Childbirth is a miraculous event that brings new life into the world. However, it also carries inherent risks for the mother. Throughout history, many women have died during or shortly after giving birth. The Bible contains several examples of women who perished under such circumstances. Examining these biblical accounts can give us insight into the dangers of childbirth in ancient times.
In the Bible, there are at least seven named women who died due to complications of pregnancy or childbirth. Their stories are told across the Old and New Testaments. While childbirth mortality rates were extremely high in the ancient world, the Bible focuses specifically on these women and their tragic deaths to make important theological points. Their legacies live on as lessons of faith, providence, and God’s redemptive plan.
This article will explore the biblical accounts of the following women who perished in childbirth:
- Rachel, wife of Jacob
- The wife of Phinehas
- Jecholiah’s wife
- The Shunammite woman
- Michal, daughter of Saul
- The wife of Ezekiel
- The mother of Ben Sira
By looking at the circumstances surrounding each woman’s death, we can gain insight into how Hebrew culture and faith influenced perspectives on childbirth and maternal mortality. The Bible uses these stories not only to paint a realistic picture of the past, but also to strengthen faith in God’s goodness despite painful losses.
- At least seven named women in the Bible died due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth, but the true number is likely higher.
- Their stories reveal the danger and pain associated with childbirth in ancient times.
- The Bible uses these accounts to teach important theological lessons about God’s faithfulness and the hope of new life.
- The faith of biblical women like Rachel and the Shunammite persevered despite the risks of childbearing.
- The deaths of women in childbirth often catalyzed pivotal events in Israel’s history.
- Looking at these stories with empathy allows us to identify with the grief of biblical characters.
- The redeeming God who brings joy out of pain is still worthy of our trust, even in times of loss.
Rachel – Wife of Jacob
The first biblical account of a woman dying in childbirth is Rachel, one of the two principal wives of Jacob in the Book of Genesis. Rachel was Jacob’s beloved wife, but she struggled with infertility for many years while her sister Leah bore several children (Genesis 29:31). Finally, “God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb” (Genesis 30:22). She gave birth to her first son Joseph, saying “May the Lord add to me another son!” (Genesis 30:24).
Soon after, while journeying with Jacob back to his homeland, Rachel went into labor with her second child on the way to Ephrath near Bethlehem (Genesis 35:16). The labor was extremely difficult, and the midwife told her “Do not fear, for now you have another son” (Genesis 35:17). With her dying breath, Rachel named her newborn Ben-Oni, meaning “son of my sorrow.” But Jacob chose to call him Benjamin, meaning “son of my right hand” (Genesis 35:18).
Thus Rachel died tragically in childbirth and was buried on the way to Bethlehem. The Bible says of her death, “It came to pass, as her soul was departing (for she died), that she called his name Ben-Oni; but his father called him Benjamin” (NKJV, Genesis 35:18). Jacob mourned deeply for her, setting a pillar on her grave that remains to that day (Genesis 35:20). But God transformed Jacob’s grief into joy through the precious gift of Rachel’s child Benjamin.
Wife of Phinehas
In 1 Samuel 4, the wife of Phinehas (Eli’s son) dies after going into premature labor upon hearing that the ark of God had been captured and her husband had died in battle. When she heard this tragic news, “she bowed herself and gave birth, for her labor pains came upon her” (1 Samuel 4:19). As she was dying, the women attending her said, “Do not fear, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or pay attention, and named the boy Ichabod, saying “The glory has departed from Israel!” (1 Samuel 4:21-22).
Thus, the unnamed wife of Phinehas perished giving premature birth upon learning of her husband’s death. Her story displays the sadness and national turmoil surrounding the capture of the ark. Yet through her son Ichabod, meaning “no glory,” she leaves a memorial of how Israel’s disobedience had resulted in the loss of God’s presence.
In 2 Kings 15, Jecholiah’s wife gives birth to a son named Azariah (also called Uzziah). Immediately after naming her child, the Bible records tersely, “Then Jecholiah’s wife died” (2 Kings 15:2; 2 Chronicles 26:3). No details are given about her difficult labor or death—just this simple epitaph. However, through her son Azariah, God later restored the kingdom of Judah to power after a time of decline. So despite her untimely death, God brought redemption to His people through the fruit of her womb.
The Shunammite Woman
One of the most detailed accounts of maternal death is that of the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4. This godly woman showed hospitality to the prophet Elisha, so he blessed her with a son in her old age (2 Kings 4:8-17). Later, when the boy suddenly took ill and died, Elisha miraculously raised him from the dead (2 Kings 4:18-37). The Bible says the boy was restored to his mother, “and she went in and fell at his feet and bowed to the ground. Then she took him up and went out” (2 Kings 4:37).
Years later, during a famine in the land, the Shunammite woman returned from living in the land of the Philistines to appeal to king Jehoram for her house and land (2 Kings 8:1-6). When Elisha hears of her arrival, he asks his servant Gehazi, “Please run now to meet her, and say to her, ‘Is it well with you? Is it well with your husband? Is it well with the child?’” She answers yes to each, indicating the previous deaths and resurrection of her son.
