Before a mother can protect her children, there must first be children. In the Hebrew Bible, as in modern times, we find stories of initially barren women who go to desperate lengths to have children (think Octomom, but on a maybe less-crazy scale). This post will discuss the use of surrogate mothers in ensuring a viable bloodline, and the ensuing complications.
Women in Ancient Israel were valued first and foremost for their reproductive capacity; it was the greatest role they could fulfill. While this guaranteed a certain level of respect and honor for mothers in the society—the Fifth Commandment calls for children to honor their father and mother (Exo 20:12)—it also created a particularly unhappy situation for childless wives. “Barrenness was considered not only a shameful but also a pitiable state” (224), for a woman who cannot bear children is of practically no use to a society dependent on many and frequent pregnancies.
Genesis, which recounts the stories of Israel’s patriarchs up to Moses, includes many women who are initially plagued with barrenness. Some of these women use surrogacy. Surrogacy was a perfectly legal and acceptable tradition in ancient times. Barren first wives could provide another woman in the hopes of her conceiving; the wife would then take the resulting child as her own. The official purpose was to ensure the continuation of the bloodline and of the husband’s name; to die without children was a catastrophe by Israelite standards.
Here’s a quick synopsis of the stories that will be discussed:
Sarah (Gen 16; 17; 18:1-15; 21:1-21)
Sarah, Abraham’s wife and the original Israelite matriarch, lives for 90 years without conceiving. Recognizing her barrenness, Sarah tells her husband, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Gen 16:2). The slave-girl, Hagar, successfully conceives. However, Hagar lords her pregnancy over her barren mistress, which outrages Sarah. After Hagar gives birth to a son named Ishmael, YHWH finally grants Sarah her own child, Isaac, and Hagar and Ishmael are cast out into the desert; Ishmael will become the forefather of Islam.
Leah and Rachel (Gen 29; 30:1-24; 35:16-20)
Jacob, Sarah’s grandson, goes to find a wife. He falls in love with Rachel and works for her father for seven years to earn her hand. On the wedding day, however, Rachel’s father substitutes her older sister Leah, only giving him Rachel as well after Jacob agrees to work for another seven years. Leah and Rachel fight for Jacob’s affections. Rachel, the beloved, is originally barren, while Leah, the less-favored wife, bears four sons. Rachel gives Jacob her handmaid Bilhah as a surrogate, who bears two sons. Leah, in turn, provides her own maid, Zilpah, and claims her two sons. Rachel then asks for some mandrakes (believed to be aphrodisiacs) that Leah’s son found, and in return she ‘loans’ Jacob to Leah for a time; Leah conceives two more sons. The competition continues until finally Rachel bears a son of her own; she will later die in childbirth of a second son. The twelve sons become the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.
The obvious connection between these two generations of women is their use of surrogates. However, Sarah, Rachel, and Leah use surrogates to achieve three distinct ends.
Sarah has been barren for decades; her husband has no direct heir. She acts as a dutiful wife within the bounds of tradition when she gives Hagar to Abraham; why then does her decision lead to strife?
It turns out that YHWH, who has promised Abraham as many descendants as there are stars in the sky (Gen 15:5), intends for Sarah to be the mother of this glorious nation, not a slave-girl (Gen 17:15-16). In trying to protect her husband’s legacy and fulfill her wifely responsibilities, Sarah has unwittingly flouted YHWH’s divine plan, leading to discord. There is nothing wrong in theory with surrogacy, it is just not meant to be the solution in this particular case. Instead, once Sarah herself bears Isaac, Hagar’s son Ishmael is a threat. Sarah’s immediate demand for Hagar and Ishmael’s banishment is a defensive maneuver so that “the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac” (Gen 21:10). Not only does she protect her son, but also the covenant made between YHWH and Abraham ensuring a great nation through Isaac’s descendants. Many view Sarah’s actions as jealous and cruel, but she is, in fact, securing the future of the Israelite nation.
Sarah employs a surrogate in a misinformed attempt to protect her husband’s bloodline. Rachel’s motives, on the other hand, can be seen as more self-interested. By the time she gives Bilhah to Jacob, her sister Leah has already borne four sons; an heir seems assured. The Bible says that “when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister” (Gen 30:1). Her decision to give Jacob Bilhah—“go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her” (Gen 30:3, emphasis added)—is predicated not on a self-sacrificing desire to secure her husband’s future, but on a jealous wish to match her sister.
Following this train of thought, then, Leah simply amps up the competition; having “ceased bearing” after her fourth son (Gen 29:35), her offer of Zilpah as surrogate provides her with excess status beyond what she already possessed. The names both sisters give their children support this competitive view, as seen by this table with the sons’ names and their translations, as given by the NRSV:
One can certainly ascribe Rachel and Leah’s actions to these jealous, rather nasty motives. Scholar Athalya Brenner certainly does: concerning Rachel and Leah she writes, “their personal ambitions run counter to the supreme value of preserving the existing social order and protecting the boundaries and well-being of the family unit. They are described as noisy, quarrelsome, disruptive, irresponsible…[and] socially maladjusted” (Brenner 212).
Brenner’s view is valid, but clinical to an almost alarming degree. She ignores the fact that these two women are in no-win situations. Rachel is a second wife, and even though Jacob loves her more than her sister, without children she has significantly less value as a wife and woman. Her use of surrogates reflects her desperation and desire to be of equal worth. Leah, on the other hand, is the less loved and less beautiful sister, wedded and bedded only through trickery; the only claim she has are her children. Leah’s comments at her sons’ births particularly reflect her bitterness towards her husband’s indifference and her hope for the future; with her first son she says “surely now my husband will love me” (Gen 29:32), and with her last, “now my husband will honor me” (Gen 30: 20).
These three women experience jealousy, rage, despair, and a host of other unflattering emotions, but ultimately they seek and successfully obtain the only recognition their culture will afford them: as mothers. In an unequal society, each woman uses the tools available—in this case, surrogates—to achieve motherhood.
In my next post, we will examine how the queen mothers of the Judean kingdom used political power to assure their sons’ security.
Coogan, Michael D., Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins, eds. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007
Brenner, Athalya. “Female Social Behaviour: Two Descriptive Patterns Within the ‘Birth of the Hero’ Paradigm.” In A Feminist Companion to Genesis, ed. Athalya Brenner, 204-221. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993
Marsman, Hennie J. Women in Ugarit and Israel. Leiden: Brill, 2003
Meyers, Carol, Toni Craven, and Ross S. Kraemer, eds. Women in Scripture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000