Lisa F. Cunning
Much has been written about the promises made by Yahweh to the biblical Hebrew patriarchs. Until recently, however, the divine promises given to the matriarchs in the Hebrew Scriptures have been given short shrift. With the advent of such feminist theologians as Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Alice Laffey, women and women’s concerns in the “Old Testament” are receiving more and closer attention. This paper, in an attempt to follow in these illustrious footsteps, considers the promises made by Yahweh to the first two Hebrew matriarchs, Sarah (Sarai) and Rebekah.
Sarah – The First Matriarch
Her name, in both its forms, means “Princess”. Isaiah refers to her as the mother of God’s people (Is. 51:2). The New Testament writer to the Hebrews describes her as powerful and a believer in God’s faithfulness (Heb. 11:11). She was “of sufficient stature to be respected by kings in communities outside her own” (Teubal, 1984). Her beauty was such that her husband feared that others would kill him in order to possess her (Gen. 12:11-12; 20:2, 11). She is the only woman in the Bible whose great age is reported at the time she gives birth (Teubal, 1984) and the only woman whose “age is noted at her death” (Frankel, 1996). Her death, according to Jewish legend, occurred when she heard that her husband had raised his hand against her son (Kam, 1995).
The Bible introduces this primary matriarch simply as barren — one who has no child (Gen. 11:30). As Frankel (1996) rightly observes, “from the beginning Sarah bears two names : Princess and Barren One. Between them they shape her life.” Sarah’s life evinces (at least) two major themes, which will be considered here: one, Sarah as true progenitor of the people of Israel; and two, Sarah as archetype for movement from barren hopelessness to fruitful hope. Running through each of these themes may be observed a promise made by Yahweh to this strong and faithful woman.
In the fifteenth chapter of Genesis, we read that God makes a covenant with Abraham (then Abram) to provide him with descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven. In response to Abram’s complaint that he has no offspring, and that a slave will end up being his heir, God makes a specific promise that the heir will indeed be Abram’s “very own issue” (Gen. 15:4, NRSV). In this way we know that Abram/Abraham will be the first patriarch, the first male progenitor of the people of Israel. As yet there has been no specification of who the mother, the female progenitor, is to be.
Sarah, the Barren One, shows her strength and even a sense of self-sacrifice by sending her slave Hagar in to Abraham, hoping in this way to provide a means for God’s promise to be fulfilled. Although many commentators in the past have cited this action of Sarah’s as an example of weak faith, others now see it as an example of faithful initiative. Yahweh had not yet revealed to Sarah or to Abraham who the mother of the promised descendants was to be. The New Interpreter’s Bible (Keck, ed., vol.1, 1994) notes that Sarah “interprets her situation [childlessness] to mean that God has kept her from having children … At the same time, she recognizes that God does not act alone, that human agency is important.” Thus, knowing that God has promised an heir to Abraham – but not necessarily to her – Sarah “tak[es] the initiative, and the means she uses are typical for that culture” (Keck, ed., vol.1, 1994). So typical is surrogate motherhood in that culture that it “is found also in the tale of barren Rachel” (Newsom & Ringe, 1992), who of course married one of Abraham’s descendants!
Abraham does in fact have a son by the surrogate mother (Hagar), whom God names Ishmael. Abraham believes that in this manner the covenant has been fulfilled. God, however, chooses this moment to extend the covenant to include Sarah. Not only does she receive a new name from God, she receives the following promises from God:
“God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, … Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” (Gen. 17:15-16, NRSV)
Here we see God making three specific promises to Sarah (albeit indirectly, through Abraham): 1) God will bless Sarah; 2) Sarah will have a son; and 3) Sarah will be the mother of “nations” and “kings”.
These promises point to the extraordinary nature of the woman whom Yahweh thus favors. This is the first time that God explicitly states that the mother of the promised people is to be Sarah and no other (Meeks, ed., 1993). The people who are chosen of God must have a matriarch who is chosen of God, a female progenitor who is strong and worthy of respect in her own right. As Newsom & Ringe (1992) point out
” … virtually no hero worth his salt in Genesis is born under circumstances that are ordinary for his mother. It is the unusual and often initially infertile women who have special births. It is their sons who count in the ongoing tradition.” (italics mine)
Though Abraham would later plead for God’s favor on Ishmael’s behalf (Gen.17:18), God makes it clear that the covenant is to be fulfilled in a child who is not just a son of Abraham, but specifically and uniquely a son of Abraham by Sarah. God’s promise to the matriarch will be fulfilled.
