Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness

Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness

by Candida R. Moss, Joel S. Baden


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691164830
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/21/2015
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 5.60(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Candida R. Moss is professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Ancient Christian Martyrdom: Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions, among other books. Joel S. Baden is professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School. His books include The Composition of the Pentateuch.

Read an Excerpt

Reconceiving Infertility

Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness

By Candida R. Moss, Joel S. Baden


Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-7356-2


The Matriarchs as Models

In the Israelite hill country, toward the beginning of the eleventh century BCE, there lived a woman named Hannah. Though her name meant "grace" or "favor," she hardly considered herself either graced or favored. Her husband Elkanah loved her, to be sure, but she was childless. To make matters worse, Elkanah had another wife, common enough in those days: a woman named Peninnah, who had given birth to many children, sons and daughters. Living under one roof with her husband, her husband's other wife, and her husband's other wife's children, Hannah would have been reminded of her unhappy situation almost every moment of every day. But it was particularly evident during the family's annual pilgrimage to the great sanctuary of Shiloh, the home of the revered Ark of the Covenant, the place where Israel could communicate most directly with its God.

Every year, Elkanah would take his household to Shiloh to offer thanks for their mutual well-being, by sacrificing an animal from his herd or his flock, burning its innards on the altar, donating some of its meat to the local priests, and consuming the remainder of the animal with his family in a rare bountiful feast. Hannah may well have wondered what well-being she had to be thankful for, given her daily misery. Her feelings would only have been compounded by the traditional practice at the feast itself: as Elkanah divided up the meat among his household, Hannah's childless solitude was made tangibly manifest, as Peninnah received multiple portions for herself and her children while Hannah was given one lonely portion, to be shared with no one.

The mere objective facts of her life were no doubt hard enough. But, adding insult to injury, Peninnah could not refrain from taunting Hannah over the fact that Hannah's barren state was God's doing. Said in God's holiest sanctuary, this accusation had real force behind it. Elkanah attempted to soothe Hannah: "Why are you so sad? Am I not dearer to you than ten sons?" (1 Sam 1:8). Yet for Hannah, even this question must have cut deeply — after all, her rival Peninnah had both Elkanah and children; she wasn't forced to choose. And with Peninnah's taunt ringing in her ears, Hannah had every right to wonder if there wasn't some truth to it: what good would Elkanah's love be — what good is anything — if God himself had turned against her?

Of the five narratives of barren women in the Hebrew Bible — the others being the matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel and the unnamed mother of Samson — the story of Hannah is by far the most fully rendered. And yet it is told in a mere eight verses at the beginning of 1 Samuel. We know of Hannah's internal torments only from later in the chapter, from the story of her heartfelt prayer, where we are told that she is "wretched," that she lives in "suffering," that she is "a very unhappy woman," that she experiences "anguish and distress" (1 Sam 1:10–16). We know, then, how Hannah feels about her infertility, all of which is eminently understandable. But the description at the beginning of the chapter leaves much unsaid, and many questions unanswered.

The narrator gives us virtually no information about Hannah: where she comes from, what she looks like, who she is as a person — the only description we are given is that she has no children. When we turn to the other barren women in the Hebrew Bible, we find the same descriptive brevity at work, with only minor variations. In Genesis 11, we learn that Abraham has taken a wife named Sarah, of whom we are told immediately and without any further introduction that she "was barren; she had no child" (Gen 11:30). Rebekah enters the scene in Genesis 24, where she proves herself to be generous and worthy; but in the next chapter, with little warning and less detail, we hear that Isaac has to plead with God on her behalf "because she was barren" (Gen 25:21), her infertile state being relegated to a mere subordinate clause. As with Hannah, we know that Rachel is loved by her husband Jacob, who spent fourteen years working to marry her; yet she speaks not a single word in the narrative of those years. Instead, immediately after she has finally married Jacob, we learn from the narrator that "Rachel was barren" (Gen 29:31). And the poor mother of Samson — she is not even given a name, but is known to us only as the wife of Manoah, introduced in the text thusly: "His wife was barren and had borne no children" (Judg 13:2).

