Parents Eating their Children – The Torah's Curse and Its Undertones in Medieval Interpretation
Birth and Death of Children in Leviticus 26
Children are a recurring theme in both the blessings and the curses of Leviticus 26. If the Israelites obey God’s commandments, God promises them many blessings, including the now-familiar covenantal promise of an abundance of children:
ויקרא כו:ט וּפָנִיתִי אֲלֵיכֶם וְהִפְרֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶתְכֶם וַהֲקִימֹתִי אֶת בְּרִיתִי אִתְּכֶם
Lev 26:9 I will look with favor upon you, and make you fertile and multiply you; and I will maintain My covenant with you.
Conversely, if the Israelites disobey, God will punish them with terrible curses, including the death of their own children:
ויקרא כו:כב וְהִשְׁלַחְתִּי בָכֶם אֶת חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה וְשִׁכְּלָה אֶתְכֶם…
Lev 26:22 I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children…
But the most terrible instantiation of the curse of child death comes in v. 29, where the parents themselves eat their children:
ויקרא כו:כט וַאֲכַלְתֶּם בְּשַׂר בְּנֵיכֶם וּבְשַׂר בְּנֹתֵיכֶם תֹּאכֵלוּ.
Lev 26:29 You shall eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters.
Deuteronomy makes the same threat but much more graphically:
דברים כח:נג וְאָכַלְתָּ פְרִי בִטְנְךָ בְּשַׂר בָּנֶיךָ וּבְנֹתֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּמָצוֹר וּבְמָצוֹק אֲשֶׁר יָצִיק לְךָ אֹיְבֶךָ.
Deut 28:53 you shall eat your own issue, the flesh of your sons and daughters that YHWH your God has assigned to you, because of the desperate straits to which your enemy shall reduce you.
Child-eating Curse in the ANE
Some version of a child-eating and/or cannibalistic curse was a standard part of ancient Near Eastern vassal treaties, which may have influenced the passages in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. For example, the late seventh-century B.C.E. Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon includes this curse on any Assyrian vassal who violates the treaty through disloyalty to Esarhaddon’s son Ashurbanipal:
Mother shall [bar the door to] her daughter,
May you eat in your hunger the flesh of your children,
May, through want and famine, one man eat the other’s flesh (lines 450-452).
Deuteronomy and Leviticus marshal their curses in a similar way, suggesting that such a terrible fate awaits any who violate YHWH’s commandments.
But are the Torah’s curses, like Esarhaddon’s, purely a rhetorical device to express the seriousness of Israel’s obligations as YHWH’s vassal, or are they meant to invoke something that had transpired or would transpire in the future? In other words, is the text simply trying to describe terrible things that happen or are imagined to happen during war – or is it in fact depicting or predicting a specific historical event such as the fall of Israel in 722 B.C.E., the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of its Temple in 586 B.C.E., or even the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.?
The difference between depiction and prediction might depend on the date of the great rebukes in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but this essay will not address those questions directly; instead, it will focus on the reception history of the Leviticus text. Unlike Esarhaddon’s treaty, Leviticus was read, canonized, and interpreted over millennia by both Jews and Christians, many of whom assumed that its curses were prophetic and had already been fulfilled in some past era – but which one?
Eating Children in Biblical Sieges
The curse of parents – more specifically, mothers – eating their own children comes to pass in two quite different situations later in the Hebrew Bible.
