Podcast counterpart // About Abortion with Dave Brennan
Womb with a view: God as midwife? Ft. Tim Lewis | 14 March 2023 | Episode 39
The Bible is chock-full of metaphors that describe God: shepherd, warrior, potter, eagle, lion, even rock and stone. None of these are woodenly literal, nor are any perfect in that the “source domain” the metaphor draws on will always be limited and unlike the Lord in profound ways. Nevertheless they provide rich insights into God’s character and convey deep truths in terms of what God does within creation and how he relates to people.
Less appreciated is the fact that the Bible utilises a number of feminine metaphors to picture God’s actions. For example the Lord gives birth to his people (Numbers 11:12; Deuteronomy 32:18), and can even cry out like a woman in labour (Isaiah 42:14). God comforts Israel like a mother (Isaiah 66:13). Jesus compares God’s desire to save Jerusalem to a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings (Matthew 23:37, reflecting a frequent OT theme, e.g., Psalms 17:8; 91:4). So perhaps the idea of God being like a midwife should not be too much of a surprise. Midwives can be male or female, but within the Bible only feminine forms are used for midwives, so this is also part of the feminine imagery.
Midwifery in Biblical Context
In an ancient Near Eastern context with limited medical provision and high maternal and infant mortality rates skilled midwives were vital. Although even the presence of a midwife did not always prevent tragedy, as when Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin (Genesis 35:17, cf. 1 Samuel 4:20). At other times midwives appear as witnesses to God’s salvation historical purposes. In Genesis 38:28–30 a midwife helps Tamar deliver Perez and Zerah, identifying the first baby to emerge (Zerah), and also prophetically recognising that it is actually Perez and his offspring who will have the greater part to play in God’s story (Genesis 49:8–12; Ruth 4:12, 18–22; Matthew 1:3; Luke 3:33).
Most famous are the midwives Shiphrah and Puah who defy a Pharaoh bent on the murder of Hebrew baby boys, as they courageously stand for life (Exodus 1:15–22). The two midwives, along with a number of other women in Exodus 1–2, further God’s (pro)creational purposes, in the midst of a culture of death. Shiphrah and Puah, like others in Scripture (Esther 4:11–16; Daniel 3:16–18; 6:10; Acts 5:29) realise that sometimes obeying God means disobeying sinful laws. By saving countless lives they are actively involved in fighting for the Lord against dehumanising evil. This is very much “muscular midwifery.” Any occurrence of the midwifery metaphor inevitably taps into this broader network of associations with midwives, particularly the Exodus narrative.
Twice in the Psalms God is portrayed as midwife. Firstly in Psalm 22:9–10:
9 Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
10 On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother’s womb you have been my God. (ESV)
Verse 9 narrates the first moments of life outside the womb, stressing the divine guidance that ensured the psalmist’s safe delivery. Even the colostrum that nourishes the infant in the first hours after birth, and helps mother and baby to bond is understood as part of God’s provision. In Hebrew the pronoun “you” occurs at the beginning of verse 9 and as the last word of verse 10, thus “[t]he divine you encloses child and mother.”1 The midwifery metaphor, which merges at times with broader connotations of motherly nurture, resonates with God’s life-giving, other-focused, compassionate character.
The idea of God as midwife continues in verse 10 as the Psalmist is “cast” upon God at birth. While this could have a figurative sense, one theologian calls it “an excellent description of child delivery— the baby being expelled from the birth canal into the awaiting hands of the midwife.”2 It is worth recognising here that women in the Old Testament tended to give birth in an upright position (cf. the description in 1 Samuel 4:19). In a poignant comparison, in Ezekiel 16, Jerusalem, under the figure of a new-born infant girl, is exposed at birth, literally “cast” into the open field – the same verb as Psalm 22:10. The lack of parental compassion in Ezekiel 16 is in stark contrast to the Psalmist’s experience. Whereas human agents are involved in infanticide, the Lord is a specialist in perinatal care.
The midwife metaphor is reprised in Psalm 71:6:
Upon you I have leaned from before my birth;
you are he who took me from my mother’s womb.
My praise is continually of you.
The author of Psalm 71 is in the latter years of life (see v. 18). The word “continually” (Psalm 71:3, 6, 14), reinforces the sense that since the womb God has been a constant within the Psalmist’s life. The same concept and language occur in Isaiah 46:3–4, where God carries Israel from before birth to old age and grey hair. There are obvious similarities with Psalm 22:9–10, and several new themes are developed.
