Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Older Women

In a society whose first commandment from God was to “go forth and multiply,” infertility must have been a dispiriting burden. Even today, when fertility clinics abound and pharmaceuticals can provide considerable hope for women who desire children, the inability to conceive and bear children can have serious psychological consequences: Feelings of guilt for unknown or imagined sins, questioning of self-worth, devaluing of relationships. In ancient Israel, when the only cure for infertility was a miracle, one suspects the effect on women was exponentially worse.
No wonder, then, that the phenomenon of an aging woman – who has long given up hope for motherhood – finding herself unexpectedly pregnant plays such an important role in the biblical narrative. It happens over and over again, with slight variations, beginning with the 90-year-old Sarah, who laughs (understandably) at the suggestion that she will bear a child. Her daughter-in-law Rebecca, Rebecca’s daughter-in-law Rachel, Samson’s unnamed mother, Hannah and Elizabeth all play out the story of the unexpected pregnancy of a long-barren wife.

The recurrence of this narrative strain constitutes what the biblical scholar Robert Alter calls a “type-scene”. These repeated stories show up in different parts of the Bible, affecting different characters, and with differing details; scholars debate why they are such a common convention. There is the story of a romance sparked by a chance meeting at a well – it happens to Jacob and Rachel, it happens to Moses and Zipporah, it happens by proxy to Abraham’s servant – who is off to seek a bride for Abraham’s son Isaac – and Rebeccah. Tantalizingly, it happens to Jesus and the Samaritan woman (at Jacob’s well!) although in that case it is never taken beyond a flirtatious exchange of dialog. Other type-scenes include the wife whose status is misrepresented as that of sister (Sarah, Rebbecah); the captive youth who makes his reputation through interpretation of a ruler’s dreams (Joseph, Daniel); the reluctant leader called to service by God (Moses, Gideon).

But I’m not aware of a motif that occurs as often as the barren wife who gives birth after many years. As identified above, it occurs at least six times in the biblical narrative. Often it is accompanied by an angelic visitation, an annunciation. Inevitably it serves as an introduction to the career of a notable biblical figure.
To varying degrees, the women in this repeated story have been desperate for children. Rachel tells her husband, Jacob, that she will die if she does not conceive. Hannah, overcome with despair, stops eating and weeps incessantly. Sarah turns to her handmaid, Hagar, and enlists her as a surrogate, to bear a child with Abraham that will legally be Sarah’s. That last one, of course, doesn’t turn out so well; Hagar lords her fertility over Sarah and the resulting conflict leads the pregnant maid to run away (an angel turns her back). But the child ultimately bears, Isaac, is favored over his half-brother, Hagar’s son Ishmael (At least in the Judeo-Christian telling. In Islam it is Ishmael who is the key ancestral figure).

Sarah’s granddaughter-in-law Rachel also ends up resorting to the handmaid/surrogate strategy, enlisting her servant Bilhah; the maid in short order produces two sons, Dan and Napthali. And while we don’t hear of any particular conflict between Rachel and Bilhah, we know that there is an intense rivalry between Rachel and her sister-wife Leah, whom Jacob does not love but who is remarkably fertile, bearing him seven children.
Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, also has a fertile sister-wife, Penninah, who, like Leah, is unloved but fertile.

All of these women ultimately conceive and give birth, and all of their offspring are pretty special characters in the biblical narrative: Sarah’s son is Isaac; Rebeccah’s twin sons are Jacob and Esau; Rachel gives birth to Joseph and Benjamin (she dies in childbirth with the latter); the unnamed wife of Manoah mothers the Israelite judge Samson; Hannah’s son is Samuel; and Elizabeth, many generations later, becomes a mother in old age to John the Baptist. That the Greek evangelist Luke chose to repeat this Hebrew story in the New Testament context shows its lasting and cross-cultural power.
These births are miracles, as an unexpected, late-in-life pregnancy must have seemed at the time and still may seem, despite the availability of fertility treatments today. Surely God took special care in the conception of these children. Thus we have angelic annunciations as a common rider to these stories.

The story of Samson, presented in Judges 13-16, is a peculiar combination of Hebrew biblical conventions and Mediterranean demigod conventions. Samson may be the first – and only Jewish – superhero. In his career he slays a lion with his bare hands, defeats an army of a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass as his only weapon, annihilates his enemies (and himself) by pulling down a temple on their heads. Like the Greek Achilles, he appears to be invincible except for one hidden weakness. For Achilles, it was his unprotected heel; for Samson it is the hair that has never been cut.
But his story begins with the familiar Hebrew motif of the barren older woman. Unlike the other older moms, Samson’s mother is never given a name. She is identified as the wife of Manoah, a man from the tribe of Dan living in the Judean city of Zorah. This unfertile woman is visited by an angel who gives her instructions to raise her soon-to-be-born son according to a law laid down in Numbers 6 for men and women who devote a period of their lives to the service of God: No wine or intoxicants, no unclean foods, and “no razor shall come upon his head.” While these rules are voluntary in Numbers, Samson’s mother is commanded to raise her son from birth in this way, “for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines.” (the term Nazirite means consecrated or separated). It's a vow that Hannah will later repeat with regard to her son Samuel.

When his wife tells Manoah about her visitation, Manoah asks God to send the angel back to provide more explicit instructions. God does so, and the angel, after sharing the instructions once again, disappears spectacularly in flame, convincing the couple of his supernatural provenance.
Like the other biblical sons of older women, Samson is a powerful figure, but like them – certainly like Jacob -- he is not without flaws. He has a weakness for exotic women, falling in love and demanding in marriage a Philistine woman (“What, you can’t find a nice Jewish girl?” is a paraphrase of his parents’ reaction) and then, of course the famous Delilah, introduced as a harlot from the Philistine city of Gaza. He also seems to get a sexual charge from being tied up, as evidenced in his repeated ruses to get Delilah to do so.

But it’s the hair that ultimately does him in. Is his uncut hair really the source of his strength, or, as one of my students suggested, is it his belief in the source of his power that makes it so? The story of Samson to a large degree follows the conventions of demigod mythology and so one may be justified in suggesting that it really is the uncut hair that gives him his strength. But the story of Samson's conception and birth ties him to the somewhat more naturalistic conventions of biblical narrative. I say somewhat more naturatlistic because, of course, the Bible is full of the supernatural, including the angelic visitations that mark these repeated stories. But Samson -- a fool for love if there ever was one -- also hews to the biblical tradition of characters with recognizably human traits, behavior that ties these ancient stories to our lives today. The girl-crazy he-man, the heartsick older woman yearning for a child -- these are characters that we could and do come across in our lives every day.

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