The Barren Woman Bible By Monica A. Coleman


As I mourn the loss of my miscarried babies, it’s easy to see that the Bible’s stories of barren women were written by men.

I know that men wrote the Bible. That’s no surprise to anyone who has had a brush with feminism or biblical scholarship. But there are times when one is more aware of this than at other times. As I mourn the loss of my miscarried babies, I think of how the Bible tells the stories of barren women.

When I read about Sarai, Leah, Rachel, Hannah and Elizabeth, the story is always the same. The woman cannot have children.

Like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, the story goes like this:

Option A: You give your husband your maidservant, who then gives him a male child or two or three, and then, later, God opens your womb so you can bear a male child yourself.

Option B: You pray to God about how much you want children, and then, later, God opens you womb so you can bear a male child yourself.

You end up on the same page at the end: the male child becomes an important religious leader.

I wish!

First of all, it’s hard to know much about a biblical woman’s barrenness. Perhaps they had children, but they were all girls, and only boys really count to the biblical writers. Perhaps they could get pregnant, but they always miscarried. Maybe they were never able to get pregnant. But if one chose option B, there’s no way to know which attempting parent bore biological responsibility.

In any event, it’s too neat. The women cry out to God—or scoff God says as in Sarai’s case (which is very understandable for a 90 year-old woman)—and God makes it happen. The women thank God for the male child and salvation history continues, happily ever after.

In real life, barrenness is much more complicated. It’s infertility and miscarriages. It’s bleeding and not-bleeding—but on the opposite schedule than you want. It’s counting days, doctor visits, taking blood, running tests, more doctor’s visits and a slew of bills and—if you’re lucky enough—insurance forms. And did I mention what it does to sex?! What was once fun and adventurous can become calculated, programmed or halted.

And then there’s the ending. In real life, God’s “fix” is not always a boy-prophet. Sometimes it’s adoption. Sometimes it’s a birthed child. Sometimes it’s nieces and nephews. Sometimes it’s finding peace with childlessness.

At least that’s how it is for me and the other women who I talk with. But that’s the other thing. In real life, there are other women.

After I miscarried, the women came.

One sister-friend let me sleep on her bed between doctor’s appointments. She took my midnight texts when I asked her, “But what do I do about the grief?”

My play-sister looked at pictures of every pregnancy test, helping me to decipher how many lines I saw.

Another sister-friend brought her teen to play with mine, dragging me out of the bed and into the light of day.

Another sister-friend found out the pain had me in bed and brought two days worth of dinner for my entire family.

My mother drew me a bath, knelt on the bathroom floor and washed my hair.

If women wrote the Bible, it might mention how messy the enterprise of not having children really is. It might mention the girl children the women loved. It might talk about how the men were in the temple, while the bleeding women gathered somewhere else. If women wrote the Bible, we would have more than these solitary scenes where a woman pours out her heart to God, and God fixes it by “opening her womb.”

If this woman wrote the Bible, I’d write about barren women … and the women who support them. Those stories would be my love letter to them.

This article was originally posted on Beautiful Mind Blog and Patheos.

Monica A. Coleman is Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions and Co-Director for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. An ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Coleman has earned degrees at Harvard University, Vanderbilt University and Claremont Graduate University. She blogs about faith and depression at Beautiful Mind Blog.

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Categories: Bible, Infertility, Motherhood

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8 replies

  1. Thank you for your words – deeply touching.

    I am sure you’ve already read it but I offer those who have not read: The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant. Somehow your words brought me back to some of the scenes in this book.

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  2. Tikva Frymer-Kensky spoke about these narratives in a wonderfully sensitive and heartening way. I have long regretted that I didn’t make notes of our conversations.

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  3. Thank you very much.

    I would add that male impotence is never ever mentioned.

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    • Don’t know your background and perspective, !urcher, but I do know a few things about privilege and loss.

      I am a heterosexual white male Christian. Folks like me have been and usually remain accustomed to their primacy.

      Nearly three years ago I was diagnosed with Stage 2 prostate cancer. My life has not been the same since then. I went through 39 radiation treatments and two years of hormone injections. As a result, I have very little libido. Couldn’t tell you the last time I was able to sustain an erection. About that new reality I complain not; I am fortunate to be alive.

      I an a partner have never lost a child. Despite considerable unhappiness about the condition of my libido after treatment, there is no comparison with having lost a child.

      None.

      If you disagree, ask any impotent father who has done so.

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  4. This sounds like a great anthology: the Barren Woman’s bible and could create a needed dialogue among feminist, woman(ist) and our culture about the nature of motherhood/womanhood. Most often, this topic is approached from a biological and/or anthropological standpoint and essentially leaves women who are childless feeling less than adequate when it comes to femininity/womanhood. I speak from a personal platform as a middle aged female with a rich intellectual/creative life who has not yet had the experience of physically birthing a child. I know of many others who are childless for whatever the reason and I imagine that for them there exists as well this extreme self conciousness in a culture that has limited it conception of motherhood to the physical act of birthing.

    I remember teaching a freshman Composition course a year or so ago where I assigned my students to write a comparison/contrast analytical essay on motherhood. Interestingly I don’t know of anyone that chose to define this role as exclusively or solely privileged by the biological birthing of a child. Yet, the pressure and judgement received from our society toward women who engage in the procreative act of birthing in other arenas is, I believe, unfounded. Particularly this is needed within the increasingly popular field of matriarchal studies and the many motherhood journals cropping up in response. With the exploration of motherhood in all if it’s rich and diverse aspects that it brings to our current world, the arena of “barrenness” or women who have chosen to adopt, donate eggs and/or birth virtual (non physical) babies deserve attention as well.

    I don’t speak from an bitter place and I definitely value and promote the birthing of physical babies as a beautiful and necessary component of our continued existence as part of the species, however let’s redefine “motherhood” in a changing (postmodern) world.

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  5. Beautiful, and absolutely spot on per my own experiences. Thank you for your courage to write and share this, and bless you for pointing out the importance and necessity (and honor) of having sister-friends and female family caregivers.

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  6. The writer of this article and those commenting might find the book “RACHEL’S BAG, In Search of the Qabalah of our Mothers” interesting. I am its author and the conversation taking place here was a major part of the inspiration for the book. Might want to check it out at http://store.vervante.com/c/v/V4081603142.html or http://www.shilohsophiashop.com/rachelsbag.html.

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  7. Also want to say that I am very impressed with this article by Monica A. Coleman. Astute observations, well written, and very moving. Thank you. Feminism and Religion continue to print articles addressing and calling to our attention that which is of the greatest importance if we are to raise the consciousness of this sad sweet planet.

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