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Monthly Archives: January 2013

Facing famine


In 2011, the world agonized over pictures of starving mothers and their children in the African country of Somalia. The reason? Prolonged drought and eventual famine. The videos and photos from international news agencies put faces, gaunt and grim, with haunting, hungry eyes, to the statistics. While humanitarian efforts poured into the stricken area, thousands continued to die—many of them children.

Recent reports say the drought cycle has broken in Somalia, as predicted by meteorologists and others. “But conditions are still precarious, United Nations officials warned, with many Somalis dying of hunger and more than two million still needing emergency rations to survive.”

A  July 20, 2012 UN report remained guarded: “In spite of the progress made one year after the declaration of famine in parts of southern Somalia, some 3.8 million people there are still in need of assistance, the United Nations said today, appealing to countries to provide funding for humanitarian aid.

‘Last year, we were able to halt the downward spiral into starvation for hundreds of thousands of people. Famine conditions have not been present since January,’ said the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden, in a news release.

‘However, the humanitarian situation in Somalia remains critical with 2.51 million people in urgent need of aid and a further 1.29 million at risk of sliding back into crisis,’ he added.”

English: Laure Souley holds her three-year-old...

English: Laure Souley holds her three-year-old daughter and an infant son at a MSF aide centre during the 2005 famine, Maradi Niger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now the same deadly specter hovers over other African countries like Chad, Niger, and Burkina Faso, reportedly the poorest region on the continent.

Recognizing the cycle

It’s not difficult to trace events leading to famine: first, no rain for several growing seasons; crops diminish and eventually fail; stockpiles dwindle; money becomes non-existent; and finally there is no food.[i] The grim result: death by starvation and disease, unless, that is, aid comes from some outside source, or, if one relocates to find sustenance elsewhere.


Drought and famine were all too familiar to people of the Old Testament. Sarai, for instance, faced such conditions during her lifetime. She and Abram had the means to relocate to Egypt until the rains returned (Genesis 12:10). Later Rebekah traveled with Isaac to Gerar for the same reason (Genesis 26:1-7). Probably the best-known survivor is Naomi, who, with her husband and two sons, journeyed to Moab, and plenty (Ruth 1:1-2).

However, there was one mother—a widow, undoubtedly poor—who found herself caught in the deadly cycle, apparently with no option to leave. Resigned to a morbid outcome, she prepared to feed her child one last meager meal and wait for the end of their miseries. With a miraculous turn of events, her life changed forever. We’ll revisit her story in the next post.

[i] For a fascinating Bible account of this cycle playing out during the life of Joseph, please read Genesis 41-47.


Let us now fear the LORD our God, Who gives rain, both the former and the latter, in its season.

The Weather Channel provides a valuable service by forecasting storms and their likely severity. Because of the changeable weather in the United States, TWC gives up-to-the-minute data about what’s ahead and how to plan for it.

The weather in Israel is more predictable than here in the States. Israel has a long, dry summer with cloudless skies from April to October. This is followed by a cooler, wetter winter from November to March. The Bible describes this as a dry season followed by a rainy season, which begins with the former rains and ends with the latter rains. With all of winter being wet, is there any difference between rain that begins the season and rain that ends the season?

Yes, there is. The rains differ in importance. The latter rains of March and April are of “far more importance to the country than all the rains of the winter months.”[1] These rains “serve to swell the grain then coming to maturity.”[2] The latter rains come at the right time to stimulate the growth of grass and grain.

Ask the LORD for rain in the time of the latter rain. The LORD will make flashing clouds; He will give them showers of rain, grass in the field for everyone (Zech.10:1).

Both rains are essential, however. The former rain beginning in October loosens the soil hardened during the summer. Once the soil is softened, farmers plow and plant. “The sowing began after the Feast of Tabernacles (the end of October and in November), in the time when the autumn rains come gradually, thus leaving the farmer time to sow his wheat and barley.”[3]

The yoreh (former) and the malgosh (latter) rains are mentioned eight times in the Bible. The words former and latter rains are stated together in four scriptures (Deut. 11:14, Jer. 5:24, Joel 2:23 and James 5:7). The latter rains are referred to in Jer. 3:3, Prov. 16:15, Job 29:23. The former rains are not cited alone as they are less significant in the agricultural cycle. Both rains are necessary, however.

Then I will give you the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your grain, your new wine, and your oil. And I will send grass in your fields for your livestock, that you may eat and be filled (Deut. 11:14-15).