Siege of Samaria (Kings)
The first is an extended anecdote in 2 Kings 6, where it highlights the incapacity and weakness of King Jehoram, the final Omride ruler of Israel, soon to be dethroned by his general Jehu (all these events take place around the middle of the ninth century B.C.E.). At one point in Jehoram’s short reign, the king and many of his people are trapped inside the city of Samaria by an Aramean siege, and the resultant famine is truly terrible, as the Biblical author emphasizes:
ב מלכים ו:כו וַיְהִי מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל עֹבֵר עַל הַחֹמָה וְאִשָּׁה צָעֲקָה אֵלָיו לֵאמֹר הוֹשִׁיעָה אֲדֹנִי הַמֶּלֶךְ. ו:כז וַיֹּאמֶר אַל יוֹשִׁעֵךְ יְהוָה מֵאַיִן אוֹשִׁיעֵךְ הֲמִן הַגֹּרֶן אוֹ מִן הַיָּקֶב. ו:כח וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ הַמֶּלֶךְ מַה לָּךְ וַתֹּאמֶר הָאִשָּׁה הַזֹּאת אָמְרָה אֵלַי תְּנִי אֶת בְּנֵךְ וְנֹאכְלֶנּוּ הַיּוֹם וְאֶת בְּנִי נֹאכַל מָחָר. ו:כט וַנְּבַשֵּׁל אֶת בְּנִי וַנֹּאכְלֵהוּ וָאֹמַר אֵלֶיהָ בַּיּוֹם הָאַחֵר תְּנִי אֶת בְּנֵךְ וְנֹאכְלֶנּוּ וַתַּחְבִּא אֶת בְּנָהּ.
2 Kings 6:26 Once, when the king of Israel was walking on the city wall, a woman cried out to him: “Help me, Your Majesty!” 6:27 “Don’t ask me,” he replied. “Let YHWH help you! Where could I get help for you, from the threshing floor or from the winepress? 6:28 But what troubles you?” the king asked her. The woman answered, “That woman said to me, ‘Give up your son and we will eat him today; and tomorrow we’ll eat my son.’ 6:29 So we cooked my son and we ate him. The next day I said to her, ‘Give up your son and let’s eat him’; but she hid her son.”
Instead of helping the bereaved mother, as Solomon had famously done in a similar situation with two women and a single contested child, Jehoram rushes off to threaten the prophet Elisha, whom he views as responsible for the siege.
מלכים ב ו:ל וַיְהִי כִשְׁמֹעַ הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת דִּבְרֵי הָאִשָּׁה וַיִּקְרַע אֶת בְּגָדָיו וְהוּא עֹבֵר עַל הַחֹמָה וַיַּרְא הָעָם וְהִנֵּה הַשַּׂק עַל בְּשָׂרוֹ מִבָּיִת. ו:לא וַיֹּאמֶר כֹּה יַעֲשֶׂה לִּי אֱלֹהִים וְכֹה יוֹסִף אִם יַעֲמֹד רֹאשׁ אֱלִישָׁע בֶּן שָׁפָט עָלָיו הַיּוֹם.
2 Kings 6:30 When the king heard what the woman said, he rent his clothes; and as he walked along the wall, the people could see that he was wearing sackcloth underneath. 6:31 He said, “Thus and more may God do to me if the head of Elisha son of Shaphat remains on his shoulders today.”
Elisha grudgingly – but accurately – predicts that God will lift the siege on the following day, and the starving Samarians are able to feast. However, the child cannot be un-eaten, and his anonymous mother’s call for justice remains unanswered.
Ezekiel and Lamentations
A less detailed and more generalized claim about mothers/parents eating their children during a siege is mentioned once in the book of Ezekiel and twice in the five chapters of the book of Lamentations, both of which are presented as describing the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., although with no specific identifying details.
Ezekiel, like the texts in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, presents child eating as YHWH’s threat:
יחזקאל ה:ט וְעָשִׂיתִי בָךְ אֵת אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָשִׂיתִי וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר לֹא אֶעֱשֶׂה כָמֹהוּ עוֹד יַעַן כָּל תּוֹעֲבֹתָיִךְ. ה:י לָכֵן אָבוֹת יֹאכְלוּ בָנִים בְּתוֹכֵךְ וּבָנִים יֹאכְלוּ אֲבוֹתָם וְעָשִׂיתִי בָךְ שְׁפָטִים וְזֵרִיתִי אֶת כָּל שְׁאֵרִיתֵךְ לְכָל רוּחַ.
Ezekiel 5:9 On account of all your abominations, I will do among you what I have never done, and the like of which I will never do again. 5:10 Assuredly, parents shall eat their children in your midst, and children shall eat their parents. I will execute judgments against you, and I will scatter all your survivors in every direction.
