The Covenant of Fertility
Fertility of the womb and fertility of the land are divine gifts.
Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
The themes of fertility and barrenness are central to the biblical narrative. It is striking how often we encounter barren women in the Bible. Sarah, the women of Abimelekh's household, Rebekah, Rachel, Manoah's wife, Hannah, and the Shunamite woman are all examples of barren women whose wombs are opened by God. Clearly, the process of reproduction holds a key to biblical theology. The very covenant of Israel is presented as a brit [covenant] of fertility. God promises Abram, "This is my covenant with you. You shall be the father of a multitude of nations...I will make you exceedingly fertile." (Genesis 17:4, 6). This week's parashah further emphasizes the connection between covenant and childbearing. Moses teaches:
And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers: He will favor you and bless you and multiply you; He will bless the issue of your womb...You shall be blessed above all other peoples: there shall be no sterile male or female among you or among your livestock... (Deuteronomy 7:12-14).
As we explore the theme of fertility in the context of parashat Ekev, we uncover one of the theological underpinnings of the barrenness motif in the Bible.
Our Torah portion contributes to two important elements of Jewish liturgy: the birkat ha-mazon (prayer of thanksgiving after a meal) and the Shema. In both cases, the Torah text responds to the threat of abundance. Following the directive to bless God after eating, the Torah explains the necessity for such a prayer discipline:
When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God... and you say to yourselves, 'My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.' (Deuteronomy 8:11-14,17)
This passage expresses the divine anxiety about bringing the Israelites out of the barren desert into a land of milk and honey. Perhaps the Israelites would forget the ultimate source of their livelihood amidst the lush and fertile soil? While they were depending on God for manna and miraculous bursts of water, the Israelites could not forget God's reigning hand in their sustenance. However, as farmers on their own sovereign land, the Israelites might easily develop a sense of autonomous human control over life.