Video: Making Babies: Childbirth and Ceramic Production in the Hebrew Bible and Israelite Religion

November 14, 2019
Kerry Sonia, 2019-20 WSRP Research Associate

On Thursday, November 14, 2019, Kerry M. Sonia, WSRP Research Associate and Visiting Assistant Professor of Women's Studies and Hebrew Bible, gave the lecture, “Making Babies: Childbirth and Ceramic Production in the Hebrew Bible and Israelite Religion.”



Good afternoon. And welcome. It's great to see everyone out this afternoon to hear today's speaker, Kerry Sonia, as part of the-- this is the last in this semester's series of Women's Studies and Religion presentations. And we're happy to have you all here.

This is a serious Hebrew Bible crowd. You lined up against the wall, so you can see the slides. You all know what. But you guys will be able to turn around and see them, I'm sure.

And we are so happy to have Kerry Sonia here in the program for the year, as well as our speaker for today. Kerry did her doctorate at Brown University in the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean. And her dissertation, "The Enduring Dead, The Cult of Dead Kin in Ancient Israel"-- is this still forthcoming? Or did it come out?

It's coming out this next year in 2020.

2020 we will see the publication of that work in the SBL Press. And today's lecture is, to some extent, builds on that earlier work on the cult of the dead to take us to thinking about childbirth in the Hebrew Bible. So, thank you so much.

Thank you so much for being here. I know this is a tricky time in the semester, and everybody's very busy. So, thank you. This is a really wonderful turnout.

I also want to make sure. Can everybody hear me OK? Is this-- OK, great. If at any point that's not the case, please raise your hand, and let me know.

So I want to start off today with just some thank yous to everybody who made this possible-- so to Ann, as well as Tracy Wall, who's in the back, who have done such a great job at fostering a really supportive and enriching community at the WSRP and who have made today possible. And with that in mind, I also want to thank my fellow fellows, my fellows at the WSRP present and past, who also have just been such great conversation partners already this academic year.

I also want to thank the Semitic Museum. A lot of the objects and images that we're going to be talking about today-- like, for instance, the three objects you see on the slide show right now-- they're all located in the Semitic Museum. And they've been very generous in giving us access to these objects.

And so the photographs that you're going to see, a lot of them in this slideshow today, were actually taken by our camera man. So I'm breaking the fourth wall for a second. And I'd like to thank Bob Deveau, who is our cameraman and who also has taken many of the photographs you're going to see today at the Semitic Museum.

So it's been really lovely to be back at HDS. So about 10 years ago, I was here as a master's student. And some of my very best friends and colleagues I've met during my time as a master's student. And they've not only enriched my life, but they've also really enriched my sense of what religion is and how we may best study it, how we may analyze it.

And really, a lot of the questions that motivate my research today are really questions that have been cultivated by years of conversations with those friends and colleagues I met way back when as a master's student at HDS. So I also want to take a moment and thank them. And in case you're watching, hi, guys.

So this project, as Ann mentioned, focusing on childbirth develops out of my broader research interest in family religion in the ancient world, particularly as expressed in the Hebrew Bible and the material culture in ancient Israel. So as Ann noted, my first book focuses on the commemoration and care for the dead in the context of Israelite family religion-- so thinking about the social, political, and religious work of caring for the dead, what these kinds of rituals accomplish, what they do-- so how, for instance, caring for the dead helps to construct the family in ancient Israel, or how it helps to construct claims to land ownership, or even, as I found, how biblical writers use care for the dead as a way of talking about the covenant between Israel and its god, Yahweh. So these kinds of questions about family religion and biblical theology continue to influence my work on childbirth, another major moment in the life cycle of the family, both ancient and modern.

So in my talk today I'd like to begin by outlining this approach. What are we talking about when we're talking about family religion? And why does it matter? And what kinds of methods might we use in analyzing it? This kind of framing helps us speak a little bit more clearly about how childbirth fits into the context of family religion and the ancient household.

This context is particularly crucial for the second part of my talk. And this will be the bulk of my talk today, which focuses on the materiality of biblical imagery and rituals surrounding childbirth. And as you can guess from the title of this talk, I'm going to be tracking the role of clay and ceramic production in this discourse. And once we examine the evidence through this lens, we see just how pervasive this clay imagery actually is and how biblical writers use this imagery to articulate their understandings not only of childbirth, but also the various processes that form and shape the human.

So to kick off our discussion of Israelite family religion, I'd like to begin with an excerpt from the Book of Ezekiel, Ezekiel chapter 16, in which the Prophet Ezekiel-- oh, good, it worked. Excellent-- in which the Prophet Ezekiel depicts ancient Israel as a newborn infant. So in the passage, Yahweh speaks to Israel, saying, "As for your birth, on the day you were born, your umbilical cord was not cut, and you were not washed in water. You were not rubbed with salt nor swaddled in swaddling clothes. No eye looked upon you with compassion to do any of these things out of compassion for you.

You were cast out upon the open field, you yourself in defilement, on the day you were born. I came across you and saw you wallowing in your blood. And I said to you, 'Live. Grow like a plant in the field.' You grew, matured, and reached puberty. Your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown, but you were naked and bare."

Biblical writers use many images to depict the complex relationship between Israel and Yahweh, its national deity. In Ezekiel 16, the prophet uses the imagery of an abandoned, exposed infant to convey the helpless, dejected state of Israel. A miserable foundling wallowing in its own afterbirth, the infant Israel is later rescued when Yahweh adopts and nurtures it.

This is not a text about childbirth. The biblical writer does not offer a prescriptive text for properly caring for a newborn. In fact, no such text exists in the whole anthology of the Hebrew Bible. What concerns the biblical writer is the relationship between Israel and Yahweh. And the text leverages the rituals surrounding childbirth and presumably what the audience knows about these rituals in order to convey the utter helplessness of Israel without its God.

