Pages 2-5: summer 1992
SARAH'S "POWER" TO CONCEIVE
Occasionally, we have recommended to our readers other publications and
materials that we believe would assist them in their study of the Bible iner-
rancy doctrine. Bible Review, published by the Biblical Archaeology Society,
is a bimonthly journal that serious students of the inerrancy doctrine should
find useful. Subscriptions can be obtained at P. O. Box 7027, Red Oak, IA
51591, for $24 annually. Each issue has 50 pages of scholarly articles on
various biblical subjects.
Bible Review appears to endorse the belief that the Bible is "God's word";
nevertheless, it obviously respects scholarship above tradition, a policy that
often puts it in conflict with major Christian doctrines. Its "Readers Reply"
section frequently has letters from irate fundamentalists who are threatening
to cancel their subscriptions because of liberal positions that contributing
writers have taken on such sacred subjects as the virgin birth, the divinity
of Jesus, the resurrection, etc. It does not openly challenge the inerrancy
doctrine, but readers of The Skeptical Review could take much of the infor-
mation they will learn by regularly reading Bible Review and easily apply it
to the doctrine.
An excellent example of what I mean can be found in an article by Pieter
Willem van der Horst in the February 1992 issue ("Did Sarah Have a Seminal
Emission?" pp. 35-39). In this convincingly documented article, the author
(a professor of New Testament and the Jewish and Hellenistic milieu of early
Christianity at the University of Utrecht) proved that people in biblical times,
as far back as 500 B.C. and probably before, believed that during sexual
intercourse the female emitted semen that mingled with the semen of the male
to produce pregnancy. Van der Horst cited the belief of Alcmaeon (about 500
B.C.) that the sex of a child was determined by "whose semen was most
abundant [during intercourse]" (p. 36). He quoted Democritus of Abdera
(5th century B.C.), Aristotle (4th century B. C.), Galen (2nd century
B.C.), and Lucretius (1st century B.C.), all of whom believed that during
sexual intercourse the female expelled sperm from her ovaries that mixed in
the womb with the male sperm to produce an embryo (p. 36).
Van der Horst then turned to Hebrew literature, including the Old Testa-
ment scriptures, to show that these same ideas were "also prevalent in early
Jewish circles" (p. 38). He cited one OT passage in particular that implies
that belief in female semen was commonly accepted:
In the Old Testament, Leviticus 12:2 seems to indicate that a
woman can produce semen: "When a woman tazria and bears a
male child, then she shall be unclean seven days." The root of
tazria is ZR, which means to sow (a seed). When a form of ZR
means "to become pregnant, to be impregnated," the form tazara
(the niphal or passive form) is always used (see, for example,
Numbers 5:28; Nahum 1:14). In Leviticus, however, the causa-
tive (hiphil) is used. The only other place in the Hebrew Bible
where the causative form of this root appears, it is used of
plants in the sense of "produce seed, yield seed, form seed"
(Genesis 1:11-12--on the third day of creation God created plants
yielding seed). The causative form, used in Leviticus 12:2,
cannot mean anything else than "make seed." Commentators
have, of course, had trouble with this verse and have proposed
emendations of the text, because they found the thought ex-
pressed impossible (see, for example, Baruch Levine's recent
Commentary on Leviticus, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society,
1989). But we cannot avoid at least the possibility that the
author of Leviticus 12 meant what he seems to have written, that
is, that a woman can produce semen (p. 38).
To his credit, van der Horst did not form any premature conclusions from
this one passage. He proceeded to show that clearly stated beliefs in female
semen were expressed in both the Talmud (a collection of Jewish law and
teachings compiled in the Palestianian version of the 5th century A.D. and
the Babylonian version of the 6th century A. D.) and the midrashim (a
collection of postcanonical rabbinic commentaries on the Old Testament books).
Van der Horst referred to a section of the Babylonian Talmud where the
rabbinic commentators presented an exegesis of Leviticus 12:2 (just referred
to above) in conjunction with Genesis 46:15, which, after listing the children
of Jacob that had been born to Leah, said, "These are the sons of Leah,
whom she bore to Jacob in Paddan-Aram, together with his daughter Dinah."
The fact that the text referred to the male children as "sons of Leah" but to
the lone female as "his [Jacob's] daughter Dinah" led the rabbis to reach a
rather amusing conclusion about sex determination. Oddly enough, the
"scholars" of this male chauvinistic society thought that if a man emitted his
semen first during intercourse, the offspring would be a female, but if the
woman emitted her semen first, the offspring would be a male. Van der
Horst cited instances where the rabbis "also understood the passage from
Leviticus that we previously discussed to imply, as we did, that women have
a seminal emission during coition; the rabbis took the use of the causative
(hiphil) form of ZR (sow) in Leviticus 12:2 to indicate that women too had a
seminal emission" (p. 38).
