The importance of children
In the ancient world if a person becomes significant or important to a belief system then it is assumed that he(usually) must have had some kind of miraculous or special birth (eg Marduk, Horus, Zoroaster, Athena, Alexander, Sargon, Krishna, Buddha, Huitzilopochtli …). This may not involve both a father and a mother.
In the Hebrew Scriptures the first woman, Eve (Havvah), is named the mother of all who live [Genesis 3. 20]. In that culture a woman’s value was often measured by her ability to produce children. If a couple fail to produce offspring it is regarded as the fault of the woman. She will have to endure the stigma associated with childlessness. In a patriarchal society women are required to comply with their husband’s wishes, remain silent and keep out of sight in the tent.
A man could take several wives and could also use concubines to provide him with children if necessary. Sons were needed to preserve the family line, property and identity, the family name. Children are a blessing [Gen 1.28; 12. 2 – 3; Deuteronomy 7.14; Psalm 27. 3; Ps 28].
At this time of year we begin to look towards the birth of Jesus and so inevitably Mary and Joseph are key characters in this momentous event in time. Other couples through the Hebrew Scriptures and the times just before this birth set various scenes that can help us to understand Mary’s and Joseph’s role and involvement.
There continues to be a significant physical, mental, and emotional investment in building a family today and, for some, a child is the visible evidence of success and worth.
In this series of four studies we will consider the gift of a child to couples in the Hebrew Scriptures and the beginning of the New Testament. Some of the fathers are noteworthy characters. The mothers are women of strength, honour and integrity: feisty and not afraid to buck tradition and the requirements of society. They speak and act in ways that conscience tells them are appropriate in order to protect their children.
Advent Week 3
It goes wrong and then right
The ways of the Lord are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them. [Hosea 14. 9]
(i) Manoah, his wife and Samson
After the death of Moses the people are led by Joshua. They enter the Promised Land and conquer it. After Joshua dies there is a series of leaders called the Judges. During this time the people alternately turn away from the Lord, they are punished as some foreign power attacks them, then they turn back to the Lord and are delivered from their enemies.
It is at a time when the Philistines have conquered the Israelites that an un-named woman, Manoah’s wife, comes onto the scene. She is barren: emphasis is given ‘having borne no children’ [Judges 13. 2]. This is the first mention of a woman being barren since the women of Genesis. An angel appears and gives her the message that she will have a son. She is not to eat anything unclean or to drink any alcohol because her son will be a Nazirite. Thus, even while in the womb, he is being prepared and consecrated for whatever his life may be: this child is destined to have a significant role.
A Nazirite is a person, man or woman, set apart by a vow to abstain from drink, not to shave his head and to avoid corpses. This continues either for a set length of time or for life [Number 6. 1 – 10]. While keeping the vow the person is holy (see Elizabeth’s son, John, in week 1 and Hannah’s son, Samuel in week 2).
It is unusual for an angel to appear and speak directly to a woman. In this case, the woman has not seemed to show any distress at her barren state and there is no record of her having asked her husband to intercede with God on her behalf. She reports the encounter with the angel to her husband telling him that the boy is to be a Nazirite for life [Judges 13. 7]: she will be responsible for his upbringing.
Manoah is not convinced so he asks that the angel be sent to him but the angel returns to the woman when Manoah is not with her. It seems that this message is for her and her husband is being relegated. As women have been overlooked in the past, he, a man, is now being overlooked over the matter of this birth. As a dutiful wife she fetches Manoah so that he can be sure that what she says is true. Manoah asserts himself and starts to question the angel instead of just accepting the message, as had his wife. She knows what is required of her and she has acted correctly. Manoah tries to justify himself as head of the household. She shares her experience with her husband but she is confident, positive and sure that the message is genuine.
Her son is born and she names him Samson. Manoah seems to have been totally marginalised in the conception, birth, naming and upbringing of this child. Since she remains unnamed, it can be seen that even a person of no name can communicate with God. This woman has been chosen and she can act independently of her husband.
Unfortunately Samson does not keep the Nazirite vow, getting involved with a dead animal, marrying a foreigner, having his hair cut, and organising a feast [Jud 14].He is physically strong but morally weak. This must have been a disappointment and a cause of sadness to his parents who had given him sound start in life.