Texts such as Ezekiel 16 present both a challenge and an opportunity for scholars of family religion in ancient Israel. On one hand, biblical writers are largely unconcerned with the rituals of the family, including childbirth. They do not offer detailed instructions about how to deliver a baby, perform a marriage, or bury someone, even though it's clear from the biblical text that marriage, children, and proper burial are all highly valued by the biblical writers.

What we, as scholars, know about these important life events and their social and ritual dimensions comes from texts like Ezekiel's depiction of Israel as an exposed infant. Recognizing the relatively narrow cultic interests of biblical writers, scholars of family religion have to adopt certain reading strategies. We must ask, for instance, what the biblical writer takes for granted about this ritual event.

Presumably based on this text, the umbilical cord is cut after the infant is born. Then the child is washed, rubbed in salt, and swaddled. This particular text tells us something perhaps even more important about Israelite family religion, more generally. Although biblical writers may have relatively little interest in family religion itself, the rituals that comprise family religion are inextricably linked to biblical ideologies concerning the God of Israel. Thank you.

The Exodus story offers us even more details about the ritual processes surrounding childbirth. So here we see this passage. "So the King of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 'When you deliver the Hebrew women and you look upon the birthing bricks'-- this is the term obnayim in the text-- 'if it is a son, kill him. If it is a daughter, she shall live.'

But the midwives feared God. And they did not do with the King of Egypt said to them. They spared the children. The King of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, 'Why did you do this, spare the children?'

The midwives replied to Pharaoh that Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women, because they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them. God dealt well with the midwives. The people multiplied and became very powerful. Because the midwives feared God, he made houses for them."

Here we see two named female ritual specialists who are involved in the labor and seemingly exercise a great deal of influence in the early care of the infant. We have a reference to ritual objects used during childbirth, the birthing bricks or obnayim, upon which the midwives must look and determine the sex of the newborn. As reward for their piety and sparing the male infants, the midwives are granted their own descendants, thereby establishing "houses" for themselves.

Here we see the multi-valence of the word house in Hebrew, which refers both to the physical domicile, as well as the multi-generational family. All of these narrative features are relevant to a discussion of childbirth in ancient Israel. But the real ritual drama of this story lies on the birthing bricks, where the newborn is first seen and socially recognized.

Aside from the birthing bricks in the Exodus story, the only other biblical attestation of the term obnayim appears in Jeremiah chapter 18, where it is used in the context of ceramic production. And we're going to look at this text in just a little bit. Examining the relationship between these two texts and others, it seems that ceramic production is conceptually linked to the birthing process in the Hebrew Bible.

In fact, comparative evidence from the broader ancient Near East also attests to this close association between ceramic production and the formation of the human. The imagery of clay and human creation is particularly striking in the Atrahasis Epic, sometimes called the Mesopotamian flood story, in which the goddess named Mami, the midwife of the Gods, creates human beings out of a mixture of clay and the blood of a slain God. After reciting incantations, Mami takes 14 pinches of clay, seven male and seven female, and sets a birthing brick in between them.

And the goddess is clearly successful in her midwifery, since human beings soon procreate to such an extent that the Gods complain about their noise. And it's this overpopulation of the world with human beings that sets the stage for the flood that's sent by the Gods to wipe out all of humanity. And I like to tell my students that, in this text, the end of the world is brought about by what is effectively a noise complaint.


This clay imagery also appears in Egyptian texts, describing the creator God, Khnum, fashioning the fetus in the womb. In these texts, Khnum molds and shapes every child upon his potter's wheel. So in this particular image, you see Khnum on the left.

He is typically depicted as a ram-headed God in Egyptian iconography. And you see him sitting on his potter's wheel. And he's forming and shaping this human figure.

So this cross-cultural association between ceramic production and childbirth helps shed light on biblical conceptions of human formation, such as god forming Adam from the dust of the earth in the Book of Genesis. In many respects, clay is a potent medium for ancient discourse about the formation of the fetus, as well as the social and ritual dimensions of childbirth. It is both malleable and incredibly durable, especially after it's been baked in a kiln. It is both mundane, coming from the ground itself, and subject to formation and inscription by elite systems of power.

In Mesopotamia in particular, where cuneiform writing was impressed into damp clay with a reed stylus, a lump of clay is charged with the potential energy of social inscription. In addition, clay is the raw material for the built environment of different social spheres, including the domicile, the temple, and the palace. So it's no surprise, then, that the imagery of clay would resonate on all of these different registers.

Ultimately, I would argue that biblical texts use the imagery of clay and ceramic production to conceptualize the formation of the person, the household, and different social networks. My approach to thinking about the relationship between childbirth and clay reflects two important developments in the field of religious studies, more broadly. So first, scholarship on religion has become more attentive to the internal diversity of religious traditions. This attention to religious diversity has led to greater interest in local forms of religion, including religion of the household and the family. This development in the field is no doubt influenced and encouraged by questions raised by women's and gender studies, which interrogate and amplify the voices of women, particularly in patriarchal traditions.

The field of biblical studies has benefited greatly from this approach, which has helped to illuminate the religious practices of the family depicted in the Hebrew Bible and the roles of women in those practices. With the introduction of archaeological evidence into this discussion, we can speak not only of a biblical religion of the family, but of family religion in ancient Israel. My study of childbirth draws upon both corpora of evidence, the Hebrew Bible, as well as archaeological evidence from ancient Israel.

An examination of this material culture is a necessary component in understanding the dynamics of Israelite religion, including the ritual dimensions of childbirth. In fact, the second development in the field of religious studies that shapes my approach is what has been called the material turn in religious studies. The material turn has led to increased interest in the embodied nature of religious practice and ideology. In a discipline heavily influenced by paradigms emphasizing belief, this methodological shift has led to the re-examination of the diverse ways in which materiality literally shapes different religious traditions, communities, and individuals.

