CONCEIVE/CONCEPTION: Harah, to conceive, verb (Strong’s 2029); harah, one who is in conception feminine noun (Strong’s 2030); herohn, a conception, masculine noun (Strong’s 2032).
Sounds like: haw’raw
Today in Canada, and in many other countries around the world, we celebrate Mother’s Day. And to be clear, I don’t believe that motherhood depends on biology. Adoption is a big component of my family and there are many aunts, mother-in-laws, god-mothers, and good friends who have been like a mother to others.
I particularly want to thank my Mum, who introduced me to God and Yeshua, who opened the doors of faith to me, and who helped me explore the story of the Bible. (It probably took me a lot longer than you hoped to fully embrace my faith, but I got there eventually. Your prayers worked, Mum!)
The Bible, being an ancient source, often focused on the biological components of motherhood, including conception, pregnancy, and giving birth.
As for Ephraim, their glory will fly away like a bird—
No birth [mi-ledah], no pregnancy [u-mi-beten], and no conception [u-mey-hera’yown וּמֵהֵרָיֹֽון]!
Today we’re going to look at the root word, harah, meaning “conception”. It shows up all over the Bible:
- Eve conceived Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-2)
- Cain’s wife conceived Enoch (Genesis 4:17)
- Hagar conceived Ishmael (Genesis 16:4-6)
- Sarah conceived Isaac (Genesis 21:2-3)
- Rebekah conceived twins Esau & Jacob (Genesis 25:21)
- Leah conceived Rueben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dinah (Genesis 29:32-35, Genesis 30:17-21)
- Bilhah conceived Dan and Naphtali (Genesis 30:5-7)
- Zilphah had Gad and Asher; (the word conception was not used, but implied) (Genesis 30:10-13)
- Rachel conceived Joseph and, later, Benjamin (Genesis 30:22-24)
- Shua’s daughter (Judah’s wife) conceived Er, Onan, and Shelah (Genesis 38:1-4)
- Tamar conceived twins Perez & Zerah (Genesis 38:18, 27-30)
- A Levite woman (Jochebed) conceived Moses (Exodus 2:1-4)
- Ruth conceived Obed (Ruth 4:13)
- Hannah conceived Samuel, and then 3 sons and 2 daughters (1 Samuel 1:20, 1 Samuel 2:21)
- Bathsheba conceived a child that died in infancy (2 Samuel 11:2-5)
- The Shunammite woman conceived a son (2 Kings 4:17)
- Isaiah’s wife, “the prophetess”, conceived Maher-shalal-khash-baz (Isaiah 8:3)
- Gomer conceived Jezreel, Lo-ruhamah, and Lo-ammi (Hosea 1:3-4, 6, 8)
All these references (with the exception of Zilphah’s children and Rachel’s youngest son) used the word harah (conception). This was the spark that started a new human life. This wasn’t pregnancy and it wasn’t birth, but it was the beginning of the process that would lead to birth. And that’s an important distinction; it’s what we need to consider when we look at the very first instance that this word comes to play in the Bible:
To the woman He said,
“I will greatly multiply Your pain in
childbirth [conception: w-heyrohnek וְהֵֽרֹנֵ֔ךְ]; In pain you shall deliver children.”
Usually our translations are pretty good, but in this instance almost all of them have missed the mark. It’s not “pain in childbirth”, it’s “hard work at conception”. Let’s break it down:
YHWH says He will multiply-multiply (greatly multiply) “its’vohnek”, עִצְּבֹונֵ֣ךְ, meaning your hard-work.
It’s the same word used in Adam’s warning, in the following verse:
“Cursed is the ground because of you; With hard labour [b-itsavohn בְּעִצָּבֹון֙] you shall eat from it All the days of your life.”
Most of our translators use “pain” for the woman and “hard-work” for the man, although it is the same word in Hebrew.
In fact, the word itsavohn comes from the root word, atsav, meaning grief. This was the word used to describe YHWH’s feelings when He saw that all the earth had twisted to evil:
So YHWH was sorry that He had made mankind on the earth, and He was grieved [wai-yit-atsev וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב] in His heart.
