Our (More-or-Less) Four Matriarchs

Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:10−32:3

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi David H. Aaron

At the core of this week's parashah is the creation of a people, Israel, as a confederacy of tribes. One might expect a people's legend of origins to derive from events valorous or noble. None of this is true of the biblical depiction of Israel's derivation from a single patriarch, who manifests neither nobility nor valor. We do not really know much about an actual ancient confederacy of tribes called "Israel" that would have coalesced prior to the Book of Exodus's Egyptian sojourn. While I think it reasonable to assume there was just such a cluster of clans, the name "Israel" itself was probably a late arrival on the historical scene. The Jews who descended from those people occupying the regions later labeled Israel (or Samaria) and Judah would eventually call themselves either Yisrael or Ivrim (Hebrews). But unfortunately, there are no sources outside of the Hebrew Bible that attest to the character of this confederacy either before, during, or after the period of the monarchs (which lasted from the tenth century until 722 b.c.e. in the north, and 586 b.c.e. in the south). No matter how you date the sources of our Hebrew Biblethat is, whether you say they come from the tenth century or the fifth century b.c.e.-nothing on record would date from within five hundred years of the "patriarchal/matriarchal" era. Consequently, we have every reason to read our Genesis story of the tribal origins of ancient Israel as a form of memory construction. By that I mean the writers wanted to create a collective memory for the sake of fostering a sense of ethnic unity. The collecting of the stories that make up Parashat Vayeitzei (as well as their adaptations) likely took place after Israel had experienced the Babylonian exile. Whether they actually stem from more ancient local traditions can be neither proved nor disproved.

Part of the complexity of our narrative has to do with achieving twelve tribes. Why twelve? This was a standard trope in antiquity, perhaps derived from some actual historical circumstances, or perhaps just an idealized notion. The great Delphic Amphictyony of ancient Greece—an amphictyony being a confederacy established to protect a shared interest—was ostensibly a league of twelve tribes when it was founded (in later years it expanded to include more than twelve). There is some evidence that a preference for having twelve constituents form a significant unit dates back to ancient Sumer (early second millennium b.c.e.). Documents from ancient Nippur suggest that the cultic center celebrated its two primary national deities, Enlil and Ninlil, as well as ten regional deities.1 In the Bible, Ishmael, like Jacob, is the "father of twelve chieftains" (Genesis 17:20 and 25:16). When the scribe Ezra wants to set up an assembly of priests, he creates a panel of twelve (Ezra 8:24). As we will see, the insistence on achieving twelve tribes cannot reflect some actual historical circumstance, because Jacob did not simply have twelve sons who formed twelve tribes. Consequently, twelve appears to be the ideal the redactor was aiming at, and the stories, which do not exactly accommodate twelve tribes easily, were forced to fit the mold.

Just how was that accomplished? The twelve sons of Jacob, according to Genesis 31 and 35, are recorded as follows:

Reuben, Simon, Levi, Judah, all born to Leah
Dan, Naphtali, born to Rachel's surrogate, Bilhah
Gad, Asher, born to Leah's surrogate, Zilpah
Issachar, Zebulun, born to Leah upon her becoming fertile again
Joseph, Benjamin (only recorded in 35:18), born to Rachel

Now this is a very curious list. Six of the twelve sons are born to Jacob's wife, Leah, who became his wife as a result of Laban's trickery and his apparent inability to discern the beautiful Rachel from her homely elder sister in bed on his wedding night. Four of the tribes derive from women who are designated "surrogate mothers" rather than wives. In antiquity, it was not uncommon for a woman from a family of means to be married with a concubine who would potentially serve as a surrogate in the event she proved infertile. The child of that surrogate counted as the full wife's own. We saw this pattern with Sarah and Hagar. The ancient collections of laws known as Ur-Nammu (circa 2000 b.c.e.) and Ammurapi (or Hammurabi, circa 1750 b.c.e.) provide us with evidence of surrogacy practices. One law indicates that if a wife has not given birth within two years of marriage, she is required to provide a slave girl for the husband. The child will remain with the original wife, and she may "sell [the surrogate] wherever she pleases." In another document we learn of a slave girl who, having borne a child, suddenly "goes about making herself equal to her mistress." In this particular case, the mistress is not permitted to sell her, but "she may put a slave mark on her and count her among the slaves."2 Apparently, wives in some contexts were within their rights to banish surrogates, citing insolence or some other intolerable behavior as the pretext; other contexts did not permit banishment but did permit a permanent mark of servitude.

