Article Text

Obstetric practices in the Bible
  1. 12 Aylmer Road
  2. London N12 OBX

    Statistics from

    Request Permissions

    If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.

    Editor—Professor Dunn has collected some interesting examples of sexual and obstetric practices in the bible.1 May I suggest, however, that two of his interpretations are inaccurate.

    First, he quotes Genesis XXX, 3, where Rachel suggests to her husband Jacob: “Go unto my maid Bilhah and she shall bear upon my knees...” Professor Dunn concludes that the upright sitting posture was normally adopted during labour and delivery.

    It seems to me that the significance of the phrase “bear upon my knees” is different. Genesis L, 23 reports: “The children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were born upon Joseph’s knees.” The meaning is clear: the children of Machir had been adopted by Joseph. Similarly, in the context cited, Rachel would adopt any sons of Bilhah.

    Another case of adoption where knees are not mentioned is that of Ephraim and Manasseh, who were adopted by their grandfather Jacob. After the adoption, we are told: “Joseph took them from his father’s knees.” (Genesis, XLVIII, 12).

    Secondly, Professor Dunn suggests that Genesis XXX, 14–23, contains an account of sexual misdemeanours. These verses tell of Reuben finding mandrakes for his mother Leah. Rachel then begs Leah for these mandrakes. Mandrakes are mentioned again in the Song of Songs, VII, 13: “I will give you my love when the mandrakes give their perfume.” They were undoubtedly considered to have aphrodisiac or fertility effects. The Leah–Rachel story does not seem to deal with sexual misdemeanours.

    Finally, may I mention what may be the first recorded breech delivery?2 Rachel had gone into labour on the way to Ephrathah. The child survived but the mother died. “During the course of the birth, while her pains were strong, the midwife said to her: Be not afraid for this child, too, is a boy.” (GenesisXXXV, 16–17). The midwife was also able to determine the sex of the child during the course of the slow delivery. This is possible only in a breech presentation.


    Professor Dunn comments:

    With regard to maternal posture during childbirth, I still believe my interpretation to be correct, supported as it is by a second reference (Exodus I, 16) and by other evidence to suggest that the upright birth position was widely considered to be the normal one in ancient times. Soranus of Ephesus, for example, gave a superb description of the delivery chair and its use in the first century AD.1-1 Possibly, both Dr Jacobs’s and my interpretation may be correct in different contexts.

    As to my reference to the sexual misdemeanours involving Jacob and his two sister-cousins, Leah and Rachel, to whom he was married at the same time, and their two handmaidens, Bilhah and Zilpah, it is necessary to read beyond the brief reference I gave, and to study the whole of chapters XXIX and XXX of Genesis. Jacob had seven children by Leah, one by Rachel, and two each by Bilhah and Zilpah. In the episode I referred to, Leah, who at the time was clearly estranged from Jacob, inveigled him back to her bed by “bribing” Rachel and her mandrakes. These were clearly regarded as aids to fertility as well as aphrodisiacs. They seem to have been successful in this case, in that Rachel, who had been barren for many years, then gave birth to Joseph.


    1. 1-1.