Cover image: painting by Elspeth Young.
Jewish sources and Hebrew insights into the matriarchs of the Old Testament give us an enhanced view of who women are in God’s eyes.
Biblical Lionesses: Protectors of the Covenant paints a fresh portrait of the matriarchs of the Old Testament who were so indispensable to their husbands in preserving and passing on God’s covenant. Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah were lionesses at the gates of their homes, ensuring the continuity of God’s chosen people.
Sarah has been the target of criticism from commentators for demanding that Abraham expel Hagar and Ishmael from the camp, but God—for reasons never clearly articulated—has chosen Sarah as the mother of the chosen lineage.
Abraham complies with Sarah’s wishes for Ishmael’s removal only after being commanded to heed the words of his wife in the matter, and he still experiences serious distress over the affair.
Tammi Schneider states, “by telling Abraham to follow Sarah’s plan, Elohim confirms that Sarah understands Elohim’s plan better than Abraham does.”[i]
As we reflect on Sarah’s life, what do we remember? What kind of a legacy does she leave for those who follow? On Friday evenings in traditional Jewish homes, candles are lit and prayers are said. One line of this prayer reads, “God should establish you as He did Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah.”
Tuchman and Rapoport ask, “Considering the fraught saga of the life of Sarah the matriarch, we are naturally led to wonder: Do we really seek to bestow such a life upon our own daughters? … We would hardly wish our daughters to experience dislocation, famine, abduction, infertility, the trauma of surrogacy, a sometime-indifferent husband, vexatious stepchildren, or the near-death of a long-awaited child.”[ii] I get fainthearted just reading that list! What exactly can we learn from Sarah’s life? What about her do we want to emulate?
Learning from Sarah’s Life
I love the answer given by Carolyn Custis James:
Sarah’s life was a long tortuous journey from “The Lord has kept me from having children” (Genesis 16:2) to the miracle birth of Isaac and the day she rejoiced, saying, “God has brought me laughter” (Genesis 21:6). Her laughter had been a long time coming. … But to be honest, that joyful moment isn’t the part of Sarah’s life that touches me most. While there are rich lessons to be gathered from God’s ability to create life in a dead womb, the long, drawn-out silent stretch that took up most of her life is the part of her story that both fascinates and disturbs me. … There’s wisdom to be gained in freezing Sarah’s story right in the middle, before the part about Hagar and the astonishing words she heard the Lord speak through the tent door.
What are we to make of this? How are we to go on when some major piece of our lives is missing or broken? Are we to put our lives on hold and wait for him finally to come through for us? There’s no escaping the fact that while nothing is too hard for the Lord, he’s not afraid to keep me waiting. Is that how we’re supposed to live?
How much of our lives do we let slip away while we drum our fingers restlessly waiting to graduate, get married, have a baby, buy a house, or get that big break at work? What do we do in those long stretches when life comes to a standstill because of God’s silence, when day after day you’re looking at the same problems, the same unchanged heart, the same unhealed body?…
The problem I wrestle with most is how to live in the silence. Sarah’s eighty-nine years is an awfully long time to wait before discovering God’s purpose for your life. Caught in God’s silence, “We cannot see the end from the middle and must walk by faith, not by sight.” It’s the hardest thing we ever do. I think there’s more to learn from Sarah’s failures than from her eleventh-hour triumph.[iii]
Sarah’s long silence reminds me of Job. For years he beseeched God to speak to him, to let him know he was not forgotten. Mocked by all, even his friends, he steadfastly maintained his faith in his God. He never veered from his testimony. “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15). Sarah did likewise.
Throughout all the years that her passionate hope for a child was not realized, she kept working beside her husband. Forgetting her own agony, she worked as a team with her husband, committed to the one true God and spreading the good news of his reality.
A New Relationship Formed between Them
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz puts it this way: “When the turning point came, a new relationship was formed between them. They underwent a name change, becoming Abraham and Sarah, as an indication of rebirth. Abraham was circumcised; Sarah entered the female cycle once again. This transformation provides the symbolic meaning of the story of the patriarchs.”
He notes that in earlier generations, if spiritual influence was passed down from one person to another, it was passed from teacher to pupil. In this instance, “the spiritual tie” received was reinforced by a “biological tie,” by the “birth of the child who would transmit the model throughout the generations of his descendants.” Consequently, Abraham and Sarah were not only the “spiritual forbears of the Jewish people,” but also the biological ancestors.
“The meaning of the name ‘Children of Israel’ could be made tangible only when the relationship between them underwent another level of change and became a blood tie, a biological link. It thus became the relationship that bore Isaac, in order that he, and only he, could continue the line arising from the union of Abraham and Sarah to form the nation of Israel.”[iv]
A Mother of Nations
Chapter 17 of Genesis begins with God’s sudden appearance to the aged Abram: “And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly” (Genesis 17:1–2).
