In preparing for a new session that I will be teaching in our pre-field training, I have been struck by how prominent the theme of offspring is in the Scriptures. Barry Danylak in his book, A Biblical Theology of Singleness does a great job of showing how this motif is developed throughout the biblical revelation.
Beginning with God’s command to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28) and continuing with God’s promises to Abram that his offspring would be like the dust of the earth (Gen 13:16) and the blessings of no childlessness in the Mosaic covenant (Deut 7:14, 28:11), it is clear that children were the marks of God’s blessing in the Old Testament. Offspring carried on your name and gave you some hope for life after death. To be without children meant not experiencing God’s blessing and having no hope for the future.
But in the prophets, we see a new idea emerging, that of spiritual offspring. The suffering servant of Isaiah 53 will be “cut off from the land of the living” and yet he will see his offspring (Is 53:8-10). Then in the very next chapter, we read that the barren woman should burst into song and shout for joy because she will have more children than married women with natural offspring (Is 54:1). Her offspring will be so many that they will possess the nations (Is 54:3). This is a different understanding of offspring, one that does not depend on the biological process of reproduction.
This new understanding comes into full bloom in the New Testament, where marriage and physical children become secondary to the theme of spiritual children. Jesus talks about himself as the one who sows the good seed (Matt 13:37). (The word “seed” in the Greek is also translated “offspring” or “children” in other texts.) In John 12:24, Jesus is the seed that dies and produces many seeds. Then in John 15, he refers to himself as the Vine that enables the branches to bear much fruit (John 15:5, 8).
Yet Jesus is single. He has no physical offspring, yet is passionate to have descendants, to see himself be reproduced in the lives of his disciples. This desire to bear fruit or spiritual offspring is passed on to us in the Great Commission. The Pauline epistles are filled with references to Paul’s children, those whom he had brought to faith in Christ, and continued to passionately disciple. His great desire to see them be formed in the image of Christ is eloquently expressed in a number of passages.
My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!
Gal. 4:19–20, NIV
He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.
Col 1:28–29, NIV.
With this motif of offspring in my mind, I was recently struck in my OT Bible reading by the passionate desire that Hannah, the mother of Samuel had for offspring. Robert Bergen in his commentary on 1-2 Samuel says that Hannah is portrayed as an exceptionally spiritually-mature woman.
Hannah is portrayed as the most pious woman in the Old Testament. Here she is shown going up to the Lord’s house; no other woman in the Old Testament is mentioned doing this. In addition, Hannah is the only woman shown making and fulfilling a vow to the Lord; she is also the only woman who is specifically said to pray (Hb. pll; 1:10, 12, 26–27; 2:1); her prayer is also among the longest recorded in the Old Testament. Furthermore, her prayer includes the most recorded utterances of Yahweh’s name by a woman (eighteen). She is shown avoiding the faults of the first infertile covenant woman by seeking help from Yahweh rather than pursuing crafty schemes (cf. Gen 16:2).
Robert D. Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, The New American Commentary, 7:67.
Yet despite her spiritual maturity, or maybe because of it, she will not be satisfied or content unless she has a child. She prays and fasts for this desire to be granted by the Lord, even to the point of drawing embarrassing attention to herself. She has no understanding of the possibility under the future new covenant of having spiritual offspring, so she desperately pursues God’s blessing as revealed in the old covenant. Once she has received the promise of a child, she walks forward in full faith that this will happen.
I am challenged by Hannah’s example and wish I was more like her. I want to have more of the same desperate desire to have offspring, to disciple others so that they are formed into the image of Christ. Do I pray and fast toward this end? Or do I resign myself to being content with the work I have to do, hoping that others will “make disciples”? In order to engage the least reached, we will need more people who are desperate to bear spiritual offspring for the Master.
In a sense, all those whom we disciple are like Samuel. We need to give them all back to the Lord to serve him. We pray that some of them will end up going to even more unreached peoples, even though we realize that like Hannah, we may not see them very often. But our joy will multiply as these, our new brothers and sisters, will themselves go on to bear offspring, to make disciples bearing the image of our Lord.