The exclusive quality of infertility — the sense that it is the only aspect of these women that is worth mentioning — is not limited only to the narratorial voice. Not only is infertility Hannah's defining descriptive feature, it also seems to be all anyone can speak to her about. Before she bears Samuel, every word Hannah speaks, in her prayer and her dialogue with the priest Eli, is related to her distress. Her rival, Peninnah, taunts her about her infertility. The only words Elkanah speaks to her are an attempt to relieve her sorrow over having no offspring. So too with Sarah: though almost entirely silent in the biblical text before giving birth to Isaac, when she does speak it is either to Abraham, to complain about her infertile status when compared to her handmaid Hagar, or to herself, doubting God's ability to make her pregnant (and then to God, trying to deny her doubts). Rachel's first words, addressed to Jacob, are "Give me children, or I shall die" (Gen 30:1). When she next speaks it is to her sister Leah, requesting some of the mandrakes that Leah's son Reuben had found (30:14). The mandrake is no ordinary plant. It was considered to have potent aphrodisiacal properties — the Hebrew word for mandrake comes from the same root as the word for "beloved," and the plant appears only twice in the Hebrew Bible, here in Genesis and in the highly sexually charged Song of Songs. When Rachel requests the mandrakes, she is requesting them as a means of increasing her fertility; having perhaps exhausted other options, she is turning in desperation to the world of dietary medicine. The laser-like focus on each woman's infertility, to the exclusion of nearly every other aspect of her identity, means that infertility is effectively her identity. If women in the ancient world were reduced to vessels for childbearing, barren women were just fragile shells, empty of consequence.

All of these stories, all of these lives, zero in on one salient characteristic, then leave us grasping for explanations. No explicit interpretation of this infertility is provided. By leaving unspoken the full meaning of this bald description — "she was barren" — the text allows, even invites, its readers to project onto and into the story their own understandings. In many ways, this remains the experience of infertility even to the present: so often no more than simply a diagnosis, without any greater explanatory power. The meaning of infertility, the why to its what, is something medicine is unequipped to provide. It is, rather, culturally dependent. The fundamental questions — How do we define infertility? Why does it occur? What does it signify? — are answered differently in different times and places. Because so many of our modern notions come from the Bible, what concerns us here is how they would have been answered in biblical times. That is to say, how would Hannah have understood and experienced her barrenness? And how can a greater appreciation of ancient ideas about infertility lead us to reassess some of our own ideas?


To fully grasp the narratives of these infertile biblical women, we need to ask some very basic questions, questions that no ancient readers would need to ask, for they would already know the answers intuitively, and questions that few modern readers tend to ask, because they seem perhaps beside the point or because the answers seem, erroneously, obvious. But, in order to avoid casually transposing our assumptions onto the ancient and different world of the Bible, the ostensibly simplest questions are often the most important.

The question that is least often asked, and one that will recur throughout this book, is this: why do we — or, better, why do the biblical authors of these stories — assume that these women would want to bear children in the first place? There is no need to rehearse the litany of biblical and other ancient texts that glorify procreation; at the same time, there is no requirement to use those texts as a filter through which to read everything else. No one asks, for instance, why Moses's sister Miriam has no children. Should we automatically assume that she wanted children?

In the case of Hannah, there is no real doubt, given what we know of her unhappiness and her desperate prayer. So too Rachel, who exclaims, "Give me children, or I shall die!" (Gen 30:1). But Sarah, Rebekah, and Samson's mother never express such a desire in any explicit fashion. As readers familiar with the biblical narrative, we know that they will become pregnant eventually, and so it is easy to understand these characters with that end in mind — to see them as one-dimensional, singly purposed figures whose journey is almost exclusively from infertile to fertile — in which case the only way to make sense of their story arc is to make fertility their goal and infertility the obstacle they must overcome.

And this seems to be what the biblical authors had in mind. When Sarah is introduced solely as barren, we learn something about her past. As we noted in the introduction, infertility only recently became understood as a medical condition. Today we can, in many cases (though certainly not in all), determine whether or not a woman is capable of bearing children with simple tests — test that can be (though rarely are) done even on those women who have no desire or intention to ever have children. Not so in the biblical period. A woman who was not trying to have children could not be called "barren"; there would be no way to know (here one may again consider Miriam). The label "barren" necessarily implies the attempt — and failure — to conceive. It is perhaps no coincidence that of these five biblical women, the only one who does not receive such explicit designation is Hannah, of whom we learn only that she "was childless" (1 Sam 1:2). This description, in theory, could apply equally well to someone who had no desire for children. Yet Hannah is the character who is provided with the most extensive narrative of maternal despair; in other words, her desire to have children is conveyed through the story, whereas for the other women we learn it through a descriptive label.

Let us then grant the biblical authors the assumption that these women all wanted to have children. We can then ask perhaps the more important question: why? It is easy to talk about the fulfillment of God's promise of offspring to the patriarchs — perhaps too easy. Even within the world of the text, Sarah is introduced as barren even before Abraham has received any promise; Isaac, similarly, does not receive the promise until after Rebekah has borne Jacob and Esau; at no point do we learn that Rachel is told of the promise; and Samson's mother and Hannah live many centuries later. In every case, the children are desired without any notion of fulfilling some divine plan. Again, it may seem obvious: of course they wanted offspring. But despite the claims of Proverbs, which attributes to the womb of the barren woman a metaphorical insatiable hunger (Prov 30:15–16), the desire for children, common though it may be, is not a universal biological imperative. It is not enough to simply say that these Israelite women wanted children. It is not enough to say that the Bible valorizes procreation. The attitudes of ancient Israelite women and the literature produced by ancient Israelite men emerged from a common cultural matrix, and it is that which must be interrogated. What was it about Israelite society that supported and emphasized the virtue of childbirth? Why is the Bible so invested in progeny, such that it projects these desires onto its female characters? And do we remain beholden to the same system of values?


