The Most Uncomfortable Christmas Verse

"But women will be saved by childbearing," may not mean what you think it means.
The Most Uncomfortable Christmas Verse

At first, amid the unmistakable crunch of steel and aluminum, I thought I was the victim. A pang of outrage, a twinge of self-pity. But it quickly dawned on me that I was the one who caused the accident.

I was responsible for the damage to a stranger’s car. I had caused the stress the man in the other car endured. It was a relatively minor accident, but I still felt the weight of the loss I’d caused both of us. And there was something more than embarrassment and anxiety. There was shame. I felt a specific form of indignity for being a woman who had hit a man’s car.

In Saudi Arabia, women have only just been granted the right to vote. But they still aren’t allowed to drive vehicles. Even countries that consider such limitations archaic often hold steadfast to the stereotype of women as bad drivers. It can be a self-fulfilling belief: Studies show that these kinds of negative stereotypes actually affect women’s confidence while driving.

I want to prove myself as helpful and responsible, not flighty and negligent. I want to be the person who keeps an accident from happening, not the one who causes it. But I had caused it. Was I really a bad driver? Was I merely fearful of being labeled one because of my gender? Either way, the crash filled me with shame.

Like many women before me, I felt both legitimate and illegitimate shame. Like the first woman in the Garden of Eden, I felt the shame of genuine failure. But I also felt the impact of a lingering shame projected onto Eve by Adam, who blamed her for his eating the fruit. Ever since the events of the Fall, women have felt both sides of shame.

At Christmastime, we tend to focus on God’s deliverance of the righteous from illegitimate shame. The Virgin Mary experiences what seems to everyone else to be a shameful pregnancy, and even Joseph, who “did not want to expose her to public disgrace . . . had in mind to divorce her quietly.” But she is justified by an angel of the Lord, who puts the story right, and by all later generations who call her blessed.

But there is another biblical Christmas story that reminds us that the Christ child came to take away not only our illegitimate shame, but all of it. Ironically, it is a verse that many women prefer to avoid from fear that it just adds more shame: “But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with propriety” (1 Tim. 2:15).

This statement has challenged even those with a robust faith in the God of the Bible. But it’s a Christmas story indeed. It’s not the story of Mary and Joseph. Nor the story of Mary and Elizabeth. It’s the Christmas story of Mary and Eve.

From Glory to Shame

The first woman was created in the image of God, a helper suitable for the man, to work together with him to fulfill God’s creation mandate. There was no architecture or art, no fine foods or engineering marvels. This lack was part of their mandate. God tasked Adam and Eve with moving into his creation to steward it and rule over it, to create in his image from the foundation he left them. It was a clear and noble calling. Eve’s story starts with glory.

But it seems to end in humiliation. Eve allowed Satan to tempt her away from trust in God’s plan and purposes. She disobeyed God’s only command and played an instrumental part in the fall of man and warping of creation as a result. Adam then blamed Eve, seeking to distract from the fact of his presence with her when it happened.

God didn’t join Adam in the blame. Instead, he condemned the serpent:

“Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:14–15).

God shifts Adam’s blame from Eve to Satan with the clarifying words “because you have done this.” Eve had been captured by Satan, ensnared to do his will. Meanwhile, Adam stood by and watched it all happen.

God curses Satan in a specific way: by placing him at war with the woman. He promises to put enmity—hostility or warfare—between Satan and the woman and between Satan’s offspring and hers. Her seed, the fruit of her womb who would be nourished at her breast, would strike Satan with a knockout blow.

God speaks words of redemption in Eve’s presence before he announces the painful consequences of the Fall in her relationships. Rather than merely offering Eve the personal hope of her own rescue from her sin, God speaks of her as the vessel through which would come the salvation of all. Woman may have taken part in the Fall, but she would also nurture in her womb and at her breast the one who would save us all from the Fall. Eve’s shame would be reversed through the coming of the Savior.

