Infertility and Barrenness in the Bible
Sarai, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth, and others
Make no mistake. There is a reason God included so many stories of infertility in the Bible. Even though the Bible gives us a teeny tiny glimpse into a vast history of the world, the sacred chapters include many infertility and bareness examples. I've often wondered why male prophets would write so often about this topic. Women have been overlooked throughout history, subject to purity laws and isolating roles, sometimes portrayed as men's equals and other times as mere property. The simple answer to why numerous authors with varying concerns would add infertility to scripture is simple. God ordained it. God chose these stories. And I believe He chose them for women just like you and me.
The Bible is a collection of books of varying genres that transcends time, especially in its high regard for women. The poetry, literature, and historical narratives about infertility and bareness help me find hope and courage despite my own experience with infertility and back-to-back miscarriages.
Sarai, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth, and others teach us important lessons as they journey through the deep valley of infertility.
An Honest Look at Infertility
Before we have a party and instinctively celebrate these women, I think it's vital we first review their varying reactions to infertility and bareness. Try to remember; these women didn’t have the luxury of seeing Biblical stories in their entirety. They couldn’t always see God working through their grief, just like you can't always see God working through yours. These women's stories are unique as the times, cultures, and personal life experiences they faced. And they weren’t always the best examples. Sometimes they were flat-out wrong in their reactions (did you just take a big sigh of relief that these women aren’t perfect? Me too!). So let's take an honest look at the varying responses these women had to their unexpected encounters with infertility and bareness.
Unbelief, impatience, anger, and disrespect; I believe a lifetime of infertility is what pushed Sarai over the edge. When reading scripture about Sarai, I did not conclude that these emotions result from when her husband, Abram, moved her to Canaan. Nor do I think they emerged when Abram told the Egyptians Sarai was his sister (which ended Sarai up in Pharaoh's harem).
What pushed Sarai over the edge was her inability to believe God could give her a child, even in her old age.
But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” Genesis 15:2-4
What did Sarai think when Abram shared this great news from the Lord? Maybe she questioned Abram or thought he was crazy for believing he could have a child in his old age. My best guess is she let a tiny lie enter her mind that went something like this: “Maybe that was a promise God made to you, Abram, but I’m not a part of that promise.”
Sarai allowed her unbelief and impatience to justify her next decision.
Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children[a] by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Genesis 16:1-4
I think Sarai felt like God was excluding her from his plans. Ten years is a small fraction of the total time Sarai and Abram had to wait for a child. Sometimes impatience can drive us to rash decisions, and we take matters into our own hands. Sarai relied on a common custom to conceive a child through a maidservant instead of relying on God. God was greater than her old age and infertility, but Sarai's unbelief and impatience led to choices that changed the world.
But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her. Genesis 16:6
Crazy things happen when we bottle up anger. Anger is a common reaction to infertility. Instead of finding healthy ways to cope with anger, Sarai lashed out at an obedient servant. Sarai put Hagar in an impossible situation and unfairly punished her. If Hagar had refused to sleep with Abram, what would have happened? The physical and emotional abuse Sarai inflicted on Hagar was so bad she ran away from home.
Even after Sarai responded with unbelief, impatience, and anger, the Lord appeared to Abraham and promised that Sarah would bear him a child. After the covenant of circumcision, Abram was renamed Abraham, and Sarai was renamed Sarah.
What did Sarah do next? She laughed. Oh, and so did Abraham. If that isn’t a portrayal of disrespect, I don’t know what is.
So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” Genesis 18:12
Abraham and Sarai weren't perfect people, and God doesn't expect you to be perfect either. Infertility hurts, it's isolating, and it can rip dreams apart. Abraham and Sarah felt this, they grew impatient, and over time their doubt in God was exposed. Abraham, The Father of Many Nations, was the first of three generations to have infertility plague his family. Let me say that again. The Father of Many Nations, the one whose dissidents are as numerous as the stars scattered across the sky, experienced infertility.
Can I get an amen?
The Bible doesn't tell us about Rebekah's emotional reaction to her infertility. But it does let us know that Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah. Twenty years later, when Isaac was 60, she finally gave birth to twins.
And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife. Genesis 25:20
After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau's heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them. Genesis 25:26
Twenty years is a long time to wait for anything. So long, the scriptures let us know that Isaac prayed to God on Rebekah's behalf. It's reasonable to assume both Isaac and Rebekah desperately wanted children. It's also reasonable to think Isaac and Rebekah experienced similar doubts as Abraham and Sarah.
