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The Matriarchs of Genesis: Seven Women, Five Views




Women’s voices in the Bible are limited, but they are not absent. Where they do appear they come in three forms. The most common is through the omniscient voice of the narrator, or where someone describes something about women, or women’s actions. “Sarah shall bear you a son” (Gen 17:19). “Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man” (Gen 24:61). Secondly, women speak, sharing basic factual information. “Rebekah said to her son Jacob, ‘I heard your father say . . .’” (Gen 27:6). Thirdly, and most infrequently, women describe their feelings. Sarah explains, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen 21:6). When suffering through her pregnancy, Rebekah cries out, “If this is so, why do I exist?” (Gen 25:22). Later she will say to Isaac, “I abhor my life . . . if Jacob takes a wife from the daughters of the Hittites . . . what will my life be worth?” (Gen 27:46). Rachel plaintively says to Jacob “Let me have children; otherwise I am a dead woman” (Gen 30:1). Yet even with these examples, there remains the ultimately unanswerable question, are these women’s voices speaking, or are these examples of men representing women’s voices?



See Also: The Matriarchs of Genesis: Seven Women, Five Views (Wipf and Stock, 2015).



By David J. Zucker, PhD
March 2016


The names just trip flawlessly over one’s tongue: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are the Patriarchs, the Forefathers: the ancient founders of the Israelite people, once known as the Hebrews, now as the Jews. For hundreds of years, in prayer books, in histories, and in learned essays reference was made solely to those three figures. It was only in the latter decades of the 20th century, with the rise of the Feminist movement, that a new focus developed. The Patriarchs were pivotal, but they did not live in isolation. Alongside them were the Matriarchs, the Foremothers. Without a Sarah, there would have been no Isaac. Without a Rebekah, there would have been no Jacob. Without Leah and Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah there would have been no offspring for Jacob, much less twelve sons, the eponymous ancestors of the twelve tribes. Writing about biblical women did not begin with the Feminist movement, for there were some limited books. Yet, certainly the flowering of bible-women-centered scholarship is a phenomenon of the 1960/1970s and beyond. Happily, with “increased self-confidence and sophistication, feminist study of the Bible has blossomed to become one of the most important new areas in contemporary biblical research” (Sharon H. Ringe, “Introduction,” xviii). The problem of limited writing about biblical women was exacerbated because, as Ringe noted, rarely “if ever do women in the Bible get to speak for themselves. Rather, they are portrayed from the perspective of male authors and in the context . . . where men’s experience was the norm” (“When Women Interpret the Bible,” 3).

To hear the voices of these women requires rereading the ancient sacred texts and trying to imagine more fully what was said and described, and what was left unsaid, and undescribed. We try to do this in our book, The Matriarchs of Genesis: Seven Women, Five Views (Wipf and Stock, 2015). The narratives featuring the Matriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah (and those featuring Hagar, who is a Matriarch for Islam, although not Judaism and Christianity), are all found in the book of Genesis. Time and again, certainly the first four of these women are featured as powerful characters, with strong personalities who influence the lives of their husbands who confer with them. At one occasion the Bible pointedly records that God instructs Abraham to pay attention specifically to the words of Sarah. “Listen to her voice,” Abraham is told (Gen 21:12). He hears her voice and he obeys; he then acts with alacrity, following her wishes. These four women Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel, however, are exceptional. They are special because we know their names, and often we hear their voices, and learn what they do even if this is not as frequently as we in a modern and more equal age might wish. Too often the Bible simply refers to someone’s wife, mother, sister, or daughter, but erases her individuality by neglecting to present her name, much less to record her voice, or describe what she does.

The Matriarchs and the Patriarchs live well over three and half thousand years ago, at least a millennium and a half before the Common Era begins. They functioned within a patriarchal society, which is hierarchical rather than equal. Men in this culture generally are considered superior to women and children. Males are regarded as stronger and they are more likely to be involved in public religious matters. Priests are males and their duties are only permitted to those who are consecrated. Male animals are regarded as superior to female animals for ritual sacrifices. Unblemished people and animals are superior to blemished ones. Certainly men take the forefront when it comes to matters of negotiation, whether it is land or grazing issues, or matters concerning the selection a wife or husband as we see with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as well (see Gen 12:15, 18-19; 20:2, 8 ff.; 21:25 ff.; 24; 26:17-31; 34:13 ff. and so on).

