November 21, 2006

Genesis 25-26: Children or no children?

I apologize to my loyal readers for the delay in this essay. Life has been hectic. I'm sure you understand.

Today's reading is Genesis 25-26 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the remarriage and death of Abraham, as well as his children by his new wife; Ishmael's children; the birth of Esau and Jacob; Esau's sale of his birthright to Jacob for pottage; and Isaac and Abimelech's relationship.

We find out in this passage that, like her mother-in-law, Rebekah was barren when she married her husband. (Gen. 25:21) However, Isaac prays for her, and she conceives. At the time of his sons' birth, Isaac is sixty years old. (Gen. 25:26)

Let us recall how things happened with Sarah. We find out in Gen. 16:2 that she is barren, which is the reason she suggests Abraham sleep with her handmaiden, Hagar. This union produced Ishmael, Abraham's firstborn son, albeit illegitimate. In Gen. 17:15-19, God promises Abraham that Sarah shall also bear him a son, though Abraham laughs at this idea. In the next chapter, Gen. 18:9-15, Sarah overhears that she will have a son, and she too laughs at the thought, though she denies doing so. After all, by this time, Sarah and Abraham are both quite old. Finally, in Gen. 21:1-7, Isaac is conceived and born, and everyone is happy (except, perhaps, Hagar, who is forced into exile with Ishmael).

In the story of Isaac and Rebekah, which passes in the course of a single verse (Gen. 25:21), there is no mention of laughter or doubt. Isaac prays, and Rebekah conceives. Perhaps all the doubt was relegated to the world behind the text, or perhaps, knowing the story of his own conception, Isaac was more willing to accept the potential of a miraculous intervention for his own wife.

Regardless, it seems odd that the patriarchs of the Jewish people should choose barren women as their wives. Theoretically, if I had been promised that my descendants would be so numerous as to be uncountable, I would want to make sure that I could have legitimate descendants. Of course, in an age before premarital sex and fertility tests, it would likely be difficult to determine before marriage whether my wife was able to bear children. On the other hand, I'd want to be as certain as possible that all those God-promised children could actually come into being. It seems that Abraham and Isaac were either negligent or truly unlucky.

In fact, the entire line of Jewish patriarchs is quite small until Jacob's children. Abraham had a single son by Sarah, though he had six more children by his second wife, Keturah (Gen. 25:1-4). As far as I remember, these other children are not dealt with in any detail later in the text. Similarly, Isaac only has two children, Jacob and Esau. It is only with Jacob's twelve children that the Hebrew line begins to blossom. Neither Abraham nor Isaac has a chance to see God's promise (to multiply their descendants like the stars in the sky or the sand on the beach) fulfilled.

This is all the more interesting because Abraham's other partners proved quite fertile. Hagar conceived Ishmael, presumably fairly quickly after Sarah's suggestion. Ishmael, we find out in Gen. 25:12-18, had a dozen children. Abraham's second wife, Keturah, gave birth to six children, all while Abraham was in his old age. Though we do not have a complete family tree for the sons of Keturah, we know that Abraham had at least seven grandchildren from them, and at least three great-grandchildren.

Why, then, would God choose to make Abraham's other wives and children so fertile, while causing a delay in his chosen people, the sons of Isaac and Jacob? This might be just another case of the traditional Jewish underdog attitude: by allowing Abraham's other sons to grow more numerous with their two-generation head-start, the Hebrews would be facing an uphill battle to dominance. This is just the sort of challenge we see time and again in Genesis and Exodus: God snatching the weaker group from the hands of a much more powerful oppressor. This might be, in other words, just another chance for God to show his power and the Hebrews' dependence on it. This interpretation does, of course, pose problems for those who believe that God is beyond such self-aggrandizing ploys. On the other hand, so do many other episodes in the Old Testament.

Interestingly, while I was researching this essay, I came across an article called Arrows for Joy, about a modern group called "Quiverfull Christians." Oversimplifying somewhat, Quiverfull Christians believe in having lots and lots of children for God, ideally at least 6, though more is better.

Quiverfulls do not tend to rely on the passages I've been discussing. They focus, rather, on Psalm 127, the command to "be fruitful and multiply," and the story of Onan (see page 3 of the article). On the other hand, they do focus greatly on faith – the faith that God will not will not give them more children than they can handle, faith that they will receive God's favour by having many children, faith that God will provide for them in times of need, and so on.

It is precisely this sort of faith, I think, that was required for Isaac to pray for Rebekah to conceive. Of course, Isaak only had two children, and Abraham only one by Sarah. Neither Sarah nor Rebekah would be accepted as Quiverfull women. Obviously, despite their importance to the Jewish and Christian lineages, they were simply not as faithful or devoted to God as these modern-day warrior women, who fight the decline of the white race (see page 2) by adding ever-more children to our already-overpopulated planet.

Pardon, my bias is showing.

Perhaps I should close this essay before I get in more trouble among my conservative readers, if I happen to have any left. I shall merely note that if you, too, are having problems with conception, you can save yourself thousands of dollars of fertility-clinic fees by praying to God instead. Hey, it worked for Isaac, didn't it?


Anonymous said...

Just as a note, it's damn near impossible to tell whether a given woman is capable of bearing live children without access to very modern technology, and even then a decent number of cases of infertility remain as "unknown cause."

You can have perfect menstrual cycles and not be ovulating. You can ovulate, and have uterine fibroids which make implantation impossible. You can ovulate, have a clear uterus, and have a luteal phase defect which means that your uterine lining sheds too early for a fertilized egg to implant. You can have an autoimmune disorder that attacks and kills fertilized blastocysts before they reach the uterus. None of those are visible or detectable without modern medicine.

45% of pregnancies TODAY end pre-term, either in miscarriage or stillbirth. Many of those are before the woman ever knows she's pregnant, unless she's monitoring with body basal tempterature, very sensitive HPTs, or is being tracked by a reproductive endocrinologist.

So "they shouldn't have married barren women"? Good bloody luck figuring that one out in a biblical virgin bride without a divinely placed red B on their foreheads!


Julie said...

Point taken, though I still think it's interesting that both Abraham AND Isaac wound up with barren wives, especially at a time when everyone else seems to be having a half-dozen children apiece, or more.

And, heck, in those days God *may* have put red "B"s on people's foreheads! Stranger things have happened. *grin*


Anonymous said...

Its a disguised attempt at creating an ethnicity tree. Keturah's children , and Ishmael's are all the names of north arabic tribes and clans.

The Ishmaelites are one of the most important ethnic groups in Islamic history - its the group containing Muhammed.