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B'resheet/Genesis 17:17 Shall there be born to a man of a hundred years? And shall Sarah, a woman of ninety years, give birth?
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Avraham has just had quite a shock! Having been married for well over half a century without having any children,HaShem has just told him that his wife Sarah - many years past the menopause - will bear him a son. In fact, he is so surprised that he falls on his face and laughs, saying the words of our text - the Torah tells us - in his heart. James McKeown comments that, "Avraham's incredulity at the idea that his wife Sarah will bear him a child leads him to fall face down and laugh ... he adopts the posture to avoid showing that he is laughing. Although his posture suggests compliance and submission, his innermost thoughts and particularly his laughter, suggest a sense of incredulity and hopelessness."1 The unusual structure of his thoughts is attributed to his confused state: "He is so overcome by the announcement that he can hardly think straight."2 One might almost be excused for supposing that he is expressing a lack of faith at this moment, in spite of the intensity of the revelation - but surely that would be impossible.
Most of the Jewish commentators step forward with a variety of explanations for Avraham's words.Ibn Ezra says that, "Avraham was surprised, since an old man's seed is cold, making him unable to father children. It would be an even greater surprise for a woman to give birth once her blood ceases to flow. When you look at it, you will see that the matter of Sarah is more miraculous than that of Avraham." Answering Avraham's first question, Ovadiah Sforno comments that "although it is possible for a woman past her youth to conceive, it is usually from a young man, not an old one," then adding for the second question, that it would be extremely surprising for a woman past the menopause to conceive "from any man, even a young one." As if to promote Avraham's well-being in this respect, Nachmanides points out that "forty years after this, [Avraham] will have still more children, with Keturah.
Walter Brueggemann, on the other hand, has no scruples on the point. He bluntly proclaims that "Avraham completely doubts the promise, laughs a mocking laugh ... Avraham, the father if faith, is here again presented as the unfaithful one, unable to trust and willing to rely on an alternative to the promise."3 As theRadak acknowledges, "they were 99 and 89 respectively, now. Even if Sarah were to get pregnant right away, they would be 100 and 90 when the child was born." Nahum Sarna dryly observes that Avraham himself has said it: "The double question essentially describes two conditions that in combination produce a state of affairs that is manifestly inimical to the notion of Avraham and Sarah producing a child."
What, then, is going on? Why does the Torah report Avraham's silent inner words, which it could have omitted or glossed over and then in the next breath report his zeal in carrying out the command to circumcise himself and all the males in his family and household as a sign of the covenant. In words that sound almost Brueggemann-esque, RabbiHirsch puts his finger on the point: "According to all the natural conditions of cause and effect, the whole beginning of the Jewish people, its history, its expectations, its hopes, its whole life based on these hopes must appear as the most unwarranted laughable pretension. It only makes sense, yea it can only be reckoned on with certainty, when it reckons on the deeply infringing, completely free almighty will, and free-willed almighty power of a free-willed Almighty G-d, as the basis of its opinion." Brueggemann himself simply says that, "Avraham is unable to accept the discontinuity between barrenness and heir on which the covenant is premised. The power of G-d will give a child of promise."4 Avraham must say these words in order to magnify the power and grace of G-d in what He is about to do.
In an essay about Israelite birth narratives and social memory, Antoinette Clark Wire comments on the standard components of such stories, such a period of barrenness, a disbelieving husband, a miraculous birth and so on. She writes, "The consistent message of these prophecies is that G-d will deliver Israel from its enemies through the newborn child, and will re-establish among the nations the glory of Israel and the praise of G-d."5 These stories are repeated and told, particularly by women, but by the sages and story-tellers of Israel as one of the standard tropes for G-d working miracles through the ordinary both to reveal Himself and to rescue His people. Through the pages of the Hebrew Bible, this is something that HaShem does a surprisingly large number of times. Every one of the matriarchs - three successive generations - had divine intervention in the birthing of children: Sarah, Rivka, Leah and Rachel. To these can be added the nameless mother of Samson, Hannah the mother of Samuel. The prophet uses the same device allegorically as he voiced HaShem's promises to Jerusalem, the symbol of hope for the Jewish nations in exile: "Shout, O barren one, you who bore no child! Shout aloud for joy, you who did not travail! For the children of the wife forlorn shall outnumber those of the espoused -- said the L-RD" (Isaiah 54:1, NJPS).
