Advent Devotional Day 5: Genesis 21.1-7
A Peculiar Pattern
The Lord visited Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as He had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in His old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” And she said, “who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have born him a son in his old age.” (Genesis 21.1-7)
This narrative is so familiar, and in many ways to raw to us. We are keenly aware of the pain that Sarah and Abraham must have felt amid their childlessness, the sleepless and tearful nights there must have been praying and begging the Lord for an offspring. Adding to all of this there was the constant reality of God’s promise to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (Gen. 12.2) Or how about when Abraham says (after that promise): “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” (Gen. 15.3) In Abraham and Sarah’s life and in God’s dealings with them as the beginning of the seed-line that would bring blessing to all the nations through their offspring, there was this constant tension between God’s promise and the black backdrop of Sarah’s barrenness.
I use the text above, not because it is my purpose to exegete it word-for-word, but to demonstrate a theme that we see in Scripture. If you keep reading Genesis, this theme almost seems redundant. Isaac was eventually born to Abraham when he was 100 years old, a reality that is so absurd that it makes Sarah laugh, (Isaac’s name means laughter) but then when Isaac takes Rebekah to be his wife, SHE is barren as well! Isaac was beginning of the seed (remember the theme here) promised to Abraham, but now Isaac and his bride can’t even conceive a child! (Genesis 25.21) This is a serious “threat” to the line of promise, a concept that stretches all the way back to Genesis 3. Isaac prays to the Lord and Rebekah conceives. After Jacob is identified as the child that will carry the line of promise instead of Esau, he finds two wives (rather unintentionally) and his favorite wife cannot bear children! Eventually the Lord then opens her womb miraculously as well. (Gen. 29.31) There is a pattern here that we would do well to pay attention to. The pattern in the book of Genesis of miraculous births plays a vital role in the history of redemption and serves as a pointer to the incarnation.
This pattern in Genesis is only part of the picture though. The entire list of miraculous births to barren women leading up to Christ we have Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph, Samson, (Judges 13.2) Samuel, (1 Sam. 1.5) and last, but not least, John the Baptist. (Luke 1.7) We also know that these figures play pivotal roles in the history of redemption. Isaac and Jacob were designated as children through whom the line of the promised seed would advance. Joseph, while not the father of the ruling tribe (Judah, who was born of Leah) is born miraculously in answer to Rachel’s prayers and he ends up being the means through which the entire line of promise (the seed of the woman) was preserved in the great famine as he reigned as second ruler in the land of Egypt, his brothers also came to him and bowed down to him. Many believe that this combination of his redeeming of his brothers, and his brothers bowing to him makes him a “type” of Christ! (A type is a symbolic figure or event that foreshadows some aspect of Christ’s person and work) Samson was a one in a long line of judges who both judged and delivered Israel from her oppressors. (seed of the Serpent) Samuel was the first prophet to herald the word of the Lord to the King of Israel, John the Baptist was the one who was the last in the line of Old Testament prophets, preparing the way for the Lord Himself.
So why are these miraculous births significant? Why does the Lord choose to work in this way so prominently and clearly in redemptive history? Is it just a lesson that we must trust the Lord’s miraculous power to accomplish His purposes and keep His promises? That may be one application, but there is a more fundamental Gospel-principle at play here that runs through redemptive history. The principle is this: these miraculous births that the Old Testament authors go to such pains to describe under the inspiration of the Spirit serve as a typological pattern. (there’s that word again) These jaw-dropping miraculous births that only Yahweh Himself, the omnipotent and transcendent One, could accomplish point to a much greater, escalated reality. These births are just small splinters of the glory to be found in the birth! This pattern of miraculous births, under God’s providence, reach their full and final conclusion in the birth of Messiah. I believe that this is evidenced by the fact that the birth of John the Baptist was so close to Jesus’ own birth in the timeline. It is as if God were telling us that there is finality being brought to this pattern, and it is being brought right here and right now. One final miracle-birth in a long line of them, pointing to the greatest one of them all: “Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7.14)
Why the miraculous births of key Old Covenant figures? Because they were guideposts leading up to the ultimate miraculous birth. Those births happened by natural conception under conditions that were less than ideal. This birth happened under supernatural conditions in the womb of Mary, who was a virgin! With those births the Lord overcame old age or barrenness in order to fulfill His “Seed-promise” and advance the seed of the woman from Genesis 3.15. In this final birth the Lord is powerful enough to not only overcome old age, but to conceive in the womb of a virgin the One who is the Ultimate Promised Seed. In this birth there was no presence of a biological human father at all! Rather, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy- the Son of God.” (Luke 1.35) The Child that fulfilled all those patterns would be conceived of God the Holy Spirit, as God the Son took on true humanity in her womb. It is so fitting that God-Incarnate should be the fulfillment of such a grand and glorious theme!
The Old Testament is rich with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, especially when we see it in living color on this side of the Incarnation of the Son and the outpouring of the Spirit. Within the fabric of the Old Testament, there are echoes of incarnation. There are faint hints of the One to come, given through promised children and miraculous births that confound human understanding. Trying to recognize them for what they really were in that day would have been like groping around a dark room with the lights off and trying to feel the objects that you could not yet see. Now that we have light of the Incarnation of the Son shining on these events, we can see them clearly for what they are. These miracle-children were descendants of God’s promise, defeated God’s enemies, judged God’s children, heralded God’s Word, and ruled over God’s people. They were products of His sovereign power to keep His promises and redeem His people. The One whom they point to is the Sovereign One and Redeemer Himself. May we never forget that as we read Scripture, from top to bottom it is the story of Jesus Christ. His incarnate glory shines from beginning to end, and all its distinct parts hold together and find their meaning in Him.