To support his conclusion, van der Horst cited this passage from the
Babylonian Talmud (Niddah 31a):
Rabbi Isaac citing Rabbi Amni stated: If the woman emits her
semen [hiphil of zr, like Leviticus 12:2] first, she bears a male
child; if the man emits his semen first, she bears a female child;
for it is said: "If a woman emits semen and bears a male child"
(Leviticus 12:2). Our Rabbis taught: At first it used to be said
that "if the woman emits her semen first, she will bear a male
child, and if the man emits his semen first, she will bear a fe-
male," but the Sages did not explain the reason, until Rabbi
Zadok came and explained it: "These are the sons of Leah whom
she bore unto Jacob in Paddan-Aram, with his daughter Dinah"
(Genesis 46:15). Scripture thus ascribes the males to the females
and the females to the males.
Apparently, it had never occurred to the rabbis that this theory could not
explain why, in the case of fraternal twins, one can be male and the other
female. Perhaps they would explain this as a case of simultaneous orgasm.
Van der Horst's purpose in establishing that people in biblical times
erroneously believed that women emitted semen during intercourse was to shed
light on the meaning of a statement in Hebrews 11:11 that has long troubled
Bible scholars and translators: "Through faith also Sara herself received
strength to conceive seed and was delivered of a child when she was past
age, because she judged him faithful who had promised" (KJV). With only
slight variations and modernization of language, the wording of this statement
was retained in the ASV, RSV, NAS, NKJV, and other modern translations.
The statement was made in the context of the famous eulogy to Old Testament
heroes whose lives were seen as monuments to their faith in God.
The problem posed by the statement about Sarah's faith is that it literally
said that Sarah had received power or strength to have a seminal emission.
As van der Horst demonstrated in his article, katabole spermatos, that which
Sarah's faith gave her the power to have, was in Greek "the technical term
for a male seminal emission" (p. 35). Strong defines katabole as a deposition
(something deposited) and sperma, the root from which the dative spermatos
was derived, as seed (including the male "sperm"). The meaning of the
latter word should be rather obvious, since our own word sperm was derived
from it. So the writer of Hebrews actually said that Sarah had received
power to have a seminal emission or, more literally, make a "deposit of
sperm," a curious statement indeed for a verbally inspired writer who, as he
wrote, was being directed by the Holy Spirit to protect him from all possibili-
ty of error, even in matters that didn't pertain to faith and doctrine. Van
der Horst did not pursue this point in his article, but it is an example of
what I meant when I said that much of the information learned in reading the
scholarly articles in Bible Review can easily be applied to the inerrancy doc-
Translators, of course, have hidden from their readers the Hebrew writ-
er's obvious error in this statement by simply having it read, "Sarah received
power to conceive" or something equivalent to it, but, as van der Horst
pointed out, more recent translators have taken a different approach to
concealing the problem by making Abraham the subject of the verbs in the
By faith Abraham, even though he was past age--and Sarah
herself was barren--was enabled to become a father because he
considered him faithful who had made the promise (NIV).
By faith he [Abraham, who was mentioned in the preceding
verse] received power of procreation, even though he was too
old--and Sarah herself was barren-- because he considered him
faithful who had promised (NRSV).
It was faith that made Abraham able to become a father, even
though he was too old and Sarah herself could not have children.
He trusted God to keep his promise (GNB).
Such translations obviously distort the meaning of the Greek text, because it
clearly stipulated that Sarah was the subject of the verbs in this verse.
Abraham's name is not even in the received text of this verse. I retain
enough knowledge of Greek from my Bible college days to see for myself, with
the help of a lexicon, that the text states that "Sarah (not Abraham) received
power for a deposit of semen even beyond time of age and gave birth, be-
cause faithful she (not he) deemed the [one] having promised [it]."
Bibliolaters argue that the Bible is inerrant in every detail of history,
geography, chronology, and science, as well as matters of faith and practice,
but this one scientific boo-boo in Hebrews 11:11 is enough to refute that
claim. Living in a time when people believed that females emitted semen
during sexual intercourse, the author of Hebrews wrote in this verse some-
thing that he thought was scientific fact. As it turned out, he was wrong.
