Much has been written on the topic of women and the Bible, including the agriculture of their bodies: whether they are “barren” or “fruitful” once a man has “planted his seed.” This often involves the stories of childless women in the Bible (c.f. Anna, Tabitha, Mary, Martha), but also those who are childless until God intervenes. The Bible presents the latter as a means of showing divine involvement in the process of birth, even though the women are dehumanized in some respects.
Yes, these are stories of faithfulness and long-suffering, especially when the woman is married to an idiot, which makes it a pity that they are stories generally forgotten until an unfortunate Mother’s Day sermon causes a significant portion of the congregation to cringe. However, these stories also present women as if their only lot in life was to procreate, to pump out good little Hebrew boys and girls. Well good little Hebrew boys, as the Bible doesn’t seem to care as much about little girls (name a story where the birth of a little girl was heralded). When a barren woman in the Bible does give birth, she is almost immediately eclipsed by her son. It is as if the mother was only a necessary element in his heroic back-story— bursting forth from the womb was the first obstacle to overcome for the likes of Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist (name the mothers of the three biblical figures just mentioned).
Scholars have long argued that the point of these stories of female infertility is to show that the LORD God is the giver of all life. From the creation of the universe, to the continued creation of all subsequent generations, God is the bringer of life. There is no god or goddess of fertility to petition, no ancestor on a family altar to appease, no magical rites to recite. There is only the promises contained in passages like Deuteronomy 28:
If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God . . . Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock . . . The Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your ground in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you. (Deut 28:1-2, 4, and 11 NRSV)
But notice how the passage above groups feminine organs with goats and the ground: all agricultural realities to be worked and seeded by men. However, let us take a different tack and take a closer look at the seed of Israel, the patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible. While the patriarchal system places the problem of procreation at the feet of the females, it seems more plausible that the penis-holders were the problem. The lineage of the patriarchs begins in Genesis 11:26 with Terah, the father of Abram (later renamed Abraham).
Terah is in the lineage of Noah’s son Shem. A quick survey of Terah’s predecessors shows that he sired his children when he is over twice the age of his forefathers (see Genesis 11:10-25). Perhaps he was having a little trouble getting his soldiers to march in line. While this seems like a minor detail, consider his descendants.
Abraham (Terah’s son)
Genesis 11:30 reads, “now Sarai [Abram’s wife] was barren; she had no child.” Thus begins a misadventure of sexuality which, like most relationships, is filled with laughter, tears, guilt, and love intertwining the lives of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac (Genesis chapters 15-21). But if Abraham’s father had potential issues with getting his toothpaste out of the tube, why do we assume that Sarah being childless for eight decades is her fault?
Isaac (Abraham’s son)
Genesis 25:20-27 informs us that Isaac’s wife Rebekah was also barren, but that Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife . . . and the Lord granted his prayer (vs. 21) (does Isaac pray because he knows the trouble is father and grandfather had? Understood the drama it caused his parents and his half-brother Ishmael?). But the Lord came through with a double blessings: the twins Esau and Jacob wrestled inside of Rebekah as a result of this answered prayer. But again, if both your father and grandfather have trouble getting their arrows out of the quiver, should we place the blame with Rebekah for infertility?
Jacob (Isaac’s son)
Genesis 29:31-30:24 explains how both of Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel, had trouble conceiving, until the LORD “opened her womb” (Genesis 29:31 and 30:22 respectively). We shouldn’t have to say it, but we will: if your father, your grandfather, and your great-grandfather had difficulties with getting their tadpoles to swim through the pond, and now you can’t with two different women, the problem is most likely a family affair.
As there are multiple inheritable genetic ailments that can contribute to, or cause infertility in men, it is by no means a stretch of the imagination to posit one of these as present in the patriarchal lineage. Furthermore, it is also noteworthy that in none of these stories is the woman faulted with sin; none of the matriarchs are said to be cursed by God with childlessness as a result of some wrongdoing in her past.
To be clear: none of this takes away from the central Biblical theological point. The frequent references to barrenness being overcome through divine action is aimed at presenting God as the giver of life; however, there are other changes to be made.
Perhaps it is time to revisit out metaphors and judgments, especially the ones which persist into the present. A woman is not a field in which seed is sown and brings forth fruit in its season. She is a person. Furthermore, a woman is not defined by her ability to procreate.
Perhaps our perspectives and interpretations of events tell us more about our personal biases than the nature of reality. Maybe the patriarchs really thought it must be their wives who were “the problem” and they were wrong.
Perhaps, like them, sometimes we are the problem that God is working to overcome, not those we blame.
But what do we know? We made this game you probably think we’re going to Hell.