Reconceiving Infertility

Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness

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Candida R. Moss, Joel S. Baden
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , August
     2015.
     328 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691164830.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

As set out in the introduction, the goal of Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden’s book, Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness, is to provide an accessible but thorough examination of critical issues on the question of infertility in the Bible. The authors are especially concerned with highlighting the plurality of meanings and valuations that attend issues of birth and infertility. In the authors’ view, “smoothing over biblical tensions either by elevating infertility over fertility or by presenting a singular counternarrative to the dominant narrative of fertility would do injustice both to the diverse experiences of childlessness today and to the biblical record” (20). Thus, taking care to respect the religious and cultural contexts of the ancient world, Moss and Baden also work to highlight the implications of infertility’s dynamic range of meanings and uses for our contemporary stigmas surrounding infertility. As a theologian conversant with some areas of biblical studies and studies in antiquity around women, gender, and reproduction, I found that Reconceiving Infertility provided clarifying information about the historical context, careful engagement with the ambiguities of texts and figurations of childless women, and is written in a scholarly voice that strikes the right tone in its clear articulation of things that might be taken for granted by insiders in the field without being patronizing or redundant. Altogether, Moss and Baden foreground the difficulty of too hastily ascribing our modern views of the Bible and birth to texts and, in so doing, introduce a helpful sense of strangeness into what may be familiar texts to many readers.

The authors underscore the dynamic range of infertility by introducing the various situations and experiences to which the term can refer. Infertility can be understood as a condition emerging from a person’s choice or biological inability to conceive or something in between the two. It can be met by a variety of social stigma, devaluations, and revaluations. For the authors, this means that “infertility, even as a medical condition, is socially constructed from a wide variety of cultural ideas regarding religion, age, patriotism, biology, gender, and so on” (4). Thus the authors attend to the shades of difference between childlessness by choice, textual metaphors of barrenness, theological senses of infertility, and medical conditions that hinder procreation. Along the way, the authors also highlight questions of gender, feminism, and the multiple desires that run through texts. At times, such as the author’s recasting of the Acts of Peter in chapter 5, when infertility is treated in a way that might cause modern readers to quickly react and disavow what seems like a negative depiction of infertility, Moss and Baden provide instructive and illuminating evidence for how the text might be read differently given its historical context without condoning the textual stigma that remains present.

Each chapter presents different entries into the reconception of infertility, with the first three chapters focusing on the Hebrew Bible and the second three chapters focusing on early Christianity. Chapter 1 takes up biblical matriarchs like Hannah, Sarah, and Rachel as important figures for detaching infertility from sin and, instead, acknowledging different implications of barrenness and the desire for children. I found Baden and Moss’s consideration of reasons women would be invested in reproduction for their security in historical memory helpfully reframed women’s concerns alongside patriarchal kinship structures. Biblical negotiations of childlessness are further explored in chapter 2’s troubling of birth as a blessing and barrenness as a curse. Questions of divine and human, especially women’s, responsibility for the blessings and curses of procreation emerge with a critical reassessment of God’s blessing, “be fruitful and multiply,” and Eve’s curse in the wake of the fall. Chapter 3 turns to Isaiah’s eschatological imagery of Zion as a mother. Here, “Isaiah … makes the matriarchal traditions newly applicable [by reimagining] what it means to be barren. In depicting Israel as an infertile mother, Isaiah must grapple with what exactly it means for a nation to have offspring (or not)” (107). I found these questions of peoplehood and eschatology were provocative for my own thinking about how notions of peoplehood are linked to reproduction.

Chapters 4 to 6 shift attention to early Christian invocations of infertility. In my assessment, chapter 4 proves the most interesting of the book as it reframes questions of adoption and kinship in the four gospels. Highlighting the various ways themes of fertility and infertility are used to shore up claims about Jesus’s status as God’s son, Baden and Moss also offer compelling insights into the characterizations of Joseph and Mary, how his human parents establish his legitimacy as the Son of David, and how each gospel negotiates the legitimacy of family relations that appear unconventional and subject to social stigma on the face of things. The authors wonder if this might be of comfort to those experiencing childlessness. Chapter 5 examines Pauline and early Christian exhortations to celibacy that challenge the assumption that marriage and procreation are most valuable in Christian scripture while chapter 6 returns to the eschatological implications of barrenness through a reading of the hemorrhaging woman and the link between healing and salvation in the early Christian imagination. Baden and Moss show how representations of the resurrected body as infertile trouble assumptions about what the meaning of healing is as it relates to salvation.

In all, Baden and Moss have written an admirable text that provides an illuminating look into the question of biblical childlessness that is sure to be a helpful introductory text as well as a useful resource for deeper study.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amaryah Shaye Armstrong is a doctoral candidate in Theology at Vanderbilt University researching race, reproduction, and political theology.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Candida R. Moss is professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Ancient Christian Martyrdom: Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions, among other books.

Joel S. Baden is professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School. His books include The Composition of the Pentateuch.

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