One of the great gifts of biblical scholarship is to provide a more complete picture of how people lived during ancient times. This has been especially true for four women of the Torah – Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel – who are recognized as co-founders of Israel equal in stature to their more renowned husbands, respectively Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Traditional Interpretation Overlooked Them
The stories of Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel are found in the Book of Genesis. Traditionally, both Jews and Christians have referred to these "ancestor stories" as "the patriarchal narratives," writes Elizabeth Huwiler in her book Biblical Women: Mirrors, Models and Metaphors. However, this label doesn't appear on the scriptures themselves, so directing the focus to the men in the ancestor stories apparently resulted from biblical interpretations down through the centuries, Huwiler continues.
As with many Bible stories, it is nearly impossible to authenticate these narratives historically. Nomads such as Israel's matriarchs and patriarchs left behind few physical artifacts, and many of those have crumbled into the sands of time.
Nonetheless, over the past 70 years, studying the stories of women of the Torah have given clearer understandings of the practices of their times. Scholars have successfully correlated hints in their narratives with major archaeological finds. While these methods don't verify the specific stories themselves, they provide a rich cultural context to deepen understandings of the biblical matriarchs.
Parenthood Was Their Common Contribution
Ironically, some feminist biblical interpreters have devalued these four women of the Torah because their contribution to biblical history was parenthood. This is an unrealistic and ultimately misguided approach for two reasons, writes Huwiler.
First, childbearing was a productive social contribution in biblical times. The extended family was not merely a kin relationship; it was the primary production unit of ancient economy. Thus women who were mothers performed a tremendous service to the family and to society at large. More people equaled more workers to till lands and tend flocks and herds, assuring tribal survival. Motherhood becomes an even more significant achievement when considering the high rate of maternal and infant mortality in ancient times.
Second, all of the significant figures of the ancestral period, whether male or female, are known because of their parenthood. As Huwiler writes: "Sarah might not be well known in the tradition if she were not remembered as an ancestor of the people of Israel – but the same is certainly true of Isaac [her son and the father of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau]." Consequently, God's promise to Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation could not have been fulfilled without Sarah, making her an equal partner in carrying out God's will.
Sarah, the First Matriarch, Exerted Her Authority
Just as her husband, Abraham, is regarded as the first patriarch, Sarah is known as the first matriarch among women in the Torah. Their story is told in Genesis 12-23. Although Sarah is involved in several episodes during Abraham's travels, her greatest fame comes from the miraculous birth of Isaac, her son with Abraham. Isaac's birth is considered miraculous because both Sarah and Abraham are extremely old when their son is conceived and born. Her motherhood, or the lack of it, causes Sarah to exert her authority as a matriarch on at least two occasions.
First, after years of childlessness, Sarah urges her husband Abraham to conceive a child with her maidservant, Hagar (Genesis 16) in order to fulfill God's promise. Though brief, this episode describes a practice of surrogacy, in which a female slave of a childless, higher-status woman bears a child to the woman's husband.
Elsewhere in scripture, a child resulting from this surrogacy is referred to as "born on the knees" of the legal wife. An ancient statuette from Cyprus, shown on the website All About the Bible, shows a scene of childbirth in which the woman delivering a baby is seated in the lap of another woman, while a third female kneels in front of her to catch the infant. Finds from Egypt, Rome and other Mediterranean cultures have led some scholars to believe that the phrase "born on the knees," traditionally attributed to adoption, may also be a reference to the surrogacy practice. The fact that Sarah would propose such an arrangement gives evidence that she has authority within the family.
Secondly, a jealous Sarah orders Abraham drive Hagar and their son Ishmael out of the household (Genesis 21) in order to preserve Isaac's inheritance. Once again, Sarah's action testifies to a woman's authority in determining who can be part of the family unit
Rebekah, the Second Matriarch, Overshadows Her Husband
Isaac's birth was greeted with joy as the fulfillment of God's promise to his parents, but in adulthood he is overshadowed by his clever wife, Rebekah, also known as Rivkah among women of the Torah.
Rebekah's story in Genesis 24 shows that a young woman of her time apparently had considerable autonomy over her own life. For example, when Abraham bids a servant to find a bride for Isaac from among his brother's household, the agent asks what he should do if the chosen lady refuses the invitation. Abraham replies that in such a case he would release the servant from his responsibility to fulfill the task.
Meanwhile, in Genesis 24:5, it is Rebekah, not Abraham's servant nor her family, who decides when she will leave to meet her prospective bridegroom, Isaac. Clearly she could not make such a decision without some social prerogative to do so.
Finally, Rebekah is the only matriarch who gets direct, privileged information from Yahweh about the future of her twin sons, Esau and Jacob (Genesis 25:22-23). The encounter gives Rebekah the information she needs to concoct a scheme with her younger son, Jacob, to gain the blessing that Isaac intends for their firstborn, Esau (Genesis 27). This episode shows how women of ancient times could use clever means to subvert the intentions of their husbands, who had greater authority over the family inheritance.