More recently, scholars of religion have begun to apply the interpretive lens of new materialism to the relationships between subjects and objects, emphasizing the porous boundaries between them. This framework is useful for thinking about the prevalence of ceramic production in ancient Near Eastern discourse about childbirth. Because I argue that biblical writers are not simply thinking about ceramics in relation to procreation but are actually thinking with them, that the raw materials, technologies, and objects of ceramic production are inextricably part of the ideologies and ritual processes that shape the human from gestation, to birth, to weaning. In some biblical text, such as the creation of Adam from dust of the ground, this commingling of subject and object is actually quite explicit. And the rest of my talk today traces the prevalence of this paradigm in both biblical texts and material culture from ancient Israel.

OK, so let's turn, then, to biblical discourse about clay and ceramic production. The creation of Adam in Genesis chapter 2 is not the only biblical text that refers to the formation of human beings out of clay. The Prophet Jeremiah uses the imagery of ceramic production to talk about the relationship between Yahweh and Israel.

So in Jeremiah chapter 18, Yahweh tells the Prophet to go to a potter's workshop and watch him at the wheel. And the wheel, again, is referred to using this term we were talking about before, obnayim, which appeared in the Exodus story. After Jeremiah sees the potter at work, Yahweh likens himself to a potter who may remake a damaged pot. When the pot that he made with clay was damaged in the hand of the potter, he made another vessel again as it seemed fit in the eyes of the potter to make. "The word Yahweh came to me saying, House of Israel, can I not do to you as this potter does"-- oracle of Yahweh-- "like clay in the hand of the potter, so you are in my hand, House of Israel."

This imagery appears in other instances of prophetic rhetoric, which emphasize Yahweh's creation of and thus sovereignty over human beings. Biblical writers use this clay imagery not only for Israel as a collective, but also for individuals. For example, multiple times, Job refers to himself quite explicitly as one who was formed out of clay by God. In fact, Job chapter 4 seems to play with this imagery in order to reflect on mortality and the fragility of the human body.

"Can a mortal be righteous before God? Can a man be pure before his maker? He, God, does not even trust in His servants, and He charges His angels with error. How much more those who live in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed before the moth. Between morning and evening, they are destroyed. They perish forever without any regarding it. Are their tent pegs not pulled up within them? They die without wisdom."

The emphasis on the mortality of human beings in this passage suggests that these houses of clay refer not only to the built structures in which humans live, but also human bodies. This metaphor becomes more apparent with the use of the term aphar, dust, in verse 19, a seeming allusion to the dust from which Adam was formed into which he shall return in death. To further underscore the use of building imagery in this passage, it ends by alluding to the structure of a different domestic dwelling, the tent, to describe the materiality and inevitable collapse of the human body-- and describes it really vividly, too.

From this text, we see how the materiality of clay shapes biblical ideologies about childbirth but also mortality and death. This overlap in ceramic production and childbirth imagery may offer us another way of understanding the prevalence of biblical idioms using building imagery in the context of childbirth. For instance, both Sarai and Rachel use the imagery of building when they ask their husbands to fathers sons with their maid servants.

"Sarai said to Abraham, 'See how Yahweh has prevented me from bearing children. Please go into my maid servant so that I may be built up through her.' Abraham listen to the voice of Sarai."

Rachel makes an almost identical request to Jacob in Genesis chapter 30. And this building imagery appears again in Ruth chapter 4, where both Leah and Rachel are described as the two who quote, "built the house of Israel." These illusions to the physical construction of a house also rely upon the use of clay. Because the architecture of houses in Iron Age Judah consists primarily of mud brick, stone, and wooden beams, building imagery in the Hebrew Bible assumes the manipulation of clay.

So here we have an image of an exhibit which is usually on display at the Harvard Semitic Museum on the first floor. It's currently down for the installation of another exhibit in this same room. But I've been told that it will be back up next semester-- I've been told in the month of February. So it will be back up in time for my seminar, which I'm teaching next semester, which is the most important thing.

So if we look at the image and we look at how this house has been reconstructed, you can see some of these materials that I've just described. You can see the wooden beams. You can see the stones at the very bottom of the foundations of the walls.

But you also see, particularly in that little cut out of the wall of the house, you see the mud bricks that I was just referring to. You also see, when you look inside the house, all of these ceramics, all of these different pots and dishes that would have been used by the family in day-to-day practice, in the preparation and also consumption of foodstuffs. So when we think about mud bricks and the composition of mud bricks as being made of dirt, water, and straw, we see that what these biblical writers are taking for granted about the use of clay in the construction of the actual domicile of the house in which people live.

In fact, biblical passages like the Exodus story refer to clay and mud bricks as building material. Thus, in the context of Sarai and Rachel's requests, children are the bricks by which the house or family is built. Therefore, we see how clay is the raw material for the construction of the physical and metaphorical house in the formation of persons, as well as the domestic spaces they inhabit.

This building imagery provides useful context for some Israelite personal names, especially what biblical scholar Rainer Albertz calls creation names. So, ancient personal names are sometimes comprised of short sentences, including a verb and a divine subject. So just to give an example of a very common name, we can think of the name Nathaniel, which follows this pattern. So we can break down the name Nathaniel, a perfectly good Hebrew name, into its two parts, Natan, which is just a verb meaning he gave, and then Eil, which is a Hebrew term for God. So the name Nathaniel essentially means God gave.

So this is a typical pattern for a lot of Israelite personal names. So, what does this have to do with the materiality of childbirth? The creation names found in the Hebrew Bible and an epigraphic evidence from ancient Israel include verbs related to production and manufacturing-- so weaving, building, making, fashioning, and creating. Names that include these verbs sometimes include divine elements specifying which deity-- often Eil or Yahweh-- who is doing the creating.

So one example cited by Albertz is when one see here, Sabachyahu, which means Yahweh has woven. As Albertz' translation suggests, the name bearer-- so the person who is named Sabachyahu is the implied object of the sentence comprising that personal name. So Yahweh has woven Sabachyahu himself.

