The Genesis of Christmas, part 2: Conception, birth, and pain (Second Sunday of Advent 2022)
You cannot talk about Christmas without talking about childbirth. For as much as Christians have tried to clean up the Nativity, it’s impossible to tell the story honestly and get past the fact that the way the whole Christianity thing began was with a woman giving birth in a barn—or, more accurately, a cave. It could be our Victorian sensibilities or maybe our misogynistic theological past (and present), but we may as well look at the birth pains of Christmas if we’re going to think about Christmas at all.
Mary is rare for many reasons. She comes on the scene as somewhat unknown, certainly young, and quite possibly poor. But one dominant biblical reason she is rare is that she conceives a child with no problem at all. In fact, she conceives a child with no person at all. We learn of Mary’s existence and name in Luke 1:27, and by verse 31 we are told she “will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” After her bewilderment, the angel Gabriel says to her that this whole process will be done with the divine power as “The Holy Spirit will come” upon her (Luke 1:35). To the new Bible reader, this is a miracle in-and-of itself. But the the trained Bible reader, this is a phenomenon of radical importance.
A casual reading of Genesis reveals the theme of barrenness plainly. You do not need to know any Hebrew, nor do you need any prior theological knowledge, to see that nearly all the women cannot have children. Sarah and Abraham are first (Genesis 15:2, 16:1), but on down the line it does: Rebekah and Isaac (Genesis 25:21) and then Rachel with Jacob (Genesis 29:31)—all are barren as well. Not only this, but in each generation, the couples take matters into their own hands when they cannot conceive. Abraham and Sarah abuse their Egyptian slave Hagar to have Ishmael (Genesis 16), Isaac takes the twins he is given and picks favorites (Genesis 25:28) while Rebekah turns one son against the other (Genesis 27:5–20). Jacob has a slew of bad decisions with Rachel and Leah as they try to make more offspring instead of waiting on what the Lord would grant to them eventually (Genesis 30:1–22). After that whole mess comes more bizarre situations involving conception in the narrative of Judah and Tamar (read Genesis 38 at your own risk). By the time you’re at chapter 40 in Genesis, you may be under the impression that no one ever gets pregnant on their own terms, and when they do, it goes horribly wrong.
Here’s a question: why did so many find it so difficult to conceive and why did Mary have it so easy?
The easy and perhaps permissible answer is that those mentioned in the Old Testament were impregnated by men and Mary was by the Holy Spirit. Big difference, yes. But what if there was theological significance to all of this? The biblical writers usually include details that lead us there anyways, so we might as well join them.
The key that might unlock this for us is a commonly mistranslated word in Genesis 3. Near the middle of the chapter, as the first couple has fallen from grace and the Lord Almighty is outlining both the curses and the consequences (very different things!) upon the created order, he famously gives this consequence (not a curse!) to the woman: “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16).
For most of my life, I have heard that man’s pain after sin will be around work (v. 19, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread”) and the woman’s, seen here, will be around the pain of giving birth. As one who has witnessed childbirth, this makes sense. It definitely looks like pain you would never wish upon your enemy but somehow wish it upon our wives. But it never seemed like a fair trade to me: men’s pain at work seems way less than childbirth. I mean, sometimes my back hurts as I hunch over my laptop writing articles and preparing sermons, but that’s about it. I get tired after I preach. Kind of pathetic, if I think about it. The physical pain of work really seems lightyears away from the woman’s.
But this superficial reading seems wrong because it is wrong. First, the man’s pain does not come from just the physical work of farming, but from his relationship to his work. Note in Genesis 3:17 it is not the man who is cursed, but the ground. The curse of the ground has a rippling effect to the man, who will now “eat in pain all the days of [his] life.” It will be the man’s relationship with the cursed ground that will cause him distress.
Just as man’s relationship with creation is disrupted, woman’s relationship with procreation is damaged. But there is a common mistranslation of Genesis 3:16, which (apparently) says that God “will surely multiply your pain in childbearing.” The word translated here as “childbearing” in the ESV, or “painful labor” in NIV (the two most common English Bible translations among evangelicals) is, in fact, not the Hebrew word for delivering a child.
