Sessions 1 & 2 – “’The Last Shall Be First’: The Trickster Matriarchs of Genesis (Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel)”*
Texts: Genesis 12:10-20; 16; 21:1-21; 18:1-15; 20; 24:1-29, 50-67; 25:21-28; 26:6-12, 34-35; 27:1-17, 41-28:5; 29:1-30:24; 31:4-16; 31:25, 30-35
We think we know these stories. Through years of exposure--for many of us, mostly as children, in Sunday School or in “children’s Bibles”-- the tales of Genesis have become domesticated, tamed. And so, we lose sight of how profoundly strange—and how adult—most of them, in fact, are. This is especially true of those stories in which women figure prominently. So let’s review:
On the basis of textual evidence, most modern Bible scholars regard the text of Genesis (along with Exodus and most subsequent books preceding the Prophets) as a text woven out of four previous works, whose authors are referred to as J (the Yahwist), E (the Elohist), D (the Deuteronomist) and P (the Priestly Writer). J refers to God as “YHWH,” and probably wrote around the time of King David. E refers to God as “Elohim,” and probably wrote during the period after King Solomon, when Israel had been split into a northern kingdom (Israel), with its cultic centers in Dan and Bethel, and a southern kingdom (Judah), with its cultic center in Jerusalem. D, the author of most of Deuteronomy, probably wrote after the destruction of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians, and like E, reflects the prophetic traditions of the north. P reflects priestly traditions, associated with the southern kingdom. These four strands were woven into a unified text in several stages, but the major redaction probably occurred during or shortly after the exile in Babylon, after the Babylonians destroyed the first Temple in Jerusalem.
Gen. 2-3: Humankind begins with Adam and Eve in Eden, a fruitful garden of indefinite locale, out of which flow the Tigris and Euphrates, the rivers defining the land of Mesopotamia, in which Abram/Abraham will be born and raised.
Gen. 5:32-10:32: At five hundred years of age, Adam and Eve’s descendant, Noah, gives birth to three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth. Noah’s fellow humans, the wicked descendents of Cain, are all wiped out in the great Flood.
· The descendents of Shem—the Semites (“Shem-ites”)— include both the future Israelites/Hebrews and neighboring peoples with whom they later come into conflict, notably their near-neighbors, the Moabites and Elamites, and more distant, Mesopotamian peoples, including the Assyrians and the Arameans, from whom come Abram and his family.
· The descendants of Ham include other future adversaries of the Israelites; notably, the Philistines, Egyptians (and, by extension, all other Africans) and Canaanites, and Mesopotamian peoples, including the Babylonians and Akkadians.
· Implicitly, the descendants of Japheth must comprise all other peoples. Explicitly they are identified with various “coastland” peoples, including peoples of southern Europe.
Gen. 11:10-32: For unstated reasons, Terah—the father of Abram/Abraham, Nahor, Haran and Saray/Sarah—decides, after the death of Haran, to emigrate from the city-state of Ur, in southern Mesopotamia, to the land of Canaan. However, he stops short, and settles in the Mesopotamian city-state of Haran. His son, Nahor, will settle nearby.
Gen. 12:1: YHWH commands Abraham to “go from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Abram leaves behind Nahor, but takes along his wife and half-sister, Saray, and his nephew, Lot.
· The name, YHWH (translated in English as “the LORD”), is probably derived from the causal form of the Semitic verb, “to be,” and thus probably originally meant something like “the god who brings into being,” “the creator.” It may well have been a title attached by ancient Mesopotamian religions to the fertility god, Baal/Tammuz (who often took the form of a bull), the consort and brother of the fertility goddess, Ishtar/Astarte.
· The name, Elohim (translated as “God”), is the plural form of the common Semitic word for a god, `el. In other Semitic languages, `elohim means literally “gods.” It sometimes has this meaning in the Hebrew Bible, too. But, in Semitic languages, the plural can also have an emphatic, rather than a numeric, significance. Thus, it can signify, “a great god,” “the greatest god,” or “God, the great.” Many Bible scholars believe that, over the course of the history of the Israelites, the meaning shifted from the first to the last of these meanings. The final editor(s) of the Hebrew Bible in its present form clearly understood the name according to the last of these meanings.
