What does the Bible say about infertility?
The Bible is very even-handed about fertility and child-bearing. Children are a blessing (Psalm 127:3-5). Children are required to fulfill God's purpose for mankind that we "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth" (Genesis 1:28). At least twice, God used fertility to reward or comfort women (Genesis 29:31; 2 Kings 4:8-17). Yet nowhere does God condemn a woman because of infertility. Only once did God use infertility as a punishment (2 Samuel 6:20-23). For the most part, infertility was cured with the birth of a significant character, including Isaac (Genesis 21:7), Esau and Jacob (Genesis 25:21), Samson (Judges 13), Samuel the prophet (1 Samuel 1), and John the Baptist (Luke 1).
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The godly men involved in infertile relationships seemed to care more for their wives than any potential offspring. Abraham was apparently content with his wife Sarah; it was Sarah who pushed her handmaiden Hagar onto Abraham as a surrogate heir-bearer (Genesis 16). When Rebekah thought she was barren, Isaac did not seek out a second wife. Instead, he prayed that God would open his wife's womb (Genesis 25:21). Both Jacob (Genesis 29:30) and Elkanah, Samuel's father (1 Samuel 1:8), fiercely loved their wives despite troubles with infertility.
The pressure to bear children in Bible times was more cultural than theological. Except for the Greeks, who often left their infants on the street to die during rough times, most Bible-era cultures valued children and fertility. Even the Canaanites, who often sacrificed their first-borns, did so in hopes of securing more children later. Women adopted the cultural belief that bearing children was their greatest responsibility. There was some measure of urgency; the eldest son was responsible for caring for his mother when her husband passed away. But if the Bible is any indication, women often valued fertility to a point approaching idolatry. Peninnah, Elkanah's second wife, provoked Hannah bitterly to irritate her (1 Samuel 1:6). When Sarah's plan worked and her Egyptian maid conceived Abraham's child, Hagar despised Sarah; Sarah subsequently abused Hagar so much the maiden escaped to the wilderness (Genesis 16:4-6). And when God blessed an unloved Leah with sons, Rachel became so jealous she demanded Jacob give her children (Genesis 30:1-8). When Jacob pointed out that it was God Who opened and closed wombs, Rachel gave Jacob her own handmaiden. Thus began a fertility war that involved Jacob, four women, and the origins of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
We see no fewer examples of infertility in modern times. Whether the causes are environmental or genetic, thousands of couples struggle with the inability to conceive and carry a child to term. In the Old Testament, when God dealt with Israel as a nation and His blessings were related to the strength and wealth of the nation, fertility was a direct metaphor for God's blessing. In the church age, God's relationship to us is much more personal. So much so that it is possible He wants our hearts for Himself, without the distraction the blessing of children would incur. It is good and appropriate to mourn infertility. It is not good to place the desire for children above the desire for a relationship with God (Exodus 20:3).
Even so, it is perfectly biblical to seek out healing in the realm of fertility. A Christian couple is free to judiciously look into fertility treatments. Many others choose adoption. God gave us the intelligence to develop tools that counteract the fallen world's effect on our bodies; it is okay to use them if we do so with wisdom.
Fertility and parenthood are not in God's plan for everyone. But if we trust God and His plan for our lives, we can imagine Him repeating to us the words Elkanah spoke to Hannah: "… why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?"
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