Be glad then, you children of Zion, and rejoice in the LORD your God; for He has given you the former rain faithfully, and He will cause the rain to come down for you—the former rain, and the latter rain in the first month. The threshing floors shall be full of wheat, and the vats shall overflow with new wine and oil (Joel 2:2-3).

 Were women affected by the rainfall pattern?

I believe women then felt a lifting of spirits when the rainy season ended just as many of us do today. A number of online references discuss Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a feeling of listlessness associated with insufficient sunlight. This mild depression ends when the sun shines again and gloomy weather is over. Scripture doesn’t discuss mood swings linked to sunlight, but Solomon comes close when he talks about rejoicing when the rainy season was over.

For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grapes give a good smell. Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away! (Song of Solomon 2:11)

TWC reports that spring is a great time to visit Israel. “During February and the beginning of March, the entire country seems to turn green from the winter rains, and the wildflower displays in the Galilee and the Golan regions are truly spectacular.”[4]

עברית: פרחי בר באביב.

עברית: פרחי בר באביב. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Food Preparation

Women were busy with food preparation in the summer. Some portions of harvested grain were parboiled and stored for later use. Lentils and legumes were dried and put away. Women processed fruit, beginning with apricots and plums in May through grapes and figs in early September. Fruit was dried and threaded on strings, boiled into syrup, made into wine, and pressed into cakes.

Milk and cream became available in spring. Women fermented milk into a drink and boiled cream to make clarified butter for cooking. They made cheeses from curdled milk and hardened them in the sun.

In hot weather, women dried reeds for weaving into baskets and mats. They dried flax stalks for making linen and sun-bleached the finished material.

Family Dynamics

The thunder and lightning

The thunder and lightning (Photo credit: RonAlmog)

 The ending of the rainy season changed some family patterns. Shepherds, who kept their flocks close to home in the winter, moved them out to graze on “wilderness pasture” in the hills. They camped out with the sheep while grass was available and the weather was dry (Luke 2:8). As David’s experience show, shepherds were separated from their families periodically (1 Sam.16:11, 17:15, 17:34-35).

On a sober note, the kings of ancient Israel went to war when the rain was over (2 Sam.11:1). The ground was dry enough by then for soldiers to march. Men could find grass for their horses and early fruit and grain for themselves. I believe Israelite women felt the same anxiety that women have always felt when their men leave for war. Some of the battles in Israel were epic—thousands killed, leaving thousands of widows and children.

Weather is a powerful influence. It’s reassuring to know that eventually it will all be good. ♦ Mary Hendren




[1] The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, “Rain,” p. 1061

[2] Easton’s Bible Dictionary, “Rain,”

[3] The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, “Agriculture,” p. 34

[4] The Weather Channel online, “Best Time to Visit Israel”

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Perfume II

Ordinarily a trip to the bazaar was enjoyable. The general liveliness of buying and selling was a rich social experience. On the day of Jesus’ death, however, women grieved as they purchased burial spices.


 Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus made the body of Jesus ready for burial. Nicodemus brought one hundred pounds of blended aloes and myrrh, sufficient for the burial. They tucked the aromatic resins into strips of linen as they wrapped the body. They laid Him in a garden tomb (Matt. 27:57-60, Mark 15:42-46, Luke 23:50-54, John 19:38-42).

Why did the ladies buy additional spices after the men had prepared Christ’s body? Because Nicodemus and Joseph had to work quickly before sunset beginning the Holy Day, perhaps the women wanted to add spices that were not included in the initial wrapping.  Those spices may have been cassia, spikenard, balsam and sweet marjoram, all of which had to be processed before being applied to the body. Scripture indicates that the women were knowledgeable and capable of doing this work.

The making of burial blends, personal perfumes, anointing oils, incense, ointments and creams required skill and patience. Spices (woody material, roots, berries, bark, seeds) required grinding and/or heating in oil or water. Ready-to-use oils could be “imported from Phoenicia in small alabaster boxes,”[1] but they were expensive. Aromatic resins from gum trees were sold as chunks for grinding into powders. These were combined to make incense or infused into oil and fat for skin softening.

