Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Infertility and the Bible 2: The Defective Wife

Last Week I gave an overview to a new series on infertility and the Bible. This week I begin to compare the status of women in the Bible to that of other women in the Ancient Near East. (One note, the footnotes in this text appear better in Google Chrome and Firefox than Internet Explorer)

Childlessness, in the Hebrew Bible, is presented as a particularly female problem. There are no biblical stories that center on an infertile man.[1] The imagery of barrenness is never applied to a man. The focus and preoccupation with childlessness in the Bible falls solely and consistently on women. Moreover, childlessness is never presented as a positive or acceptable condition.[2] Every story of a childless woman in the Bible is about how that situation is reversed. Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother and Hannah are all described as suffering a condition of barrenness which finds its resolution in divine intervention.[3] In addition to the stories of these five women, the negative image of childlessness is communicated by promises which declare that if Israel is faithful to God, there will be no barrenness in the land (Ex 23:26; Deut 7:14), suggesting that childlessness is evidence not of the blessing of Yahweh but a curse.

Socially, the position of the childless woman in the Hebrew Bible is ranked among the despised, the poor, the helpless, the widow (Job 24:21) and contrasted with the mother who is blessed, joyful and rich in children.[4] In Psalm 113:9 and Isaiah 54:1 the image of the barren women is used to illustrate the contrasting promise of a joyful reversal that will be enacted by God. Compounding this negative image is the evaluation that often considered childlessness the result of sin and/or divine displeasure (Gen 20:17; Num 5:11-31; 2 Sam 6:20-23). It was God who opened and closed the womb (Gen 16:2; 20:18; 1 Sam1:5) and conception after a long period of infertility was a cause for rejoicing and the hope that God had removed the woman’s reproach (Gen 30:23; 1 Sam 1:10-11; 2:1-10).

The view of the childless woman found in the Hebrew Bible is attested widely in antiquity. Hennie J. Marsman has examined the role and status of women in the Ancient Near East and demonstrated that childlessness was considered to be a defect in the wife.[5] For instance, the Ugaritic legend of king Kirtu describes how he married seven times in the unsuccessful bid to produce an heir. In all seven attempts he failed, but the preponderance of responsibility seems to be placed on the woman rather than Kirtu (KTU 1.14:I.10-20).[6]

The presumption of female defect is confirmed in a letter to the Ugarit king about a woman who failed to produce any children for her husband after an extended period of time. The letter relates how the husband used the infertility as an occasion to take a second wife. It was only when he failed to produce children with the second woman that he was then considered to be the defective one (RS 86.2208).[7]

While monogamy was probably the norm in antiquity, childlessness was one of the most common reasons that a man would resort to a bigynous marriage.[8] The Code of Hammurabi §145 mentions the case of a man taking a second wife if the primary wife does not bear him any children (ca. 1728-1686 BCE). Several Nuzi marriage contracts made between free persons contain clauses indicating when a man may have a second wife (ca. 1450-1350 BCE). The stipulations outline that the man cannot take an additional wife unless she fails to provide him with children. These clauses emphasize “the importance of children in the institution of marriage at Nuzi. The bride’s status as ‘wife’ usually depended upon whether or not she bore children”.[9] Even more interesting is that these stipulations in the Nuzi marriage contracts were initiated by the bride’s family, indicating that the social pressure for a woman to produce children began within the bride’s paternal home.[10] A similar marriage contract was found among the Nimrud tablets which also stipulate that if the wife remains childless the husband may then take another wife for the purposes of producing children (ca. 668-652 BCE).[11] Yet another example of such stipulations is found in a Late Babylonian marriage document (dating to 624 BCE) in which a man declares that his wife has produced no sons and therefore he seeks to be joined to a younger woman with the clear intent to produce children. What these examples demonstrate is the continuity of expectation that the wife would produce children and that, should this not happen, the man has the legal right to take a subsequent wife for the sole purpose of begetting children by her.[12]

While the introduction of a second wife was one way to circumvent the problem of childlessness, divorce was also an option. In Egypt it seems that the marriage agreement was considered completed not at consummation but with childbirth.[13] Egyptian marriage contracts mention a woman’s infertility as one of the major reasons for divorce and is surpassed only by accusations of the wife’s infidelity.[14] That this was a comprehensive practice, however, is doubtful. Divorcing a woman for being childless could mean that the husband would forfeit her dowry. The Code of Hammurabi §145-149, for instance, describes how a man cannot replace his primary wife with a second wife and that should he force her to leave, he must provide her with compensation.[15] The financial disincentive would mean that such a choice would probably be under taken only by the wealthiest of individuals.[16] For most men, however, divorce was probably not an option even if the legal means were in place.[17] More commonly, it seems, men who could afford it, opted for a second wife.

I will post another installment next Wednesday looking at the rejected childless wife.

[1] Male infertility is implied in some cases. For instance, the stories of Tamar and Ruth imply that their first husbands were unable to produce children since both women were left childless when their husbands died, but then went on to bear children to other men. The case of King Abimelech in Gen 20:16-17 suggests that he suffered infertility from his sin and required Abraham’s prayers to heal him. But the narrator notes that it was not just Abimelech who was suffering. His entire household was afflicted and we are told that God had “closed the wombs of the entire household”. Deuteronomy 7:14, on the other hand, promises relief from both male and female infertility. Even after giving consideration to these, we can still conclude that the focus of childlessness in the Bible is consistently on the woman, not the man.

[2] M. Stol, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible: Its Mediterranean setting (Groningen: Styx, 2000), 34.

[3] Added to these is the New Testament story of Elizabeth who gives birth to John the Baptist in her old age (Luke 1:5-66).

