The matriarchal womb

* This hymn has grown from thinking about Rebekah’s difficult pregnancy and the birth of the twins Esau and Israel.



The matriarchal womb.midi


The beginnings of this hymn lay in the suicidal feelings of Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, who, after twenty years of marriage, was pregnant. The children struggled together within her; and she said, If it is to be this way, why do I live?” Had she not lived, there would have been no following story. But she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb[1]…”

 Rebekah submitted her distress to God’s discernment, and thereafter went ahead with the pregnancy. Evidently things continued as painfully as before, yet her commitment and submission to God marks her out, not only as a model of prayerful dependence, but as an or even the matriarch of Israel, the matrix from which (seen in the widest possible perspective) all history emerges. Christians, certainly, believing themselves spiritually incorporated into the household of Israel, can recognise in Rebekah a primary source (whether historical, mythological, or legendary) of all that constitutes us as creatures made in God’s image who yet live estranged from God’s good will.

In the hymn this understanding is highlighted by the use, as the last word of the first line in every stanza, of “womb”. It’s not that the hymn aims to make worshipers feel claustrophobic as that everything is asserted as happening within the realm of creative possibility. Even the warring of nations over the course of successive centuries can be redeemed in the womb of Christ: ‘love laid in the tomb can win the world’s new day’. The hymn situates us all in a tide that has its source in the waters of Rebekah’s womb.

The first two stanzas of the hymn summarize Genesis 25.20-34, up to the point where Jacob used extortion to gain his brother’s birthright. The third continues the story seamlessly into subsequent history. This commentary was written in the wake of a lecture for Holocaust Memorial Day 2004, in which Mark Levene detailed some of the dimensions of the continuing slaughter of millions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This story was scarcely noticed by western media, because the economies and citizens of the west who consume – and who for important sectors of their markets and aspects of their lifestyles are dependent on – the rich mineral resources of DCR would be paralysed by knowing even a little of the catastrophic effects of their institutionalised greed.

Given that we are all implicated in history’s fratricidal power struggles, the hymn turns us towards ‘God of the earth’s warm womb’, who is also God ‘of each embodied soul’. These images speak both of the wonderful capacity of the earth to heal from the wounds inflicted on it and of the creative capacities of human conscience. But the prayer of verse four gently insists that we maintain these capacities in relation to God. For history, it may be said, is the continuing record of people attempting to heal the earth and human nature unilaterally, by the struggle to use power for what turns out to be the limited advantage only of the powerful; as Jesus said: …the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force[2].

 The prayer of the final stanza may be said to be deeply pietistic: activists of all kinds may be exasperated by its otherworldliness, for how may ‘warring nations stay in Christ’s redeeming womb?’ No answer is offered other than the affirmation that honest sharing in prayer (this is not a plea for more of the solemn assemblies in which the Lord take(s) no delight[3]) is foundational for the realizing of shalom. And part of prayer is keeping vigil. And vigils enable lament. And lament makes contrition easier. The contrite are most ready to surrender their armour, and to think well about how to make restitution to people robbed of their birthright of dignity and love.

On one level this hymn is mere hand-wringing, a dramatization of powerlessness. From the standpoint of resurrection faith it is an expression of history redeemed. This piece does not challenge vested interests, but it invites everyone to offer the future to what shall be by God’s grace.

[1] Genesis 25.22-23a

[2] Matthew 11.12

[3] Micah 5.21