Samson does finally fulfil his destiny. While he is in a weak and degenerate state he is captured by the Philistines who blind him [Jud 16. 21], shackle him and stand him between the pillars that hold up their pagan temple. He calls on God to renew his strength and using all his might he brings down the temple, killing not only all the Philistines but also himself [Jud 16. 30]. Samson is prepared to kill himself for what he believes is right. This is a very strong incentive for some people and leads them to commit suicide while killing those with apparently opposing views and in order to achieve the ends that their faith demands. It is difficult to understand what goes on in the mind of a suicide bomber but this person is also someone’s child.
Parents devote a great deal of time, energy and hope in their nurturing of children but children become adults and make choices, even if they are not what the parent would like. Nevertheless parents are able in love to learn to respect their child as a separate human person made by God to become a person who can think through and act on their life choices for themselves.
Parents show their commitment to these individuals by trying to understand why alternative routes have been chosen, continuing to offer support and demonstrating their persisting love. If communication can be maintained there may be surprising revelations.
(ii) David, Bathsheba and their children
In the saga of David there are many questionable episodes: the way David behaves and the consequences of his behaviour. But it is not always clear where the blame, if there is any, lies.
Michal, the daughter of King Saul, became David’s first wife [1 Sam 18. 20]. Saul was planning to use her to bring about David’s downfall but this did not work because Michal loved David. During several battles and a good deal of travel, David married other wives. Later Saul and Jonathan were killed in combat and David became king. After a skirmish with the Philistines David emerged victorious. As he brought back the Ark of the Covenant in procession he ‘danced before the Lord with all his might’ [2 Sam 6. 14]. Michal saw him and was appalled by his behaviour: it was unseemly. They separated and Michal never remarried: she died childless. She is the only woman recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures to remain childless. All the others that appear to be barren do later conceive. Perhaps no other woman is recorded as remaining childless because she would have been considered worthless. Many women are felt to be unworthy of mention because they remain childless.
King David has no scruples when it comes to getting what he wants. He sees an attractive woman and arranges for her to be brought to him. He is the king: what can she do? Bathsheba is at the most fertile time of her cycle and so she conceives [2 Sam 11. 1 – 5].
David makes sure that Bathsheba’s husband disappears from the scene by putting him in the front line of a battle. Bathsheba mourns her dead husband but David brings her into his household ready for the birth. Nathan the prophet does not let this shameful affair go without comment and, in a parable, Nathan traps David into condemning himself and his actions [2 Sam 12. 1 – 6]. David marries Bathsheba but he realises he has behaved badly and he awaits the result of his actions, knowing that there will be consequences. The child dies when only seven days old. David accepts that this death is due to his weakness and immoral behaviour. He seems to recover from this loss quickly: David is relieved when the boy dies and the weight of his sin is removed.
We are all born faulty in one way or another: how many of us wear glasses? Eventually our bodies wear out and we die, some sooner than others. We do not understand why there are differences, but we do know that we can look to living in the nearer presence of God at the Last Day. Parents whose child is very weak or unlikely to live for long after birth have an agonising time. They may have to sit and wait for the inevitable or they may be faced with the decision to turn off the life-support system. How can such a decision be made and how can they live with it afterwards?
David already has children by other wives so there is no difficulty for him with the question of an heir. However, ironically, it is the next child of Bathsheba who will succeed him. Without taking much time to consider Bathsheba’s feelings after the stressful event of the death of her child, David ‘consoles’ (2 Sam 12. 24) her by having sexual relations with her. She conceives and another son, Solomon, who is destined to become king after David, is born.
Bathsheba became very influential in David’s court and, with the help of Nathan, the priest, Solomon was anointed king while David was still alive, even though Solomon was a younger son [1 Kings 1. 28 – 40].
Let us pray for parents
whose children have mental health issues,
those who have been exploited, abused,
taken over by drugs or crime
and for the police, the probation service,
and the staff of custody centres
who try to address the damage.
God, the loving Parent of all,
we commend to your ceaseless care all children and young people
who are worried and fearful,
those who do not know whom they can trust,
those who feel that life is not worth living.
Give patience and gentleness to all who seek to help them
and to give them a sense of self-worth.
Amen, come, Lord Jesus!