Abram immediately prostrates himself before God and listens to the extraordinary covenants he makes, telling Abram that he will become a “father of many nations” (Genesis 17:4). Then God declares “Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee” (Genesis 17:5–6).
Not only is this covenant between God and Abraham, but it also extends to Abraham’s seed after him in their generations “for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee” (Genesis 17:7). God promises Abraham the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, which will continue throughout the generations.
As evidence of Abraham’s acceptance of the covenant, he is commanded to circumcise all males in his household and all newborn males when they are eight days old. This commandment—the rite of circumcision—is the sign of God’s everlasting covenant, and each ensuing generation must comply with it.
If Abraham is to be the father of nations, the implication is that his partner will be a mother of nations. Sarai is to be part of these marvelous promises at last! “As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. And I will bless her, and [moreover] give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her” (Genesis 17:15–16).
These blessings are markedly similar to those promised to Abraham. In fact, the blessings are precisely parallel. The son that is born to Sarah will be the one we have been waiting for since the promise was first given to Abraham in Genesis 12. Since the first chapter of Genesis, the purpose of creation has been the reproduction of each species after its kind, and Sarah will at last be able to play the part she was created for.
For the first time, Abraham discovers that Sarah will have a son. His aged wife will actually conceive a biological son with her husband. Abraham is astonished at God’s declaration. “Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?” (Genesis 17:7).
No Covenant without Sarah
But instead of responding with unmitigated delight at the prospect of the long-barren Sarah bearing a son, Abraham wonders what will happen to the son he already has.[v] What place will Ishmael have in God’s plan? “And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!” (Genesis 17:8). He pleads with God that Ishmael have a part in this covenant, but God must explain to him that there is no covenant without Sarah, and her son will be the covenant son. Ishmael will also be blessed, but in a different way.
Patiently, God addresses both of Abraham’s concerns – —the first, that Sarah is too old to bear a child, and second, that Ishmael will be cast off.
And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.
And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year. (Genesis 17:19–21, emphasis added)
To Abraham’s reservations about Sarah being able to conceive a child, God promises that Abraham will father a son with Sarah. In fact, he gives that son a name: Isaac, which means “laughter.” Abraham need not fear for Ishmael, but God emphasizes the importance of the covenant which he will establish through Isaac, who will be a patriarch of God’s chosen people. God makes it clear to Abraham that Ishmael is not the heir of this covenant. He will be blessed with a great posterity, even twelve princes, and will become the father of a great nation, but Isaac is to be the heir of God’s covenant.
In Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik’s commentary on this conversation between God and Abraham, he makes note of how God emphasizes to Abraham that Sarah is to play a significant role in the transmission of the covenant. Abraham, despairing of having a child with Sarah, wonders whether God intends that the heritage be transmitted through Ishmael. “But [aval] your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you shall call him Isaac, and I will keep My covenant with him as an everlasting treaty, for his descendants after him” (Genesis 17:18).
The key emphasis is the word aval. “God is explaining that His covenant cannot be realized without Isaac. Why? Because Isaac is the son of Sarah. … Isaac will emerge out of both of you, but Ishmael is only derived from you. And there can be no covenant without Sarah.”[vi]
The word aval is an older Hebrew word with the force of verily or of a truth.[vii] To me, this is a far cry from the insipid but of the King James translation. God here is telling Abraham, “Trust me, Abraham. Sarah will have a child, and that child will survive, and he will become the heir of the covenant. I know what I am doing.”
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz offers insight into the indispensable relationship between Abraham and Sarah. He points out that the nation of Israel is not descended from a single patriarch, Abraham. Abraham and Sarah together have a “special essence.” This is why the nation of Israel has two parents: Abraham and Sarah together.
“It is no accident that this relationship echoes that between Adam and Eve. Abraham and Sarah are the historical-ideological-spiritual fathers of the nation, just as Adam and Eve are its biological progenitors, the two fundamental elements of the human species.” This is why “Abraham and Sarah saw themselves (and are thus seen by future generations) not as a couple raising a family, but as a people building a society, realizing an ideal: parents of a nation.”
To this day, converts to the Jewish faith are called “sons of Abraham,” and the women among them “daughters of Sarah,” because conceptually, … “Abraham and Sarah are ideological ancestors of the Jewish nation, and all who join them are their children. Abraham and Sarah see themselves as leaders, forging a new road, a new worship of the Lord; as guides of a nation, diverse and yet united.”[viii]
The Covenant is Descendancy-centered
Abraham’s audience with the Lord is over. Let the circumcision begin. Immediately, Abraham circumcises himself, thirteen-year old Ishmael, and all the males of his household.[ix] Abraham and his God have established an unbreakable affiliation. At this time in the ancient Near East, this type of indissoluble bond was always contracted by blood, usually the blood of a sacrificial animal.[x] But the blood of this covenant is to be Abraham’s own, and that of every male that enters the covenant.