Lamentations, in contrast, presents child eating as something that occurred during the siege and destruction of Jerusalem:
איכה ב:כ …אִם תֹּאכַלְנָה נָשִׁים פִּרְיָם עֹלֲלֵי טִפֻּחִים…
Lam 2:20 …Alas, women eat their own fruit, Their new-born babes!…
איכה ד:י יְדֵי נָשִׁים רַחֲמָנִיּוֹת בִּשְּׁלוּ יַלְדֵיהֶן הָיוּ לְבָרוֹת לָמוֹ בְּשֶׁבֶר בַּת עַמִּי.
Lam 4:10 With their own hands, tenderhearted women Have cooked their children; Such became their fare, In the disaster of my poor people.
Despite their brevity, the Lamentations verses and their prophetic echo in Ezekiel correspond with the Torah’s child-eating curses much more closely than the anecdote from 2 Kings: Lamentations depicts mothers eating their children as a disastrous condition rather than a one-time event, and child-eating is described in parallel with events that fulfill other curses: the Israelites suffer through warfare, destruction, and exile because they have inspired God’s anger by not heeding God’s commandments.
Whether these texts reflect the fulfillment of the curses described in the Torah, or whether the Torah’s curses were redacted with Lamentations in mind, or whether both texts are merely making use of ancient Near Eastern rhetorical topoi around covenant-breaking, it seems clear that the threats of child-eating in the Torah (and arguably also in Ezekiel) are closely linked with the description of child-eating in Lamentations.
Interpretation in the Rabbinic Period
The rabbis in the Talmudic era were certainly aware of the connection between the curses in the Torah and the description of the destruction of the Temple in Lamentations. For example, the Fragmentary Targum (popularly known as Targum Yerushalmi) places the fulfilment of Leviticus 26:29 squarely in Jerusalem:
אֵי מָה בִּשִׁין אִינוּן חוֹבַיָא וּמָה מְרִירִין אִינוּן חֲטַיָיא דְּגָרְמוּ לְאַבָהָתן בִּיְרוּשָׁלַיִם לְמֵיכַל בְּשַר בְּנֵיהוֹן וּבְנָתֵיהוֹן
How heavy the guilt and how bitter the sins that caused our ancestors in Jerusalem to consume the flesh of their sons and their daughters!
Moreover, rabbinic exegesis applied both the Leviticus curses and their parallels in Lamentations to the events surrounding the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., delighting in a specificity and a wealth of details that all the Biblical sources lack. For example, the Sifra attaches the following gruesome anecdote to its interpretation of Leviticus 26:29:
אמרו עליו על דואג בן יוסף שמת והניח בן קטן לאמו והיתה מודדהו בטפחים בכל שנה ונותנת משקלו זהב לשמים וכשהקיפו מצודת ירושלים טבחתו בידה ואכלתו
They said about Doeg ben Yosef that he died and left a young son with his wife. She would measure him in handbreadths every year and donate his weight in gold to heaven [i.e., the Temple]. And when Jerusalem was surrounded, she slaughtered him with her own hand and ate him.
ועליה מקונן ירמיה ואומר ריבוני אם תאכלנה נשים פרים עוללי טיפוחים
And about her Jeremiah [the author of Lamentations according to the rabbis] lamented and said, “My Master, alas, women eat their own newborn infants” (Lam. 2:20).
Closely parallel stories with wealthy mothers eating their beloved children during the Roman siege of Jerusalem also appear in b. Yoma 38b and in Lam. Rab. 1, where the relevant Lamentations verses are naturally cited; it is easy to assume that these authors also saw the clear connections between Lamentations and the curses of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. It is also important to note that tales of cannibalism were a common way of describing the horrors of siege warfare well into the Roman era, so the rabbinic child-eating narratives fit into non-Jewish contexts as well.