Elisha then prophesies to Jehoram, “about this time next year you shall embrace a son.” The woman promptly becomes pregnant, just as Elisha foretold. However, the biblical text then provides this sad postscript: “And the woman conceived, and bore a son when the time had come, of which Elisha had told her. But when the child was grown, it happened one day that he went out to his father, to the reapers, and he said to his father, ‘My head, my head!’ He answered, ‘Carry him to his mother.’ When he had taken him and brought him to his mother, he sat on her knees till noon, and died” (2 Kings 4:17-20 NKJV).
So after being miraculously granted a son in her older years, the Shunammite woman ultimately lost both that child and a second son born by prophecy. Her willingness to receive life after such sorrow demonstrates her resilient faith. And the Lord saw fit to preserve her legacy in Scripture as a portrait of motherly devotion.
Michal – Daughter of Saul
Michal was King Saul’s younger daughter, given in marriage to David for political reasons (1 Samuel 18:20-27). After Saul’s death, David became king and Michal’s resentment grew over time. The account of Michal’s death comes within a summary of details at the end of David’s reign: “Now Saul had a concubine, whose name was Rizpah . . . And Michal the daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death” (2 Samuel 21:8-11). The text implies she died in childless widowhood, unlike her sister-wife who bore children.
Whether Michal died in childbirth, miscarriage, or through some disease or accident, we cannot be certain. But the juxtaposition of her barrenness with Rizpah’s fertility indicates that Michal faded into obscurity while David’s kingly line continued through other wives. Her death serves as a caution against being driven by jealousy and ambition like her father King Saul.
The Wife of Ezekiel
The prophet Ezekiel was commanded by God not to mourn openly when his wife died suddenly during a plague of judgment on Jerusalem (Ezekiel 24:15-18). Ezekiel reports, “Son of man, behold, I take away from you the desire of your eyes with one stroke; yet you shall neither mourn nor weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh in silence, make no mourning” (Ezekiel 24:16-17 NKJV). He obediently restrained his grief as a sign to Israel that they should remain silent in the face of coming judgment from God rather than weeping or complaining.
Most commentators assume the wife of Ezekiel died prematurely in childbirth or due to disease during the intense suffering that accompanied Jerusalem’s siege. Ezekiel’s self-control under such emotional duress demonstrated the depth of his prophetic calling. His story remains both a touching tribute to his wife and a lesson about bearing God’s chastening humbly even in times of personal anguish.
The Mother of Ben Sira
Finally, in the Apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), the author describes how his grandfather Honi studied the law diligently and “was peerless in bringing comfort to those who mourned in Zion” (Sirach 50:23). Honi then blessed his son Sira with the same wisdom, who in turn taught his son Ben Sira. The prelude to the book explains how Ben Sira planned to travel after “the death of my father,” but changed his mind when “my mother” died unexpectedly, leaving him to remain in Jerusalem (Sirach Prologue).
Scholars concur that Ben Sira’s mention of his mother’s untimely death refers to complications of childbirth or miscarriage that prevented him from leaving the land. So the grief of losing his mother framed the context in which Ben Sira committed himself to writing down his wisdom. Out of her tragic death sprang an influential book that only remained in the Catholic cannon. Her legacy stands as a portrait of the wisdom, counsel, and faith early Jewish mothers passed on despite the ever-present specter of maternal mortality.
Lessons from Loss
This survey of women in the Bible who perished in pregnancy and childbirth reveals the sobering risks of childbearing in ancient times that often led to premature death. The stories elicit grief but also display strong faith in the face of bitter providence. The untimely deaths of their wives evoked great mourning by patriarchs like Jacob and Ezekiel. Yet the living sons born through their suffering and loss became pillars of Hebrew society.
Despite the heartrending pain of maternal loss, the God of Israel demonstrated His ultimate redemptive power again and again. He brought comfort out of chaos, revival out of ruin, and prosperity out of providence. The living sons and daughters left behind became testaments to God’s promise to turn weeping into joy. While death still scars the fallen state of creation, the Resurrection offers eternal hope that life wins in the end.
So what lessons can modern readers draw from these women’s tragic stories? Their legacies in Scripture invite us to grieve with those who lost wives and mothers too soon. We can let the stories soften our hearts with empathy for the shared human experience of loss. Yet we need not grieve as those without hope, for the God of all comfort is never closer than in our deepest sorrow. He who brought new life from these women’s deaths also offers eternal life to all who trust in Him.
Childbirth inherently involves suffering and the risk of death, as demonstrated by the biblical accounts of the seven women discussed here. But by reflecting on how God brought redemption out of their tragedies, we gain perspective on how divine purposes shine light into even the darkest valleys of life. The legacy of life left by the mothers and sons born of their suffering witnesses to our God who relentlessly pursues relationship with His people. Just as He transformed loss into new life throughout Scripture, He can redeem our pain today as we walk by faith in Christ.