In the biblical world, nothing exists unless it is named. The power of naming is linked to the power of creating: In one inseparable motion, God creates, and then immediately names, Day and Night, the Sky, the Earth and the Seas (Genesis 1:1–10).
In the same way, when children are born in the Bible, they are immediately given names. Births and naming are recorded consecutively in three generations of the patriarchs: Isaac (Genesis 21:2–3), Jacob (Genesis 25:24–26) and Joseph (Genesis 30:23–24). Naming, then, belongs to the same act of creation as giving birth; and the naming of a child has a gravity similar to God’s creation of the universe.
The act of naming is also significant because it places the name-giver in authority over the name-bearer. Rachel and Leah name their children, as well as the children of their handmaids (see Genesis 30); because of their power of creating-naming, these two matriarchs (and not their handmaids) are called the ancestors of Israel’s twelve tribes (see Ruth 4:11).
In biblical narratives, the naming of children is more often the mother’s, not the father’s, prerogative. In the Hebrew Bible, there are 27 cases of female name-givers to 17 male, and 18 maternal naming speeches to 8 paternal ones.1 Even these figures may not go far enough, however: The number of actual female name-givers—and thus the number of women exercising authority over their family line—was probably significantly higher. The biblical authors (or editors) concealed the power of these women by making it seem as though the patriarchs, rather than the matriarchs, named their sons.
One way the compilers of the Bible concealed the traces of female power was by obscuring the identities of the women who attended births. This is evident in the story in which Rebekah gives birth to her sons:
“When [Rebekah’s] time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him (v’ykru) Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named (v’kra) Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them” (Genesis 25:24–26).
On the surface there is nothing surprising about the four sentences recounting this episode, except perhaps for the sequence in which the children are born (Rebekah was told by God that the elder would serve the younger [Genesis 25:23]). However, a careful reading suggests the hidden presence of another person besides Rebekah and her sons. Rebekah would not have given birth to twins on her own; someone would have been there to assist as the boys emerged from the womb: a midwife.
It takes little imagination to recreate the scene. You can almost hear the midwife reporting to the mother: “The first one is red and hairy all over,” so they called him Esau (a play on se’ar, the Hebrew word for hair). “Now here comes the second one with his little fist grasping onto his brother’s heel.” So he was called Jacob (a play on the Hebrew ‘aqeb, meaning heel).
The detailed description of this birth seems to have been given from the point of view of the midwife. With the birth of the first infant, it is “they” (v’ykru), the women, Rebekah and the midwife, who name Esau in the context of the female activity of giving birth. When Jacob is born, however, the pronoun changes: “so he was named (v’kra) Jacob.” The real namers, the women who do their naming as part of a continuous act of creation, have been effaced by the passive “he was named” (“he was given the name” and “his name was called” are also possible translations). In addition, the immediate reference to Isaac’s being 60 years old leaves the impression that he, the father, was there to name the twins when Rebekah bore them.
A similar story is told of Tamar (Genesis 38:27–30), who dressed as a holy woman (kedashah) to beguile Judah, her father-in-law, into impregnating her (for not fulfilling his obligation to give her one of his other sons as a husband after the death of her own husband, in accordance with the custom of Levirate marriages).a 041In this episode, the midwife is mentioned, but it is unclear who names the twins—even though the description of this birth is more detailed than that of Rebekah’s children. At the moment of birth, one of Tamar’s twins stretches out his hand, to which the midwife attaches a crimson thread denoting the firstborn. But the boy draws back his hand and the other child is born first. The midwife exclaims, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” and the text continues: “Therefore he was named Perez” (from the Hebrew word for “breach”). The other boy, with a crimson thread tied to his wrist, then emerges—“and he was named Zerah” (the Hebrew word for “brightness,” perhaps referring to the crimson thread).
The passive “he was named,” as in the story of Rebekah’s giving birth, is used to avoid mentioning the fact that the women name the children. Nevertheless, it is clear that both Tamar’s and Rebekah’s children are named as they emerge from the womb with only the mother and the midwife there to name them. The names given the children have a direct connection to the appearance of the infant as it leaves its mother’s womb; and there are no men present to do the naming. Here, again, is a midwife story that should be acknowledged as such, despite the seemingly insignificant editing that gives the text its male bias.
In the accounts of the births of Rebekah’s and Tamar’s twins, the matriarchs are concerned with which child is the younger,2 since the mother’s designated heir is usually the younger twin. Details like the crimson thread (or the ruddy appearance of Esau/Edom) were possibly formulas in matrilineal genealogies denoting some negative characteristic of the firstbornb and helping to make the younger the successor.
Significantly, it is often the mother’s “fault” that a younger son is chosen: Sarah’s disapproval of the behavior of Hagar’s son towards her son Isaac (Genesis 21:10), Rebekah’s deception of Isaac so that Jacob and not Esau receives his father’s blessing (Genesis 27) and Bath-Sheba’s guile in wresting the throne for her son Solomon from his elder brother Adonijah (1 Kings 1–34) emphasize mothers’ roles in shaping the future. The matriarchs, like the queen-mothers who come after them,3 frequently take advantage of their prerogative of designating the younger as successor to the family line.
Women’s power of naming is also apparent in the Book of Ruth, though the hand of the editor is visible here as well. After Ruth gives birth to a son, Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, takes the lad and holds him to her bosom: “The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David” (Ruth 4:17).
Boaz, the boy’s father, plays no part in this sequence, but neither does Ruth—whose position here is akin to that of the sh’fahot, the handmaids of Rachel and Leah. This is another example of a matriarch exercising one of the powers intrinsic to her status: Ruth’s child becomes the descendant of Naomi, not of his mother. Furthermore, since the child is born and named by women, the original (oral?) account must have been transmitted by women.
Thus there are vestiges of at least two narrative traditions in the Book of Ruth. The first, the earlier and more authentic tradition, preserves the role of women and was possibly transmitted by them. The second and later tradition builds up the status of a series of male leaders—in this instance, the line leading to King David. The final sentence naming the child “Obed” and giving David’s genealogy is distinctly a later insertion, displacing the original name.4
Revealing the missing midwife in Rebekah’s story brings the naming process to light. In biblical times, it seems, children were named the moment they were born—by mothers and midwives who chose names appropriate to the conditions, or their perceptions, of appearance as they are born; the names of Leah’s, Rachel’s and Tamar’s boys, on the other hand, reflect the mother’s experience.
If naming implies creation, the act of bringing into existence, then it is natural that the naming of a child would be the mother’s prerogative. If, in turn, the power of naming is akin to the power of creating, the Creator might also—should also—be envisioned as the Creatrix.
40 In the biblical world, nothing exists unless it is named. The power of naming is linked to the power of creating: In one inseparable motion, God creates, and then immediately names, Day and Night, the Sky, the Earth and the Seas (Genesis 1:1–10). In the same way, when children are born in the Bible, they are immediately given names. Births and naming are recorded consecutively in three generations of the patriarchs: Isaac (Genesis 21:2–3), Jacob (Genesis 25:24–26) and Joseph (Genesis 30:23–24). Naming, then, belongs to the same act of creation as giving birth; and the naming of a […]