"God Opened Her Womb": The Biblical Conception of Fertility
Rachel’s Infertility: A Defining Difficulty
“Rachel was barren” (Gen 29:31). Aside from her beauty, this is just about the only characterization that Genesis offers of Rachel. Her first words, addressed to Jacob, are (Gen 30:1),
הָבָה לִּי בָנִים וְאִם אַיִן מֵתָה אָנֹכִי.
“Give me children, or I shall die.”
The focus on Rachel’s infertility, to the exclusion of nearly every other aspect of her identity, means that infertility is effectively her identity.
Far more than in most modern societies, Rachel lived in a world that was practically designed to make infertile women feel outcast and alone. As has ever been the case, the constant confrontation of the infertile mother with the fertility of her neighbors was a source of pain. In the Bible, this pain is highlighted by the cultural and literary custom of polygyny, such that Sarah and Rachel and Hannah all live in the same home, literally face to face, with the living embodiment of their anguish.
The חרפה “Disgrace”
Rachel, in naming Joseph, makes clear what infertility feels like:
אָסַף אֱלֹהִים אֶת חֶרְפָּתִי.
“God has taken away my disgrace” (Gen 30:23)
Rachel uses a Hebrew word, ḥerpah, that is used elsewhere in the Bible to denote
- Uncircumcised men (Gen 34:14),
- Men with their eyes gouged out (1 Sam 11:2),
- Cowardice (1 Sam 17:26),
- A rape victim (2 Sam 13:13),
- The collapsed walls of Jerusalem (Neh 2:17).
The experience of infertility in ancient Israel was utterly crushing.
Rachel’s word choice, “disgrace,” both in Hebrew and in English, is a social term. There can be no disgrace, no herpah, without other people before whom one feels shame—without other people to do the shaming. Such shaming was often based in the notion that infertility was divine punishment.
1 Enoch, a Jewish work from the second century BCE, could hardly be more blunt:
“A woman was not created barren, but because of her wrongdoing she was punished with barrenness, childless shall she die. Why is a woman not given a child? On account of the deeds of her own hands would she die without children.”
This reading continues to be restated as the Pentateuch’s view in modern scholarly work:
However the motif of the barrenness of the matriarchs is to be dated, the theological intention of these texts is clear… infertility as punishment, just like children as blessing, is the work of Israel’s God.
Given the centuries upon centuries of readers who have understood infertility within this overarching religious framework, and given the centrality of the Bible as the source of our understanding of God, it is natural to assume that for all of the ancient biblical authors, as well, infertility was thought to be the result of divine punishment. But is this a necessary conclusion —or is it merely how we project our own inherited cultural views back onto our foundational document?
Rachel Is Not to Blame
There is no biblical evidence that Rachel was to blame for her infertility. Tellingly, when she confronts her infertility she neither prays, nor repents of any sin, nor confesses any iniquity, nor asks forgiveness of any kind—she doesn’t turn to God at all. The text does not note any display of virtue, piety, penance, or self-examination leading to a divinely wrought cure. And yet God does make her fertile.
The Default State of the Womb
The assignment of divine activity in the process of conception comes through not only in abstracted terms, but in a very specifically realized physical manner. When Rachel becomes pregnant with Joseph, Gen 30:22 notes that God “opened her womb” (וַיִּפְתַּח אֶת רַחְמָהּ). If God’s role in conception is depicted as opening the womb, then it would seem that prior to this moment, the womb was—by default—closed.
The best proof of this concept of fertility is not the opening of Rachel’s womb, since, after all, we know that she was previously infertile. It is, rather, that the same is said about Leah, Rachel’s fertile counterpart: before bearing her first child, Reuben, Yahweh “opened her womb” (Gen 29:31), too. If neither Rachel nor Leah can become pregnant without divine intervention, then it seems possible to argue that, from the biblical perspective, all women are “by nature”—that is, using perhaps more authentic ancient categories, created—infertile.
