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The Stigma of Infertility in Antiquity

Written by Noreen Jacks. Posted in

The Bible lists numerous barren women in the Hebrew Scriptures and one barren woman in the New Testament, all of whom gave birth prior to the advent of the Messiah. Each woman has a unique story to share concerning the infertility that grieved her heart until fruitfulness was realized in God’s appointed time. Believers, today, can learn much about waiting on the Lord by studying the lives of these heroic women, who were frequently regarded as outcasts in their culture.

Barrenness was perceived in many forms in Bible times … barrenness in the fields, barrenness in the orchards and vineyards, barrenness among the herds and flocks, and barrenness of the human womb. Childlessness was the greatest anguish for a woman in the ancient world and the greatest humiliation for her husband. To say the least, infertility was considered tragic, and barren individuals were often mocked by a cruel, insensitive society.

Barrenness, generally considered a female abnormality, was a humiliating social stigma, a fate worse than death, believed to be divinely imposed upon certain women who had been cursed by the gods. Barren women were habitually taunted and ridiculed and made to feel like second class citizens. The shame of barrenness was always on the minds of infertile couples. In some societies, husbands were free to acquire secondary wives or concubines to fulfill their need for progeny, preferably a male heir.

The childless couple faced an uncertain future with no offspring to work the fields, tend the herds, and assist with the daily chores in the home. Even worse, who would care for the couple in old age, mourn their passing, bury them with dignity, memorialize them annually, and carry the family name to the next generation and beyond? Such were the time-honored duties of one’s loyal children. With critical needs of this magnitude, it is not surprising that desperate people in the ancient world were obsessed with reproduction of the species.

The shame of barrenness gave rise to fertility cults. The forces of nature that supplied life-giving food and water to ancient man were revered as gods, blood-thirsty deities in many instances, demanding both animal and human sacrifice as a means of appeasement. Because fertility of the fields, herds, and the human womb was of constant concern in the pagan world, ritualistic forms of nature worship evolved in an attempt to control the forces of nature that do the bidding of Almighty God. Ignorance of the changing patterns associated with seasonal weather conditions, coupled with pervasive superstition, gave rise to countless myths that were venerated by the pagan populace. Gods and goddesses, idols made by human hands, were given dominion over various aspects of nature. Quite literally, there was a god for everything under the sun, with the focus generally involving fertility in some form.

Male and female temple prostitution and ritual sex played a significant role in ancient Canaanite worship, representing sacred union with the gods that yielded a boost in fertility and an impartation of the deity to the practitioners. Such was the superstitious belief system of the ancient world. Of course, the lascivious fertility cults were off limits to the Israelites, who were forbidden by God to learn the evil ways of the heathen (Deut 12:2-4).

Barrenness can wear many faces. Spiritual barrenness, a lack of fruitfulness in one’s life, is much more critical than any form of physical barrenness. The flesh survives for a season, but the spirit endures for eternity. If you are suffering from barrenness in the natural or in the spiritual, you will derive comfort, hope, and renewed faith as you study the lives of these women of God, who in reality were not barren, but rather temporarily infertile until God’s appointed time.

*For additional information on this subject, see this author’s book: Barrenness in the Bible – Curse or Blessing? Special this month from, only $15.00: includes tax, shipping, and handling for a 164 pages of faith-filled lectures and testimonials of God’s covenantal promises and a workbook suitable for personal or group study. Be blessed and fruitful in the name of Our Lord!

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