[4] Fabry, “rq(”, TDOT, ?:323

[5] Hennie J. Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel: Their Social and Religious Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East. (OtSt, 46; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 176.

[6] Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel, 208, 459. Kirtu’s third wife does in fact conceive, but dies in the midst of childbirth leaving him without a child. For a translation of the legend see: Johannes C. De Moor, An Anthology of Religious Texts from Ugarit. (Leiden, Brill, 1987)191-92.

[7] The situation reflected in the letter may not be typical since the first wife seems to be of a higher status and has accused the man of committing some unnamed crime. In any case, while the letter does allow for cases of male infertility, it also confirms that women were often assumed to be the defective one rather than men. Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel, 637-38; 707; 712.

[8] Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel, 126.

[9] Jonathan Paradise, “Marriage Contracts of Free Persons at Nuzi”, JCS 39 (1987): 8

[10] Paradise, “Marriage Contracts”, 11.

[11] John Van Seters, “The Problem of Childlessness in Near Eastern Law and the Patriarchs of Israel”, JBL 87 (1968): 407.

[12] Amelie Kuhrt, “Non-Royal Women in the Late Babylonian Period,” in Women's earliest records: From ancient Egypt and western Asia: Proceedings of the Conference on Women in the Ancient Near East, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, November 5-7, 1987 (ed. Barbara S. Lesko ; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 225.

[13] S. N. Kramer, “The Woman in Ancient Sumer: Gleanings from Sumerian Literature,” in La Femme dans le Proche-Orient Asiatique (Paris: , 1987), 109.

[14] Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel, 176; P.W. Pestman, Marriage and Matrimonial Property in Ancient Egypt: A Contribution to Establishing the Legal Position of the Woman. (Leiden: Brill, 1961), 75-76.

[15] Raymond Westbrook, Old Babylonian Marriage Law (AfO.B, 23; Horn: Berger, 1988), 77-78.

[16] Naomi Steinberg, Kinship and Marriage in Genesis: A Household Economics Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 15-16.

[17] Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel, 198.


  1. My husband is sterile, and I have tried, through 23 years of marriage, to be faithful and obedient to God. It got me a total hysterectomy, bilsteral oopherectmy,and several other health problems. I prayed for children for YEARS with absolutely no results. I find your article to be chauvanistic and offensive. And totally false. God promised me children and didn't deliver. So much for steadfastness.

  2. The tragic case of Anonymous stated above stirs compassion for her as well as for her husband. However, bitterness against God is unjust and totally undeserved. As the old saying so truthfully states, "Bitterness will eat your lunch." God's Word makes plain the serious damage bitterness can do to the one who is bitter, as well as to many fellow Christians within his/her realm of contact. As with every other problem of life, the door of God's throne room is always open. Bitterness is just as much a sin as any. Hebrews 12:15 clearly states: "Being diligently watchful, lest any fail [or fall away] from the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled." Childlessness in this lady is a sad situation, but bitterness against God is much worse.

  3. One more comment. Regarding the statement that infertility in men is never presented in the Bible, that does not mean that infertility in men did not exist back then. The case of King Kirtu points that out. Everything in God's Word was put there to serve His purpose, and if it does not appear in the Bible, then
    it was not God's purpose to include it.

  4. I apologize to the blogger for not having read both the article and the footnotes. I did a poor job of reading.

  5. My husband and I have not yet been successful at getting pregnant... The tests show my husband to be the party who is finding the difficulty. I don't think such articles are helpful, especially when childlessness may not be actually understood.

    1. Dear Anonymous,
      The purpose of the article is to demonstrate societal thinking on the topic in ancient history. In other words, while male infertility existed in the ancient world, it was rarely recognized as such.

  6. As a woman who's been infertile my entire life, I find it reprehensible that society continues to treat me as less than my fertile sisters. A loving God wouldn't heap this much sorrow and pain on anyone. The strongest drive in my younger years was the one to nurture my husband's child. 15 years later,divorced and barren, I can only speculate that God never intended me to have my greatest wish. So alone I carry on, hiding my pain in my work!

  7. I would like to know biblical examples of women who were barren and remained barren till their death. Please also let me know if there are men who were impotent till their death.

    1. I am unaware of any men in the Bible being referred to as impotent. But one example of a woman not having children (it never says she was barren) Is David's wife Michal in 2 Samuel 6:23.

  8. Peaches:iam 36 years of age, I been married going on 3 years now, my husband is about to leave me because I can not give him babies, iam so hurt, can some please give me some input. Are comment of encouragement, cause I really dont understand. Thank you

  9. My wife and me got married in 2008. due to the health problem of my wife, modern medical felicities are out of option for us. We will remain childless. Child is a divine blessing, in other words, God's given security to a couple. For me, God gives a human (baby) to human (couple)for their security, however God himself presents to us for our security. We are happy with the Lord.

  10. My wife and me got married in 2008. due to the health problem of my wife, modern medical felicities are out of option for us. We will remain childless. Child is a divine blessing, in other words, God's given security to a couple. For me, God gives a human (baby) to human (couple)for their security, however God himself presents to us for our security. We are happy with the Lord.

  11. It's true God allows some people to be parents "naturally" while others can be parents to orphans who desperately need parents.I don't think it's a mistake by him that this your partner and appreciate what God HAS given you! :)

  12. It's true God allows some people to be parents "naturally" while others can be parents to orphans who desperately need parents.I don't think it's a mistake by him that this your partner and appreciate what God HAS given you! :)

  13. If you are searching for best male intertility treatment centre in India then you can go with sofat infertility centre. We provide the treatment at very low cost.