Last in the series: “Women and War”
Sometimes there are stories in your mind and heart that will not go away—and this is one. The biblical narrative of the woman who ate her son turned the stomachs of our research group when we came upon it, deep in 2 Kings.
Here, amidst the horrors of war (8th century BCE), in a terrible bargain, a woman literally kills, cooks and consumes her own son (2 Kings 6:26).
Context: The city of Samaria—the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel—has been besieged by the armies of Aram, its neighbor to the north. And with that devastation, have come the ravages of war: starvation, disease, grief, chaos, physical and mental torture. It is that picture that confronts the king as he walks along the top of the city’s remaining walls. Suddenly a woman cries out to him from below for help.
And the king hears her terrible story: to fend off starvation she and another women have agreed to eat their children. In their horrible war-torn bargaining they had agreed to eat her son first, and the other women’s son second. She has kept her end of the deal: she killed her son and together the women cooked and ate him. But when it was now time to consume the second son, the other woman has reneged. The boy has disappeared, hidden by his mother, and now the first mother, in her rage and despair is demanding justice…. that the other woman’s son be found and eaten. Her grief is overwhelming.
The king, horrified at how his people have devolved in the midst of this terrible time, tears his clothes in grief over the actions of the woman, and the events that have caused them. And then he blames Elisha and God for the disaster, vowing to seek out and kill the prophet.
Right minds do not always prevail in horrible circumstances like war; morals often disintegrate like shattered windows. Still, this story rightfully jolts the reader into a state of disbelief, even nausea. Most likely, the mother had lost her mind due to the extenuating circumstances. If she was of sound mind, God is the only one who understands her actions. Even with famine, despair, and death on all sides in times of war, the vast majority of mothers will not eat their children, nor allow them to be consumed.
Recognize, however, that desperate circumstances tempt men and women to engage in desperate acts—acts that would not even be considered when stomachs, minds and hearts are engaged.
Stories in the Bible are usually about more than the event described, and that is true here as well. The message here: because Israel has fallen away from God, the moral fiber of society has broken apart.
What might we learn from the woman who ate her son?
- Do not eat our children.
- Starvation kills both spirit and body.
- Make bargains carefully.
- Fight to hold onto our values during times of physical and emotional affliction.
- Support others in their quest to remain sane through difficult times.
Conclusion: One of the things I like about the Bible is that it does not shy away from difficult subjects: rape, starvation, war, mental illness, betrayal—it’s all there. What is helpful for me personally is that I can set the horror of this story down after writing and thinking about it, and do three things: never forget the consequences of war, especially for women and children; take whatever steps I can to hold back the dogs of war; and pray for God’s help for those in times of despair.
We turn all who suffer over to you, Lord, for safekeeping. Nothing is ever lost in your sight. Be with us, be with those who work to keep the world safe, and those who suffer in the struggles. Be our light in the darkness and our destination at the end.
Barbara Dundon Photo