From Barren Hopelessness to Fruitful Hope
Sarah, in her barrenness, is an archetype of the point where hopelessness meets hope. Living in a time and a culture in which children are valued above all else, she is at once unchosen (i.e. childless) and chosen (i.e. to be the means by which God’s covenant is fulfilled).
Walter Brueggemann, in his commentary on Genesis (1982), puts it this way:
“Barrenness is the way of human history. It is an effective metaphor for hopelessness … But barrenness is not only the condition of hopeless humanity. The marvel of biblical faith is that barrenness is the arena of God’s life-giving action.”
In choosing to accomplish the divine covenant through a woman who had been so long barren, and thus so long hopeless, God sets the precedent that will be repeated again and again throughout the history of Israel: those who were unchosen have become those who are chosen. Hagar, who is not chosen to be the first matriarch of Israel, is chosen to be the only person in the Old Testament to name God (Gen. 16:13; Keck, ed., vol.1, 1994). Ishmael, not chosen to be the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, is chosen to survive being outcast (Gen.21:17-19) and to father many descendants of his own. Brueggemann (1982) even says that the birth of life from Sarah’s barrenness can be read as “a paradigm for the resurrection.” Again, God’s promise will be fulfilled.
The motif of movement from barrenness/hopelessness to fruitfulness/hope, from unchosen to chosen (and back again) can be further traced in the interactions of Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants, with Hagar, Ishmael, and their descendants:
“Abraham banishes Ishmael; two generations later, the Ishmaelites sell Abraham’s great grandson Joseph into Egyptian slavery. Sarah banishes Hagar the Egyptian; later, Egypt enslaves Sarah’s descendants for four hundred years.” (Frankel, 1996)
And of course it doesn’t stop there. Joseph becomes rich and powerful in Egypt; Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery to Pharaoh to a land of their own. Unchosenness yields to being chosen; a barren, hopeless situation yields to one of fruitfulness and hope. Yahweh makes promises, and the fulfillment of the promises is sure.
Throughout their history, the Israelites have had the example of Sarah the matriarch, the princess, the Barren One who became barren no longer, to offer hope that those who are unchosen are the fertile ground in which God can work to bring about chosenness and life itself. God’s promises to Sarah, and God’s divine faithfulness in keeping those promises, give us concrete examples of how God can work in the lives of those who will work with God.
Sarah, then, points the way not only for her Israelite descendants, but for all of us who have eyes to see and ears to hear: First, she is the strong initiative-taker who becomes mother of kings and nations. Secondly, she is the hope-inspiring archetype whose story “helps to reveal Israel’s understanding of its God, a God who was consistently on the side of the oppressed” (Laffey, 1988). Sarah believed in and worked for the fulfillment of the promises she had been given by Yahweh.
Rebekah – Much Maligned Matriarch
The figure of Rebekah in the book of Genesis has been subjected to much harsh commentary throughout the years. From the sneering comment in The KJV Parallel Bible Commentary (Hindson & Kroll, eds., 1994) that it is by the example of her character that Jacob “learned his carnal nature at home”, to the only slightly less offensive conclusion, drawn in Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Youngblood, Bruce, & Harrison, eds., 1995) and elsewhere, that it was purely as the result of her “scheming” that Rebekah lost contact with her beloved son Jacob. Words such as shrewd, deceitful, manipulative, and conspiring are rife in the literature about this matriarch of the Israelites. It is telling that most of the derogatory phrases and words applied to Rebekah have been penned by men. By contrast, a perusal of writings by female/feminist theologians quickly reframes the texts about Rebekah to reflect her actions as those of a woman with limited options doing the best she can to accomplish God’s will as she understands it. Like Sarah before her, Rebekah receives a promise from Yahweh; again like the first matriarch, Rebekah trusts in that promise and does what she can to facilitate its fulfillment.
