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Pregnancy and Childbirth in the Hebrew Bible

giving birth-egypt
stone relief sculpture at the Temple of Hathor at Dendera

Throughout time, ritual and lore have surrounded pregnancy and childbirth. Surprisingly, the Hebrew Bible does not relegate these two mysteries of human existence exclusively to the realms of women. Men in crisis situations—and even God—are also compared to women giving birth.

In Isa 42:14, for example, YHWH gasps and pants like a woman in childbirth before becoming a warrior. Jeremiah applies the “pain” and “anguish” of labor to men hearing the news of a coming war (Jer 6:24, Jer 49:24, and Jer 50:43). The metaphor of childbirth emphasizes the subject’s suffering and the unknown outcome of the crisis. The authors of the Hebrew Bible recognized that giving birth and undergoing crisis are both existential human events, where a threshold is crossed into either life or death.

When pregnancy and childbirth are discussed literally, the Hebrew Bible shows the influences of ancient Near Eastern literature. In that broader context, literary motifs and language about pregnancy and childbirth often emphasize the involvement of the gods (for example, Nisaba, Ninisina, Enlil, Utu, or Nintu/Ninhursaga) or, in the case of the Hebrew Bible, the involvement of the God of Israel. A successful journey through the dangers and miracles of conceiving children, carrying a pregnancy, and giving birth are seen as direct evidence for divine support in both ancient Israel and the larger ancient Near East.

Hebrew Bible metaphors for conception are homely and tactile. In Ps 139:13-15, conception is like the sowing of seeds, and the embryo grows in the dark womb as if in the depths of the earth. The fetus develops like woolen threads joined by a divine knitter (Ps 139:13, Job 10:11), or it is shaped as a potter forms clay (Job 10:9), or it separates and solidifies as curds from whey (Job 10:10).

During childbirth, mothers in the Hebrew Bible are often supported by midwives or other women or midwives. Whether these women performed any magico-medical procedures is unknown, but the binding of red thread around the hand of Tamar’s firstborn might be a remnant of such actions (Gen 38:28). The most common position for childbirth was probably crouching or kneeling, perhaps supported by birthstones (1 Sam 4:19).

Several rituals are reported after birth: cutting the umbilical cord, washing with water, rubbing with salt, clothing by attendants, naming by the parents, and circumcision of the infant boys on the eighth day after birth. In addition, there were rituals that restored the mothers to a ritually clean state (see Lev 12).

In general, the Hebrew Bible abbreviates descriptions of conception, pregnancy, and childbirth, using formulas such as “he knew his wife” and “she conceived and bore [a son]” (see, for example, Gen 4:1). Details about the mother’s physical and emotional state are rare. The goal of the text is not to describe actual pregnancies, births, or the feelings of mothers-to-be. The stories in the Hebrew Bible are, rather, about the development of a people.

The treatment of Eve’s pregnancy and her labor are a case in point. God promises her a most “difficult” childbirth (Gen 3:16), but the term “difficult” is also applied to Adam’s agricultural work in the next verse, thus widening the view to all of humanity (Gen 3:17). Eve’s actual childbirth is described in formulaic language, without any discussion of her feelings (Gen 4:1).

When applied literally to women giving birth, the language of pregnancy and childbirth in the Hebrew Bible is unspecific. It becomes more imaginative only when used as a metaphor to describe God or men in personal, historical, or universal crisis.

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    Claudia D. Bergmann currently works as the project coordinator for the Research Centre “Dynamics of Jewish Ritual Practices in Pluralistic Contexts from Antiquity to the Present” at the University of Erfurt, Germany. She published her dissertation Childbirth as a Metaphor for Crisis with de Gruyter in 2008.