Updated: Oct 18
Top Ten Pro-life Passages #2 // Genesis 25
Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord.
The Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”
When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them. [Genesis 25:21-26 NIV]
One of the most extraordinary accounts of life in the womb occurs in the story of Rebekah’s twin pregnancy.
Before we dive in, it is worth recognising that in the Bible God is consistently presented as the one who enables conception. God alone can open (Genesis 29:31; 30:17; 30:22) and close (Genesis 16:2; 20:18; 1 Sam 1:5–6) the womb. Jacob may not be a particularly sympathetic husband, but even he recognises this truth in a heated exchange with Rachel (Genesis 30:2). Like the earlier matriarchs, Hannah rejoices when she becomes pregnant with Samuel, because God has “remembered” her (1 Samuel 1:19; compare Genesis 30:22). Far from being a remote and distant deity, the Lord is intimately involved with his people, and knows their joys, struggles, hopes and frustrations. God is sovereign over every life, including the unborn. There are no unexpected or unwanted pregnancies in God’s eyes.
Rebekah’s story has parallels with many other women in Scripture. Her marriage begins a lengthy period where she is unable to conceive. The account is found in Genesis 25.
Rebekah is a sensitively drawn figure in the narrative. The story of how she became Isaac’s wife (Genesis 24) is the longest chapter in Genesis. Rebekah is presented as a resourceful and active woman, in contrast to her more contemplative husband. In many ways she, rather than Isaac, parallels Abraham (compare the blessing on Rebekah in Genesis 24:60 with the blessing promised Abraham in Genesis 22:17). Interpreted against this backdrop, her later actions to ensure Jacob receives Isaac’s blessing appear less as deceitful scheming and more as seeking to honour the Lord’s promise to her while pregnant (Genesis 25:23).
The foetal movements most mothers treasure signal for Rebekah the beginning of her problems, as the unborn Jacob and Esau “struggled together within her.” This is a strong word, in fact Gordon Wenham translates: “[t]he children . . . smashed themselves together inside her.” Understandably perturbed, Rebekah goes to “enquire” of the Lord, a verb often associated with kings seeking God’s counsel through prophets (e.g., 2 Kings 3:11; 22:13, 18). With Rebekah we don’t read of any mediator and her faith is rewarded with an explanation from the Lord. She is in fact bearing the progenitors of two “nations” or “peoples” (Jacob/Israel and Esau/Edom), whose current strife prefigures their future hostility and that of their descendants. God’s word to her is shown to be trustworthy as in due course she gives birth to twins.
The birth is just as unusual, as Jacob emerges from the womb gripping his brother Esau’s heel. “Jacob” puns on the Hebrew word for “heel,” from which is formed the verb “to supplant.” Esau uses this word in Genesis 27:36, when complaining that his brother has cheated him out of the blessing, effectively “supplanting” him as the firstborn son. More positively as Jacob’s character develops we see him struggling not only against Esau and Laban, but wrestling with God in a transformative episode (Genesis 32:22–32).
What is fascinating is that Jacob’s actions even at this early stage of life inform the Bible’s portrait of him: “In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God” (Hosea 12:3). In the New Testament Paul traces God’s purposes of election through the story of Jacob and Esau, making the point that God chose Jacob while he was an unborn child (Romans 9:10–13).
As twin brothers Jacob and Esau couldn’t be more different and their story is a good reminder that personhood begins in the womb. It is here that Jacob’s character is first glimpsed and where, according to Paul, God’s plan for Jacob’s life took shape. Not only calling, but personality too is traced back beyond birth. Genesis 25 is a powerful statement of the personhood of the unborn child and a critique of attitudes that regard life in the womb as just a blob of tissue. In a culture where abortion is celebrated and where one undesired baby in a twin pregnancy can be killed, God’s Word tells a better story and celebrates life.
 Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16–50 (Waco, TX: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 175.
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