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Biblical Archaeology Review 48:3, Fall 2022

Epistles: Why Leah Gives Birth Before Rachel

By Kristine Henriksen Garroway

Biblical Archaeology Review

The biblical stories of barren women highlight the serious problem of childlessness in the ancient world. Infertility meant no child to love, to help with daily work, to provide for you in the afterlife, or to inherit land, money, or goods. Most important, without children there would be no one to replace the current generation. For a woman not to have any children posed a problem, both for herself and her husband. Couples navigated fertility issues in a number of ways, some of which were more reliable than others: prayer, magical practices, adoption, surrogacy, and at times a second wife.

Throughout the ancient Near East, a woman’s womb was considered closed until divinely opened. Fertility was in the hands of the gods. Similarly, the Israelites believed that God was in control of the womb. Texts such as Isaiah 54:1-3 praise God for opening wombs and providing children to the once-barren woman. In the barren women narratives, God opens the woman’s womb at key moments in the story. Sarah was able to conceive only after God made the point that the promised child would come from Abraham’s loins and Sarah’s womb. Rebekah conceives after Isaac prays and beseeches God on her behalf. Hannah conceives after she makes a vow to God.

But what of Rachel? How are we to understand the timing of her first pregnancy?

Rachel desperately desires a child. She cries out to Jacob in anguish, “Give me children or I shall die” (Genesis 30:1).

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