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Women & Barrenness in the Bible

Updated
Jan 6, 2024 2:57 PM
Tags
WomenElizabethSarahHannahRachelMiracle BirthTamar of Genesis
Bible References

Genesis 17; 25; 30; 38; Judges 13; 1 Samuel 1; 2 Kings 4; Luke 1

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Done
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Table of Contents

Introduction

Now that I’m 35, I’ve seen a lot I didn’t expect to see concerning childbirth. As a child, I took it for granted that people have been having babies since the beginning. It seems like a simple bodily function that just happens. However, majority of my married friends have experienced infertility and miscarriages. I don’t know if its something that is occurring more frequently today or if it’s just less taboo to discuss it in modern times. Nonetheless, it made me stop to think of how infertility is discussed Biblically.

Shame, Disappointment, and Societal Expectations

In olden times, women who couldn’t have children were referred to as barren. Often the blame of childlessness was placed on the woman, but we know that infertility can be the fault of the man too. Regardless, children were (and in many cultures still are) seen as a blessing, leaving the implication that lack of children is a curse. For most of history people have assumed the sole purpose of women was to bear children; we see this even today in the discourse on child-free women. Whether a woman has chosen not to have children or is simply unable to have children, people are often very critical. I’ve seen social media posts and “spiritual” books discussing the short comings of women as the reason why they are struggling to conceive. Even in 2023, people follow the thought pattern that a woman who cannot conceive is curse and is responsible for her infertility.[1][2]

Biblical Examples

The Bible seems to say something different, though. There are seven women in the Bible who suffer from infertility and almost all of them give birth to sons who are extremely important.

The first woman we see who struggles to conceive is Sarah, wife of Abraham. Sarah is so racked with guilt and disappointment at her inability to provide Abraham with an heir that she tells him to sleep with another woman! Sarah fully accepts her lot as a barren woman to the point that she laughs when God promises to grant her a child. Yet, even in her disbelief, she is granted a son and that son is one of the progenitors of the nation of Israel.

Sarah’s daughter-in-law, Rebekah, also experiences difficulty conceiving children. Isaac, the miracle child of Sarah, prays on behalf of his wife. Notice that he doesn’t cast her aside or demean her. In fact, you will see a running pattern of the women being more distraught about the lack of children than the men. YHWH hears Isaac’s prayers and grants Rebekah a set of twin boys. These boys become the fathers of two nations: Israel and Edom.

Rebekah’s daughter-in-law, Rachel, suffers the same fate as the women before her. Despite being unable to conceive, her husband still views her as the favored wife. She behaves similarly to Sarah, giving her husband permission to sleep with another woman to receive children, but eventually she is granted two sons of her own. One of her sons is the famous Joseph, who saves his brethren through his ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.

👩🏾 Woman
👶🏾 Child(ren)
📔 Bible References
Sarah
Isaac
Genesis 17
Rebekah
Jacob & Esau
Genesis 25
Rachel
Joseph & Benjamin
Genesis 30
Tamar
Pherez and Zereah
Genesis 38
Manoah’s wife
Samson
Judges 13
Hannah
Samuel
1 Samuel 1
Shunammite Woman
2 Kings 4
Elizabeth
John the Baptist
Luke 1
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I find a lot of sources that say there are exactly 7 barren women discussed in the Bible, however I thought of 8, with 7 being from the Old Testament.

Skipping a generation, we see infertility in Tamar, who has married Judah, one of the sons of Jacob. Tamar’s first husband dies before they conceive a child—whether this evidence of barrenness or simply a short marriage is unknown. Her second husband refuses to give her a child and purposefully does not cause her to become pregnant. When that husband is punished by God, Judah refuses to give his third son to Tamar as a husband and she is stuck in widowhood. Tamar uses cunning to trick Judah into sleeping with her and becomes pregnant with twins which give us the Tribe of Judah (and thus famous kings like Solomon and David).

Later in the Old Testament we meet an unnamed woman who is married to Manoah. She is visited by God, instructed to follow a particular diet, and promised a son. She becomes the mother of Samson. Samson is a major figure in Israelite history and one of the few Nazarites we are told about in the text. He is almost like a super hero, with great strength and might as a warrior.

In addition to the famed Samson, Samuel the last Judge of Israel was also born to a mother who suffered from Infertility. Hannah was the second wife, much like Rachel, and was despairing about her lack of children. She prayed so hard in the Temple that the priest thought she was drunk! When God grants her desires, she dedicates her son back to God and has him raised in the Temple. Samuel goes on to be a gifted spiritual advisor to kingdom and anoints both Saul and David as king.

In 2 Kings 4, we meet another unnamed woman who is often referred to as the Shunammite Woman. She provides great hospitality to Elisha, who rewards her by promising her a son. At some point in the child’s youth, he hits his head and dies. The woman sends for Elisha who then resurrects him from the dead. Although the names of both the mother and son are lost to us, they are used to show the miracles God can perform even through his servants who are mere mortal men.

The final barren woman I can think of is Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. Once again we have a woman who is unable to conceive until YHWH steps in and the child born is of great importance.

References and Footnotes

  1. Jong Kuk Nam. “Social Perception of Infertility and Its Treatment in Late Medieval Italy: Margherita Datini, an Italian Merchant’s Wife”. Uisahak. December 2016; 25(3):519-556; visited December 2023
  2. Barrenness and Fertility”. Jewish Virtual Library. 2008; visited December 2023

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