The Stories Concerning Sarah:
· Genesis 12:10-20: Abram leads his household, including Saray and Lot, to settle in the land of Canaan. In a clear parallel to the stories concerning Joseph and his family’s descent into Egypt and their descendents’ subsequent exodus, a famine strikes the land, and Abram “goes down” to Egypt (Mitsrayim) “to sojourn [or ‘wander’; gur] there,” in order to survive. Fearing that Saray’s great beauty will tempt the Egyptians to kill him in order to take possession of her, Abram instructs Saray to pass herself off as his sister, “that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee” (v.13). The princes (sarey) of Egypt report on her great beauty to Pharaoh, who orders that she be brought into his house as his concubine. “For her sake,” Pharaoh enriches Abram. However, God strikes Pharaoh with “great plagues because of Saray, Avram [Abram’s] wife” (v. 17). Pharaoh complains to Abram about the deception, and sends them away, loaded with riches. Abram and his household travel through the Negev toward Canaan. Lot and he separate in order to avoid further strife over the land, which cannot support their combined flocks and herds; Lot settles near the future site of Sodom, while Abram settles in Canaan, which God again promises to confer upon his progeny.
· Gen. 16: After ten years “in the land of Canaan,” Saray has still born no children to Abram. Believing that YHWH “has restrained me” (‘atsarani: a pun on Saray’s name) from bearing children, Saray instructs Abram to “go in to” (a Hebrew euphemism for sexual intercourse) her Egyptian maid, Hagar (whose name is almost identical to the Hebrew word for “the sojourner” or “wanderer”: hager), “that I may obtain children by her”, and Abram ‘obeyed her’ (literally, “listened to [her] voice”) (v. 2). Hagar conceives, and comes to despise her mistress. Saray blames Abram, and complains to him. He responds, “Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as it pleases thee.” In the face of Saray’s harsh treatment of her, Hagar flees. An [or “the”] angel of YHWH finds her “by a fountain of water,” and tells her to return and submit herself to her mistress, but also delivers a promise (“I will multiply thy seed exceedingly” [v. 10]) and an annunciation: “Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shall call his name Ishmael” (v. 11), adding that he will be a man embroiled in violence and conflict (v. 12). Hagar names the place of this revelation “Be’er-lachai-ro’iy”(which means something like “the well where I have seen life).” “It is between Qadesh [holy] and Bared [in Hebrew, a word which looks very like the word for “blessed”: barekh]” (v. 14).
· Gen. 17: God changes the name of Abram to Abraham, “for a father of many nations have I made thee” (the text suggests a derivation—etymologically improbable—of his new name from the particles, `ab [“father”], and hamon [“many”] [v. 5]). Likewise, God changes Saray’s name to Sarah. God promises that Sarah, who is ninety years of age, will produce a son, in response to which Abraham “fell on his face and laughed” (yitsechaq) (v. 5). God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and all the males in his household, as a physical sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendents.
· Gen. 18-19: YHWH appears to Abraham, who, sitting in front of his tent, looks up to behold “three men.” Abraham addresses the visitor(s), however, only in the singular, usually as “my lord” (`adonay). Throughout this passage, Abraham’s interlocutor is referred to interchangeably in the plural and singular, sometimes as “the men,” sometimes as “the young man,” sometimes as “YHWH” (vv. 17-33); mention is later made of “two angels” (19:1, 15). They/he ask(s) after Abraham’s wife, who is hiding behind the flap of the tent, then declare(s), “I will return to thee at this season; and lo, Sarah, thy wife, shall have a son. Now Abraham and Sarah were old . . . ; and it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. Therefore Sarah laughed [titschaq] within herself [literally, “in her middle”], saying, After I am grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” (v. 12). (In Hebrew, the verb, “laugh” [tsachaq] can connote sexual pleasure.) Sarah denies laughing, but the visitor(s) insist(s) that she did, and reiterate(s) the promise that she will have a son by the following season. The visitor(s) then turn(s) toward Sodom, declaring his/their intention to verify whether Sodom and Gomorah’s sin is as bad as “according to the cry of it” (vv. 20-21). Abraham negotiates with YHWH on behalf of the people of Sodom. The two angels stay in Lot’s house in Sodom and are accosted by the people of the city, which they destroy. Lot’s daughters, bereft of husbands, get him drunk and sleep with him. The eldest gives birth to Moab, ancestor of the Moabites (19:36-37).
