Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Minor, Trivial Biblical Stuff, Part 8: The Birth of the Messiah, Part 2: Giving Birth

In my humble opinion, one of the miracles of Jesus' birth that many people often overlook nowadays is a rather 'mundane' one: the fact that both Jesus and Mary survived.
Childbirth was a risky business in the ancient world. Mortality is considered to have been quite high in antiquity, due to a few factors: a lack of sanitation and hygienic awareness, no understanding of micro-organisms, and a dearth of effective drugs all contributed to it. In the context of childbirth, however, maternal and infant mortality were seriously raised by modern standards. This inflation resulted from the toll childbirth took on women, and the increased risk of infection following labor.

Producing children was a woman's greatest job, but the act itself was fraught with danger; death in childbirth was one of, if not the, common causes of death among women in antiquity. One estimate puts a 25% chance that the woman would die while delivering her child, and most maternal deaths were likely caused by infection. Even if the woman survived, there still remains the possibility that her baby might not. Infant mortality rate was quite high, like the rate of deaths in childbirth.

For the record, let's check as to how the Jews viewed death in childbirth: the rabbis answer that the cause of death was the transgression of any of the three commandments that women and only women are obligated to carry out: the laws of niddah, challah (the dough-offering), and the lighting of the Shabbat candle. These commandments were given in punishment for Eve's sin in the garden, and non-fulfillment was a matter of life and death, and carried a heavy penalty with it. By contrast, giving birth without birth pangs was seen as a sign of God's favor and the righteousness of the woman: Josephus records a tradition about how Moses' mother Jochebed gave birth to him without effort, which her parents took to be a good sign (Antiquities 2.218).

So, we now approach the question: how did women give birth in those days? Many Nativity scenes picture Mary and Joseph being by themselves alone, but the actual picture may be quite different.

For the Middle Eastern peasant, it is a bad thing to be alone. He does his thinking in a crowd, as his culture is a group-centered one, as opposed to the individualistic thinking of the 21st century West. Thus, in the case of a birth, the men will sit apart with the neighbors, but the room will be full of women assisting the midwife, as childbirth was then the domain of women, and men did not take part in it.

In the 2nd century AD, the physician Soranus of Ephesus wrote a text on gynecology introducing the occupation of the midwife, giving us a picture as to how wealthy women in the Greco-Roman world. Soranus described her role in great detail. For example, the midwife was to have certain tools to ensure a safe delivery including: clean olive oil, sea sponges, pieces of wool bandages to cradle the infant, a pillow, strong smelling herbs in case of fainting, and a birthing stool for the delivery (in those days, women did not give birth lying down, but sitting!)

The midwife would ready her supplies as labor began. During the labor process, the mother would lay on her back on a hard, low bed with support under her hips. Her thighs were parted with her feet drawn up. Gentle massage was implemented to ease labor pains as cloths soaked in warm olive oil were laid over her stomach and genital area, to soften the skin. Against the woman's sides were placed hot compresses in the form of warm oil-filled bladders. During the actual birth, the mother would be moved to the birthing stool where she was seated with a midwife in front of her and female aids standing at her sides. In a normal headfirst delivery, the cervical opening was stretched slightly, and the rest of the body was pulled out. Soranus instructed the midwife to wrap her hands in pieces of cloth or thin papyrus so that the slippery newborn did not slide out of her grasp.

Superstitions and religion also played a major role in antiquity including childbirth, and thus, mixed with the actual process itself were invocations to the goddess Artemis who had the ability to bring new life into the world and take it away: if a woman died while during childbirth, her clothes were taken to the temple of Artemis due to the fact her death was attributed to her, but if the birth was successful, the mother would make a thank-offering of some of her clothes to the goddess as well. There were also the preparation and consumption and fumigation of herbs and other strange concoctions - say, a drink mixed with powdered cow's dung or fumigation using hyena fat (!)

Let's now look at how Mary would probably have given birth to Jesus. While there were also some rather superstitious customs which we know were present among some Jewish communities in later ages (say, whispering passages from Scripture into the ears of the woman or the use of talismans such as magic bowls or silver sheets inscribed with the names of angels to ward off child-preying demons, etc.) and which were something that proper authorities often discouraged, such is not our concern for the moment. Our concern is the process of delivery itself.

Because this was a modest affair, the process was not as sophisticated as Soranus' description. The midwife's assistants would have walked Mary first (probably around the room), perhaps to speed delivery. Then comes the delivery: lower-class women would probably not even have had the luxury of a birthing stool, and Mary would have just rested somewhere, say on the lap of the assistants. The midwife then placed a cloth just below, so the Baby's would not come into contact with the dirt floor of the house.