And Isaac entreated the LORD for his wife, because she [was] barren: and the LORD was entreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived. Genesis 25:21
Try and imagine the painful prayers as two decades passed with no offspring. Does God hear me? Does God even care about my cry for answers or signs? Will I have to wait until I'm 90 years old to have a child like Sarah?
When Esau and Jacob were born, Isaac and Rebekah's problems didn't disappear. There was heartache, betrayal, pain, and confusion long after Rebekah gave birth to twins. Isaac lied to the men of Gerar and pretended Rebekah was his sister (Hmm.. this sounds familiar!). Life wasn't perfect for Isaac and Rebekah after they conceived children, and our problems don’t disappear once a baby arrives.
Even still, this couple showed perseverance.
Isaac and Rebekah were the first generations of Abraham's decedents to experience infertility. Rebekah's son Jacob and his two wives, Leah and Rachel, would be the second generation of Abraham's decedents to experienced infertility.
LEAH AND RACHEL
Leah experienced secondary infertility, and Rachel couldn't bear children. I believe scripture shows us that infertility caused deep strife, envy, and competition between these sisters.
Leah watched Jacob work seven years to have Rachel as his wife. Then, she watched him work another seven years after her father deceived him. I think it's clear that Jacob favored Rachel over Leah.
When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. And Leah conceived and bore a son, Genesis 29: 31-32
Some Bible translations say Leah was hated. Maybe Rachel hated her. C'mon! Leah allowed her father Laban to deceive Jacob into marrying her. Instead of waking up next to Rachel, he woke up next to Leah. How do you think Jacob felt when he realized this deception? How do you think Rachel felt? Do you think Leah encouraged her father's act out of jealousy? Who knows?
I'm sure it was hard to wait seven extra years to be with Jacob, but it must have been even harder to watch God bless Leah with four children. I'd define the inability to have children while your sister has four, with your shared husband, as torture. Wouldn't you? Maybe you can relate to Rachel on some levels. Perhaps you have a sister, brother, or best friend who has multiple children. Why can everyone else be fruitful and multiply, but I can't?
When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” Genesis 30:1
According to the McArthur Study Bible, a childless woman in ancient Near Eastern culture was no better than a dead wife and was a severe embarrassment to her husband. Jacob's love wasn't powerful enough to wash over the social expectation to have children. Rachel had so much envy she took matters into her own hands, and like Sarai, she told her husband to sleep with her maidservant.
Then she said, "Here is Bilhah, my servant. Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and I too can build a family through her." Genesis 30:3
Leah gave birth to Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, and then she experienced secondary infertility. It should be no surprise that she did the same thing as Rachel when she could no longer bear children. She had Jacob sleep with her maidservant.
When Leah saw that she had stopped having children, she took her servant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. Genesis 30:9 9
Rachel was the one Jacob loved. Leah was the one who gave him children. I believe Leah's purpose was stripped from her the moment she experienced secondary infertility. An unloved woman with no purpose is a sad thing indeed. Like Rachel, out of envy and desperation, Leah brought her maidservant to Jacob. The tension between sisters grew, and the pattern of strife, jealousy, and competition continued.
But she said to her, "Wasn't it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son's mandrakes too?" Genesis 30:15
Even after God blessed Rachel with a son, she wasn't satisfied. While she was naming her firstborn son, she didn't say, "Praise be to God, who provided me a son." Instead, her relief was short-lived. The moment God removed her feelings of shame and inadequacy, she was asking for more. In the same breath, she names her son and begs for another.
Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” And she called his name Joseph, saying, “May the Lord add to me another son!” Genesis 30:22-24
Rachel was never content, and her desire for a baby was for her own sake, not Jacobs. Even after she conceived, it still wasn't enough. She stole her father's idol to get a larger share of her father's inheritance than Leah. Over and over again, Rachel showed her priority was herself. I think it's reasonable to assume if Rachel gave birth to ten sons, she still wouldn't have been satisfied.