This was an emotional pain, not a physical one. The great pain of conception was the fact that toiling for motherhood would be a road that often led to grief.
Over and over we hear of women in the Bible who could not conceive, until God stepped in and opened their wombs.
It goes on to tell us that In labour “etsev” (not pain), you shall give birth to children. Labour/hard work isn’t always painful, although sometimes it is. This same word was used in the following Proverb:
In all labour [etsev עֶ֭צֶב] there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.
Conceiving a child, carrying a child, and giving birth to a child, and raising a child would be hard work, but pain wasn’t the punishment. It just wasn’t going to be easy. We would have to work for the gift of our children. There was profit in this hard labour, because family was, and is, a true treasure.
So let’s look at a more literal, word for word, translation:
To the woman He said,
“I will multiply-multiply your grievously hard work [its’vonek עִצְּבֹונֵ֣ךְ] AND your conception [w-heyrohnek וְהֵֽרֹנֵ֔ךְ]; in hard work [b-etsev בְּעֶ֖צֶב] you shall give birth to children.”
The conceiving of a child would be hard work but God would also multiply-multiply the gift of conception. It’s why Eve acknowledged YHWH when she gave birth to Cain:
Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived [wa-ta-har וַתַּ֙הַר֙] and gave birth to Cain, and she said, “I have obtained a male child with the help of YHWH.”
More likely, the curse of Eve meant that there would be hardship and struggles in conceiving a child and only YHWH could multiply conception. Certainly we see the pain of infertility all over the Tanakh: Sarah (Genesis 11:30), Rebekah (Genesis 25:21), Rachel (Genesis 29:31), Manoah’s wife (Judges 13:2), Hannah (1 Samuel 1:1-2), Elizabeth (Luke 1:36-37). The emotional pain of not being able to conceive a child was, just as the prophecy indicated, a common experience for many many women.
Metaphor: Conceiving Evil
Life and birth is a beautiful gift from God, but the Adversary has a way of taking God’s beautiful gifts and twisting them towards evil. A common metaphor was the idea of conceiving, carrying, and giving birth to evil:
Behold, an evil person is pregnant with injustice, and he conceives [w-harah וְהָרָ֥ה] harm and gives birth to lies.
All three aspects of life-giving show up in this passage: conception, pregnancy, birth. Evil would find its own conception in humans who would incubate it and help it flourish and grow. It was a dangerous kind of conception:
[Eliphaz:] “For the company of the godless is barren, and fire consumes the tents of the corrupt.
They conceive [haroh הָרֹ֣ה] harm and give birth to wrongdoing, and their womb prepares deception.”
Birthing evil and injustice and deceit was a way for the Adversary to tarnish and down-grade life and raise up death and destruction:
Isaiah 59:3-4, 12-13
For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with wrongdoing; your lips have spoken deceit, your tongue mutters wickedness.
No one sues righteously and no one pleads honestly. They trust in confusion and speak lies; they conceive [harow הָרֹ֥ו] trouble and give birth to disaster…
…For our wrongful acts have multiplied before You, and our sins have testified against us; for our wrongful acts are with us, and we know our wrongdoings:
Offending and denying YHWH, and turning away from our God, speaking oppression and revolt, conceiving [horow הֹרֹ֧ו] and uttering lying words from the heart.
Humans were breeding evil, and YHWH would not let it stand. He would find a way snuff out those who delivered death over life:
[YHWH:] “Now I will arise,” says YHWH, “Now I will be exalted, now I will be lifted up.
You have conceived [ta-ha’ru תַּהֲר֥וּ] chaff, you will give birth to stubble; My breath will consume you like a fire.”
Conceiving trouble and harm was a slap to God’s face. It was a way for the forces of darkness to flip the tables. It’s an inversion of its purpose. Birth was intended for a good life, not evil.
Not everyone has experienced a good life, or a good mother. But God is the all-good, all-loving parent (mother and father) who cherishes the lives of every one of His children:
[YHWH:] “Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb?