“Opening” in the Bible
That all women are “by nature” infertile according to the Bible is borne out by the ostensibly common term “open,” a term that appears rather generic but which, when God is the subject, is both rare and meaningful.
- Rock – In Psalm 105:41, Yahweh “opened a rock so that water gushed forth,” (פָּתַח צוּר וַיָּזוּבוּ מָיִם) an unusual moment for a rock if there ever was one.
- Ears – Yahweh opens Isaiah’s ears (פָּתַח לִי אֹזֶן; Isa 50:4–5), not thereby changing him from deaf to hearing, but transforming his ordinary human ability to hear into the extraordinary prophetic ability to hear Yahweh’s words.
- Human’s Mouth – Yahweh opens Ezekiel’s mouth (אֶפְתַּח אֶת פִּיךָ; Ezek 3:27, also 33:22), not thereby changing him from mute to speaking, but transforming his ordinary human ability to speak into the extraordinary prophetic ability to speak Yahweh’s words.
- Donkey’s Mouth – Yahweh opens the mouth of Balaam’s donkey (וַיִּפְתַּח יְ-הוָה אֶת פִּי הָאָתוֹן; Num 22:28) when Balaam was trying to force it to keep moving with blows. The snake of Genesis 3 notwithstanding, animals are not given to talking.
In short, when God opens something, he changes it from its usual state to an unusual state.
Opening a Closed Womb
In the case of the womb, then, the biblical analogies suggest that in fact it is the closed womb that is usual, and the opened womb that is unusual. Again, God’s active role in conception is highlighted, even marked as miraculous—regardless of how often it may occur.
Opening and closing of the womb are beneficial in varying degrees and at different times: the womb must be closed to prevent miscarriage, but it must be opened to allow for delivery. Most important for our purposes, the womb must be opened at the moment of intercourse to allow for conception—which requires that it have been closed before that point. The rabbis state this clearly (b. Sanhedrin 113a):
שלש מפתחות לא נמסרו לשליח: של חיה, ושל גשמים, ושל תחיית המתים.
Three keys are in the hands of the Holy One, blessed be he: the keys of the womb, of rain, and of resurrection.
The womb is imagined as a closed chamber, one to which only God holds the key. For a child to be born—and perhaps even for the man’s seed to enter—God must turn the key and unlock the door.
Does God Prevent Pregnancy?
This understanding of conception may change how we read some of the biblical language that ostensibly describes God as involved in the preventing of pregnancy: Sarah says that “Yahweh has kept me from bearing” (הִנֵּה נָא עֲצָרַנִי יְ-הוָה מִלֶּדֶת; Gen 16:2); Jacob says to Rachel that God has “denied you the fruit of the womb” (אֲשֶׁר מָנַע מִמֵּךְ פְּרִי בָטֶן; Gen 30:2).
We might say that these figures are, like Peninah does by Hannah with the claim that “Yahweh shut her womb” (כִּי סָגַר יְ-הוָה בְּעַד רַחְמָהּ), merely representing the dominant concept that God is directly responsible for infertility. But we may also note that their words are fairly passive: it is possible to keep one from bearing, or to deny one the fruit of the womb, by doing nothing at all—merely by neglecting to open the womb in the first place.
It is worth noting that in both narratives—as with the story of Hannah—there is a rival to the barren wife: Hagar, Leah, and Peninah. That is to say: the only times that the Bible uses language that implies a divine hand in causing these women’s infertility is when it is establishing a rhetorical contrast between two women, one fertile and one infertile. Moreover, it is not that Rachel is barren while Leah is not, but rather that both are barren to begin with, and Leah’s womb is simply opened before Rachel’s.
Barren: The Natural State of a Woman
If we say that active participation on the part of God is required for a woman—for all women—to become fertile, then infertility is not divine punishment; it is rather the state in which all women enter the world. Conversely, the inability to conceive is dependent on divine (in)activity. More pointedly, fertility and infertility are not lasting conditions but are rather constantly negotiated. One can be fertile and then be so no longer.
