Thursday, July 22, 2010

Barrenness, Uncommon Conceptions, and the Virgin Conception

I'm sorry that I've been occupied with task that keep me from blogging. Here is an entry, however, that emerges from an essay I am writing on Paul's uses of Scripture in Galatians 4:21-31. I realize that it is only a brief and tantalizing paragraph. It is not at all core to my essay's thesis. I belive that it does, however, raise a matter that NT students could readily take up as an intriguing and engaging thesis for an essay or monograph.


True as it is that Paul’s citation of Scripture to warrant this conclusion is evident, appealing to the Abraham narrative of Genesis and to Isaiah 54:1 as he does, what warrants Paul to use these portions of Scripture as he does? As one begins to search for answers to these questions, given Paul’s use of Isaiah 54:1, it becomes apparent that Paul does not originate the allegory. Isaiah’s use, which goes beyond the bare storyline of Genesis, predates Paul’s, thus pushing questions concerning the apostle’s use of the Abraham narrative back at least to the prophet, if not to the text of Genesis itself. For both the apostle Paul and the prophet Isaiah, essential to the Abraham narrative of Genesis is the plotted obstacle expressed in Genesis 11:30, “Now Sarah was barren, and she had no child.” The entire story of Abraham in Genesis emerges from and proceeds upon the premise that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, is incapable of bearing children. Thus, from the outset, the writer of Genesis signals that the story entailing Sarah, Abraham, and God’s promise of seed to them is larger than life, larger than any of the individual personages within the story, thus infusing significances into the story that reach beyond the characters and events themselves, even if the one who inscribes the story does not fully grasp these significances in anticipation of the promise’s fulfillment. The import of the story’s premise promptly becomes evident in Genesis 12. Given Sarah’s sterility as the already stated obstacle, how will God surmount this impediment in order to keep his promise to Abraham that “in you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (12:3) and “to your seed I will give this land” (12:7)? The obstacle to God’s promise that Sarah’s barrenness poses, with which the narrative begins, is the first of two further iterations within the Genesis narrative, both entailing covenant couples, direct descendents of Abraham and Sarah, in the cases of Isaac and Rebekah (Gen 25:21) and of Jacob and Rachel (Gen 30:1).[2]

[1] Cf. the LXX of Gen 11:30 (καὶ ἦν Σαρα σπεῖρα καὶ οὐκ ἐτεκνοποίει) and of Isa 54:1 (εὐφράνθητι σπεῖρα ἡ οὐ τίκτουσα).

[2] Find the barrenness theme elsewhere in the case of Manoah and his wife with the birth of Samson (Jdgs 13:1-24), concerning Hannah and the birth of Samuel (1 Sam 1:2, 6), and implied in the story of the Shunammite woman and the birth of her son (2 Kgs 4:14). Except in the case of the Shunammite’s son, barrenness plays the purposeful role of displaying the extraordinary power and glory of the Lord who, in displays of uncommon grace to bring about conception and birth against nature’s impediment, and the sons born became Israel’s deliverers. Is it unreasonable to infer that this barrenness theme with such displays of God’s power, from the beginning, foreshadows the greatest uncommon conception of the greatest deliverer of all, not just from a barren womb but from a virgin’s womb? After all, this greatest uncommon conception of all fulfilled the promise of the Seed made to Abraham whose wife, Sarah, was the barren one.