Monday, March 22, 2010

From the Womb: Samson's Birth Story

The Offer of Manoah by Rembrandt

Judges 13

The mother of Sampson, the wife of the Danite Manoah, was another woman who struggled with the trial of infertility. We don't know how long she was barren but in Judges 13:3 we read that an angel of the Lord appeared to her and told her that she was barren but that, "thou shalt conceive, and bear a son." The angel also told her,
"...drink not wine nor strong drink, and eat not any unclean thing: For lo, thou shalt conceive, and bear a son; and no razor shall come on his head: for the child shall be a Nazarite unto God from the womb: and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hands of the Philistines." (Judges 13: 4-5)
A Nazarite was a man or woman who was consecrated, or separated, unto God. The vow could be for their whole lives or for a limited amount of time. A person who made a Nazarite vow could not drink wine, vinegar or any other strong drink. They couldn't eat grapes or anything that came from a vine tree. They also could not cut their hair or touch a dead body or else their vow with God would be broken (Numbers 6: 1-9) It appears that Sampson had been foreordained and set apart as Nazarite before he was even born. Samson's mother needed to know about the divine mission of her son so that she could avoid all the things that would make her baby unclean and cause him to break his vow, even though he wasn't born yet. I think it is incredible that she received a revelation about how to mother her son while he was in the womb. I also find it fascinating that she was taught by the angel that her son would be influenced by what his mother took into her body during her pregnancy. Thanks to modern science we now understand a great deal about how a fetus develops and how it interacts with their mother's body. We know that what a mother eats, feels, thinks and does can and does affect the baby, for better and for worse. Yet back in biblical times women didn't have this sort of scientific knowledge and so it probably would have been a great revelation to her to learn from the angel that what she did during her pregnancy would influence her son's future and determine his divine mission.

After her visit with the angel she ran and told her husband, Manoah, about what she had learned. Her husband must have been a remarkable man because he didn't doubt what she told him for a second. In fact, we read that he started to intreat the Lord that he would, "... teach us what we shall do unto the child that shall be born." (Judges 13: 8) Manoah had faith that his wife had received divine revelation concerning her pregnancy and her baby and he was supportive of what she had told him. He also realized that they would be the parents of a remarkable and important child and that they would need to be unified in their parenting. I think it is a great tribute to them that they turned to the Lord and together, the prayer Manoah says is plural, they asked for revelation from the Lord about how to be parents to their unborn son.

Still, even though it was Manoah who intreated the Lord for revelation, when the angel appeared again he came first to the wife while she is sitting alone in the field. Immediately she ran and got her husband and Manoah asked the angel how they should raise the child. The angel told him that they should do what he had told Manoah's wife; she was not to eat any product of the grapevine, drink wine or strong drink, or eat any unclean thing (Judges 13: 9-14). Manoah believed what he was taught but didn't recognize the angel as being from God and tried to offer him food. The angel refused the food and told him to offer a burnt offering to the Lord. Manoah and his wife offered the sacrifice and watched the Angel ascend into heaven (Judges 13:15-23) The woman eventually bore a son, we don't know how much longer it was after this event, who they named Sampson and we read that, "... the Spirit of the Lord began to move him at times..." (Judges 13: 25).

What we can learn from her story:
  • What a woman eats, feels, thinks, does, and takes into her body during pregnancy affects not only her baby's body but its spirit as well;
  • Children are aware and able to be influenced while they are in the womb;
  • Sometimes God gives women personal revelation about their bodies and pregnancies. These revelations usually come to women first and if husbands want to understand and be supportive about them they should "intreat" the Lord for knowledge and confirmation;
  • Children have foreordained missions in this life and how they are treated in the womb can influence their future mission;
  • Husbands and wives should be unified and ask the Lord for direction about how to raise their children.
Questions to think about:
  • There is a big trend in modern medicine to give laboring women strong drugs during childbirth. How does the story of Samson's mother influence your perceptions and understanding of this practice?
  • How do you think knowing their son would start to deliver the Israelites from bondage would have influenced the way Sampson's parents raised him? How would your parenting be different if you knew what your children's foreordained missions were on this earth?
  • Why, even though it was Manoah who prayed to the Lord for revelation, did the Angel appear to Samson's mother both times and give her the commandments about what needed to be done for this baby? Why didn't Manoah recognize him as an Angel of the Lord but his wife did?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Rebekah's Birth Story: Counsel With the Lord

