Monday, 24 August 2009

Part 2 - infertility in the Bible

Obviously, we can't find any direct references in the Bible to IVF, since nothing like that existed in Biblical times. However, fertility struggles are nothing new - in fact, the first time infertility is mentioned in the Bible is in Genesis.

First we have Abraham and Sarah - Sarah is 'past the age of childbearing' (Genesis 18:12) and has given up hope of ever having a child when Isaac is born. Before his birth she has suggested in desperation that her husband should sleep with her slave-girl, Hagar, saying, "Listen, now! Since Yahweh has kept me from having children, go to my slave-girl. Perhaps I shall get children through her." (Genesis 16:2) Hagar conceives a child, following which "her mistress counted for nothing in her eyes". Yep, that smug attitude of some fertile people who think their fertility is a sign of superiority has existed since time began!

Then there's Isaac's wife, Rebekah. Genesis 25:21 tells us that "Isaac prayed to Yahweh on behalf of his wife, for she was barren. Yahweh heard his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived." She conceives twins - Jacob and Esau.

The next generation also struggle. Jacob falls in love with Rachel, but is tricked by her father into marrying her older sister, Leah. He then also marries Rachel, and loves her more than he loves Leah. Honestly, have a look at Genesis 29:31-30:24 - it's like a soap opera! There's more surrogacy through the slave-girls, there's jealousy between the two wives, there's despair as Rachel cries out to Jacob, "Give me children, or I shall die!" - and there's the final triumph when Rachel bears a son (and is dissatisfied with just one, immediately wanting another one). And of course, that first of two sons borne by Rachel is Joseph (he of the amazing technicolour dreamcoat), who is Jacob's favourite son.

Samson's mother was barren, until the Angel of the Lord came to her and promised that she would bear a son, and gave very strict instructions about how she was to behave and how her son was to be brought up (Judges 13).

The Shunnamite woman in 2 Kings 4 is barren, until she gives a home to Elisha and he prophesies that she will hold a son in her arms within a year.

In 1 Samuel 1, we again see the pain of the infertile woman in some detail. Elkanah has two wives, and Peninnah, who has children, taunts and provokes Hannah because of her barrenness. Hannah suffers the taunts of Peninnah, the patronising of her husband ("Why are you so sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?") and the misunderstanding of the priest, who thinks when she is praying in a state of great distress that she is drunk. Again, the barren woman is eventually blessed with a son, Samuel, and she dedicates his life to Yahweh.

There is one infertile woman in the Bible who isn't eventually blessed with a child. In each of the stories above, the infertility has been a source of great anguish, and the infertile woman (and often her husband as well) is described as praying for relief from her barrenness. The story of Michal, wife of King David, is different. She is a shrewish woman who criticises her husband for making an exhibition of himself as he executes a dance of thanksgiving (2 Samuel 6:12-23). The story ends with a slightly throwaway line saying that Michal never had children, and it seems that this is a punishment for her contemptuous behaviour. Not a happy story, but one which again shows that childlessness is an affliction.

And then we come to the New Testament, and Mary's cousin Elizabeth. Luke 1:6-7 tells us that Elizabeth and Zechariah "were upright in the sight of God and impeccably carried out all the commandments and observances of the Lord. But they were childless: Elizabeth was barren and they were both advanced in years". Then Zechariah is told that his prayer has been heard, and that they are to have a son - "He will be your joy and delight and many will rejoice at his birth" (Luke 1:14).

What do we get out of all this? Well, there's obviously a clear understanding in the Bible about how painful the experience of infertility is - how desperate a couple, and particularly a woman, can be when they are unable to have children; how much pain can be caused by the lack of understanding of other people; how an infertile woman can feel taunted by the fertility of others (and yes, although I love being around the children I know, like other women who are struggling to have children there are times when I find it almost unbearable to be around pregnant women or to hear another pregnancy or birth announcement); and the great joy that an infertile couple can experience if they do eventually become parents.

Infertility is depicted as a struggle, an affliction, a source of great sadness, and something from which people pray to be delivered - and there's great rejoicing when they are delivered from this affliction. It's also something which is not well understood in medical terms, and we can compare its depiction to that of diseases for which there was at the time no known cure, such as leprosy - again, a source of distress, and an affliction which was sometimes cured through prayer (there being no other way to escape its effects).

And look what special children those were who were born to women who had suffered years of infertility - Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samson, Samuel, John the Baptist.

So, is prayer the only way we should deal with our infertility? Should we, as has been suggested to me, "take up the cross of infertility" and accept that we just weren't meant to have children? There's certainly no suggestion in the Bible that any of these women accepted their situation with equanimity - they prayed, they cried, they pleaded, they never gave up - and they were eventually rewarded for their persistence.

If Elizabeth hadn't been pregnant when her young, unmarried cousin Mary got knocked up and turned up on her doorstep, would she have been able to welcome her with quite such open arms? Might she have pasted on a smile to greet her and then made an excuse to go off to another room, to have a little cry about the unfairness of life?

And if IVF had been available, would Rachel, who thought she would die if she couldn't have a child, have turned it down?


  1. This has been such an inspirational post to read. I can't believe I actually feel at one with women who before were not 'real' to me and just stories I was taught as a young girl. Now I feel like I have shared my experiences with friends. Only a couple of people know we are trying to conceive, but in such inspiring company as the women whose stories you mention, I know I will never be alone in my struggles.

    Thank you xx

  2. I was in tears by the end of your 8/11 post! Our stories are very similar. I haven't been trying for as long, but we have similarly debilitating MFI. We got to our first urologist appointment tomorrow and I'm fully expecting to hear that ICSI is our best hope and/or only option. We're also Catholic, so there's that giant wrinkle to contend with...which makes me grateful for your post today!

    I'll be following your story intently! Best of luck and fingers crossed! (((HUGS)))