Extraordinary Strength and Courage
Rebekah, as described in the text, is a woman of no mean abilities. From the time we are first introduced to her, as she is drawing water from the well near her home at Aram-naharaim (Gen. 24:15), it is clear that she is a remarkable woman. In responding (albeit unknowingly) to the test given her by the servant whom Abraham has sent to find a wife for Isaac, Rebekah offers to obtain water not only for the servant, but for his ten camels as well. As Kam (1995) reminds us,
“Given the nature of ancient wells, such an offer represented not mere courtesy, but also the strength and spirit to perform backbreaking work. A watering trough for animals stood above ground, but the spring feeding a well could be reached only by descending a flight of broad steps circling deep below ground. Yet Rebekah, carrying a heavy water jar, repeats the climb until all ten camels are satisfied.”
Ellen Frankel (1996) adds that camels “drink as much as twenty-five gallons of water [each!] after a desert trek …. Even in a culture noted for its hospitality, surely Rebekah’s actions are exemplary!” In fact, Keck (ed., vol.1, 1994) compares this generosity on Rebekah’s part to the hospitality which Abraham himself showed to his three “unearthly” (Meeks, ed., 1993) visitors. Clearly this is not a woman to be dismissed lightly.
We next observe how extraordinary a woman Rebekah is in the treatment she receives from her family. After Abraham’s servant tells Rebekah’s family (referred to, incidentally, as “her mother’s household” in Gen. 24:28), of his mission and how it led to Rebekah, it is left to her to decide if she will go back with the servant to marry Isaac. Frankel (1996) rightly observes how unusual this is, by noting that even today in the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures women rarely have this sort of status. So here we see yet another instance of Rebekah’s uniqueness.
Having made the decision to go, Rebekah is given a special blessing by her mother and her brother (Gen.24:60). Women in the Hebrew Bible almost never receive such blessings, making this one appear remarkable in itself, but more remarkable is the fact that NO other biblical woman receives a blessing from her mother (Frankel, 1996). Further, and perhaps even more noteworthy, Rebekah’s blessing exactly mirrors the blessing Abraham receives from Yahweh in Gen. 22:17 (Keck, ed., vol.1, 1994). In both cases the recipients are to have countless descendants who will overcome their foes. The blessing Rebekah receives here foreshadows the divine promise which is to come.
Receiving and Believing
Thus, in these early lines of the texts, before Rebekah ever lays eyes on Isaac, a careful reader will observe several clear indications that Rebekah is an extraordinary woman; she has strengths and abilities that fit her to be a willing, active servant of Yahweh; she is shown to be an apt recipient of a divine promise.
The narrative leaps ahead some twenty years, to find Rebekah’s barrenness ended by the conception of twins (Gen. 25:21). It is not an easy pregnancy. Verse 22 (of ch. 25) tells us that “the children struggled together within her” (NRSV). The struggling makes Rebekah uneasy enough that she decides “to bypass any man, and seek personal guidance from God” (Kam, 1995). So great is her faith that she knows (and acts on this knowledge) that seeking God’s help is more important than observing the societal/cultural convention that the man is to act as the spiritual as well as material leader of the clan or family. Rebekah believes that “God chooses to work in and through human activity” and that she has a duty to act “in ways that she thinks will contribute toward the future” which God intends (Keck, ed., vol.1, 1994).
Rebekah takes this duty very seriously, and, as Newsom & Ringe (1992) put it, “…within the confines and assumptions of her male-dominated world, Rebekah is very good at what she does. Indeed, she determines and directs the course of the clan and in doing so is the one who knows and fulfills what God wants.”
For in answer to Rebekah’s petition, God gives a promise directly to her:
Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
and the elder shall serve the younger. (Gen. 25:23, NRSV)
Whereas God spoke a divine word to Sarah only through her husband (Gen.17:15-16), God chooses to speak to Rebekah directly, with no male intermediary. This is the most amazing indication of all that Rebekah is an important person, a person who is crucial for carrying out the will of Yahweh. The New Interpreter’s Bible (Keck, ed., vol.1, 1994) emphasizes this point: “That God chooses Rebekah rather than Isaac seems remarkable, given this patriarchal society; it suggests that God has more confidence in Rebekah than in Isaac.”
