God’s Sovereignty in Barrenness

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Infertility inevitably leads to a personal wrestling with the Lord. The first command God gave humanity was “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28, ESV). Therefore, the desire for children is interwoven into how we were made and how we are wired.[1] The three wives of the patriarchs of the Old Testament responded in various ways to infertility and provide us with lessons we can apply to our lives today, especially those who are experiencing infertility or pregnancy loss. Their stories show that God is sovereign and that his promise is fulfilled through his divine intervention.

Cultural & Historical Background

In ancient Israel, children were seen as assets that contributed to the labor and survival of the family. The next generation passed on the family legacy, took care of the older generations, and was responsible for the burial of their loved ones. Life expectancy was much shorter, and there were higher infant mortality rates, so the importance of fertility and childbearing was a pressure that women carried. A woman unable to experience motherhood was deprived of her honor, purpose, and most importantly, her only means to status in society.[2] Samuel Dresner expands on this reality: “Childless love was thought to be incomplete, and giving birth, in the words of a contemporary, was ‘the ability to transcend the self into another.’”[3]Beyond the practical need, the spiritual beliefs behind infertility brought shame to women and their families. One of the curses for disobedience in Deuteronomy 28 is barrenness (Deut 28:18). Therefore, it was commonly inferred that barrenness could be due to sinfulness or simply a lack of blessing from God. The stories in this piece refute this theology, but the cultural ramifications would have been difficult to navigate. For Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and countless other women, barrenness was a spiritual, physical, and emotional burden to carry.

The Promise

To struggle with infertility is one thing, but to be barren as a matriarch to whom God had promised offspring adds further weight.[4]The theme of infertility that follows the matriarchs ironically gives God the ultimate glory. The call of Abram to make a great nation was startling because he was seventy-five years old, had no children, and his wife was deemed “barren” (Gen 11:30). John Walton explains that the covenant was a way for God to reveal his character to his people and then to all the nations: “The nature of the blessing on the nations is that God has revealed himself through Abraham’s family. The law was given through them, the prophets were from among their number, scripture was written by them, and their history became a public record of God’s attributes in action.”[5] Through God’s oath, he demonstrates that, when he makes a promise, he will keep it despite how impossible it may seem. The nature of his promise is not conditional on the faithfulness of Abraham or his descendants. As humanity becomes more flawed, God remains resolute.

God’s plans for Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel were difficult to comprehend until the promise was fulfilled. In each of their stories, hope was distant at best and nonexistent at worst. As Paul wrote in Romans, “Hope that is seen is not hope: for who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom 8:24–25). These verses echo the ideal posture the matriarchs could have taken when they found disappointment in God’s timing and way. Each woman’s story and their response to infertility teaches lessons about hoping in the tension between delay and fulfillment of God’s promises.


Sarah is first mentioned in the Bible with the title of “barren” (Gen 11:29–30), painting her as unmerited because she has not yet provided for the family line. As K. A. Matthews puts it, “The message is thunderous: the woman is a weak link in the chain of blessing.”[6] Although she is Abraham’s wife and therefore part of the promise, Sarah decides to take her infertility into her own hands after waiting a decade in Canaan. She suggested that Abraham bring offspring through Hagar. The reassurance she was seeking was brief and led to another problem that was “predictably disastrous.”[7] In the Ancient Near East, the practice of bearing children through another woman while experiencing childlessness was a common custom, but it is a worldly response that eliminates God from the picture. Afterward, not only does Sarah blame Abraham for her unfulfilled heart, but she also looks at Hagar with contempt for doing exactly what Sarah wanted her to do, all of this revealing the narrator’s disapproval of Sarah’s plan. Our matriarch abuses Hagar, causing her to flee. Sarah’s actions fall short of surrender, hope, and trust, a common theme which many great people in the Bible struggle.

Despite Sarah’s imperfections, God still fulfills his promise as he announces his blessing to her, which was usually reserved only for the male. The impossibility of Sarah’s pregnancy is implied through her postmenopausal description: the couple is “old,” “advanced in years,” and she is “past the age of childbearing,” “as the way of women had ceased for Sarah (Gen 18:11).”[8] Therefore, when Sarah laughs, as a reader we can resonate with the astonishment of this pronouncement. The main point is stated by the guests who ask, “Is anything too impossible for God?” (Gen 18:14). The writer twice emphasizes in Genesis 21:1 the fulfillment of the promise: “as he said . . . as he had promised,” which helps the reader consider the faithfulness of God.[9]

We can resonate with Sarah’s disbelief because connecting one’s deepest desires with reality often seems impossible. Through Sarah’s story, we recognize the universal tendencies of control, envy, complaining, blame, and doubt. By attempting to control God’s timing through scheming, we develop tunnel vision of our life’s journey. This disregards God, who sees the bigger picture and knows what is best. We are blinded by those who already have the blessing we desire, and waiting feels like a punishment. It takes faith to trust that God fulfills his promises and that he wants good things for us.


