“Be fruitful and multiply”—these are the first words God speaks to humanity in the Bible (Genesis 1:28). For many interpreters and religious communities, ancient and modern, they have been taken as a command to procreate, and procreation has been understood as a primary divine directive. But these words can read very differently to those who are unable to have children. Are they somehow in violation of the divine directive—or are they somehow cursed with infertility? This is a common view both in faith communities and in critical scholarship: that, in the Bible, infertility, like other physical impairments, is somehow a punishment for sin. In our book Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness, we push back against this reading.1
Although it is spoken to the first humans in Genesis 1, “be fruitful and multiply” is not a command that pertains to all people at all times. Even in the Bible itself, these words cannot be taken as straightforward instruction: Both Noah and Jacob are told to be fruitful and multiply, yet in both cases God says this to them after they have finished producing offspring. Moreover, this blessing is given only to those individuals who stand at the head of necessary lineages: the first humans, Noah, Abraham and Jacob. Once Jacob’s 12 sons are born, no one else in the Bible will ever be told to be fruitful and multiply. After all, we are told already at the end of Genesis that the Israelites had become fruitful and numerous. The command has long since been fulfilled.
Though Genesis, and much of the narrative of the Hebrew Bible, is concerned with lineage, there are plenty of characters, especially women, who are not said ever to have offspring: Dinah, Miriam and Deborah, among others. They are not condemned for their childlessness—nor, for that matter, are the five famous barren women of the Hebrew Bible, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Hannah and Samson’s mother, who later all conceive. Though some ancient interpreters tried to identify some rationale for these women’s infertility, the Bible itself attributes no faults to them. They are, simply, barren—and blameless.
Responsibility for barrenness did not fall on the infertile individual (or, more specifically, on the infertile woman; the Bible seems to contain little to no recognition of the possibility of male infertility). Indeed, in the ancient Near East, there was a broader understanding that every successful procreation was the result of divine intervention: The deity had to “open the womb” in order for conception to occur. Like the opening of a rock to give forth water or the opening of the donkey’s mouth to speak to the prophet Balaam, the opening of the womb was miraculous, despite its frequency. The absence of this miracle could hardly be a reflection of some human sin—and, in the case of the barren matriarchs, it is never described as such.
The fundamental insistence on biological procreation as divinely ordained, derived from the narratives of the Hebrew Bible, is called into question when we turn to the New Testament. There the most important parent-child relationship, that of God and Jesus, is presented in explicitly non-biological terms. Rather, the driving metaphor is one of adoption, a well-attested and well-respected practice in the Greco-Roman world. This comes out in Mark, the earliest gospel, which completely lacks a birth story for Jesus: For Mark, Jesus becomes the son of God through the rite of baptism with which the gospel opens. Even when a “biological” relationship of God and Jesus is posited, it is not then imposed as normative on the community of Jesus’ followers. Quite the contrary: Paul does not value biological lineage for its own sake, but rather upholds a model of lineage by choice, as it were. Those who are part of the family are those who choose to follow Jesus: They are adopted children of God and co-heirs with Christ. Indeed, God sacrifices his biological child, Jesus, for the sake of his adopted children, the nascent Christian community.
The importance of biological procreation, or having offspring at all, was not obvious to some early Christian communities. The Greco-Roman world valued restraint and self-control as a marker of individual strength, a perspective that is central for understanding Paul’s writings on sex and marriage. Paul’s preference is for celibacy; the family he values is the broader Christian one, not the nuclear one, in line with Jesus’ statements in the Gospel of Mark that he does not recognize his own biological 066relatives and wants his followers to abandon their families. These views led to the early Christian valuation of celibacy, virginity and monasticism, all aspects of voluntary infertility. In the modern world, we have separated the blessed state of chastity from the broken state of infertility; yet in the ancient world, such a clear distinction was not always drawn. Pregnancy and childbirth were not unambiguous goods for early Christians.
For both Jews and Christians in antiquity, the common vision of the eschaton (the afterlife or the world to come) was one in which there was no sex, no procreation. As heavenly bodies were seen to be healed of their earthly impairments, so too angels and the resurrected were understood to be barren. In this way, those who are infertile in their earthly existence could be viewed not as flawed, but as embodying the heavenly ideal. A culture’s depiction of heaven is always a reflection of its own values; the perfected body in ancient Judaism and Christianity was a barren one.
Centuries of accumulated “wisdom,” guided by God’s first words to humanity in Genesis 1, have led to an understanding of procreation that not only excludes the infertile, but often actively harms them. Infertility is, in many communities, a true disability, one that entails social shame, whether or not it is explicitly linked to some imagined sin. There is no question that the Bible generally presents fertility and childbearing as good and blessed—a notion that continues to permeate our literature, our pulpits, our medical establishment and our public policy. But it is not the case that it therefore necessarily renders infertility and childlessness as bad or cursed. On the contrary, there are many voices and perspectives in the Bible that, though they may not have received the blessing of orthodox tradition, challenge these conventional views and may rehabilitate the Bible as a source of comfort for those who cannot be fruitful and multiply.
“Be fruitful and multiply”—these are the first words God speaks to humanity in the Bible (Genesis 1:28). For many interpreters and religious communities, ancient and modern, they have been taken as a command to procreate, and procreation has been understood as a primary divine directive. But these words can read very differently to those who are unable to have children. Are they somehow in violation of the divine directive—or are they somehow cursed with infertility? This is a common view both in faith communities and in critical scholarship: that, in the Bible, infertility, like other physical impairments, is somehow […]