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Sarah's Power to Conceive
by Farrell Till


1992 / May-June



Occasionally, we have recommended to our readers other publications and materials that we believe would assist them in their study of the Bible inerrancy doctrine. Bible Review, published by the Biblical Archaeology Society, is a bimonthly journal that serious students of the inerrancy doctrine should find useful. Subscriptions can be obtained at P. O. Box 7027, Red Oak, IA 51591, for $24 annually. Each issue has 50 pages of scholarly articles on various biblical subjects.

Bible Review appears to endorse the belief that the Bible is "God's word"; nevertheless, it obviously respects scholarship above tradition, a policy that often puts it in conflict with major Christian doctrines. Its "Readers Reply" section frequently has letters from irate fundamentalists who are threatening to cancel their subscriptions because of liberal positions that contributing writers have taken on such sacred subjects as the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, etc. It does not openly challenge the inerrancy doctrine, but readers of The Skeptical Review could take much of the information they will learn by regularly reading Bible Review and easily apply it to the doctrine.

An excellent example of what I mean can be found in an article by Pieter Willem van der Horst in the February 1992 issue ("Did Sarah Have a Seminal Emission?" pp. 35-39). In this convincingly documented article, the author (a professor of New Testament and the Jewish and Hellenistic milieu of early Christianity at the University of Utrecht) 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. Van der Horst cited the belief of Alcmaeon (about 500 B.C.) that the sex of a child was determined by "whose semen was most abundant [during intercourse]" (p. 36). He quoted Democritus of Abdera (5th century B.C.), Aristotle (4th century B. C.), Galen (2nd century B.C.), and Lucretius (1st century B.C.), all of whom believed that during sexual intercourse the female expelled sperm from her ovaries that mixed in the womb with the male sperm to produce an embryo (p. 36).

Van der Horst then turned to Hebrew literature, including the Old Testament scriptures, to show that these same ideas were "also prevalent in early Jewish circles" (p. 38). He cited one OT passage in particular that implies that belief in female semen was commonly accepted:

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." Commentators have, of course, had trouble with this verse and have proposed emendations of the text, because they found the thought expressed impossible (see, for example, Baruch Levine's recent Commentary on Leviticus, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989). But we cannot avoid at least the possibility that the author of Leviticus 12 meant what he seems to have written, that is, that a woman can produce semen (p. 38).
To his credit, van der Horst did not form any premature conclusions from this one passage. He proceeded to show that clearly stated beliefs in female semen were expressed in both the Talmud (a collection of Jewish law and teachings compiled in the Palestianian version of the 5th century A.D. and the Babylonian version of the 6th century A. D.) and the midrashim (a collection of postcanonical rabbinic commentaries on the Old Testament books).

Van der Horst referred to a section of the Babylonian Talmud where the rabbinic commentators presented an exegesis of Leviticus 12:2 (just referred to above) in conjunction with Genesis 46:15, which, after listing the children of Jacob that had been born to Leah, said, "These are the sons of Leah, whom she bore to Jacob in Paddan-Aram, together with his daughter Dinah." The fact that the text referred to the male children as "sons of Leah" but to the lone female as "his [Jacob's] daughter Dinah" led the rabbis to reach a rather amusing conclusion about sex determination. Oddly enough, the "scholars" of this male chauvinistic society thought that if a man emitted his semen first during intercourse, the offspring would be a female, but if the woman emitted her semen first, the offspring would be a male. Van der Horst cited instances where the rabbis "also understood the passage from Leviticus that we previously discussed to imply, as we did, that women have a seminal emission during coition; the rabbis took the use of the causative (hiphil) form of ZR (sow) in Leviticus 12:2 to indicate that women too had a seminal emission" (p. 38).

To support his conclusion, van der Horst cited this passage from the Babylonian Talmud (Niddah 31a):

Rabbi Isaac citing Rabbi Amni stated: If the woman emits her semen [hiphil of zr, like Leviticus 12:2] first, she bears a male child; if the man emits his semen first, she bears a female child; for it is said: "If a woman emits semen and bears a male child" (Leviticus 12:2). Our Rabbis taught: At first it used to be said that "if the woman emits her semen first, she will bear a male child, and if the man emits his semen first, she will bear a female," but the Sages did not explain the reason, until Rabbi Zadok came and explained it: "These are the sons of Leah whom she bore unto Jacob in Paddan-Aram, with his daughter Dinah" (Genesis 46:15). Scripture thus ascribes the males to the females and the females to the males.
Apparently, it had never occurred to the rabbis that this theory could not explain why, in the case of fraternal twins, one can be male and the other female. Perhaps they would explain this as a case of simultaneous orgasm.

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). With only slight variations and modernization of language, the wording of this statement was retained in the ASV, RSV, NAS, NKJV, and other modern translations. The statement was made in the context of the famous eulogy to Old Testament heroes whose lives were seen as monuments to their faith in God.

