Human Birth Accounts in the Hebrew Bible

As mentioned in the OP, many of the stories in Genesis are not historical and were written to explain the geopolitics of the day.

A fantastic example of this is in the story of Jacob and Esau grappling for first birth.

(1) Medically, two babies cannot grapple to come out first in a narrow birth canal. Indeed, they almost always not born hands first

Hands first – Babies are generally born head first (cephalic presentation), with the baby’s hands positioned alongside its body, pressed in by the birth canal, toward the direction of its legs. Less common are the breech presentations (3-4%).[3] In rare cases (0.1% incidence), an arm or both arms can present together with the head or buttocks (compound presentation). But, to the best of my knowledge, babies never emerge with their arms extended forwards.

(2) The author of the story of Jacob and Esau, and Zerah and Peretz was almost certainly male, familiar with animal birth but not human birth ;

The male authors of these passages assumed that human children were born in the same way as farm animals—births that they would have seen. In standard births of cows, sheep, and goats, as well as horses, camels, and donkeys, the hooves (the tips of the forelegs) are the first parts of the body to emerge from the womb. The hooves precede the tip of the newborn animal’s nose and its mouth, which are thrust forward by the pressure of the birth canal.[13]

In difficult births, when the animal refuses to come out of the womb, a farmer will tie a rope around the forelegs, which are sticking out, and pull the animal out. The pulling action brings the forelegs out first, while the head retreats somewhat, emerging from the birth canal only after the legs have fully emerged. Ancient farmers and shepherds likely employed similar methods to assist an animal with a difficult birth, and this would have further reinforced their conceptions about the sequence in which limbs emerged during birth.

If you are unfamiliar with the story of Zerah and Peretz, here it is

Gen 38:27 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twins in her womb! 38:28 While she was in labor, one of them put out his hand , and the midwife tied a crimson thread on that hand, to signify: This one came out first. 38:29 But just then he drew back his hand , and out came his brother; and she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” So he was named Perez. 38:30 Afterward his brother came out, on whose hand was the crimson thread; he was named Zerah.

So.

Do you believe that during the birth of Zerah and Peretz,

(1) Zerah stuck his hand out first

(2) Crimson thread was stuck around the hand (like an animal to assist birth)

(3) That Peretz and Zerah then swapped places in the birth canal such that Peretz ended up being born first???

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I’m more interested in this argument about the accuracy of birth narratives in the Bible. I don’t think it’s often discussed even among creationists. What do those who have medical knowledge think? @swamidass and @jongarvey maybe?

I am also an MD.

To be able to present a head, or an arm instead, would require the foetus to be sufficiently engaged to be able to present any limb.

Station

During the last month, your doctor will estimate how far the baby’s head has moved down into (engaged) the pelvis. This is measured in “stations.” A baby is at –3 station when the head is above the pelvis and at 0 station when the head is at the bottom of the pelvis (fully engaged). The baby is at +3 station when the head is beginning to emerge from the birth canal (crowning).

Once sufficiently engaged during birth, one really cannot disengage and allow another to be born first imho.

But yes, any other MDs feel free to comment, or if anyone can find an example where a crowning twin was not the one born first, I’d be extremely interested.

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I was just reading about this and when there a transverse lie position (across the uterus) an arm can fall through. Thus, no child would be crowning. My sister had twins. I vaguely recall her talking about them wrestling. So if one moved the other out of the transverse lie position, I don’t see how it’s not possible.

A shoulder presentation at childbirth is an emergency that today would be an indication for a caesarean.

Prior to contractions, we would manipulate the baby into a longitudinal lie (or do a caesarean if it is late) - obviously, this would be done way before crowning.

But once contractions start with a baby in shoulder presentation, prognosis is poor. A baby just cannot come out undamaged in such a position.

If a patient is allowed to progress in labour with a neglected or unrecognized transverse lie, one of the following may occur:

  • Impaction:
    • This is the usual and most common outcome.
    • The lower uterine segment thins and ultimately ruptures.
    • The foetus becomes hyperflexed, placental circulation is impaired, cord is prolapsed and compressed leading to foetal asphyxia and death.
  • Spontaneous rectification:
    • Rarely the foetal lie may be corrected by the splinting effect of the contracted uterine muscles so that the head presents.
  • Spontaneous version:
    • Rarely, by similar process the breech may come to present.
  • Spontaneous expulsion:
    • Very rarely, if the foetus is very small or dead and macerated, the shoulder may be forced through the pelvis followed by the head and trunk.
  • Spontaneous evolution:
    • Very rarely, the head is retained above the pelvic brim, the neck greatly elongates, the breech descends followed by the trunk and the after -coming head, i.e. spontaneous version occurs in the pelvic cavity.

TL;DR - if Jacob/Esau and Zerah/Peretz were at shoulder presentation when mother in contracting and delivery, the most likely result is impaction resulting in foetal asphyxia and death.

Keep in mind that for obvious reasons, baby cannot present a arm without the membrane having ruptured and without sufficient engagement.

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Well that’s why Perertz would have to push his brother out of the way.

In other fun facts biblical pregnancy facts when I was about 5 months pregnant, maybe almost 6, with my second son I had overloaded the sink with clean dishes. A pizza stone fell out and broke and made a really loud noise. My son jumped in my womb. It was crazy. Then I realized that Elizabeth was at the right stage for John to leap in her womb because he was large enough for her to definitely feel the movement, but much older and he wouldn’t have had room to leap.

