The Myth of Birthing the Hero: Heroic Barrenness in the Hebrew Bible

In: Biblical Interpretation
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  • 1 1University of Illinois at Chicago


Motherhood in the Hebrew Bible has been celebrated as indicative of female strength as well as derided as patriarchy's primary entrapment. Somewhere between the two, birth figures as a moment of narrative focus on female characters during which they reformulate their status. Birth seems to travel with its companion theme of barrenness as most central biblical characters undergo a prolonged period of infertility and an attendant struggle to conceive. Employing theories of the hero pattern, this essay argues that the movement from barrenness to fertility is a mode of female initiation into a relationship with the divine. While an explicit covenant promises men innumerable descendants and founder status, it is not realized until a parallel female covenant is forged. Where God makes the covenantal overture to men, women demand recognition through speech and deed. Barrenness motivates articulations that reveal concern with female memory and legacy and actions that distill the characters of individual women. Female volition draws divine attention and results in conception that, like circumcision, physically marks an alliance with God. The mothers encode their struggles and journeys from barrenness to fertility in the names of their children. Combining folklore and feminist methodologies, the essay proposes new parameters for understanding female heroism in the Hebrew Bible.

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