Bearing children was one of the only ways for a woman to bring honor to her husband and herself at that time, so it makes sense that a lack of children would be distressing. Two of the examples I'm thinking of (Hannah and Rachel) were part of polygamous marriages, so there was also a sense of competition among wives, which added even more angst to the mix. I don't think that these pressures and desires are limited to the cultural frameworks of the Bible, however, I have many friends who long desperately for children, married, single and trying.
Much of the time, there is a natural progression for men and women. I have watched friends and acquaintances meet, marry and, in due time, have a baby, and then another. It seems effortless to me. But sometimes, it doesn't happen like that.
Recently, a friend who had been posting a progression of pregnancy photos on Facebook, announced the devastation of a miscarriage. She and her husband are grieving the loss, and like I have with so many dear babies who do not touch this world, I wondered why. Why is this so hard, even in our world of modern medicine and good nutrition and safety?
Even though I know it's not true, I am still tempted to think that I can control things. My life is a testament to how untrue this is. I have always felt a kinship with these women mentioned in the Bible who could not have children, no matter how they prayed and hoped. These are big, familiar names: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, Elisabeth, and perhaps less well-known: The Shunammite woman who fed Elisha, the mother of Samson, King David's wife Michal.
The Bible describes these womens' wombs as closed. When they conceived, as they all did (with the exception of Michal), the Scripture says that God opened their wombs.
These were the days before fertility drugs (with the possible exception of the mischievous mandrake). Prayer was the only option available to these women. Many of them gave up. That did not stop God from moving.
The Bible does not talk a lot about being single, longing for a marriage relationship. I wonder if this might be because marriage was a contract, as well as a covenant, easy to obtain. The marriage culture of the Bible stands in sharp relief against what happens today. Marriage is no longer an expectation, it is no longer automatic. Where marriage was controlled by the parents of the bride and groom, often determined long before the couple met, now it is not so.
Like a pregnancy, marriage has become something that can't be controlled. I have many dear friends who desire to be married and begin to despair of it ever happening. Some friends might laugh, the way Sarah did, if God were to tell them that they might have a husband or a wife by next year. Some might weep, like Hannah, praying so intently that bystanders might think them drunk.
I have been praying for a spouse since I was very young, about seven. As I've gotten older, I've wondered and prayed and cried about it. I have poured out my heart before God. No matter what I've tried, I've learned that I can't force things to be the way I want them to be.
It is easy to see childlessness and singleness. They are visible with almost no relationship. Although few people come out and say that not having children is a judgement of God or a sign of inward sin (the way that they did in Biblical culture), it does seem that some of those same thoughts are presented regarding singleness. Perhaps with a little more growth, or another burnt offering to purify yourself, God will hear your prayer and lift your shame.
It was wrong to assume that not having children was a sign of the disfavor of God, just as it is wrong to assume that singleness is. It is hard to wait for things that I want, whatever they are, but I am asked to do so every day.
It is easy for me to see the happy endings in the stories of these Biblical women, but it wasn't easy for them. Even though they had children who shaped the course of our faith, they didn't know that it would turn out that way.
I don't know how my story ends, and I don't know how the stories around me end, as regards marriage and children. If I could have found wonderful, Christian men and women for the people in my life, I would have done it. I choose to believe that there is a meaning to what I am doing now, and to what my community is doing, whether marriage is in my future or not.