As part of this series of notes on the “Birth of the Son of God”, today I will be looking at Jesus’ birth in terms of the suffering and pain associated with childbirth. The severe pains accompanying the birth process go back to the very beginnings of human history (cf. the ancient tradition in Gen 3:16ff), and are often used as a symbol, representative of human suffering and misfortune as a whole. Prior to modern times, childbirth could be quite dangerous as well, often resulting in the death of the child or the mother. The suffering it signified also could be connected with sin in various ways, as in the narrative of Genesis 3. For traditional Old Testament imagery of labor pains related to human suffering and sin, see Isa 13:8; 21:3; 26:17; 42:14; Jer 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 48:41; 49:22, 24; 50:43; Hos 13:13; Mic 4:9-10; to this should be added the expression “born of a woman” to indicate the human condition in its suffering (Job 14:1; 15:14; 25:4; also Gal 4:4 [cf. below]). Sometimes birth pains are contrasted with the joy and relief experienced when the child is born (Gen 35:16-17; John 16:21, cf. also Isa 65:23; Mic 5:3). The pain of childbearing was such that birth without pain could serve as an image of God’s special blessing or as characteristic of an idealized future age (cf. Isa 66:7-8). Painlessness has been ascribed to Jesus’ birth in Christian tradition (e.g., Gregory of Nyssa’s Homily on the Nativity [late 4th cent.]), sometimes connected with the idea of the virgin birth in partu (already indicated in the mid-2nd cent. Protevangelium §19-20); however, there is no evidence for this in the Gospel accounts themselves. On historical and literary grounds, we may fairly assume that Jesus’ birth was accompanied by the ordinary pains of childbirth, though it does raise an interesting Christological question regarding the extent to which Jesus participated in the human condition (see esp. Gal 4:4; Rom 8:3; 2 Cor 5:21).
In the New Testament, labor pains are used to symbolize two related ideas:
- The suffering associated with the end-time Judgment (Mark 13:8 par; 1 Thess 5:3), drawn from Old Testament imagery related to the Day of YHWH (Isa 13:8, etc). In Jewish tradition, the time of distress preceding the (Messianic) restoration/redemption of Israel came to be referred to as “the birth-pains of the Messiah” (jyvmh ylbj).
- The suffering of believers (John 16:21—also the imagery in Gal 4:19; Rom 8:22-23)
These two aspects were already combined in the Qumran hymn 1QH 3 [1QHa column XI lines 7-18]. The distress of the Community is compared with that of a woman in labor, who eventually gives birth to a ‘Messianic’ figure called the “wonderful counsellor” (after Isa 9:5). This birth is contrasted with another woman who bears a wicked “viper” (hupa)—the fate of this latter offspring is destruction. The Community of the Qumran texts appears to have applied eschatological imagery, just as early Christians did, to their own situation.
The Synoptic narrative framework sets Mark 13:8 par (the Olivet/eschatological discourse) generally in the context of Jesus’ own suffering and death—note also the sayings in Mark 14:21b par and John 16:21 (cf. below) as well as the eschatological imagery in the saying of Luke 23:28-29 on the way to the cross. Suffering is not specifically mentioned of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament (Gal 4:4 is the closest, cf. above); however, as I have demonstrated in several prior notes, there a number of points of contact between Jesus’ birth and death within the Gospels (including the Infancy narratives). In this regard, it is worth examining briefly an interesting parallel between John 16:21 and 18:37.
John 16:21; 18:37
Within the structure of the Gospel, both of these passages occur shortly before Jesus’ death and must be understood in that context:
- John 16:21—part of the great series of discourses (Jn 13:31-17:26) set between the ‘Last Supper’ (13:1ff) and the arrest of Jesus (chapter 18); the immediate context of 16:16-24 refers to the sorrow which the disciples will experience at Jesus’ death/departure.
- John 18:37—part of Jesus’ first dialogue with Pilate (Jn 18:33-38) set during the Roman ‘trial’ (18:28-19:16) on the day of his crucifixion (cf. the recent discussion on 18:37).