So three things about this particular name, Sabachyahu, are useful for the present discussion. So, one, it demonstrates the pattern of other creation names, including a verb of creation juxtaposed to a theophoric element, a term referring to a divine being. So Yahu is shortened form of the name Yahweh in this case.

Two, it suggests that personal names may refer to divine creation of the child in the womb. And third, the specific verb used in this case, saba, refers to a mode of domestic production that's exclusively attributed to women in ancient Israel. In fact, when Job describes his formation by God in Job chapter 10, he uses the imagery of ceramic production alongside weaving when he says, "Please remember that you formed me like clay. With skin and flesh, you have clothed me. With bones and sinews, you have woven me."

Other verbs used in creation names draw upon the imagery of house building and molding clay. For instance, the name Benayahu, Yahweh builds, may allude to the fashioning of the child by the deity and thus the building of a metaphorical house. Names containing the verb yatzar, to form or fashion, more specifically refer to the formation of human beings like the manipulation of clay. This terminology appears not only in Adam's creation, but also prophetic literature in the context of gestation and childbirth.

So the Prophet Isaiah makes this connection quite clear when he says the following. "But now, Yahweh, you are our father. We are the clay. As for you, you are our potter. All of us are the work of your hand."

Two personal names in the Hebrew Bible, Yetzer and Yitzri, may be hypocoristic or shortened forms of these kinds of names omitting the theophoric element. So these are also perhaps examples of creation names using this verb, yatzar, to mold or to fashion. Therefore, all of these names, Sabayachhu, Benayahu, Yetzer, and Yitzri, reflect the religious imagery of divine shaping of a person in utero using domestic imagery like weaving or molding a pot out of clay. We find these personal names in the archaeological record in ancient Israel, written on pot shards and delete inscriptions. And we also find such names in the biblical text.

In fact, even Adam's name is a play on the word Adama, the Hebrew word for ground, the very substance out of which God molds the very first man. These observations about the relationship between clay and formation of the human in ancient Israel may help us understand the form and use of certain ceramic objects associated with the rituals of childbirth. Although no birthing bricks have been found in Israel, two types of figurines may help us understand the prevalence of clay in the rituals surrounding childbirth. So I'm going to be focusing on two different types of figurines in the rest of this talk, Bes figurines and so-called Judean pillar figurines.

So we're going to start with the Bes figurines. So you see a couple of examples here. And these are both found in the Harvard Semitic Museum, which is very exciting. So we can use them in my class next semester-- another plug for my class.

And in the top right, you see another depiction of Bes, which I'll talk more about in just a second. But some of you may recognize this top right image, because it's actually a drawing found on a pot shard from the site of Kuntillet Ajrud. And there's an inscription-- you can see the inscription right above it-- that refers explicitly to Yahweh of Sumeria and his Asherah.

So for a while, these two drawings-- and you see these two figures. And they have these headdresses. And they were, at first, interpreted as being the first iconographic depictions of Yahweh along with Asherah a Canaanite goddess, who some scholars believe was actually the wife or consort of Yahweh, the God of Israel.

However, that theory, that interpretation of these drawings has largely fallen out of favor. And instead, scholars typically agree that these are actually drawings of Bes, this Egyptian God I'll talk a little bit more about it in just a second, and his female counterpart, Bestet, that are inscribed upon this pot shard. But here you can see some of the typical trends in depictions of Bes, how he's depicted both in iconography and also in amulet form.

So the prevalence of Bes imagery in ancient Israel is relevant to the present study, because this Egyptian God, Bes, is known for assisting in childbirth and protecting the newborn. His protective function is reflected in Egyptian iconography, which often depicts him strangling serpents or frightening away spirits by beating a drum. Bes is often depicted on amulets, as you see here, squatting with arms akimbo.

It is also possible that Bes's squatting posture evokes the imagery of a squatting woman in labor, making him an even more appropriate protective figure in the context of childbirth. Other scholars argue that Bes's physical appearance, which resembles that of a dwarf, also makes him particularly helpful in childbirth. They argue that the survival of an infant with dwarfism was less likely in the ancient world. So any child who survived must have been blessed by a god.

The appearance of Bes, then, might have evoked a similar kind of divine blessing upon an infant. Appearing on jugs and as figurines, images of Bes have been found in different contexts, including houses, shrines, and even burials. Indeed, the locations of Bes figurines in ancient Israel may reflect the widespread need for divine protection of the infant and the new mother.

An image of Bes's female counterpart, Bestet, who also appears in the Kuntillet Ajrud painting, appears on the only birthing brick that survives from ancient Egypt. And here we have an image of it. So this brick comes from an elite household, the house of the mayor in the Middle Kingdom town of Abydos. So you can see here a reconstruction of the painting on one facet of this brick.

And it seems like here we have the new mother cradling the infant. And on both sides of her, we have these disembodied heads of the Egyptian goddess, Hathor, who's also associated with protection. So on another side of this brick, which is not shown here, we also have an image of Bestet, this female counterpart of the Egyptian God, Bes.

So Bestet's appearance on this birthing brick further indicates her role in successful births. Notably, epigraphic evidence from ancient Israel also attests to the appearance of an Egyptian lone name, Kad Bes, in which the name Bes is juxtaposed with creation terminology, much like the creation names we just discussed. Like Yahweh in biblical creation imagery, the Egyptian God, Bes, is associated in this personal name, Kad Bes, with the formation of the child.

Another type of ceramic figurine, the Judean Pillar figurine, has received much more attention in biblical scholarship. So here you see quite a few examples of this figurine. Excavators have discovered hundreds of these figurines from Iron Age Judah. They are small, clay figurines about 13 to 16 centimeters in height consisting of a pillar base-- and that's where the terminology comes from-- two arms akimbo supporting two breasts and a molded head. And as you can see here, the heads of the figurines are made in two different ways-- so either a more rudimentary, handmade head constructed using the same piece of clay as the body, which you see on the left, or a molded head that's attached to the body, which you can see on the right.