Carolyn Custis James expresses her own views about circumcision, which had long been a question in her mind. I need to offer a disclaimer here. This quote is very long, but I predict that you readers will understand why I chose to include it. It offers a woman’s view of the rite of circumcision— which is unique in and of itself —but it offers many poignant insights as well.
We [as women] want to know why the sign of God’s covenant was so male? What is God trying to tell us? Was his covenant for men only? Are men more important in his covenant than women?
Once again, God knew exactly what he was doing. The rite of circumcision is rich with symbolism intended to distinguish God’s people from the rest of the world. Circumcision teaches us our need for soul surgery—the radical, costly, and bloody process of removing our sin that Jesus accomplished when he bled and died on the cross. It is a reminder of the painful battle against sin and the awful price of victory—for God and for his people. But there is much, much more to the sign of God’s covenant.
Circumcision takes us back to the beginning—back to God’s great creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply. God was to reiterate the glorious creation mandate to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” in a way that included, but went beyond, the call to reproduce physically. When he first called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans, God promised to make a great nation from Abraham’s descendants.
Now God revisits the subject and reveals the kind of nation he plans to produce through Abraham: a nation of people who walk with God. The rite of circumcision came with the call to “walk before me and be blameless … you and your descendants after you for generations to come.”
Circumcision cuts in a man’s flesh a permanent reminder of his call to walk with God. Through circumcision, Abraham affirmed his personal intention to walk with God and do everything in his power to ensure that his children after them followed the same path. Far from excluding women, the rite of circumcision made women indispensable. Obviously no man can reproduce physically by himself. But Abraham’s need for Sarah went well beyond sexual intimacy and the physical birth of a child.
According to God’s word in Genesis, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Abraham needed Sarah’s help for the bigger and even more impossible job of reproducing spiritually.
If God were trying to exalt men or show his preference for men over women, there were better, more visible ways of doing so. He could have made the sign of the covenant a symbol on the man’s head—like a crown letting everyone know the man was chief, that he was supposed to do all the thinking, deciding, and leading. Or he could have marked a man’s arm—symbolizing strength, power, and rule. Instead, God chose circumcision, not as a symbol of manhood, but of intimacy, vulnerability, and fruitfulness. Circumcision spoke of a man’s intimate relationship with his wife and of their union in producing children, both physically and spiritually.
Rather than being excluded, a woman could actually be represented twice by circumcision—first, as her father’s descendant and one he guided to walk with God, and second, as a wife who united with her husband in fulfilling the call to raise up the next generation to follow God. By circumcising Abraham’s household servants too, God’s covenant broke the boundaries of biology, extending the Abrahamic covenant laterally to encompass Gentiles even at this early stage.
Both Abraham and Sarah had responsibility to direct the hearts of their servants and their servants’ children toward God. Circumcision isn’t male-centered, but descendant-centered and community-centered. The sign of the covenant impressed upon the man his enormous spiritual responsibility to walk before God and be faithful and to influence others, especially those under his roof, to do the same. This burden was too great for any man to shoulder alone.[xi]
Receiving a New Name
As part of the establishment of the everlasting covenant, Abraham receives a new name. The matriarch of this covenant people was also to have a new name—Sarah instead of Sarai.
The Talmud explains the significance of these name changes. “The addition of the Hebrew letter he to Abram’s name makes him a ruler not just over the land or Aram, but over all nations. Similarly, regarding Sarai, the Talmud elevates her to a princess over not merely her own nation, but over the entire world.”[xii]
Another important aspect of these name changes is the fact that both Abraham and Sarah are theophoric names, names that contain part of the name of God. The name of the Israelite God is spelled yod he vav he in Hebrew; YHVH in English.
Douglas Clark observes, “The rabbis pointed out that the additional letter added to Abraham’s name, the he (pronounced “hey”) is one of the letters from the personal name of the God of Israel, Jehovah (Yahweh), a fact perhaps symbolizing that God was sharing part of His glory and divine nature with Abraham [and Sarah].”[xiii]
Everything about God’s covenant is descendant-centered. That is why Sarah’s role in the covenant is so important. The prophet Isaiah invited all Israel to remember their origins. “Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the Lord: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you” (Isaiah 51:1-2). Abraham and Sarah together are the parents of the covenant people.
In his lifetime, Abraham will beget eight sons, Sarah only one. One hundred percent of Sarah’s descendants are heirs to the covenant. The age of Abraham’s covenant progeny is only twelve and a half. As Bakan accurately points out, “Not all the offspring of Abraham are Israelites: the Israelites stem only from Sarah. Sarah is more definitely the ancestor of the Israelites than Abraham.”[xiv] The house of Israel is only part of Sarah’s legacy. Her life itself articulates a myriad of lessons worthy of emulation.
