22 November 2011

Full-Term Breastfeeding in the Bible

When I was fairly young (somewhere under 13 years old), I undertook to read the entire Bible.  My grandfather had inspired me to do that, so I duly started reading Genesis and working my way through.  I admit I got a bit bogged down in Numbers, but I eventually got through that and made it to 1 Samuel.  In that, I read about Hannah's desperate wish for a child, and how God heard her prayer.

For those unfamiliar with the story, she was despondent in her desire for a child, and wept at the temple, begging God for a child and promising to dedicate said child to God.  Her prayers are heard and when she returns home, she conceives.  The following year her husband is going to Jerusalem for the festival, and she opts to stay home with her newborn son, Samuel.  She promises to bring the child to the temple when he is weaned, and that at that time he will stay there, serving God in the temple as a perpetual nazarite.

Now, given that I'd never seen anyone breastfeed past the age of one, to my knowledge, this passage confused me.  I wondered how such a young child could possibly be left at the temple, for surely the child would still be quite small and dependent upon his mother.  I'd never heard of women breastfeeding past that age, so this passage didn't make sense and, frankly, made Hannah seem a bit coldhearted in my eyes.

Now that I'm a breastfeeding mother and tandem-feeding my (almost) 4-year-old and 20-month-old, I see it in a different light.  I know that historically breastfeeding was continued much longer than most do today, and so I see that Hannah didn't leave an infant or very small toddler, but a preschooler who was likely somewhere between 3 and 6 years old.  Still difficult, I'm certain, but a far cry from what I'd thought it meant before I understood full-term breastfeeding.

I'd honestly not thought much of that passage since becoming a mother, though.  It wasn't until I was looking at one of the daily readings for Mass recently that it came back to me.  The reading was from 2 Maccabees 7 (a book I'd obviously not read in my original quest to read through the Bible, since I was not Catholic at that age; it might have helped me make sense of Samuel's case, though, had I read it).  In the passage, seven sons are tortured and killed for their refusal to disregard God's laws, all in the sight of their mother.  When they reach the seventh son, she mentions how she breastfed him for three years.  Suddenly, the story of Hannah and Samuel came back to me, and made so much more sense.  I suppose this is just another example of how we can lose the true meaning of things when we do not realise the historical customs or biological norm, as the case may be (both come into play in this example).


  1. Awesome post. I am currently nursing my 2.5 year old ( with no signs of weaning) and 6 month old.
    I never noticed those passages before becoming a mother and now anytime I come across a nursing post I always reflect on it. I feel like it gives me more confidence in what I'm doing. And I like hearing about other mothers tandem nursing. Especially Catholic ones :)

  2. Thanks! Always nice to see other tandem-nursing mums. :-)