Tanakh records six cases of women who for a long time had difficulty conceiving but then miraculously give birth to a son:
- Sarah (and Avraham) and the birth of Yitzchak (Bereshit 16-21)
- Rivkah (and Yitzchak) and the birth of Esav and Yaakov (Bereshit 25)
- Rachel (and Yaakov) and the birth of Yosef (Bereshit 29-30)
- Manoach's wife (and Manoach) and the birth of Shimshon (Shofetim 13)
- Channah (and Elkanah) and the birth of Shemuel (Shemuel I 1)
- The woman from Shunam and the birth of her son (Melakhim II 4)
What caused these women to be barren? The significant parallels between these six stories suggest that the barrenness of the women was not random, and that both it and the subsequent cure were Divinely planned.
- Elderly husbands – Avraham (Bereshit 18:12), Yaakov (Bereshit 37:3), and the Shunamit's husband (Melakhim II 4:14) are all described as old.1 In the cases of Avraham and the Shunamit's husband the adjective is used to explain why they are childless. Yaakov, on the other hand, is simply described as having a "son of his old age".
- Doting husbands – Yitzchak (Bereshit 24:67), Yaakov (Bereshit 29:18,20,30), and Elkanah are all said explicitly to have loved their barren wife (Shemuel I 1:5). By Yaakov and Elkanah, this serves to highlight their love for one wife over another.2
- Replacement maid – Both Sarah (Bereshit 16) and Rachel (Bereshit 30:1-8), despairing of giving birth, offer their maid to their husband as a wife ("וַתִּתֵּן... לְאִשָּׁה"), hoping to use them as a surrogate mother ("אִבָּנֶה מִמֶּנָּה"). The husband takes the maid as an additional wife, and the maid immediately proceeds to become pregnant and give birth. Interestingly, while the relationship between Sarah and her maid Hagar immediately sours, leaving the son to be named by Hagar, their is no conflict between Rachel and her maid Bilhah, and both of Bilhah's sons are named by Rachel.
- Second wife – Both Rachel and Channah compete with a second, more fertile, wife, as does Sarah (only after giving Hagar to her husband). See Rachel and Channah for more details.
- Prayer – Yitzchak (Bereshit 25:21) prays for Rivkah to give birth, and Channah prayed for herself (Shemuel I 1:10-11). Rachel may have prayed, as it is mentioned twice that God listened to her (Bereshit 30:6,22), but no actual prayer is recorded.
- Prophetic promise or blessing of son – Avraham receives two promises that Sarah will have a son, once by God (Bereshit 17:15-22) and once by angels (Bereshit 18:10-15). Manoach's wife is also promised by an angel that she will give birth to a son (Shofetim 13:3-5), and the Shunamit receives a similar promise from the prophet Elisha (Melakhim II 4:16). Channah does not receive an explicit promise of a son, but Eli priest blesses her that God will fulfill her request (which was for a son) (Shemuel I 1:17). Rivka does not receive a promise prior to becoming pregnant, but she does receive Divine guidance relating to her pregnancy (Bereshit 25:22-23).
- Promise of son's later prominence – In three cases a Divine promise is made regarding the child's future: Avraham is promised that Yitzchak will inherit his covenant (Bereshit 17:19), Rivkah is promised that her twin sons will each become a nation (Bereshit 25:23), and Manoach's wife is promised that Shimshon will begin to save Israel from the Philistines (Shofetim 13:5).
- Divine intervention – Four of the women receive explicit Divine aid before they conceive: "וַי"י פָּקַד" by Sarah (Bereshit 21:1), "וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ י"י" by Rivkah (Bereshit 25:21), "וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים" by Rachel (Bereshit 30:22), and "וַיִּזְכְּרֶהָ י"י" by Channah (Shemuel I 1:19).
- Child naming – In all of the cases besides the Shunamit,3 the text records the naming of the son. In Sarah's case, Avraham names the son Yitzchak (Bereshit 21:3), although this name was preordained by God (Bereshit 17:19), and Sarah relates the name to her laughter (Bereshit 21:6, and cf. Bereshit 17:17, 18:12-13,15). By Rivkah, she and Yitzchak jointly name their first son Esav, while Yitzchak names the second son Yaakov (Bereshit 25:25-26), and the narrator appears to provide an explanation for the names. Rachel names her son Yosef, explicitly connecting the name to her desire for children (Bereshit 30:23-24), as does Channah, when she names her son Shemuel (Shemuel I 1:20). Manoach's wife names her son Shimshon, but no explanation is given (Shofetim 13:24).