Women’s voices in the Bible are limited, but they are not absent. Where they do appear they come in three forms. The most common is through the omniscient voice of the narrator, or where someone describes something about women, or women’s actions. “Sarah shall bear you a son” (Gen 17:19). “Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man” (Gen 24:61). Secondly, women speak, sharing basic factual information. “Rebekah said to her son Jacob, ‘I heard your father say . . .’” (Gen 27:6). Thirdly, and most infrequently, women describe their feelings. Sarah explains, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen 21:6). When suffering through her pregnancy, Rebekah cries out, “If this is so, why do I exist?” (Gen 25:22). Later she will say to Isaac, “I abhor my life . . . if Jacob takes a wife from the daughters of the Hittites . . . what will my life be worth?” (Gen 27:46). Rachel plaintively says to Jacob “Let me have children; otherwise I am a dead woman” (Gen 30:1). Yet even with these examples, there remains the ultimately unanswerable question, are these women’s voices speaking, or are these examples of men representing women’s voices?

It was with these considerations in the back of my mind that I began to think about the possibility of a book devoted to the Matriarchs of Genesis. Over the years in my studies I kept returning to the Matriarchs and Patriarchs of Genesis. I had published articles on Jacob, on Abraham, and on Sarah, and on Hagar, Isaac and Rebekah. Over and again, I was conscious that there was so much that the Bible said, and yet left unsaid. In addition, there were the numerous commentaries of contemporary 20th/21st century scholarship, and more specifically feminist scholarship. Writing these articles were a wonderful avocation for me; they stretched my mind and allowed me to see these biblical characters as real people, with real lives, sometimes heroic, sometimes flawed. At the same time, in my personal world, I could see that the time was coming when I would retire from my professional life. What would I do, how would I spend my time? What I needed was a retirement project that would both keep me busy and engage my mind productively. The answer seemed to jump from the biblical pages themselves: explore more deeply some of the lives presented in Genesis. The more I wrestled with the concept, the clearer it came to me that I needed to restrict my view, that I should not cast my net too widely. The lives of the seven Matriarchs of Genesis was both wide enough a subject, and limited enough in scope. Who were they, what was their background, how did they relate with their husbands and others, how did life change because of their presence? What was said about these women in the post-biblical world? I decided to begin with an exploration of what their life was like as presented in the book of Genesis. By the phrase “book of Genesis” I meant the received text, not necessarily literally in the time of Genesis. One cannot “prove” that the Matriarchs and Patriarchs actually existed, or said and did what the Bible states. Nonetheless, I would regard the biblical text as describing real people and living real lives.

This book is the fruit of those deliberations. I began to study even more deeply some of the classical 20th/21st scholarly commentaries on Genesis, written by such authors as E. A. Speiser, and Gerhard Von Rad, Nahum N. Sarna, and David W. Cotter. I looked at the words and works of women writers such as Athalya Brenner, Amy-Jill Levine, and Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg. Around the same time, I began a friendship and scholarly collaboration with Moshe Reiss. I had met Moshe through some of his publications. We both had articles printed in the Jerusalem-based journal Jewish Bible Quarterly. We began with a jointly-written article on David’s Wives, and another on Abraham-Sarah-Hagar as a blended family. From there we branched into other books of the Bible. Moshe and I had established a very good working relationship, building on each other’s strengths. He is a superb researcher; he is far-reaching in his quests both in classical Jewish texts and general scholarship. He has wonderful insights. My strengths come in other areas including close readings of texts, organization, writing style, and attention to details.

