Barrenness by Cynthia R. Chapman

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” (Gen 16:2; see also Gen 30:2). Later, during Sarah’s strange sojourn in the house of King Abimelech, Yahweh is said to have “closed fast all the wombs of the house of Abimelech” as punishment for Abimelech’s taking Sarah into his house (Gen 20:18). Michal, the daughter of Saul and wife of King David, offended David when she rebuked him for dancing naked before the ark of Yahweh. When the narrator closes Michal’s story with the notification that “Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death,” a reader could conclude that her barrenness is a divine punishment or curse. In an oracle of condemnation against Israel, the prophet Hosea announces, “the days of punishment have come” such that Yahweh will guarantee that Ephraim as a nation experiences “no birth, no pregnancy, no conception” (Hos 9:7, Hos 11).

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” (Gen 29:31). He later “remembers” Rachel and “opens her womb,” allowing her to conceive and bear her son Joseph (Gen 30:22-24). The sons of once-barren matriarchs—Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—became the chosen sons in their fathers’ houses and the foundational ancestors of the nation of Israel. We also find barrenness as a theme in the stories of the unnamed mother of Samson, Hannah the mother of Samuel, and Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist. The sons born to these women were singled out as special; they were Nazirites, priests, or heralds of the future messiah. In each of these stories, barrenness serves a literary and theological purpose, heightening the tension around a divine promise of fertility and marking a child for divinely ordained leadership.

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” (Gen 30:1, Gen 23). Similarly, when Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, conceived despite being old and barren, she announced, the Lord “has taken away the disgrace that I have endured among my people” (Luke 1:7, Luke 1:25).

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.

Cynthia R. Chapman , "Barrenness", n.p. [cited 27 Sep 2022]. Online:



Cynthia R. Chapman
Adelia A. F. Johnston and Harry Thomas Frank Professor of Religion, Oberlin College

Cynthia R. Chapman is the Adelia A. F. Johnston and Harry Thomas Frank Professor of Religion at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. She is the author of The House of the Mother: The Social Roles of Maternal Kin in Biblical Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

ability to bear offspring

something that foreshadows a future event

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, the wives of the patriarchs of Genesis.

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

a temporary stay

when a woman bears a child on behalf of another woman or man

someone who stands in as a substitute for another individual; a woman who bears a child on behalf of another woman or man

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Gen 16:2

2and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” ... View more

Gen 30:2

2Jacob became very angry with Rachel and said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?”

Gen 20:18

18For the Lord had closed fast all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham's wife.

Hos 9:7

7The days of punishment have come,
the days of recompense have come;
Israel cries,
“The prophet is a fool,
the man of the spirit is mad!”
Because of your great ... View more

Hos 11

God's Compassion Despite Israel's Ingratitude
1When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.2The more I called them,
the more they wen ... View more

Gen 29:31

31When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.

Gen 30:22-24

22Then God remembered Rachel, and God heeded her and opened her womb.23She conceived and bore a son, and said, “God has taken away my reproach”;24and she named ... View more

Gen 30:1

1When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!”

Gen 23

Sarah's Death and Burial
1Sarah lived one hundred twenty-seven years; this was the length of Sarah's life.2And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in t ... View more

Luke 1:7

7But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Luke 1:25

25“This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

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