Here is what is going on in the verses just before the laboring woman image. God announces that old things are passing away, and that soon God will bring about something new. Then a narrator invites a large convocation to celebrate God and God’s declaration by singing “a new song.” Next, God speaks again, describing the new, redemptive action that God is about to undertake on behalf of God’s people. “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.”
Isaiah’s metaphor, which is much more specific than “God is like a woman in labor,” derives its punch from real women groaning in labor. Isaiah focuses on God’s breathing and the sound of that breathing: in this one verse, Isaiah uses three verbs that pertain to breath. The first is pa’ah, often translated as “cry out”—but “groan” or “bellow” is a better translation. I have often heard women describe the sounds they make in labor in animal terms. “Deep guttural, almost animal noises came from within me. Loud noises. Noises I soon had no control over.” This animal breathing is what we hear in Isaiah’s first verb. The next two breathing words in the verse continue to stress that God’s breath is not at ease: God “gasps” (nasham) and “pants” (sha’aph).
Clearly there is a wailing and bellowing among us as the old racist fears die and a new way of living in compassion struggles to be born. Winner goes on to note:
...more important for Isaiah’s metaphor is the centrality of breathing to a woman’s experience of labor. Panting and groaning are part of how women manage the pain of childbirth. “The key to the patient’s ability to suppress pain lies in her . . . breathing,” wrote Priscilla Richardson Ulin, a nurse, in 1963. The groans of labor signal the woman’s active participation in the birthing process, a participation that does not fight the pain (fighting labor pain only makes the pain worse). Isaiah gives us this groaning woman as a picture of the sovereign God, the God who is in control of redemption: God chooses to participate in the work of new creation with bellowing and panting. God chooses a participation that does not fight the pain, but that works from inside the pain.
God will be identified with humanity, utterly, even in those things that testify to our sin. As the laboring woman, God takes on the very punishment God assigned to us. God pointedly enters into the parts of our life that bespeak our finitude and “misdirected desire”—and Isaiah’s metaphor converts the groans of childbirth from a sign of humanity’s fallenness to a sign of God’s intimate identification with us. The groans of childbirth are both a sign of humanity’s distance from God and a sign of God’s nearness to us (they’re the second exactly because they’re also the first). in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays, “Please, Lord, take this cup from me.” For a moment—before Jesus says: “Yet, not my will but yours be done”—he is the mother in labor saying, “I cannot do this anymore.” Jesus knew that new life would be born out of his suffering on the cross, yet he still asked God to take away the cup.
"When did we see Thee, Lord?" they asked and Jesus replied: "Whenever you cared for one of the least of these my sisters and brothers." Join me at 10:30 am on Sunday, August 13 - and then plan to be a part of the community in solidarity on Park Square @ 6 pm.
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