Morality Ch. 6: Childlessness

The Bible appears to be full of miraculous babies, but there is also childlessness. Unlike other literature of the time, the Bible doesn’t blame the parents, but recognizes their sadness. Jesus proposed a solution that helps but doesn’t remove the sadness.

The problem of infertility is as old as the hills, and there are few issues that cause more ongoing pain. Modern medicine can help in many ways, but often the journey is agonizingly long and ends fruitlessly. Sometimes medicine can destroy relationships by ascribing the “fault” to one partner. And although relationships can grow stronger through this trial, they can also be brought to a loveless end of unspoken recriminations and regrets.

The Bible doesn’t appear immediately helpful for those who long to have a child, especially as the first recorded command is “be fruitful and increase in number” (Gen 1:22). Another problem is that it seems as though every barren woman who cries out to God for a baby has her prayers answered. However, when we look closer, we find that isn’t so. During the thousand years from Abraham to David, the Bible recounts the lives of several families in remarkable detail. But in all this time we find only six childless women whose prayers for a child are answered: Sarah has Isaac; Rebekah has twins, Jacob and Esau; Leah has Reuben and four other sons; her sister Rachel has Joseph and Benjamin; Hannah has Samuel; and an unnamed mother has Samson. And in the rest of the Bible, only one more is documented: Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. These seven women had their stories recorded because the sons they gave birth to grew up to be famous. Presumably there were many more childless women throughout this period, and I’m sure they all prayed for a child. Some had their prayers answered, and some didn’t – but they aren’t listed because their children are not historically significant.

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Saddest woman in the Bible

One childless woman in the Bible was the sad second wife of Moses – an Ethiopian woman we know almost nothing about, except that she was probably the most reviled and loneliest woman in the Bible. She lives in the shadow of Moses’ first wife, Zipporah – an independent and strong woman – and she has to put up with rejection by Moses’ family. His brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, even organize a public protest against her.1 To cap it all, Moses’ new wife has no sons, a matter of public disgrace (in 1 Chr 24:15 the only sons of Moses are Zipporah’s). Even if she’d had daughters, she would still have been regarded as childless in Old Testament times, because without a son the family name died.

Childlessness was a disgrace in ancient times because everyone assumed it was a punishment from God – a silent reprimand for a secret sin. Who could deny that they had done something wrong at some time? It was an explanation that the whole of the ancient world agreed with. Although Hannah and Elizabeth were able to praise God that their disgrace was ended (1 Sam 2:1; Luke 2:25), most childless couples had to simply suffer the rumors. All the ancient literature that mentions childlessness assumes that it is due to sin, with one significant exception: the Bible.

The Bible never lays any blame on those who are childless. It doesn’t imply, suggest, or insinuate that childlessness is a punishment. Childless couples are portrayed as innocent, sorrowful, and loved by God. The Bible understands the agony of the childless, listing them along with the destitute as those who are to be most pitied, the opposite of the rich and happy (1 Sam 2:5; Isa 54:1).

Childlessness in the Bible can be a consequence of situations ascribed to God, such as warfare or famine, but there is no indication in the Bible that God uses childlessness as a punishment for sin. It is portrayed as one of the “normal” things we suffer in this fallen world, like illness and premature death. The Psalms even acknowledge that God gives children to the wicked (Ps 17:14), just as he blesses both the good and evil with sunshine (Matt 5:45). This message is so different from anything else written at the time – shouted so loudly – that we can’t escape its conclusion: God loves childless couples.

Probably the hardest Bible verse for childless couples is Psalm 128:3 because it says the faithful are fertile: “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine.” This can come across in English as a promise of children, but translating Hebrew poetry into another language is just as difficult as translating English poetry. The problem here is the Hebrew imperfective tense: it is usually translated as “will …” (i.e., future), but it can also mean “may …” (i.e., subjunctive or jussive). Because this psalm consists of blessings, ancient Hebrew readers would have understood this verse as “May your wife be fruitful like a vine” – that is, “will be” isn’t a prediction but a blessing or a prayer. The Bible is full of God’s blessings for health, food, and fertility, but it doesn’t pretend that God’s people will always escape illness, hunger, or childlessness in this world spoiled by sin.

