What Does the Bible Say About Infertility?

Placing the command to “be fruitful and multiply” in context

foster-bible-pictures

“Be Fruitful and Multiply.” This illustration shows Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, where God gave them the command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Photo: From Charles Foster, The Story of the Bible (1897).

What does the Bible say about infertility?

In the very first chapter of the first book of the Bible, the command is given to humankind to “be fruitful and multiply.” Genesis 1:28 reads: “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’”

Yet despite this blessing, there are numerous instances of barrenness in the Bible—from the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel to Michal (Saul’s daughter and David’s wife). Joel S. Baden of Yale Divinity School and Candida R. Moss of the University of Notre Dame analyze the Biblical portrayal of infertility in the Biblical Views column “Reevaluating Biblical Infertility,” published in the September/October 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Many of the women in the Bible described as being barren, such as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Hannah (Samuel’s mother), Samson’s mother and Elizabeth (John the Baptist’s mother), later conceive. However, there are other Biblical women, including Michal (David’s wife), who remain barren for their entire lives. For still others, like Dinah, Miriam and Deborah, the Bible records no offspring, which suggests they may have been barren.

According to the Bible, is infertility a punishment for sin?

Short answer: no.

Baden and Moss clarify that although “some ancient interpreters tried to identify some rationale for these women’s infertility, the Bible itself attributes no faults to them. They are, simply, barren—and blameless.” Some may argue that Michal’s infertility was a result of her contempt for King David (2 Samuel 6:16–23), but by that point in the narrative, she had already been married—first to David, then to Patiel, and then returned to David—for more than a decade. There is not an inherent causality between her reproach and her barrenness.

Baden and Moss further explain that in those times, every birth was seen as a miracle:

[I]n the ancient Near East, there was a broader understanding that every successful procreation was the result of divine intervention: The deity had to “open the womb” in order for conception to occur. … [T]he opening of the womb was miraculous, despite its frequency. The absence of this miracle could hardly be a reflection of some human sin—and, in the case of the barren matriarchs, it is never described as such.

 


 
The religion section of most bookstores includes an amazing array of Bibles. In our free eBook The Holy Bible: A Buyer’s Guide, prominent Biblical scholars Leonard Greenspoon and Harvey Minkoff expertly guide you through 21 different Bible translations (or versions) and address their content, text, style and religious orientation.
 


 
What else does the Bible say about infertility?

Interestingly, Baden and Moss point out that the directive “be fruitful and multiply” doesn’t apply to everyone:

Although it is spoken to the first humans in Genesis 1, “be fruitful and multiply” is not a command that pertains to all people at all times. Even in the Bible itself, these words cannot be taken as straightforward instruction: Both Noah and Jacob are told to be fruitful and multiply, yet in both cases God says this to them after they have finished producing offspring. Moreover, this blessing is given only to those individuals who stand at the head of necessary lineages: the first humans, Noah, Abraham and Jacob. Once Jacob’s 12 sons are born, no one else in the Bible will ever be told to be fruitful and multiply. After all, we are told already at the end of Genesis that the Israelites had become fruitful and numerous. The command has long since been fulfilled.

The idea that procreation is not for everyone is advanced in the New Testament, where “the driving metaphor is one of adoption.” Biological lineage becomes less important than spiritual adoption in the Christian church. Paul even recommends that some Christians stay single, so that they can better focus on ministry (1 Corinthians 7).

Learn more about Biblical infertility in Joel S. Baden and Candida R. Moss’s Biblical Views column “Reevaluating Biblical Infertility” in the September/October 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review and in their recent book Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness (2015).

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BAS Library Members: Read the full column “Reevaluating Biblical Infertility” by Joel S. Baden and Candida R. Moss in the September/October 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


 

Related reading in the Bible:

The Creation of Woman in the Bible

Tabitha in the Bible by Robin Gallaher Branch

Anna in the Bible by Robin Gallaher Branch

First Person: Misogyny in the Bible
 


 

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  • gisele says

    There is one more element , which is missing in this article. It is difficult to contemplate, but more than one scholar has written about this. It is extremely likely that the girls were married at the age of 9. I saw an exhibition of the life of Iranian Jews at the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel-Aviv, and there was a heart breaking photo of a Jewish 9 year old bride in the 19th century. Perhaps they had not yet connected the female cicle – with its inherent assumed impurity – with the ability to conceive. It always baffled me as a bible student since childhood that all the matriarchs, except Leah, were “barren”. Let’s remember that Leah was older than Rachel, so perhaps she had an immediate advantage , and Rachel had an untimely death. Today in parts of the Moslem world girls are still married that young.

  • Tim says

    Probably not, but I doubt they understood the reasons for much female sterility either. I didn’t read anything in this article about blame for who was the cause of the fact some women didn’t have children. It seems to be more a record of fact. Still, describing them as barren, at least in English, does seem a bit pejorative.

    In the specific examples given, other than Elisabeth, the men probably were not the biological problem. David, Abraham and the others seemed to have no problem fatering children with other women. That just leaves Zacharias as a man who may have had a problem.

    The interesting thing about the Bible to me is how interested it seems to be in the facts of any situation. It comes across as a lot more interested in what actually happened so that readers can draw reasonable conclusions, than it is in theologizing about the way things should be. That is one reason we can come to some conclusion about these real people thousands of years later.

  • Jill says

    Re. Article on Infertility

    I suppose in those days they had no concept of low sperm counts in men and that it was the men you might have been the cause of infertility.


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