Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Infertility and the Bible 3: Rejected by God and Society

Lat week I wrote about the status of the childless woman in ancient society. This week we look outside of the marriage and family setting to see how a childless woman/couple would have been perceived by society.

As in the Hebrew Bible, a childless marriage led to the fear that the couple had been rejected by the gods or had committed some type of sin that prevented the woman from conceiving. A prayer to the Mesopotamian moon god Sin asks that the petitioner be reconciled to Sin and be granted children.[1] In a similar prayer to Ishtar a Mesopotamian woman asks for forgiveness of sin and the blessing of offspring.[2] At times one or both of the couple would make a vow to the deity in the hopes that they would be granted children.[3] But relief was not necessarily found in conception and birth. Even if the woman was successful in becoming pregnant and giving birth, any irregularities during the pregnancy, a difficult birth, and a stillborn or handicapped child were all interpreted as the result of some sin committed by the woman.[4] All of these circumstances conspired together to compound the social pressure and personal despair felt by the childless woman. “The woman who remained childless not only ran the risk of being disdained, or worse, repudiated by her husband and in-laws, she also incurred the suspicion of indecent behavior”.[5] If she was unable to conceive and bring a healthy child to full term, it was assumed that she had either been rejected by the gods or was guilty of some sin. The focus on the infertile couple fell predominately on the woman.

While perceived physical and/or spiritual defects played a large part in stigmatizing the childless woman, there was a social aspect that contributed to the pressure the woman felt. The status of a childless woman living in the home of her husband was ambiguous. Although she may be the primary wife, the lack of a child threatened any social or financial guarantees that could normally be expected by fertile wives. The lack of an heir not only jeopardized the future of the husband’s inheritance, it made the woman vulnerable if or when her husband died. Without children, particularly a son, the woman lacked social and financial protection.

The primary function of marriage was to produce an heir. Throughout the Ancient Near East marriage facilitated the orderly transference of property (land or otherwise) from the father to a son.[6] Therefore, while being a mother was a good thing, being the mother of a son who was also an heir was even better.[7] Since women often were married to older men the likelihood increased that a wife could live many years after her husband’s death.[8] In the patriarchally dominated society of the ancient world, a woman’s social and financial survival was often predicated on her relationship to a male figure. Prior to her marriage that figure was usually her father or an older brother. Once married, responsibility for the woman shifted to the husband. But if or when the husband died, the woman would most often be cared for by her son(s). As the heir, her son would not only assume responsibility for his father’s property but also for his mother. A woman’s status within the household was linked to her son and a mother would often promote her son in order to secure her own status (cf. 1Kings 2:19).[9] Laws of inheritance, particularly in the Bible, depend on the heir living in the house.[10] If the wife was not the mother of an heir, then her status was ambiguous. If, for instance, her husband had a son to another wife it was that woman’s son who would be the heir and that woman who would most benefit from the social and financial protection offered by the son.[11]

An example of this state of affairs is found in biblical legislation. Deuteronomy 21:15-17 protects the rights of the firstborn son who is to receive a double portion of the father’s inheritance.[12] But it also describes a hypothetical situation in which a man has two wives, both of whom bear him a son, yet one wife is loved and the other hated. The injunction in this circumstance prevents the man from giving the firstborn rights of inheritance to the son of the loved wife if that son is not in fact the firstborn. Consequently, the favored wife’s status is only as secure as her husband’s support for her while he is alive. Once he is dead the unloved wife and her son benefit the most from the inheritance based on the law of the firstborn. The favored wife and her son, although receiving a portion of the inheritance, diminish in status once the husband/father has died.

There were, of course, a number of options that a childless woman/couple could employ to rectify their circumstances and not every situation was the same. But what is important for the current study is an appreciation for the ambiguous status of the childless woman. Without a child, a son in particular, her position in the marriage as primary wife was not necessarily fixed and therefore she was in danger of either being replaced by her husband with another wife, or pushed aside by a subsequent wife who did produce a child who was also the heir. With this in mind, we may now consider what options were available to a childless woman and how even these options did not always remove her ambiguous status but sometimes made her position even more delicate. Furthermore, while some of these options may strengthen the wife’s position, they created a new set of circumstances with another woman whose status is also ambiguous within the household.

Next week we will look at what options were available to people in antiquity.

[1] Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel, 192.

[2] K. Van der Toorn, Sin and Sanction in Israel and Mesopotamia (SSN; Assen/Maastricht: Van Gorcum, 1985), 86.

[3] Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel, 196; Van der Toorn, From Her Cradle to Her Grave: The Role of Religion in the Life of the Israelite and the Babylonian Woman, (Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 80.

[4] Van der Toorn, Sin and Sanction in Israel, 86-87.

[5] Van der Toorn, From Her Cradle to Her Grave, 79.

[6] Steinberg, Kinship and Marriage, 6; G. Robins, “Women and Children in peril,” KMT: a modern journal of Egypt 5 (1994/5): 24-26.

[7] Katherine D. Sakenfeld, Just Wives?: Stories of Power and Survival in the Old Testament and Today Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 13.

[8] Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel, 54.

[9] Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel, 240-41.

[10] Steinberg, Kinship and Marriage, 26.

[11] This scenario assumes that there is only one eligible son.

[12] There were a variety of firstborn inheritance rights in the ANE and not all of them were granted to the biological firstborn (Isaac Mendelsohn, “On the Preferential Status of the Eldest Son,” BASOR 156 [1959]: 38-40). The Hebrew Bible, however, is particularly interested in the rights of the firstborn as reflected in the stories in which Esau sells his birthright to Jacob (Gen 25:29-34; 27:36) and the midwife tying a red thread on the arm of the firstborn of Tamar’s twin sons Zerah and Perez (Gen 38:27-28) (Jeffery H. Tigay, Deuteronomy [JPSTC; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996], 195-96).


  1. For a man to not have an heir, particularly a male heir, was a huge issue as well. It seems that the focus is all on the woman to produce. In the patriarchal society, is there any room for the idea that it is possibly not all the womans fault for not producing children?

  2. Beth,

    Only when it is clear that the man has tried with more than one woman. But if you look at last week's post even that was not only the case. One king had ten wives and it was always their fault.