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Wise Women 3: Midwives

Medical Practitioners

At the end of my previous post I suggested that wise women (in the Ancient Near East generally and in Israel in particular) often performed their services on occasions marked by liminality, the betwixt-and-between of important life passages. In this post, I hope to raise awareness of the activity of some wise women at one particular liminal occasion: childbirth. In Mishnaic Hebrew, the word for “midwife” is in fact chokhmah, “wise woman” (Shabbat 18:3; Rosh Hashana 2:5). In many corners of the ancient world, there is a strong connection between midwifery and wise women. I don’t mean to imply that all Israelite wise women were midwives. Deborah or Abigail were not necessarily out delivering babies on the side! Nor am I saying that all midwives were “wise women.” But it is nevertheless fair to say that, based on ancient cultural patterns, there was a significant overlap between these two classes of people.

According to Babylonian mythology, for example, goddesses who act as midwives are called “wise,” which seems to indicate that midwives belong somewhere in the ancient category of “wise women” (Hennie J. Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel: Their Social and Religious Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East [Brill, 2003] 412).

Childbirth is a liminal experience for the baby, the mother, and the entire community. Everything changes when a new baby is born! Therefore, it is a time of potential spiritual danger as status and relationships get rearranged to accommodate the arrival of a new community member. In ancient cultures the liminal nature of childbirth calls for the involvement of women. John Gray explains,

It is perhaps natural that women should assist at birth, but there is a further reason, suggested by the fact, as among the modern Arab peasants, that the men including the father studiously avoid the very house where the birth is taking place. The fact is that in such a crisis the normal activity of the community is suspended and the men, who normally take the initiative, become for the moment nonentitites. In the Book of Ruth not only do the women assist at the birth but they hold the initiative right through until the time when they actually name the child and so integrate the new life with the community. (The Legacy of Canaan: The Ras Shamra Texts and Their Relevance to the Old Testament [Brill, 1957] 179)

The religious nuances of the midwife’s calling is underscored by the fact that, like the goddesses of Babylonia, God is also depicted performing the duties of a midwife (Ps 22:9; see also Isa 66:9).

Midwives are rather thin on the ground in the Bible, but they appear on a number of important occasions. The first story that may come to mind is that of Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives in the time Israelite slavery in Egypt (Exod 1). Like the wise woman of Abel, these women stand up to powerful men and intercede in such a way that their people are saved from destruction.

By the nature of their calling, midwives in traditional cultures were often the doctors, psychologists, and family therapists of their village. In that light it is instructive to read S. D. Goitein’s composite portrait of a traditional Yemeni wise woman:

This is a woman who keeps a watchful eye on her fellow villagers from the day of their coming forth into the light of the world until their death. It is she who helps during childbirth; she who knows the remedies and other treatments…required in case of illness; she who assists in matchmaking and, when necessary, who makes peace between husband and wife. Her advice is sought not just by her family but by her whole village. It is she who is most proficient at whatever craft is practiced in the district, and she, too, who is the poet who “declaims” before the women at weddings and other festive occasions and in mourning as well. (S. D. Goitein, “Women as Creators of Biblical Genres,” Pretexts 8 [1988] 10, cited by Cullen Murphy, The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own [Mariner, 1998] 102, n. 21)

This picture harmonizes nicely with the themes of motherhood, conflict resolution, and liminality that we have already explored.

Ritual Practitioners

Midwives also appear in two stories from the patriarchal period. In Genesis 35:17, a midwife is at Rachel’s side to comfort her as she is in hard labor with Benjamin. More interesting in terms of the wise-woman tradition is Genesis 38:28, where the midwife at the birth of the twins Perez and Zerah ties a scarlet thread around Perez to identify him as the firstborn. Though ostensibly to mark which baby came out first, the use of red thread as a protective amulet for both mother or child is attested in Mesopotamian and Hittite texts. (Carol Meyers, Households and Holiness: The Religious Culture of Israelite Women [Fortress, 2005] 39; Marten Stol and F. A. M. Wiggermann, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible: Its Mediterranean Setting [Styx, 2000] 49, 56–58). Such customs are likely to have influenced Israelite practices. Indeed, tying a scarlet thread around the wrist of a newborn baby girl is a longstanding Jewish Kabbalistic practice intended to ward off evil spirits—despite the fact that the custom has been condemned since Talmudic times as pagan supersition (Michele Klein, A Time to Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth [Jewish Publication Society, 1998] 125).

Perez’s scarlet threat reminds us that in the Ancient Near East midwives had two categories of tasks. First, obviously, she performed the physical tasks involved in childbirth: preparing the necessary equipment, comforting the mother, and delivering the child. Second, she effected magical or religious protection of the woman and especially the newborn. Citing G. M. Beckman, Marsman explains, “[T]he midwife recites incantations on behalf of the new-born, beseeching the gods to remove evil influences and to grant a desirable fate to the child” (412). Midwifery is thus a religious vocation in the ancient world, surely no less so among the ancient Israelites.

In addition to the scarlet thread, we find hints of later Israelite birth rituals in Ezekiel 16:4: “As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in cloths.”

The implication of this verse is that certain ritual actions were performed upon a newborn. While some of these are obviously matters of simple practicality (e.g., cutting the umbilical cord), others seem to be ritualistic in nature. The word for “washed,” for example, is used only here in the Old Testament. Meyers suggests it may be related to an Aramaic cognate meaning “to smear,” and may reflect the application of protective ointment. The “washing with water” may then have had ritual and not merely practical significance. This is certainly the case for “rubbing with salt.” The prophet is thus painting a picture of a newborn baby for whom the expected rituals of childbirth were not performed, thus leaving the baby vulnerable to the forces of evil.

Even in modern times, a Jewish midwife might recite certain customary prayers on the way to attend to a woman in labor (Klein, 125). She tries to calm the cries of the laboring woman through words of encouragement, prayers, or simple incantations (Klein, 123). Alice Bailes, a modern Jewish midwife, relates the following testimony of her experience:

There are psalms that I sing to myself in Hebrew when I am attending a birth. If the baby’s head is a little big for the mother’s bones and it has to mold to fit through I sing “Min Ha Metzar, from the narrow place I call to God and God answers me in this great expanse of space.” I think that my singing these prayers helps the baby come.

In addition, midwives were often specialists in folk remedies and incantations. Klein notes that “The old midwife, the bubbeh (Yiddish for “granny”) who served Jews in the shtetl a century ago, kept her incantations a closely guarded secret, for fear of destroying their potency (Klein, 124–25).

Just as women are present in ancient Israel at the time of birth, they are also present at the time of death and bereavement. Therefore, the next installment in this series will thus focus on wise women’s roles as mourners.

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