Leah was rejected and unloved. She spent a lifetime working through feelings of jealousy towards Rachel. I believe Leah's desire to be loved by Jacob was more substantial than her desire for children. Don't spend a lifetime justifying the desires of your heart. An obsession with a husband's love is no comparison to finding security in the Lord. With time, Leah learned this lesson.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? Jeremiah 17:9
Rachel had her own set of desires. Her desire for children was so great it couldn't be satisfied or fixed by Jacob. She wasn't grateful for the blessing God gave her. She didn't trust that God was enough. Jealousy is never satisfied, and I believe that is what ultimately killed Rachel.
According to a Cambridge study by George Stein, Hannah's story is likely, "the first description of depression (and hysterical aphonia) in a woman." We see in 1 Samuel verse 6 that Peninnah, Elkanah's second wife, provoked Hannah grievously because of her infertility. We also see throughout 1 Samuel symptoms commonly associated with depression. Hannah wept bitterly. She wouldn't eat, her heart was sad, she was deeply distressed, and she even tried to make a deal with God.
Later in the chapter, the priest Eli mistook Hannah for an intoxicated woman as she was moving her mouth in prayer, yet no words were coming out. Stein states, "This could be no more than silent prayer, but… this picture is typical of aphonia, a hysterical conversion symptom commonly associated with depression."
There are parallels between Leah and Peninnah. For one, Leah and Peninnah could bear children. Also, these women were second in the eyes of their husbands.
Under three things the earth trembles; under four it cannot bear up: a slave when he becomes king, and a fool when he is filled with food; an unloved woman when she gets a husband, and a maidservant when she displaces her mistress. Proverbs 30:21–23
There are also parallels between Rachel and Hannah. Both women could not conceive children, and in both cases, their husbands' love wasn't enough to heal the heartache caused by infertility.
The leech has two daughters: "Give! Give!" There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, "Enough"— the grave, the barren womb, land that is not satisfied with water, and fire that never says, "Enough!" Proverbs 30:15-16
Leah and Peninnah were unhappy because they knew their husbands didn't love them like Rachel and Hannah. Rachel and Hannah were sad because they couldn't conceive. I think this is an excellent reminder for ladies on both sides of the aisle of infertility to be gracious to one another. A husband's love is lovely, so are children. But neither will make our hearts fully content.
Infertility doesn’t discriminate. It affects the righteous and unrighteous alike.
[Elizabeth and Zechariah] were both righteous before God, blameless in their observance of all the Lord’s commandments and regulations. They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant and they both were very old. Luke 1:5-6
Healthy women, intelligent women, spiritual women, sinful women, beautiful women, all uniquely suffer. Even priests like Zechariah and Aaron’s decedents like Elizabeth experience infertility.
In his old age, God heard Zechariah’s prayers. The angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him his son John would be filled with the Holy Spirit and lead the way for Jesus. Zechariah doubted God’s promise to have a son in his old age.
And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time. Luke 1:20
After Zechariah couldn't speak, Elizabeth became pregnant. Zechariah was righteous, yet he doubted God's plans. Elizabeth was righteous, but she chose unwavering faith and joyful anticipation.
And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord. Luke 1:41-45
The most beautiful example of faith is when we encourage others to have faith too. Elizabeth is complementing Mary for displaying the same confidence that she showed a few months earlier. Elizabeth’s patience and faithfulness before her pregnancy gave her the ability to praise and honor God through her pregnancy.
Other Infertility Mentions
Manoah’s wife, according to tradition but not stated in the Bible, was called Hazzelelponi. She not only battled years of infertility, but she also combatted her husband's need for more answers when they received signs from God. We don’t know much about Manoah’s wife. But we do know, just like Elizabeth, she showed exceptional faith even when her husband did not. Maybe that’s why the angel of the Lord appeared to her, and not Manoah.
And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son. Judges 13:3
Not once did she dispute or raise objections to the angel of the Lord. In faith, she went straight home to share the good news with her husband. Manoah was confused and continued to need clarity. She made sense of the situation, showed assurance, and exhibited strength, even when her husband couldn’t.
And Manoah said to his wife, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.” But his wife said to him, “If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and a grain offering at our hands, or shown us all these things, or now announced to us such things as these.” Judges 13:22-24
The angel gave Manoah’s wife clear instructions as to what she was allowed to eat and drink. And she followed them.
Therefore be careful and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean. Judges 13:4
It is evident in Ruth, chapter one, that Ruth was married for ten years and never conceived.
But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. Ruth 1:3-5
We often focus on Naomi's story and the grief she experienced after losing her husband and two sons. But neither Ruth nor Orpah conceived children in those ten years in Moab. Later, scripture says the Lord actively causes Ruth to conceive a child with Boaz, showing us that God is sovereign over every single precious gift of life.
