Most Christians are familiar with the Biblical theme of miraculous conception, if only because Christ himself was ‘conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary’ (Apostles’ Creed). The virginal conception and birth of Christ were miracles. But from the beginning of the Old Testament up to the conception of Christ, including the conception of his immediate forerunner and cousin, St. John the Baptist, the Bible has many other examples of miraculous conceptions and wonderful births. In fact, by the time we come to the annunciation and nativity stories of John Baptist and Christ in the first chapters of Saint Luke’s gospel, the Bible already has well-established conventions for relating the story of a hero’s conception and birth. In the light of this background, the Virgin Birth is highly fitting, if not almost inevitable.
As always in the case of such conventional ‘type scenes’, it is important to understand the elements of the typical version of the story. When a particular account repeats the typical version in its usual form, the reader should recognize the pattern. For the ancient reader or hearer of the story, such repetition of the convention would bring pleasure: the pleasure of a readily recognized literary form. The modern Christian in turn can see in the constant repetition of the convention the inner connection of stories in Scripture. This inner connection reveals both the foreshadowing of Christian realities in the Old Testament and also the divine inspiration of Scripture which unites the whole through common themes and motifs. The Bible reflects upon itself, so that the more we learn about one part or theme in it, the more we will see and understand elsewhere in it.
The Jewish great Jewish literary and Biblical scholar, Robert Alter, lists the following common ‘type-scenes’ in the Bible:
…the annunciation…of the birth of the hero to his barren mother; the encounter with the future betrothed at a well; the epiphany in the field; the initiatory trial; danger in the desert and the discovery of a well or other source of sustenance; the testament of the dying hero.
While Alter’s concern is with the Jewish Bible, Christian readers readily will recognize examples of these scenes also in the New Testament.
One of Alter’s points is that the repetition of a conventional scene, such as that of the marvelous conception and birth of a hero, is also significant when it does not appear in a perfectly typical version with all of the standard elements. When I was a child there was a rather adult television cartoon series called ‘Fractured Fairy Tales’. These cartoons took well-known, very familiar fairy tales, and gave them strange, satirical twists. The ‘fractured’ fairy tales were effective as satire or humor because the conventional versions of the original tales were so very well-known. The viewer’s expectations were set by the convention, and deviations from the convention were then significant. So a conventional scene can be as significant when it is absent, ‘fractured’, or deviated from as when it is present in its typical, standard form. To understand such scenes fully, then, one must be able recognize both the typical pattern and also deviations from it.
Alter, of course, did not discover the convention of annunciation and conception narratives. Alter’s development of the idea of type-scenes, however, is so skillful that it illuminates the narratives in question. Here we will follow the type-scene in question through all of its main Biblical instances.
The convention of the marvelous conception at its fullest includes the following elements: 1. the domestic scene is briefly outlined and includes a woman who cannot conceive a child, either because of general infertility or because she is past child-bearing age or both; 2. the infertile woman has a rival in the person of another wife or concubine belonging to her husband, and this other woman does have children; 3. the infertile wife is beloved of her husband despite her infertility; 4. the infertile wife prays for children; 5. there is an annunciation in which God, directly or through an angel or prophet, foretells conception in the infertile woman; 6. the annunciation may come primarily either to the woman or to the man, but it often comes in a context involving sacrifice or cultic worship; 7. the annunciation elicits a strong reaction, whether of faith and implicit acceptance or of skepticism and doubt; 8. the woman conceives and bears a son, and sometimes then will have further children; 9. God is praised for the birth, often through the significant naming of the son, and sometimes through a hymn; 10. the son turns out to be a hero who will greatly influence Israel’s history and who is dedicated to God in a special way.
These elements can be summarized as: a. the setting of the scene (1-3); b. the annunciation (4-7); c. the birth and its aftermath (8-10). Alter himself elsewhere summarizes the essential ‘narrative motifs of the annunciation type-scene’ as ‘the fact of barrenness, the promise of a son by God or angel or holy man, and the fulfillment of the promise in conception and birth’.[2 The fuller statement of common elements, however, assists comparison among full and partial instances of the type-scene.
The conception and birth of Samuel in I Samuel 1-2 is a fairly full version of this conventional scene.
- The scene is set and Hannah’s infertility described (1:1-2).
- Hannah’s fertile rival is presented (1:3, 6-8).
- Hannah is beloved of Elkanah (1:4-8).
- Hannah prays for a son (1:10-11).
- Eli the priest says, ‘Go in peace: and the God of Israel grant thy petition that thou hast asked of him.’ (1:17) The annunciation, however, in this case is not directly stated. This deviation from convention should be noticed, because, as already stated, such departures from the typical pattern are often significant — they usually signal something important.
- The whole scene occurs in the context of sacrifice at the shrine in Shiloh (1:7-9).
- Hannah reacts to Eli’s blessing and prayer: ‘Let thine handmaid find grace in thy sight. So the woman went her way, and did eat, and her countenance was no more sad.’ (1:18) Just as the ‘annunciation’ by Eli in this case is not as explicit as is typical (5), so too the reaction here in response is less strong and explicit. Still, Hannah clearly is expecting good things to come.
- Hannah conceives and bears a son (1:19-20), and later will have other children (2:21).
- The son is named Samuel, meaning ‘asked of God’: ‘she bare a son, and called his name Samuel, saying, Because I have asked him of the LORD.’ (1:20) Hannah praises God in a long hymn (2:1-10).
- Samuel is a Nazarite (1:11), dedicated to God and his service (1:22, 27-28; 2:11).
The deviation from the norm in the matter of element 5 is explained by Robert Alter as a clue to the future of Samuel and Eli:
Eli the priest, who at first grossly misconstrued what Hannah was doing, prays for or perhaps promises the fulfillment of her prayer, and whatever his purpose, it appears to be sufficient to make Hannah feel reconciled with her present condition. If his statement is meant as a consoling prediction, he is a singularly ignorant conduit of divine intentions, for Hannah has not even told him what she was praying for….The effect of all this is to subvert the priest’s role as intercessor…. This oblique undermining of Eli’s authority is of course essentially relevant to the story of Samuel: the house of Eli will be cut off, his iniquitous sons will be replaced in the sanctuary by Samuel himself, and it will be Samuel himself, not his master Eli, who will hear the voice of God distinctly.
In other words, Eli fails to understand and foretell Samuel’s conception and birth, as he earlier mistook Hannah’s silent prayer as drunkenness (1:12-16). These failures are signs of the doom of Eli and of his unworthy sons (2:12-17, 2:27-36). Samuel is to be the prophet of this doom (chapter 3).
Other example will show the normal pattern, in which there is a very clear prediction of the future birth. For instance, in the annunciations of the births of Samson and Saint John the Baptist an angel speaks quite clearly and plainly of the future. The angel of the LORD says to Samson’s mother, ‘[T]hou shalt conceive, and bear a son.’ (Judges 13:3) And again, Gabriel says to Zacharias, ‘Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son…’ (St. Luke 1:13).
Now that the basic pattern or convention is clear, the many uses of it in the Bible can be considered individually with much profit. The convention first appears in Genesis.
(to be continued)
 The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic, 1981. Page 51.
 The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic, 1981. Page 51.
 The Art of Biblical Narrative. Op. cit. Page 86.