Stories of miraculous births are paradigmatic of HaShem doing the impossible, something at which He specialises - for "with G-d all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26). They give hope to those who have not been able to have children, that a miracle might yet happen for them - and sometimes it does. At the same time, the necessity for a miracle demonstrates the otherwise impossibility of the situation. At the age of 89, Sarah probably hadn't been through a normal monthly cycle in nearly forty years. Her body - her womb, her ovaries, her breasts - have done what every other female body does when the change has fully taken place: conception is impossible. Leah, the older sister, has her womb blessed because HaShem knows that she is loved less than Rachel her younger sister, and has children rather like shelling peas. Rachel on the other hand, has to nag Him for years before He remembers her and opens her womb. This points to the way that HaShem will work the crux of time itself, the lens through which the fabric of the universe itself is changed.
Everyone agrees that - in the natural - conception is impossible without sexual relations. Even in human fertility programs for those who find it impossible to conceive in the normal way, sperm meets egg and the journey from zygote to blastocyst begins, ready for implantation in the wall of the uterus to become an embyro. In Second Temple times, when in-vitro fertilisation was not available, for a virgin - a young woman who had not had sexual relations with a man - to conceive was simply impossible. Full stop. It is precisely the impossibility of the virgin birth that makes it so remarkable and such a clear sign that HaShem is at work: only He can make these things happen! But let's take a short step back because while previously the Bible only tells us about this miracle happening once in a generation, if that, the gospels tell us that G-d did it twice - not only in one generation, but within a year of each other.
Yeshua's birth often overshadows the miraculous nature of John the Baptist's birth. His parents, Luke tells us that despite being righteous and blameless in their observance of Torah, "they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years" (Luke 1:7, ESV). Zechariah receives an angelic revelation while serving in the Temple that they are to have a child and is struck dumb until the child is born for expressing doubt similar to that of Avraham on exactly the same grounds: "I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years" (v. 18, ESV). Nevertheless, Elizabeth conceives and their prophesied son is duly born. This is a miracle that hasn't - at least, officially recorded - happened in well over half a millenium. It's significance, apart from the joy of the parents? That the old stories are re-told, over and over again and G-d's people are prepared for the larger miracle that is just around the corner: the birth of Yeshua. John's birth is just as much of a miracle as that of Yeshua - requiring active divine intervention - and a critical part of the process of the Incarnation.
All that to ask the question: what is G-d doing in your life in these days? Whether you are young or old, male or female, Jewish or Gentile, G-d is at work in order to prepare the way for Yeshua's return. He is doing miracles in our lives, right under our noses, so that we can tell the stories, so that each of us can be - like John the Baptist - a voice crying in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the L-rd" (Isaiah 40:3; Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4). Our world is rapidly becoming a spiritual wilderness, but the Holy Spirit is calling and empowering ordinary people like you and me, to be His witnesses in these days. We must look for and expect more miracles and supernatural interventions as the time gets nearer; we must walk in them, adopt them, embrace them and share them as we wait. Now is the time to lift up your voice - whether physically or electronically - and declare the truth of what G-d has done, is doing and is yet to do in the coming days!
1. - James McKeown, Genesis, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), pages 101-102.
2. - Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50 Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson), page 26.
3. - Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), page 156.
4. - Brueggemann, page 157.
5. - Antoinette Clark Wire, "Early Jewish Birth Prophecy Stories and Women's Social Memory" in Memory, Tradition and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity eds. Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher, (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 179.
Further Study: Matthew 24:42-44; 1 Timothy 4:11-16; Titus 2:7-8,15
Application: How can you encourage yourself and others to "prepare the way of the L-rd" in these days? What could you do or say to help others recognise the times in which we live and to make sure that everyone within your reach is ready to welcome Yeshua when He returns? Check in with the Chief Strategist today and get an update on His plans to work through you!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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