The Matriarchs

Administrators of God’s Covenantal Blessings

Camille Fronk Olson

Camille Fronk Olson, “The Matriarchs: Administrators of God's Covenantal Blessings,” in From Creation to Sinai: The Old Testament through the Lens of the Restoration, ed. Daniel L. Belnap and Aaron P. Schade (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), 385‒425.

In recent years, biblical scholarship has recognized the value of discovering different voices as found in the text. One such approach has sought to rediscover female voices and perspectives, which are often overlooked in light of the bigger, more prominent emphases placed on male figures within the biblical text. This feminist approach is of great value to Latter-day Saints, especially since a greater understanding and recognition of the role of women within the plan of salvation has emerged over the past few years. Yet one of the challenges of engaging in this approach is that it is often used in what may be described as a “hermeneutic of doubt” when an author is suspicious of the claims being made in the given narrative, especially concerning the female voice. In light of this challenge, Camille Fronk Olson’s chapter is doubly of value. Not only does it provide insight into the often-overlooked voices of the matriarchs, it frames it within a “hermeneutic of faith,” meaning that the voices of the women found within the patriarchal narratives are not found at the expense of devaluing the patriarchs themselves. Instead, the narratives highlight the unique and shared experiences of the matriarchs and the men in their lives and, in so doing, demonstrate the vital role both women and men play in each other’s salvation. —DB and AS

Beginning with Abraham, patriarchs were called of God to preside over extended families, administer priesthood ordinances, and perpetuate God’s covenant. Matriarchs were also called of God to perform his work. Generation after generation, matriarchs are described as performing challenging and essential roles to safeguard families and ensure that God’s foreordained sons were appointed to receive Jehovah’s blessing to establish the covenant in their generation. Restoration scripture provides an important contribution to our understanding of the matriarchal role during the formative generations of the house of Israel. Through Joseph Smith, the Lord spoke of Sarah, “who administered unto Abraham” (Doctrine and Covenants 132:65). This chapter will consider matriarchs who were central characters during the patriarchal era, paying attention to their administrative words and actions in connection with God’s covenant that complemented, reinforced, and refined their husbands’ inspiration and leadership. Each of these women served as a catalyst to discover the worth God sees in all individuals, not just in those who received the birthright or presiding priesthood responsibility.

Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Tamar, and Zipporah are pivotal in telling the story of how “the children of Abraham” became distinguished as a peculiar people to establish God’s covenant and prepare for the coming Messiah. The focus of their stories is therefore on inheritance and continuity of the genealogy through a prepared lineage.[1] Whenever details are given in the scriptural text for determining the next steward of the covenant or recipient of the birthright blessings, the mother often played a significant role in God’s plan for the next generation. God directed Abraham to “hearken” to Sarah’s voice to remind him of the Lord’s promise that Isaac was to be the heir (Genesis 21:12); Hagar received the witness of the angel of the Lord concerning the important role of her unborn son (Genesis 16:7–16); God revealed to Rebekah before her twins were born that her older child would “serve the younger” (Genesis 25:21–23); despite recurring tensions between the sisters Leah and Rachel, they were united in their counsel to their husband Jacob to follow God’s command, knowing that their children’s future—and the twelve tribes of Israel—would be shaped by it (Genesis 31:3–16); Tamar saved Judah’s lineage in spite of his attempts to merge with the Canaanites (Genesis 38); and Zipporah circumcised her son, thereby rescuing Moses from divine punishment (JST Exodus 4:25–26). In concert with their husbands’ divinely appointed assignments, God trusted these matriarchs with revelations and abilities to establish a people who would pledge allegiance to the God of Abraham and keep their deity’s influence alive in an ancient polytheistic world.

Abraham learned that Jehovah’s everlasting covenant was available to Abraham and his seed through which Jehovah would be their eternal God: “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee” (Genesis 17:7). A millennium later, the prophet Isaiah clarified that Sarah the matriarch was also foundational to the covenant: “Ye that follow after righteousness . . . look unto the rock whence ye are hewn. . . . Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you” (Isaiah 51:1–4; 2 Nephi 8:1–4). Importantly, multiple scriptural passages reinforce the concept that reverence for and obedience to the God of Abraham and Sarah constitute their seed rather than biological descent or birth order.[2] Even in these formative years, the covenant seed spread to include multiple branches of Abraham’s descendants and some of the surrounding people.[3]

This chapter will explore evidence from the Bible, latter-day scripture, and extracanonical texts from ancient societies where domestic customs and laws parallel the biblical narrative in order to appreciate the societal opportunities and expectations for women of that day. Specifically in this chapter, I will analyze the efforts of the matriarchs to nurture and promote life by administering divine directives pertaining to the covenant among those numbered among the seed of Abraham.