I approached him and asked if was interested in some kind of cooperative venture to produce a book on the Matriarchs of Genesis. By that point I had already started to comb through the commentaries of various scholars, both general and feminist, but Moshe quickly added to that list. I had worked through many of the rabbinic midrash collections such as Midrash Rabbah, Pesikta de Rab Kahanah, Pesikta Rabbati, Avot de Rabbi Nathan, Tanna debe Eliyyahu and others, listing where they had referred to these women, or where they commented on verses in which they were referred to or in which they spoke. Moshe supplemented this with further examples from Nahmanides and Sforno. It was he who came up with the idea that we should have a section on its own devoted to the area of the Early Extra-Biblical literature. In the event, we decided to take the seven Matriarchs and show how they were viewed in five different settings. The first was the book of Genesis itself. How were these women presented? What were the contexts for their speeches? What did they do, or not do, and why? Where applicable, how did they interact with others, or with a rival for the affection of her husband’s affection? Did they, if so, how did they influence the next generation? The second setting was what is termed Early Extra-Biblical Literature. This meant looking at a wide-ranging collection of ancient Jewish writings that, as the title indicates, never became part of the official Jewish Bible. This material comes from the time of the later Second Temple period and a bit thereafter, ca. 200 BCE to 200 CE. This meant that we were now including comments from Josephus and Philo, but even more importantly, and more fruitfully, the wealth of material found in the writings from the Pseudepigrapha, notably the books of Jubilees, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, among others. The third viewpoint was that of the Classical Rabbis. Broadly termed Midrash, these writings are the product of the rabbis who flourished from ca. 200 to 500 CE, but collections may have been added to and compiled centuries after that time. Midrash, which is always grounded in the biblical text, is a uniquely Jewish way of interpreting the Bible. As Gary G. Porton explains in the Anchor Bible Dictionary “Midrash is a type of literature, oral or written, which has its starting point in a fixed canonical text, considered the revealed word of God by the midrashist and his audience, and in which this original verse is explicitly cited or clearly alluded to” (“Midrash,” 4:819). In the mind of the rabbis, each biblical statement carried many meanings (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 34a). The rabbis suggested that each word had seventy possible interpretations—Shiv'im panim ba-Torah (Numbers Rabbah 13.15, 16). Through their midrashim, the rabbis teach about the values of their time, such as the nature of God, opposition to idolatry, proper modesty, the importance of studying sacred texts and of generosity, hard work, chastity, and loyalty, as well as discussing differences between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Furthermore, according to the midrashic tradition, linear time does not exist when it comes to the Torah. Past, present, and future time periods are seamless; they are all part of one ongoing continuum (Babylonian Talmud Pesahim 6b). Next we turned to Contemporary Scholarship. We considered a wide range of 20th/21st century specialists including Jewish and non-Jewish scholars, both men and women, writing on the book of Genesis. Among them are E. A. Speiser, Gerhard von Rad, Nehama Leibowitz, Nahum M. Sarna, Claus Westermann, Susan Niditch, Phyllis Trible, Athalya Brenner, Bruce Vawter, Gordon J. Wenham, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, David W. Cotter, Tammi J. Schneider, Yairah Amit, Robert Alter, Amy-Jill Levine, and many others.

Finally, we turned to what we termed Feminist Thought. Here we present the perspective of feminist scholars who bring additional insights to the material at hand. Some women would claim the term “feminist” for themselves while others would not. Feminists, both female and male, reflect the theological spectrum. These include “evangelical women” who make “an important contribution to feminist hermeneutics, albeit from a more conservative position” (Kroeger and Evans, IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, xv). We understand feminist thought to be part of contemporary scholarship, but a specialized section within that grouping. Feminism is not a matter of gender identity, for there are both male and female feminists. Some writers are both contemporary and write from a feminist viewpoint. There are works that specifically claim a feminist orientation in their very title, such as A Feminist Companion to . . . Other books or articles simply reflect a feminist viewpoint. Whether a given source appears in the “Contemporary Scholarship” section or the “Feminist Thought” section is sometimes an arbitrary, subjective choice. What distinguishes feminist from non-feminist scholarship is the primary concern for women as the major subject of analysis, as well as women’s experiences and how they are represented. This means, for example, as Esther Fuchs has suggested, that going beyond issues of survival and security, a feminist view centers on “interpersonal politics, and [moves] from the public to the private” sphere (“Feminist Hebrew Literary Criticism”).

About the same time as we were doing our research and writing, three works were published, which proved enormous helpful. The first was The Torah: A Women’s Commentary edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press, 2008). The second was the newest revision of Women’s Bible Commentary, 3rd ed., edited by Carol A. Newsom, Susan H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012). The final work was the three-volume set, Outside the Bible: Ancient Writings Related to Scripture edited by Louis H. Feldman, James L. Kugel, and Lawrence H. Schiffman (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2013). These books are a logical successor/supplement to the Anchor Bible Series The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (James Charlesworth, ed., 1983, 1985).

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary featured the scholarship of dozens of Jewish women scholars, from a secular background and right across the religious spectrum. Women’s Bible Commentary, 3rd ed., featured essays written by scores of scholars not only on Genesis, but on related matters in the Bible. Outside the Bible: Ancient Writings Related to Scripture reflected the contributions of over seventy highly respected scholars. There were brand new commentaries and in many cases, new translations.