Women used oils for cosmetic purposes and to mask unpleasant odors. They sprinkled fragrances on bedding, clothing and furniture. On festive occasions, hosts anointed guests with scented oil. Women used herbs and spices to flavor food and to make medicines, salves, restoratives, aphrodisiacs, and sedatives. Ladies burned pellets of resin “in cosmetic burners…and the resulting incense-smoke would act as a fumigation for both the body and the clothes. ”[2]

Perfume recipes in Edfu temple

Perfume recipes in Edfu temple (Photo credit: robertpaulyoung)

Egyptian tomb carvings show citizens enjoying perfume in a manner that did not seem to be popular in Israel. “When a party was being held, servants placed cones of perfumed grease on top of the heads of arriving guests. The cones would melt as the party progressed providing a pleasant scent.”[3] One writer states that only “singers, dancers and prostitutes” wore the grease cones.[4] Others believe the cones pictured in the relief carvings were symbolic of pleasure and that no one was ever really a “cone head.”—Mary Hendren

[1] The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, “Oils and Ointments,” p. 938

[2] Holman Bible Dictionary on, “Cosmetics,” Darlene R. Gautsch

[3] Yahoo!Answers, “How was perfume used by Egyptians?”

[4] Facts and Details (online source),“Beauty, Hairstyles and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt,” Jeffrey Hays


Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.

John 3:1-10


The fragrance was incomparable. When Mary opened the alabaster flask and warmed the oil in her hands, it released an evocative perfume that filled the supper room. Spikenard! Judas recognized it immediately—warm. musky, sweet and spicy.

Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?

 A good question, if it had been asked with a pure motive. Judas, however, was a thief and his only interest in oil was converting it into cash—for himself. The poor would never have seen anything from it.

Jesus knew the heart of Judas but chose to answer his question.

Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial.

Whether Mary sensed Christ’s impending death and selected one of the embalming oils to anoint His feet, scripture does not say. Christ knew, however, and credited Mary with an act of devotion that anticipated His burial.

 Judas estimated the oil was worth a year’s wages. As treasurer of the group, he knew the value of commodities. Perfumes were especially expensive because many of their components—spices, herbs, flowers, fruits and resins—were imported from Arabia, China and India.

Spikenard “is one of the most precious spices of the Bible. The Hebrew for it is nerd; and the Greeks called it nardos.”[1] Spikenard, Nardostachys jatamansi, is a flowering plant that grows high in the Himalayan Mountains. The rhizomes (underground roots) of the plant are highly aromatic and are the principal part of the plant used in making incense and perfume.

Illustration of Nardostachys grandiflora

Illustration of Nardostachys grandiflora (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today it’s likely you can find tiny bottles of steam-distilled spikenard in health food stores. As an essential oil it is touted for many beneficial properties: sedative, laxative, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, deodorant. Like many other essential oils, spikenard has both medicinal and aromatic properties.

It’s possible to make the oil at home in the manner done in Mary’s day.  Roots (rhizomes) of the Nardostachys jatamansi plant are mashed and then steeped in olive oil for several days. At the end of the steeping period, the fragrant oil is poured through cheesecloth to separate it from the plant material. The finished oil is stored in dark bottles to protect it from chemical changes caused by light. The challenging part of making the oil at home is getting the spikenard roots, although there are dealers online that sell the raw materials for compounding biblical incense.

With the hundreds of scents and perfumes available today, I wonder if we would appreciate the ancient fragrance?

I think we would. I think it would remind us of a priceless life once given.—Mary Hendren

[1] Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible, J.I. Packer and M.C. Tenny, p. 253

Personal grooming and hygiene: glimpses of the past

In skimming the pages of any cultural history, one is bound to find some similarities among various peoples—for instance, the desire to be clean and sweet-smelling, coupled with the yen to be handsome or beautiful.

Come along as we catch some glimpses of beauty treatments and personal hygiene—ancient Near East style.

Start with the basics

Picture yourself in a home in some ancient village, looking into a lovely hand-woven basket. It contains an odd assortment to your eye. What do you suppose its contents are used for?

  • Ashes of soda-yielding plants
  • Fat
  • Rosemary
  • Marjoram
  • Pumice stone
  • Sponges
  • Oils
  • Fragrances

If you answer that people from the ancient Near East use these in the act of personal bathing, you are correct. Cleanliness is a basic priority for many cultures, and particularly, among both Old and New Testament Israelites. It is especially imperative for them to be clean in preparation for the Sabbath.[1]

Ashes of soda-yielding plants mixed with some kind of fat are used for washing one’s body. If a laborer (like a tanner) is especially dirty, he can use a pumice-stone as an abrasive, or natron (from the same root word which means “to froth”), the sodium carbonate imported from Egypt or Syria, to remove the grime. He might finish off by rubbing himself with the strongly scented herbs of rosemary and marjoram.

