Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Bergmann, Claudia D., Childbirth as Metaphor for Crisis: Evidence from the Ancient Near East, the Hebrew Bible, and 1QH XI, 1-18 (BZAW, 382; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008). Pp. x + 267. Hardcover. US$109. ISBN 978 3110200423.

This monograph is a revision of Bergmann's dissertation thesis at the University of Chicago. As Bergmann's title indicates, her work focuses on the metaphor of childbirth as it is attested in writings from the ancient Near East, the Hebrew Bible, and Qumran. While Bergmann maintains from the start that “childbirth is an experience that cannot be understood and described in its totality” (p. 1), according to Bergmann's central thesis, metaphors for childbirth are often used to depict crisis in ancient Near Eastern literature, the Hebrew Bible, and the writings from Qumran. The type of crisis varies and may be local, personal, or universal or some combination of these three types. The goals of Bergmann's work move in two directions. This work intends to provide greater insight into the ancient understanding of childbirth, while also examining how crisis was conceived in the ancient world by way of birthing metaphors.

In Bergmann's introduction, she provides a brief history of definitions of metaphor. Bergmann concludes the chapter with her own approach to metaphor, which depends largely on the work of George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and Mark Turner and their cognitive approaches to metaphor. Following Lakoff, Bergmann identifies the source and target of her study, stating:

    In the few ancient Near Eastern texts that use birth metaphorically and in the Hebrew Bible texts that use the Birth Metaphor… “birth” (Lakoff's “source”) functions as the metaphor with which to understand situations of “crisis“ (Lakoff's “target”). Birth, and especially difficult birth, can thus be the concept that metaphorically explains the difficult concept of crisis. (pp. 7–8)

Chapters 1 and 2 introduce “birth as event and metaphor” in the ancient Near East (ch. 1) and in the Hebrew Bible (ch. 2). These two chapters provides a background for the conceptual grounding of childbirth in the Hebrew Bible primarily, and the ancient Near East secondarily (as Bergmann's goal is to understand the Hebrew Bible's presentation of childbirth via “the ancient cultures from which the Hebrew Bible and its culture drew some of their material” [p. 9]). These chapters serve a dual purpose. On the one hand, they allow Bergmann to present the major sources describing childbirth and the cultural assumptions surrounding them based on the metaphors used to depict childbirth. On the other hand, in the case of the ANE sources, Chapter 1 also allows Bergmann to present the major uses of childbirth as a metaphor for crisis.

Chapters 3–5 move from birth as an event and its metaphorical interpretations in the Hebrew Bible to a discussion of how the Birth Metaphor is used to depict three types of crises. Chapter 3 provides a survey of the Biblical Birth Metaphor for cases of local crisis, Chapter 4 for universal crisis, and Chapter 5 for personal crisis.

Bergmann finds that in cases of local crisis “imagery in these texts are often centred around war and it is assumed or explained explicitly that the crisis is either caused by YHWH or has received YHWH's stamp of approval” (p. 114). Childbirth imagery in cases of universal crisis are more rare in the Hebrew Bible. Where present, however, Bergmann asserts that these cases are “clearly distinct from the Birth Metaphor categories of local crisis and personal crisis” (p. 115). The defining characteristics of this category is that “the crisis affects all of humanity” and “also affects the seemingly unchangeable parts of creation and often results in a reversal of the created order” (p. 115). As with the Birth Metaphor used in cases of local crisis, in cases of universal crisis, warfare imagery is often present as YHWH and his army bring war upon the earth, but, unlike the imagery of both local and personal crises, the language of fear and trembling is absent in texts of universal crisis. Bergmann suggests that this may be because the idea of divine punishment is “so certain that one no longer needs to fear the unknown” (p. 125). In all of these texts, “the crisis is imminent and all encompassing” (p. 126).

In Chapter 5, Bergmann addresses the many examples of the Birth Metaphor in cases of personal crisis in the Hebrew Bible by grouping the forms of imagery into engulfment imagery, war imagery, and prophetic vision imagery. Bergmann notes that the use of the Birth Metaphor in cases of personal crisis differs from cases of local and universal crises by its use of metaphors primarily rather than similes. They also describe the individual's response in crisis in vivid and abundant terms including “feeling engulfed, crying, calling for help, trembling, being afraid” (p. 162).

Chapter 6 moves from a study of the Hebrew Bible to the texts of Qumran. Bergmann focuses on 1QH XI, 1–18, a Thanksgiving Hymn that “uses a plethora of birth terminology and imagery” (p. 162). Bergmann compares this use of the Birth Metaphor to its use in the Hebrew Bible with illuminating results. As Bergmann notes, “interpreters of 1QH XI, 1–18 do not agree on the most basic questions about this text” (p. 165). Bergmann uses the cumulative evidence gleaned from her earlier chapters to demonstrate the “overwhelming number of terminological allusions to biblical Birth Metaphor texts” that can be identified in this Qumran text. 1 QH XI, 1–18 echoes elements in the use of the Birth Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible in cases of personal and universal crisis. Bergmann is also able to identify how other imagery within the text, such as the maritime images, arise from the Birth Metaphor. Further, Bergmann demonstrates that this Qumran text goes beyond other Birth Metaphor texts by describing two possible outcomes of crisis through two birth scenarios. In the first birth, mother and child survive with positive consequences; the second birth represents the “deadly outcome of the crisis,” that is, “the mother and her non-human offspring cause universal upheaval before they are locked away in the netherworld” (p. 216). In this way, Bergmann's careful analysis of the Birth Metaphor gives her the insight to disentangle a very knotted text.