· Gen. 20: Abraham departs from his former encampment and “sojourned [gar] in Gerar [gerar]” (v. 1), a land under the control of the Canaanite king, Abimelekh. In a passage strikingly similar to 12:10-20, Abraham asks Sarah to pass herself off as his sister. This passage differs from the former one in several respects, however. In Abimelekh’s dream vision, God’s (`elohim) description of Sarah as “a man’s wife” (be`ulat-ba`al) uses unusual Hebrew vocabulary that suggests a pun on the Canaanite god, Ba`al (v. 3). Abraham justifies himself by declaring, first, that he thought his life was in danger because “the fear of God is not in this place,” and secondly, that he has not, in fact, committed a lie: Sarah is, indeed, his half-sister, as well as his wife (v. 12). Abimelekh’s portrait is much more favorable than was pharaoh’s. A special point is made of the fact that “Abimelekh had not come near [Sarah],” even before he was warned away by God (v. 11). Abimelekh protests that he has acted in integrity of heart and innocence, and God accepts and confirms this claim. Sarah is “chastised” by Abimelekh, whom God “heals” of the plagues, restoring the women of his house to their fertility. God does this in response to Abraham’s prayers: “For he is a prophet, and he will pray for thee, and thou shalt live” (v. 6). This is the only time the term “prophet” (nabi`) occurs in Genesis.
· Gen. 21:1-21: Sarah conceives at the appointed time, and bears Abraham a son, whom Abraham names Isaac (yitsechaq, meaning “he laughs”), in a verse which calls special attention to Sarah’s role in giving him birth. Sarah’s words continue to emphasis the punning connection between the boy’s name, laughter, and [sexual] pleasure: “God has made laughter (tsechoq) for me, so that all that hear will laugh (yitsachaq) with me. After this birth, Sarah notices “the son of Hagar the Egyptian” “mocking” (literally, “laughing”: metsacheq). She demands that Abraham send Hagar and her son away. Abraham regards this as grievous, but God (`elohim) reassures him, ordering him to obey Sarah (literally, “listen to her voice”), because “in Isaac shall thy seed be called.” God promises that “also of [Ishmael] will I make a nation, because he is thy seed” (v. 13). Abraham provides Hagar with bread and water, and sends her away into the desert. After the water runs out, she casts the child beneath a bush and withdraws, because she does not want to see him die. God hears the boy’s cries, and an angel of God appears to Hagar, reassuring her that “I will make him a great nation” (v. 18). God reveals a well to Hagar, and tells her to take the child’s hand and give him water. “And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness . . . : and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt” (vv. 19-20).
· Gen. 24:1-29, 50-67: Abraham sends his servant to Nahor, to his ancestral home in Mesopotamia (presided over by Rebekah’s brother, Laban), to procure a wife for Isaac. In the scene in which the servant encounters Rebekah, note the emphatic repetition of the word “well” (six times in nineteen verses), the many references to water and drinking, and Rebekah’s nearly miraculous feat in slacking the thirst, not only of the servant, but also of the caravan of ten of Abraham’s camels, animals notorious for the amount of water they consume, especially after a long track through the desert. This resonates with the well that figured in God’s rescue of Hagar in chapter 21, and foreshadows the prominence of the well in Jacob’s first encounter with Rachel and Leah. Rebekah’s profligate generosity in slacking others’ thirst also foreshadows the similar generosity of Jacob in rolling away the stone from the well so that Rachel and Leah may drink. Laban agrees to allow Rebekah to join the household of Isaac and Abraham, but then tries to “hold onto her.” As in the later encounter between Jacob, Rachel and Leah, Laban’s retentiveness contrasts with the profligate generosity connoted by the scenes involving wells and the slaking of others’ thirst.