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Do you think a foetus CAN push another foetus to any significant extent?

As a recent dad of a 11 week old daughter, even now I would think she lacks the strength and coordination to push another out of the way.

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@swamidass it looks like the thread got diverted into two.

Gen 25:24 When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25:25 The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau. 25:26 Then his brother emerged, and his hand had hold on Esau’s heel; so he (SP: they) named him Jacob….

So you believe Jacob was born with his hand grasping Esau’s heel?

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Who claimed that they grappled? Rather, it is that they were moving around a lot in the womb (Genesis 25), and this raised questions that led to prophecy about them.

The text says:

After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob.[c] Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them.

I’m curuious what @deuteroKJ says, but that is sufficient ambiguous to not necessarily mean that Jacob was delivered with his arm extended and grasping Esau.

Regardless, it is possible for a baby to present an arm first. It is very dangerous, because it often leads to the baby getting stuck, which is a medical emergency. Still, it is possible to deliver a baby like this. Though, I doubt that arm is grasping the heal of the other baby while the delivery is happening.

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Yes, they can. There is a phase where they are pretty close to one another and very active.

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What about the story of Zerah and Peretz?

Gen 38:27 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twins in her womb! 38:28 While she was in labor, one of them put out his hand , and the midwife tied a crimson thread on that hand, to signify: This one came out first. 38:29 But just then he drew back his hand , and out came his brother; and she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” So he was named Perez. 38:30 Afterward his brother came out, on whose hand was the crimson thread; he was named Zerah.

Do you believe that during the birth of Zerah and Peretz,

(1) Zerah stuck his hand out first

(2) Crimson thread was stuck around the hand

(3) That Peretz and Zerah then swapped places in the birth canal such that Peretz ended up being born first???

In addition, have we got any modern day examples of something similar?

A parent, with their story of their twins “being born just like Jacob and Esau” or “just like Peretz and Zerah”!

Regarding “grappling”, it seems clear that the author depicts Jacob grasping Esau’s heel to portray Jacob and Esau competing to be born first, foreshadowing later on the dispute for the firstborn blessing (and in turn, depicting the current geopolitical relationship between Israel and Edom at the author’s time).

The bible itself also describes their prenatal struggle thus

“And the children struggled together within her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to enquire of the LORD. And the LORD said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:22–23)

It seems like the author would otherwise be quite anthropomorphising foetuses in utero, to describe them as struggling before they were even born! (Unless, like I said, the author wrote the birth tale for another reason - to describe the relationship between Edom and Israel).

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The author of Genesis 25:22 did.

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2 posts were split to a new topic: Vincent Torley on the Virgin Birth

I affirm what the text says, but have not really studied to know precisely what the text says! I’m curious to learn from the exegetes on this one.

In v. 22. “struggle together” (with most EVs) is probably the best translation, but leaves some wiggle room on interpretation. The root means “crush,” and is often something violent and oppressive. But the form in v. 22 is unique (called a Hitpolel, which suggests something reflexive). NIV’s “jostled each other” might be a bit weak, but still gets at a basic meaning. But clearly the author envisions this (probably natural) “struggle” is prophetic for the later (violent) struggle. This is consistent with lots of things in Genesis. (What really happened goes back to other discussions on historical precision. I don’t see why we need to assume some tight mapping; the story is meant to speak to later issues and generations.)

Because of my relative nonchalance, what’s really happening in v. 26 seems like not a big deal. But since you asked: the verb “grasp” is a participle, suggesting ongoing action (“grasping”). But the relative timing (i.e., when did he begin to grasp the heel is not certain). KJV suggests that the grasping came post-birth (but ignores the participle), but most EVs suggest the grasping is happening at the time of birth (e.g., “came out with his hand grasping”). The latter is an interpretation, but in balance probably makes most sense (not medically, but exegetically). But I really don’t know what the fuss is all about (I don’t expect precision in these types of stories. That’s not their objective).

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Even if we accept that the story is not precise, assuming we take the narrative to be “historical” in the sense of “being based on actual historical figures and events, even if not precise” (in this case, the historical figures being Jacob and Esau and their parents), do you think that there had to be a “real event” behind the descriptions of Jacob and Esau struggling before birth? For example, is it “precise enough” if Rebekah actually felt some palpitations in her womb during the pregnancy, or does there have to be some real-life equivalent of one twin grasping the heel of the other?

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It’s a good question, and I haven’t thought enough about it at this level. From a conservative stance, the technically answer is: it depends on the author’s intent. Then one would need to decide if historicity (as opposed to, e.g., mere etiology) is the intent. My personal presupposition is to assume something historical, though I’m open to being convinced otherwise. But that “something historical” could be as simple as a faint memory of a troubling pregnancy and birth. Even one wants some type of heel grasping, this could’ve been post-birth and retrojected back into the birthing story (I’m thinking out loud here).

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I think the quote is:

It is describing the situation of her kids moving around a ton, perhaps more than usual, and perhaps she did not even know she had twins yet.

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Yep, and when reading the rest of the bible’s comments on the whole thing, it is actually obvious that they are contending. The word “grappled” is perfect.

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