The Genesis of Infertility: A Contemporary Reading of Biblical Responses
Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler
After the first humans’ expulsion from Eden, the twin values of conception and reproduction ceased to be as simple as would the commandment, “be fruitful and multiply” might suggest. Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel (three of the four matriarchs in the Torah); as well as Hannah in N’vi-im face serious challenges trying to conceive. Each woman is vocal about her struggle in a way that befits her circumstance and personality, creating echoes that span the generations, resounding for modern women who share their struggle.
Rachel lashes out with words of anger, Hannah cries out to God in desperation, Isaac pleads with God alongside Rebecca, and Sarah takes matters into her own hands in order to ensure offspring for her husband. Biblical women and their partners confront and respond to a myriad of interconnected factors related to infertility, struggling with the fact of their barrenness, its theological and sociological implications, and an attempt to make meaning in their suffering.
The text attributes the power of opening and closing wombs to God. As God is therefore an active player in the struggle of each of these women for fertility, their quest becomes one of theological import. Hannah’s prayers are perhaps the most oft mentioned, as her pleas to God are credited as the invention of silent prayer (“Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard”) .
Whereas Hannah’s physical response to her suffering is to weep, Sarah’s is to laugh. The absurdity of the promise and the possibility of hope so long denied must have hurt as deeply as had her years of barrenness. Yet, Sarah is chastised for her laughter, as if to deny its acceptability as a legitimate emotional release to the decades of dreams deferred.
The most readily answered prayer is that of Isaac, uttered on behalf of his wife, Rebecca. She becomes pregnant seemingly right away: “And Isaac entreated YHVH for his wife because she was barren and YHVH was entreated of him and Rebecca his wife conceived”. The Hebrew is almost playful, using words with a lyrical lilt and symmetry between the one requesting and the One answering the prayer. Also, Rebecca is referenced twice in the same sentence as אִשְׁתּֽוֹ׃, “his wife”, thereby emphasizing the strong connection between the two and illustrating his active participation in entreating God. He never abandons hope that Rebecca, herself, might conceive (taking another wife in her stead or chastising her for her barrenness). God here is immediately responsive, and the couple moves from infertile in Genesis 25:21 to expectant parents of twins in the very next verse. For Isaac and Rebecca, there never seems to be a loss of hope or faith in God’s ability to alleviate Rebecca’s barrenness.
Rachel, on the other hand, seems to suffer a crisis of faith in the face of her barrenness. Rather than to God, Rachel cries out to her husband, Jacob, saying, “Give me children, else I die!” Jacob seems to hear in her plea a misdirected (in his opinion) source of the infertility and replies in anger, “Am I in God's stead, Who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?”  Jacob chastises Rachel for lashing out in anger at him, making a demand that he sees to be completely inappropriate and outside the range of his power to fulfill. Jacob, however, does not pray to God or make any pleas on Rachel’s behalf. There seems to be antagonism and resentment between these two, perhaps rooted in their shared frustration at Rachel’s inability to conceive (especially in contrast with her extraordinarily fertile sister and co-wife).
Interestingly, Sarah is silent in response to her many years of barrenness, even in the face of the seemingly absurd promise (in the face of her infertility) made to her husband that he be the father of many descendents. She, rather than pray to God, takes definitive action to make God’s promise true. She seems to acknowledge and accept that the promise of procreativity is made to Abraham and not to her; she seems to see her role, instead, as the intermediary whose actions might make the promise fulfilled. Without a word of complaint or resentment, she offers her husband an alternative route to fertility that includes another woman, her handmaid, in her stead as the bearer of offspring.
For women in Biblical times, the social implications of infertility are great. In two of the four cases, other women use their strong fertility as a tool to torment their infertile rivals. Rachel is called, עֲקָרָֽה׃, or “barren”, in contrast with her sister, Leah, whose ease with fertility (and resulting fecundity) torments Rachel. Likewise, Hannah’s infertility is mentioned specifically in counter-distinction with that of her co-wife, Peninah. Hannah weeps in response to her suffering, so wholly at a loss and staggering with grief, she appears to the outside eye to be drunk. This ancient form of bullying is suggested by the text to compensate for the fact that the infertile wives are more beloved by their husbands than their procreating counterparts.
Sarah, too, is called barren by the text; she opts to share her husband with another woman in an attempt to “give” him a son. Jealousy between women is an issue here, too, as Sarah ultimately expels the handmaid and her son because of an incident between her own child and the boy that she found too disturbing to tolerate.
MEANINGS: RABBINIC AND PERSONAL
Traditional readers of text imagine meaning in each and every corner; it is not surprising, then, that generations of rabbis noticed the abundance of infertility in the lives of the biblical matriarchs. Some postulated that God intentionally created the situation of barrenness so as to make each of these women to despair her fertility, desiring the desperate pleas from these righteous servants. In a midrash on Genesis, the rabbis imagine that “the efficacy of prayer and the value of suffering [is] that [it] leads to purification and brings people closer to God:” 
Why were the matriarchs barren? R. Levi said in R. Shila’s name and R. Helbo in R. Johanan’s names: Because the Holy One, blessed be He, yearns for their prayers and supplications. Thus it is written, “O my dove, in the cranny of the rocks,/Hidden by the cliff” (Song of Songs 2:14): Why did I make you barren? In order that, “Let Me see your face,/Let me hear your voice” (Song of Songs 2:14).
Similarly, rabbis in the Talmud, suggest that the matriarchs and patriarchs were initially childless “because the Holy One, blessed be He, longs to hear the prayer of the righteous.”
Perhaps the rabbinic mind was comforted by this explanation for infertility. Perhaps an afflicted couple in the Rabbinic period would encounter this teaching, relax into their suffering, breathing a sigh of relief, “oh, so God just wants my prayers. That explains it.” But, somehow, I can’t imagine that this platitude worked for very long, especially if the pleas continued and prayers for children remained unanswered (or the divine answer was “no”). In moments when hope wanes and doubt creeps in, I tend to prefer the company of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Hannah.
We do not like unanswered prayers any more than did our predecessors. We crave meaningful answers to our questions. We want someone to listen when we ask, “Why?” and not offer lovingly unhelpful suggestions like, “it’ll happen when the time is right” or “maybe you need to relax and stop thinking about it so much”. In quiet moments, we answer our own wordless “Why?” with equally (if not more) unhelpful answers, “God hates me” or “I’m not meant to be a mother”.
Again, our matriarchs precede us with their own answers to try to explain that which seems inexplicable. Genesis Rabbah 45:2 recounts,
“And Sarai said to Abram, ‘Look, the Lord has kept me from bearing” (Gen. 16:2) as follows: “Said she, I know the source of my affliction: It is not as people say [of a barren woman], ‘She needs an amulet, she needs a charm,’ but ‘Look, the Lord has kept me from bearing.’”
Sarai attributes her infertility to God’s will. I can imagine a seemingly endless stream of well-meaning friends and acquaintances periodically stopping by Sarai’s tent, accustomed to her husband’s hospitality and welcoming generosity, confounded by the couple’s lack of offspring. Each takes Sarai’s hand, offers a long look of disbelief, and suggests, “it’ll happen when the time is right” or “maybe you need to relax and stop thinking about it so much”.
We are the inheritors of a Jewish tradition steeped in the art of inquiry (and the pursuit of questions), familiar with righteous indignation (even arguing with divine decrees), and probing for answers wherever they might be found; we are also the inheritors of a tradition that includes the reality of infertility. As such, we include in our search the possibility of skepticism about the role (or existence of) God, medical interventions heretofore impossible, and a multiplicity of media through which conception are normative.
 Genesis 11:30; Genesis 25:21, 24-26; Genesis 29:31; Genesis 30:1-2, 9, 17, 22
 I Samuel 1:2, 5-6, 2:21
 Though less is written about them, Michal in II Samuel 6:23 and the wife of Manoach in Judges 13:2-3, 24 also struggle with infertility. Michal’s infertility is never alleviated and is unique in that there seems to be no hope and no possible intervention for her; there is a sense of the inevitability of her childlessness, “Michal the daughter of Saul had no child unto the day of her death”
 Genesis 25:21
 Genesis 16:1-2; Genesis 20:17-18; Genesis 29:31; Genesis 30:22; 1 Samuel 1:5;
 1 Samuel 1:10-16
 Genesis 25:21
 The verse uses parallel words like “vay·ye‘·tar and vay·yê·‘ā·ṯer (same verb used for that which Isaac does and that which God does in response to the inquiry) and with the repetition of sounds in words like Yitz·ḥāk and lə·nō·ḵach.
 Genesis 30:1-2
 Genesis 11:30,16:1-2, 21:1-3
 Genesis 11:30
 Generations of scholars have struggled to discern the precise nature of the boy’s misdeed, as the Hebrew verb, “metzahek” has multiple meanings
 “Infertile Wife in Rabbinic Judaism”. Judith R. Baskin. Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Jewish Women’s Archive, 2005.
 Genesis Rabbah 45:4
 BT Yevamot 64a