The verb “to lean” is used of Samson resting his full weight against stone pillars in the House of Dagon (Judges 16:29), and is used figuratively of dependence on God – who, unlike the Philistine architecture, will not give way! In the Psalms “to lean” is consistently used of God sustaining (Psalm 3:5) or upholding people (Psalms 37:24; 51:12; 54:4; 119:116; 145:14). God is a sure support for the psalmist before his birth, sustaining him within the womb.
And again, like a midwife, God takes the initiative in delivering the child from the womb. The Hebrew word translated “took me” only occurs here in the Bible, although the related noun is used of cut stone. This has led to speculation that the cutting of the umbilical cord is intended, or even an emergency Caesarean delivery. For one scholar the strong implication is that the situation involves maternal death, with the midwife (God) delivering the infant from an identical fate.3
Elsewhere in Scripture national catastrophe can be compared to a labour that does not progress naturally, such as when the baby is in a breech presentation, with potentially fatal results (2 Kings 19:3; Isaiah 37:3). God, the nation’s midwife, is able to bring about a different fate, delivering the people, just as he oversees the birth of healthy new-borns (Isaiah 66:7–9).
So what does the midwifery metaphor in Scripture say about God, pregnancy and childbirth?
The psalmists in Psalms 22 and 71 discover God’s intimate protection at a time of real vulnerability. Portraying God as a midwife demonstrates God’s presence in one of the most perilous moments of life. Juliana Claassens emphasises how this metaphor makes explicit “God’s profound commitment to life. The conviction that God is the God of life, who works ceaselessly to bring life into the world.”4 Good midwives are also concerned about mother and baby during pregnancy. God’s providential involvement in the birthing process reveals a continuity of care that began in the womb and continues as the child grows. Put differently, God is Pro-Life and like the Pro-Life midwives Shiphrah and Puah in Exodus, the Lord does all he can to safeguard vulnerable mothers and their children. From conception every single life is precious to God.
The Child in the Womb
What about the unborn child? Psalms 22:10 declares that “you have been my God” within the womb, indicating that even here there was covenant relationship. “My God” is uttered in the first verse of Psalm 22, in very different circumstances, where the focus is on God’s perceived absence and distance. Whatever in life might threaten a sense of God’s presence and closeness was wholly absent for the Psalmist as an unborn child. The womb evokes God’s steadfast love. In fact Psalm 71:6 can be read in such a way that the psalmist’s continuous praise began when he was still in the womb. The unborn child glorifies God, just as the new-born baby does (see Psalm 8:2; Matthew 21:16).
Jewish tradition actually pictures unborn children singing hymns to God at the crossing of the Red Sea. We may find that bizarre, and such an imaginative idea is inspired by the biblical text, rather than taught by it. Yet as sober an exegete as Calvin can remark that Psalm 71:6 “not only celebrates the goodness of God which he had experienced from his childhood, but also the proofs of it which he had received previous to his birth.”5 On the basis of this and other Scripture there seems little grounds to doubt this. The New Testament might not feature babies singing in the womb, but Luke’s Gospel does begin with an unborn baby leaping for joy (Luke 1:41, 44)! This response expresses John’s Spirit-inspired praise (see Luke 1:15) at the presence of the still embryonic Jesus.
Finally what does it say about midwives? At a time when professional midwifery bodies are increasingly allied with the abortion industry and students can be suspended from university midwifery courses for even expressing a Pro-Life viewpoint, the Bible provides a better vision for this wonderful vocation. It is a calling that Scripture draws on to illustrate aspects of God’s nature and purposes. God shares this determined stance of protection on behalf of pregnant mothers and their babies. We might often picture God as shepherd, but even the wisest, kindest, most courageous shepherd is still looking after sheep, not bringing image-bearing human beings into the world!
As Exodus shows us, midwifery could be just as perilous as a shepherd fighting off lions or bears. Centuries before the Hippocratic Oath the Hebrew midwives are committed to preserving life, recognising that their care for pregnant women always involves more than one patient. Shiphrah and Puah risk their own lives to protect children. In a very real sense they are imitating God’s character. And in doing so they take their place in God’s salvation drama, where his people in every age find themselves pitted against the forces of darkness, destruction and death.
Today Shiphrah and Puah would be outside abortion facilities praying for women and children; doing all they could to expose and prevent a state-supported slaughter of unborn children, possibly getting arrested in the process. Pro-Life activism is not some anomaly, it has a long pedigree in the history of God’s people, because it expresses God’s heart of fierce love for precious, vulnerable infants. Scripture makes clear that Satan’s violent rage continues to be directed against pregnant women and their children until the end of time (see Revelation 12). But we know how the story ends. The dragon will be thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:2, 10), just as Pharoah’s hosts were drowned in the Red Sea. God’s people will overcome, if we are faithful and stand, like the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, with the vulnerable. This is the right side of history. The side of life. Whose side are you on?