During biblical times, breastfeeding was essentially the only way to feed a baby and therefore was expected and considered normal. It is important to note, however, that breastfeeding is never a command nor are alternative methods of meeting a baby's nutritional needs counted as sin.
The Bible mentions breastfeeding quite a few times. For example, Joel calls for the people to gather saying, "Assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants" (Joel 2:16). It was assumed that infants would be nursing at their mothers' breasts. Job when lamenting the injustices in the world, said, "There are those who snatch the fatherless child from the breast" (Job 24:9). Babies were regularly seen nursing from their mothers' breasts in his community. Jesus warned, "Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people" (Luke 21:23). Jesus knew women would be nursing during the "days of vengeance" (Luke 21:22). Breastfeeding was the normal way to nourish infants.
Besides this general acknowledgement of breastfeeding as the expected norm, the Bible also records a few specific nursing relationships. We know Sarah breastfed Isaac (Genesis 21:7–8), Jochebed nursed Moses (Exodus 2:8–9), Hannah breastfed Samuel (1 Samuel 1:22–24), Gomer nursed Lo-ruhamah (Hosea 1:8), and even Mary breastfed Jesus (Luke 11:27). The way these mothers nourished and nurtured their little ones can be inferred to be a positive thing based on the way the opposite trait of withholding nourishment from babies is condemned in Lamentations. God declared, "Even jackals offer the breast; they nurse their young; but the daughter of my people has become cruel… the tongue of the nursing infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst; the children beg for food, but no one gives to them" (Lamentations 4:3–4). God said that wild animals who nursed their young were better than those humans who withheld nourishment from their infants. So breastfeeding is a positive trait in the Bible.
God even compared Himself to a nursing mother in Isaiah 49:15: "Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?" The obvious answer is that it is unlikely a breastfeeding mother could forget her child because her breasts would become engorged with milk, begin to leak, and become quite uncomfortable. These signs would alert her to her missing baby and his need. However, God continues, "Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you" (Isaiah 49:15). God was highlighting the fact that as caring, attentive, and nurturing as breastfeeding mothers are to their children, God is even more so toward His people. In fact, one of the names of God is El Shaddai which can be understood as "many breasted God."
When a baby nurses, it signals the mother's breasts to produce milk, but not just any milk. The levels of sugars, fat, minerals, protein, vitamins, and hormones in the mother's breastmilk vary according to the baby and baby's needs. For instance, the breastmilk a mother produces for a baby who was born prematurely has a higher sugar content than the breastmilk she produces for her babies who were born full-term. The breastmilk for baby boys tends to have a higher fat content while breastmilk for girls has more calcium. So the mother's breast produces milk fashioned for her baby's individual nutritional needs. But besides providing nutrition, the act of breastfeeding also provides protection for the baby. As the baby's mouth latches onto the mother's nipple, any germs with which the baby has come in contact are passed to the mother. The mother's immune system then produces the necessary antibodies to fight off those germs, the antibodies pass into the breastmilk, thus giving the baby the benefits of his mother's more mature immune system. So breastfeeding is this relationship whereby the baby is completely dependent on its mother for his/her every need and her breasts provide sustenance and protection.
Many times when God's title of El Shaddai is used, it's in conjunction with the idea of God providing fertility and blessing. He will "make you fruitful and multiply you" (Genesis 28:3) and "bless you with… blessings of the breasts and of the womb" (Genesis 49:25). Job 22:23 says, "If you return to the Almighty [Shaddai] you will be built up", and Job 33:4 says "the breath of the Almighty gives me life." Other times, that title is used when referencing protection. Psalm 91:1 says, "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty." Job laments that he was "as in the days when God watched over me… when the Almighty was yet with me" (Job 29:2–5). Elihu proclaimed that "the Almighty will not pervert justice" (Job 34:12) and that "he is great in power" (Job 37:23). So God, like a "many breasted God," has everything we need for both sustenance and protection in and of Himself. We need only draw near and bring our need to Him.
The apostle Paul also likened himself to a breastfeeding mother. When writing to the church in Thessalonica, he said, "But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us" (1 Thessalonians 2:7–8). Paul used breastfeeding mothers as an illustration for how he had ministered to the Thessalonians. Nursing mothers are gentle and self-sacrificial, providing for the needs of their children and freely giving of themselves to do so. Paul had done the same. We might take the comparison a bit further. Consider that nursing babies need to eat every few hours, so the mother must remain nearby, often interrupting the things she is doing in order to attend to the baby. She also must be cautious of the things she consumes and exposes herself to because most substances will pass into her breastmilk and thereby also expose the baby. So like a breastfeeding mother, Paul remained in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 1:5), near the believers, ready to encourage their growth no matter what else he could have been working on. He also protected his own spiritual health understanding that they "became imitators of us and of the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 1:6).
Breastfeeding in the Bible is seen as the expected natural way to feed a baby. It is also used as an example of the relationship God longs to have with His people. Too, it can be seen as an example of how we can nurture and disciple other believers. However, the Bible does not condemn other ways of meeting a baby's nutritional needs. Breastfeeding is not a command, nor is bottle-feeding a sin. In fact, there may be many reasons that bottle feeding becomes necessary for a particular mother and her child. Each mother must seek wisdom from God to determine the best way to meet her child's needs (James 1:5) and others must refrain from passing judgment about non-essential issues (Colossians 2:16). However, when we see a breastfeeding mother, we can be reminded of how God longs to protect and provide for us and how we can minister to those whom we are discipling.
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