Barrenness was an agonizing position for women of the Bible, whose culture prioritized children and considered them divine blessings. Their worth as a woman was often associated with the ability to reproduce, and their infertility made them feel inferior or, worse, overlooked by God.
Some also felt useless to their husband, whose ability to have children ensured his success and lineage, as well as publicly demonstrated God’s favor upon him.
But the Bible shows us one thing that helped these women in the face of their struggle: the love of their husbands. How did a husband’s love help in the face of barrenness in the Bible?
Who Experienced Barrenness in the Bible?
A number of women in the Bible experienced this. Sarah, the wife of Abraham, was childless until she was 90 years old when she gave birth to Isaac (Genesis 21:1-2). Years later, Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, also was childless for a time, though she later gave birth to twins, Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:21).
And another generation later, Jacob’s wife, Rachel, was barren for many years, when the Lord finally “remembered Rachel; he listened to her and enabled her to conceive” (Genesis 30:22).
Hannah’s infertility story is also well known. As told in 1 Samuel, she was one of two wives of Elkanah and endured years of torment because she was childless. But after many years in deep anguish, she prayed so fervently that the Lord “remembered her” (1 Samuel 1:19), and she gave birth to the prophet Samuel.
The mother of Samson, whose name is not revealed, was also barren until God blessed her with Samson (Judges 13). And Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was childless and unable to conceive. Then she gave birth to John in spite of being “well along in years” (Luke 1:18).
These are just some of the women who experienced barrenness in the Bible. In each of the stories, the son they birth is eventually dedicated back to God, and scholars interpret their barrenness as a tool designed to teach a lesson, orchestrate a miracle, or some other important reason.
Why Was Barrenness a Difficulty for These Women?
God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:22) is one that humans have strived to fulfill since the beginning. God’s blessings to His people have often included fertility and abundance.
In Leviticus 26:9, He promises, “I will look on you with favor and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you” (Leviticus 26:9, NIV). In Deuteronomy 28:11, Moses assures the people that God will grant them “abundant prosperity —in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground — in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you.”
Yet the Bible is filled with stories of women — good women, matriarchs of God’s chosen prophets and instruments — who experienced barrenness. And during this time, they struggled emotionally. People looked down on them and pitied them, or assumed they had sinned and had prompted God to punish them with infertility.
But their husbands loved them, and the Bible shows us how they tried to express that love even during this difficult season.
1. A Husband’s Love Through Respecting Her Wishes
Sometimes we show love for people by going along with what they ask, even if we’re not convinced, they are correct. We want to please them.
We know Abraham and Sarah eventually produced Isaac in their old age, which was both a miracle of God and the fulfillment of God’s promise. But for many years, Sarah wasn’t convinced that God’s promise included her — she thought maybe God intended for Abraham to become a great nation through the children of some other woman.
So, Sarah took matters into her own hands and urged her husband to sleep with her Egyptian slave, Hagar. Abraham heeded her wishes and did, and soon Hagar became pregnant with his son.
But trouble soon arose between the two women. Hagar no longer respected Sarah — and Sarah went to Abraham and told him this was all his fault. So again, Abraham left the decision-making in Sarah’s hands. “‘Your slave is in your hands,’ Abram said. ‘Do with her whatever you think best.’ Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her” (Genesis 16:6).
The Bible tells us Hagar returned, and there was peace between the women for a while. Years later, when Sarah finally did give birth to their son, Isaac, Abraham heeded her wishes once again when she asked that Hagar and her son be sent away (Genesis 21:12-14). Doing what she asked was a way for him to tell her she was important to her, that he valued her and her opinions.
2. A Husband’s Love Through Prayer
One of the ways we can show immense love for those we care about is to pray for them. And that is exactly what Isaac did when his wife, Rebekah, could not have children.
As it tells us in Genesis 25:21, “Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant.”
Note the words used are that Isaac prayed on behalf of Rebekah. He didn’t just pray — he prayed for her. The original Hebrew used here is nokach, which Strong’s Concordance defines as in front of, on behalf of, opposite to. This is a prayer for Rebekah, a fervent prayer. And it was a prayer God heard and answered.
3. A Husband’s Love Through a Surrogate
We know from the Bible that Jacob was deeply in love with Rachel and planned to marry her, yet Rachel’s father tricked him into marrying her older sister, Leah, first. Later, he allowed Jacob to take Rachel as a wife, too.
But at first, only Leah could become pregnant. She gave birth to son after son, and Rachel became bitterly jealous of her sister. “Give me children, or I’ll die!” Rachel begged Jacob (Genesis 30:1).
Jacob was angry at her words — still, even in his anger, he loved Rachel and wanted to please her. So, when Rachel next begged him to have her children through her servant, Bilhah, he acquiesced, taking Bilhah to bed. Bilhah bore him two sons.
This was an act of love on Jacob’s part. He did not need to do this, but his beloved had asked, and he knew producing children through her servant would reduce the disgrace she felt over her barrenness.
Eventually, God “remembered Rachel” (30:22) and allowed her to conceive as well. Jacob ultimately produced 12 sons — two birthed by Rachel — all of whom became the 12 tribes of Israel.
4. A Husband’s Love Through Comfort
Many years later, Hannah was devastated when she could not conceive. Her husband, Elkanah, had two wives, and the other wife — Peninnah, who had conceived children through Elkanah — picked on Hannah mercilessly, provoking Hannah until she wept and could not eat (1 Samuel 1:7).
Elkanah clearly cared for Hannah, for the Bible tells us her husband attempted to comfort her. When Elkanah made his regular sacrifice at Shiloh, he would give a portion of the meat to Penninah and her sons, but he gave a double portion to Hannah “because he loved her” (1:5).
When she dissolved into anguish, he’d ask, “Why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” (1:8).
This was his way of reassuring her of what he felt was more important: her role as his wife, not merely the mother of his children. He was showing her through his words and actions that she was not worthless just because she had not given birth to a child; indeed, his gift declared she was worth even more to him than Peninnah.
Their barrenness was hard. But each of these women had husbands who loved them and wanted to comfort them and make the situation better. Each of them tried in their own way to love well, and perhaps that is why God chose eventually to bless their unions with children.
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Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.
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These verses serve as a source of renewal for the mind and restoration for the heart by reinforcing the notion that, while human weakness is inevitable, God's strength is always available to uplift, guide, and empower us.
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