(However, if you happen to be, say a second-century Roman, bathing at a public bath house, you clean yourself by first covering your body with oil. Then you, or perhaps a servant, scrape off the oil with a special scraper called a strigil. It’s made from bone or metal—ouch!)

After women (and perhaps some men) bathe themselves, they apply creams to protect their skin against the harsh sun, and to counteract body odors. These emollients consist of oils from olives, almonds, gourds, various trees and plants, and animals or fish. Adding fragrances produced by expert craftsmen from “seeds, plant leaves, fruits, and flowers, especially roses, jasmines, mints, balsams, and cinnamon”[2] makes this beauty treatment especially luxurious.

The nose test

Peering at the contents more closely, you spy a small jar of what appears to be a finely ground spice. Is it pepper?  With a quick sniff you recognize it immediately—it’s licorice or anise. Do you wonder why this is included?

Toothbrushes or toothpaste have yet to be invented. The ancient Egyptians’ formula for dental hygiene consisted of powdered ashes of ox hooves, myrrh, powdered and burnt eggshells, and pumice. Over time, the peppery anise powder comes to be used as a breath freshener.

The Romans will soon step in with more refinements, adding abrasives such as crushed bones and oyster shells, to aid in cleaning debris from teeth. They also add powdered charcoal, powdered bark and more flavoring agents to improve the breath.

The “toothbrush” remains the same—one’s finger. (It is believed that the Chinese invented the toothbrush in 1498, using bristles from pig’s necks).

Guess again

An ornate box sits near the basket. You lift its lid to find some combs, a mirror, and the following:

  • Soap
  • Perfumes
  • Essential oils
  • Gold dust
  • Henna

Puzzling? This is a do-it-yourself, or perhaps a commercial hair care kit (my term). The first three items are used in combination as precursors to our modern shampoo. The results, should you try the mixture, will rate a quick “thumbs down.” You will find it irritating to the eyes, difficult to wash out, leaving your hair dull and a little gummy. (In fact it has been only recently that science has developed sophisticated products to deal effectively with hair soil.[3])

To apply it on the hair; Henna powder is mixed...

To apply it on the hair; Henna powder is mixed with water and then applied on the hair (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Outside the box: historians on “hair”

Henri Daniel-Rops shares Josephus’ eye-witness commentary concerning some hair treatments of the day: “Depraved young men would sprinkle it [their hair] with gold dust to make it more brilliant,” and, “old bucks like Herod dyed it.” [4] In Jezebel’s time it was usual for women to cover their grey using Antioch-red or Alexandrian henna (p. 304). That custom found its way to the first century as well. “Both men and women dyed their hair. Men sometimes dyed it black, sometimes blonde. Women dyed their hair black, but especially auburn, and were at pains to cover grey hair.”[5] Wigs were also worn by both sexes, although this style existed in the main within the ranks of the wealthy non-Jewish upper-class.

Taming their locks

Hair styles have been of significant importance to women (and men) throughout history. They not only enhance beauty but they say much about a woman’s social standing within her community.

Cultural historians note that first century hair styles included plaiting: “The women of Israel were very cleaver at plaiting their hair, adorning it and even curling it” (Daniel-Rops, page 304). Young women sometimes tied their hair back in a plain knot, and then ran a plait over the top of the head in the front. Roman women of the upper class often piled their hair high in elaborate styles. Bouquet writes, “Towards the end of the first century most wonderful structures came to be erected on the top of women’s heads” (p. 68).

Bust of a Roman woman, ca. 80 CE. Raised hairs...

Bust of a Roman woman, ca. 80 CE. Raised hairstyles, made by mixing stranger and own hair, were very common during the Flavian dynasty (Vespasian, Titus, Domitian: 69–96 CE) at the court and outside. The pointed nose and double chin indicate a realistic design of the portrait, which points out the republican time and comes in contradiction with the idealization of the early empire art. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These extravagant adornments were likely the genesis of calls for moderation and modesty found in 1 Timothy 2:9-10: “…. in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works;” and 1 Peter 3:3-4: “Do not let your adornment be merely outward — arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel —rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.”

An interesting bit of trivia concerns the first hairbrush: “Around 2500 B.C, ancient Egyptians used paintbrushes for grooming hair. Later, ancient Greeks and Romans used hairbrushes for removing lice and dirt. The first U.S. hairbrush patent was granted to Hugh Rock in 1854.”

Now is good!

While some things never seem change—i.e., the desire for beauty and cleanliness—regarding certain others, there is no comparison between then and now. I, for one, am quite happy with bars of soap manufactured to meet my skin’s particular needs, minty toothpaste applied on soft-bristled brushes, shampoos that clean, rinse out easily, and leave hair with a healthy shine, and, private baths.

