The fairy tale pushed by bedtime stories, Disney movies, and traditional values in general is that we grow up, find that special someone, marry, and have children. But as central as marriage and childrearing are, especially for Christians, as far back as biblical times families have always been about something more than the couple, their 2.5 children, and their family dog.
Scripture shows us a broader definition of the family—including siblings, cousins, and fellow Jesus followers—that reflects the realities of childlessness and infertility in the ancient world. Barrenness is the preeminent disability that afflicts women in the Hebrew Bible. The case of Abraham and Sarah is well known: Sarah is in her 90s when she conceives and gives birth to Isaac. Excluding Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, there are four other barren matriarchs in the Bible: Rebekah, Rachel, the unnamed mother of Samson, and Hannah.
The first words God speaks to humans in the Bible, in Genesis 1, are the blessing “be fruitful and multiply,” so we might assume that infertility in the Hebrew Bible is some kind of curse or punishment. After all, in the biblical text, impairments are often associated with sin: The skin disease that afflicts King Uzziah in 2 Chronicles 26:19–21, for example, is the direct consequence of his efforts to usurp the role of the priests. But the infertile women in the Bible are utterly blameless. They have done nothing to deserve their state. Indeed these are some of the most beloved and admired women in all of scripture. Their barrenness is no curse or punishment. It is, rather, simply the state in which they find themselves. You might say that even though having children is a blessing, being childless is value neutral.
The (ancient) medical language used by the Bible to describe the process of becoming pregnant makes pregnancy a collaborative affair between humans and God. God does not only intervene in cases where a woman might be assumed to be postmenopausal. Every pregnancy, be it the first or the fifth, is ascribed to God’s power. Sarah, who bears Isaac at 90 years old, says, “God has brought me laughter” (Gen. 21:6). When Leah, still in her relative youth, bears Issachar, her fifth son, she too credits God: “God has given me my reward” (Gen. 30:18). For her sixth, Asher, she says, “God has given me a choice gift” (Gen. 30:20). In the ancient Israelite view, God is involved in every human conception.
The fact that God is involved in every pregnancy is connected to the ancient belief that for a woman to remain pregnant her womb must be effectively “opened” and “shut.” In the thought-world of the Bible the actor that opens and closes the womb is God. In fact, circumcision itself is instituted as a “sign” in order to remind God to make the people of Israel fertile.
When it is recognized that the default state of all women—at all times—is infertile, and that God needs to be reminded to open the womb every time an Israelite couple has intercourse in order to allow conception to occur, the idea that infertility should be regularly understood as divine punishment can hardly be maintained. In fact, the explanation suggested by the Hebrew Bible seems to be rather more banal, if somewhat more theologically difficult for the modern reader: Infertility is the result not of divine punishment, but of divine inattention. That is, despite having created a system to jog the divine memory, God is still sometimes forgetful.
The need to get God’s attention explains another element common to the stories of these women. When Rachel’s womb is finally opened, the Bible declares that “God remembered Rachel” (Gen. 30:22). The word used for “remember” here, zakar, is the same word used in the story of the flood: God will “remember,” zakar, the everlasting covenant. Hannah prays that God will “remember me and not forget your maidservant” (1 Sam. 1:11). With Sarah, a close synonym is used, paqad: “The Lord took note of Sarah” (Gen. 21:1). In every case, of course, circumcision has already taken place; yet God still has to further remember his obligation.
When all of the pieces are put together, it is clear that, from the perspective of these biblical authors, infertility is not a human shortcoming but a divine one. The Hebrew Bible does present infertility as a religious phenomenon, to be sure. It is, however, not the religious phenomenon commonly assumed. With only the rarest exceptions, God does not decree infertility in the way that he brings about other afflictions. Those who have never borne children, who have never been able to conceive, have not been punished for any mysterious sin. They have done nothing wrong. It is not their actions that are at the root of their infertility but rather God’s inaction.
In the New Testament childbearing is rarely a priority, as the followers of Jesus attempt to spread the good news. The Apostle Paul rather famously tells the Corinthians that it is better not to marry, because wives and children are a significant distraction from their spiritual work. But perhaps a more significant and often-overlooked passage is the Apostle Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26–29.
In this story, the disciple Philip is traveling from Jerusalem down to Gaza when he encounters an unnamed eunuch on the way. The Ethiopian had journeyed to Jerusalem to worship and was struggling to interpret Isaiah as he journeyed home. Directed by the Spirit, Philip approaches the chariot and helps the eunuch interpret a passage from the book of Isaiah as a prophecy about Jesus. As they journey the eunuch sees some water and exclaims, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (8:37). The chariot stops; he is baptized by Philip, and when the eunuch comes up out of the water Philip is snatched away by the Spirit.
There are all kinds of interesting avenues to pursue in our reading of this story, but the most currently relevant is the recognition that this man is not “healed” of the condition that has rendered him infertile. Unlike the manifold impairments cured even by the shadows of the Apostles elsewhere in Acts, there is nothing improper about his body. We do not know if the man was born a eunuch or had been made one, but his resulting inability to procreate is not something that Philip thinks needs “fixing”; the eunuch is already perfect for the Kingdom of God.
The variety of biblical perspectives on infertility—it is mostly neutral, it is sometimes negative, it is occasionally positive—is mirrored by the varieties of models of parenting offered by our authors. To be sure, biological procreation takes center stage, but as every apologist of the perpetual virginity of Mary knows, Jesus has brothers and sisters who may well have been cousins. The world of the Bible did not distinguish between siblings, step-siblings, and cousins as clearly as we do. If there is one clear example that deconstructs our modern obsession with genetics, it is surely that of Joseph.
In modern taxonomies Joseph is Jesus’ stepfather, but the Gospel of Matthew wants us to think of Joseph as Jesus’ genealogical connection to David. Joseph is the means by which Matthew and others can claim that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah. The distinction between biological parenthood, legal parenthood, and simply being there is very much eroded. Even God shares the parental stage with other father figures.
In a culture in which contraception, small families, and childlessness are deeply politicized, infertile people can suffer twice: from the disappointments and pain of their condition and the social alienation and judgment they receive from their communities. The Bible, however, presents a more complicated picture. It is one in which voluntary childlessness can be an act of obedience to God, in which infertility is morally and religiously unproblematic, and in which barrenness is fundamentally neutral.
This article also appears in the April 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 4, pages 17–19).