Genesis 3:16 employs the Hebrew word heron, which is the term for conception, not delivery. This word is about conceiving life, not birthing it. The good old KJV actually had it right (“I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children”) and our modern translators have mostly fumbled the ball. There’s actually another great Hebrew word for labor and it is used all the time in Genesis and the Old Testament. When we hear about Rachel’s “hard labor” the writer uses the word teled, which is the term for “giving birth” (Genesis 35:17). A similar word in the same group is used to describe Tamar’s delivery of her twins (Genesis 38:27). The point is, our writer could have employed this term if this was the true consequence of Eve. But it wasn’t.
Instead, it is the word heron: “child-conceiving.” Eve’s consequence is not tied to her physical pain of labor, but the emotional pain of conception. Her relationship with procreation will forever be changed as the man’s relationship with creation is. Man will struggle with the fruit in the ground, the woman will struggle with the fruit of her womb.
This makes the book of Genesis make a lot more sense as you hear about woman after woman being barren. All of them host the pain of Eve. And this pain — like the pain of her husband — is more emotional and relational than physical. Although the physical pain is a part of it, it will be the emotional turmoil of desiring life and not being able to create it that marks the woman.
This is the pain of so, so many people in the churches I have served. My wife and I do not have personal experience with this, but to walk with people who do has been some of the hardest points of prayer for us in ministry. It is actually the pain of not having children that is the worst on both ends of life’s spectrum: those who cannot get pregnant and those who lose their children are unique pains of incalculable measure. Both those who cannot conceive and those whose children die experience a kind of loss that is, in the truest sense, unbearable.
Ali and I have waited alongside countless couples who have spent years trying to have children, some of whom we are still waiting. It is confusing and disorienting. Labor pains are often (in the grand scheme) brief and conclude in (oftentimes, but not always) joy. The pain of not being able to conceive haunts you like a nightmare you cannot wake up from, an inescapable darkness from which you cannot find your way.
It is this kind of gloom that hangs over the entire Old Testament narrative. Barrenness plagues so many families that by the time you’re through most of your Old Testament it’s a miracle anyone has any children. God limits the ease of procreation after the fall as a consequence of humanity’s inability to steward it. And this truth seems to become a theme. The pain acts like a genetic disease from family to family, generation to generation.
And then there’s Mary: “[Y]ou will conceive in your womb and bear a son,” the angel tells her. How? She asks. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy — the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
Yes, Mary has an easy conception because it is “immaculate,” as Christians have said for centuries. But it is also a signpost alluding to a reversing of the curses of sin and death. While sin and death will still “reign in our mortal bodies” (Romans 6:12), we need not see it as the final word. Through the immaculate conception, the child born will be Jesus, who will overcome all sin and death and comfort us in our afflictions. The pain of child-conceiving is given a new story, a new name, and a renewed covenantal promise. “We see other instances of barren woman [in the OT] giving birth to children important to the history of redemption of God’s people,” writes Tremper Longman, and so “[w]e might consider these births a precursor to the most miraculous of all births, when the Virgin Mary gave birth to the Savior of all, Jesus” (How to Read Genesis, pg. 134). Death and childlessness is not the defining narrative of humanity, nor is it its future. Life and grace are now given to us in another birth — a birth we could never conceive. In Christ, all of life’s pains get radically reinterpreted.
When Mary realizes this, she sings a song that nearly every scholar reminds us is a remix of a classic. Mary sings the song of a barren woman from the Old Testament named Hannah nearly word for word (1 Samuel 2:1–11). Hannah is one who sang to the Lord after she was finally granted a child after years of barrenness. In case you weren’t picking up on it, the gospel writer Luke makes it plain: this child is coming to reverse the curse not by forgetting about it or deleting it, but by bearing the pain in his own body, his own story. He will absorb the curse for us. Mary will easily conceive to bring Christ who will not easily live. Mary is told this when the child is just days old (Luke 2:35). His birth was (somewhat) easy, his life will not be, because he will bear the sins of the world.
We will grieve if we cannot have kids. We will grieve at the loss of life. And we will also not grieve in total despair. Instead, we will look to the one who knew no sin and yet still became it for us so that we might become righteous and full of hope. Advent reminds us that while we still feel the effects of sin, it no longer has a hold on us. No longer does our birth story define us because Christ’s birth story does.
While the pain of our relationship with creation and procreation is in our present story, it is not a part of its conclusion. Through the virgin birth we see that a new story has begun that will outweigh the first. The “good news” is found not in our conception and birthing, but in Mary’s. Isaiah told us her birth is not primarily to her, but to “ us,” as her narrative lays atop ours to transform its very meaning: “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” (Isaiah 9:6).