Today, the third Sunday in Advent, celebrates the messengers of Christ’s birth—primarily, of course, John the Baptist, but the church has long identified the prophets of the Old Testament as John’s colleagues: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).
In Isaiah 7, pregnancy and infancy are symbols of restoration. This is a common metaphor in the prophets (cf. Isaiah 9:6, Jeremiah 31:8, Micah 5:3, etc.). The symbolism of giving birth here underlies the imagery of Advent. We put up nativities and sing songs about mothers and babies because the pregnancy, birth, and infancy of the first Christmas bring about the restoration and salvation of the world.
But—I bet you were expecting this, right?—pregnancy and infancy are not only symbols of restoration in the Bible. In fact, much more frequently, images of pregnant women, giving birth, and tiny babies are symbols of war.
The pain and suffering of war are often described by the metaphor of giving birth, as in Isaiah 21:2-5:
A stern vision is told to me; the betrayer betrays, and the destroyer destroys. Go up, O Elam, lay siege, O Media; all the sighing she has caused I bring to an end. Therefore my loins are filled with anguish; pangs have seized me, like the pangs of a woman in labor; I am bowed down so that I cannot hear, I am dismayed so that I cannot see. My mind reels, horror has appalled me; the twilight I longed for has been turned for me into trembling. They prepare the table, they spread the rugs, they eat, they drink. Rise up, commanders, oil the shield!
This text reminds me inexorably of a friend from grad school; she used to cut my hair in exchange for babysitting. Once, when she had me imprisoned with her scissors, she told me all about giving birth to her youngest. All about it.
It was excruciating.
And giving birth in the biblical world was much worse—no hospitals, no birthing pools, no drugs; a pregnant woman had to trust to midwives, olive oil, and birthing stools (check out Soranus, Gynaecology 1.67-69, for more information). The danger of childbirth was exacerbated by a lack of sanitation, the probability of infection and disease, and the often young age of the mother. Though statistics are unavailable, the evidence of funerary inscriptions suggests that the mortality rate for women and infants in childbirth were high.
To the spirits of the deceased Aeturnia Zotica. Annius Flavianus, one of the ten lictors of Fufidius Pollio, governor of Galatia, to his well-deserving wife. She lived for 15 years, 5 months, and 18 days; she died sixteen days after giving birth to her first child, leaving a son alive (ILS 1914).
A few weeks ago I wrote about house design and family life in the ancient and modern Middle East. Think of what the close living situations means for childbirth: the classic image of fathers smoking cigars in a hospital waiting room would be indecipherable in antiquity. Everyone in the home, and the homes sharing a common courtyard, and in the rest of the village would know a woman was giving birth. They would share the experience through the conversation, shouts, and screams flowing out of the ‘privacy’ of the home.
The danger, pain, and publicity of childbirth in the biblical world make it a vivid metaphor for war. Pain, writhing, anguish, gasping for breath, pain, terror, groaning, and more pain: I can imagine the audiences of Isaiah 13:4-8, Jeremiah 4:30-31, or Micah 4:10 wincing and cringing through these warnings of coming war. The imagery of childbirth makes the devastation of their situation clear.
Childbirth provides a metaphor for war; prophecies and narratives also make use of the actual suffering of pregnant women and infants to express the horrors of war. Elisha tells Hazael that he will become king of Aram, and make war on Israel—burning their fortresses, killing the young men, dashing infants into pieces, and ripping up pregnant women (2 Kings 8:12); the Israelite king Menahem rips up the pregnant women of Tipshah in 2 Kings 15:16 as punishment on that city. We can question whether the massacre of pregnant women and infants was a regular part of warfare; certainly they would be threatened by warfare (especially siege warfare). The power of the imagery, however, is clear throughout the Old Testament:
For thus says the LORD concerning the sons and daughters who are born in this place, and concerning the mothers who bear them and the fathers who beget them in this land: They shall die of deadly diseases. They shall not be lamented, nor shall they be buried; they shall become like dung on the surface of the ground. They shall perish by the sword and by famine, and their dead bodies shall become food for the birds of the air and for the wild animals of the earth (Jeremiah 16:3-4).
Samaria will be held guilty, for she has rebelled against her God. They will fall by the sword, their little ones will be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women will be ripped open (Hosea 13:16).
O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock (Psalm 137:8-9).
Pregnant women and infants represent the future of the people. Their violent deaths, therefore, represent the loss of the future.
We find similar imagery in the New Testament. “Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days” (Mark 13:17); “the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’” (Luke 23:29). In these texts, Jesus draws on the prophetic imagery of pregnant women and infants massacred during war to make the danger of the coming judgment-by-war clear.
War represented as childbirth, pregnant women ripped open, infants dashed on rocks: this biblical imagery makes use of the fragile and weak, those who need the most protection, to explain, explore, and emphasize the horrors of war. This tradition also makes the choice to represent restoration with the imagery of childbirth all the more poignant, joyful, and surprising as the weak and fragile become the hope for the future:
A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country (Jeremiah 31:15-17).
This text from Jeremiah is quoted in Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth, and it’s important, I think, to note that it’s about both restoration and war. Jesus is born in an occupied territory, full of Roman soldiers and Jewish revolutionaries. In Luke’s Gospel, the birth happens during a display of Roman power (the census). In Matthew 2, the story of the birth is quickly followed by the massacre of the babies of Bethlehem, and Mary, Joseph, and Jesus become political refugees in Egypt. The Christmas story is about restoration that occurs in the midst of, and in spite of, the dangers of war. The messengers who warned that the agony of war would be like the agony of childbirth, or that pregnant women and infants would be targeted by the violence of war—these are just as important as texts of restoration for our understanding and celebration of Mary’s pregnancy and Jesus’ birth.