"Birth of Jacob and Esau" by Benjamin West (1738-1820)

Genesis 25: 2o-26

Mother of Esau and Jacob

Rebekah's birth story is unique because she is the first women we know of who sought out God and asked him for direct revelation concerning her pregnancy. For almost twenty years she struggled with bareness and finally at around forty-years-old she became pregnant for the first time. By any standard, modern or ancient, forty is getting a little old to have a first baby and one can imagine that she was excited, overjoyed and probably a bit terrified. It also sounds like she had a difficult pregnancy because we read that "... the children struggled together within her." (Genesis 25:22) We don't really know what is meant by the world "struggled". It could possibly mean that she was literally feeling strange and strong movements and was worried about what she was feeling. This was her first pregnancy and she may have been feeling overwhelmed by all the sensations, the unknowns, and the fears that come with carrying a child. Also pregnant women are very connected to their babies, not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually, and they often receive promptings about their unborn children. It may have been that she was very in tune with her body and with her unborn children and felt premonitions about what sort of future awaited them. Whatever it was she was feeling it was enough to make her feel confused and turn to the Lord for guidance. In Genesis 25:22 it says that she asked Lord, "...If it be so, why am I thus.? And she went to enquire of the Lord."

I think it is a testament to Rebekah's great faith and strength of spirit that when she had a question about her pregnancy she turned to the Lord for answers and direction. She very easily could have relied on the opinions and advice of other women or accepted the predominate cultural explanation. Yet because she was a woman of great faith, she didn't. She turned to the Lord and asked him for guidance and understanding concerning her body and pregnancy. In reply to her question the Lord gave her a direct and personal revelation, not only about her current condition but also about the future missions of her children. Genesis 25:23 says,
"And the Lord said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger."
Remember that these were the days WAY before ultrasounds and very often women didn't known they were carrying twins until they gave birth. I can imagine that it gave Rebekah, the woman who had waited for children almost twenty years, great joy to know that she was being blessed with two children. Also in a day when maternal and child mortality rates were very high it probably brought her great peace to know that both her children would that be born safely and live to fulfill their divine missions from God. She was also prepared with knowledge that would help her mother these children. She knew that her twins would always "struggle" with each other and that they would become separated, which would a have been unusual for that day in age when families were very close. She also knew that one twin would be stronger than the other and that the older would serve the younger.

"Issac blessing Jacob" by Govert Flink, 1636

Apparently, after her initial questioning, the rest of her pregnancy and labor went well and she bore two sons, Esau and Jacob. Genesis 25:25-26 says,
"And the first came out red, all over like an hairy garment; and they called his name Esau. And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob."
The reference to "took hold on Esau's heel" may have meant that Jacob was born quickly after his brother. Also, the name Jacob which means "supplanter" and shares the same Hebrew root, Eikev, as the word "heel" or sole of the foot (source). Jacob's name is a clever combination, and since it was mothers who commonly named their children it may have been Rebekah's way of teaching him and testifying to him about the revelation she had received about him before he was born. Later on in Genesis 27 we read about how Rebekah helps Jacob trick Issac into giving him, the younger son, the birthright. This story can sometimes make Rebekah seem like a conniving, tricky, mother favoring one son over another. Yet when we remember the revelation the Lord had given her during her pregnancy we see that she was acting upon the revelation God had given her before her son were even born. She was a woman who had the faith to ask for guidance and who had the faith to follow it; because of her faith she was able to be a great instrument in the hands of God and influence the whole course of history.

"The birth of Esau and Jacob" Master of Jean de Mandeville, French, Paris, about 1360-1370.

