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SBL e-journal

Adele Berlin





Better Slain by Sword Than by Famine





APA e-journal

Adele Berlin





Better Slain by Sword Than by Famine








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Better Slain by Sword Than by Famine

An emotionally evocative window into the suffering experienced by the victims of the siege of Jerusalem.


Better Slain by Sword Than by Famine

Famine in Algeria, by Gustave Guillaumet, 1868. La Piscine Museum, Wikimedia

Siege Warfare

In ancient times, when an army could not quickly conquer a city by breaching its walls, they besieged it. An illustrative example of this strategy is reported by Sennacherib of Assyria (704–691 B.C.E.) on the Rassam cylinder. The text describes his campaign against Judah in 701 B.C.E.:

As for Hezekiah, the Judean, I besieged forty-six of his fortified walled cities and surrounding smaller towns, which were without number. Using packed-down ramps and applying battering rams, infantry attacks by mines, breeches, and siege machines, I conquered (them)…. He himself, I locked up within Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with earthworks, and made it unthinkable for him to exit by the city gate.[1]

When surrounded by enemy troops, the walls that were designed to protect a city from invaders would imprison the inhabitants within. An inscription from the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (668–631 B.C.E.) vividly describes the effects of his siege of the Phoenician city of Tyre:

On my third campaign, I marched against Baʾalu, the king of the land of Tyre who resides in the middle of the sea…. I set up outposts against him. To prevent his people from leaving, I reinforced (its) garrison. By sea and dry land, I took control of (all of) his routes (and thus) cut off (all) access to him. I made water (and) food for the preservation of their lives scarce for their mouths. I confined them in a harsh imprisonment from which there was no escape. I constricted (and) cut short their lives. I made them (the people of Tyre) bow down to my yoke.[2]

Such sieges could go on for many months, or in rare instances (such as Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Tyre), several years. As the passage from Ashurbanipal indicates, during a siege no one and no goods (food, water,[3] or weapons) could enter the city, and no one could escape. No distinction was made between soldiers and civilians. The goal of a siege was to weaken the population through starvation and disease, until the city surrendered or the enemy forces broke down the walls and entered the city.

The Experience of the Besieged

Even before the siege began, a city would become crowded, with villagers from the surrounding area fleeing from the approaching army and seeking refuge behind the city’s walls.[4] All were cut off from leaving the city to tend their crops and pasture their livestock. Conditions did not deteriorate immediately, however. Cities anticipating a siege would store provisions to feed the populace.

Moreover, since the animals inside the city would soon die from lack of food, they were slaughtered and eaten. In fact, in the absence of refrigeration, the bingeing on the meat before it spoiled may have seemed downright festive. But once the food supplies diminished, rationing would begin. And when the food ran out, the people would be left to scavenge for whatever scraps were edible.

Ezekiel presents the scrounging for food and rationing of its consumption when YHWH commands him to symbolically enact what would occur during a siege of Jerusalem. The prophet makes bread out of whatever ingredients are available, since there is not enough wheat:

יחזקאל ד:ט וְאַתָּה קַח לְךָ חִטִּין וּשְׂעֹרִים וּפוֹל וַעֲדָשִׁים וְדֹחַן וְכֻסְּמִים וְנָתַתָּה אוֹתָם בִּכְלִי אֶחָד וְעָשִׂיתָ אוֹתָם לְךָ לְלָחֶם מִסְפַּר הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שׁוֹכֵב עַל צִדְּךָ שְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת וְתִשְׁעִים יוֹם תֹּאכֲלֶנּוּ.
Ezek 4:9 Further, take wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and emmer. Put them into one vessel and bake them into bread. Eat it as many days as you lie on your side: three hundred and ninety.

To further impress upon his audience the conditions of siege, he must ration his daily consumption to 20 shekels (8 ounces) of bread and to one sixth of a hin (about 21 ounces) of water:

יחזקאל ד:י וּמַאֲכָלְךָ אֲשֶׁר תֹּאכֲלֶנּוּ בְּמִשְׁקוֹל עֶשְׂרִים שֶׁקֶל לַיּוֹם מֵעֵת עַד עֵת תֹּאכֲלֶנּוּ. ד:יא וּמַיִם בִּמְשׂוּרָה תִשְׁתֶּה שִׁשִּׁית הַהִין מֵעֵת עַד עֵת תִּשְׁתֶּה. ד:יב וְעֻגַת שְׂעֹרִים תֹּאכֲלֶנָּה וְהִיא בְּגֶלְלֵי צֵאַת הָאָדָם תְּעֻגֶנָה לְעֵינֵיהֶם.
Ezek 4:10 The food that you eat shall be by weight, twenty shekels a day; this you shall eat in the space of a day. 4:11 And you shall drink water by measure; drink a sixth of a hin in the space of a day. 4:12 Eat it as a barley cake; you shall bake it on human excrement before their eyes.[5]

Ezekiel is told to use human excrement as fuel, since animal dung is no longer available.