Why Does Leah Act Like a Barren Woman?
This is, in fact, precisely what we know to be the case with Leah. Her womb is opened by God, and she bears four sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. At that point, however, we are told that “she stopped bearing” (Gen 29:35). She has done no wrong; nothing about her situation has changed in the slightest. She is simply unable to conceive. Her solution, “when Leah saw that she had stopped bearing” (Gen 30:9), is to give her maid, Zilpah, to Jacob as a concubine, so that more children can be born under her name.
This is a well-known technique in the Bible—but it is otherwise known only in cases of explicit infertility: Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham (Gen 16:2), and Rachel gives Bilhah to Jacob (Gen 30:3). Leah thus acts as an infertile woman, despite having already borne four sons—she considers herself to be barren.
Even more surprisingly perhaps, after Zilpah has given birth to Gad and Asher, Leah begins to conceive again, and produces Issachar, Zebulun, and Dinah. Leah is neither permanently fertile nor permanently infertile. It is quite possible, then, that when she “stops bearing,” it would be appropriate in biblical terms—though strange to our modern ears—to say that “she was barren and she had borne four sons.”
It is commonly assumed that the word “barren” refers to someone who is, for whatever reason, biologically incapable of ever bearing children. Yet just as is the case in modern times, so too in the ancient world “barren” was always defined against the backdrop of the desire to bear children. Miriam is not infertile, because we are never told that she wants or tries to have children; Leah is infertile when she tries and fails to have children, despite the fact that she already has four sons.
Every Child Is God’s Gift
Direct divine activity is required to “open the womb,” whether a woman has had children before or not, whether she has even tried to become pregnant before or not. Every pregnancy, be it the first or the fifth, is ascribed to God’s power. Sarah, who bears Isaac at ninety years old, says “God has brought me laughter” (Gen 21:6). When Leah, still in her relative youth, bears Issachar, her fifth son, she credits God: “God has given me my reward” (Gen 30:18). For her sixth, Asher, she says “God has given me a choice gift” (Gen 30:20). In the ancient Israelite view, God is involved in every human conception.
When it is recognized that the default state of all women—at all times—is infertile, and that God needs to open the womb in order to allow conception to occur, the idea that infertility should be regularly understood as divine punishment can hardly be maintained. In fact, the explanation suggested by the Hebrew Bible seems to be rather more banal, if somewhat more theologically difficult for the modern reader: infertility is not the result of divine punishment, but of divine inattention.
The need to get God’s attention explains another element common to the stories of these women. When Rachel’s womb is finally opened, it says that “God remembered Rachel” (Gen 30:22). Hannah similarly prays that God will “remember me and not forget your maidservant” (1 Sam 1:11). With Sarah, a close synonym is used, paqad: “The Lord took note of Sarah” (Gen 21:1).
Infertility Is Not a Divine Decree
When all of the pieces are put together, it is clear that, from the perspective of these biblical authors, infertility is not a human shortcoming, but a divine one. The Hebrew Bible does present infertility as a religious phenomenon, to be sure. It is, however, not the religious phenomenon commonly assumed. With only the most uncommon exceptions, God does not decree infertility. Those who have never borne children, who have never been able to conceive, have not been punished for any mysterious sin. They have done nothing wrong. It is not their actions that are at the root of their infertility; it is God’s inaction.
From the ancient past to our own present, the inability to conceive has always been a source of anguish and confusion, a fundamental question of “why me?” The conclusion most often reached is a particularly painful and harsh one. The easy association of infertility—as of any impairment—with divine displeasure is an ancient one, and its biblical roots can hardly be denied. But it is only an interpretation, one among many, and it is not necessarily the strongest.
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November 28, 2017
August 5, 2020
Prof. Joel Baden is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale University. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard and an M.A. from the University of Chicago. Among his many books are, The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis, The Promise to the Patriarchs, and Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness.
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