· Gen. 25:21-28: Rebekah conceives and gives birth to twins, Esau and Jacob, who are called “two nations,” in reference to their descendents. Note the line, “the elder shall serve the younger,” and the mention of the fact that Isaac prefers the hairy hunter and man-of-the fields, Esau, “but Rebekah loved Jacob,” the smooth man “who dwells in tents.” The scene of Esau and Jacob’s birth, and the subsequent narrative, involve a reversal, in which God favors the younger, gifted son, rather than follow social custom in giving priority to the eldest according to the “natural” birth order. Indeed, Jacob’s name signifies this reversal: it means, “he grasps by the heel,” or figuratively, “he usurps.” Edom (Esau’s other name), on the other hand, is related to the Hebrew word for “dirt” or “earth” (`adamah) and to the color, red (`edom), the color of earth.
So, inasmuch as Rebekah favors the younger son, whom God also favors, over the “natural” birth order, she operates as an agent of reversal and transformation. But, such a role comes at a cost: She suffers for it. This is symbolized by her role in the birth of her twin sons, which is already a scene of conflict, struggle, and attempted reversal/transformation. This act of birthing brings Rebekah such pain that she complains, “If it be so, why am I thus?” Later scenes in which she operates as an agent of reversals/ transformation also entail her suffering. When she directs Jacob on how to deceive his father into conferring upon Jacob the blessing Isaac had intended for Esau, she responds to Jacob’s fears his father might find out and curse him by stating, “Upon me be thy curse, my son” (27:6-13).
· Gen. 26:6-12: Isaac and Rebekah sojourn in the land of Gerar, ruled by Abimelekh, in a strong parallel to Gen. 12:10-20 and, even more so, Gen. 20. Once again, the matriarch “saves” and even materially advances (v. 12) her endangered and somewhat passive husband by duping a powerful and threatening foreign king, exploiting her beauty and the king’s cupidity.
· Gen. 29:1-30: Jacob flees to Nahor, to his mother’s and Abraham’s ancestral home, to escape Esau’s desire to kill him in revenge for having stolen Esau’s birthright and blessing. Note that, in Hebrew, the words for “birthright” (bekhorah) and blessing (berakhah) involve a reversal of consonants, just as they signify a reversal in the roles of the two sons. Laban again proves retentive, trying to cheat Jacob out of his wages, and failing to provide his daughters with the dowry that is their due. True to his nature and history, Jacob prefers the younger, beautiful Rachel to her older sister, Leah. (Note the repeated use of the terms, haqatanah, “the lesser one,” and hagadolah, “the greater one,” to refer to the two sisters. This mirrors the same terms repeatedly applied to Jacob and Esau in Gen. 27.) Like Isaac, Laban tries to reinforce the “natural order of things,” going so far as to disguise Leah and substitute her for Rachel on the marriage night. Thus, Jacob becomes the victim of a deception much like the one he played on his father, Isaac, in stealing the blessing—another reversal. This ironic parallelism between the Jacob-Esau and Rachel-Leah stories is reinforced by the fact that Laban uses the term, “firstborn,” (bekhiyrah, a variant of the word for “birthright,” bekorah) to describe Leah in contradistinction to her younger sister.
· Gen. 29:31-30:24: These two sisters, along with their respective handmaids, become the progenitors of the twelve patriarchs whose descendents will comprise the twelve tribes of Israel. Their childbearing, though, is depicted as a contest, a struggle, set in motion by Jacob’s preference for Rachel over Leah. Thus, the sisters’ relationship offers, in this way, too, a mirror image of the relation between Jacob and Esau, just as their efforts to overcome their respective periods of barrenness by ordering Jacob to “go in to” their respective handmaids mirrors the relations between Saray, Abraham and Hagar. However, this struggle ultimately requires the transformation of the Biblical protagonists, themselves, and not just of their circumstances: Before he is able to return home to Canaan to claim his usurped birthright, Jacob/Israel must make a peace offering to his brother, Esau. Similarly, Rachel, before her barrenness is lifted by the birth of Joseph, must make a gesture signifying a turning away from selfishness and a reconciliation with the sibling whose place she usurps: Joseph’s birth only happens after Rachel agrees to “sell” her conjugal rights to her husband for the night to her sister, in return for some mandrake plants (which were believed to enhance fertility) (30:14-24). (Note the patriarch’s relative passivity in the face of the matriarchs’ manipulations of the circumstances surrounding sexuality and reproduction.)
