Barrenness in the Bible is not the same as what most modern Western people understand as “infertility.” While modern medicine has made it possible to recognize infertility as a medical problem, often with identifiable causes and treatments, the main remedy for barrenness in the Bible was prayer and divine intercession. Even today, despite advances in the diagnosis and treatment of infertility, many individuals and communities still hold beliefs about barrenness that are similar to those expressed in the Bible.
How did the women and men of the Bible understand barrenness?
The Bible presents all forms of fertility as a gift from God. Pregnancies occur when Yahweh “remembers” women and “opens their wombs.” Biblical women who experience periods of barrenness often understand their inability to conceive as a divine withholding of blessing, a punishment, or even a curse. Sarah understands her barrenness to be the result of God withholding the gift of pregnancy: “Yahweh has prevented me from bearing children” (Gen 16:2; see also Gen 30:2). Later, during Sarah’s strange sojourn in the house of King Abimelech, Yahweh is said to have “closed fast all the wombs of the house of Abimelech” as punishment for Abimelech’s taking Sarah into his house (Gen 20:18). Michal, the daughter of Saul and wife of King David, offended David when she rebuked him for dancing naked before the ark of Yahweh. When the narrator closes Michal’s story with the notification that “Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death,” a reader could conclude that her barrenness is a divine punishment or curse. In an oracle of condemnation against Israel, the prophet Hosea announces, “the days of punishment have come” such that Yahweh will guarantee that Ephraim as a nation experiences “no birth, no pregnancy, no conception” (Hos 9:7, Hos 11).
A notification of a woman’s barrenness can also serve as a harbinger of the miraculous birth of a divinely chosen male leader. The foundational mothers of ancient Israel—Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel—were all described as barren, and each became pregnant through divine intervention. In the Rachel and Leah saga, the narrator tells us “When Yahweh saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (Gen 29:31). He later “remembers” Rachel and “opens her womb,” allowing her to conceive and bear her son Joseph (Gen 30:22-24). The sons of once-barren matriarchs—Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—became the chosen sons in their fathers’ houses and the foundational ancestors of the nation of Israel. We also find barrenness as a theme in the stories of the unnamed mother of Samson, Hannah the mother of Samuel, and Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist. The sons born to these women were singled out as special; they were Nazirites, priests, or heralds of the future messiah. In each of these stories, barrenness serves a literary and theological purpose, heightening the tension around a divine promise of fertility and marking a child for divinely ordained leadership.
Socially, barrenness as presented in several biblical stories caused a woman to experience reproach and even a form of social death. Sarah and Rachel found barrenness so stigmatizing that each offered her handmaid as a surrogate to her husband in the hopes that she might be built up through a son born through surrogacy. Rachel understood conception as her only path toward life, crying out to her husband, “Give me children, or I shall die!” When she finally bore Joseph, her hard-won first son, she proclaims, “God has taken away my reproach” (Gen 30:1, Gen 23). Similarly, when Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, conceived despite being old and barren, she announced, the Lord “has taken away the disgrace that I have endured among my people” (Luke 1:7, Luke 1:25).
Each of these biblical responses to a woman’s experience of barrenness attests to the ancient world’s lack of understanding of issues related to infertility. In the absence of a modern scientific understanding of reproductive biology, people who experienced infertility in biblical times were left to intuit a divine lack of attention, a curse, or a punishment that could only be reversed through fervent prayer. Because knowledge of and access to medical advances are not universally available today, many of these biblical beliefs about a divine cause of infertility persist.
Cynthia R. Chapman
Adelia A. F. Johnston and Harry Thomas Frank Professor of Religion, Oberlin College
Cynthia R. Chapman is the Adelia A. F. Johnston and Harry Thomas Frank Professor of Religion at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. She is the author of The House of the Mother: The Social Roles of Maternal Kin in Biblical Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).