Based on petrographic analysis, Erin Darby argues that different manufacturers in Judah, rather than a centralized workshop, created the figurines. So some of them could have even been made in the home. They appear from the eighth to the sixth century BCE in ancient Judah. And several scholars argue for a clear association between the figurines, food production, kitchen areas, and female practice in domestic spaces.

As far as we know, no surviving text, biblical or epigraphic, refers to these figurines despite their prevalence in the archaeological record. And for this reason, scholars offers several different interpretations of Judean Pillar figurines and how they were used in ancient Israel. Some scholars interpret the figurines as a nurturing goddess. Others argue that they're not goddesses, but, instead, they're kind of material residues of prayers for fertility or successful lactation. And some studies even argue that they're children's toys.

In her recent study of the figurines, Darby argues that the Judean Pillar figurines likely depict minor goddesses and are used in domestic rituals concerning protection and healing. Although I'm less convinced by the figurines necessarily depicting goddesses, I agree on the basis of the evidence surveyed by Darby that they were likely used in household rituals concerned with protection of infants, including successful nursing and avoidance of illness. It is possible, as Carol Meyers, argues that the pose of these Judean Pillar figurines represents the final stage in the conception, birth, lactation sequence and, thus, would arguably represent the entire sequence in pars pro toto fashion.

In other words, by embodying the final stage, the figurines signify the whole process of forming the child. In fact, biblical references to nursing suggests that nursing is one half of a concept pair with childbirth. Cynthia Chapman notes, for example, that womb and breasts often appear alongside each other in several poetic texts, which suggests an understanding of a two-stage process of child formation, comprised of birth and also nursing.

For instance, Psalm 22 describes Yahweh thus. "You are the one who drew me forth from the womb"-- and it's interesting to note here that God is being described with the imagery of being a midwife-- "the one who protected me on the breasts of my mother." Similarly, in Genesis chapter 49, Jacob's blessing upon Joseph includes blessings of breast and womb.

Like womb-based imagery, breast feeding is another biblical vehicle for signifying networks of affiliation, including ethnicity and elite status. This so-called milk kinship appears in several biblical narratives and constitutes another means by which mothers and wet nurses may pass certain traits to infants. The language of breastfeeding also characterizes prophetic descriptions of Yahweh's care for Israel, particularly in the Book of Isaiah. Viewed in this way, the Judean Pillar figurines emphasis on lactation and nursing seems to reflect such biblical conceptions of successful childbirth and social formation of the infant. And when we consider that Judean Pillar figurines are only ever formed out of clay, it seems that here, again, we see the role of ceramic production in the protection and formation of the child.

Finally, recognizing the association between ceramic production and childbirth in Israelite religion casts a different light on the practice of infant jar burial. A common form of burial for newborns and infants, it consists of a large ceramic jar in which the corpse of an infant or young child is placed. And as you can see in the illustration on this slide, the top of this storage jar is usually cut off so that the child may be placed inside the jar.

Relatively few grave goods typically accompany these burials. And jar burials are sometimes found buried in domestic contexts, even under the floors of houses in which people still reside. Previous scholars working on Israelite funerary practices have noted in passing that tomb architecture in general evokes the imagery of gestation. However, none has considered the relevance of this observation to birth rituals or the close relationship between ceramics and childbirth as demonstrated in this talk.

This intersection of birth and death ritual in ancient Israel is perhaps not so surprising. After all, infant and maternal mortality rates in the ancient world were extremely high. And ritually speaking, both birth and death are transitional moments in the life cycle of the ancient family, marked by processes that manage those transitions. And the use of pottery in this ritual context shows the ongoing role of materiality in the construction of the person and their relationship to the household even in death.

In conclusion, the approach of new materialism provides us with a new way of looking at biblical and archaeological evidence pertaining to childbirth in ancient Israel. In the ancient Near East, the close association between ceramic production and the formation of the human points toward the porousness of subject and object, that is the fundamental role played by mundane materials like clay in the construction of social and ritual actors. This relationship is particularly clear in ancient discourse surrounding childbirth, where biblical texts are often explicit about the formation of humans out of clay.

Once we recognize this interconnectedness of clay and flesh in the formation of the human, the prevalence of clay in the Israelite household becomes a necessary aspect of scholarly discourse about childbirth and early infant care. The Israelite house, both as fact and symbol, is composed of clay, both the mud bricks of domestic architecture and the descendants who, together, make up the multi-generational family. Ceramic production is also fundamental in the creation of ritual actors and religious persons. The prevalence of clay figurines associated with childbirth and early infant care in ancient Judah reflects the role of ritually-empowering objects in successful pregnancy, birth, and nursing.

Previous studies of Judean Pillar figurines have debated over which specific goddess these figurines might represent. But this treatment of the objects overemphasizes their role as mere receptacles of meaning and largely ignores the ritual resonances of their materiality in the processes surrounding childbirth. It is notable that surviving Judean Pillar figurines are only ever fashioned out of clay. And as the saying goes, the medium is the message or at least an essential part of that message.

The composition of the figurines out of clay reifies creation of the human in the womb and its ongoing shaping through social and ritual processes including nursing. The imagery of clay in the Hebrew Bible is also associated with power dynamics. In prophetic texts like Jeremiah 18, which we looked at earlier, which described God as a divine potter, clay imagery is part of a rhetorical strategy to emphasize the formation of humans by God and, thus, their subservience to him.

These biblical texts use clay to talk about hierarchies of power, naturalizing them through discourse about the relative agency of product and producer. Human beings are merely clay molded by divine hands, they claim. And by what right does mere clay question or doubt the power of the potter?

Such a rhetorical strategy fits well into the typical prophetic program of religious critique, which often derides the Israelites for supposedly illicit cultic practices, particularly the worship of deities other than Yahweh. In this way, the materiality of childbirth in Israelite religion helps us understand not only the ancient family, but also biblical ideologies about the God of Israel. Thank you. Yes, I'm happy to hear your questions, comments, all types of feedback.