THE SHUNAMMITE WOMAN
The Shunammite’s first act of wisdom was inviting the prophet Elisha to her home.
One day Elisha went on to Shunem, where a wealthy woman lived, who urged him to eat some food. So whenever he passed that way, he would turn in there to eat food. 2 Kings 4:8
Her second act of wisdom was refusing money and protection as a thank you from Elisha for her hospitality. Which ultimately led to Elisha’s realization that she was barren, and the prophet rewarded her with the miracle of a child.
See, you have taken all this trouble for us; what is to be done for you? Would you have a word spoken on your behalf to the king or to the commander of the army? 2 Kings 4:13
Her third act of wisdom was after her son died of dehydration. She found Elisha and demanded he attend to the child.
And when she came to the mountain to the man of God, she caught hold of his feet. And Gehazi came to push her away. But the man of God said, “Leave her alone, for she is in bitter distress, and the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me. 2 Kings 4:27
Her fourth act of wisdom was to demand the presence of the prophet Elisha, not Gehazi. She wouldn’t budge until Elisha brought her child back to life.
Then the mother of the child said, “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So he arose and followed her. 2 Kings 4:30
With wisdom, the Shunammite woman fought with courage and faith until her promise became a promise again, and her son lived.
Infertility and Bareness in the Bible
Barren women dominate the biblical narrative, and by no means are these women perfect. Sarai, Abraham’s wife, displayed unbelief, impatience, anger, and disrespect after waiting a lifetime for children. Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, waited twenty years to have a son. Leah and Rachel, sisters, married to Jacob, spent years in competition and felt deep envy towards one another. Hannah, the wife of Elkanah, was taunted for years by Peninnah and experienced depression. Elizabeth, wife of Zachariah, and Samson’s mother, wife to Manoah, both stood firm in their faith even when their husbands doubted God’s plans. The Shunammite woman begged for God to give her a son, and when all was lost, she displayed steadfast faith and courage. Even Ruth, the perfect daughter-in-law, experienced infertility.
God is Faithful
Every barren woman mentioned in this blog post gave birth to at least one child. Every. Single One. God didn’t reserve the blessing of children for the women who showed the most faith. He didn’t look down and say, “Sarai… since you laughed at me, I’m not going to give you children.” God has a plan, and your actions cannot and will not change that. The only control you have is over your reaction to your situation. Will you find joy in the wait? Will you find peace amid your grief? Some women of the Bible chose doubt, jealously, anger, and fear. Others chose faith, hope, and perseverance. We are all a work in progress! Remember, even though we don’t have control over our fertility, we do have control over our reaction to it.
Sarah gave birth to Isaac, who was a patriarch. Rachel gave birth to Joseph, a man who could interpret dreams. Hannah gave birth to Samuel, who became a prophet and judge. Ruth gave birth to Obed, a faithful steward of God. Manoah’s wife gave birth to Samson, who became a deliverer and judge. Elizabeth gave birth to Jon the Baptist, the prophet who led the way for Jesus. The biblical women who experienced infertility did their best to be faithful in a fallen and sinful world… even when the answers to their prayers were delayed.
Using Pain for Good
God didn’t have to include details about infertility in the Bible. He could have easily skipped the parts about jealousy, anger, doubt, and faith and fast-forward to the happy endings. But God allows us to walk alongside these women. Every experience of bareness and infertility in the Bible God uses for good. Millions of women find comfort through comparing their infertility to infertility found in the Bible. Take comfort knowing God ordained these words to be as real and relevant for you today as ever.
I am grateful for the stories of these strong and courageous women. I never thought I could relate so profoundly to women from a different culture and time. I can wrestle with God, plea with God, and cry to God in the face of infertility because they did too. It’s okay to pray my heart out, leave it all on the table, and struggle as long as my faith and trust are in Him. Even the smallest detail of scripture, written by a prophet thousands of years ago, can be used by a loving Heavenly Father to comfort us through infertility.
Take heart, sister, this unexpected encounter with infertility isn’t unexpected by your loving father. Nor will it be wasted.
Traci is an Amazon Bestselling author, NIH analyst, and a miscarriage and cancer survivor. She is passionate about undermining the misguided stigma and shame of pregnancy loss with a Christ-centered approach.