I don’t mind glimpsing the past, but I surely wouldn’t want to stay there.

[1] Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, Henri Daniel-Rops (1961), p. 302.

[2] Holman Bible Dictionary “Cosmetics,”

[4] Daniel-Rops, p. 303.

[5] Everyday Life in New Testament Times, A.C. Bouquet (1953), p. 67.

Ichabod’s mother: there is no glory


The servant stood poised with the three-pronged hook, watching the boiling water turn the Israelite’s animal sacrifice from blood-red to brownish gray. No longer content with their rightful portion (Deut. 18:1-3), the debauched priests, Hophne and Phinehas, Eli’s sons, wanted all the meat that could be speared from the cooking pot. Not only that, before the fat was burned (1 Samuel 2:16), they demanded raw meat for roasting—going against sacrificial law. Any objections were met with force. Israel was all too familiar with the actions of these sons of Belial who grew fat with the best of all the offerings of Israel while their father looked on (1 Samuel 2:29).

Compounding their offenses,  the brothers flaunted their wantonness by openly sleeping  with women who assembled at the tabernacle of meeting (1 Samuel 2:22).  Eli knew such wicked impudence toward the LORD and His offerings would have serious consequences—for them and for Israel. How could he help but remember when God warned him through Samuel about his vile sons (3:11-14)? Surely the prophecy of the man of God was etched into his memory, and that stinging indictment for honoring his sons more than God Himself.

He pleaded with them. “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealing from all the people. It is not a good report that I hear. You make the LORD’s people transgress” (1 Samuel 2: 23-24).   His words fell on deaf ears, and ultimately, they would all pay with their lives.


Trouble for Israel

The battle was intense and bloody, and now Israelite bodies—thousands of them—lay strewn on the battlefield. The Philistines claimed victory, no doubt celebrating long into the night at Aphek.

How could this have happened? When word reached the camp at Ebenezer, the elders could only ask, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines?”

It was obvious that the LORD’s blessing was missing. The only thing to do was to send to Shiloh for the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, which they did; and it arrived at the camp along with the reprobates, Hophne and Phinehas.

Heartened by the sight of their cherished ark, the Israelite camp erupted into shouts of celebration. Philistine confidence changed to terror at the thought that suddenly Israel’s God was there—the One who sent horrible plagues against Egypt. Officers quickly rallied their troops, shouting, “Be strong and conduct yourselves like men, you Philistines, that you do not become servants of the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Conduct yourselves like men, and fight!” (1 Samuel 4:9.)

Obedient soldiers rushed into the fray. When it was finally over, the Philistines had prevailed once more. Eli’s sons lay among the casualties. A triumphant army returned to Ashdod bringing with it a treasure beyond belief—Israel’s sacred ark of the covenant.

The Ark of the Covenant

The Ark of the Covenant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No good news

Eli, ninety-eight years old, heavy, and nearly blind, sat by the wayside near Shiloh, trembling with apprehension. The ark had left the city—his wicked sons had gone with it. Now he could only wait. Would it return? Were the prophecies already coming to pass?

His failing eyes probably could not make out the survivor who finally straggled into Shiloh with the sorry report, but his ears told the story. Unmistakable cries of distress filled the air, and the messenger himself confirmed Eli’s worst fears: the ark of the covenant—captured by the Philistines, and his two sons, dead. Recoiling in shock, Israel’s judge of forty years toppled backward off his seat and died of a broken neck.

One more casualty

At the same time, Phinehas’ wife went into labor, perhaps precipitated by the dreadful news. The ark had been captured! Her husband and Eli, dead! With one last push, her strength was spent. The midwives tried to revive her with the news of a baby boy, but all she could think about was the ark and her loss. She managed to name her baby Ichabod (which means there is no glory), and with her dying words she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured” (1 Samuel 4:22).

What we do and do not know

Ichabod’s mother is anonymous. She gets four verses in the Bible. By piecing together other scriptures we know that she was married to a priest who was unfaithful to God and unfaithful to her. She lived during one of the lowest points in the history of the nation of Israel. There is no other record of her in the Bible. While it seems likely Eli had given up on his rebellious sons (even though he shared in their guilt), we have no indication of her thoughts regarding her husband, Phinehas. Was she privy to Samuel’s warning message, or the ominous prophecy of the man of God regarding  her family’s future? The Bible gives no indication.