The problem posed by the statement about Sarah's faith is that it literally said that Sarah had received power or strength to have a seminal emission. As van der Horst demonstrated in his article, katabole spermatos, that which Sarah's faith gave her the power to have, was in Greek "the technical term for a male seminal emission" (p. 35). 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"). The meaning of the latter word should be rather obvious, since our own word sperm was derived from it. So the writer of Hebrews actually said that Sarah had received power to have a seminal emission or, more literally, make a "deposit of sperm," a curious statement indeed for a verbally inspired writer who, as he wrote, was being directed by the Holy Spirit to protect him from all possibility of error, even in matters that didn't pertain to faith and doctrine. Van der Horst did not pursue this point in his article, but it is an example of what I meant when I said that much of the information learned in reading the scholarly articles in Bible Review can easily be applied to the inerrancy doctrine.

Translators, of course, have hidden from their readers the Hebrew writer's obvious error in this statement by simply having it read, "Sarah received power to conceive" or something equivalent to it, but, as van der Horst pointed out, more recent translators have taken a different approach to concealing the problem by making Abraham the subject of the verbs in the statement:

By faith Abraham, even though he was past age--and Sarah herself was barren--was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise (NIV).

By faith he [Abraham, who was mentioned in the preceding verse] received power of procreation, even though he was too old--and Sarah herself was barren-- because he considered him faithful who had promised (NRSV).

It was faith that made Abraham able to become a father, even though he was too old and Sarah herself could not have children. He trusted God to keep his promise (GNB).

Such translations obviously distort the meaning of the Greek text, because it clearly stipulated that Sarah was the subject of the verbs in this verse. Abraham's name is not even in the received text of this verse. I retain enough knowledge of Greek from my Bible college days to see for myself, with the help of a lexicon, that the text states that "Sarah (not Abraham) received power for a deposit of semen even beyond time of age and gave birth, because faithful she (not he) deemed the [one] having promised [it]."

Bibliolaters argue that the Bible is inerrant in every detail of history, geography, chronology, and science, as well as matters of faith and practice, but this one scientific boo-boo in Hebrews 11:11 is enough to refute that claim. Living in a time when people believed that females emitted semen during sexual intercourse, the author of Hebrews wrote in this verse something that he thought was scientific fact. As it turned out, he was wrong. He made a mistake, so he couldn't possibly have been writing under the direction of an omniscient, omnipotent deity.

The error in this passage also wreaks havoc on another pet theory of Bible inerrantists. They like to argue that "scientific foreknowledge" of Bible writers proves that they were divinely inspired. I examined this argument in the Autumn 1990 issue of TSR ("What About Scientific Foreknowledge in the Bible?" pp. 2-4) to show that it is completely without merit, but bibliolaters still use it to dazzle gullible pulpit audiences. Briefly stated, the argument claims that Bible writers often showed insights into scientific facts that were not known by anyone of their times, so the only way they could have possessed such information was for God to have miraculously instilled it in their minds during the inspiration process.

The argument sounds impressive to those who know no better than to believe it, but it is based entirely on speculation and arbitrary interpretations of obscure biblical statements. Bill Jackson tried to use this argument in my written debate with him and got nowhere with it. He saw Genesis 3:15 as an amazing example of "scientific foreknowledge": "(A)nd I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed...." This was part of the curse that Yahweh pronounced upon the serpent because of his participation in the first sin. Jackson, as many of his fundamentalist colleagues still do, thought that the reference to the "seed" of woman was an indication that the writer of Genesis understood that the female contributes a "seed" (ovum) during procreation as well as the male. How could the writer have known this fact, Jackson asked, "when modern science didn't know it until fairly recent times" (Jackson-Till Debate, p. 3)?

The flaw in such reasoning as this is rather obvious. Van der Horst's research clearly establishes that knowledge of the female's procreative "seed" was not something that "modern science didn't know... until fairly recent times." 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. The Egyptian Hymn to the Sun-God, for example, made a clear reference to the seed of woman:

Creator of the germ in woman, Who makest seed in men, Making alive the son in the body of his mother, Soothing him that he may not weep, Nurse even in the womb, Giver of breath to sustain alive every one that he maketh! (Quoted by James Breasted in Dawn of Conscience, Scribner's, 1968, p. 283, emphasis added.)
This hymn antedated the book of Genesis by several centuries, so just where is the amazing evidence of "scientific foreknowledge" in the seed-of-woman statement in Genesis 3:15? It's in the same place where all the other evidence of Bible inerrancy is. It's in a place called nowhere. It just doesn't exist. Needless to say, the Hebrew writer's reference to Sarah's reception of power to make a deposit of semen was nothing close to "scientific foreknowledge."

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).
One who reads this quaint little yarn could rightly be excused for not seeing it as an amazing demonstration of faith on Sarah's part, because there is absolutely nothing in it to indicate that "she counted him faithful who had promised." As prone as Yahweh was to temper tantrums and displays of anger toward those who crossed him, Sarah was lucky indeed that he did not inflict her with leprosy or change her into a pillar of salt. At any rate, there is certainly no indication of great faith on her part in the story.

In Hebrews 11:11, we have an example of just one little error that strikes at the heart of the inerrancy doctrine in a variety of ways. It proves that the Bible is not inerrant and demolishes the claim that amazing examples of scientific foreknowledge can be found in the Bible text. All of this in just one short verse, yet fundamentalists will continue to proclaim the complete inerrancy of the Bible. You can count on it.
 



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