[b-hebrew] Birth Rate in Captivity

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Mon Oct 13 11:26:16 EDT 2008

Birth Rate in Captivity
The Genesis part of the birth rate in captivity issue can be logically 
explained, though that will not vouch for the numbers in the Book of Exodus.
There is a huge difference in a woman’s fertility rate if a wet-nurse is 
used.  Absent some exposure to Egypt (as temporary guest workers or otherwise), we 
would not expect tent-dwelling Hebrews to be using wet-nurses.  Rather, the 
people of Canaan, especially tent-dwellers, had the birth mother nurse a baby.  
Especially if it was an important son, the birth mother would likely nurse 
the baby for at least 2 years, maybe longer.  That type of system results in 
relatively few births over a woman’s fertility period, as there are long gaps 
between births, due to long periods of nursing.
The early Hebrew author of the Patriarchal narratives seems to be urging his 
people to vastly increase their fertility rate by adopting the royal Egyptian 
practice of venerating wet-nurses.  Note the odd mention of the nurse, almost 
certainly a wet-nurse, that Rebekah brings with her to Canaan (Genesis 24: 
59), and also the fact that Rachel’s wet-nurse’s death is, oddly enough, 
specifically mentioned at Genesis 35: 8, with her name (Deborah) even being set 
forth.  Note also that Laban apparently provides a wet-nurse for each of his 
daughters when they marry Jacob.  Note how very, very awkwardly and prominently the 
wet-nurse is inserted into the passages in which Laban gives his daughters to 
Jacob.  It is impossible to miss.  Genesis 29: 24, 29  Always using a 
wet-nurse is the only way that Leah can bear 7 children in 7 years.  Absent using a 
wet-nurse, that would not be possible.  Note that, incredibly, mere wet-nurses 
(Zilpah and Bilhah) are portrayed in the text as bearing 4 of Jacob’s 12 sons, 
all of whom remain within the Covenant!  The Hebrew author of the Patriarchal 
narratives is much more positive toward wet-nurses than were most Hebrews.
Then the Hebrews are portrayed as going to Egypt, where wet-nurses were 
venerated beyond belief by the royals.  Yes, there was plenty of food available for 
everyone in Egypt, including Hebrew guest workers.  But the key is that 
apparently the early Hebrew author of the Patriarchal narratives wanted his people 
to adopt the Egyptian practice of wet-nurses (regardless of whether the 
Hebrews historically ever sojourned in Egypt as a people).  It’s the Egyptian 
wet-nurse practice that the author is indirectly strongly advocating.  If each 
Hebrew wife used a wet-nurse, and bore a child about every 12 - 24 months, instead 
of every 60 months or so, then even with normal infant mortality, the number 
of Hebrews would increase dramatically, even in a single generation, and with a 
much greater increase every subsequent generation.
In Canaan, the land probably could not support such a huge increase in 
population for very long.  But for a short time, when the Hebrews were a brand new, 
very small tribe, the early Hebrews could have increased their numbers 
dramatically, and quite quickly, by temporarily adopting the royal Egyptian custom of 
using wet-nurses.
I cannot explain the Book of Exodus, but what is said in the Patriarchal 
narratives makes sense.  If all of the wives of Jacob’s sons followed Leah’s 
practice of using a wet-nurse consistently, with the Egyptian royal example 
perhaps supporting that practice, then even if the Hebrews were conceptualized in 
Genesis (as opposed to Exodus) as only being in Egypt for a fairly short time, 
the early Hebrew tribe could have vastly expanded in number quite quickly.
Or let me make the opposite point that Yigal Levin made.  Absent a divine 
miracle, the one and only way to have a vast increase in a tribe’s population by 
births, where no conquests or converts are involved, is by having all the 
tribeswomen use wet-nurses (with the wet-nurses themselves not being tribeswomen). 
 That’s the only non-miraculous way it could come about.
I myself see the early Hebrew author of the Patriarchal narratives as 
rationally and logically trying to encourage his people to use wet-nurses, as a way 
to jump-start the number of early Hebrew tribespeople.  Such a practice would 
not have made much sense later.  But in the early days, when Canaan’s 
population was low and the early Hebrews were just starting out, the wet-nurse gambit 
made sense as a way to generate very quickly a substantial number of early 
Hebrew tribespeople.
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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