What we do have is evidence of her dying concern for the fate of Israel and for the ark of God. If only we could know more.

(For the complete account, please read 1 Samuel 1-4.)

Of a mother and her child

The Creator definitely had a master plan when He put all the elements needed for growth and success in place. He created two beings—a man and a woman, each made in His image—and told them to become one, and to multiply. He gave them guidelines for happiness, a beautiful place in which to live, and the ability to produce offspring, also in their own image.

The miracle of reproduction is still amazing these thousands of years later. The fact that an infant is not only born with its parents’ likenesses, but that its mother can continue to sustain it with life-giving nourishment from her own body is awesome. From its very first cry, she is there to hold her baby close, to suckle it, and establish a bond meant to last a lifetime.

Janis Rozentals - Mother and Child

Janis Rozentals – Mother and Child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The mother who laughed

The first reference in the Bible to nursing is in Genesis 21:6-7, when Sarah rejoiced at the birth of her miracle-son, Isaac:  “And Sarah said, ‘God has made me laugh, and all who hear will laugh with me.’ She also said, ‘Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne him a son in his old age.”

Treacherous times

The next episode of note involves the birth of a beautiful baby boy during treacherous times. Moses, Jochebed and Amram’s third child, was born under a death sentence. Pharaoh’s maniacal efforts to curb the growing numbers of Israelites resulted in a chilling edict: All newborn baby boys must be thrown in the river and drowned!

It is possible Jochebed delivered Moses without the aid of midwives in the interest of secrecy; for three months she succeeded in hiding him. No doubt worried about informers or the risk of discovery by palace troops, she embarked on a courageous plan to save her precious boy.

Taking an ark of bulrushes, she waterproofed it with a coating of asphalt and pitch. Then she secreted it among water plants fringing the river’s shore. How heartbreaking it must have been to nurse her tiny son one last time, place him securely in his miniature vessel, and then walk away!

Would he stay safe, and warm, and dry? His sister stood a silent sentinel, watching from afar.

It could not have been long before Pharaoh’s daughter heard cries of a tiny infant as she neared the water. When she discovered Moses she immediately called for a nurse. The Hebrew phrase is literally “a woman causing to be breastfed” (‘ishah meyneqet); some translations have “a wet-nurse.” Miriam was there to suggest just such a person—his own mother, Jochebed.

Lent to the Lord

Another incident concerns a certain woman named Hannah. Hers is a well-known story. Unable to bear children for years, Hannah begged God to hear her pleas, promising that if He should grant her desire for a son, she would give him back to His service. God heard, and Samuel was born. Scripture says, “…The woman stayed and nursed her son until she had weaned him” (1 Samuel 1:23). Then she took him to the house of Lord along with sacrifices, saying,  “For this child I prayed, and the LORD has granted me my petition which I asked of Him. Therefore I also have lent him to the LORD; as long as he lives he shall be lent to the LORD” (vs 27-28).


While suckling an infant promotes early bonding, there comes a point when it is no longer possible or practical to do so. The child is weaned, and depends predominantly on other forms of nourishment.

There is some discussion about the age when weaning took place. Burton Scott Easton, in his explanation in The International Bible Standard Encyclopedia, remarks that the Hebrew word for “wean,” gamal, “covers the whole period of nursing and care until the weaning is complete (1 Kings 11:20). This period in ancient Israel extended to about 3 years, and when it was finished the child was mature enough to be intrusted [sic] to strangers (1 Sam 1:24).” He continues that the “completion of the period marked the end of the most critical stage of the child’s life, [and] it was celebrated with a feast (Gen 21:8), a custom still observed in the Orient” (from International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Electronic Database Copyright © 1996, 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc.).

On the other hand, Adam Clarke in his commentary on Genesis 21:8 presents different opinions: “The time that children were weaned among the ancients is a disputed point. Jerome says there were two opinions on this subject. Some hold that children were always weaned at five years of age; others, that they were not weaned till they were twelve” (from Adam Clarke’s Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright © 1996, 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc.). The practicality of either of these ages can easily be disputed.

Conventional wisdom seems satisfied that the age for weaning was between two and three years of age, when a child could walk and chew solid food.

The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Bible Commentary furnishes the following regarding the celebration when Isaac was weaned (Genesis 21:8): “In Eastern countries this is always a season of domestic festivity, and the newly weaned child is formally brought, in presence of the assembled relatives and friends, to partake of some simple viands. Isaac, attired in the symbolic robe, the badge of birthright, was then admitted heir of the tribe [Rosenmuller].”

