The first command God gave to humans in the Scriptures was "Be fruitful and multiply." Families in Bible times took this command very seriously. One rabbi of the first century B.C.E. wrote, "If anyone does not [have children], it is as though he were to shed blood or to diminish God's image."
There was no such thing as deliberate childlessness among Jewish families. Children were the purpose of marriage; children assured that the family name would continue and that hereditary property would remain in the family. Modern Palestinian Arabs believe that a couple without children is unnatural. When a couple's first son is born, the father's name is changed to include that of the firstborn: if the child's name is Dathan, the father's name would be changed to Abudathan (Father of Dathan). A man without children is chidingly called "Father of Nothing," and one without sons is called "Abu el Banat" (Father of Daughters), which is both an insult and an expression of sympathy.
Childlessness or barrenness was a serious problem. A barren woman was considered a reproach by her neighbors (Luke 1:25); Rachel's inability to conceive made her suicidal (Gen 30:1). Partly this was because Israelites believed the barrenness was a sign of divine disapproval--a curse resulting from some sin on the part of the woman or her family. In Moses' benediction to the people before his death, he had promised the faithful and obedient: "Blessed shall you be above all people, and there will not be found among you a male or female who is barren."
Out of this belief came the common procedures for encouraging conception. The couple examined their entire lives for any unconfessed sins and repented of them, even offering sacrifices in atonement for sins they did not know they had committed (Leviticus 4:2). Their prayers centered on this theme (note the examples of Isaaac in Genesis 25 and Hannah in 1 Samuel 1).
If sin was ruled out as the cause of the malady, friends and relatives would suggest remedies. Rachel asked Leah for mandrakes, plants believed to produce fertility. Apples and fish were also used for this purpose.
Despite the divine edict against idolatry, modern excavations in Israel have uncovered countless clay fertility figurines in the rough shape of pregnant women. Women believed that by keeping the image close and handling them they could invoke "sympathetic magic" and become pregnant themselves. Jeremiah records women kneading cakes and offerings libations and incense to Ashtoreth (Astarte), the Canaanite goddess of sex, maternity, and fertility.
A women who was persistently barren might find herself replaced in her husband's affections by a second wife or a concubine. This was not always considered bad by the wife--Sarah asked Abraham to impregnate her servant, Hagar (Genesis 16), and Rachel asked Joseph to do the same to Bilhah (Genesis 30).
When the wife did become pregnant, it was a time for great rejoicing and celebration. Miscarriages were no doubt common, though, as were complications (Genesis 35, 38; 1 Samuel 4:20). The child came into the world on a dirt floor, was washed with unpurified water and swaddled in cloths that could not be freed of fleas and insects. Researchers believe that infant mortality in ancient Egypt was as high as 90 percent, and archaeology supports the idea that the numbers were not much better in Palestine. The Torah specified that the infant was to be redeemed after he or she had lived for 30 days; if the child survived that long, it was considered likely that he or she would live longer.
Mothers were assisted by midwives, and the birth took place with the mother in a seated or kneeling position on a birthing stool (Exodus 1:16). When the baby came out the umbilical cord was cut and the child was rubbed with salt, water, and oil. Swaddling clothes were used to wrap the child and were changed every week or so until the child reached the age of 40 days. Either on the day of its birth or on the eighth day afterward (when the male children were circumcised) the child was named.
Male children were preferred. In the cultures of some of Israel's neighbor nations parents might actually leave a newborn girl in the wild to die, or sell her into slavery. Israelite couples welcomed both male and female babies, but only the male could carry on the family name and keep the family's hereditary properties in the genealogical line. (Exceptions were made to this--see the case of the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers Chapter 27). Thus the famous and no-doubt oft-repeated proclamation: "There has been a child born to us; There has been a son given to us."(Isaiah 9:6)