Baby-gro laid out with an ultrasound photo nearby. The baby-gro says "For this child we have prayed". Text over the top: Children of prophecy and prayer in the Bible: which parent did God tell first? Light in Grey Places

Children of prophecy and prayer in the Bible: which parent did God tell first?

The angel Gabriel famously announced to Mary that she would become miraculously pregnant with Jesus, and later the same message was given to Joseph (presumably by Gabriel, though the text doesn’t say). However, by my count, there are 13 stories of special pregnancies or prophecy over newly-born babies in the Bible. For each of them, I ask which parent did God tell first?

Part A: Announcements of miracle children

Some of the miraculous conceptions in the Bible are direct answers to the parents’ prayer – but not all. For some, God simply rocked up, announcing that the child would be born even though the mother was barren, in her old age or a virgin.

1. Isaac – the son of Sarah and Abraham. 

Who hears first: Abram/Abraham. 
Reason for no children: Sarah had been barren and was beyond the age of childbearing.
Bible passages: Genesis 15:1–6, Genesis 17:17–19, Genesis 18:9–15. 
Announced by

  1. The LORD, in a vision, to Abraham (Abraham then told Sarah)
  2. The LORD, in another vision, to Abraham
  3. One of the three visitors, to Abraham in earshot of Sarah, who then speaks to Sarah.

Points to note: the birth of Isaac is deeply intertwined with the origin story of the Israelites and Jews as the descendants of Abraham. All three announcements of Isaac’s birth are embedded within other significant events: God’s promissory covenant with Abraham, the sign of circumcision, Sodom and Gomorrah. 

In Genesis 18:12 Sarah describes having her own child as a “pleasure”, so she wanted this. 

2. Samson – the son of Manoah’s wife and Manoah. 

Who hears first: Manoah’s wife. 
Reason for no children: Manoah’s wife was barren. 
Bible passage: Judges 13:1–14. 
Announced by: an angel, first to Manoah’s wife, and then again to Manoah because he specifically prays for the angel to appear to him too. The angel refuses to give his/their name.

Points to note: in verses 22–23 Manoah’s wife speaks sense to her husband:

21 When the angel of the Lord did not show himself again to Manoah and his wife, Manoah realised that it was the angel of the Lord. 

22 ‘We are doomed to die!’ he said to his wife. ‘We have seen God!’

23 But his wife answered, ‘If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and grain offering from our hands, nor shown us all these things or now told us this.’

3. The Shunammite woman’s son – the son of the Shunammite woman and her husband

Apologies for the repetition here, the Bible doesn’t give us any of their names. 

Who hears first: The Shunammite woman. 
Reason for no children: We can guess that she was barren, though the text only says that she had no sons, not that she didn’t have any children at all. She wasn’t necessarily old, though her husband was. Whether or not she already had children, you get the feeling that time was running out for her to have a son who could continue the family line.
Bible passage: 2 Kings 4:8–17. 
Announced by: Elisha, after his servant Gehazi suggests the idea when Elisha asks what he can do for the woman as a gesture of thanks.

Points to note: When Elisha announces that the woman will have a son, her first response is: 

‘No, my lord!’ she objected. ‘Please, man of God, don’t mislead your servant!’

The feeling is that she wants a son (or a child) so much that she doesn’t want the pain of disappointment. Her husband, though old, lives at least as long enough to see the baby grow into a boy. The child dies and his mother is devastated but Elisha resurrects the boy back to life. 

Imagine having that on your CV.

4. Jesus – the son of Mary (and, in legal terms, Joseph)

Who hears first: Mary.
Reason for no children: She’d never had sex with a man.
Bible passage: Luke 1:26–38.
Announced by: The angel Gabriel. Later he also appears to her betrothed husband, Joseph, so that Joseph doesn’t get the wrong idea (see Luke 1:18–25).

Points to note: After Gabriel’s announcement, Mary visits her aunt (Elizabeth) and sings a song about all the good things God has done for her and her people. You get the feeling she’s pretty excited. Whilst it’s still important that we ask probing and critical questions of the text, including around consent, I would still stand by what I’ve written elsewhere:

Mary’s song was bold and creative. I read it as the response of someone who was affirmed and empowered, not manipulated or coerced.

Part B: miracle children in response to prayer

These are the ones born to parents who’d been unable to have children, where one or both parents had specifically been praying for children.

5. Jacob and Esau – the sons of Rebekah and Isaac

Who hears first: we don’t know if there was any announcement when Rebekah conceived, but God spoke to her while she was pregnant.
Who was praying for children: Isaac, on behalf of Rebekah. 
Bible passage: Genesis 25:21–26.
Announced by: the LORD, after Rebekah inquired of him, wanting to know what was happening to her.