During the siege of Samaria, the famine became so great that the people paid exorbitant prices for items they would ordinarily not have eaten or used for fuel:

מלכים ב ו:כה וַיְהִי רָעָב גָּדוֹל בְּשֹׁמְרוֹן וְהִנֵּה צָרִים עָלֶיהָ עַד הֱיוֹת רֹאשׁ חֲמוֹר בִּשְׁמֹנִים כֶּסֶף וְרֹבַע הַקַּב חֲרֵייוֹנִים בַּחֲמִשָּׁה כָסֶף.
2 Kgs 6:25 There was a great famine in Samaria, and the siege continued until a donkey’s head sold for eighty shekels of silver and a quarter of a kab (11 ounces) of doves’ dung for five shekels.

Hundreds of years later, describing the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., Josephus offers a literary depiction of the horrors of siege warfare:

For the Jews, along with all egress, every hope of escape was now cut off; and the famine, enlarging its maw, devoured the people by households and families.

The roofs were thronged with women and babes completely exhausted, the alleys with the corpses of the aged; children and youths, with swollen figures,[6] roamed like phantoms through the market-places and collapsed wherever their doom overtook them. As for burying their relatives, the sick had not the strength, while those with vigour still left were deterred both by the multitude of the dead and by the uncertainty of their own fate. For many fell dead while burying others, and many went forth to their tombs ere fate was upon them.

And amidst these calamities there was neither lamentation nor wailing: famine stifled the emotions, and with dry eyes and grinning mouths[7] these slowly dying victims looked on those who had gone to their rest before them.[8]

Lamentations’ Emotional Description of the Siege

Lamentations offers emotional descriptions of the famine brought on by the Babylonian’s siege of Jerusalem and of the agony and suffering it caused.[9] In chapter 1, the book describes starvation among the most respected members of society. They have lost their status and dignity and have been reduced to searching for food, but in vain:

איכה א:יט קָרָאתִי לַמְאַהֲבַי הֵמָּה רִמּוּנִי
כֹּהֲנַי וּזְקֵנַי בָּעִיר גָּוָעוּ כִּי בִקְשׁוּ אֹכֶל לָמוֹ וְיָשִׁיבוּ אֶת־נַפְשָׁם.
Lam 1:19 I called to my lovers, they deceived me.
My priests and elders expired in the city as they searched for food to sustain their life.
א:כ מִחוּץ שִׁכְּלָה חֶרֶב בַּבַּיִת כַּמָּוֶת.
1:20 …Outside the sword bereaved, inside—death.[10]

The Most Vulnerable Victims: Children

Lamentations 2 describes the experience of the children, with powerful, heart-wrenching images of starving children, fainting from hunger in the streets. Their mothers are helpless, unable to perform the primary function of a mother, which is to feed her children:

איכה ב:יא כָּלוּ בַדְּמָעוֹת עֵינַי חֳמַרְמְרוּ מֵעַי נִשְׁפַּךְ לָאָרֶץ כְּבֵדִי עַל שֶׁבֶר בַּת עַמִּי
בֵּעָטֵף עוֹלֵל וְיוֹנֵק בִּרְחֹבוֹת קִרְיָה.
Lam 2:11 My eyes were worn out from tears, my stomach churned, my liver-bile was spilled out over the breaking of my dear people, when little children and babies collapsed in the city squares.
ב:יב לְאִמֹּתָם יֹאמְרוּ אַיֵּה דָּגָן וָיָיִן
בְּהִתְעַטְּףָם כֶּחָלָל בִּרְחֹבוֹת עִיר בְּהִשְׁתַּפֵּךְ נַפְשָׁם אֶל־חֵיק אִמֹּתָם
2:12 To their mothers they were saying, “Where is grain and wine?” as they collapsed as if wounded in the city squares, as their lives slipped away in their mothers’ bosoms.

