Wednesday, December 23, 2009

So this is Advent...

"So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."
Luke 2:4-7

"When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus." Matthew 1:24-25

You know, I (Elizabeth) never really paid attention to the "Jesus being born" passages until this Advent.  I guess when you're not pregnant and considering your impending labor, you don't really care about what the Bible says about the subject.  But of course, being 21 weeks pregnant changes lots of things, including how you read the Bible.  And I was stunned to realize that the only "birth" story we get about Jesus pretty much reads "and she gave birth."  What?!  Was her labor long or short?  Was it especially hard or really easy?  Did she have women to help her or did Joseph have to take part (VERY UNLIKELY).  Did she have clothes to change into afterwards?  How much did he weigh? How long was he?  Was he fussy or content?  

So, I figured I'd look back at the other "birth stories" in the Bible and see if I could get any more details..

The birth of Isaac
"So Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age." (Genesis 21:2)

The birth of Jacob and Esau
"When her (Rebekah) days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb.  Now the first came forth red, all over like a hairy garment; and they named him Esau.  Afterward his brother came forth with his hand holding on to Esau's heel, so his name was called Jacob." (Genesis 25:24-26)

The birth of Samuel
"It came about in due time, after Hannah had conceived, that she gave birth to a son." (1 Samuel 1:20)

The birth of Solomon
"Then David comforted his wife Bathsheba, and went in to her and lay with her; and she gave birth to a son, and he named him Solomon." (2 Samuel 12:24)

The birth of John
"Now the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she gave birth to a son." (Luke 1:57)


So...I've got nothing still.  The only thing even close to a description of labor that we have is when Jacob and Esau are born, and it sounds like it wasn't fun.  Both were apparently head down (remember, Jacob holding Esau's heel?) and came out pretty much right after each other, so it could have been worse.  

The question that remains, though, is why our narrator leaves out ANY description of the events themselves.  I know that a vivid play-by-play may have been a little much, but NO description leaves a lot to be desired.  Maybe its because, largely, the books were written by men who weren't culturally permitted to be present at the birth.  But surely the women passed along the stories of births to their daughters, and surely these women could have had their stories included!

I can't help but start to midrash the stories for myself, filling in the gaps to illuminate a bigger picture.  How must Sarah have felt, a weary old woman, to suddenly be in the throes of labor?  Were her handmaidens as surprised as she was to be in the birthing tent for her?  Or what about Rebekah?  Did the traumatic birth of twins leave her unable to have children afterwards?  When Solomon was about to be born, was Bathsheba torn between excitement for her new child and grief for the one who had died?  In the moments after he was born, did she hold him close and fear for his life?  I know that Hannah was filled with joy to even be pregnant, but during her labor for Samuel, do you think she thought, just for a second, "what did I sign up for?! This hurts!"  How about Elizabeth?  She must have thought of Sarah during her delivery, gripping the hands of her kinswomen tightly as she gave birth to her long-awaited son.  And did Mary feel?  Away from family and friends, surrounded by livestock, she must have been surprised that she would deliver the Son of God in such inauspicious surroundings.  Who helped her deal with the painful contractions?  Who gave her water to drink?  Who caught her newborn son as he slipped out into the world?  Was she terrified and elated when smelly shepherds showed up for visiting hours?

I know, I know.  "The important thing is that these guys were born at all," you say.  And I a certain extent.  But to any woman who has given birth or who will give birth, the existence of a child and the way he/she arrived can hardly be separated.  The birth is a part of the journey.

Maybe thats why the Bible leaves the stories out.  Because without a description, we are forced to imagine, forced to speculate, forced to focus our minds and then the Holy Spirit sneaks in.  

Interesting Side Note: Did you know that the Qur'an has a description of the birth of Jesus?
"And the pains of childbirth drove her (Mary) to the trunk of a palm-tree: She cried (in her anguish): 'Ah! would that I had died before this! Would that I had been a thing forgotten and out of sight!' But (a voice) cried to her from beneath the (palm-tree): 'Grieve not! for thy Lord hath provided a rivulet beneath thee; And shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree; it will let fall fresh ripe dates upon thee. So eat and drink and cool (thine) eye.'"

What do you think?  What do you think the birth of the Christ Child was like?

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