Cultural Context

Evidence from contemporary peoples provides added insight into the possible lifestyle of the matriarchs. Extrabiblical texts from the Middle Bronze Age (2000–1500 BC), such as those from Nuzi and Middle Assyrian literature, report similar social and legal conditions that existed among the patriarchal communities.[4] Additionally, archaeologists have used material culture from the Late Bronze Age (1500–1200 BC) in Canaan to describe patriarchal families because these findings show that people continued to reside in multigenerational households and multifamily clans.[5] Matriarchs were part of an agrarian society where men’s and women’s roles were integrally related, where there was no division between public and domestic spheres, and where women’s contributions were as essential to societal survival as were those made by men.[6] The home, rather than a commercial center, was the hub of these ancient pastoral clans. The Genesis narrative assumes communities made up of numerous households related to an extended family and led by a “king,” chieftain, or family head.[7] At one time Abraham is reported to have owned 318 servants who were available to join him in battle (Genesis 14:14), suggesting a community as large as two thousand people.[8]

In such ancient societies, the shared intent to strengthen the entire household or clan was more important than individual rights. Each member of the community received responsibilities for the progress and welfare of the whole, thereby creating gender interdependence wherein “gender hierarchy in work roles [would have been] virtually nonexistent.”[9] Women’s roles were pivotal in society where large families were valued to support extensive labor needs and regeneration of the community.[10] Women were responsible for the domestic sphere, especially for the care and teaching of children as well as for food preparation and the management of resources. It is estimated that half a woman’s life span was devoted to maternity and motherhood.[11] Women and children worked in the fields and with the livestock alongside the men, which required the women to be physically strong and able to work long hours every day. When men were away fighting during military conflicts, women and children maintained the farming operations, further underscoring the women’s significant economic roles.[12] Chief women, or the senior women in a multifamily compound such as the matriarchs in Genesis, would have assumed increased authority and management status as the numbers in the community increased.[13] Their shared authority with the male chiefs is evidenced by the joint greeting of visitors to their community (Genesis 18:1–8). In short, family households were the main focus and source of strength for society in the Israel’s ancestral era. Each of the matriarchs in Genesis reflects aspects of the physical and intellectual strength needed to survive in her day. These women also demonstrate the spiritual acumen needed to administer their divine roles to their husbands and on behalf of those who received the gospel and covenant of Abraham.

Sarah and Hagar

Sarah’s importance to the covenant is not immediately obvious in Genesis. Her husband, Abraham, received the revelation from Jehovah to move away from his father, Terah, and take Sarah, his nephew Lot, and “the souls that [they] had won in Haran” (Abraham 2:15) to Canaan, a land south of Haran, which was to be their land of inheritance (Genesis 12:4–7). When a famine hit Canaan, Abraham and Sarah relocated to Egypt for relief, receiving a subsequent mission from Jehovah “that ye may declare [my] words” (Genesis 12:10; Abraham 3:15).[14]

Jehovah spoke to Abraham again just before they arrived in Egypt to warn him that his life would be threatened if Sarah did not tell the Egyptians that she was his sister rather than his wife (Genesis 12:11–13; Abraham 2:22–25). Asking Sarah to pose as her husband’s sister in order to save his life must have made sense in their culture, but it strains the modern reader’s understanding without additional details. As a childless woman, she was limited in bargaining power and at risk of being replaced by a wife who could give Abraham an heir. It is of no question that these events were terrifying and required both Sarah and Abraham to trust in the Lord’s counsel. Fortunately, at this point in the narrative, the Lord intervened to save Sarah by sending a plague to afflict the Pharaoh and his household, thereby indicating that she was essential to reestablishing the Lord’s covenant among the humankind (Genesis 12:17–19). Sarah provides a foreshadowing, or type, of the people of Israel who, in a later generation, would also be released from Egyptian bondage because of plagues that afflicted the pharaoh and his household (Exodus 8–12). After these events, when Sarah and Abraham had again settled in Canaan, another threat to God’s promise to bring their descendants and others to know of and receive his gospel became apparent. Sarah continued to bear no child. She concluded that she was barren and that Jehovah had “restrained” her from bearing a child. According to the Genesis text, Sarah therefore inaugurated an alternative plan to obtain a child: she thought to give her handmaid Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate wife in order to secure an heir for Abraham and thereby preserve the covenant (Genesis 16:1–4).

