The bible is a book that presents eternal truths in rich vivid imagery. To better understand God’s teachings, it is imperative that we have a working knowledge of the meaning and usage of biblical imagery. To help us accomplish this goal we will explore the biblical imagery of birth.
Birth is first mentioned in the sentencing of Adam and Eve following their act of rebellion against God. To the woman, God said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16a). From this point on, the painful anguish of child birth becomes a powerful image of suffering for sin. In dramatic form, both the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah liken the severity of God’s judgment to the terror and pain that grips a woman during childbirth (Isaiah 13:8; 21:2-3; 26:16-21; 42:14; 66:7-14; Jeremiah 4:31; 13:21; 22:23; 30:6; 49:24; 50:43). The Sons of Korah dramatically chronicled the terror that came upon Zion’s enemies when, “Trembling took hold of them… anguish as of a woman in labor” (Psalm 48:6). The sudden and unexpected nature of labor is a vivid image of God’s judgment, “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman” (1 Thessalonians 5:2-3). It was our Lord Jesus who described famines, earthquakes, and conflicts as “the beginning of the birth pains” that would proceed His final judgment of Jerusalem (Matthew 24:1-8). However, one might refuse to heed these warnings, such as Ephraim did, “The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up; his sin is kept in store. The pangs of childbirth come for him, but he is an unwise son, for at the right time he does not present himself at the opening of the womb” (Hosea 13:12-13). By long deferring repentance, the nation was like a child remaining in the birth canal dangerously long and risking death.
Other times, the image of a woman suffering in child birth is used to heighten the joyful promise of deliverance. Isaiah set the image of Israel as a pregnant woman in the distress of labor against his call to “awake and sing for joy” (Isaiah 26:16-19). The image of travail is also applied to the creation, which, according to Paul “has been groaning in the pains of childbirth” waiting to be “set free from its bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:20-22). He goes on to liken the Christian’s desire for eternity with a laboring woman’s desire for her child saying, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves,” meaning Christians, “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). Our Lord promised that the anguish we feel now as we await His return will be dramatically forgotten and turned into joy, “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:21-22). (As a side note, my wife has had three non-medicated births and has told me several times how, once seeing our new child, she quickly forgot the pain she had just experienced.)
In the New Testament, birth is used as a picture for salvation. Our Lord explained to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Spurred by Nicodemus’ confusion, Jesus explained, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Continuing His explanation, Jesus said, “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:6-8). Spiritual birth is like the wind, it cannot be controlled by human beings, but like wind, its effects can be witnessed in a new life or way of living. The apostle Paul links baptism and new life in Romans 6:4 where he states, “We were buried therefore with Him in baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” It was the new birth that was the catalyst for Peter’s praise of God’s “great mercy” which “He caused us to be born again to a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3). Peter also went on to say that since Christians “have been born again” their lives should be punctuated with “love [for] one another” (1 Peter 1:22-23).
Birth imagery is also used in both the Old and New Testaments to describe the relationship between God and His people. Moses, in his song to Israel, recounted the nations unfaithfulness to God declaring, “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth” (Deuteronomy 32:18). The Sons of Korah celebrated God’s grace extended to Gentiles who know Him, even counting them as those who were born in Zion (Psalm 87:3-4). A favorite phrase of John the apostle was “born of God” (1 John 2:29 (Him); 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18; cf. John 1:13), which not only described the divine origin of our spiritual rebirth but also the unique relationship “born again” Christians have with God.
The antithesis of being “born of God” or “born again” is to give birth to evil and sin. Isaiah lamented the wickedness of the children of Israel describing them as people who “conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity” (Isaiah 59:4-5). In essence Eliphaz called Job a hypocrite, lumping him in with those who, “Conceive trouble and give birth to evil, and their womb prepares deceit” (Job 15:35). David wrote that the wicked man who “conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies” will fall prey to his own schemes (Psalm 7:14-15; cf. Micah 2:1-3). James also likened temptation, sin and death to physical conception and birth, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14-15).
In narrative form, birth stories emphasized the fact that the great saviors of Israel are gifts from God. The births of Isaac (Genesis 15:1-6; 17:15-21; 18:9-15; 21:1-7), Moses (Exodus 2:1-10), Samson (Judges 13:1-25), Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1-2:11) and John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25, 41, 57-80) compose this literary genre. Birth stories loosely follow a general pattern of: 1) A woman miraculously became pregnant. She may have been barren or in the case of Mary, a virgin. 2) God, or one of His angels, announced the promise of a son. 3) The birth occurred, accompanied by miracles and/or extraordinary events. 4) Sometimes hostile forces threatened the newborn baby, but God protected the child. 5) The grown man became a hero of the Lord’s people. Of course, Jesus’ birth was the ultimate example of birth narrative, showing that this Savior of saviors is from God and not the result of natural procreation (Matthew 1:18-2:18; Luke 1:26-38, 46-56; 2:1-38).
Three miscellaneous uses of birth imagery found in the New Testament are worth mentioning. When coupled with a miracle, the additional fact a person was “blind…” or, “lame…” or, “crippled from birth” (John 9:1-2; Acts 3:2; 14:8) heightened the miraculous nature of a person’s healing. Second, when recounting the Christ’s post-resurrection appearances and his apostolic appoint, Paul said he was “one untimely born” (1 Corinthians 15:8), or “as to one abnormally born” (NIV). That is, he was not one of the original twelve apostles who walked with Christ but was appointed by the Lord after He had ascended into heaven. Finally, Paul pictured himself as mother in labor, spiritually birthing the Galatians all over again (Galatians 4:19).
Other articles in this series include: