Sunday, October 2, 2011

Infertile Women of the Bible

I recently found this interesting article about infertile women in the Bible and women who were infertile for a period of time. I found this article at it is an excerpt from a book called Infertility, Survival Guide for Couples and Those Who Love Them by Cindy Lewis Drake

She writes:
If infertility is hard to endure in the 21st century, think how helpless an infertile woman felt when the nearest fertility clinic was 2,000-6,000 years down the road. The chief value of a woman in biblical times was first her chastity and, after marriage, her reproductivity.

When I began looking for any woman in God’s Word who preceded us in the sisterhood of infertility, names like Rachel, Sarah, and Hannah came to mind quickly, but there were others. What can we learn from each woman? How did she cope with her plight? How did her story end?

Women’s names began filling my scribbled pages as I researched the 300-plus women mentioned in Scripture. The most easily identifiable women were barren temporarily, then later blessed with children. In most cases, their barrenness and how God resolved it appeared to be one of the main reasons she was present in Scripture. The point? God used infertility to show His miraculous power and to carry out His plan for human history. These women are described in Women who were temporarily infertile.The biggest surprise was I could find only one woman who was mentioned as never having children—Michal, first wife of King David. That certainly doesn’t mean there weren’t more, because surely there were. But the details are missing, so we’ll never know who they were. Read Michal’s lone story in A woman who remained childless. Hannah is the most notable infertile woman in the Bible. We see the depth of her pain physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Hannah’s story is told in more detail in this chapter because so many aspects of her plight call to us from the depths of our own pain. When I started my research, I intended to title this chapter “All the Infertile Women of the Bible,” thinking I could compile every woman who struggled with infertility. But digging in, I realized the lack of details on most biblical women prevented me from discerning if they were mothers or not. A large number of women are mentioned only once in Scripture, such as Job’s beautiful daughters, Jemima, Kezia, Kerenhappuch. They are listed only by name, not whether or not they became mothers eventually. Thus, an absolutely complete list of the infertile women of the Bible will have to remain open-ended. Their stories will remain untold, but the women whose stories we know have spoken to barren women through the ages.

Women who were temporarily infertile
Elizabeth Elizabeth and Zechariah “were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years” (Luke 1:6-7). A godly couple, barren, and old—the perfect setting for a miracle! And that’s just what happened. While performing his priestly duties, Zechariah is visited by an angel announcing that “your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord” (vv. 13-15). Elizabeth becomes the mother of John the Baptist, the long-prophesied one who would prepare the people for the coming of Christ. Had Elizabeth become a mother in her youth, the news of this post-menopausal baby probably would have been amazing, but not really in the miraculous category. God’s plan was to keep her womb closed until both Elizabeth and Zechariah (and everyone who knew them) had given up on their chance of children, and it was precisely the absence of previous children that made the coming of this one so remarkable. After John’s birth and naming (complete with a tongue-loosing miracle for the new dad), “the neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, ‘What then is this child going to be?’ For the Lord’s hand was with him” (vv. 65-66). (See Luke 1.)

Manoah’s wife, Samson’s mother It’s surprising that we’re never given this barren woman’s name, because her faith is certainly worth admiring. Twice an angel appeared to her to provide details of her upcoming pregnancy, and twice the angel explains that she will carry the burden of raising the child in strict accordance to the Nazirite vow, a consecration to God that would begin in the womb for this baby….

(Nine biblical women are highlighted in this section of this chapter.)
A woman who remained childless: Michal She was a princess and the wife of a king, but her life was no Cinderella story. The daughter of King Saul, she fell in love with handsome young David, the warrior destined to be king. As a prize for his military success, she was given in marriage to David. Her loyalty was wrapped up in their mutual love, and to protect him, she helped him escape Saul’s crazed vengeance in one memorable incident (1 Sam. 19). But once David was in hiding, Saul repossessed her to strike back at David.

An example to us all: Hannah’s story What a gift God has given us in the story of Hannah! Her 11th century B.C. journey closely resembles the struggles of 21st century infertile women. She was often consumed by her thoughts of infertility—she went alone to the temple and cried her heart out to God. She made drastic promises to the Lord in hopes she would be given a child. She was stabbed with the pain of watching other women bear children with no problem. In Hannah, we see a complete picture of the pain of infertility. 

Further research available online only! This list of women got their fair share of press in Scripture, but we’re never told if they were mothers. Because motherhood was central to a woman’s purpose in society, the absence of such defining information leads me to think perhaps these women were childless. Their presence in the Bible was based on who they were and what they did, not simply on whether or not they produced offspring.

Women who may have been childless This list doesn’t include every woman in Scripture whose motherhood was undetermined. Instead, these are the most significant women, the ones we can piece together something about their lives and contributions to the events of their time. The interesting thing is that their infertility is not the central point in their lives. Most of these women were faithful to their God and are prime examples of remarkable service. We can learn much from their commitment to give their lives purpose and meaning by searching out and fulfilling God’s plan for them, even though it appears children were not part of that plan.

Anna A prophetess who lived at the Temple in Jerusalem, our only insights about Anna are three verses, enough to let us know she was almost assuredly childless. Married for seven years, she was then widowed for the rest of her life. Some commentaries interpret the text’s wording of “a widow until she was eighty-four” to mean she was 84 when she encountered Jesus and His earthly parents in the Temple; others interpret the original Greek to mean she had been widowed 84 years. Either way, the lady was old, well past child-bearing years, and content to serve her Lord constantly and completely. She literally lived at the Temple, worshipping and praising God every day. She walked up to Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus at the Temple and immediately proclaimed that this was the long-awaited Christ. We can admire the depth of spirit she possessed after many decades of dedication to the study of God’s Word. She moved beyond her loss, filling her life with love and service. (See Luke 2:36-38.)

Dorcas (or Tabitha) This benevolent woman was known for her ministry in Joppa, a port town on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea which had its share of widows and fatherless children, probably due to the deaths of men who made their living on the sea. We don’t know her age, but we can wonder if she, too, was a childless widow, since neither husband nor children are mentioned. Her gift is her ability to sew clothing for the needy. When she dies suddenly, the disciples send for Peter, who had just arrived in nearby Lydda (10 miles east). He came to Joppa and restored Dorcas to life and ministry. (See Acts 9:36-42.)

Esther As a Jewish girl adopted by her cousin Mordecai, Esther probably had dreams of marrying a Jewish young man and having a half dozen kids. Yet her path took a radical, irreversible diversion when her beauty brought her to the Persian palace to be considered as the new queen for King Xerxes. The purpose of the book of Esther is to tell the story of how she rose to the throne for the divine purpose of rescuing the entire Jewish population from a ruthless plot to murder them. But since the book covers the events of several years, it seems logical that if she had birthed royal children, it would have been noted. A half-Jewish prince or princess in a Persian palace would be something to talk about! The book ends abruptly, leaving us wanting to know the rest of the story. (See Esther.)

Huldah Huldah was a woman in the right place at the right time to say the right thing for the Lord. She lived in Jerusalem, was married, and known as a Hebrew prophetess, like Miriam and Deborah were. No children are mentioned. She was a contemporary of prophets Zephaniah and Jeremiah, and Jewish tradition says she was a woman of academia who taught school. One day, a priest, a scribe, and some royal servants came knocking on her door. These men were sent by King Josiah to find someone who could interpret the Scriptures found hidden in the crumbling walls of the Temple. (Josiah had instigated massive refurbishing of the temple built by Solomon, which had fallen into neglect.) One commentary said that other prophets were too far away, so a prophet close at hand was needed immediately. She had distinguished herself as a woman of God, and when the visitors came, she spoke the truth from her Lord: Destruction and ruin would come upon the land, and Jerusalem will be destroyed. But because of Josiah’s heart for God, he would not see the devastation in his lifetime. Josiah immediately swept away the pagan temples, monuments, and altars built by his forefathers, some by King Solomon 300 years before. Passover was celebrated more purely, completely, and exuberantly than it had been in about 500 years (since the days of Samuel the prophet). Huldah must have rejoiced to know she had been a part of bringing revival to her people. But she knew it would be short-lived. As predicted, the reprieve from desolation was a mere window in time. Just 13 years later, Josiah was killed in battle. He rested in peace, but the country fell into ruins. (See 2 Kings 22-24 and parallel passage in 2 Chronicles 34.)

Jehosheba Every child should have a doting aunt like Aunt Jehosheba was to little Joash. Both of them were of royal blood, and little Joash was even one of the possible heirs to the throne. But they lived in savage times. The reigning queen had sat on the throne with her husband/king before he died, then ruled through her son/king before he died. Now, Athaliah claimed the throne as her own and set out to kill everyone who had any claim to it. This meant she tried to kill her own grandchildren (Joash was one) and other blood relatives. Godly Jehosheba managed to kidnap Joash, who was only about a year old, before Athaliah got to him. Joash was hidden in the Lord’s temple for six years since Jehosheba’s husband was the priest in charge of the entire temple. At age 7, Jehosheba’s husband, Jehoiada, brought forth the little king, gathered the armies, and overthrew wicked Athaliah in one day. Jehosheba and Jehoiada have no children listed, but what she did to protect her nephew brought godliness back to the kingdom of Judah, at least for a few decades while Joash reigned. (See 2 Kings 11:1-21; 2 Chronicles 22:10-24:1.)

Joanna As a follower of Christ, she joined with the disciples and women who went from town to town as Jesus preached. She was the wife of Cuza, who managed King Herod’s household, so she was likely a woman of considerable wealth. She and other women were helping to support Jesus’ ministry from their own pocketbooks. It’s unlikely she would have felt free to follow Jesus’ traveling ministry if she’d had children at home. She surely must have been one of the women who stood at the foot of the cross as Jesus died, because she is one of three named women who went to embalm Jesus at the tomb, only to find He had risen. (See Luke 8:1-3, 23:55-24:12.)

Miriam As the older sister of Moses, Miriam saw a lifetime of remarkable works of God, from the rescue of her infant brother from the Nile River by Pharoah’s daughter, to the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, to the opening of the Red Sea, to the encounters Moses had with God. Miriam saw it all. She was quite human, though, and her privileged role as sister of God’s chosen leader didn’t ensure she was always a bastion of unshakeable faith. Undoubtedly, though, Miriam was the most vocal female leader of the Israelite nation in her day. Though the Bible doesn’t mention her husband, “tradition has it that she became the wife of Hur, who with Aaron held up the hands of Moses.” (Edith Deen, All of the Women of the Bible, HarperSanFrancisco, 1983, page 353) Tradition doesn’t suggest any children, though, so we’re fairly safe in assuming Miriam was never a mother. Her life was far from empty because every day was full of matters related to helping Moses govern the people. Centuries later in the years of Micah the prophet, God sent this word to Israel, “I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam” (Micah 6:4). Miriam’s role as one of the top three leaders for the millions of wandering Israelites elevates her to a status untouched by any other woman in Scripture. (See Exodus 2, 15 and Numbers 12, 20, 26.)

Moses’ Egyptian mother We know her only as Pharoah’s daughter in Scripture, the woman who adopted Moses. And though she was surely a worshipper of Egyptian idols, God chose her to participate unknowingly in a divine plan to protect the Hebrew child who would be the liberator of His enslaved people. We have no record of her barrenness, but we also have no record that she bore or adopted additional children. When you consider her reaction to finding a three-month-old slave-child in a basket on the Nile, we can only wonder if her deep mercy was a result of her deep pain of infertility. Maybe she saw this baby as a benevolence handed down from her gods in answer to her prayers for a child. But why risk her life by sparing a slave’s baby? As a princess, she could have adopted an Egyptian baby any day of the week. And it wasn’t like she could hide the truth from Pharoah—Moses scampered around the palace like the other royal children and grandchildren. If she already had other children, her need to mother Moses would surely not have been so strong. We can only guess that Moses must have been one adorable baby for her to risk Pharoah’s wrath. Exodus 2:2 seems to support that, because Jochebed, Moses’ Hebrew mother, “saw that he was a fine child” so she hid him in the basket. In this case, royal infertility had a divine purpose. (See Exodus 2:1-10.)

Priscilla This woman from Italy and her husband, Aquila, became great friends with Paul and exceptional leaders in the new church. Though she is never labeled as barren, neither are her offspring ever mentioned. Five of seven times she is listed before Aquila, which may indicate she carried the greater responsibility in the church. In Romans, Paul sent his greetings to this couple and the church that met in their home, then he highly praises Priscilla and Aquila for risking their lives for his sake. “Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.” Their lives may have been childless, but they were not empty or purposeless. Instead, this couple made eternal contributions to the first century Christian church. (See Romans 16:3-5, Acts 18, 1 Corinthians 16:19, 2 Timothy 4:19.)

Samaritan woman at the well Jesus had one of His longest recorded dialogues with a woman as He spoke to the infamous woman in this passage. When He struck up a conversation with her, He knew He was going to change her life, but she didn’t. She only found it curious that a Jewish man would bother talking with the likes of her, the one probably known in her village as “that woman.” Jesus pegged her life and lifestyle when He said she’d had five husbands and was living with still another man. Was her barrenness one of the reasons for her marital dissatisfaction? Was she pushed aside for more fertile women once or twice until she became known as used goods, no longer appealing to men who would respect her? If she had children, Jesus never mentioned them, and neither did she. If she’d had children from other marriages, especially young children, it seems they would have looked forward to going to the well with Mama every day to draw water. But she was alone. Jesus offered her spiritual healing and “living water,” and she was so impressed, she ran to town with news of Jesus. She earned back her respect as a woman who could be trusted, because her neighbors later said, “‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world’” (v. 42). (See John 4:7-42.)

Sapphira Ananias and Sapphira were participants in the early Jerusalem church. In the eleven verses that tell their story (a significant amount for minor characters), nothing is mentioned of their offspring. The couple sold some property, and Ananias delivered the money to the church himself, claiming he was giving the total sum to God. Peter was given divine insight to know Ananias had in fact kept back part of the profit. The sin was not in keeping some back, but in lying that he was giving it all. Confronted with the truth, Ananias fell dead on the spot and was immediately buried by young men in the church (not by any of his own sons). A few hours later, Sapphira came to the church, unaware of her husband’s death. When asked the price of the land, she lied, too, which proves they made a prior agreement with each other to hide the truth. Peter revealed to her that her husband had been caught in the same lie and was now dead and buried. She died immediately and was buried beside him. (See Acts 5:1-11.)

Sheerah This daughter of Beriah lived in about 1450 B.C. and made herself notable because she directed the building of several towns, which was certainly not the average job for a woman who lived 3,500 years ago. We aren’t told if she was married or if she was a mother. (See 1 Chronicles 7:24.)

Vashti Formerly the queen of Persia, King Xerxes divorced her because she wouldn’t appear before him and his noblemen to parade her beauty at his feast, which was more like an orgy. Jewish sources indicate she was requested to appear naked before this crowd of drunken men, clothed with only the royal crown on her head. Persian wives were kept in seclusion in each other’s company during such festivities, so the king’s inebriated request was far from proper, even if she were to appear clothed. The king’s advisers offered poor advice, doling out much harsher consequences than the offense deserved. An irrevocable law was passed so that Vashti could never enter the king’s presence again. No reference is made to any children she may have born for the king, and we know nothing else of Vashti after this early reference in a book about Esther’s rise to the throne. Producing royal heirs would have made her a more valuable player on the royal scene, and the advisers might have had a harder time convincing the king to depose her. (See Esther 1-2.)

Widow with two mites
Jesus observed this unnamed widow as He and the disciples watched people in the Jerusalem temple. We know she was poor, because she gave all she had, only two small copper coins worth a fraction of a penny. We know she was a widow, though we don’t have a clue about her age. Finally, we know she was faithful, because Jesus praised her giving more than all the others. What we don’t know is if she was a mother. Adult children would have had some responsibility to provide financially for their widowed mother. If she were a young widow with children at home, Jesus might have said, “she put in all she and her children had to live on.” Giving what she would have spent on food for her children would be an important aspect of faith for Jesus to note. Her belief in God’s constancy to provide for her needs is unparalleled, so that “today the world knows more about the poor widow than about the richest man in Jerusalem in her day.” (All of the Women of the Bible, page 58) (See Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4.)

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