In summary, childlessness was not an option for women in ancient society. Unlike modern society, women did not have the choice to delay having children and they certainly could not choose to have a career rather than a family. A woman’s status and significance within her husband’s household was determined and/or confirmed by her ability to produce an heir. Bearing children was of such paramount importance that numerous marriage contracts which have survived from antiquity contain provisos about what would happen should the woman fail to conceive. Childlessness was seen first and foremost as a defect in the wife. Moreover, it led to the suspicion that she was guilty of some nefarious act that had caused the gods to withhold the blessings of children from her.
When a woman was unable to have children her status in the home was threatened. Without an heir the husband’s legacy was under threat of extinction. The childless wife faced several possible outcomes. Her husband could divorce her and marry another woman. If the man produced a child with his new wife, the childless wife was relegated to a life outside of marriage. Who would want to marry a divorced woman who had already demonstrated her inability to conceive? The second option was for her to remain in the home while her husband married a second wife. While this allowed the childless woman a place within the household it did not guarantee her future financial and social security. If a second wife had been brought into the home and produced an heir, then it was that woman who would benefit most from the marriage. The first wife’s status was ambiguous. She was a wife, but did not provide the needed heir. Since a woman’s place in society was predicated on her association with a male, the thought of being a childless widow was a frightening prospect. Once her husband was gone there were no guarantees that wife number two and her son would care and provide for wife number one.
Adoption was an option that probably worked best for both husband and wife. This way of circumventing infertility protected the childless wife from being excluded from the household and provided an heir to the husband’s legacy. But while this is well attested in antiquity, its presence in the Bible is strangely absent. It is never presented as an alternative to childlessness. Although a viable alternative, it is not presented as such by the authors of the Bible.
For those who could afford it, surrogacy through a female slave was an option. But while this method solved the problem of childlessness for the wife, it projected her ambiguous status onto the slave woman. Motherhood altered the status of the female slave within the household. If she displeased her master and/or mistress she could be treated harshly, demoted within the ranks but not sold. The presence of her son, the recognized heir of the household, provided her some protection. But she was unable to fully benefit from his position. Her son was the heir, but she gained nothing from that status. Her status was ambiguous. She was a slave but could not be sold, a wife who had no power and a mother who would not be supported by her son. She was relegated to a life of slavery and then released whenever her master, the father of her son, died.
In antiquity infertility did more than create a social stigma. The outcome could mean a lost inheritance and social and financial ruin. In an era with limited medical knowledge about infertility and no adoption agencies, powerlessness to alter the circumstances was more than a feeling. It was the unavoidable reality. There was often very little that could be done. For the childless women, the consequences and stakes of infertility were quite high. They were emotional, relational, financial and social.