(The “struggles” attendant upon Jacob’s pursuit of reversals—and embodied in the story of his birth—are signified by his name change. After wrestling with God/God’s angel, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel, a name the text derives from the Hebrew word for “wrestling” and the particle, y-, which stands for YHWH. Thus, the name may signify “God of struggle/wrestling” or “struggles with God.”)
· 31:4-16, 25, 30-35: Jacob continues his trickery by calling Rachel and Leah to him in the field and claiming that God has appeared to him in a dream. Jacob claims that the angel said that God has miraculously increased Jacob’s earnings among Laban’s flock by producing only animals with natural markings that had been reserved for Jacob’s animals. In fact, Jacob has himself arranged for this outcome by performing a primitive form of genetic manipulation (30:31-43). Note that Jacob does not merely order his wives to accompany him back to “the land of [his] birth” on the basis of wives’ “natural” or customary subservience to their husbands. Rather, he uses his skill with words to persuade them.
Rachel and Leah, after enumerating the ways in which their father has treated them as mere property, give their consent to Jacob’s plan: “Now then, whatever God has said to thee, do” (31:16). Jacob gathers his household, and sets out for his birth place. Laban overtakes him, and levels an accusation: “Why hast thou stolen my gods?” (31:30) These “gods” are later referred to as Laban’s terafim, or “images” (vv. 34, 35); they appear to be small household idols, possibly involved in some form of ancestor worship. Jacob, the text tells us, “knew not that Rachel had stolen them” (v. 32), and invites Laban to look through all the tents. In her tent, Rachel takes the images, places them in a saddle, and sits upon it. When her father enters, she says, “Let it not displease my lord that I cannot rise up before thee; for the way of women is upon me” (i.e., she is menstruating, but note the double-entendre) (v. 35).
This scene is a fitting culmination to Rachel’s story, and a striking comment upon her husband’s. Both she and Jacob have used trickery and artifice to exploit and subtly protest against other people’s brutish confusion over the distinction between what is natural (birth order and other circumstances of birth) and what is artificial or merely conventional (social priority). But, in his devotion to the terafim, Laban has fallen into an even more serious confusion: that between what is humanly created, and the divine. In fact, these are two sides of the same confusion: Isaac, Esau and Laban have all fallen prey to mistaking what is humanly created—and, thus, contingent and mutable—for what is beyond human control (the natural or divine order of things). Rachel makes her point in the most graphic way possible: By sitting on her father’s man-made images of god, she demonstrates that she has the power to bring them within her own sphere of control; she practically incorporates them into her own body. In her claim to be menstruating (which would mean, menstruating on the images), are we given to understand that her ability to control and transform circumstances which others regard as immutable has something to do with her status as a woman? In our readings for the next three weeks, we will seek to answer that question.
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Burstall, Joan. “Leah and Rachel: A Tale of Two Sisters.” Word and World XIV (1994): 2: 162. St. Paul, MN: Luther Seminary, 1994. www.luthersem.edu/word&world/Archives/14-2_Genesis/14-2_Ross-Burstall.pdf.
Hirsch, Emil et al. “Sarah (Sarai).” Jewish Encyclopedia. N.p.: n.d. www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=245&letter=S.
The Holy Scriptures. Jerusalem: Koren, 1997.
Jocobson, Diane. “Gen. 12-50: The Women of Genesis.” Harlots and Heroines: Women in the Old Testament. St. Paul, MN: Luther Seminary, n.d. www.luthersem.edu/djacobso/HH/Outlines/Outline.Genesis%2012-50.htm.
Newsom, Carol and Sharon Ringe. Eds. The Women’s Bible Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1992.
* Unless otherwise noted, English translation and Hebrew text are from The Holy Scriptures; Jerusalem: Koren, 1997.