(Yes) even these may forget, but I will not forget you.”
Pregnant in Prophecy
As a noun, harah has often been translated as “pregnant” or “with child”. More literally it means “one who has conceived”.
One of the most well-known prophecies spoke of a conceived virgin:
Then YHWH spoke again to Ahaz, saying, “Ask for a sign for yourself from YHWH your God; make it deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”
But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, nor will I put YHWH to the test!”
Then he said, “Listen now, house of David! Is it too trivial a thing for you to try the patience of men, that you will try the patience of my God as well? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin will conceive [harah הָרָה֙] and give birth to a son, and she will name Him Immanuel.”
The prophet Isaiah also used conception imagery later in his writings:
As the pregnant [harah הָרָה֙] woman approaches the time to give birth, she writhes and cries out in her labour pains; this is how we were before You, YHWH.
We were pregnant [harinu הָרִ֣ינוּ], we writhed in labour, we gave birth, as it seems, only to wind. We could not accomplish deliverance for the earth, nor were inhabitants of the world born.
Your dead will live; their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, for your dew is as the dew of the dawn, and the earth will give birth to the departed spirits.
Human birthing brings more humans but it does not fix the death problem. Only YHWH could deliver us from death. We are born, not to die, but to live. Through a birth YHWH would bring forth a Son to deliver us from death.
You shall Conceive!
In the Bible there is a repeated theme of destined mothers with hopeful conceptions:
Genesis 16:11, 13a
The angel of YHWH said to her (Hagar) further,
“Behold, you are pregnant [one who is conceived: harah הָרָ֖ה], and you will give birth to a son; and you shall name him Ishmael, because YHWH has heard your affliction…
…Then she called the name of YHWH who spoke to her, “You are a God who sees me”.
Hagar was an Egyptian slave to Sarah and Abraham. Her life was not easy. She was used to bring an heir to Abraham and she was rejected and abused by Sarah out of jealousy. Although she was Egyptian by heritage, she adopted YHWH as her God, and she felt loved and seen by Him. This announcement, made to her by the angel of YHWH, sounds very familiar to two other stories in the Bible:
And there was a man of Zorah, of the family of the Danites, whose name was Manoah; and his wife was infertile and had not given birth to any children.
Then the angel of YHWH appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold now, you are infertile and have not given birth; but you will conceive [w-harit וְהָרִ֖ית] and give birth to a son. And now, be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, nor eat any unclean thing. For behold, you will conceive [harah הָרָ֜ה] and give birth to a son, and no razor shall come upon his head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb; and he will begin to save Israel from the hands of the Philistines.”
“You shall conceive” is the most amazing news given to someone who cannot conceive! And over and over we read about women who suffered with infertility who suddenly found themselves with child, because of God’s compassion for them.
In the story of Yeshua’s birth, God stepped up the miracle. Mary was not able to conceive, not because of infertility but because she had not yet been with a man. That little detail wouldn’t stop God, the Creator of the Universe, from making conception happen:
Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.”
But she was very perplexed at this statement, and was pondering what kind of greeting this was. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive [Greek: syllempse] in your womb and give birth to a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”
But Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; for that reason also the holy Child will be called the Son of God.
And behold, even your relative Elizabeth herself has conceived [syneilephen] a son in her old age, and she who was called infertile is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
For YHWH, the Creator of the Universe, nothing is impossible. He would create conception in the womb of Mary to bring the great Deliverer, the Redeemer, the Saviour. This child would reverse the curse. He would pay the entrance fee back into the Garden. No longer would mothers suffer the loss of children or the stigma of infertility. Death no longer had a hold on anyone, from the tiniest infant to the oldest soul. God makes all things possible!
The Bible is a narrative of love that outlines YHWH’s plan to save us. He wisely chose mothers to be a big part of that story because nothing says love, comfort, kindness, strength and compassion like a good mother. I must remember to thank God, everyday, for mine.
Next week: DOOR