And I will run the microphone around-- and if you can just introduce yourself as you ask your question. There's a question behind me.

Thanks for folks who noticed me in the background and pointed this way. Hi, I'm Adele. I'm actually here as a doula, not a scholar.

Oh, wonderful.

So I was curious exactly if obnayim has a function. I thought that that was some kind of birthing stool, like something to help the woman squat. Is it a ritual object that is aiding in the birth process in some way? What is it?

Yeah, that's a really good question. I'm going to hold this, so I can look at you and also speak to the microphone, although it looks a little strange. Oh, or I could use the hand-held mic.

So this is a really good question. There are lots of different interpretations of what the obnayim actually are, what they do, what their role is in childbirth. So some scholars argue that the obnayim are these-- the form itself is dual in Hebrew. So it seems like there are two of them.

And so it seems like perhaps the pregnant woman is kneeling upon these birthing bricks one knee on each brick. It also seems that, based on the exodus narrative that we talked about earlier, that, in addition to aiding the actual process of childbirth, that the obnayimer, the sort of platform upon which the newborn is placed, where they're first looked upon, when they're first socially recognized, where they're first gendered, in fact, by the midwives who determined whether the infant is male or female. So there are also some scholars who have argued that the obnayimer actually implements used by the midwife when they're first observing the birthing process, that perhaps it's not the pregnant woman who's kneeling upon the birthing bricks but actually the midwife herself.

So unfortunately because we're so dependent upon the exodus passage, which is the only one that uses this term and talks a little bit about the birthing process, there are lots of gaps in what we know about the processes of childbirth and how exactly the obnayim were used. As I said, we don't have any birthing bricks that survived from ancient Israel. We only have that one, which was only discovered in 2001 from the Egyptian town of Abydos. So we do know, based on that and also an iconographic depictions of women giving birth in ancient Egypt, that these sorts of bricks were utilized in the labor process. But there's still some gaps in what we know about how exactly they were used. So I hope that's good enough to answer your question, give you a bit more information.

Ursula Cargill. Thank you for your outstanding presentation. I have a question. Around the time when you put up this slide on Sabachyahu.


Yeah. I'm wondering if there is any suggestion there that Yahweh is female? And then the second question has to do with this clay molding and gestation-- if you see any parallels with that. Thank you.

Yeah, thank you. This is one of the things that I find so fascinating about biblical depictions of childbirth-- is that you're absolutely right. This isn't the first time that God is conceived-- no pun intended-- using female imagery.

So we see here that he is engaging in weaving, which-- as you pointed out, this is an activity that's typically associated with women. In fact, we even have, from the ancient world, some curses your enemies saying, I hope that all of your sons will grab the spindle and the whorl, basically emasculating them. Because weaving is so closely associated with women in the ancient world.

So here in this name, Sabachyahu, Yahweh seems to be associated with this feminizing activity-- but also in another passage that I brought up where God is talked about as being a midwife, where He is the one who draws the child from the womb. So these are just two examples in which God is talked about using this very feminine kind of imagery in the context of childbirth. In some cases in prophetic literature, He is also described as a woman in labor, particularly in times of crisis.

So this is really evocative imagery. And this is one phenomenon in the biblical texts that I want to look at further in this project. So thank you.

Hi, my name is Alicia, one of the fellows in the Women's Studies and Religion program. So I really enjoyed your talk. I know, of course, we read your draft. I really love it.

So I think my question would be somewhat connected to the previous question but more in reference to the creation names that are both for boys and girls. So what I thought was quite striking is that the names themselves seems to not so much reinforce this gender division of labor in the process of production and reproduction, because you have some male names that seem to have what are typically seen as quite feminine roles and jobs. So what would you think would be your commentary, then, your intervention maybe, on these kinds of names transcending this division of labor?

Because you were mentioning at the end in your conclusion that the rhetoric of clay and the metaphors of production seems to be a commentary on hierarchy between humankind and God. But what about between men and women, especially in this kind of very patriarchal tradition? What would be your commentary, then, if both boys and girls seemed to have names that seemed to go beyond this gender division of labor?

Mm-hmm. Thank you so much. This is a great question. It's something I'm going to take a stab at now, but I'll continue to think about it afterwards.

I think the first step in doing that kind of analysis would be trying to figure out who bears these names and how they're gendered. Sometimes we know that, and sometimes we don't. Some of these names come from inscriptions, where we don't get much more information about them.

In the biblical texts, we get a little bit more information about these figures. And so it would be more possible to do that kind of analysis. But you bring up a really good point-- so thinking about the role of gender not just in the kinds of activities described or activities included in these personal names, but then what we might say about the application of these names to particular individuals.

But again, it's really fascinating to me how, as you point out and as Ursula pointed out before you, that we have in these creation names different modes of production, some of which are gendered typically masculine, some of which are gendered typically feminine. And Yahweh seems to be engaging in all of them. Sometimes he's referred to as Yahweh and sometimes referred to Eil. But in the context of ancient Israel, they're basically one and the same.

So the fact that, in these creation names, we see that traversing of that gender boundary and the creation of the child is really fascinating. And I'll have to think more about the application of these particular names to gendered individuals. Thank you.

Kerry, thank you so much for bringing to life a text that we had read and enjoyed. And so it was really nice to hear you deliver it, as well. So I have kind of a basic question. And if you could comment on that-- and just another general question.

So the basic question is, you started off by saying that, in fact, within this time period and in terms of the texts, and so on, and so forth that there is actually no indication or no commentary on ritual aspects such as birth and death, perhaps, as well. So do you have a sense of, what is happening? What is the context, or why there isn't that kind of commentary? Because I think about some later religions that do have fairly elaborate commentaries on this-- so just your sense. That would be helpful.