What we can learn from her birth story:
  • Women can receive direct revelation from God concerning their bodies, their pregnancies and their children's futures;
  • Women can trust the feelings and promptings they get about their children, even their unborn ones;
  • If a woman "enquires" of the Lord He will give her the knowledge and reassurance she needs to bear her children into this world in the right way and manner;
  • Children have personalities in the womb and women can often learn much about their children by paying attention to how they move, feel, and act in utero;
  • Ancient women didn't expect labor and birth to happen all in one day. The phrase used in Rebeka's story is "And when days to be delivered came” (Genesis 25:24) an indication that they realized and accepted that birth can go on for multiple days.
Questions to think about:
  • Have you or someone you know ever "enquired of the Lord" concerning your body or your pregnancy and labor? How did God answer?
  • Why do you think Rebekah had to wait twenty years to bear children? How did this trial influence what type of mother and woman she was?
  • We know that Issac was the heir to the Abrahamic covenant and that he would need to have children to carry it on. Faced with the apparent fact that Rebekah was barren, why didn't Issac take another wife? Did they both know, even though Rebekah was getting older, that God would eventually bless them with children?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Infertility and the Scriptural Promise

Before I begin my series on birth stories from the scriptures I feel like I need to address the topic of infertility. Most of the stories about birth in the scriptures revolve around women's inability to have children. In fact I'd say that the trial of infertility is one that God has given to some of his strongest and most select daughters. Women like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, the mother of Samson, the Shunamite, Hannah, and Elisabeth all struggled with extended periods of "bareness", the ancient term for infertility. As I've been reading their stories I've been pondering on why some women are given the trial of bareness and others aren't. It has confused me why God denies some women the pure and most sacred desires of their hearts-- and from an LDS perspective I have been doubly confused because in the church we are often taught that women's motherhood and men's priesthood are equal and complimentary responsibilities.

Yet I've questioned how motherhood, since it is biologically defined, can really be equal to priesthood, which is spiritually defined? I remember one dear friend, who had gone through almost a decade of infertility before conceiving her four children, tell me how bitter she was when for years she watched 12-year-old boys be ordained to the priesthood, while she-- a full grown and righteous woman-- could not become a mother. I've been pondering on this conundrum and while I could explain it in my own words, I think that Sheri Dew explained it best. She said:

" ...While we tend to equate motherhood solely with maternity, in the Lord’s language, the word mother has layers of meaning. Of all the words they could have chosen to define her role and her essence, both God the Father and Adam called Eve “the mother of all living”—and they did so before she ever bore a child. Like Eve, our motherhood began before we were born. Just as worthy men were foreordained to hold the priesthood in mortality,righteous women were endowed premortally with the privilege of motherhood. Motherhood is more than bearing children, though it is certainly that. It is the essence of who we are as women. It defines our very identity, our divine stature and nature, and the unique traits our Father gave us...

...Motherhood is not what was left over after our Father blessed His sons with priesthood ordination. It was the most ennobling endowment He could give His daughters, a sacred trust that gave women an unparalleled role in helping His children keep their second estate. As President J. Reuben Clark Jr. declared, motherhood is “as divinely called, as eternally important in its place as the Priesthood itself.” (Are We Not All Mothers, Ensign. Nov. 2001)

Priesthood and motherhood really are equal and complimentary roles. Just as there are women on this earth who are unable to bear children, there have been men on this earth who have been unable to bear the priesthood. For example, in the Old Testament out of all the 12 tribes only the Levites were authorized to hold and use the priesthood. In the New Testament there was a time when the Gentiles were not allowed to partake of priesthood blessings and in our modern day it hasn't been until the last thirty years that all men have been able to hold the priesthood in the LDS church regardless of their race or skin color (Official Declaration 2). We really don't know why the Lord put these restrictions on priesthood authority, except that God has His own reasons that we don't always understand. In a similar manner, we don’t really know why some women aren’t able to bear children in this life despite all our medical advances. Yet it is a beautiful promise to women to know that just as now all worthy men are able to hold the priesthood, that some day all worthy women will be able to become mothers... it is part of their eternal nature and birthright.

The scriptures bear powerful testimony of this because in them we see that ALL, let me repeat that ALL, the women in the scriptures who are mentioned as "barren" eventually bear children of their own. Even women like Sarah and Elisabeth who were almost 100 years old, and with whom it would have been physically impossible for them to have children, bear sons from their bodies. These stories bear truth to promise that motherhood is an eternal calling and that all women are mothers and that they will eventually, in this life or the next, bear their own biological children. Remember the scripture in Isaiah 54: 1, 7 that says:
" Sing O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord... For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee."
As you read the birth stories from the women in the scriptures I hope you will see that they bear strong testimony of the fact that motherhood is an eternal calling and it is part of what it means to be an eternal and exalted woman, that priesthood is an eternal calling and part of what it means to be an eternal and exalted man, and that it is only when these two powers are united that they bring life and work God's miracles.