understanding some of the material finds from

ancient Israel and Judah. Clay figurines depicting women supporting or offering up their engorged breasts with their hands are some of the most common ritual objects recovered from the ancient Levant. A common interpretation for these figurines is that they functioned to petition goddesses for successful lactation (Hadley 2000). These figurines may therefore attest to the worship of goddesses in the promotion of lactation, as an important aspect of women’s religious practice.


While there are no references to a breastfeeding goddess in biblical literature, the God of Israel is sometimes depicted as taking on a maternal role. This may be helpful for understanding the difficult deity name ˀēl šadday, the etymology of which is poorly understood. This title šadday appears 48 times in the Old Testament (e.g., Gen 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; etc.). In the Latin Vulgate, Jerome translated the epithet as omnipotens, “all powerful,” and so modern translations usually render the Hebrew term as something like “Almighty God” (e.g., KJV). But one possible interpretation is to derive the term from a Proto-West Semitic noun *ṯaday, “breast” (Wilson-Wright 2019). In which case, the epithet could be translated as “God of the breasts.” Notably, in the book of Genesis ˀēl šadday is frequently invoked in the context of fertility blessings; in Gen 49:25, God confers “blessings of breasts and womb” using the related noun šādayim, “breasts.” More generally, God can be described using maternal metaphors, for example by breastfeeding his people in Hos 11:4.


These references to lactation and breastfeeding therefore help us to access an important but underacknowledged aspect of women’s religion from the Old Testament world, showing the religious dimensions of womanhood. More generally, they show the significant cultural appreciation for motherhood in these texts, as well as the possibility of (re)constructing feminine attributes and behaviours in the God of the biblical world.


References:

Bob Becking, “Breasts and Womb,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking and Pieter W. van der Horst (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 177-178.


Cynthia R. Chapman, “‘Oh that you were like a brother to me, one who had nursed at my mother’s breasts.’ Breast Milk as a Kingship Forging Substance,” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures Vol. 12, Art. 7 (2012).


Judith M. Hadley, The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).


Aren M. Wilson-Wright, “The Helpful God: A Reevaluation of the Etymology and Character of (ˀēl) šadday,” Vetus Testamentum 69 (2019): 149-166.


Note to Reader:

This blog post refers to those who breastfeed as “women” since the post engages with biblical texts which understand childbirth according to a since problematized gender binary – and in fact, this problematization is suggested even within the Old Testament through the description of a breastfeeding God who is otherwise described via male pronouns.


The blog post also refers to ancient methods of contraception and fertility treatments; it should not be taken as providing medical advice for modern readers.

 


Written by Professor Laura Quick


edited by Niamh Hardman