Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Infertility and the Bible 5: Options Available to the Childless

Last week we looked at the first option available to the childless woman/couple, which was praying to the gods. This week we look at the option of using magic and or medicine. I am aware that it is a false dichotomy to separate medicine and magic from religion since both frequently include appeals to deities. However, for purposes of outlining the options available and, in particular, those represented in the biblical text, I have imposed an artificial framework.

Medicine and Magic

When religion did not work, magic and/or medicine might. From Nippur in Mesopotamia texts have been discovered which contain incantations and magic treatments to help a women having difficulty in childbirth.[1] From Babylonia a short text on the making of amulets says; “Silver, gold, iron, copper, in total 21 stones, in order that a woman who is not pregnant becomes pregnant: you string it on a linen yarn and, you put it on her neck”.[2]

In some Babylonian sources plants were thought to promote pregnancy. In a reference list of plants used for medicinal purposes (a vademecum), there is a section that lists a “plant for a woman who does not bear”. The description of this plant’s uses indicates it was intended to help not only infertility but the whole process from conception to birth. [3] In Egypt, one method for determining whether or not a woman could become pregnant was to have her urinate on wheat or barley.[4] Some forms of this method even claimed to identify the child’s gender.[5]In addition to plants, there were other recipes used to help women conceive. Stol provides a translation for an unpublished recipe which reads: “To make a not child-bearing woman pregnant: You flay an edible mouse, open it up, and fill it with myrrh; you dry it in the shade, crush and grind it up, and mix it with fat; you place it in her vagina, and she will become pregnant”.[6]

The Hebrew Bible does not reveal a particular interest in medical and magical remedies for infertility. But the story of Leah’s mandrakes in Genesis 30:14-17 provides a glimpse at a one such possible remedy. The mandrake plant is a perennial wild herb that grows with a set of forked roots causing it to resemble the human torso. The plant’s leaves form a rosette and between autumn and spring it produces flowers in the center of the rosette.[7] It is debated whether the plant was used to enhance fertility or simply to act as an aphrodisiac as described in Song of Songs 7:14. [8] While there is strong evidence for the plant’s perceived aphrodisiacal powers, the context of the Genesis story does suggest a connection to fertility.[9] In the story Reuben, Leah’s son, finds mandrakes in the field and brings them to his mother. Rachel asks Leah for some of the mandrakes but is rebuffed by Leah who asks the accusing question: “you have already stolen my husband what more do you want from me?” Rachel resorts to bargaining with her sister, a night with Jacob for a portion of the mandrakes. While the situation could surely be interpreted as focusing on the aphrodisiacal qualities of the plant, both sisters are wanting to attract Jacob to their tent, it is the broader context that suggests a desire for fertility. The chapter begins with Rachel’s inability to conceive reaching a breaking point when she demands that Jacob give her children or she will die (30:1). In tandem with the narrative of Rachel’s infertility is the description of Leah, Zilpah and Bilhah each bearing children. Compounding this is the irony that even though Rachel bargained for the Mandrkaes, it is her sister Leah, who seemed to have ceased conceiving (30:9), who gets pregnant another three times (30:16 ). Thus whatever the real or imagined properties of the plant, in the narrative at least, “it seems clear that Rachel and Leah valued it as a fertility drug, Rachel because she had never conceived, Leah because she had become infertile”.[10]

Next week we look at the role of adoption and its almost complete absence in the Bible.

I notice a lot of visits to this particular post lately. Can anyone tell me why you are here and how you got here? I am curious that this post has been so popular. (5/30/2011)

[1] M Civil, “Medical Commentaries from Nippur”, JNES 33 (1974), 331-6.

[2] Stol, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible, 35.

[3] Stol, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible, 53.

[4] This method is also described in a magical papyrus written in Demotic which says: “The way to know it of a woman whether she will be pregnant: You should make the woman urinate on the plant at night. When morning comes, if you find the plant scorched, she will not conceive. If you find it green she will conceive” (H. Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992), 242.

[5] G. Robins, “Women and Children in peril, 27.

[6] Stol, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible, 53.

[7] Irene Jacob and Walter Jacob, “Flora,” ABD 2:812; F. Nigel Hepper, “Mandrake,” NIDB 3:787.

[8] Othmar Keel, The Song of Songs (CC; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 257-60.

[9] Stol, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible, 56-57.

[10] Gordon Wenahm, Genesis 16-50 (WBC 2; Dallas: Word, 1994), 247.


  1. Hi Dr. Byron,

    In the ancient near east, where did a woman go when they gave birth? In her house (that is, where she lived with her husband and his family), or at the midwife's house? Or maybe somewhere else?

  2. Hi Dr. Byron, I'm reading this several years after you posted. My husband and I have been walking the infertility road for six years. We have no diagnosis other an "unexplained infertility." Recently, a friend talked to me about the possibility of a curse preventing us from conceiving. In searching online for anything on the topic of curses and infertility (from a Christian Theology perspective), I found your blog. Thanks for your studies and explaination of infertility in the Bible. I have found the stories there often lacking in terms of bringing me comfort. The fact that all the women mentioned in Scripture eventually conceive should be hopeful, I guess, but if often leaves me feeling like there is no example of a woman and her husband who lived a full, productive life childless. I have lots of questions about the way fertility is talked about in Scripture as a blessing. It naturally leads one to ask questions about curses and inferility. Thanks again for tackling this topic from a Christian perspective.

    1. Holly, I am glad you find my work helpful. I wish I had more and better answers. At a minimum, I wanted to at least acknowledge that the Bible doesn't offer us much hope in this area. It doesn't mean God doesn't care, just that the Bible is silent.