The reference to “grain and wine,” dagan va-yayin, is peculiar to our verse. The usual combination is “bread and wine,” but “grain and wine” are the basic staples of food and drink that can be stored for a long time without spoiling. In this passage, however, even these are now used up. We should not think that the children commonly drank wine; the poet has put these words in their mouths to show that there is not a morsel or a drop left anywhere in the city.

As siege conditions worsen, chapter 2 declares, the dead eventually become food for the living:

איכה ב:יט שְׂאִי אֵלָיו כַּפַּיִךְ עַל נֶפֶשׁ עוֹלָלַיִךְ הָעֲטוּפִים בְּרָעָב בְּרֹאשׁ כָּל חוּצוֹת.
Lam 2:19b Raise your hands towards him, for the lives of your little children, collapsing from starvation on every street corner.
ב:כ רְאֵה יְ־הוָה וְהַבִּיטָה לְמִי עוֹלַלְתָּ כֹּה
אִם־תֹּאכַלְנָה נָשִׁים פִּרְיָם עֹלֲלֵי טִפֻּחִים.
2:20a See, Lord, and look, to whom you have done this. Should women eat their own fruit, the little children they care for?

From not being able to feed them, the mothers now go to eating their (dead) children. Cannibalism is a trope found in many descriptions of famine in the ancient Near East, including the Bible (Lam 4:10; Lev 26:29; Deut 28:53–57; 2 Kings 6:26–30; Jer 19:9; Ezek 5:10). It is not necessarily historical but serves as a dramatic illustration of the breakdown of social norms in times of extreme starvation. The image of mothers devouring their own children, the ones they once nursed, offers a particularly gruesome expression of the theme.[11]

Lamentations 4:1–10 speaks at greater length about the children, comparing them to gold and precious jewels that now have been scattered in the streets like worthless earthen pottery, easily discarded (v. 2). Their mothers (through no fault of their own) are worse than jackals, considered to be despicable animals, that at least feed their offspring (v. 3). The children beg for food, but no one gives them any (v 4b). Verse 4a uses a devastating image of silent babies to describe the depths of the children’s suffering:

איכה ד:ד דָּבַק לְשׁוֹן יוֹנֵק אֶל חִכּוֹ בַּצָּמָא.
Lam 4:4a The baby’s tongue stuck to his palate from thirst.

The tongue stuck to the palate is an expression meaning that a person cannot make a sound.[12] The nursing infant—not only too frail to suck—is so weakened by the famine that it cannot even cry.

After describing the horrors of famine, it is no wonder that Lamentations declares:

איכה ד:ט טוֹבִים הָיוּ חַלְלֵי־חֶרֶב מֵחַלְלֵי רָעָב.
Lam 4:9a Better off were those slain by the sword than those slain by famine.

Though death takes the victims of both battle and siege, those killed in combat are at least spared the agony of a slow and painful death by starvation.

Fasting on Tisha B’Av

We read the book of Lamentations on the 9th of Av to commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.[13] Its evocative poetry lets us relive those events, reexperience, at least in part, what it felt like to be in Jerusalem as it was being destroyed.

To be sure, the book is not an eye-witness account; scholars agree that it was written some years after 586 B.C.E. And, as a literary work, it uses standard motifs and tropes for describing ancient warfare and conquest. Nevertheless, behind the poetry is lived reality, made palpable by the artistry of the poet. Nowhere is it more palpable than in the descriptions of starvation during the siege.

Although there is still hunger and starvation in the world today, and there have been natural and man-made famines, most of us are fortunate to have never experienced hunger, let alone starvation. Even during Covid-19, when our goings-out were limited and a few varieties of food may have been temporarily unavailable, we had plenty to eat.

On Tisha B’Av we fast. Fasting is an act of penance and an appeal to God for mercy, but the fast of Tisha B’Av, informed by our reading of Lamentations, summons to mind the starvation of the siege and lets us recapture a tiny trace of the feeling of the destruction of Jerusalem.


July 6, 2021


Last Updated

March 22, 2023


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Prof. Adele Berlin is the Robert H. Smith Professor (Emerita) of Biblical Studies at the University of Maryland. She taught at Maryland since 1979 in the Jewish Studies Program, the Hebrew Program, and the English Department.