And the other thing I'm wondering-- to what degree we can read questions of sexuality into all of this, precisely because you make a very clear and, I think, compelling case for reading gender in so many layered and nuanced ways. I'm also wondering about the role of sexuality in all of this considering we're talking about birthing, and metaphors, and reading-- an interpretation of this.

Thank you. Great. Thank you. So these are two really great questions. So the first one has to do with the gaps in the Hebrew Bible. So as I noted before at the outset of this talk, one of the problems in trying to reconstruct Israelite family religion is that the biblical writers for the most part don't seem to be that interested in giving an account of family religion.

And it sort of makes sense when we think about what we know about biblical writers, what their interests are. They're typically geared more towards covenant, and temple, and priesthood-- not exclusively but for the most part. Those are really driving the kinds of topics that they're interested in engaging in. And so what we know about family religion for the most part comes from these sort of asides of the biblical writers, sort of filling in the gaps of, what do they expect us to know as readers of this text?

So as far as why the gaps, there are some biblical scholars who will argue that there is an intentional suppression of particular types of family religion, aspects of family religion-- so particularly the care of the dead in ancient Israel. To be honest, I don't find that argument particularly persuasive. I don't think that there is an intentional suppression of family religion in the Hebrew Bible. I think we're just dealing with a text that really isn't focused on that, that perhaps it's not something that biblical writers felt the need to spell out so explicitly.

And when we think about the ancient household as the primary social, economic, and I would argue religious unit in the ancient world, that seems a bit more understandable, that these kinds of rituals that people are engaging in that comprise family religion are just sort of part of what it meant to live in a household in the ancient world, that perhaps they didn't require that kind of explicit commentary, at least not until any of those kinds of rituals would collide with more elite manifestations of religion like temple cult, in which case maybe the biblical writers would be more inclined to refer to them explicitly. But that being said, a major argument that I'm making both in my first book project and also in this second line is that biblical writers do draw upon this common cultural currency of family religion in ancient Israel in order to articulate their understandings of God. So even when they're talking about these more elite concepts of temple and covenant, they often fall back on the imagery and individual practices of family religion.

So I can give you one example. So in Ezekiel chapter 37 versus 11 through 14, this is the famous Valley of Dry Bones passage in the Book of Ezekiel, where God points out this valley full dry bones who are figuratively dead Israelites in exile. And in order to convey the ongoing relationship between Yahweh and these exiles, in this passage, God exhumes these dry bones and repatriates them to the Land of Judah.

So this benevolent exhumation and repatriation is an essential aspect of care for the dead in the ancient world and also in the Hebrew Bible. We see it many times in the patriarchal narratives, that it's good to be brought back to your homeland and buried there, even if it involves exhuming your corpse from your first burial. So here Yahweh himself, the God of Israel-- despite all this anxiety about corpse contact and the pollution that it causes in other passages in the Hebrew Bible, here we see the God of Israel actually exhuming these bones and bringing them back to the Land of Judah-- so acting like a cultic caregiver for the dead, for these exiles. So my point, then, is that this kind of passage, even though it's interested primarily in covenant and especially covenant after the Babylonian exile, it's really using family religion to make that argument.

And in terms of sexuality, in these texts that I'm looking at, to a certain extent, talking about childbirth, talking about procreation, using imagery like pots might not be the sexiest way of doing it. It sort of de-emphasizes the really vivid imagery of sexuality. But we do see some other metaphors used for reproduction, like the spreading of seed, the sowing of seed, which makes sense in an agrarian society, which tends to evoke more of what we think about as the sexual encounter of intercourse that produces the child. So this certainly isn't the only set of metaphors that's used in the biblical texts for talking about procreation, and gestation, and childbirth. There are others that tend to emphasize more the kind of sexuality of the participants in that process.

Thank you.

Hi. Thank you so much for this really, really enlightening presentation. I'm wondering if-- I think you mentioned it in passing briefly, thinking about ceramic production and the final firing of the piece in the kiln. And I'm wondering if you've thought about places where refinement language may also be tied to some of this language that you're signaling for thinking about gestation and creation.

That's a really great question. So I've thought about firing in terms of-- so not just the figurines but also the birthing bricks. And just practically speaking, it probably wouldn't make sense to fire the birthing bricks. It just would be sort of counter-productive in the context of childbirth if the pregnant woman is kneeling upon hardened bricks. It would be so painful, it probably wouldn't be that helpful.

So in that case, it seems like firing probably wouldn't have been part of the process. But certainly for some of these figurines, particularly figurines that survived really well in the archaeological record, they would have been fired, at least some of them would have been. And so we can also think about, in the context of Jeremiah 18, the passage we were looking at earlier, this imagery of God re-molding, of taking a damaged pot and remaking it-- obviously, that's not possible if the pot has been fired already.

So like a broken pot, a shattered pot, a pot that's been shattered into shards can't be remade in that same way that the passage is describing. So in that sense, using this metaphor and thinking about the role of the kiln, the firing of clay in that metaphor, that seems to be a sort of freezing of the process. As you point out, that refining of the material freezes the subject into that final form.

But we can also understand why a text like Jeremiah 18 might not be so interested in that part of the process. Because it's all about the ongoing process of God intervening in the formation of the Israelite person and in not just the physical formation, but the moral formation, if we can use that term, "moral." It's slightly achronisic in this context-- but shaping the religious person over and over, which, as I mentioned, really fits into this broader program of prophetic critique.

The prophets are inclined to polemicize against the Israelites over and over again for all the bad things that they do. And they're constantly in this process of chiding the Israelites and telling them to do better. And God constantly has to forgive them for their sins or not forgive them for their sins. And so we can see how this process of remaking, of reshaping, of molding in clay over and over again would fit well within that rhetorical program.

So I have a quick question to clarify the division of labor in Israelite society over that period. So I gathered what you suggest, that ceramics was a woman's activity, and weaving was woman's activity.


I wondered if the association of ceramics with pregnant women was due to the fact that, given their physical constraints, they really had to stay close to the hearth and home anyway and consequently took over, especially ceramic production.

