"Sarah's Power to Conceive": Response
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The central focus is an article in Bible Review, Feb. 1992, and an article entitled "Did Sarah Have a Seminal Emission?", which it is said "proved that people in biblical times, as far back as 500 B.C. and probably before, believed that during sexual intercourse the female emitted semen that mingled with the semen of the male to produce pregnancy." The author, Van der Horst, cited secular examples of this sort of belief, then tried to find some in the Bible to try to make his case. Let's have a look at these:

In the Old Testament, Leviticus 12:2 seems to indicate that a woman can produce semen: "When a woman tazria and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days." The root of tazria is ZR, which means to sow (a seed). When a form of ZR means "to become pregnant, to be impregnated," the form tazara (the niphal or passive form) is always used (see, for example, Numbers 5:28; Nahum 1:14). In Leviticus, however, the causative (hiphil) is used. The only other place in the Hebrew Bible where the causative form of this root appears, it is used of plants in the sense of "produce seed, yield seed, form seed" (Genesis 1:11-12--on the third day of creation God created plants yielding seed). The causative form, used in Leviticus 12:2, cannot mean anything else than "make seed."

The article goes on to comment upon how commentators have "emended" the verse to avoid the alleged problem, and documents later Jewish belief (5th-6th century AD) along the same lines.

I'm quite familiar with this sort of claim, and have dealt with it before -- basically, it is the same illicit reasoning used by Paul Seely to claim that the Bible teaches a flat earth and a solid sky. I have a couple of answers, and for the first, let's get down to birds and bees: Does a woman produce a "seed"? If you say not, then what is the egg? For this objection to work, it must be shown that the egg produced by a woman is not or can not be referred to as a "seed". Short of recovery of ancient Hebrew medical textbooks (I'm being facetious of course) that's not going to happen.

Van der Horst in his article says that the ovum was not discovered until 1827; before that, he says, when ovaries were discovered, "they were regarded as receptacles, or containers, for the female sperm and were called testes!"

But isn't a piece of the logical chain missing here? The words used in ancient times for "seed" or "sperm" or "testes" were probably not used in the sense of a modern medical textbook. In fact they couldn't have been, since those terms and their definitions were yet to be invented. So when it comes down to it, what is the issue with the ancients applying analogically corresponding names to functionally similar organs across the sexes? How is this is an error when the words Van der Horst uses didn't attain their technical meaning until 1800-2300 years later? This is no different from the "bat as a bird" question.

But the issue ends not in the OT; Van der Horst next went into the NT:

Van der Horst's purpose in establishing that people in biblical times erroneously believed that women emitted semen during intercourse was to shed light on the meaning of a statement in Hebrews 11:11 that has long troubled Bible scholars and translators: "Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised" (KJV).

And again I ask: The egg produced by a woman isn't seed? Van der Horst says that the phrase used "was in Greek 'the technical term for a male seminal emission'", but why isn't this evidence that it was also a technical term for a female production of eggs? (There are about 6-7 recorded examples of the phrase used technically, but no comparison point to show that a different phrase was ever used for what women did.)

He goes on: "Strong defines katabole as a deposition (something deposited) and sperma, the root from which the dative spermatos was derived, as seed (including the male 'sperm')." And I ask again: an egg/ovum isn't deposited? What would we say otherwise?

It makes no difference that this was "a time when people believed that females emitted semen during sexual intercourse" -- neither Leviticus nor Hebrews use modern medical language, and we have no right to read into the simple language of the text a host of modern scientific and biological categorizations, no more than we have the right to condemn Leviticus for including bats in the category of "flying things" with birds.

A critic may try to get around this by saying, "When the Bible was being written, men knew that the female contributed a 'seed' during procreation. They just didn't understand what kind of seed it was."

They didn't? Where is this in Leviticus or Hebrews? It isn't there at all -- and while I would not join others in saying that knowledge of female "seed" involved some special revelation to Bible authors, I equally aver that critics like Van der Horst do no more than read into the text what isn't said, based on assumptions that the writer "must have been thinking" a certain way. That's how Seely misused the equivocal language of the Bible as well.

There are a couple of deeper ironies here, though. First, this critic apparently didn't read a few issues on in Bible Review and a letter in the June 1992 issue from a natural family planning specialist, who noted that a "primary physical indicator used to recognize the fertile time in a woman's cycle is the cervical mucus produced in the days just prior to ovulation." This mucus, if not produced, means that even if ovulation occurs, there will not be any chance at fertilization. Galen the physician seems to have noted this, for he referred to female "semen" and said it was "thinner and colder" than male semen. Of course the word "semen" wasn't used in a modern technical sense, but it is clear that there was a qualifying emission that could be designated in that way.

But our second irony emerges from one more point to address from this article:

We can point to even another error in Hebrews 11:11. The writer said that Sarah received power to conceive seed (have a seminal emission), because she counted him faithful who had promised." But this flatly contradicts the passage in Genesis 18:9-15 where Yahweh appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre and renewed his promise that Sarah would have a son:
They [Yahweh and the angels with him] said to him [Abraham], "Where is your wife Sarah?" And he said, "There in the tent." Then one said, "I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son." And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?" [Yahweh] said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Shall I indeed bear a child now that I am old?' Is anything too wonderful for [Yahweh]? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son." But Sarah denied, saying, "I did not laugh"; for she was afraid. He said, "Oh, yes, you did laugh" (NRSV with Yahweh substituted for the LORD).

It says further that "there is absolutely nothing in it to indicate that 'she counted him faithful who had promised,'" and while we could argue that based on later Jewish traditions and stories that the Hebrews writer might be alluding to (as he also alludes to Maccabees), in fact there is no need, and even all of what we have said above may be of no relevance. Van der Horst doesn't spend a lot of time discussing alternative interpretations, and mostly mocks the few he does mention; they generally try to see Abraham as the subject of the passage.

But there's one way of doing this he doesn't note, and it has to do with a very likely and simple copyist mistake. Harold Attridge makes the point in his Hebrews commentary [325-6] that a small switch (testified to in a couple of uncial manuscripts) makes it so that Sarah is referred to in the context of a "dative of accompaniment", making Abraham indeed the subject of the verse, and of the faith issue.

Either way we don't have a very firm case for alleging an error. We don't expect that to be admitted, of course, but once a critic is set on a course of dismissing explanations that would be accepted with reference to secular ancient sources, it's pretty much an admission that the argument is lost for the critics.

-JPH