Here indeed is an extraordinary woman! This is a woman who has been no less chosen by Yahweh than Abraham himself. This is a woman who believes so strongly in God’s promise to her that she will flout the social strictures of her time in order to be God’s willing instrument. This is a woman whose “wisdom is a wisdom of women that involves listening closely … and working behind the scenes to accomplish goals” (Newsom & Ringe, 1992). By “listening closely”, first to God, and later in her own home as Isaac reveals that he is about to bless Esau, Rebekah has not only become aware of the will of God, as expressed in God’s promise to her, but has put herself in position to proactively further it.
For that is exactly what Rebekah believes she is doing in helping the younger son obtain the powerful, elaborate blessing usually given to the eldest son. She sees this as the fulfillment of the promise given to her by Yahweh, which says that “the elder shall serve the younger”; she believes that by preparing her stew and disguising Jacob as Esau she is “respond[ing] to the word of God’ (Keck, ed., vol.1, 1994). In fact, Esau has himself strengthened Rebekah’s conviction by “despising his birthright” (selling it to his younger brother for a bowl of lentils in 25:34), and marrying Hittite wives who “made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah” (26:35). These are actions which she sees as clearly inappropriate for an heir, and not conducive to accomplishing God’s will.
Indeed, Rebekah is so certain that she is doing what Yahweh desires that she calls down on her own head any curse that might devolve onto Jacob as a result of their ruse (27:13) — and this in a time when the power of words to curse or bless was believed quite literally. Rebekah’s firm faith in the words of Yahweh which she received grounds this conviction in her own words and actions.
Whereas Rebekah’s roundabout methods have been condemned as “scheming and getting away with it” (Laffey, 1988), a truer reading of the texts perhaps “disposes the reader to be less critical of the moves made by … Rebekah” (Keck, ed., vol.1, 1994). Rebekah, like all women in a patriarchal system, is marginalized. Her power is “not the sort of empowerment to which most modern women aspire. It is the power of those not in authority” (Newsom & Ringe, 1992). It is the “power” of the powerless. The New Interpreter’s Bible (Keck, ed., vol. 1, 1994) sums it up thus: “In the face of the powerlessness patriarchy engenders, manipulation often remains the only route open to the future.” Rebekah does not hesitate to take this route, with all the risk it entails. The NIB continues, “She expresses an openness to suffering, even death, on behalf of both her son and the divine purpose she serves.” She embodies belief in the faithfulness of Yahweh to the promises Yahweh makes.
Thus it can be seen that Rebekah, far from being a mere devious trickster, is an example to be held up for all those who do the best they can with what they have. No less than the faithful steward (Mt. 25:21), Rebekah does everything she can to fulfill her master’s purposes. Through her actions, which are engendered by her faith in God’s promise, the course of the history of Israel is changed: Jacob, not Esau, becomes Isaac’s heir, and the next in the line of patriarchs.
Throughout the history of Israel there have been women as well as men who have been willing to suffer and even to die in order to carry out what they believe to be the will of God. God’s promises to the women, the matriarchs, have been too often overlooked due to the androcentric nature of much of biblical scholarship. As a result, women have missed out on many opportunities to benefit from examples and role models that speak to them on a deep, female level. The faith-based actions of Sarah and Rebekah (among others) have been ignored or misinterpreted for far too long; we can no longer afford such neglect. The message of God’s faithfulness to God’s promises is more vital to women and men today than it has ever been. The promises given to the matriarchs exemplify that message for all of us.
Brueggemann, W. (1982). Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible commentary for teaching and preaching. Atlanta: John Knox Press.
Frankel, E. (1996). The five books of Miriam: A woman’s commentary on the Torah. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Hindson, E. & Kroll, W., (Eds.). (1994). The KJV parallel Bible commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Kam, R. (1995). Their stories, our stories. New York: Continuum.
Keck. L. (Ed.). (1994). The new interpreter’s Bible (vol.1). Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Laffey, A. (1988). An introduction to the Old Testament: A feminist perspective. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Meeks. W. (Ed.). (1993). The HarperCollins study Bible. San Francisco: HarperCollins.
Newsom, C. & Ringe, S. (1992). The women’s Bible commentary. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.
Teubal, S. (1984). Sarah the priestess: The first matriarch of Genesis. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
Youngblood, R., Bruce, F., & Harrison, R. (Eds.). (1995). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible dictionary. Nashville: Nelson.
© 1999 by Lisa F. Cunning