He made a mistake, so he couldn't possibly have been writing under the
direction of an omniscient, omnipotent deity.
The error in this passage also wreaks havoc on another pet theory of
Bible inerrantists. They like to argue that "scientific foreknowledge" of Bible
writers proves that they were divinely inspired. I examined this argument in
the Autumn 1990 issue of TSR ("What About Scientific Foreknowledge in the
Bible?" pp. 2-4) to show that it is completely without merit, but bibliolaters
still use it to dazzle gullible pulpit audiences. Briefly stated, the argument
claims that Bible writers often showed insights into scientific facts that were
not known by anyone of their times, so the only way they could have pos-
sessed such information was for God to have miraculously instilled it in their
minds during the inspiration process.
The argument sounds impressive to those who know no better than to
believe it, but it is based entirely on speculation and arbitrary interpreta-
tions of obscure biblical statements. Bill Jackson tried to use this argument
in my written debate with him and got nowhere with it. He saw Genesis 3:15
as an amazing example of "scientific foreknowledge": "(A)nd I will put enmity
between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed...." This
was part of the curse that Yahweh pronounced upon the serpent because of
his participation in the first sin. Jackson, as many of his fundamentalist
colleagues still do, thought that the reference to the "seed" of woman was an
indication that the writer of Genesis understood that the female contributes a
"seed" (ovum) during procreation as well as the male. How could the writer
have known this fact, Jackson asked, "when modern science didn't know it
until fairly recent times" (Jackson-Till Debate, p. 3)?
The flaw in such reasoning as this is rather obvious. Van der Horst's
research clearly establishes that knowledge of the female's procreative "seed"
was not something that "modern science didn't know... until fairly recent
times." When the Bible was being written, men knew that the female contrib-
uted a "seed" during procreation. They just didn't understand what kind of
seed it was. The Egyptian Hymn to the Sun-God, for example, made a clear
reference to the seed of woman:
Creator of the germ in woman,
Who makest seed in men,
Making alive the son in the body of his mother,
Soothing him that he may not weep,
Nurse even in the womb,
Giver of breath to sustain alive every one that he maketh!
(Quoted by James Breasted in Dawn of Conscience, Scribner's,
1968, p. 283, emphasis added.)
This hymn antedated the book of Genesis by several centuries, so just where
is the amazing evidence of "scientific foreknowledge" in the seed-of-woman
statement in Genesis 3:15? It's in the same place where all the other evi-
dence of Bible inerrancy is. It's in a place called nowhere. It just doesn't
exist. Needless to say, the Hebrew writer's reference to Sarah's reception of
power to make a deposit of semen was nothing close to "scientific foreknowl-
We can point to even another error in Hebrews 11:11. The writer said
that Sarah received power to conceive seed (have a seminal emission), be-
cause she counted him faithful who had promised." But this flatly contradicts
the passage in Genesis 18:9-15 where Yahweh appeared to Abraham at the
oaks of Mamre and renewed his promise that Sarah would have a son:
They [Yahweh and the angels with him] said to him [Abra-
ham], "Where is your wife Sarah?" And he said, "There in the
tent." Then one said, "I will surely return to you in due sea-
son, and your wife Sarah shall have a son." And Sarah was
listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and
Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah
after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying,
"After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have
pleasure?" [Yahweh] said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh and
say, 'Shall I indeed bear a child now that I am old?' Is anything
too wonderful for [Yahweh]? At the set time I will return to
you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son." But Sarah
denied, saying, "I did not laugh"; for she was afraid. He said,
"Oh, yes, you did laugh" (NRSV with Yahweh substituted for the
One who reads this quaint little yarn could rightly be excused for not seeing
it as an amazing demonstration of faith on Sarah's part, because there is
absolutely nothing in it to indicate that "she counted him faithful who had
promised." As prone as Yahweh was to temper tantrums and displays of anger
toward those who crossed him, Sarah was lucky indeed that he did not in-
flict her with leprosy or change her into a pillar of salt. At any rate, there
is certainly no indication of great faith on her part in the story.
In Hebrews 11:11, we have an example of just one little error that strikes
at the heart of the inerrancy doctrine in a variety of ways. It proves that
the Bible is not inerrant and demolishes the claim that amazing examples of
scientific foreknowledge can be found in the Bible text. All of this in just
one short verse, yet fundamentalists will continue to proclaim the complete
inerrancy of the Bible. You can count on it.
FREE SUBSCRIPTION: A free one-year subscription to The Skeptical
Review can be obtained by writing to P. O. Box 617, Canton, IL 61520-0617.