When one thinks of the narratives of Genesis 12–50, one thinks of the patriarchs, of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, and of their special role as bearers of God’s promise to the chosen people. But what of the matriarchs—Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah—what place do they have in these dramatic sagas of Israel’s origins? They fill the familiar role of wife and mother, roles which so often defined and determined the meaning of a woman’s life in biblical times. What happens when we examine their role as Israel’s mothers from a feminist perspective? In what follows, I seek neither to defend the Bible nor to deny its patriarchal bias, but rather to subject the biblical narrative to a feminist critique.
Recently, scholars have begun to examine biblical material from a nonandrocentric (non-male-centered) perspective; much remains to be done, however.1 A variety of methods will aid us in this task. Sociological and anthropological studies shed light on women’s status in biblical times.2 Literary approaches reveal attitudes toward women and reflect a variety of opinions about their contributions, real or idealized, to the community of faith. My approach here involves primarily a literary method of close reading, which pays careful attention to the portrayal of women in selected texts. Isaac, Within the admittedly patriarchal context of the biblical literature, we find strong countercurrents of affirmation of women: stories that show women’s courage, strength, faith, ingenuity, talents, diginity and worth. Such stories undermine patriarchal assumptions and temper patriarchal biases, often challenging the very patriarchal structures that dominate the narrative landscape.
It is worthwhile to look at the matriarchs only in their role as mothers; not only because motherhood so often defines “woman’s place” but also because of the ordinariness of this role—mothers as such are not major characters. These women derive their significance from the fact that they gave birth to famous sons.
But close examination reveals that these mothers are not so ordinary after all, and their influence is far-reaching. A striking paradox emerges in these stories of mothers: whereas the important events in Israelite tradition women are experienced by men, they are often set in motion and determined by women.
I hope that my limited comments here will be suggestive of what can and should be done on a larger scale. The same patterns and paradox can be 062found in the Exodus narrative, in the period of the Judges and in the monarchy. The Exile and restoration see a disruption of the pattern, while in New Testament times, the familiar themes are reappropriated (Luke 1:5–25) and reshaped (Matthew 1:18–25, Luke 1:26–56).
The stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs in Genesis 12–50 are stories about a promise, threefold promise to Abraham (i) of numerous descendants, (ii) of the land of Canaan and (iii) of the role as mediator of God’s blessing to all humanity— 063a promise passed from Abraham to his son, to his son, and so on down the male line. Numerous obstacles threaten the promise, postponing its fulfillment: for example, the barrenness of Sarah (Genesis 11:30, 16:1), of Rebekah (Genesis 25:21) and of Rachel (Genesis 29:31); the potential loss of the matriarch when the patriarchs pass off their wives as their sisters and the women are threatened with being taken into a foreign ruler’s harem (Genesis 12, 20, 26); the fact that Abraham and Sarah are too old to bear children (Genesis 17:17, 18:12); or the command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, “your only son Isaac, whom you love” (Genesis 22:2).
Every listener to these stories knows the outcome in advance, for the patriarchs are personifications of the collective memory of Israel, and the listeners are heirs to the promise. The delight is in the telling. In the figures of the patriarchs, Israel sees itself and its special relationship to God, and in these stories Israel reveals itself, holding up for our scrutiny both positive and negative aspects of its character.
What, then, is the role of the matriarchs? Obviously, to bear the children of the promise—thus the importance of the “right” wife: Abraham’s wife Sarah, not his concubine Hagar, must be the mother of the rightful heir; Isaac and Jacob may not marry Canaanite—that is, “foreign”—wives (Genesis 24:3, 27:46, 28:1).
Not only must the “right” woman be the mother of the chosen people, but the “right” son must be the bearer of the promise: of Abraham’s sons, Isaac and not Ishmael; of Isaac’s sons, Jacob and not Esau. In the patriarchal world males are the significant figures: Abraham follows the divine call to the Promised Land; Sarah, on the other hand, is “taken” with him: “Abraham took his wife Sarah … and they set out for Canaan” (Genesis 12:4, 5). Indeed, she is repeatedly “taken” elsewhere in chapter 12 (verses 15, 19). Sarah is thus treated as an object or a possession.