In Jewish culture, childlessness was doubly devastating because ancient Jews took the command to have children very seriously. The rabbis even ruled that a man who hadn’t had a child by the tenth year of marriage should divorce his wife and marry someone else in order to have children. One childless woman, who evidently loved her husband very much, went to the rabbi Simeon ben Yohai – a famously strict rabbi living soon after New Testament times. She hadn’t had any children after ten years of marriage, and she didn’t want to lose her husband. Simeon tried to cheer her by saying that she could have a wonderful party before she left and choose anything she wanted from the house, however valuable, and take it with her. So she organized a party with lots of wine. And when her husband was drunk, she tipped him into a wheelbarrow and trundled him out of the house, because he was the only thing she wanted to take! The improbably happy ending to this story is that Rabbi Simeon realized how much this woman loved her husband, and he allowed them to stay together.

Was Jesus breaking the law?

Jesus loved the company of children, but his singleness meant that he could never have any of his own. He had to address this command to have children because he was evidently breaking it. He says that it is permissible for people to be “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom” (Matt 19:12). He doesn’t mean to castrate yourself, and he makes sure his listeners don’t think this by first listing the two standard categories of eunuchs as defined in rabbinic law: a eunuch made by others and a eunuch from birth.2 Jesus’ third category is a eunuch “for the sake of the kingdom.” Paul also followed this path by remaining celibate in order to avoid the practical responsibilities of supporting a wife and bringing up children (1 Cor 7:25-28).

The command to have children is not a timeless one because it is clearly different in the Old and New Testaments. This is a clear signal that the command in the Bible doesn’t apply to all cultures because, of course, it has already changed within the span of the Bible.

Jesus’ permission to deliberately avoid marrying and having children is countercultural because Jews insisted on following the command in Genesis, and the emperor Augustus decreed that all Romans should have children – and gave financial and legal incentives in his law, the Lex Julia of 23 BC. Countercultural commands are especially significant because believers are asked (or in this case, invited) to do something that goes against the norm for the culture they are in. This makes Jesus’ teaching especially significant and likely to apply to all cultures.

This certainly makes sense when we look at the world we live in. At the time when Jesus revoked the command to fill the earth, there were already people all over the world, though not nearly as many as today. The job of filling the earth was clearly going well, and today we can declare: job done!

The purpose behind the original command was literally to fill the earth. Humans were just starting out, and they needed to have lots of children – especially due to the sad fact that so many of them died. In Jesus’ day, they could relax somewhat. The Romans still encouraged childbirth because they wanted a bigger army, but it didn’t really matter whether a proportion of the human race opted out of having children. And today, we can see that the purpose behind that command has been fulfilled, and there is no need for everyone to follow the Old Testament command any more.

However, the big issue today is not whether we have to have children, but whether we can. Jesus understood the feeling of emptiness experienced by the childless and taught the church how to help by putting a new twist on Psalm 113:9: “He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children” (ESV). Jesus says that in his kingdom, believers should share what they have. That way, those who lack a home, or belongings, or children will gain them a hundredfold, though “with persecutions” (Mark 10:29-30). Although sharing each other’s families may not completely fill the emptiness of childlessness, it can help. Believers can share what they have with others in the kingdom, though they will still have “persecutions” – in other words, it will help the pain, but only so far.

There are only a small number of miraculous babies in the Bible, but for those who can’t have one, they can appear to be everywhere – just as the streets they walk along seem to be full of parents with children. Being an informal aunt or uncle to a friend’s child may not be easy for those desperate to have children themselves, but it is a wonderful way to be involved with them. And having another adult to love and be interested in children can bring great benefits for them and their parents. Our Lord has set us in the family of the church, and our nuclear-family barriers should be low enough for our children to clamber over and bless the lives of those without children of their own.

1^ See more details in chapter 19, “Racism.”
2^ Mishnah Zabim 2:1 (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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