Sunday Morning Greek Blog

March 30, 2011

Opening the Womb

I spent six days last week working through Luke 1–2. One might think that the third Gospel might not offer anything new after working through the first two Gospels, but this is Luke: evangelist, scholar, and physician. Luke is certainly more detailed than any of the other Gospel writers, so he offers a lot more detail to digest.

One of the interesting things I discovered is that Luke’s description of the “womb” is quite different for Elizabeth and Mary. Four times in Luke 1, Luke uses the Greek word κοιλία
(koilia) to describe the womb: three times it refers to John in Elizabeth’s womb, and once to Jesus in Mary’s womb. This is the more common word for “womb” (10 of its 20 uses in the NT refer to the womb or birth) in both the OT and NT, but it is also a more generic word for the “belly.” About one third of its uses in the Septuagint (LXX, Greek OT) are tied to the Hebrew word בֶּטֶן (bě∙ṭěn, ‘womb,’ ‘belly’). But when it comes to the birth of Jesus, Luke bests Matthew in his use of the OT and draws on the Passover story for a uniquely different word.

Luke, in 2:23, cites Exodus 13:2: Πᾶν ἄρσεν διανοῖγον μήτραν ἅγιον τῷ κυρίῳ κληθήσεται, (pan arsen dianoigon mētran hagion tō kuriō klēthēsetai, ‘every male who opens the birth canal will be called holy to the Lord’). It was the phrase διανοῖγον μήτραν that caught my attention. There is nothing special about the word διανοῖγω that would suggest “firstborn” necessarily, but of the few times the word is used in the NT, the “opening” is always dramatic. The prefix on the word (δια-) implies an opening “through” something. The word μήτρα
is more specific than the womb. The fact that it is apparently related to the Greek word for “mother” makes the word unique to women, first of all. Second, the fact that Luke, the physician, uses a more anatomically correct term from the Greek version of the OT, indicates that there is indeed something special about this birth. One third of the occurrences of μήτρα in the OT are in a phrase about the firstborn “opening the womb.” The term is so tied to the female sexual organ that Louw and Nida, in their Greek-English Lexicon Based on Semantic Domains, warn that a literal translation of the phrase in another language might imply the first act of coitus with a woman rather than the first male to be born from her womb.

The only other use of the word in the NT is found in Romans 4:19 with respect to Sarah’s “dead” womb. The word is also used in that context in several places in the OT as well, referring either to infertility or a stillborn child. One of the most notable occurrences is in 1 Samuel 1:5–6, the story of the birth of Samuel. Hannah has been unable to have children, and in the course of time, after much fervent prayer and the blessing of Eli, Hannah conceives and has a son, whom she dedicates to the service of the Lord. That son was Samuel, the last judge before Israel demanded a king. He was the first son of Hannah, but not of Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, who had children by another wife, Penninah.

Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2 has many parallels to Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55) and Zechariah’s song (Luke 1:68–79), and the connection here with Luke’s birth stories brings attention to the whole history of the “firstborn” in Israel. If you’ve ever read through the OT, you may have noticed that the firstborn, even though Exodus says he is holy to God, never seems to get the full blessing that would have been standard in that culture, at least not for the major players in the biblical story. Cain, the first firstborn, started things off on the wrong foot by killing his (obviously) younger brother Abel, and the story of the firstborn (or at least, the first son of a father) became almost a curse for the history of God’s people in the OT. Abraham took matters into his own hands with Hagar and his firstborn, Ishmael, proved to be a thorn in the flesh for the offspring of Sarah’s firstborn, Isaac. Later, Isaac and Rebekah had twins, Esau and Jacob, but Jacob (later Israel) deceived his father to steal the birthright of the firstborn from Esau. Jacob’s first son was not the star of the show, but Rachel’s first son by Jacob, Joseph, became the savior of Israel’s family. Even Judah, from whom Jesus is descended, was not the firstborn, but the fourth son of Leah, Jacob’s least-favorite wife. King David, again in the lineage of Jesus, was the youngest of all his brothers.

How does all this tie into the birth stories of Jesus and John the Baptizer? With the births of John and Jesus, the history of the firstborn in Israel is redeemed. In those stories, we have not one, but two sons miraculously conceived. Elizabeth’s story parallels Sarah’s: barren into her old age. Mary’s story is completely new: a son conceived by the Holy Spirit; no human intervention other than Mary carrying the child to birth. John is empowered by the Holy Spirit to testify about his cousin Jesus, and of course, Jesus is God’s (not to mention Mary’s) firstborn, spotless lamb, Savior of the world. Finally, stories about firstborn sons who got it right! As a firstborn myself, I’m a little sensitive to that, but by God’s grace, I will go forward in faith, and I pray that I will lead my firstborn son (and my younger daughters) along the path of godliness and faithfulness.


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