A 5-Man Conversation Pregnant With Meaning: Studies in Mark, Pt. 59

As a male, I would find it incredibly odd if I walked into a room and five of my buddies were talking about how painful giving birth is. For starters, I would wonder what got them talking about it. Then, I would raise the question as to how they know what it is like. Now, if a woman were to walk in on this dialogue, she might have some questions too: 1) Do you guys have a clue what you’re talking about? 2) Do you really think you can understand what it’s like to expel another human from your body? 3) And why do you focus on the pain at the expense of the joy that follows, anyway?

Now, roll back the script about 2,000 years to a scene on Mount Olivet in Jerusalem. In Mark’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus, in a conversation with Peter, James, Andrew and John, talks about birth pains (or “pangs” if you like). As I kept reading chapter 13 over and over, verse 8 kept sticking out like a sore thumb to me. Why did Jesus use the imagery of “pregnancy” and “birth pains” here when talking to a group of men? I mean, could they really understand? Could they really relate? Does this just reveal Jesus’ patriarchal culture, a culture where the suffering of women meant very little to men? What is going on here?

Of course, many Markan commentators gloss over this issue while others say nothing at all. Those who do say something tend to focus on how this is a redacted statement or they focus on its role in rabbinic tradition and interpretation. Gempf, in his study on birth pangs in the NT, makes a convincing suggest that in Mk. 13, Jesus is saying, “Guys, do you know how when a woman goes into labor and she has the first pain and then another, then another, then another, etc. that’s what you’re going to face. When the time to give birth comes, the woman has experienced many escalating hardships. That’s what’s going to happen to you.”

I agree, partially with Gempf’s analysis. However, I don’t think he goes far enough. I think what Jesus is saying in Mk. 13.8 also has to do with what happens after and even as a result of the birth pains: something new. I would argue, unlike any other Markan scholar, that Jesus’ statement is hearkening back to Isaiah 66. In the first few verses of that chapter, Isaiah is talking about how the presence of God is going to move from the temple to a human. As the chapter progresses, a birth pangs analogy is used and so is one about a child feeding from it’s mother’s breasts (thus, correlating with Mk. 13.17). Actually, there are tons of parallels between Mk. 13 and Isa. 66 (I’m not going to list them all here).

I should also note an interesting article by E. C. Webster on Isa. 66. There, he points out that these verses are, in a rhetorical sense, a riddle—and yes, the riddle has an answer. I would contend that something similar is taking place around Mk. 13.8. In Isa. 66 (you can read it for yourself), the answer would be as follows: “In the years of her desolation Zion neither travailed nor brought forth but with the return of the exiles she was inhabited in one day, in one moment. Will not the Lord who brought this about see that her people
increase and prosper?” Now, let me put this together so we can make some sense of out Jesus, a male, using maternal imagery in Mk. 13.8.

What Jesus is saying, in drawing on Isa. 66 is essentially this: “Just as there is an escalation of pains when a woman goes into labor, so too, will you my followers, experience a wave of pains and sufferings. Recall the history of your ancestors: Right in the middle of the pain and suffering, the Lord inhabited Zion and brought forth increase. In the same, way, when the travails come upon you, wave after wave, don’t be caught sleeping, remain awake. For, God, the Holy Spirit, will inhabit you and cause His people to increase. If you endure, you will be saved and not only that, but new life will be brought forth.”

Taking these things into consideration, we see that Jesus wasn’t using the imagery of birth pangs just because it sounded witty or because it seemed like a good analogy. Jesus was drawing on Isaianic tradition; He was comparing God’s inhabiting of Zion with the Spirit’s inhabiting of His followers (e.g. God would leave the Temple and inhabit the people) and just as well, He was imploring His followers to endure, just as their ancestors did. Again, I could say much more about this conversation between 5 guys that is simply pregnant with meaning but for now, I guess I’ll spare you the pain.

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