Wet nurses and nursemaids

When Moses was rescued by Pharoah’s daughter, the fact that she called for a nursing woman indicates such services were available should the need arise. Sometimes these women would stay on past the weaning stage, and become a nursemaid or, more modernly, a nanny, to the developing child.

Jochebed may have continued with Moses for some time before bringing him to the Egyptian princess—likely due to a grander plan of a higher power at work. It would not be out of the realm of possibility, in my opinion, that she began teaching him about his heritage as well as simply caring for his physical needs in those formative years. However, the Bible does not directly say.

In New Testament times

Among the Roman elite, it was not uncommon for a new mother to rely on the services of a lactating slave or a professional wet nurse. However a certain respect and symbolism existed for the mother who suckled her own young. Lynn H. Cohick, in her book Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (2009), writes, “Reflecting commonly held sentiments, Favorinus (ca. AD 85-165) attacks matrons who refuse to nurse their own infants as consumed by concerns for beauty” (p 145). She continues, “Plutarch, writing from the early second century AD, laments the emotional distance between mother and infant resulting from employing a wet nurse” (p 146).

To this day

Whether or not to nurse one’s baby when it is physically possible continues to be a controversial subject. Although wet nurses are still common in some parts of the developing world, scientific and nutritional advances have provided much of the world with additional means for proper nourishment for infants. There is however a rigorous movement advocating breastfeeding. The only thing missing, at least in this country, is the grand celebration when a child is finally weaned.

A Mother’s Advice

Who was King Lemuel mentioned in Proverbs? Was he King Muel who ruled the mysterious land of Massa? Was he a Chaldean prince from an ancient country? Jewish and Christian commentators “consent” to the probability that Solomon is the king addressed in Proverbs 31:1-9,[1] and that his mother affectionately called him Lemuel.

The name “Lemuel” means devoted to God. When Solomon was an infant, God sent a prophet to give him the name of “Jedidiah” which means beloved of the Lord. Some posit that this “name, spoken by the prophet of the Lord, was the final symbol of God’s forgiveness in the lives of David and Bathsheba.”[2] That Bathsheba cherished this God-given name and considered her son endeared to Him strengthens the general belief that Solomon is Lemuel.

In her position as Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba served as an intercessor and advisor to him. In contrast to the wife of a king who held “a position of comparatively little importance,” the queen mother “commanded great influence.” [3] Women who had the highest authority during the Judean monarchy were the mothers of kings. The queen mother had a fixed position in the king’s administration, but the influence of a wife /concubine depended on many factors: the king’s favor, whether the woman was of royal birth, whether she bore the king’s first child, or whether she gave birth to the heir to the throne. When the king took another woman, it shuffled the pecking order in the harem, but it did not disturb the control of the queen mother.

The Hebrew word gebhirah means the “mistress” or “queen mother.” It refers to a woman with a “sanctioned position within the Judean court and [who] had such great influence upon her son that she too receives blame as part of the monarchy for the fall of Judah.” The books of 1 and 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles include the names of the mothers of the kings of Judah because they were part of the success or failure of the kingship.

The Anointing of Solomon by Cornelis de Vos. A...

The Anointing of Solomon by Cornelis de Vos. According to 1 Kings 1:39, Solomon was anointed by Zadok. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As queen mother, Bathsheba felt a measure of responsibility for her son’s conduct. Drawing on her understanding of Solomon’s character and the demands of ruling, she advised him on how to be a good king. An example is this is found in Proverbs 31:1-9 (paraphrase mine):

Don’t fritter away your strength on pursuing women, sexual gratification, and political alliances through marriage. Such behavior destroys kings and their kingdoms.

 Avoid excessive use of alcohol. Its effects are mind-altering. It leaves one unable to remember the law and how to make just decisions.

 Stand up for the weak and helpless. Be compassionate and stay in touch with reality.

 His respect

The last recorded conversation between Bathsheba and Solomon is a discussion on the topic of David’s attendant Abishag.  Based on this example of how mother and son interacted, I believe Solomon customarily listened to her with respect. “Bathsheba therefore went to King Solomon…and the king rose up to meet her and bowed down to her, and sat down on his throne and had a throne set for the king’s mother; so she sat at his right hand. Then she said, ‘I desire one small petition of you; do not refuse me’” (1 Kings 2:13-21). Although Solomon refused the “one small petition” she asked on this occasion, he accepted Bathsheba’s right to present her case.