A great strength of this book is Bergmann's awareness that “the emotions and associations evoked by the Birth Metaphor in its different expressions serve as a foil through which to view these events [i.e., different forms of crises], which are otherwise unrelated to birth” (p. 56). Because of Bergmann's careful use of metaphor theory, which entails precise examination of her sources, Bergmann is able to describe which elements from the ANE are included and which are excluded from the Hebrew Bible's use of the Birth Metaphor. For example, Bergmann notes that while texts in the ANE literature have typical patterns when discussing birth that include the mother, the child, and the mother's assistants, in the Hebrew Bible only the patterns used for the mother are used, while discussion of the child and assistants is not present (p. 59). Such methodological clarity keeps Bergmann's work from the “parallelomania” that can at times occur when texts are scavenged uncritically for source material.[1]

Bergmann's work is well-researched, particularly her use of Mesopotamian, Hattian, and Ugaritic texts and her careful analysis of the Qumran text. The narrow focus on the single metaphor of childbirth in Bergmann's work allows for greater depth and clarity than other works on metaphor that have sought a broader scale of metaphors. Additionally, this allows Bergmann to compare similar metaphorical elements across cultures. For example, Bergmann notes that association between battle imagery and childbirth metaphors present in ANE texts is also present in Greek texts. Thus, The Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur bears metaphorical resemblance to Euripides' Medea as both compare warriors to birthing mothers (pp. 50–51).

Though Bergmann's work is well-conceived overall, it is not without its weaknesses. Though Bergmann uses the work of George Lakoff in his collaborations with Mark Johnson and Mark Turner, she does not integrate the recent work in metaphor theory that has developed since the publication of these two major works. Such additions may have benefited her work as a whole. For example, Bergmann could have used the more recent work on conceptual blending by Mark Turner and Gilles Fauconnier to augment her discussion of comparing types of crisis in childbirth metaphors and the implications for understanding the conceptualization of childbirth.

More surprising is the fact that Bergmann does not reference one of the more recent discussions of the metaphor of childbirth, namely Sarah Dille's 2004 work Mixing Metaphors: God as Father and Mother in Deutero-Isaiah.[2] Dille's work uses modern metaphor theory to address the use of mother metaphors for God in Deutero-Isaiah. Not only do Dille and Bergmann frequently cover the same material, both point to the influence of George Lakoff for their metaphor theory. Dille's analysis could help fill out some of the gaps in Bergmann's work. For example, while Bergmann focuses only on the metaphor of childbirth, Dille's work examines a wider range of metaphors that interact with the childbirth metaphor. Bergmann's discussion of Isaiah 42 provides a helpful parallel between other ANE texts that link military metaphors to childbirth metaphors, but Dille's examination of Isaiah 42 gives the additional insight of how this maternal metaphor depicting God's action interrelates with other such metaphors in the Hebrew Bible.

Bergmann's categories of local, personal, and universal also at times become a bit muddied and at other times could be contentious. For example, when dealing with Psalms, Bergmann does not distinguish between the position of the speaker of the psalms relative to the metaphor and the subsequent use of the psalm in its cultic setting relative to the metaphor. While a metaphor may appear to be personal in psalms such as Psalm 42, some scholars might argue that this neglects the psalm's use in Israelite ritual where the “I” may be understood as communal rather than “personal.” However, this oversight may be excused to a degree on two accounts. First, Bergmann provides discussion in her footnotes of psalms that may be read as communal, though she interprets them as individual (see, for example, Bergmann's discussion of Psalm 88, especially n. 14 p. 131). Bergmann also explains that she defines a crisis as “personal” if the texts “either concern one individual only” or “they describe a crisis that is not of historical significance even if it applies to a group of people” (p. 162). Further, as Bergmann's approach is to read the Hebrew Bible as literature and thus not primarily with a source critical or form critical approach, such issues tend to fall outside of her particular methodological purview.

Some minor issues arise in a few awkwardly worded passages throughout the book. However, this is not surprising as Bergmann describes herself as a “non-native speaker of English” in her acknowledgements. Additionally, while the indices provided by Bergmann are particularly helpful, especially her charts of ancient sources, one wonders at the absence of a subject index, which would prove a helpful addition to Bergmann's work.

These critiques aside, Bergmann's work provides a comprehensive analysis of the metaphor of childbirth in the Hebrew Bible and in its corollaries in the ANE literature and the Qumran. This work will be a helpful resource to scholars interested in the use of metaphor in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism and in the childbirth metaphor specifically. While not explicitly feminist in its approach, Bergmann's work has profound implications for issues of gender, including the gender of God and the view of women in the Hebrew Bible. Thus, Bergmann's work would also be of interest to those working in gender studies. While the cost of the book is prohibitive to the average student, the book would be a valuable addition to a scholar's library.

Beth Stovell, McMaster Divinity College

[1]See Samuel Sandmel, “Parallelomania,” JBL 81 (1962): 1–13.reference

[2]See Sarah Dille, Mixing Metaphors: God as Father and Mother in Deutero-Isaiah (JSOTSup, 398; Gender, Culture, Theory 13; London: T & T Clark, 2004). reference