As we have already observed, there are numerous social forces at work today that enforce an implicit positive valuation of fertility, be they in the realms of religion, employment, or tax policy. Similarly, but even more so, cultural pressure in ancient Israel to produce offspring came from multiple directions and arrived on multiple levels. We may start with the widest circle, the community of Israel writ large. The very historical circumstances of Israel's emergence in the early Iron Age contributed to a cultural emphasis on offspring. Israel came into existence just following a period of general urban collapse and population migration across the ancient Near East. Though the cause of this phenomenon remains unclear, the sudden decline may have driven a compensatory baby boom to replenish existing communities or to more firmly establish nascent ones. For Israel, a newcomer in the Canaanite context, demographic expansion was important in its own right: families and clans required a certain population to gain an economic foothold, to ensure the proper transmission of inherited property, and to provide for a measure of self-defense if necessary — both Samson and Hannah's son Samuel, after all, became famous fighting off the threat of the neighboring Philistines. In relatively broad sociological terms, therefore, the matriarchal stories emerge from a context in which, given the historical and cultural situation, childbirth was particularly valued.

Then there are the considerations at the level of the household. Hannah and her family were almost certainly agriculturalists or pastoralists, as was the overwhelming majority of the populace. The economy was primarily household-based, and as has always been the case in such circumstances, the more hands to work the better. (We may take as exemplary the shepherding work done by Jacob's sons [Gen 37:2].) It has been estimated that children could begin contributing to the work of the household as early as age five or six. In ancient Israel there was a particular need for supplemental agricultural help: the hill country, where Hannah and most Israelites lived, was particularly difficult to farm. Stone terracing, to prevent the soil from slipping down the hillside during the rainy season, and cisterns, to collect the rainwater before it rushed into the valleys, were necessary for agriculture to be carried out in this region. Unlike the fertile plains of the coast, where crops could simply be planted and grow, it was a constant struggle in the highlands to create and perpetuate the conditions amenable to farming. This additional labor came primarily from an increase in family size.

From the perspective of a parent, children were a safety net, as they often are today. The elderly would be supported by their offspring: housed in their children's homes, fed from their children's food. A Ugaritic text describes in detail the responsibilities of a son to his father: protecting the father from slander and ill intentions; helping him stand while drunk; offering sacrifices on his behalf; plastering his roof; washing his clothes; and of course performing his burial. On a less tangible — but equally important — plane, children were also required to support their ancestors in the afterlife. The practice of caring for one's deceased ancestors, known as the cult of the dead, is well and widely attested in the ancient world. Those deceased ancestors, in turn, were understood to ensure the fertility of their attentive descendants, thereby reinforcing the ritual practices around the gravesite.

From the viewpoint of the family patriarch, children were viewed as necessary because without them one would effectively disappear from history. The ancient Near East was predominantly illiterate; for one's name to live on after one's death, there had to be someone to keep it alive. Memories and stories, which could be curated only in the minds of one's offspring, took the place of letters, photographs, and home videos. It was up to the son to maintain the memory of the family. Numerous biblical texts attest to the common ancient anxiety of being forgotten. Absalom sets up a monument to himself precisely because, as he says, "I have no son to keep my name alive" (2 Sam 18:18). The wise woman from Tekoa who confronts David over his treatment of Absalom tells the same story, envisioning what will happen when her only son is killed: "They would quench the last ember remaining to me, and leave my husband without name or remnant upon the earth" (2 Sam 14:7). Most important for our purposes is God's promise to Abraham: "I will make your name great" (Gen 12:2). This does not mean fame, at least not exclusively; it is the standard divine promise to the patriarchs of offspring. Abraham's name will be great because a nation will come forth from him, a nation that will retell his story and keep his name alive — and so, indeed, it came to pass.


Excerpted from Reconceiving Infertility by Candida R. Moss, Joel S. Baden. Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

Chapter 1: The Matriarchs as Models 21

Chapter 2: The Blessing and the Curse 70

Chapter 3: Mother Zion and the Eschaton 103

Chapter 4: The Son of God and the Conception of the New Age 140

Chapter 5: Chastity, Marriage, and Gender in the Christian Family 171

Chapter 6: Barrenness and the Eschaton 200

Conclusion 229

Notes 239

Bibliography 291

Primary Source Index 313

Subject Index 325

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