However, it is only the Sifra version which attaches these sensational events specifically to the curse of Lev. 26:29. In the Sifra’s expansive historical imagination, the curses of Leviticus have been fulfilled not once but twice, each time leading to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, and each time leading to the same horrible situation of parents eating their children. The bereaved mother here does not seek justice, unlike her Samarian counterpart from 2 Kings, but she does have some limited consolation: her cause is taken up by a prophet and lamented directly to God.
Medieval Jewish Peshat Readings
In the medieval period, Jewish interpretation of the Leviticus curses took a different turn. First, the commentators seem unusually silent around the child-eating passages, especially given the wealth of rabbinic textual connections we have just described. Rashi, for instance, leaves Leviticus 26:29 completely unglossed, as do a number of other Tosafist commentators. R. Joseph Bekhor Shor (12th cent.) merely notes that the child-eating curse is the parallel to the earlier blessing “I will make you fruitful” (v. 9).
Instead of references to Lamentations or midrashic anecdotes about the destruction of the Temples, the medieval commentators seem more interested in pointing out that starvation – even to the point of eating one’s own children – is a natural consequence of famine or siege. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167), for instance, merely writes:
אין למעלה מהרעב הזה.
There is nothing worse than this [degree of] famine.
Crop failure was a sad but common occurrence even in ibn Ezra’s relatively temperate twelfth century, and readers of his commentary could identify with the plight of starving parents who watch their children die and still see no end of the famine in sight. Moreover, by emphasizing the physical cause of the child-eating, i.e., hunger due to siege and famine, and not the “spiritual” cause, i.e., sinning against God and receiving punishment, the text decouples this gruesome behavior from Jews, making it a general, human response to extreme starvation. R. Meyuchas ben Eliyahu (late 12th century Greece) takes a similar approach:
בשר בניכם – מתוך המצור והמצוק.
“The flesh of your sons” – because of the siege and the desperate straits.
A different but even more mundane approach to Lev 26:29 is taken by the medieval French rabbi Hezekiah b. Manoach (Chizkuni, 13th cent.), who first makes the same literary observation about the curse and corresponding blessing as Bekhor Shor, but then offers an alternative interpretation to the foreboding verse as relating to something unexpectedly ordinary:
וי״מ אלו בני אדם מיוחסים המשיאים את זרעם למשפחה שאינה הוגנת ולוקחים מהם מעות בשכר….
Some interpret this as when men from prestigious families marry off their children to less prestigious families in order to receive payment…
Marital mésalliances were likely a frequent occurrence, especially in a rapidly developing mercantile economy like that of thirteenth-century France. As distasteful as such marriages might have been to the upper classes, arranging such a marriage is orders of magnitude less shocking than eating one’s children. Hizkuni’s interpretation is an extreme instance of what is less obvious in many other medieval Jewish commentators: they downplay this particular curse by either normalizing it or ignoring it.
Moreover, the medieval commentators seem unusually silent on the connection between the child-eating curse in Leviticus and the clearly parallel child-eating described in Lamentations. It seems that they want to deemphasize the shocking nature of this curse, and to avoid noting explicitly that such things happened during the siege on Jerusalem.
Why are the medieval Jewish commentators so restrained when it comes to this particular verse? Isn’t the entire rhetorical point of such a curse to be shocking? Perhaps the answer to this question can be teased out in relation to Christian interpretation during this same period.
Medieval Christians and the Literal Curses
In the twelfth century, Christian commentators embarked on a new project: offering sustained commentary on their entire Bible, including the Old Testament, and not just on liturgical readings or other popular sections. The project was similar in scope to what we find among certain Jewish commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, such as Rashi, and poses a number of interesting historical questions about parallel development and influence. In the case of Leviticus 26:29, however, medieval Christian commentators go in a decidedly different direction from their Jewish contemporaries.
Glossa Ordinaria: How the Jews Rejected Jesus
The Glossa Ordinaria, produced over several decades by the cathedral school of Anselm of Laon in early twelfth century northern France, compiled interpretive glosses from over a millennium of Christian tradition around each verse of the Old and New Testaments. It was copied (or, eventually, printed) running between the lines and along the margins of countless medieval and early modern Christian Bibles throughout the Latin-speaking world, sometimes together with the other commentaries described below, sometimes on its own.
