I recently saw, once again, posed the question of whether or not Mary experienced labor pains when she gave birth to Christ. As the discussion unfolded, the question arose, “What does that word mean in Genesis anyway?”
In Genesis 3, God says to Eve, “in pain you shall bring forth children.” (v16), and then he says to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you!
In toil you shall eat its yield
all the days of your life.”
Both the pain of Eve and the toil of Adam are the same word.
This word, עצב asab or eseb (vowels are very changeable in Hebrew) is used to mean the following in various parts of the Bible:
Labour, toil, pain, sorrow, great trouble, injury, or wound, depending on context and form of the word.
The first few chapters of Genesis are poetry, so this word is deliberately paired with a different word which has the same consonant base. This second word עצב is used to describe the making of idols in several places, and once, in Job, it is used to by Job to describe being made by God. Which seems to indicate that Job’s understanding of his own making is deficient. There are many verbs used to describe God making people and making the world, and they indicate goodness, completion, existence. They are positive words. So the use of this word here is in sharp contrast to the way in which God was just described making the world and making people.
The word used to describe the labors of Adam and Eve are incomplete. They indicate sorrow, an injury, and something lacking. So one might say that part of the punishment for Adam’s and Eve’s sin, which is a sorrow and a wounding, is that their making of things is now defined by the sorrow of their sins, and their work will not be complete, as it might have been if they had remained in Eden. Their efforts are all affected by what they have done. This word, עצב, can indicate physical pain, but it would be a mistake to try to limit interpretation of this verse to, or focus too intensely on, physical pain.
This text is often referenced when discussing Mary giving birth to Jesus, and the question of whether or not she suffered labor pains in giving birth to the Messiah. Bear with me: on this question it is helpful to look at Isaiah 66: 7-8: “Before she is in labor, she gives birth. Before her pangs come upon her, she delivers a male child. Who ever heard of such a thing, or who ever saw the like? Can a land be brought forth in one day,
or a nation be born in a single moment? Yet Zion was scarcely in labor when she bore her children.” I think it is clear that it is speaking first about the rebirth of Israel, but this can be read as a prophetic text referring to the birth of Jesus, the Messiah.
I think it is important to distinguish between different types of pain/toil/sorrow, because Mary giving birth to Christ fundamentally cannot be a bringing forth of something fashioned in sin, or self interest, or in any relation to the making of idols. The person she brings forth cannot be brought into the world as an effect of the wound sin has wrought on the world.
Her son comes to take up those pains, willingly, in order to redeem those labors and heal those wounds, but in order for that to happen, his own making and birth must be free from that same sorrow and woundedness. By his very nature as God, he comes eternally forth in complete perfection from the Father, and his earthly conception and birth are likewise perfect. The Holy Spirit overshadows Mary, and with her consent, she becomes pregnant with the son of God, who is perfect. She says yes to the truth and perfection of God. There is no sorrow or imperfection in this making.
In his perfection Jesus comes forth into the world, and then he takes up the wounds of the world and willingly carries them for us in his own perfect self. He heals them, heals us. Mary brings him into the world in an act free from the imperfections and wounds of human sin. Her true sorrows, the real pain and toil of this mother, is not in giving birth to her infant son, but in witnessing the horrific, tortuous, and above all willingly permitted death of her son. She watches him actively take up all the wounds of the world and actively, willingly, bear them in his own flesh. Her toil and pain is that she cannot, or must not, stop this terrible thing. She makes no idols, but rather sets herself on the difficult path of gazing upon the face of God when it is most difficult and perfectly understandable for her to look away. Thus in sorrow and pain, in the toil of her heart, Mary becomes mother of us all, and the mother of the Church. She gives birth to the perfect witness of the cross, the perfect waiting, and the perfection of her own joy in the perfect resurrection of her Son who, still bearing the wounds visibly in his flesh, nevertheless walks out of the tomb, walks out of hades carrying the dead with him, and makes it possible for our wounds and toils to be joined to his wounds, joined to his journey into the halls of the dead, and to join the dead in being carried out again.
Mary’s sorrow and toil is not like that of Adam and Eve. It redeems their toil. The one she gazes upon and follows is nothing like the idols fashioned by her ancestors. He is the one who rebuked Job for describing an imperfect making of the world and of himself. He is the one who corrects Job when he tells him that the making of the world is far beyond the human understanding that can only make idols. Instead of brokenly making and bringing forth an idol, she allows the true God to perfect her and the work of her life.
Whether or not she gave birth in physical pain, I’m not sure if Genesis gives a clear answer. I think it is possible. Likely even. But I think it is a mistake to focus too heavily on that question. It misses the real heart of the matter. The entire reason why the question is raised at all is in asking and seeking to understand where we fit between the wounds and sorrows of our own toils, and the perfection and joy that are offered to us from Christ through his mother and the example she gives us.