Abraham sends Hagar away (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be. And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. – Genesis 15:3-5 (ESV)

As it is today, infertility was a problem in ancient times. Abraham (then called Abram) was close to 100 and had been married to Sarah (then called Sarai) for many years and did not yet have children together.

The Lord had a plan and tells Abraham, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them….so shall your offspring be.” Abraham believed the Lord.

We know the rest of the story, because we have the biblical account. In an attempt to assure her husband an heir, Sarah gave him her servant Hagar. Hagar conceived and bore Abraham a son, Ishmael. Later, when Sarah conceived and gave birth to Isaac, she asked Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away.

So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac. – Genesis 21:10 (ESV)

The Hebrew words for “cast” can mean “divorce”. In such a case, Ishmael would presumably have no to part in the estate of Abraham or in the covenant God made with Abraham’s ancestors.

Archaeologists confirm infertility arrangements

Was this a made-up story with no connection to history or did ancient Middle-Eastern civilizations actually build contingency into their laws and relationships for the potential inability of a couple to have babies naturally? A recent archeological discovery suggests the latter is true.

According to an article in the Daily Sabah published in Istanbul, Turkey, the ancient Assyrians had a well-defined process for dealing with infertility. This process was inscribed on a 4,000-year old clay tablet discovered in Turkey’s central Kayseri province—in the Kültepe district. Experts think the ancient Assyrians occupied this area from the 21st to the 18th centuries B.C. The discovery was made by researchers from Şanlıurfa’s Harran University.

A 4,000-year-old Assyrian cuneiform tablet containing a prenuptial agreement in case of infertility. (Credit: Istanbul Archaeology Museum)

“The clay tablet written in cuneiform script discusses infertility and a solution for the issue which is the inability of a person to reproduce through natural means,” says Sabah. Cuneiform was a system of writing with wedge-shaped characters used by the ancient Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and others.

The solution, expressed in the form of a prenuptial agreement between a man named Laqipum and a woman named Hatala, was similar to the solution arrived at by Sarah when she thought she could not give Abraham offspring. According to the prenuptial agreement, Laqipum would be allowed to have sexual relations with a female slave, in hopes of producing an heir, if Hatala failed to conceive a baby two years after the couple was married.

“The female slave would be freed after giving birth to the first male baby,” according to Sabah.

Over 1,000 cuneiform tablets (like those above) were discovered at Kültepe in 1925. Modern archaeological work has been conducted at the site since 1948. (Credit: AP Photo/Avi Noam, Bible Lands Museum)

Biblical story goes further

Unlike their Turkish counterparts, we know more of Abraham’s and Sarah’s story. For example, we know of the acrimony that existed between Hagar and Sarah as a result of Hagar’s fertility and Sarah’s inability to conceive. We also know Hagar’s contempt for Sarah was not the end of the story.

Sometime later, Sarah did conceive and miraculously gave birth to Isaac.

Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said . . . Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children, yet I have borne him a son in his old age. Genesis 21: 5-7 (ESV)

That presented a couple of problems. In the first place, Ishmael apparently shared his mother Hagar’s contempt for Sarah. More importantly, with the laws of that day, Ishmael would have shared Abraham’s inheritance with Isaac if he (Ishmael) remained in Abraham’s household. So, Sarah decided to act.

The Banishment of Hagar by Jan Mostaert, c 1620-25 (credit: public domain via Wikipedia)

Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” Genesis 21:9-10 (ESV)

According to Breaking News Israel, which reported the story of the Assyrian prenuptial agreement and its similarity to the story of Abraham, the Hebrew term for cast is garish “which is also translated as ‘divorce’, which is consistent with Sarah’s concern that Ishmael would not share in any inheritance.”

Given the similarities between the prescription for infertility inscribed in Assyrian cuneiform on a clay tablet in the middle of Turkey—and the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar in Genesis, it is natural to wonder how the prenuptial agreement and marriage of Laqipum and Hatala actually turned out. “What if they carried out their agreement and utilized a surrogate mother after two years of infertility, only to be surprised by a child in the third year,” asks Breaking News Israel.

Good question. Once again, archeology validates the details of Scripture. If the first books of the Bible were merely the invention of multiple writers in the period between 650 and 300 BC, as most mainstream scholars today think, then it seems unlikely they would have been familiar with these Middle-Eastern social norms from more than a thousand years earlier.

Keep on thinking.