I’m now convinced of the obvious: that bringing forth the next generation is the most difficult and most important job on the planet.
One of the consequences of Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil–something God directed them not to do–was that “in pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16, New American Standard Version). The passage is complicated, but most of us think we know what that means: that labor and delivery are going to bring immense pain and in some cases death to the mother. At one level, that certainly seems the interpretation, but there may be more to it.
One night we were interviewing Rabbi Harold Kushner on a radio show I co-host, “A Show of Faith” (950 AM KPRC). At the time Kushner was the most famous rabbi in America known best for his book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People? On this night we were interviewing him about another book he had written, How Good Do We Have to Be? The topic of conversation turned to the Genesis passage about pain in child-bearing and Kushner made an interesting observation. In good rabbinic style he said the Hebrew word often translated “pain” in Genesis 3:16 is the same word used in Genesis 6:6 to describe God’s grief and pain over the sorry state of humanity. You remember: God was so upset he lamented the fact he made humanity in the first place.
So here was Kushner’s interpretation: the real pain of child-bearing is not the 18 hours of labor (though painful, that pain is soon forgotten in the joy of birth), the real pain comes in the fact that after 18 years of love, teaching, nurturing and raising your children to the best of your ability, they turn against you, disobey you, disappoint you, end up on drugs, end up in prison, etc. In a sense we share in our Heavenly Father’s pain when we bring forth children who go astray and do not remember us and our sensible teaching.
Let me add another insight. Because the two have become one flesh (Genesis 2:24), both man and woman, husband and wife, share the same pain. The pain of bringing forth the next generation is not unique to women. Women may experience it more acutely, but men experience it as well. Medical science, of course, may intervene and lessen the pain experienced by a woman in childbirth, but it is unlikely to be able to stem the tide of pain to fathers AND mothers when children go astray. Like the other consequences of the first couple’s disobedience (domination, death, work degenerating into toil), both men and women share the same fate.
Most parents will experience significant periods of pain as their beautiful babies become adolescents and adults. I’ve spent many hours listening to parents whose children have hurt them deeply. And there are no easy solutions to this. There’s no perfect strategy to parenting. Perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that it is a universal experience, and even more, to know that God felt the pain first.
In The Voice we tried to express this universal, more nuanced aspect of Genesis 3:16. As we worked through this text, I was interested to note that in the King James Version the Hebrew word is not translated “pain” but “sorrow.” I think the KJV had it right. Here is how we rendered it in dynamic translation:
God (to the woman): As a consequence of your actions,
I will increase your suffering—the pain of childbirth
And the sorrow of bringing forth the next generation.
Despite all this, we confess and we believe that children are a gift from God. We confess and we believe that it is our greatest and most important life’s work. For a time they are ours to love, to care for, to protect and to teach. Then, we commend them and their future to the grace and guidance of God.