Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Infertility and the Bible

As I noted yesterday, this is the beginning of a new series I will be doing on this blog.

Infertility is a stigma that attaches itself to some six million couples a year in the USA. Many of those couples discover their infertility unexpectedly. It is normal for two healthy people to join together in a committed relationship and expect that children will be a natural outcome of that union. But for six million each year, something goes wrong. Once diagnosis has occurred then options need to be weighed.

Statistically, 80-90% of the infertility cases that occur each year are somehow treatable medically. But for some infertile couples, the medical options are either non-existent, too expensive, or create ethical dilemmas. Adoption is an option, but is a process that can also be expensive and full of roadblocks that prove to be too emotionally draining for a couple that has had to endure the disappointment that infertility has forced upon them.

Society is not always a positive force in this struggle. Western civilization in particular is a child centered society. The advertizing and the entertainment industries are two examples of how westerners have made children the center and focus of their universe. Even as the modern notion of “family” is redefined, children are almost always assumed as somehow a necessary or vital part of that definition. Childless couples do not fit into this paradigm of family and are left standing at the peripheral of society. When a couple is childless it is often assumed that there must be a medical cure or, failing that, an adoption agency that can remedy the ‘problem’. Couples who are unable or chose not to have children sometimes feel that they have been plastered with a label that makes them less than a full participant in society. Since they do not and cannot converse about their children, do not participate in the school run and are not on the hunt for a babysitter, their status in relation to other child bearing couples is ambiguous. They are members of society, yet, there is much that does not relate to them.

A disproportionate amount of the emotional and physical weight of infertility invariably falls on the female. This is not to say that males do not experience grief and a sense of loss. But since it is the woman who carries the child, the focus is more often on her. The roles of wife and mother, as constructed by society, each carry a particular set of expectations that are not shouldered in the same way by the man. Thus while the couple is of ambiguous status in society, the woman is quite often more keenly aware of what is missing.

The Bible is of little help to the permanently childless couple. The perception of women promoted by the Bible is that their sole purpose in life will be accomplished through the bearing of children. This mind-set is found from the opening chapters of the Bible. In Genesis 3:16-18 God’s words to the woman concerns her destiny to bring forth children in pain while the man is destined to toil with the earth to produce food. This is restated in 1 Timothy 2:15 where we read that it is through the bearing of children that women will saved.[1]

A quick survey of the Bible reveals a number of stories about childless couples. Most of them focus on the woman’s apparent inability to conceive.[2] All of them, without exception, find resolution when God opens the woman’s womb.[3] Quite often the focus of readers, teachers and preachers of the Bible is on the divine intervention that finally allows the woman to bear a child and bring to fruition a previous promise made by God. The focus of this study, however, is to highlight the powerlessness to alter their circumstances that would have hindered all of these women from finding a resolution to their childlessness. So often, the situation is not appreciated for the potential disaster that hung over a childless woman. Without a child of her own, the status of a wife in antiquity was ambiguous.

This will be the focus of the blog on Wednesdays for the next few months. The purpose of this study is not to explore the modern medical and social issues related to infertility. I am a biblical scholar and science and family life is not within my purview. But the stigma and the feeling of powerlessness (real or otherwise) that often accompanies childlessness is not unique to the modern age. 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 formal 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 women in particular, the consequences and stakes could be even higher.

1 On the other hand, the failure or inability of a woman to bear children is sometimes lamented. In Judges 11:39 Jephthah’s daughter is mourned before she dies because “she had never known a man”. Implicit here is not so much the lack of a sexual relationship as it is the absence of children. A similar situation is found in 2 Samuel 6:23 when Michal, Saul’s daughter, dies with the narrators comment “she had no child until the day of her death”. The expectation, then, was that women were to bear children and the failure to do so was a reason for mourning.

2 The cases of Samson and John the Baptist are less clear than others since there is no record that the fathers of these men (Menoah and Zechariah) were able to produce children with other women. Thus it is possible that the husband was the infertile one rather than the wife.

3 It is a curious, if not discouraging fact, that there are no instances in the Bible of a couple whose infertility remains unresolved. Such an absence, for whatever the reason, makes it difficult for the modern infertile couple to find solace in the pages of scripture.


  1. John:
    Thank you for your courage to discuss this topic. As one who has personally experienced infertility, I hope your thoughts will cause others to be more sensitive to those who are going through this often silent pain.

  2. Dr Byron,
    This is a very important topic and I am glad you are addressing it. I did not speak much about it in the seminary setting that often, but Lindsey and I have been touched by this. The fact that you discuss the possibility of Male factor infertility is very important. Many times the focus is so sqaurely on the wife that the possibility of the husband being infertile is never considered and can be the cause of tremendous pain for the husband. Thank you for dealing with these difficult issues and for the honesty that solid answers sometimes will not be found.

  3. Very interesting post and you mention several facts which I had not considered. (i.e.that biblical examples of infertility were never unresolved) I look forward to reading more in the future.

  4. 2 Samuel 6:23 - Michal never bore children ... there must have been a reason for that.