Born of a Virgin
If you are like me, who grew up in a Christian church, you probably knew about the Virgin Mary long before you knew what a virgin was. You probably sang “Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child” and, owing to the way the song is spaced, had some vague idea that somewhere around the “yon virgin”, whatever that meant; there was Mary and the baby Jesus.
But eventually we figured out what a virgin was, didn’t we? Again, if you are like me, you probably got the straight story from some kid on the playground, not your Sunday School teacher. In any event phase two of this knowledge parade was the belief that Jesus did not have an earthly father and, as a result, some Bible passages began to make a bit of sense.
For me the next step was an encounter with the doubters. You know the type. They say “Back then people could believe in a virgin birth but nowadays we know that is impossible.” I always thought that argument was a silly conceit. The argument assumes that we are smarter than previous generations. But I’m pretty sure that long before the birth of Jesus, or even long before Isaiah, they had already figured out how to make a baby.
Or they might say that the Hebrew word alma, which is translated virgin, also can mean young unmarried woman so probably Mary was not a virgin as we think of the term. This too doesn’t hold much water. In that culture all young unmarried women were assumed to be virgins. The translators of that word into Greek knew that Isaiah meant a real virgin and used the Greek word that means virgin.
Finally we came to an understanding of the miracle and an acceptance that, as evangelicals, we will rejoice in it even if other scorn us. No doubt you’ve heard people question how an intelligent person like you can believe in something like the virgin birth.
But I keep thinking that there was something even more special about the virgin birth. In those days the prevailing thought among Jews and virtually every other group was that the man was the active agent in conception. The biblical references to the “seed” of Abraham, for example, were reflective of this view. The man’s seed contained the life, the woman was simply the passive receptacle akin to the ground; her role was to hold, nourish and grow what he, the man, had provided.
But, right from the beginning, God was doing a different thing. In Genesis 3, cursing the serpent, he says that the woman’s “seed” (modern translations dilute this by using words like “offspring.”) would be at odds with the serpent. This is the only place in the Bible, or other ancient literature, where seed was attributed to a woman.
So what is the message here? It is not just that the virgin birth was miraculous. It was not that God was doing away with the role men play. To an early church listener the message would be much more shocking than just a miracle as we see it. It would be a complete reversal of what they assumed, making the woman and not the man the active agent in bringing forth life. It would be a message that God was doing a new thing here; that what was required was not just an acceptance of the miraculous but a complete reordering of our thinking. Jesus was going to change the rules.
When people study the Bible they are often struck by the contrast between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. There are always lame attempts to reconcile verses like those where God commands genocide. But what is really happening is that Scripture has always had a trajectory, it was always going to a point.
Jesus is the bend of the arc. Instead of being the military messiah the Jews wanted he was going to tell them to turn the other cheek. He was never going to urge death or even harm to another. He was going to be victorious by dying. Soon his followers would be saying “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female.” All your old assumptions and divisions are gone.
To the first century observer this message was made stunningly clear in the virgin birth, perhaps clearer than it is to us today. Jesus has come, and the rules are about to change.