The Bible makes many strange statements, often intentionally in order to provoke questions and thought. In ancient times, people would hold lively discussions and debates after listening to the precious, rare scrolls read aloud. What did they think after hearing from the prophet Isaiah that a woman who is “barren” or “unmarried” (lit., “desolate”) actually has many children? (Isa 54:1) What could Isaiah have possibly meant? What a very strange thing to say! And shouldn’t everyone have children? After all, God said, פרו ורבו (pru u’rvu): “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28).
The Talmud records many such ancient arguments and interpretations. The rabbis believed that “be fruitful and multiply” was not only a blessing, but an actual command. They therefore had to consider the question of how many children were required in order to satisfy the divine decree. They disagreed about this – and also about whether only sons were necessary, or daughters too. Some claimed that only men, not women, had to keep the commandment. And there was another very important question as well: What about people who are physically unable to have children or who remain unmarried?
The question was not a simple one. Some rabbis even declared, “Whoever has no children is considered like a dead person.” Their evidence? Genesis 30:1, where Rachel says, “Give me children, or else I am dead!” (Talmud, Nedarim 64b) Were the barren (sterile) and unmarried really just consigned to “desolation”? Other rabbis provided a solution: “Whoever teaches Torah to someone else’s son, the scripture ascribes him credit as if he begat him.” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 19b) Another option was to raise orphans (or adopt those lacking parents who could take care of them).
The texts in the Talmud were written down in about 200-500 CE/AD. In general, the ideas they express had developed out of the beliefs held by the Pharisees in the first century. One of the few identifiable Jews of that time to leave us his own writings is Shaul/Paul of Tarsus, who repeatedly called himself both a Pharisee and an emissary of Yeshua/Jesus. So what did he have to say about this question of overcoming childlessness? Shaul/Paul knew the verse in Isaiah; he even quoted it in one of his letters (Gal 4:27). Not only that, he himself apparently remained unmarried and had no biological children (see 1 Cor 7:8).
Yet, interestingly enough, Shaul/Paul talked very often about his “sons” and “children”! (See 1 Cor 4:14, 4:15, 4:17; 2 Cor 6:13; Gal 4:19; 1 Thess 2:7, 2:11; 1 Tim 1:2, 1:18; 2 Tim 1:2, 2:1; Titus 1:4; Philemon 1:10.). Who were these “children” of his? Why, of course, those people to whom he had taught the Jewish Scriptures (Torah)! Sometimes he even stressed and defended his claim to be their real “father” in the face of other teachers: “Even if you might have ten thousand teachers… I am the one who begat you!” (1 Cor 4:15) This is the same kind of language that we find later in the Talmud.
Today, almost 2,000 years later, it may be commonplace to hear people speak of “spiritual children” and the like. But how many know that the roots of this expression go back all the way to ancient discussions about Genesis and Isaiah? Understanding the original context and meaning of ancient writings often gives a very different perspective, even about questions we face today!