Mm-hmm. Thank you, yeah. So what we know about ceramic production-- it seems like, in some cases, there were specialists who engaged in ceramic production. So again, I can refer to the Jeremiah 18 passage where the potter-- grammatically, the potter is male in that passage. So we do know that there are some specialists who engage in ceramic production.

But certainly not all ceramics would have been made by specialists. You saw earlier in the slide I showed about depicting the Israeli household. Some of these ceramics would have been made at home. And you're absolutely right that, when we talk about the gender division of labor with regard to the household economy, women are typically responsible for the kinds of modes of production that happened within the home.

So weaving, of course, is something that we've talked about. Food production and preparation would have been another-- so grinding grain, making food, weaving garments but also probably making these kinds of pots and other ceramic objects that would have been used in the context of the home and the consumption of food. So you're right that women are typically associated more with the household. And the modes of production that they engaged in would have taken place probably within the precinct of that domicile.

So I'm going to ask a question.


I was really fascinated, Kerry, by the possibility of household religion conflicting with pollution taboos. And I wondered if that came into play in the case of childbirth, and the birthing bricks, and the role of the midwife, and who gets polluted by the blood of parturition. And if God is going to get involved in this, what happens there?

Yes, OK, good. I love this question. OK, good. Because you've anticipated another aspect of this study that I'm eager to dive into, which is the analysis and interpretation of Leviticus chapter 12, which talks about different kinds of ritual pollution and the causes of different kinds of pollution.

And so one of these causes of pollution is childbirth. So despite the fact that children are highly valued in the biblical text, we have the depiction of childbirth in Leviticus 12 as being highly polluting. And not only that, as long as we're talking about the role of gender, we can talk about the fact that, according to this text, having a female child is twice as polluting as having a male child. And the biblical text offers no explanation for that. There is no explanation why having a female child would have been doubly polluting than having a male child.

So here we have in Leviticus 12 a very explicit reference to the polluting nature of childbirth, which also helps in thinking about what actually is pollution in the Hebrew Bible, that it's not necessarily evil. It's just something that happens. And the only thing that's really bad is if you don't manage it properly, if you let pollution go without ritually containing it or expunging it. So that's one really interesting thing about Leviticus 12.

Now, another really interesting part of your question is, what about the role of Yahweh in all of this, particularly when he's associated with childbirth and also, as I found in my other work on death, when Yahweh's involved with death? So again, we can go back to the passage I mentioned earlier, Ezekiel chapter 37, 11 through 14, where God himself, according to this text, is exiting the bones of these figuratively dead Israelites in exile. Now, in addition to childbirth, corpses are hugely polluting, according to the biblical text.

But nevertheless, here this biblical writer in Ezekiel 37 is saying explicitly that Yahweh is exhuming these bones and repatriating them to the Land of Judah. So here it seems like not all biblical texts think about pollution and God in the same way, that we certainly have texts in which having tombs located near the temple is condemned. In Ezekiel 43, another chapter in that very prophetic book, the royal tombs that are located so close to the temple are actually the reason why Yahweh flees the temple right before the Babylonian exile, that he effectively abandons the temple because of this source of corpse pollution.

However, there we have it in Ezekiel 37, where he's actually interacting with these bones, that perhaps when it's his decision to intercede on behalf of the dead, perhaps it's not so ritually polluting. Perhaps when he is acting as caregiver for the dead, it's not conceived of as polluting. And perhaps there's a similar kind of conception when we're talking about childbirth and when Yahweh is interceding on behalf of the Israelites in the context of childbirth.

Do we know if it's the same author?

That's a harder question to answer. That's a great question, but I'm going to bracket it for now. When we get into source criticism, we're chasing rabbits.

Is there an important distinction-- just to pick up on your response to Ann's question-- is there a distinction between flesh and bones of corpses? And again, I'm looking I'm thinking about some of the sites in which I see some of that very strong discourse of polluting, polluted bodies, or corpses as polluted-- is that there seems to be an important distinction between the two.

Yeah. No, so this is really-- you're absolutely right that there is an interesting distinction to be made between dry bones-- and in the Ezekiel passage it's explicitly dry bones that are referred to in this valley-- and when a corpse still has its sinews. So we have a practice of secondary burial in ancient Israel, particularly in what are called bench tombs in ancient Israel. And this process of burial essentially is composed of two different stages.

So the corpse is laid out on a bench, is allowed to decompose down to bones. And at that point-- and we don't know how much time passes between the first stage and the second. Again, this is a kind of ritual activity that we have in the archaeological record, but we don't have any descriptions of it in the Hebrew Bible.

So in that second stage, these bones that are left behind after the corpse has decayed are then gathered up and moved to a different part of the tomb in a process of secondary burial. And also see this-- there are lots of anthropological examples of this that have been analyzed, in which this first stage in which the flesh is still upon the corpse, it's conceived of as highly polluting. The people who typically manage the corpse at that stage are often women. And it's only at that second stage when the body is decayed down to bones that they're at a point where they can be reintegrated into the community as ancestors. And those kinds of ritual processes are typically managed by men.

Now, interestingly, though, that works to a certain extent in describing Israelite religion. But on the other hand, we do have biblical texts that explicitly refer to bones as being sources of pollution, as well-- and not just bones but also graves. So to a certain extent, those kinds of anthropological paradigms work for some aspects of secondary burial in ancient Israel but not all aspect.

Do you have any final words for us? I think we have heard all the questions.

I don't think so. I'm giving everybody a final opportunity. I'm clarifying questions.

If there aren't any further questions, I just want to thank everyone for being here. Thank you for your thoughtful questions and feedback. And this is really a great springboard for thinking about the project going forward.

Well, there's a lot to think about. You've given us all a lot to think about, blood, flesh, bones, God. It's kind of birth. It's kind of all--

It's all--

It's all there. Thank you so much. It's been really rich.