- Favorite son – In four of the cases, there are clear signs that the parents favor the son more than his other siblings4: Yitzchak is the only son of Avraham who receives an inheritance (Bereshit 25:5-6), Yaakov is explicitly loved more by Rivkah (Bereshit 25:28), Yosef receives a coat as a sign of his father's favor (Bereshit 37:3-4), and Shemuel receives several coats from his mother (Shemuel I 2:19).
- "לַמּוֹעֵד... כָּעֵת חַיָּה" and "לַמּוֹעֵד אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר" – Both Avraham (Bereshit 18:14)5 and the Shunamit (Melakhim II 4:16) are promised that they will have a son "לַמּוֹעֵד... כָּעֵת חַיָּה". The texts then each record that Sarah gave birth at the date God had promised Avraham (Bereshit 21:2), and the Shunamit gave birth on the date promised by Elisha (Melakhim II 4:17). In both cases the verse uses the wording "לַמּוֹעֵד אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר".6
- Replacement maid – The language used by Sarah and Rachel, when offering their maid to their husband, is extremely similar. Sarah says "הִנֵּה נָא עֲצָרַנִי י"י מִלֶּדֶת בֹּא נָא אֶל שִׁפְחָתִי אוּלַי אִבָּנֶה מִמֶּנָּה" (Bereshit 16:2), while Rachel says "הִנֵּה אֲמָתִי בִלְהָה בֹּא אֵלֶיהָ וְתֵלֵד עַל בִּרְכַּי וְאִבָּנֶה גַם אָנֹכִי מִמֶּנָּה" (Bereshit 30:3). The description of their actions also uses similar terms: "וַתִּתֵּן אֹתָהּ לְאַבְרָם אִישָׁהּ לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה. וַיָּבֹא אֶל הָגָר וַתַּהַר... וַתֵּלֶד הָגָר לְאַבְרָם בֵּן" (Bereshit 16:3-4,15) and "וַתִּתֶּן לוֹ אֶת בִּלְהָה שִׁפְחָתָהּ לְאִשָּׁה וַיָּבֹא אֵלֶיהָ יַעֲקֹב. וַתַּהַר בִּלְהָה וַתֵּלֶד לְיַעֲקֹב בֵּן." (Bereshit 30:4-5).
- Degree of similarity –
- Distinctive phrases –
- כָּעֵת חַיָּה – The phrase "כָּעֵת חַיָּה" is found only by Sarah and the Shunamit.
- אִבָּנֶה מִמֶּנָּה – The phrases "אִבָּנֶה מִמֶּנָּה" or "וְאִבָּנֶה גַם אָנֹכִי מִמֶּנָּה" are found only by Sarah and Rachel.
Points of Contrast
- Description of barrenness – The barrenness of the women is described using differing terminology. Sarah (Bereshit 11:30), Rivkah (Bereshit 25:21), Rachel (Bereshit 29:21), and Manoach's wife (Shofetim 13:2) are described as barren ("עֲקָרָה"). Sarah (Bereshit 11:30), Channah (Shemuel I 1:2), and the Shunamit (Melakhim II 4:14) are described as not having children. Sarah (Bereshit 16:1), Rachel (Bereshit 30:1), and Manoach's wife (Shofetim 13:2) are also described as not having given birth ("לֹא יָלְדָה"), while Channah (Shemuel I 1:5,6) is described as having a closed womb ("סָגַר רַחְמָהּ").
As seen above, one of the points shared by almost all of the stories is the later importance of the son. In five of the cases,7 the son later becomes a forefather or a leader of the Israelite nation, and in three of these, an explicit promise is made to the parent about this eventuality. In fact, it almost seems that maternal barrenness is a prerequisite for producing a leader of the Children of Israel.8 In light of this, it is important to understand why Hashem caused9 so many of the mothers of the nation to be barren.
There are various reasons for the barrenness posited by the commentators:
- Spiritual growth of the parents – According to this approach, the barrenness leads to the parents' spiritual growth, either by motivating them to pray10 (Bavli Yevamot and Bereshit Rabbah11) or as part of the general concept of ניסיון (R. Saadia Gaon).
- Engenders greater love for the son – R. Saadia Gaon also explains that the earlier barrenness causes the parents to treasure their sons even more.12
- Proof of Hashem's involvement for the world – Philo and Radak explain that the obvious miraculous nature of the births showed the world that He was the cause of the births, and that Hashem loved the parents whom He blessed with sons.