Abraham and Sarah were a team. Together they were the founders of a new covenant. God did not make his covenant with Abraham alone. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik notes:
Not only did man and woman achieve human dignity together at creation, both in God’s image, but they also attained together, and only together, covenantal sanctity, being elected by God to be the founders of a new faith. Their covenantal interdependence is further indicated by the fact that the Torah does not dwell on Abraham’s life after Sarah’s death. Though he survived her by many years, he knew that his mission as the father of the covenantal community was concluded, and that from that point, all he had to do was to act out the last part of the drama and walk off the covenantal stage and make room for someone else to succeed him.
Only two items remained for him to complete: to purchase … a burial place for Sarah and to arrange for the marriage of his son Isaac. The latter story is told not to portray the story of Abraham, but to acquaint us with the second mother of the covenantal community, Rebecca, who succeeded Sarah.
The concluding verse of this episode clearly informs us that the vacancy was filled. “And Isaac brought [Rebecca] into his mother Sarah’s tent and he married her. She became his wife and he loved her. Isaac was then consoled for the loss of his mother” (Genesis 24:67). Now the covenant could be resumed, because there was a mother, not only a father, in the covenantal leadership.[xv]
Several months ago I shared this book with a friend, who in turn shared it with her daughter Emily, who had some issues with women in the Church. My friend told me that after reading the book, Emily had a different attitude. I told her I was writing this article for Meridian Magazine, and she kindly wrote me back this email to include in it.
“Many Mormon women are very happy with their role as a mother and homemaker, but a lot of Mormon women are like myself-questioning their role in leadership. Diana’s book Biblical Lionesses was very powerful in showing the importance of strong female leaders. Gender roles are an extremely important part of the LDS church, but when it comes to Priesthood Power I have often felt unsure of my responsibilities and entitlements.
After reading Diana’s book, I felt empowered by Sarah and the other Priesthood Matriarchs of the Bible. I wanted a personal part in protecting that Abrahamic Covenant. I have raved about the book to my friends, with lots of ‘look what we have!’ moments.”
[i] Tammi Schneider, Sarah: Mother of Nations, (New York: Continuum, 2004), 99.
[ii] Shera Aranoff Tuchman and Sandra E. Rapoport, The Passions of the Matriarchs, (Berrien Springs, MI: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2004), 81.
[iii] Carolyn Custis James, Lost Women of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005), 77–78.
[iv] Adin Steinsaltz, Biblical Images: Men and Women of the Book, (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 28.
[v] In Abraham’s defense, Jubilees’ rendition of this account is “And Abraham fell on his face and he rejoiced and pondered in his heart whether a son would be born to one who was one hundred years old or (whether) Sarah, who was ninety years, would give birth.”
Jubilees 15:17 in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume 2, (Garden City, New York, 1985), 86.
[vi] Abraham R. Besdin, Man of Faith in the Modern World: Reflections of the Rav, Volume Two adapted from the lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Hoboken, New Jersey: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1984), 85.
[vii] Francis Brown, The New Brown – Driver – Briggs – Genesius – Hebrew and English Lexicon, (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1979), 6a, entry 61.
[viii] Adin Steinsaltz, Biblical Images: Men and Women of the Book, (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 26-27.
[ix] Abram shows his great faith in God by his quick obedience and by his willingness to circumcise all the males in his household at the same time. Such action would leave him especially vulnerable to an attack by outsiders, as his entire military force would be recovering from surgery and in a weakened condition.
[x] Anne Roiphe gives her opinion of circumcision as part of the covenant of blood sacrifice:
“This circumcision was a far better blood-letting than the more common practice of human sacrifice. We have reports that the tribes around Abraham had offered their small children to their gods in hopes of evoking good fortune. Large graveyards have been found with the buried bones of tiny children assumed to have been sacrificed at the dawn of human history. Abraham’s God only asked for a small piece of the foreskin as a token of loyalty.”
Anne Roiphe, Water from the Well: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, (New York: William Morrow, 2006), 66.
[xi] Carolyn Custis James, Lost Women of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005), 74-76 (emphasis in original).
[xii] Brachot 13a of the Talmud as quoted in Shera Aranoff Tuchman and Sandra E. Rapoport, The Passions of the Matriarchs, (Berrien Springs, MI: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2004), 23.
[xiii] E. Douglas Clark, The Blessings of Abraham: Becoming a Zion People, (American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 2005), 166.
[xiv] Savina J. Teubal, Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis, (Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 1984), 95.
[xv] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Man of Faith in the Modern World: Reflections of the Rav, Volume Two, (Hoboken, New Jersey: KTAV Publishing House, 1989), 86–87.