Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 16 (2016) - Review

Moss, C. R. and J. S. Baden, Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015). Pp. 328. Hardcover. US$35.00. ISBN 978-0-6911-6483-0.

Infertility is a complex experience that, in many academic and religious contexts, is not given adequate and extensive consideration. It is to lend an alternative voice to the conversation that Moss and Baden present their monograph. The legal, social, sexual, political, and spiritual aspects of infertility should not be relegated to the background but rather brought to the fore. Appropriately, the authors challenge readers to note that infertility not only involves personal stress, family challenges, and social shaming but is also impacted by legal and political pressures.

Helpfully, the monograph distinguishes between various terminologies such as infertility, barrenness, and childlessness. “Childlessness” in our modern world defines anyone without a child, whether this is due to conscious choice or biological inability. The terms “barrenness” and “infertility” define the biological condition, however temporary or permanent. Typically, the “infertility” and “barrenness” are gendered and refer to women, while the term “sterile” is often reserved for men. Clarifying these various terms advance the monograph's aim of “reconceiving infertility.”

Moss and Baden highlight, and then take exception to, the historical and present reality in which childless women are critically cast as suspicious figures. These stereotypical characterizations of childlessness evoke a lack of sympathy and sensitivity and grave misunderstandings of voluntary and non-voluntary childlessness. Stigmatization of infertile couples as selfish is not only an ancient issue but also a present reality. Infertility is an “invisible disability” that is baffling and threatening to many.

Chapter 1 introduces selected matriarchs in the Hebrew narratives as models who aid readers in reconceiving infertility. The narratives of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Manoah's wife, and Hannah may refute popular assumptions about the causes of infertility. While the cultural milieu of the ancient Near East associated infertility with punishment and curse for past sin, these Hebrew narratives offer an alternative view. The recurrent expression of God opening the womb, argue Moss and Baden, suggests that fertility is impossible without divine intervention and that the default state of every woman is infertility. It is the feminine default state of infertility that some readers will find interesting and perplexing, since the idea pushes against conventional understandings of fertility as norm and infertility as abnormal.

Chapter 2 introduces and examines the subject matter of blessing and curse in relation to infertility. The assumption that all fertility is a sign of blessing and subsequently that all infertility is a sure sign of divine curse is misguided. Moss and Baden interpret the words “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28) not as a command, as their grammatical forms indicate, but as a divine blessing. If fertility is a divine blessing, then it places the responsibility of fertility squarely on the shoulders of the deity and not on human beings.

Shedding light on key Isaianic passages and postbiblical Jewish traditions, the authors present the idea of “eschatological infertility” in chapter 3. In the eschaton there will be no more procreation; infertility will in fact be the norm. The new Zion will mirror Eden before the fall; there will be no mention of or penchant for children. This interpretive move reveals a deep concern for those who experience infertility in the present life. Rather than assuming that all infertility should be cured or remedied in this present world, these texts may offer meaningful ways to look ahead to a future time when childlessness will not be abnormal but will be the sign of the new age.

Based on a reading of Mark's Gospel, Jesus is the divine son whose adoption is formalized by his baptism and the subsequent announcement from heaven. In chapter 4, the discussion of divine sonship is grounded in adoption practices that would have been familiar to Mark's contemporary audiences. Often in the Graeco-Roman world sonship by adoption was idealized more than sonship through biological means. Adoption was not primarily for welfare or charitable purposes. The main purpose of adoption was to ensure that one had a legal heir to whom family wealth and status could be passed. Some Roman authors even promoted the idea that adopted sons were superior to biological ones as there was the opportunity to choose someone of worthy character whereas this sterling character was not always evident on one's own offspring. A prominent difference between Graeco-Roman and modern Western adoption practices, which would perhaps lend further to the chapter's argument and readers' understanding, is that in the latter context the younger the child the greater her/his chances of being adopted. However, age was not necessarily a major factor in the adoption of a son in the Graeco-Roman world. This is why, then, Jesus can be “formally adopted” in Mark's Gospel around the age of thirty. The contribution of this chapter is that adoption is promoted as authentic parenthood and not an inferior social option. If Jesus is the divinely adopted son, then further meaning is added to descriptions of the Christian family as a community configured through adoption.

Judaism and Christianity have traditionally viewed marriage as the ultimate expression of maleness and femaleness. In chapter 5 the authors turn to Paul's discussion of celibacy in 1 Cor 7. Paul, as a proponent of celibacy, sees marriage, and therefore procreation, as a distraction from the duties of the Lord. The authors assert that if Paul is a proponent of celibacy then it follows that he also is in favor of childlessness. This idea perhaps will be the most challenging for contemporary religious audiences. The idea that singleness, celibacy, and childlessness could really be preferred to their alternatives may be uncomfortable for many spiritual communities. However, this discomfort is perhaps precisely what Moss and Baden hope will stimulate sensitivity and a change of behavior toward the unmarried and childless members of these various communities.

Chapter 6 on “Barrenness and the Eschaton” rereads the haemorrhaging woman's narrative, which is recorded in all the synoptic Gospels. In this rereading the nameless woman is cured of a gynaecological malady, and this healing brings her to a state of barrenness but not fertility. This interpretive move is made on the basis of the notice that “the flow of her blood was dried up” (Mark 5:29). Additionally, the Ethiopian eunuch is introduced as a model of how non-procreative bodies are idealized as inheritors of the kingdom of heaven. Philip concerns himself only with explaining the mystifying Isaiah passage and baptizing the eunuch, he does not seek to remedy the eunuch's physical condition. Jesus envisions that in the eschaton marriage will not be part of the heavenly experience. Along with some patristic interpreters, Moss and Baden conclude that if Jesus envisioned the eschaton without marriage, then it also follows that non-procreative bodies will be the heavenly ideal. In the eschaton “barrenness is not the exception to the rule; it is the new rule. It is not the new normal; it is the heavenly ideal” (p. 228).

Reconceiving Infertility highlights cultural considerations such as gender socialization, the meaning of marriage and family, and the role of divine activity and intervention in fertility and infertility. Particularly unique is the way this monograph discusses infertility in light of the eschaton. Moss and Baden offer thought-provoking ideas and interpretations that will challenge the reader to rethink and re-examine her/his personal views on fertility and infertility. The monograph is also a call to cultural and religious communities to reframe their discussions of and behavior toward individuals experiencing infertility. This book serves as a launching pad for further discussion on religious views on medical intervention for infertility, voluntary childlessness, and a greater respect for adoption as authentic parenthood.

Reconceiving Infertility would be advantageous for university courses and an excellent resource that brings certain disciplines into meaningful conversation (biblical studies, theology, feminist studies, and the history of healthcare). The abundant references to ancient Near Eastern and Graeco-Roman texts as well as early rabbinical and Christian interpretations of key biblical material is commendable. The authors' hope, frankly stated at the outset, that this material would be beneficial for those traveling the road of infertility is admirable and well communicated throughout the monograph. Reconceiving Infertility will be a valuable tool for scholars and practitioners in a variety of fields, as well as those personally processing the journey of infertility.

Janice P. De-Whyte, Loma Linda University