Why the Bible sometimes doesn't help

By Heidi Schlumpf| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Marriage and Family Scripture and Theology

Many Catholics couples struggling with infertility naturally turn to the scriptures for solace. Maybe they shouldn't.

Although the Old and New Testaments are full of examples of "barren women"-Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Elizabeth, to name a few-it's unlikely that many contemporary infertile couples will find comfort in their stories.

"First of all, it's always an infertile woman in a patriarchal society like the ancient Near East," says Sister Dianne Bergant, C.S.A., professor of Old Testament at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. "That's the way they understood infertility. You do not portray your leaders-like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-as men who cannot impregnate a woman."

On top of that, infertility was often seen as a punishment from God. And in most of the biblical stories, women who are infertile or way past their childbearing years eventually become pregnant through the grace of God-a miracle that may not happen for the majority of contemporary infertile couples. Rebekah's infertility journey is summed up in one quick sentence-"Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived" (Gen. 25:21)-and gave birth to twins, no less!

That's because infertility in the scriptures is used to make a theological point that really has little to do with a woman's ability to conceive. "The infertility is not the point of the story," says Bergant. "It's not about the mother or even the father. It's about the child. If a child is not conceived in a normal way, that's the traditional way of saying the child is clearly a gift from God. The very fact that these women who could not bear children did means this is an extraordinary child."

And that child is always a son-again because of the patriarchal culture.

In biblical times, survival was the primary goal, Bergant explains. "You can't survive if you don't have the next generation. In a society with high infant mortality, few children brought to term, and many women dying in childbirth, all the odds were against a successor. So it was very important that women be fertile and have lots of children. That was a woman's primary responsibility."

That clearly is not the situation of contemporary infertile couples. "So drawing comparisons to biblical characters may not be helpful," says Bergant.

So what can infertile couples glean from scripture? Elizabeth Ministry, named for the infertile woman who eventually gives birth to John the Baptist, models its peer-support and mentoring program on the friendship between Elizabeth and Mary as evidenced in the Visitation.

Elizabeth Ministry founder Jeannie Hannemann points out that Luke 1:6 says both Elizabeth and Zechariah "were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord." "So it wasn't their fault," she says. "God didn't curse them with this."

Bergant also points out that in biblical times children were cherished by the entire society. "It really did take a village," she says. "So there's this idea that even though you may not be able to have your own children, the generative impulse and gifts can be shared in different ways."