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Friday, March 02, 2007
  God gives birth (Isaiah 42:14)
For a long time I have held my peace,
    I have kept still and restrained myself;
  now I will cry out like a woman in labour,
    I will gasp and pant.
Isaiah 42:14
Stephen Cook has a couple of interesting posts responding to a paper given recently at VTS. ("The presenter was Dr. Juliana Claassens and the paper looked at the image of God in Isaiah 42.")

Stephen concludes his first post, God "Like a Woman in Labor" (Isaiah 42)
A woman's helplessness and frailty during labor is nothing less than power, the power to bring about new life--something a "powerful" male cannot do! This theological theme that vulnerability and frailty is a source of true, marvelous power is a big one throughout Isaiah 40-66. I think Juliana is really on to something here.
Which captures one of the ways in which this passage fits so well with traditional Christian theology and preaching, though using an image that did not become a major part of the tradition - at least since the Middle Ages, I've argued that various sorts of mother imagery for God was more common earlier than 1450AD!

In his second post Whence Comes God's Pain in Labor (Isaiah 42)? Stephen says:
Dr. Claassens in her paper interpreted God's pain in labor as God's work of entering into the trials and trauma of the people, who have been exiled to Babylonia as prisoners of war. In my response to her paper, I suggested another possibility that to me seems more in keeping with the overall theology and thinking of 2 Isaiah.
Stephen locates God's pain in this passage in the idea that "In 2 Isaiah God is seen to put aside God's right to justice, to put aside what's fair and deserved." His discussion provides a good theological entry point into the passage in Isaiah 42. It is one that fits well with the description of the "servant" at the start of the chapter.

However, it seems to me that this discussion rather misses the immediate cotext of verse 14. The preceding verse presents God as a (male?) warrior:
The LORD goes forth like a soldier,
    like a warrior he stirs up his fury;
  he cries out, he shouts aloud,
    he shows himself mighty against his foes.
Isaiah 42:13
and in the following God declares:
I will lay waste mountains and hills,
    and dry up all their herbage;
  I will turn the rivers into islands,
    and dry up the pools.
Isaiah 42:15
The verse about pregnancy, labour and birth is thus set in a context that is surprising, at least in a world of sanitised congratulations cards and Baby's First Blog's! Fury, destruction and war seem out of place in such a world. But these images are not so strange in a delivery room. Mothers can speak for themselves, but to a husband and lover standing, almost helplessly, by these images fit the event. So, in my reading of this passage vv.13 and 15 need to be heard. The terror, cries and anguish you are seeing - says YHWH - are the birth pangs of something new, to which I am giving birth!

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