Is it God that causes babies to die in the womb?

It should be mentioned right away that this post is not meant to be a pastoral reflection aimed at helping those experiencing the pain of miscarriage.

There is true and deep pain associated with losing a child, no matter how small that child might be. But there are other sources better than this that were written specifically to help walk mothers and fathers through their grief. For example, the book Empty Arms: For Those Who Suffer A Miscarriage, Stillbirth, or Tubal Pregnancy[1] by Pam Vredevelt and What was Lost: A Christian Journey through Miscarriage[2] by Elise Erikson Barrett come to mind.

Instead, I would like to answer this question by reflecting on a bit of ancient Near Eastern[3] history and its intersection with biblical literature to see how the worldview of scripture offers better hope for those suffering with grief in this way.

Miscarriages and stillbirths are gut-wrenching and emotionally painful. They often leave parents asking questions like “why did this happen?” or “was this God’s will?” Well, parents in the ancient Near East also had questions like this and their religions did attempt offer up some answers. Let us first survey their questions and answers before we then move on to see the similarities and differences with our own. 

Magic Spells, Marduk, and Miscarriage

Before the invention of modern medicine, miscarriage must have been a very confusing phenomenon. And we do not have to guess about whether or not ancient people struggled with this. Miscarriage, infant death, and infertility were common subjects in ancient Near Eastern literature. The Atrahasis epic, a Babylonian religious document written around 1800 B.C. (it is older than the Genesis 1 creation account), is an example of this.

Atrahasis is highly fragmented, but the story (tablets II-III) can be summarized in this way: After the creation of humankind, Enlil (The Sumerian god of the air) very quickly becomes angry at the all the noise that humanity was making. Humans were too loud and were disturbing the god’s peace and quiet. So, the gods first try to stop this noise through famine and drought, but Enlil decides that the only way to completely stop this annoyance was through a worldwide flood. However, Enki (the Sumerian god of water and mischief) intervenes in Enlil’s plans and teaches the human Atrahasis how to build a boat out of his house so that he, his family, and the animals of the earth survive the flood. After the floodwaters subside, the gods deem that Enlil’s actions were too harsh. And without all the rest of the humans on the earth, their source of food (animal sacrifices in the temple) had depleted. So, Enki and Nintu (the mother goddess) decide to re-create humanity. But they do so by intermixing within the human population different “types” of humans so that they can keep the noise levels in check. There will now be a new type of woman who is sterile, a new type of man who will vow to never have children, and she-demons who steal children from the wombs of unsuspecting mothers. 

Another relevant document from ancient Mesopotamia is the Šurpu collection. This is a compilation of different Sumerian and Akkadian prayers and magic spells likely compiled around 1350-1050 B.C. Within one of the collection’s prayers to Marduk, the god of Babylon, we read: “It rests with you Marduk, to keep safe and sound…to keep the pregnant woman well, together with the fetus in her womb, to deliver (the child)…(to rescue) him whom the Lamashtu has seized.”[4] In other words, ancient Babylonians were praying for their patron god to keep fetus’ safe from Lamashtu, that demon-like figure who was thought to steal children away from their mothers.

All of that is to say: the ancient Near Easterners were clearly asking questions about miscarriage and infertility. And their religions did come up with answers to these questions. Why did miscarriages happen? Their answer was because humanity was too loud, and the gods needed a way to keep the human population in check. Miscarriage was ordained by the heavenly beings (or by the will of a hungry she-demon). And there might have been some consolation in knowing that a child’s death may have played a part in preventing mass extermination. However, it is hard to imagine that this would have brought much comfort at the moment of their loss.

The Old Testament’s Response

Unsurprisingly, the Old Testament paints a different picture than that of the Near Eastern religions. Ancient Israelites were likely asking similar questions about miscarriage but the answers they received were very much unlike that of their neighbors.

It can be argued that Genesis 1-3 was written as a direct polemic against certain pagan religious understandings. That is, the first few chapters of our Bible intentionally do battle with the worldview of texts like Atrahasis. This subject will probably be unpacked in a later post, but, for now, consider their contrasting viewpoints on life and death.

Humans were killed off because there were just too many of them in Atrahasis, but Genesis encourages human multiplication (Genesis 1:28). It was by direct divine intervention that women miscarry in the ancient Near Eastern religious understanding. In biblical scripture, death is a result of sin and was not meant to be a part of creation (Genesis 2:17).   

But more than this, in the Bible, we see that it is not God’s desire for women to experience miscarriages. One of the blessings that God promises the Israelite mothers is that if they are faithful to His covenant, he will make sure that none miscarry or are barren in the land (Exodus 23:25-26). Special protection is mandated for women who are pregnant so that no one can force miscarriage or abortion upon them (Exodus 21:22-25). And in the prophets, we catch a glimpse of the new reality that God is bringing forth. At the Day of the Lord, infants will always grow old and mothers will always birth healthy babies (Isaiah 65:20-23).

Conclusion

Questions like “is it God that causes babies to die in the womb” are hard to answer. As finite beings, we cannot fully understand the will of God. But the Bible surely offers better answers to these types of questions than the ancient Near Eastern worldview (it offers better answers than any secular worldview does today, too, for that matter).

Sadly, we do live in a world where babies die in the womb. But we can be assured that it is not supposed to be this way. Scripture might not tell us exactly why this happens, but it does tell us that the God of the Bible is doing something to stop it.   


[1] https://www.amazon.com/Empty-Arms-Miscarriage-Stillbirth-Pregnancy/dp/1576738515/ref=pd_cp_14_1/139-6659532-0623635?_encoding=UTF8&pd_rd_i=1576738515&pd_rd_r=7ac3f186-737b-492d-be14-18d58d4aaa71&pd_rd_w=nzSTB&pd_rd_wg=KdtTv&pf_rd_p=8b7a1fd1-136c-4b2c-8fd7-681e38610ce2&pf_rd_r=GV4ZE9G7S81RZX0HZZCQ&psc=1&refRID=GV4ZE9G7S81RZX0HZZCQ

[2] https://www.amazon.com/What-Was-Lost-Christian-Miscarriage/dp/0664235204

[3] The ancient Near Eastern people were the nations living in and around what we would now consider the modern-day Middle East. They include the Israelites (who the Old Testament is about), the Sumerians, the Canaanites, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, etc.

[4] E. Reiner, Šurpu. A Collection of Sumerian and Akkadian Incantations. Selbtverlag, 1958, 25-26.  

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