Let's do a little survey of certain important women in the Old Testament. How many verses does the writer use to introduce them before discussing their dramatic dilemma?
- Sarah (formerly Sarai) the wife of Abraham (formerly Abram) is mentioned several times in the Book of Genesis before she is told that she will conceive and bear a son. Her husband, Abraham, is declared by God to be the father of many nations. Sarah, of course, becomes the mother of Isaac.
- In Judges, chapter 13, we are introduced to the wife of a man named Manoah, of the tribe of Dan. We are told an angel appears twice to this woman, who happens to be barren, like Sarah. The wife of Manoah becomes the mother of Samson.
- In 1st Samuel, chapter 1, we are introduced to one of the wives of Elkanah, of the tribe of Joseph via Ephraim. This wife's name is Hannah. Unlike Sarah and the wife of Manoah, Hannah is not the recipient of an angelic announcement. Rather, she learns of her divine favor through the prophet Eli. She, too, is barren, but because of God's favor, she gives birth to Samuel. Prior to the prophesy, we are given enough of her story that we sense we know her. We don't know as much about her as we do about Sarah, but we know more about her than we do of Manoah's wife.
These three women, in some sense, share the same story, which can be summarized as follows:
- Each woman is the wife of a godly man, and she herself is possessed of considerable virtue (though we may sense flaws in Sarah, we also recognize her virtue).
- Each woman is initially barren, through no evident fault of her own or of her husband.
- Each woman is favored in a special way by God.
- Each woman receives a prophetic announcement of the birth of a son.
- Each gives birth to an only son who is dedicated to God.
We may note, in passing, that the more beloved wife of Jacob, named Rachel, is initially barren [cf. Gen 29:31]. Rachel has two sons by Jacob: Joseph and Benjamin. Joseph leads his father and brothers into Egypt (where, based on a vision in a dream given to Pharaoh and Joseph's inspired interpretation of that vision, the Pharaoh commissions Joseph to manage the harvests form seven years of plenty in order to survive seven years of famine) to escape the famine that had spread throughout Egypt and Canaan.
The sons of these three women appear to have some special symbolic significance.
The son of Sarah, of course, is Isaac, who, as the only son of the father of many nations, is offered to God by Abraham in sacrifice on an altar. God stops the sacrifice from taking place, however, because it is his intent to provide the son of sacrifice. Abraham, it seems, is a mirror of God, the Father, while Isaac becomes a type of Christ.
The son of the wife of Manoah, Samson, is dedicated to God from birth and is given a charism of great strength, a charism which seems to attach to him via his long locks of hair. We may be able so see in this image a metaphor for the tassels on the cloak of Christ, by which (through touching) many people are healed. Thus, the physical strength of Samson seems to be a type of the spiritual strength of Christ.
The son of Hannah is Samuel who, as a child, hears God, and who anoints the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David. It may also be noteworthy that the spirit of Samuel is seemingly is brought back from the grave through the machinations of the witch of Endor and under the instigation of the hapless Saul. Samuel is thus judge, prophet and even, to some extent, priest and, however briefly and illicitly, he returns from the grave (or so it seems).
Since these sons appear singularly to be a type of Christ, we sense that the mothers are a type of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
What can be learned from these types of Mary?
- It seems likely that their barrenness represents something. Mary is not barren. Rather, she is a virgin. Yet, if Mary had been entered by Joseph, her son (or daughter) would have been no one special. In that sense, alone, Mary would be considered barren. This barrenness is a reflection of the impotency of the human race regarding its redemption. Without God's special favor, Mary, with or without Joseph's husbandly cooperation, would be powerless to save humanity. In that sense, alone, she is barren.
- Each of the three women gives birth to an only child who is a son, a son who is dedicated to God and who plays a special role in God's providence. Obviously, Jesus is the superlative of this template. Indeed, Jesus, in some sense, is a composite, and then some, of these prior sons. Like Isaac, Jesus is placed on an altar of sacrifice. Unlike Isaac, that sacrifice is fulfilled. Like Samson, Jesus has miraculous strength. Unlike Samson, Jesus' strength is spiritual. Like Samuel, Jesus is judge, prophet and priest and he comes back from the dead. Unlike the case of Samuel, Jesus' return from the dead is blessed by God, is both physical and spiritual, and is utterly decisive for humanity. And, Jesus' munus triplex is superlative.
Thus, our only introduction to Mary before she is visited by the Angel Gabriel is found in Luke 3:26-27:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David;
and the virgin's name was Mary.
The contrast of brevity with the introductions to Sarah, the wife of Manoah and Hannah is noteworthy. in a deeper sense, however, the lives of Sarah, the wife of Manoah and Hannah are, themselves, introductions to Mary. Furthermore, we are introduced obliquely to Mary in Genesis 3:15, when God rebukes the serpent who, through sowing seeds of temptation, precipitates the fall of humanity.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your seed and her seed;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.
In some sense, then, Mary is the woman who needs no introduction, precisely because the Old Testament is her introduction.