Women are simply ignored in numerous scenes: the Genesis narrators are interested in Abraham’s faith, not Sarah’s (see, for example, Genesis 22, dealing with Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac). Jacob wrestles with God in “face to face” combat (Genesis 32:30), while Rachel’s “mighty wrestlings” are with her sister (Genesis 30:8).
Typically, the matriarchs are omitted from recitals 064of faith. We hear only of “my father” (Deuteronomy 26:5), or “your fathers lived of old…I took your father Abraham…I gave him Isaac; and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau” (Joshua 24:2–4). In Psalm 105, we read of:
“The covenant which he made with Abraham,
his sworn promise to Isaac,
which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute,
to Israel as an everlasting covenant.”
(An exception to the general rule is Isaiah 51:2, which includes Sarah:
“Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you.
For when he was but one I called him,
And I blessed him and made him many.”)
On the other hand, when the matriarchs appear as actors, they come to life as fully developed personalities, whose struggles and determination are deftly sketched and whose joys and sorrows become real for us. In such stories, they are not appendages of the patriarchs, but rather persons in their own right—women participating in a patriarchal culture but sometimes pictured as standing over or against it. This is the paradox: though frequently ignored in the larger story of Israel’s journey toward the promise, the matriarchs act at strategic points that move the plot, and thus the promise, in the proper direction, toward its fulfillment.
The major events in the lives of the matriarchs center around their sons. The barren matriarch (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel) is a common theme, since barrenness provides a threat that the needed son might not appear; barrenness also offers an opportunity for God to intervene. In Genesis 16, Sarah speaks for the first time, thus for the first time coming to life as a character. She initiates the action and controls it throughout the six verses in which she appears. In contrast to what has gone before, when Abraham was the active figure, Abraham is passive here: he obeys Sarah. (The Revised Standard Version translates “hearkened to the voice of” Sarah [Genesis 16:2].) He even acknowledges her authority over Hagar: when Hagar becomes pregnant and treats the barren Sarah with disdain, Abraham tells Sarah “Your maid is in your power” (Genesis 16:6). For the first time we see things from Sarah’s point of view.3 This, however, presents a rather complex situation because the narrator of the tale is our source for Sarah’s point of view, and the narrative point of view is androcentric (male-centered) and uncritical of patriarchy.
To be childless in a patriarchal society represents a loss of status. The childless Sarah, who recognizes God’s ultimate responsibility, offers a concrete solution to the absence of an heir. She gives Abraham her Egyptian maid Hagar, not simply so that Abraham might have an heir. (He could take another wife to bear him children if he wished, but he does not. Only after Sarah dies does he take another wife, Keturah [Genesis 25:1].) Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham because, according to custom, Hagar’s child would be considered Sarah’s. The fact that this particular means of obtaining children is for the woman’s sake and not the man’s is clear from Genesis 29–30. There Rachel and Leah give their maids to Jacob, even though he already has sons.
Sarah’s plan backfires, however, when the pregnant Hagar becomes arrogant, thus presenting a different kind of challenge, a threat to Sarah’s superior status as primary wife. Again, Sarah must act, this time to guarantee her position. She treats Hagar harshly, and Hagar flees. Thus, another threat to the promise—that Hagar the Egyptian might become the mother of Israel—is thwarted. God, however, in one of the few theophanies to a woman, instructs Hagar to return and submit to Sarah, which poses the threat anew.
The story gives us poignant insight into the plight of both Sarah and Hagar. Hagar in particular deserves to be approached from a feminist perspective, which finds in her a paradigm of the oppressed woman who shows the courage to seek freedom. (Notice the odd reversal of the Exodus paradigm, for here an Egyptian flees oppression by Israel.) Hagar 065becomes the mother of a great nation characterized by its refusal to be submissive.4
Although the story is told with sympathy for Sarah and sensitivity toward Hagar, a feminist critique recognizes its painful limitations. Both Sarah and Hagar are victims of a patriarchal society that stresses the importance of sons, and of a narrative structure that revolves around the promise of a son. Sadly, but not surprisingly in such a context, they make victims of each other. The story describes the privileged woman’s exploitation of her subordinate. Sarah uses Hagar (how Hagar feels about being given to Abraham as a wife is not stated), and Hagar apparently covets Sarah’s position—the oppressed seeking to change places with the oppressor. Thus, Sarah must oppress Hagar in order to assert herself. It is a vicious circle in which women are played off against each other in the quest for status, a situation we shall see reflected again in the conflict between Rachel and Leah. From a critical feminist perspective, Sarah’s anger at Abraham when Hagar becomes arrogant—“May the Lord Judge between you and me” (not “between Hagar and me” [Genesis 16:5])—becomes an indictment of the patriarchal system, which pits women against women and challenges their intrinsic worth with patriarchal presuppositions about the role of women.