“Barrenness runs in the family is only an oxymoron when God is not at work.”[10] The obstacle of fertility continues in the next generation with Isaac and Rebekah. The Bible does not dwell on her reactions as it did for Sarah. Sarah’s struggle with infertility was outlined in nine chapters of Genesis, and Rebekah’s is summarized in just one verse even though her recorded time of barrenness lasted about twenty years. The author’s focus for Rebekah’s barrenness is on the patriarch’s intercession for his wife. The lack of mention of Rebekah’s prayer does not mean she did not pray, but it is clearly noted that God responds to Isaac. The obstacle of Rebekah’s story comes when she receives what she desired at the cost of physical and emotional discomfort. Her pregnancy of twins is described as “struggling together within her” and Rebekah says, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me? (Gen 25:22). This distress leads Rebekah to seek the Lord, and he responds with the confirmation of purpose and power for her offspring as the covenant continues. Rebekah’s “uterine struggle is but anticipation of a much more difficult situation” to come with the birth and life of Esau and Jacob, who are consistently at odds.[11] Rebekah’s struggles did not end when her infertility ended.

We are often not ready for the burden that comes with fulfilling our deepest desires. We normalize to our present situation, failing to remember what we would have sacrificed to get what we currently have. Rebekah’s story highlights the power of prayer and the importance of our reactions. Answered prayers don’t guarantee sustained happiness. Holding strong to a position of gratitude and thanksgiving to God transforms our heart posture even when the delivered promise or blessing brings new difficulties.


Barrenness reaches the third generation with Rachel, who echoes Sarah’s struggle of coveting and control. Leah has Jacob’s children while Rachel has his attention and affection; both desire what the other possesses. Rachel follows in Sarah’s footsteps, with the Bible using similar verbiage by presenting a handmaiden named Bilhah to Jacob in hopes of gaining children through her.[12] Rachel is also unsatisfied when this is accomplished, taking her anger out on Jacob and claiming she “will die” if he does not give her children (Gen 30:1). She assigns the blessing of offspring to her husband, not God.[13] It is ironic when Rachel dies during the birth of her second child.[14] 

Rachel’s story highlights how forgetting the past leads to the same mistakes. Despite knowing the negative consequences Sarah faced, Rachel continued the generational sin. This theme is echoed throughout the Bible as the Israelites doubt God’s protection, prophets’ words go unheeded, and the disciples overlook Jesus’ message. Remembering the fulfilled works of God provides fuel to our faith during times of hardship. We can only wonder how Rachel’s story may have unfolded if she held onto the promise that God fulfilled in Sarah and Rebekah. Remembering the character of God gives us the power of hope and faith in him instead of ourselves. 


The obstacle of generational infertility is not the center of what ties Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel’s stories together. Instead, God’s sovereign character is on display. The covenantal blessing of birth links all the way to the birth of the Messiah, Jesus, as the culmination of God’s love and provision. We have faith that God is constantly intervening on our behalf. We may not understand it, we may not like the timing, and we may not be content with the result, but we can rest in the fact that he is in control. 

My Story

The topic of infertility hits close to home. I’ve had three miscarriages that required five surgeries as a result. Even though thousands of years and a cultural divide stand between myself and the matriarchs, I deeply resonated with their stories. There is a spiritual grief and loss that happens when walking through infertility, as the perception of the God you thought you knew doesn’t align with your life anymore.[15] At my worst, I sought to control God, took my pain out on my husband, struggled with hopelessness in physical and emotional suffering, and envied others who seemed to have the easy road to motherhood. At my best, I accept where God has me, trust that he is good, celebrate others in their joy of pregnancy and motherhood, grow closer to my husband in the pain, and lay my desires at God’s feet in prayer. Unlike Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, I was not given a promise by God that I will have offspring, but I am a part of the covenantal people of God. With each loss, God did a work in my heart to lead me closer to fully surrendered plans, hopes, and desires. It’s a balancing act of holding onto our hope yet making sure our plans are submitted to God. His plans may be very different than our own. God has convicted my heart to be fruitful in the season I am in, even if I am not multiplying like I wish. I stand on the word of God as I apply the lessons of those who went before me. By God’s goodness, I am convinced I will be pleased with the finish line even though I do not understand the journey.


[1] Heidi Schlumpf, “Inconceivable,” U.S. Catholic 71, no. 1 (2006): 12–17.

[2] Jennie R. Ebeling, Women’s Lives in Biblical Times (London: T & T Clark, 2010), 98.

[3] Samuel H. Dresner, “Barren Rachel,” Judaism 40, no. 4 (1991): 442.

[4] Dresner, “Barren Rachel,” 442.

[5] John H. Walton, Genesis: From Biblical Text . . . to Contemporary Life, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 402.

[6] K. A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27–50:26, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 101–2.

[7] Walton, Genesis, 447.

[8] Mathews, Genesis 11:27–50:26, 218.

[9] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1994), 80.

[10] Walton, Genesis, 556.

[11] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18–50, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 177–78.

[12] Mathews, Genesis 11:27–50:26, 482.

[13] Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 244.

[14] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18–50, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 270.

[15] Schlumpf, “Inconceivable,” 13.