Points to note: Presumably if Isaac was praying on Rebekah’s behalf, then she wanted to have children. It’s interesting that although Isaac prayed for her, she inquired of God directly when she was pregnant.

6. Joseph – the son of Rachel and Jacob

Who hears first: we don’t know, no announcement of his birth is recorded.
Who was praying for children: Rachel.
Bible passage: Genesis 30:1–2,22–24.
Announced by: n/a.

Points to note: there’s some quite troubling sister rivalry in Rachel’s story. Also, Jacob says it’s God who’s kept her from having children which… couldn’t have been easy for Rachel. “Joseph” means “may he add” because Rachel prayed that God would give her another son too. Her prayer was answered, though she tragically died in childbirth. 

It’s tempting to say that Rachel’s sons weren’t “miracle” children, given what happened to her. However, I think it’s important to recognise that we can still face disappointments, even when our prayers are answered. Or to put it another way, God is still at work in our difficulties and pain. And he loves us the same regardless of how easy or tumultuous our path turns out to be.

7. Samuel – the son of Hannah and Elkanah

Who hears first: Hannah.
Who was praying for children: Hannah. 
Bible passage: 1 Samuel 1:1–20.
Announced by: Eli the priest.

Points to note: Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1–10 is totally a precursor to Mary’s Magnificat. 

8. John the Baptist – the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah

Who hears first: Zechariah.
Who was praying for children: Probably both parents, but Gabriel refers to Zechariah’s prayer – though this could have the double meaning of both the prayer he had offered as a priest for his people and the prayer he personally had made for a son. Luke’s gospel says Elizabeth had been barren and was in her old age, but notes that she and Zechariah were righteous. 
Bible passage: Luke 1:5–25.
Announced by: the angel Gabriel, at the altar of incense, whilst Zechariah was ministering in the temple as a priest. 

Points to note: Elizabeth describes God as taking away her disgrace (Luke 1:25). Gabriel says Zechariah’s prayer had been heard and Elizabeth would become pregnant. Even though he was in the meeting place of God, receiving resounding good news, he poured cold water on Gabriel’s message. He then lost his voice until John was born. As I wrote in short study on this passage:

Was it excessive that Zechariah was unable to speak for the next nine months? I… I don’t know. But I’ll bet his neighbours paid attention when his voice returned. 

And the first thing Zechariah did, was sing.

Part C: children who were spoken about in prophecy

The children listed in this group weren’t “miracle babies”, in that we have no reason to believe their parents had been infertile. However, they were prophesied about either before their birth or very shortly after. 

9. Ishmael – the son of Hagar and Abraham

Who hears first: Hagar.
The prophecy was: that the LORD had heard her suffering, that she would bear a son, and that he’d be a “wild donkey” of a man (that is, free-roaming and strong). 
Bible passage: Genesis 16:6–16.
Announced by: the angel of the LORD.

Points to note: Hagar is famous for being the only person in the Bible who names God. She called him the “God who sees” her and the place was later named after the Hebrew phrase. In Genesis 17:18–22, Abraham says he’d like God to bless Ishmael, like Abraham isn’t too worried that Ishmael is the son of a slave woman. God insists that his promise will be fulfilled through the son of Abraham’s wife Sarah, but says that he’s heard Abraham’s prayer and he’ll make Ishmael a great nation. 

10. Solomon – the son of Bathsheba and David

Who hears first: the text doesn’t say.
The prophecy was: that the LORD loved Solomon. 
Bible passage: 2 Samuel 12:24–25.
Announced by: Nathan the prophet.

Points to note: Nathan was the guy who called David out for committing adultery. (What he did was also almost certainly rape.) You get the impression both from this story and a later one (see 1 Kings 1:1–35), that Nathan was a friend to Bathsheba. Also, Bathsheba had lost the child from when David first had sex with her. The message that God loved this child was a big deal. 

11. Jezreel, Lo-Ruhamah, Lo-Ammi – children of Gomer and Hosea

Because these are all so similar and covered in a single passage, I’m counting them as one, because they arguably form a single revelatory action on God’s part.

Who hears first: Hosea.
The prophecy was: that their names would all reflect the coming judgments that God would bring on Israel. The story of Hosea’s marriage and family is framed as prophetic drama, that is somehow symbolic of God’s interactions with Israel.
Bible passage: Hosea 1:2–9.
Announced by: the LORD.

Points to note: Jezreel and Lo-Ammi were boys, Lo-Ruhamah was a girl. Their names have pretty stark meanings and one hopes that Hosea had enough sense to raise them as individuals in their own right.

12. Immanuel – son of “the virgin” / “this young woman” (depending on translation) and an unidentified man

Who hears first: the young woman, albeit King Ahaz was also present.
The prophecy was: that he would be called Immanuel, that he will eat sour milk and honey, and that before he can tell right from wrong, Syria and Ephraim (i.e. the northern Israelite kingdom) would lose their power and Assyria will become Judah’s (i.e. the southern Israelite kingdom’s) enemy.
Bible passage: Isaiah 7:1–17
Announced by: the prophet Isaiah.

