Female Procreative Agency: Sarah and Abraham as Critical Case Study

The denial of female procreative agency is common among ancient texts. Ancient near eastern and Greco-Roman theories of procreation assign passive roles to the woman, and failure to conceive is described as a uniquely female problem. Furthermore, social standing was strongly tied to a woman’s ability to bear children, specifically male heirs, and an inability to fulfill this purpose could bring dishonor on the woman. This paper argues for the critical value of female procreative agency within ancient texts through examination of the Old Testament birth narrative involving Sarah and Abraham and its subsequent interpretation within the Intertestamental period and the New Testament. Readers are introduced to Sarah in Genesis by means of a negation of her procreative agency, “she was barren.” This denial of procreative agency remains a feature of Sarah’s identity, in contrast to the procreative agency afforded to Abraham despite the common age-related infertility ascribed to both Sarah and Abraham later in the narrative. Despite the divine agency afforded to Sarah as the mother of the promised male heir, the denial of female procreative agency at the expense of the male’s role is present in later interpretations of the birth narrative, including Jubilees 17, Romans 4:19 and Hebrews 11:12. After surveying these later interpretations, this paper argues for an associative reading of procreative agency rooted in the details of the Genesis birth narrative that restores procreative agency to Sarah, thereby critiquing patriarchal models of procreative agency. This relationally defined procreative agency finds points of contact among later Christian interpreters and replaces solitary patriarchal agency with one that is unavoidably mediated by the marital relationship. Within such a reading, Abraham’s fertility – or lack thereof - cannot be understood in isolation from his relationship with his wife, Sarah, and the faith for which Abraham is lauded cannot be understood in isolation from the divine promise of progeny through two human agents.