Ostensibly, a surrogate is only to be engaged when a woman has proven barren, but this is obviously not the case with Leah. She has borne four sons already. Only upon experiencing a cessation of pregnancies does she hand over her surrogate, Zilpah, to Jacob (Genesis 30:9-13). From a legal standpoint, there is no way to make sense of this, and one can only assume that the author's audience would have been just as aware of this irregularity in practice as we are.

Ironically, Leah is subsequently blessed with fertility after a most bizarre scene. Leah buys a night in bed with Jacob as a result of Rachel's quest to buy certain fruits (usually rendered "mandrakes") harvested by Leah's son, Reuben (30:14-21). The Hebrew for "mandrakes" is duda-im, which suggests it may have been considered an aphrodisiac or perhaps even a magical fertility drug. This might explain the barren Rachel's motivation in acquiring them. Only, the irony is all too clear: Rachel is dependent upon her rival Leah's son for this fertility drug, and Leah is dependent upon Rachel for achieving a night in bed with Jacob. Upon getting Rachel to concede to her price, Leah confronts Jacob by saying, "I am the one you will bed [tonight], for I have bought you with my son's mandrakes" (30:16). Apparently God is pleased by this scene and blesses Leah with renewed fertility: she bears two more sons, Issachar and Zebulun (as well as a daughter, Dinah). Just what the authors intended by including this brief scene amidst an otherwise dry genealogy cannot be said for certain. The sexual assertiveness of this female character, while not altogether atypical of Genesis women (remember Rebekah!) would most certainly have been interpreted as an odd role reversal in antiquity. After all, the woman isbuying the man (sachor s'charticha, "I have bought you")for an evening dalliance, and the pun is driven home through the naming of her poor, unsuspecting son, Issachar (a play on "I will buy [him]") (30:16-18).

Rachel does, finally, become pregnant—after already having acquired Dan and Naphtali through her surrogate, Bilhah—and Joseph is born. Oddly enough, the birth of Benjamin is not recorded here. Rather, it appears as an afterthought in chapter 35, which also records Rachel's death in childbirth.

There are many elements we cannot fully explain or appreciate here, most likely because we are missing key elements of the cultural repertoire that were shared by the author and his intended audience. For instance, a significant component of the Israelite covenant with God is progeny. How, then, are we to understand this story that treats the births of Jacob's children with dark humor, sarcasm, and considerable irreverence regarding the majority of Israelite tribes. After all, it cannot be much of an honor to trace your lineage to the second- and third-tier cohabitants of Jacob—Leah, the undesired wife, and Bilhah and Zilpah, the standby surrogates. (Note, both Bilhah and Zilpah are referred to as "wives" in the introduction to the Joseph story [37:2], a kind of editorial "repair" of their status.) Yet that is precisely the circumstance for ten of the twelve brothers. Equally curious is the fact that the favorite wife, Rachel, produces only Benjamin and Joseph. The latter does not become a tribe at all. Instead, his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, are destined to take his place.

When we drop Joseph from the twelve and put his two sons in his stead, we end up with thirteen rather than twelve tribes. Clearly adjustments had to be made. Reuben, Jacob's firstborn, is sometimes excluded from those defined as heirs, as is explained in I Chronicles 5:1. There we read that Reuben "defiled his father's bed," by seducing Bilhah, Jacob's (former) concubine—an episode that is recorded in one verse in Genesis (35:22). When Jacob offers blessings to his sons, his condemnation of Reuben is unequivocal: "Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer; for when you mounted your father's bed, you brought disgrace-my couch he mounted!" (Genesis 49:4). Consequently, his birthright is ostensibly passed on to Joseph's sons. It is one thing to have committed an immoral act—excluding one from an inheritance—it is yet another thing not to have actually constituted a "tribe" in real life. They don't seem mutually exclusive.

But even with Reuben out, the numbers still do not work perfectly. The Book of Joshua insists that land assignments were by lot, which implies that no region was intrinsically associated with any historical tribal entity. The Levites, as priests, receive no land at all, so without them and without Reuben, we are back down to eleven. But later on in the Book of Joshua, Reuben's descendants reappear as possessors of land (Joshua 18:7), receiving an inheritance alongside the descendants of Gad, Reuben's half-brother.

