The period from Tishri 1 to Tishri 10, Rosh HaShanah (or Yom Teruah) to Yom haKippurim, is identified with the Coronation/Enthronement of God as King as well as with righteous judgment and enactments of vindication and restoration. We see this nowhere so beautifully as in the Scriptural readings of Rosh HaShanah; the stories of the birth and life of Sarah’s only child in Gen 21 and 22, and in the Haftarah reading of barren Hannah’s cries to the Lord and subsequent deliverance. Both of these rich histories contain God’s vindication of their honor, of Sarah’s before Hagar and Hannah’s in sight of the perennially fertile concubine Penninah in I Sam chapters 1 and 2.
These women and these particular children tell us the grand story of our King and how He works, not through those to whom the world would like to ascribe honor, but often in direct opposition to the world’s ideas about who is and is not blessed and worthy.
(Being barren myself, life in religious spheres was rather like one of Dante’s fictional levels of hell. People say insanely cruel things in ignorance – and sometimes even on purpose. I smile to myself now, however – all those years ago and even after the wonderful adoption of our sons, while enduring those comments – I had a dream that my husband and I would have 100 children, none of them biological. I wondered how it could happen even up until about a year ago, and now I minister to children from all over the world through books and videos. The world does not see as God sees.)
Women who have children often take it for granted that it is some automatic badge of God’s favor; yet what percentage of fertile women were mentioned in the Bible (associated with their children) by name, and how many barren women are called to our attention? Do we hear about the righteousness of David’s mother, do we even know her name? No. We do, however, all know the name of the woman who would be vindicated through the birth of the prophet who anointed him as king. Was it not barren Rachel’s son Joseph, and not Reuben, who saved his people?
Sarah, Rebekkah, Rachel, Samson’s mother (pretty sure her name was withheld to protect her virtue because dang, that boy..), Hannah, and Elizabeth – all were barren. These were women who are remembered and who gave birth after all hope was lost, and not to normal kids, but instead to amazing men of God. Only David’s wife Michael, out of all the women in Scripture, was cursed with barrenness after mocking her husband – whereas we see that Jezebel never had need of a fertility doctor, or Athaliah for that matter and she killed all of her children!
To drive the point home that more is not always desirable and that worldly standards of honor are relative and sometimes deceptive, take a look at the end of the Scripture reading in the portions about the birth of Isaac. In Genesis 22, we see the fecundity of Abraham’s brother Nahor in league with his wife and concubine. Together these three had twelve sons, only one being notable, but not for the usual reasons that a son is counted as notable. One of the sons became the father of the Matriarch Rebekkah. From Abraham sprang many great nations from relatively few, and from his brother Nahor sprang a granddaughter who would become Israel’s mother. I am confident that, given a choice, he and his wife would rather have given birth to a son who would be noted for more than siring a girl – times being what they were.
Is this to say that barren women are somehow superior to the fertile – certainly not, that would be silly – but I am saying that the actions of our King tell us that we cannot judge the value of a woman by whether or not she bears children young – or at all. The picture painted through these carefully chosen Scripture readings is larger than simply childbearing – this is about the fruit that a woman bears and the vindication that comes as a result of it. We will all be judged and will be rewarded according to what we produce, by the King who has written all of our actions in His Book of Remembrance. That of fruit can be generated in youth, for certain, but age is no barrier – sometimes the best first fruits come from a presumably barren and shameful tree.
A fertile woman might bear ten wretched children (just ask Haman), and a noble woman may produce only one, or none – as in the case of the prophetess Anna who was day by day at the Temple (Luke 2:36-38).
It is the desire of our flesh to look at whatever we have, whether it be a lot of kids, money, worldly success, popularity, etc., as a sign of God’s favor. The truest sign of God’s favor, however, is to be found in the good fruit He allows us and inspires and alters us to produce – starting on the inside. Without Him, there is no acceptable fruit. Sarah was probably barren for over 70 years, Rebekkah for 40 years, and so on and so on. I am sure they tried, but unlike the other women around them, they could not just place their faith in their flesh to produce that fruit. Make no mistake – finding out that we cannot place our faith in the flesh is a positive thing that few people in this life truly realize. We have been called to the same kind of life – we can’t just go through the motions in our flesh and call it good, no matter how amazing the result looks from the outside. To produce something excellent, we must see ourselves as barren trees in need of that divine intervention.
These women had to live by faith, and not by flesh – and they showed us the way. They had to wait on God’s timing and pruning to produce, not just ordinary fruit, but exceptional fruit. It is a model for every one of us, male and female; to produce something that is mature and good takes time and, generally, a lot of anguish. It won’t happen just because we want it to, or when we want it – impatient flesh is how you get an Ishmael or the forgotten children of Penninah, not an Isaac or a Samuel.