From Shame to Redemption

In 1 Timothy 2, the apostle Paul instructs Timothy in matters of the local church, including the role of women. In a particularly controversial passage, Paul recounts Adam and Eve’s story, making an argument that has caused many readers to cringe: “And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with propriety” (1 Tim. 2:14–15).

This passage is perplexing at first glance. Is Paul looking at woman’s role in the Fall and cruelly rubbing it in? Is he arguing that women are saved through the act of having children? Is he arguing for a peculiar kind of works-based religion? Is he referring to the woman’s unique ability to develop image-bearers in her womb, an inherent safety net for humanity in the face of the possibility of annihilation?

In fact, Paul’s words parallel nicely with God’s own words to Satan and Eve after the Fall. When Paul uses the word “saved through childbearing,” he is not referring to the physical survival of humanity through procreation, but to the birth of the Child, literally “the Childbirth,” as William Mounce and John Stott have pointed out in their respective commentaries. The Greek use of a definite article that points to the unique, one and only nature of this childbirth, and the larger context of the discussion of Eve in the Garden in the previous two verses, bring us full circle to God’s prophecy: Through the woman would come the Savior who would defeat Satan. She would be saved, or redeemed, through the birth of the Child.

God’s Great Consolation

God told Satan immediately after the Fall that he would be at war with woman; history has borne out that truth. Even today, in many impoverished areas of the world, the mere words “it’s a girl” can be deadly. The female gender continues to be systematically devalued and abused, with sex-selective abortions and infanticide regularly resulting in female deaths.

Because the woman was the vessel through which God would bring his Son and our salvation into the world, she became one of Satan’s most hated enemies. She may have opened the gate that let in the enemy, but she also bore the One who would close it permanently. While she had been the one that Satan first approached as an ally in his plan to bring down God’s perfect creation, Satan would be at war with her forevermore because her seed would ultimately defeat him.

But first there was another woman: Mary. You may have seen the iconic image of Mary consoling Eve. Painted in 2003 by a sister at Mississippi Abbey in Iowa, it was later made into a Christmas card, and last year went viral on the Internet. Mary, her womb swollen with the Christ child, gently cups the face of dejected Eve, who rests her hand on Mary’s belly. I cried when I saw it, moved by the hope offered to Eve as she endured the shame and consequences of her own choices.

But the marvelous thing about the consolation of Eve is that it was God himself, not Mary, who spoke of the role her gender would play in the ultimate defeat of Satan. She had been entrusted with the fate of humanity once and failed, but God would entrust woman with the fate of humanity yet again. The Child would be born from her womb, nourished at her breast, and sheltered in her arms. This salvation would be demonstrated, according to 1 Timothy, by her perseverance in faith, love, and holiness.

Though some elevate Mary to sinless perfection, the reality is that she simply trusted and obeyed God in her defining moment. A sinner herself, she bore into the world the One who would never sin. He bore her sin and ours. And he bore Eve’s shame and ours. Eve, Mary, and all who believe between and after them are saved through the birth of this child.

This Christmas, as we meditate on the incarnation of Christ, we can marvel at the ways Jesus’ coming was inextricably tied to the woman. While our need for salvation may be tied to Eve, the birth of the Savior is tied to Mary. The shame of Eve finds its ultimate reversal in the dignity of Mary. Wherever Christ’s name is received, woman is saved and her dignity restored, as God himself foretold over Eve.

God’s words over Eve were fulfilled in Mary, and the dignity of woman is in the deliverance of all mankind. The Savior has been born and the battle won. Through faith in him, we are rescued from both the legitimate and illegitimate shame of Eve. We are now heralds and participants of grace. Through the life and death of Christ, we are dignified, restored to glory, and empowered to fulfill God’s purposes for us, just as we were created to be.

Wendy Alsup is a math teacher and author of the forthcoming Is the Bible Good for Women? (Multnomah, March). She blogs at TheologyForWomen.org.

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The Most Uncomfortable Christmas Verse