What are we to make of all this? Clearly, many of the underlying meanings of this story of origins have been lost to us amidst the cacophony of centuries of interpretation. This is not the place to concentrate on the contents of Jacob's blessing in Genesis 49, but what is clear is that there were many folk legends operating under the surface here, most of which have left few remnants beyond the cursory images we capture in Genesis, Judges, and Joshua. We have too many questions remaining to be answered before we can even begin to speculate as to the passage's underlying message. But I think it fair to say that the authors of this narrative are playing havoc with birth imagery and the notion of tribal unity along simple birth lines. Perhaps this reflected the reality of their own era, which saw tribal identity rendered largely irrelevant in the Diaspora, where land and clan could no longer be associated one with the other. Actual data for establishing the distribution of population in ancient Israel, either before or after the exile, are altogether lacking. Thus, whether there were clearly defined tribal regions along the lines stipulated in Torah cannot be ascertained through independent evidence. However, biblical literature hints at various cultural shifts that usually accompany increased urbanization. For instance, the prophet Elijah is referred to as Eliyahu HaTishbi—Elijah of the town of Tishbi, a resident of Gilead (I Kings 17:1). His clan membership is never mentioned. By the time we get to the second century, the heroes of the Maccabean revolt are the Hasmoneans. Both names, "Maccabee" and "Hasmonean," are of uncertain origins, but neither are traditional tribal designations. Perhaps these cultural shifts allowed the writers to look back upon legends of tribal origins with tongue-in-cheek.

Much of our interpretive dilemma emerges as a result of a clash between the redactor's agenda and the story's original literary setting. In other words, the goals of the story's original author, who wrote for some setting now lost to us, were not exactly those of the person who placed this story in the anthology of legends we now call Genesis.That person, the redactor, sought to tell the story of Israel's origins using well-known characters and themes. But the story of Jacob, while serving most of his agenda quite well, would not work as a perfect fit. After all, the story he seeks to tell is about the origins of Israel, but no character in any of his narratives bears that name from birth. Jacob only becomes Israel through an ingenious change-of-name story (ch. 32), a technique already employed by the Genesis redactor with regard to the first patriarch and matriarch, Abram and Sarai. It is all too easy to read through these dissonances in harmony with the redactor's newly arranged composition. But once one becomes attuned to the offstage voices, a far more complex literary history emerges than the one the redactor thought we would recognize. With that recognition we begin to understand what it means to become a peoplethrough literature.

  1. See William W. Hallo, "A Sumerian Amphictyony," Journal of Cuneiform Studies 14, no. 3 (1960): 88-114.
  2. These cases are presented in Matitiahu Tsevat's essay, "Hagar and the Birth of Ishmael," in The Meaning of the Book of Job and Other Biblical Studies (New York: Ktav, 1980), pp. 70-72.

David H. Aaron received his doctorate from Brandeis University and ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati. He is professor of Hebrew Bible and History of Interpretation at HUC-JIR, Cincinnati. His most recent book is Etched in Stone: The Emergence of the Decalogue (T & T Clark, 2006).

© 2008 David H. Aaron

Becoming a People

Daver Acher By: Rebecca Gutterman

At the end of his d'var Torah on Parashat Vayeitzei, Rabbi Aaron speaks eloquently of "begin[ning] to understand what it means to become a people through literature." How well this bears up, especially, when we read our literature, when we hear our stories, when we probe our truths. The beauty of becoming intimately acquainted with Torah is that the truths and values it points toward—appreciation of the earth's bounty, our obligation to concern ourselves with the fates of others, resistance, revelation, and love—become our truths, our values. The Torah's language and metaphors are encoded in our sense not only of what it means to walk in the world as Jews, but also of what it means to grow in our understanding the human condition.

How striking it is too, as Rabbi Aaron points out, that the Torah is not afraid to show us flawed models of what it is to be human. Our forebears are individuals with strengths and weaknesses. At times they are victims of circumstance, at other times they make morally ambiguous choices. They are made of light and shadow, both. And in the Amidah we still call up Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah as our matriarchs, now and always.

What a long way this might go in reminding us that it is not perfection we strive for—it is wholeness. The chapters of our story relayed in Vayeitzei tell us that complex family dynamics, seemingly inoperable rifts, and miraculous healing have always been among the forces that shape us. Our matriarchs struggled against considerable odds—sometimes hurting each other, sometimes getting hurt—all to find a way forward that would bring them some semblance of happiness, some measure of peace. They never did emerge as ideal figures. Nor are we likely to. Instead, may the stories we write with our own lives be real and layered and rich. For it is there that we find, in the words of writer Faye Moskowitz, "the certain rewards of a life that is always becoming" (A Leak In The Heart [Boston: David R. Godine, 1985], p. 86).

Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman is an associate rabbi at Temple B'rith Kodesh in Rochester, New York.

Reference Materials

Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:10-32:3
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 194–213; Revised Edition, pp. 194–213;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 157–182