Each of the five views we consider presents a different picture of the Matriarch. Taken as a whole, she becomes a fuller portrait, more credible, and we get to see her as a multi-dimensional figure. Genesis presents a Sarah who offers her maidservant Hagar as a surrogate womb, but then who appears to regret this decision, suggesting serious tension in the household. Later, Sarah orders Abraham to send away Hagar and Ishmael, claiming that Ishmael should not inherit alongside Isaac (Gen 16, 21). In the Early Extra-biblical book of Jubilees, the particular tensions between Sarah and Hagar are ignored. Yet Jubilees offers a different reason for Sarah’s decision to expel her co-wife and stepson, she was jealous of Ishmael (Jub. 14, 17). The rabbis explain that Sarah was extraordinarily good looking (Genesis Rabbah 40.5). She was a prophet (Babylonian Talmud Megillah 14a). One rabbinic source, the Zohar, disputes the notion propounded in Jubilees. “It cannot be supposed that Sarah was moved by jealousy of her [Hagar] or her [Hagar’s] son. For if so, God would not have supported her by saying, ‘listen to her [Sarah’s] voice’” (Zohar, Vayera, 1.118b). Contemporary scholars note that the verb used to describe Sarah’s harsh treatment of Hagar in Genesis 16 suggests physical or emotional abuse. It can mean to oppress, humble, or humiliate. In a later generation, when Sarah and Abraham’s descendants are enslaved in Egypt, they in turn will be physically and emotionally abused; they will be oppressed, humbled, and humiliated. The exact same verb root is used in Genesis and Exodus (Gen 16:6; Exod 1:11; 3:7). In Genesis 12, when in Egypt Abraham passes off his wife as his sister. In effect, he pimps her. In the Feminist Thought section of our book Susan Niditch describes this as a “crass, male-centered . . . [account] where it is clear that Abram has more to gain as the brother of an unattached, protected woman than the husband of a ‘used’ one . . . This is no woman-affirming tale. Sarai is an exchange item to be traded for wealth.” (Niditch, Women’s Bible Commentary, 3rd ed.) Sarah does not offer any comment while she is Egypt. Later, however, she says to Abraham, (Gen 16:5), “The wrong done to me is your fault!”

“Sarah’s strong words here represent the first and only time that she expresses her innermost feelings about what Abraham did to her. Here, she finally allows her deep anger at Abraham’s prior behavior to emerge.” Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut, “Sacrifice of Sarah”).

A people’s self-understanding is fashioned on their admiration for heroes and heroines. The Matriarchs of Genesis: Seven Women, Five Views presents Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah through a variety of lenses, from biblical times, through the ancient world, and into contemporary times. As we learn more about them, so we learn more about ourselves.

David J. Zucker, PhD (with Moshe Reiss, PhD)



Bibliography

Chesler, Phyllis, and Rivka Haut. “The Sacrifice of Sarah.” The Jewish Week, October 26, 2010. www.thejewishweek.com/editorial-opinion/sabbath-week/sacrifice-sarah.

Fuchs, Esther. “Feminist Hebrew Literary Criticism: The Political Unconscious.” Hebrew Studies 48 (2007) 195–216.

Kroeger, Catherine Clark, and Mary J. Evans, eds. The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 2002.

Porton, Gary G. “Midrash.” In Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, 4:819. London, Yale University Press, 1992.

Ringe, Sharon H. “Introduction” [to the first edition, 1982] In The Women’s Bible Commentary, edited by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley. 3rd rev. ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012.

_____ “When Women Interpret the Bible”. The Women’s Bible Commentary, edited by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley. 3rd rev. ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012.





Comments (1)


The headline question, whether these are authentic women' voices, seems to recede during the discussion - surely there can be no doubt that these women are characters in a drama whose authors were men, though some think that God himself somehow stood at their shoulder as they wrote. Are they plausible characters? We are presented with a harsh world interpreted by a harsh theology. Beautiful women - that Sarah was beautiful is right there in the text, certainly not a rabbinic gloss - are trophies for powerful men and are used politically to create relationships between powerful families, which of course makes childbearing very central to women's role. We might think that it's not like that any more, but perhaps ought think again.
Genesis is anti-feminist in the sense that it portrays women themselves as insisting on the centrality of childbirth: Sarah's higher social status cannot protect her against the natural status acquired by the fertile Hagar because she has a son: it is the women whose whole nature is to think like that - Abraham would like to calm things down but can't.
I can't see that Sarah objects to being 'pimped'. Her anger is all Hagar-related. There is no sense that Abraham is outraging her expressed feelings when she gets involved all over again with another foreign admirer in Gerar. Presumably she is spirited enough to find flings with exotic, powerful and somewhat younger men a pleasant relief from an ageing, perhaps boring husband and accepts her share in the gains that the deceptions will bring to the family.
The underlying theology is that Abraham cannot carry out his mission, which is to do good to people of many nations, without using deception on some occasions - more broadly that God himself has to work with and through the less pleasant as well as the nobler aspects of human nature, which the text does not expect to change, in order to do good to all.
The really fizzing, challenging exposition of this idea comes with another woman, Dinah - or Dinah/Danae - who should really come within the purview if this challenging subject is really to be faced.
#1 - Martin Hughes - 03/19/2016 - 21:15






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