Not surprisingly, the Glossa’s patristic sources had little in common with any of the Jewish interpretive traditions on Lev 26:29. Indeed, its compilers interpreted many of the final series of curses from Leviticus 26 as referring to the Jewish rejection of Jesus and his message, beginning with the blessing from Lev 26:10: the old grain to be cleared out in favor of the new is – according to the Glossa – “the old law and prophets, etc., until we assume a new [law].”
Moving to the curses closest to our target, verse 25, in which God threatens to bring a sword among the Israelites, glosses the sword as the Word of God, trying to convince the Jews to accept the New as well as the Old Testament; in verse 27, the Israelites’ disobedience is glossed as their continued refusal to accept that Moses is not the only lawgiver “until they insulted the originator of the law,” i.e., God.
Verse 28 has no gloss, so that brings the Glossa to Leviticus 26:29, which is also interpreted allegorically:
“[You shall eat] the flesh of your sons.” That is, your students, whom you have taken up as sons, and whom you have persuaded against these [presumably Christian] teachings with strong words and into corruption of the soul.
If we compare the Glossa’s reading of Lev 26:29 to Jewish commentaries on the same verse, it is certainly different in its explicit Christian supercessionism and implicit anti-Judaism, but like Sifra Bechukotai and the Fragmentary Targum, the Glossa can actually be read as assuming that the curses of Leviticus 26 have been fulfilled at some past historical moment. The Glossa simply operates from a radically different set of premises about what the nadir of Jewish history might have been.
If the Glossa can be said to argue a single thesis about this passage in Leviticus, it is that the greatest historical catastrophe that happened to the Jews as a result of rejecting God’s will was that they failed to recognize Jesus as the Messiah.
Hugh of Saint Cher’s Postilla: Jews Did This Kind of Thing
In the wake of the Glossa, later medieval Christian interpreters began to develop a more literal reading of the Old Testament in general and the Leviticus curses in particular; they continued to interpret these events in reference to specific events in the Jewish past, but their histories start looking a little closer to what a Jewish reader might expect. About a century after theGlossa, the thirteenth-century Dominican Hugh of Saint-Cher assembled a newly comprehensive Bible commentary, called aPostilla, which claimed to interpret Scripture according to all four Christian “senses”: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical or mystical. But on Leviticus 26:29, Hugh’s Postillastayed strictly and avowedly literal:
“The flesh of your sons, etc.” This literally happened to the Jews many times.
Hugh first briefly quotes the story from 2 Kings 6, about the Samarian mother who fruitlessly petitioned King Jehoram for redress; he then adds the verse from Lamentations 4:10 about women cooking their children during the siege of Jerusalem. Apparently those two examples were enough to make his point that child-eating was a particular practice of the Jews of Old Testament in their “many times” of divine displeasure.
Hugh’s “literal” interpretation comes much closer to earlier Jewish readings of the verse than the Glossa’s did when it connects the Leviticus curses to the narrative of Lamentations, but its inclusion of the 2 Kings 6 narrative is surprising for a Jewish reader focused on this verse: unlike the destruction of Jerusalem, the Aramaean siege of Samaria under King Jehoram is not a turning point of Jewish history or even a moment of particularly strong pathos.
In the context of the book of Kings, that siege account is one of several emphasizing how degenerate the kingdom and people of Israel have become; eventually, falling further and further away from God, they are conquered and then “lost,” in contradistinction to Judah, which is able to survive even in exile. If the Samarian mother is relatively neglected by Jewish commentators, her story leaves an even nastier aftertaste when it is cited by a Christian who uses it to support claims that all “the Jews” were degenerate in just this way.
Nicholas of Lyra’s Postilla: Samaria, Jerusalem, and Josephus
In the fourteenth century, another Postilla, written by a Franciscan theologian, Nicholas of Lyra, completed the trio of authoritative late medieval Christian Bible commentaries. Nicholas’ Postilla only addressed what it considered the literal “sense” of Scripture: it also included references to Hebrew phrases and frequent citations of Rashi as “Rabbi Salomon.”