Genesis 17 and 18 give increasing attention to Sarah and the promised birth of her son: “I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations” (Genesis 17:16). Finally, Sarah bears the long-awaited heir. Genesis 21 resolves once and for all the threat posed to the promise by the presence of Hagar and Ishmael. Earlier, Sarah had acted to secure her own position; now she moves to protect Isaac’s inheritance by having Hagar and Ishmael sent away.
Though Abraham is displeased, Sarah’s position receives divine approval; the threat must be removed, and God here works through Sarah to remove it: “Whatever Sarah says to you,” God orders Abraham, “do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your descendants be named” (Genesis 21:12).
From a feminist perspective, both women suffer: one is cast out, becoming the mother of a great nation excluded from the covenant; the other stays within the patriarchal hearth and almost loses her only child to the father, who is prepared to offer him to God as a sacrifice (Genesis 22). Sarah does not appear in the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac. It is, after all, a test of Abraham, just as Genesis 12:1–3 was the call of Abraham to go to Canaan. On Abraham’s faith, not Sarah’s, hangs the whole divine experiment. (A later Midrasha relates that Sarah dropped dead upon hearing what Abraham was prepared to do.)5
Isaac, Sarah’s son, is comforted after his mother’s death by his marriage to Rebekah (Genesis 24:67), a brief but touching testimony to the bond between mother and son. Genesis 24 reveals Rebekah’s generosity and initiative when Abraham’s servant comes looking for a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac. We must skip over the details of this delightful tale, however, in order to focus on Rebekah’s pivotal role in obtaining for her son Jacob the patriarchal blessing. Like Sarah, Rebekah is at first barren; but when Isaac offers an intercessory prayer, she conceives twins (Genesis 25:21–24). The struggle between Jacob and Esau begins even before their birth, and the anxious mother-to-be seeks a divine oracle without benefit of either patriarchal or priestly intercession. She receives an answer to which she alone is privy: 066“The elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). Rebekah knows from the outset—as we know and as the ancient listeners knew—how things will turn out. And thus she loves Jacob (Genesis 25:28).
Is it coincidence that Rebekah is listening when Isaac reveals his intention to bless Esau (Genesis 27:1–5)? Immediately she sets her plan into motion; her favorite son has only to follow her instructions: “Obey my word,” she twice tells him (Genesis 27:8, 13). Jacob fears that discovery of the ruse by his father might bring him a curse rather than a blessing, an understandable reluctance given the seriousness of the curse, which, once uttered, proceeds immutably toward its realization. Rebekah’s response, “Upon me be your curse, my son,” demonstrates her remarkable resolve. What has Jacob to lose? It is Rebekah who risks everything. She prepares the food that Isaac loves so that Jacob can present it to him as if he were Esau. She dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothes and outfits him with animal skins so that he will both smell and feel like his older brother and thereby deceive his blind father. With all the details arranged by his mother, Jacob carries out the ruse and succeeds in getting the coveted blessing for himself—only moments before his brother Esau returns, ready to claim what is rightfully his. Clearly, Jacob owes his success to the timely and decisive action of his strong-willed and resourceful mother Rebekah.
Justifiably angry, Esau determines to kill Jacob. Rebekah—typically well-informed—learns of the plan and again acts decisively, this time to preserve Jacob’s life. Again she gives him all-important instructions: “Obey my voice,” she says (Genesis 27:43). She tells Jacob to flee to her brother Laban until Esau’s anger has subsided, at which time she will send for him. Rebekah even manages to get Isaac to send Jacob away with a blessing to take a wife from Rebekah’s family (Genesis 27:46–28:5). Jacob, one day to become Israel, sets out on his journey toward the fulfillment of Israel’s destiny, on a course charted by his mother.