Eventually, the Infant then comes out of the womb, and makes His first cry - the first thing that all babies make when they enter into this world. The umbilical cord is cut with either a knife or a heated hard crust of bread (a more sanitary alternative!). After the cord was cut and tied off, the midwife thoroughly examines the Baby. Then the Baby is, in true Hebrew fashion, then washed and rubbed with salt (cf. Ezekiel 16:4). After that, the Baby is then swaddled snuggly with bands of cloth, which is believed to help infants develop proper posture. It was around this moment that the husband (in this case, Joseph) would be able to enter inside and catch his first glimpse of the newborn Infant.

Luke tells us that Mary swaddled the newborn infant by herself, and indeed some take this as evidence that the Holy family were alone; however, there are accounts on how Palestinian women are not incapacitated by childbirth and could even give birth in a field and go back to the village, baby in tow, with no unusual effort required. In this scenario, it would then perhaps be natural that Mary would have swaddled the babe, since she could physically do so with little to no assistance; so when Luke tells us that Mary "wrapped the babe in swaddling clothes" that does not necessarily mean that they were alone. The process was almost complete: all that was left is to lay the Infant to rest somewhere. A trough which the family's animals grazed on, would probably do.

But even with the deed done, all was not over yet. According to the Law, the blood of childbirth made a woman impure, and Mary still had to undergo purification to ritually cleanse herself.

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘If a woman has conceived, and borne a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her customary impurity she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall then continue in the blood of her purification thirty-three days. She shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary until the days of her purification are fulfilled.
‘But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her customary impurity, and she shall continue in the blood of her purification sixty-six days.
‘When the days of her purification are fulfilled, whether for a son or a daughter, she shall bring to the priest a lamb of the first year as a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove as a sin offering, to the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then he shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement for her. And she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who has borne a male or a female.
‘And if she is not able to bring a lamb, then she may bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons—one as a burnt offering and the other as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’
But that's a topic for another time. ;)

Once again, let's note two small things here: one would be that while countless Christmas pageants and artistic recreations of the birth of Jesus show Mary in labor at the very same day/night they arrive in Bethlehem (Catherine Hardwicke's 2006 film The Nativity Story is a good recent example of this), there is no indication from the Scriptural text alone that Mary went into labor at the very same day. All that Luke says of it is that it happened "while they were there", which could also suggest some time passing before Mary actually delivered her Child.

The final thing I'd like to relate is the story of the midwife Salome, found in the Protoevangelium of James and some other apocryphal gospels, still commemorated in every Eastern icon of the Nativity (cf. some of the pictures above), though she has long vanished from most Western depictions. I could do no better but merely quote it:

And I [Joseph] saw a woman coming down from the hill-country, and she said to me: "O man, where are you going?" And I said: "I am seeking a Hebrew midwife." And she answered and said to me: "Are you of Israel?" And I said to her: "Yes." And she said: "And who is it that is bringing forth in the cave?" And I said: "A woman betrothed to me." And she said to me: "Is she not your wife?" And I said to her: "It is Mary that was reared in the temple of the Lord, and I obtained her by lot as my wife. And yet she is not my wife, but has conceived of the Holy Spirit."

And the widwife said to him: "Is this true?" And Joseph said to her: "Come and see." And the midwife went away with him. And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said: "My soul has been magnified this day, because my eyes have seen strange things— because salvation has been brought forth to Israel." And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary. And the midwife cried out, and said: "This is a great day to me, because I have seen this strange sight." And the midwife went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: "Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to you: a virgin has brought forth— a thing which her nature admits not of." Then said Salome: "As the Lord my God lives, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth."
And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: "Show yourself; for no small controversy has arisen about you." And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: "Woe is me for my iniquity and my unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire." And she bent her knees before the Lord, saying: "O God of my fathers, remember that I am the seed of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob; do not make a show of me to the sons of Israel, but restore me to the poor; for You know, O Lord, that in Your name I have performed my services, and that I have received my reward at Your hand." And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by her, saying to her: "Salome, Salome, the Lord has heard you. Put your hand to the infant, and carry it, and you will have safety and joy." And Salome went and carried it, saying: "I will worship Him, because a great King has been born to Israel." And, behold, Salome was immediately cured, and she went forth out of the cave justified. And behold a voice saying: "Salome, Salome, tell not the strange things you have seen, until the child has come into Jerusalem."


Mark of the Vineyard said...

Wonderful blog you have here. Will you be continuing in 2011?

Patrick said...

I will! Just wait. :)