Let us look at the main points of similarity:
- gegnnh/sh| “she causes to be (born) [i.e. gives birth to] the child”
- e)gennh/qh…ei)$ to\n ko/smon “a man comes to be born into the world“
Jn 18:37: e)gw/ w($ tou=to (“unto this I…”)—statement of ultimate purpose:
- gege/nnhmai “I have come to be (born)“
- “I have come into the world [ei)$ to\n ko/smon]”
—this verse refers primarily to the birth and incarnation of Jesus; however, note two additional details which relate to the overall idea of “the birth of the Son of God”:
- “every one being [i.e. who is] out of [i.e. from] the truth…”—parallel to the spiritual birth of believers (Jn 3)
- “…hears my voice”—allusion to resurrection (Jn 5), i.e., ‘birth’ from the dead
Another passage related to the “birth” of believers (as sons/children of God), specifically involving labor pains, is Romans 8:22-23:
“…all creation groans together [sustena/zei] and is in pain together [sunwdi/nei]; and not only this, but also (we our)selves, holding the beginnings from (the harvest) of the Spirit, we also groan [stena/zomen] in (our)selves, looking to receive from (God) placement as son(s) [ui(oqesi/an]—the ransom/redemption of our bod(ies)”
Here we have the idea, also expressed (in similar terms) in Galatians 4:4-7, the “adoption” (lit. setting/placement as son) of believers, i.e. as sons (or children) of God. Clearly, this is connected ultimately with the salvation/redemption at the end-time—which occurs by way of the (physical/bodily) resurrection. This must be understood along with two other verses from Rom 8:18-30:
V. 19—Creation eagerly “looks to receive from (God) the uncovering [i.e. revelation] of the sons of God“
V. 29—”the (one)s whom He knew before(hand) He also marked (out) [i.e. appointed/determined] before(hand) (as being) in form together (with) His Son, unto his being [i.e. so Christ might be] the first-produced [i.e. firstborn] among many brothers“
Lastly, it is necessary to discuss (however briefly) the famous and enigmatic vision of the woman with child in Revelation 12.
Interpretation of the complex and colorful visions of the book of Revelation is notoriously difficult, varying greatly—from the contextually plausible to the outrageously fanciful (and everything in between). One major problem is that the author makes use of many multivalent symbols—that is, different images and traditional elements are combined into a single scene or figure—and commentators make a grave mistake when they try to limit interpretation to a single corresponding meaning. The woman of Rev 12:1ff may perhaps best be summarized or described as the “Daughter of Zion”, generally representing the People of God, but presented in an exalted manner using cosmic symbolism. The narrative vision of this woman can be divided into two parts:
- Verses 1-6—here I take the woman to represent Israel leading up to the birth (and death/resurrection) of Jesus; she is described as pregnant and in severe labor pains (v. 2), indicative of both the suffering of the people and the (eschatological) distress presaging the end (cf. above). The messianic character of the male child she delivers is clear from the allusion to Psalm 2:9 in verse 5.
- Verses 13-17—here the woman (with her offspring) is best understood as representing the Christian Community, forced to dwell in the wilderness for a period of 3 1/2 years (or 1260 days), which I take to be generally symbolic of the period between the earliest days of the Church (characterized by persecution, cf. Acts 4-8) and the imminent/impending end time (marked by the last judgment and return of Christ).
In both sections, the woman (and her child/children) is threatened by the great serpent/dragon, identified with Satan (v. 9). In between (vv. 7-12) there is a interlude depicting a cosmic battle between two sets of angels in heaven—one group led by Michael, the other by the Dragon. The imagery of this scene is drawn from Jewish tradition, influenced largely by Daniel 10-12. There is a chiastic quality to this triptych:
- Israel and Christ (the Son of God) threatened by the Dragon (vv. 1-6)
- Victory of the Sons of God (Michael and the Angels & the Saints) in heaven over Satan (vv. 7-12)
- (Spiritual) victory of believers (sons of God) over the Dragon/Satan (vv. 13-17 [verse 17b])
The central scene in heaven serves as a source of hope and encouragement for believers facing persecution.