Barrenness in the Bible is not the same as what most modern Western people understand as “infertility.” While modern medicine has made it possible to recognize infertility as a medical problem, often with identifiable causes and treatments, the main remedy for barrenness in the Bible was prayer and divine intercession. Even today, despite advances in the diagnosis and treatment of infertility, many individuals and communities still hold beliefs about barrenness that are similar to those expressed in the Bible.
How did the women and men of the Bible understand barrenness?
The Bible presents all forms of fertility as a gift from God. Pregnancies occur when Yahweh “remembers” women and “opens their wombs.” Biblical women who experience periods of barrenness often understand their inability to conceive as a divine withholding of blessing, a punishment, or even a curse. Sarah understands her barrenness to be the result of God withholding the gift of pregnancy: “Yahweh has prevented me from bearing children” (
A notification of a woman’s barrenness can also serve as a harbinger of the miraculous birth of a divinely chosen male leader. The foundational mothers of ancient Israel—Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel—were all described as barren, and each became pregnant through divine intervention. In the Rachel and Leah saga, the narrator tells us “When Yahweh saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (
Socially, barrenness as presented in several biblical stories caused a woman to experience reproach and even a form of social death. Sarah and Rachel found barrenness so stigmatizing that each offered her handmaid as a surrogate to her husband in the hopes that she might be built up through a son born through surrogacy. Rachel understood conception as her only path toward life, crying out to her husband, “Give me children, or I shall die!” When she finally bore Joseph, her hard-won first son, she proclaims, “God has taken away my reproach” (
Each of these biblical responses to a woman’s experience of barrenness attests to the ancient world’s lack of understanding of issues related to infertility. In the absence of a modern scientific understanding of reproductive biology, people who experienced infertility in biblical times were left to intuit a divine lack of attention, a curse, or a punishment that could only be reversed through fervent prayer. Because knowledge of and access to medical advances are not universally available today, many of these biblical beliefs about a divine cause of infertility persist.