And Abram and Nahor took them wives: the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai … Sarai was barren; she had no child. (Gen 11:29-30)
And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah to wife. And Isaac entreated the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. (Gen 25:20-21)
And [Laban] gave [Jacob] Rachel his daughter to wife.…but Rachel was barren. (Gen 29:28, 31)
The stories of the three great matriarchs of scripture begins with a declaration that each was barren. As if this was not enough to develop a theme there are others:
And there was a certain man of Zorah, of the family of the Danites, whose name was Manoah; and his wife [the eventual mother of Sampson] was barren, and bare not. (Judges 13:2)
Now there was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim … and his name was Elkanah … And he had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah: and Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.” (1 Sam 1:1-2)
The initial barrenness of these famous mothers is probably not lost on Luke who begins the nativity of Christ with this declaration:
There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judæa, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years. (Luke 1:5-7)
In the stories of Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and Elizabeth, Zacharias’s wife, we are told explicitly that they both are “well-stricken in years,” (see Gen. 18:11; Luke 1:7). The text even states that “it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” The natural cycles of her body, conducive for childbearing, were over.
With all this barrenness, even to the point beyond the seeming natural childbearing years, what happens next in these stories is remarkable.
Speaking of Abraham’s wife, Paul tells us:
Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised. (Heb 11:11)
Joseph Smith indicates that in the case of Elizabeth that:
Zacharias, having no children, knew that the promise of God must fail. Consequently, he went into the temple to wrestle with God, according to the order of the priesthood, to obtain a promise of a son.”
What would possess Sarah and Zacharias to act in such faith? Why would they still believe or even expect God to give them a child, especially since these couples particularly were well stricken in years? Why did they not just accept their fate?
Perhaps the temple has something to do with their tenacity.
Indeed as Joseph Smith indicated, Zacharias “went into the temple to wrestle with God, according to the order of the priesthood, to obtain a promise of a son.”
In 1 Samuel we are told that Hannah:
went up to the house of the Lord … she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the Lord, and wept sore. And she vowed a vow, and said, O Lord of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life.” (1 Sam 1:7, 10-11)
In the story of Samson’s birth, temple imagery is rife: Manoah and his wife make offerings at a temple altar (Judge 13:19-21), ask for the name of an angel who had come to declare that they will indeed have a child. The angel replies saying, “Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it is secret?” (Judges 13:18). After the angel ascends from the altar, Manoah declares fearfully to his wife that they had “seen God” and will surely die. His wife, on the other hand, is filled with great hope and faith, saying:
If the Lord were pleased to kill us, he would not have received a burnt offering and a meat offering at our hands, neither would he have shewed us all these things, nor would as at this time have told us such things as these.” (Judges 13:23)
In the very next verse she conceives.
What about the temple might have filled these with such expectation for children, even when they have past child-bearing years?
From Old Testament periods to modern times, temples have been associated with the covenant of the Lord (see Exo. 40:3; Mal. 3:1). In this covenant relationship, the Lord’s people receive certain promises. These promises not only include, as D&C 132:19 reminds us, kingdoms, thrones, principalities, powers, but also “a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.” Indeed, not only does God make promises with regard to these blessings, but He at times will even swears oaths to his servants, making sure these very promises. For example, God swears to Enoch with an “unalterable decree” that a remnant of his seed would always be on the earth as long as it stands (see Moses 7:51-52)—a promised seed made sure.
Here is the point: God’s promises and oaths of kingdoms, powers, and seed are not just for eternity, the Lord declares that “it shall be done unto them … in time, and through all eternity; and shall be of full force when they are out of the world” (D&C 132:19). Likewise, the Lord revealed to Jacob in the Book of Mormon: “Wherefore, for this cause, that my covenants may be fulfilled which I have made unto the children of men, that I will do unto them while they are in the flesh, I must needs destroy the secret works of darkness, and of murders, and of abominations.… For I will fulfil my promises which I have made unto the children of men, that I will do unto them while they are in the flesh” (2 Nephi 10:15, 17).
Could it be that the barren patriarchs and matriarchs of old believed so much in God’s promise to fulfill his covenant in “time” or “in the flesh,” and not just in eternity, spurred them to persist in faith, even in the face of seeming impossibility? It would appear so.
Paul said of Sarah: she had faith to conceive “because she judged him faithful who had promised.” (Heb 11:11)
Joseph Smith said of Zacharias: “Zacharias, having no children, knew that the promise of God must fail,” but since God’s promises never fail, Zacharias “went into the temple” to seek his promised blessing of seed.
Hannah declared after getting her promised child:
My heart rejoiceth in the Lord, mine horn is exalted in the Lord … they that were hungry ceased … the barren hath born seven… He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory” (1 Sam 2:1-8).
These last two lines are passages from Psalm 113:7-8 but, ironically, Hannah does not say the next line, though she probably assumed her hearers/readers would know what it is: “He maketh the barren woman to keep house, and to be a joyful mother of children. Praise ye the Lord” (Psalm 113:9).
Hannah certainly understands that her having a child is more than just about child-bearing. Her complete song is that God fulfills all his promises. He makes of his children kings and queens, priests and priestesses; He gives them thrones or kingdoms; He protects them from their enemies; He gives them heirs. These promises are to be fulfilled in time, not just eternity. These are the same promises of the covenant made to Adam and Eve (Gen. 1:26-28), the same promises made to Abraham (Gen. 12, cf. Abr. 2).
Into this backdrop steps Mary, a young girl who should not be having a child, facing her cousin Elisabeth who also should not be having a child. Both are overwhelmed with joy, with hope, for their children show them that God’s promises, even “in time,” will be fulfilled.
Mary’s declaration, while facing Elisabeth, quotes and paraphrases Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel, suggesting that Mary may view herself as part of this great lineage of barren matriarchs. She states:
My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. … He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath holpen [helped] his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever” (Luke 1:46-55)
Like Hannah, it seems that Mary understands her pregnancy is more than just about child-bearing. Her child, her holy child, is the sign to all the world, that God will keep all his promises made in holy temples. He will give to his covenant people kingdoms, powers, and seed in time and throughout all eternity.
Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, … For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer.” (Isaiah 54:1-8)
This Christmas season, may we share with the patriarchs and matriarchs the same perfect brightness of hope and believe with all our hearts that God will fulfill his promises to each of us who have made covenants with him in his holy house. I do not know exactly how he will fulfill all his promises to us in “time,” but surely the Millennium has something to do with it, for that era is part of mortality and is the time when Christ restores all things, makes us kings and queens in his kingdom, heals all with resurrection power, and wipes away every tear. But God may also work miracles in us before that day, as he did with Sarah and Elizabeth, if we act in faith at all times as they did. But, if not, we can still rest assured that He will fulfill his promises to us in time, as well as eternity.
Not only will the barren indeed bear fruit in fulfillment of the promises, but in its likeness, Christ will remove any barrenness pertaining to righteousness among those who keep his covenant. Perhaps it will be in when we are “well-stricken in years,” but his promise is sure.
Their testimony of the covenant promises gave the matriarchs and patriarchs faith to conceive against all odds, but it can also give one faith to endure all tribulations of life. As the prophet Joseph Smith declared when he dedicated the Kirkland temple: “Put upon thy servants the testimony of the covenant, that … they may … prepare the hearts of thy saints for all those judgments thou art about to send, … that thy people may not faint in the day of trouble” (D&C 109:38).
The children born of barren women and most of all the Christ child himself, born of a virgin, are signs to all the world that God remembers his covenant promises made in temples, and he will fulfill them all through his Son in both time and in eternity.