Tucked away in the apostle Paul’s first letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 2:15) is the strange declaration that “women will be saved through childbirth.” The New Revised Standard translation puts it this way: “Yet [she, the woman] will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”
Scholars have virtually tripped over themselves to do various interpretive acrobatics here. N.T. Wright, whose interpretation seems most palatable, places the verse in its larger context: Paul is making the case in the preceding verses (vv.8-15) that women should be allowed to learn freely in submission to God and, as Wright puts it, “not be kept in unlettered, uneducated boredom and drudgery.” (Amen to that!) As for the perplexing statement in verse 15, Wright prefers to translate it with only two slight variations: “she will be kept safe through the process of childbirth, if she continues in faith, love and holiness with prudence;” here “kept safe” replaces “saved” and “prudence,” “modesty.” The overall gist, while perhaps unavoidable, still has the potential both to misconstrue childbirth as somehow salvific in and of itself and to distort the hard reality of childbearing, both in Paul’s time and ours in much of the world.
Just the other day this cruel reality thrust itself into the weekly moms’ Bible study I attend. These conversations about biblical theology between over-educated, under-paid, mostly middle-class, first-world women are never dull, and our discussion this day was no different. By the time we had arrived at a sharing of prayer requests and closing prayer, we had undertaken in loud, spirited discourse to make sense of God’s sovereignty, free will, and the Trinity.
The tenor of our meeting changed during the closing prayer time when a woman who had been silent throughout the preceding conversation spoke up. She is a Hindu from Nepal. She is also 36 weeks pregnant, and we were to put on a baby shower for her the following evening. When she speaks, she chooses her words carefully, so that her words seem to attain greater significance.
What do women in Nepal do to celebrate when a mother gives birth, I had asked her. Do they do anything that resembles our so-called “baby showers,” I had inquired.
At this, she paused and solemnly nodded “no.” Then she went on to explain that in Nepal, especially rural areas, many women and children die in childbirth, often due to poverty, lack of access to health care, poor education and illiteracy.
To be sure, Nepal has some of the worst maternal health statistics in the world, with one woman dying in childbirth every four hours. But Nepal is only one of many places where the marvelous miracle of birth is fraught with great risk, pain and tragedy. Every minute of every day a woman dies of pregnancy-related causes in our world today. In Paul’s time, the statistics would have been far grimmer.
In this context, pregnancy, labor and delivery do not bring mainly joyful expectation and the anticipation of new life. They are more frequently an occasion for great fear and unspeakable grief and suffering. “Let’s pray for women and babies in Nepal then,” one of us had volunteered, and so we had bowed our heads in prayer. The reminder of this reality, in a group of happily chattering, first-world, middle-class women, had ushered in a sort of hushed reverence for the plight of our sisters and their babies in a very different part of the world.
Yet the effect of the curse in Genesis is far-reaching. Even in Western countries where epidurals and pre-scheduled C-sections abound and a whole cottage industry of doulas and birthing classes promises “beautiful,” “planned” and even “pain-free” natural births, pregnancy, labor and delivery are rarely beautiful, pain-free or go according to plan. (My favorite was a woman’s soothing voice put to the tune of some light, feathery New Age music on a hypno-birthing CD used to prepare for the birth of my daughter: “Some hypno-birthing mothers say that their labor feels like nothing more than a bowel movement,” she had said in her mesmerizing voice.)
Of course the reality with only a very few exceptions is anything but this. When a woman is on her second epidural after 26 hours of labor only to be told that she will require a C-section, or when she finds herself on all fours in a hospital parking lot breathing through contractions, she discovers that her body and her child do not ultimately belong to her but to God and to Nature’s unfeeling, unstoppable rhythms. She finds herself swept off her feet- caught up in and surrendering to an ages-old, primordial dance.
Just where the dance will end is never really clear at the outset, so that this act of childbirth and all that precedes it is ultimately a demonstration of faith. “By faith Abraham…obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). Similarly, a woman preparing for birth embarks on a journey that takes her to a place she knows not where. All she can do is trust. Maybe she trusts in her body, that it will do what it was meant to do, maybe in her doctors, that they will do what they were trained to do; often, when bodies and doctors falter, the very best she can do is surrender to a much-greater Force that remains there, whether known or unknown, named or unknown.
Some commentators, by claiming that the apostle Paul is not referring to physical deliverance or rescue, have tried to ameliorate the shock of his statement that a woman will be “saved” or “kept safe” through childbirth. This line of reasoning by default concludes that the salvation Paul has in mind here is purely spiritual in nature. A kind of gnosis or “higher knowledge” for those schooled in suffering? Maybe. A liberation of the spirit from the transient values of this world, followed by a blissful eternity for the soul in heaven? Possibly. But, does salvation of the soul alone adequately redeem the tragic impacts of the Genesis curse? Is Paul really saying that even when a woman’s body does not just falter but fails in childbirth, her soul will live on in eternity so long as she perseveres in holiness- and if so, is this good news?
Maybe just barely for some of us. Maybe just good enough for First-World women like me, whose pregnancies, while laced with enough drama to make them exciting, from morning sickness and uterine blood clots to hemorrhoids and back pain, result in a happy, healthy outcome for mother and child.
But, what about the rest of us? What about those of us in the Majority World? Imagine quoting verse 15 to the under-nourished Somali mother whose twins are starving to death because she cannot produce enough milk, or the woman in remote Pakistan who could not reach the hospital in time to deliver her still-born son and is now fighting for her own life. Imagine telling that to the woman whose many miscarriages have cost her a husband and family and made her an outsider to her village.
The unavoidable fact is that the “pains” of childbirth that constituted Eve’s punishment (Genesis 3:16) were as much bodily, physical ones as they were manifestations of spiritual brokenness. In this sense they cry out for a redemption that is also as fleshy as it is spiritual. Anything less is the shabby news of a used car salesman.
I suspect that the apostle Paul knew this when he wrote these words to Timothy. Not long before his letter to Timothy he had written another letter to the church in Corinth. There he spells out in no uncertain terms his hope in a bodily resurrection for which the resurrection of Jesus Christ is “but the first fruits” (1 Cor. 15:20), so that just as in Adam all human beings die in sin, in Christ all live in resurrected life.
“The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power,” he writes (vv.42,43). In this context he can go on to encourage his “brothers” to”stand firm.” Let nothing move you,” he writes. “Give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (v. 58).
Paul seems to be issuing similar words of consolation and assurance to women in 1 Timothy. Our labor, in the biological sense, will not be in vain. The travails and tragedy of Eve’s curse will not ultimately be the full summation of our experience. In the resurrection, they along with death itself will be “swallowed up in victory” (v. 54), so “hang on” and “don’t give up,” are the message, with a view to the bodily resurrection that awaits us.
And this message really is good news on which to stake a lifetime of “holiness.” What might it look like for women in Nepal, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere, for whom the childbearing experience has been nothing but travail and tragedy? Some day, in the kingdom of God, I would like to think that they in the flesh will be reunited with their long-lost children, who will finally feast at their mothers’ dripping breasts, skin to skin, all aglow with the warmth of a mother’s love. And, there will be no sore nipples.