It is unlikely that Solomon wholly rejected Bathsheba’s three points on being an honorable king. But in the course of his reign he did not wholly take them to heart, either. On the negative side, he gathered a harem of a thousand women, he gratified himself with wine, and he imposed heavy taxes and forced labor. When Solomon died, the people remembered him for having placed a “heavy yoke” and “burdensome service” on them (1 Kings 12:4).

Advice not taken

Why didn’t Solomon follow his mother’s advice? Maybe he didn’t see the need for it. He was youthful, vigorous and confident. God had given him wisdom, riches and honor. He felt assured of God’s love and favor (1 Kings 3:4-14). He built a magnificent house for God, and God blessed it with His glory.

Maybe Solomon had a different vision for his reign—a generation gap? His father was a man of war and had consolidated the kingdom.  Solomon assumed the throne in peacetime. His goals were made possible by peace.

I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven (Eccl. 1:13).

 I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly (Eccl. 1:17).

 I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives (Eccl. 2:3).

Maybe he had already started down a bad path and Bathsheba was correcting him, as some commentators believe. “This exclamation of Lemuel’s mother implies apprehension in respect to the sins against which she warns him if not remonstrance against the present practice of them.”[4]

In the End

After her intercession for David’s son Adonijah, Bathsheba vanishes from scripture (1 Kings 2:13-21). Did she continue advising Solomon? Did she deal with his excesses? Did she encourage him to write? Did she help compile his wise sayings? Did she read that he valued her teaching?

My son, keep your father’s command, and do not forsake the law of your mother. Bind them continually upon your heart; tie them around your neck. When you roam, they will lead you; when you sleep, they will keep you; and when you awake, they will speak with you.

 Was she gratified?—Mary Hendren

[1] An Exposition of the Old and New Testament, John Gill, online note on Prov.31:1

[2] NKJV Study Bible, Second Edition, Thomas Nelson, note on II Samuel 12:25

[3] Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, p.778

[4] The Family Bible Notes, Justin Edwards, note on v. 2, Online Publishing source

Exploring the bond of motherhood

“To the woman He said:
‘I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception;
In pain you shall bring forth children;
Your desire shall be for your husband,
And he shall rule over you.’

“And Adam called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:16, 20).

These words often bring to mind a scene of the wily serpent beguiling Eve with flattery, whispers, and innuendos, an event that changed the course of mankind. Ministers and laity draw life lessons from her story—from cautions about Satan’s bag of tricks to insights concerning the roles of husbands and wives. Rarely, it seems, does one focus on the phrase “the mother of all living,” or particularly on the word “mother.”

In the broader sense, since Eve was the first woman, and the first one to bear a child, she becomes the original mother for the human race. But tucked into the meaning of the Hebrew word for mother,[1] Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible includes a parenthetical note in its definition: “a mother (as the bond of the family).”

A couple of the nuances of the English word bond could serve to enlarge on Strong’s note. For instance:

  • Adhesion: the way in which one surface sticks to another. Mothers were and are instrumental in making sure knowledge of proper conduct before God and man “sticks” to their children.
  • A link that binds people together in a relationship. Wives model respect for their husbands, which in turn encourages children to respect and honor their father. Mothers spend endless hours ironing out sibling differences on a regular basis.

Motherhood (Photo credit: Wikipedia) While there are many joys associated with motherhood, every mother faces challenges. Some are straightforward: she must provide for the physical needs such as feeding and clothing children. Then there is the task of teaching everything from walking and talking, to safety issues, to life skills. A mother’s job is daunting and demanding!

In this week’s posts, WomenfromtheBook will investigate some maternal duties from a historical perspective. When considering physical needs, breastfeeding was at the top of the list; obviously a child’s survival depended on it. While there are some evidences of primitive baby bottles as early as 2000 BC, birth mothers, or, on occasion, wet nurses provided this vital nourishment. The Bible points us to some interesting cultural insights regarding this type of nurturing.

Teaching children consumed much of a mother’s time during their formative years—whether by rote, or by specific instruction and applications. Mary Hendren recently highlighted the joint activities of a mother and grandmother, Eunice and Lois, with regard to Timothy’s upbringing. This week we look forward to Mary’s insights on the life of Bathsheba and her influence on Solomon.

Finally there are mothers about whom little is known. By blending the dark brushstrokes of their social backdrop, a faint cameo gradually emerges—like Ichabod’s mother, for instance. Remember her? No? After this week, perhaps you will.

[1] See Strong’s Concordance, Mother, ‘em (517)

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