Although Nicholas’ reading of Lev 26:29 does not cite any rabbinic sources (perhaps because Rashi left no comment on the verse), he does complete the sequence of Jewish historical events with a post-biblical Jewish source, albeit a very familiar one to Christians:
“So that you shall eat the flesh of your sons and your daughters.” This was fulfilled by the siege of Samaria, as described in 2 Kings 6, and in the siege of Jerusalem by Titus and Vespasian, as Josephus says in his book The Jewish War.
Josephus, the first-century Jewish author widely read and adapted by Christians, does indeed use his Jewish War to tell a spectacularly gruesome and dramatic story about a wealthy Jewish woman named Mary who ate her own child; she was discovered eating cooked meat during Titus’ siege of Jerusalem, only to identify the meat as her son and offer her questioners the other half of his body.
But even the erudite Nicholas of Lyra did not read Josephus in the original Greek; he could have encountered The Jewish War in a fourth-century Latin translation, but he and his readers could also have known the story of Mary from any of a number of more loosely adapted histories, poems, and plays, most of which drew connections between the supposed Jewish persecution of Jesus’s followers and Vespasian’s siege of Jerusalem.
In other words, by invoking Josephus and Mary, Nicholas actually harmonizes the approach of the Glossa ordinaria with that of Hugh of St. Cher: mothers eating babies is a Jewish thing, but a Jewish thing that is particularly linked to the Jews’ denial of Christ. Like the earlier Jewish commentary tradition, Nicholas finally connected Lev. 26:29 with the destruction of the Second Temple, but like the Glossa and Hugh of Saint-Cher, Nicholas’ literal approach led him back to viewing Jewish history as a series of catastrophes happening to a people of whom he was not a part.
A Curse Fulfilled
The descriptions of child-eating in the Bible are not uniquely Jewish: in the context of covenants or treaties, they appear as threats in other ancient Near Eastern documents, and in the context of dramatic siege narratives, they seem to recur throughout human history. But the child-eating curses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy were interpreted not simply as threats but as prophecies ripe for fulfillment.
Later books of the Hebrew Bible played on the idea that these prophecies had been fulfilled, and rabbinic commentators read the curses of Leviticus and Deuteronomy into the destruction of both the First and the Second Temples. A series of frightening, gruesome biblical and rabbinic narratives around child-killing emerged, fulfilling what could be viewed as the original divine threat in Leviticus.
Between Jewish and Christian Interpretation
The medieval interpretation of Leviticus 26:29 goes in two rather different directions. Even though many of the medieval Christian commentaries share the same basic historical assumptions as their earlier Jewish counterparts about connecting the curse of child eating with the destruction of the Temple(s), the Christian commentators are primarily interested in using the curses to explain the tragic past history of that strange and mistaken people, “the Jews.” For these interpreters, it doesn’t seem to matter if that history involves the First Temple, the Second Temple, or just one particular siege of Samaria. Their point was to show that child-eating was a Jewish reaction to starvation and famine in the past.
It is no wonder then, that some medieval Jewish commentators, such as ibn Ezra and R. Meyuchas, wanted to highlight that child eating could be a purely human response to extreme starvation and not a uniquely Jewish one. Hizkuni changed the subject entirely, essentially denying that the curse was about child-eating in the first place. Finally, many of the commentators simply skipped over any discussion of the verse altogether.
Reading the Jewish commentators in conversation with the Christian ones makes their silence take on new significance: perhaps this was not a verse they wanted to share, much less dispute, with their Christian contemporaries.
The curses of Leviticus and Deuteronomy are famously read in an undertone. Looking at the reception history of Leviticus 26:29, something very similar seems to be going on with its medieval Jewish interpretation.
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May 9, 2018
August 3, 2020
Dr. Wendy Love Anderson is Academic Coordinator in the Center for the Humanities and affiliate faculty in Religious Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She received her M.A. in Religious Studies and her Ph.D in History of Christianity from the University of Chicago. She is the author of The Discernment of Spirits: Assessing Visions and Visionaries in the Late Middle Ages.
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