Jacob acquires two wives (Leah and Rachel), but he loves one (Rachel) more than the other (Genesis 29:30). This situation gives rise to a variation of the barrenness motif: only the favored wife Rachel is initially barren; God blesses the other, Leah, with fertility, a compensation for being unloved by her husband. Genesis 29–30 describes a child-bearing contest (Genesis 30:8) between the rival sisters through which Jacob/Israel is built up: the 12 sons of Jacob represent the 12 tribes of Israel—and the promise of numerous descendants moves toward fulfillment. Again, the androcentric perspective values a woman for her ability to produce sons; Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, receives only passing mention (Genesis 30:21).
Leah believes that by mothering Jacob’s firstborn son she will gain the patriarch’s affection: “Surely now my husband will love me” (Genesis 29:32). In quick sucession she bears three more sons. Rachel envies her sister’s fruitfulness and vents her frustration on Jacob (Genesis 30:1). Like Sarah’s anger at Abraham (Genesis 16:5), the woman’s dissatisfaction with her position receives recognition, but the real source of the problem, the patriarchal system, remains unrecognized, and the matriarchs can only vent their frustration on the patriarchs. (Rachel says to Jacob, “Give me children or I shall die” [Genesis 30:1].) Both Rachel and Leah give their maids Bilhah and Zilpah to Jacob in order to obtain children, and each bears two sons.
Although the narrative encourages us to feel sympathy for Leah, who is not loved, and for Rachel, who longs for a child but has none, it also invites us to laugh: there is something ludicrous in the preoccupation with producing sons. But the real butt of our laughter is none other than the patriarch himself. Rachel, wanting a supposed aphrodisiac, asks her sister Leah for some mandrake roots that belong to Leah’s son Reuben. Leah agrees to give Rachel the mandrakes in exchange for Rachel’s allowing Jacob to sleep with Leah that night. Jacob’s sexual services are thus traded for some aphrodisiacs. Imagine Jacob coming in from a day’s work in the fields to be met by his triumphant unloved wife Leah with the words, “You must come in to me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes” (Genesis 30:16). Is this any way to treat the great patriarch of Israel? 067Not unexpectedly, Leah bears another son and, later, a sixth. She seems to have given up her expectation of winning Jacob’s love (Genesis 29:32) for the more modest goal of gaining his respect, “Now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons” (Genesis 30:20).
When at last “God remembered Rachel” and “hearkened to her and opened her womb” (Genesis 30:22), the contest between the sisters comes to an end. But this occurs only after Rachel takes the initiative to solve the problem of barrenness with the mandrakes. (Perhaps they were effective?)
Eleven of the 12 tribes are now accounted for—six from Leah two each from Bilhah and Zilpah and one (Joseph) from Rachel. Later in the Genesis narrative, Rachel will bear the twelfth (Benjamin). But because she dies in childbirth, this last son is not a source of joy (see Genesis 35:16–20).
This quick survey has centered on a recurrent theme in the matriarchal stories: because of its mothers, Israel becomes a people numerous and blessed. Sarah guarantees Isaac’s inheritance against the threat of Ishmael. Rebekah sees to it that Jacob, rather than Esau obtains the blessing. And Rachel and Leah, in their competition to provide Jacob with sons, build up the house of Israel. At the same time, reviewing these stories makes us aware of the limitations placed upon the matriarchs by the patriarchal system that the Bible takes for granted. Bearing sons is of utmost importance, and the matriarchs’ major accomplishments are for the sake of their sons. Israel is personified in its sons, not in its mothers.
When one thinks of the narratives of Genesis 12–50, one thinks of the patriarchs, of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, and of their special role as bearers of God’s promise to the chosen people. But what of the matriarchs—Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah—what place do they have in these dramatic sagas of Israel’s origins? They fill the familiar role of wife and mother, roles which so often defined and determined the meaning of a woman’s life in biblical times. What happens when we examine their role as Israel’s mothers from a feminist perspective? In what follows, I seek […]