Points to note: Yes, this is the prophecy about how “the virgin” will give birth and her son will be called Emmanuel. Matthew quotes it as a prophecy about the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:23). 

However, there is nothing in the Hebrew text of Isaiah to suggest that the woman was a virgin. No, it was the Greek translation of the Old Testament that specifically used the word for a virgin. And maybe she was a virgin at the time of the prophecy, but this passage doesn’t suggest a virgin birth. 

As I’ve written elsewhere, the NET translation notes make for fascinating reading:

They say this conversation took place where people washed clothes (7:3); and probably many women were present at the scene. So, Isaiah may have been gesturing towards one of the women present. He could have been speaking to her when he said she would name the child Immanuel.

Though one does wonder how the woman felt to have her future pregnancy announced in such a public setting.

13. Maher Shalal Hash Baz – son of the prophetess and Isaiah

Who hears first: Isaiah.
The prophecy was: that before the boy would be able to say “my father” or “my mother,” Judah’s enemies would be plundered by Assyria. The name means “quickly, [the] plunder; it hurries, [the] loot.” Again, this is about prophetic drama.
Bible passage: Isaiah 8:1–4.
Announced by: the LORD.

Points to note: I like how Isaiah’s wife is referred to as “the prophetess.”

Edited to add: 14. Jesus(?) – the seed of Eve

This last example is a little debatable, because the prophecy isn’t specific. But I think it’s close enough to count.

Who hears first: Eve and Adam hear at the same time, but the serpent is the one being addressed.
The prophecy was: that there would be hostility between the offspring of the serpent and the woman (Eve).
Bible passage: Genesis 3:15.
Announced by: the LORD God.

As I wrote here on Faith in Grey Places:

There are various ways that prophecy has been understood. The translation I heard in carol services was that the serpent will “strike” the offspring’s heel, but the offspring will “crush” the serpent’s head. Actually, the Hebrew verb is the same in both phrases. Also, as Marg Mowczko writes, there are difficulties in knowing whether the offspring referring to here is singular or plural

Concluding thoughts

Not gonna lie, it’s bothersome that nearly all the children of prophecy and prayer recorded in the Bible were boys. However, I take that more as a sign of the times, than a theological statement. 

I find God’s interaction with the parents interesting. In 7 of the 13 instances I’ve listed, God’s interactions appear to have been with the mother first; only three times does it seem that God only spoke to the father. In other words, God spoke:

  • To both parents: 
    • Mother then the father (or ‘father’): Ishmael, Samson, Jesus.
    • Father then the mother: Isaac.
    • Order not known: Solomon.
  • Just to the mother: (probably) Jacob & Esau, Samuel, the Shunammite woman’s son, Immanuel.
  • Just to the father: Maher Shalal Hash Baz, Hosea’s three children, John-the-Baptist.
  • Not known if God spoke to either parent: Joseph.

It strikes me that whilst both the Old and New Testaments took place within patriarchal cultures, God didn’t show a preference for telling the father over the mother. Rather, in each instance, God acted in a way that was most appropriate to the context.

I don’t know quite how the women would have felt when their pregnancies were announced to them, but there is no evidence to suggest that they didn’t like the idea. Instead, the evidence we have points strongly in the opposite direction.

What do you think? Did I miss any?

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One thought on “Children of prophecy and prayer in the Bible: which parent did God tell first?

  1. Always a sucker for a good listicle.

    This point has come up on Twitter recently, and it’s a good one: ultra-right-wing conservative Christians have a tendency to point out obscure bits of scripture that they use an an excuse for patriarchalism, but tend to ignore bits like – as you’ve pointed out here – mothers being told of their unborn child first. In fact, as you’ve demonstrated here, it’s almost an even split – and, appropriately, via context, as opposed to biased regarding gender.

    I wrote an essay once (don’t have it to hand) in which both Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva made the claim that the virginity of Mary was a mistranslation over the years, and that she wasn’t a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. I both agree and don’t: I do believe that Joseph was not the father, and that Jesus was a child of God; I don’t believe that Mary had to be a virgin at the time.

    I mean, she may well have been, but I don’t think that bit’s important.

    A lot of Christian denominations (realistically, mostly Catholics) place a lot of focus on Mary, including her virginity, almost deifying her, and having her in place as the perfect woman. As she is both virgin and mother – something a normal woman can never be – this is an impossible ideal, which sounds (to me) to be a little hurtful. We are never asked to be the equal of Jesus, but as he’s the Son of God, we’re not expected to be.

    On a side note, Mary can’t have stayed a virgin forever, because Jesus had a brother…!

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