The idea to give Hagar to Abraham, however, was likely not Sarah’s alone. Extrabiblical sources support the idea that both Sarah and Abraham acted in obedience to God in this matter. The Lord revealed to Joseph Smith that “God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law,” and “[Sarah] administered unto Abraham according to the law when I commanded Abraham to take Hagar to wife” (Doctrine and Covenants 132:34, 65), indicating that the Lord revealed the plan to Sarah and Abraham. Some modern scholars have also read Sarah’s solution and subsequent actions as evidence that she believed “the Israelite Deity was the one who control[led] her destiny” and that her “plan [would] meet with divine sanction.”[15] Some two thousand years after Sarah and Abraham’s time, Jewish tradition indicates that Jews believed that God directed Sarah to give Hagar to Abraham. For example, Josephus chronicled that “Sarah, at God’s command, brought to Abraham’s bed one of her handmaidens, a woman of Egyptian descent, in order to obtain children by her.”[16] Rabbinic literature also connotes a divine command given to Abraham to accept Sarah’s plan: “Taught and bred by Sarah, [Hagar] walked in the same path of righteousness as her mistress, and thus was a suitable companion for Abraham, and, instructed by the holy spirit, he acceded to Sarah’s proposal.”[17]

In regard to familial and childbearing practices in the ancient Near East, a similar custom was followed in Mesopotamia during this period. The Nuzi texts, written by the Hurrians in the mid-second millennium BC include laws involving adoption, polygamy, and voluntary slave status among the common people in the ancient Near East. A law that relates to Sarah’s predicament cites the case of a man named Shennima, who marries a woman named Kelim-ninu. If Kelim-ninu bears him children, the law instructs, he “shall not take another wife; but if [she] does not bear, [she] shall acquire a woman of the land of Lullu as a wife for [her husband], and [Kelim-ninu] may not send the offspring away.”[18] In other words, according to Nuzi law, the barren wife bore the responsibility to choose a second wife for her husband in the event of infertility, and if the second wife bore him a child, the first wife was not to reject that child but should treat the child as family. Thus Sarah may have also selected the woman who would bear Abraham a child in her place, but whatever the case, the Genesis account seems to follow a practice witnessed elsewhere in the region. In response to this plan, the narrator of Genesis simply reports that “[Abraham] hearkened to the voice of [Sarah]” (Genesis 16:2).[19]

As the story progresses, however positive the relationship between Sarah and Hagar was before Hagar conceived, it quickly dissipated, for “when [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes” (Genesis 16:4), or Sarah was “lowered in her esteem.”[20] A similar circumstance and corresponding law appears in an ancient Babylonian law code, the Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1850–1550 BC), and rescinds freedom and status should an enslaved pregnant woman assume equality with her mistress. The regulation reads, “If a man has married a temple-woman and she has given a slave-girl to her husband and she has born sons, but afterwards that slave-girl takes over the position of her mistress because she has born sons, her mistress may not sell her for silver. She shall put on her the marker of slavery and she shall be treated as a slave girl.”[21] This custom may echo Sarah’s response to Hagar by “[dealing hardly with her]” (Genesis 16:5–6), perhaps treating her like a regular enslaved servent rather than as part of the family, reinforcing the custom that gave free tribal women latitude to determine the kinship status of their slaves.[22] The parallels between the ancient Babylonian law and the Genesis narrative further underscores the Bible’s cultural authenticity with the Middle Bronze Age.

In response to Sarah’s harsh treatment, rather than submit, the pregnant Hagar fled into the wilderness of Shur (Genesis 16:6–7). Hagar’s importance to God is attested in the Genesis text. An angel from the Lord found Hagar where she had fled and instructed her to return and submit—not to her husband—but to Sarah, her mistress (Genesis 16:7–9). Most likely, Hagar as a bondwoman did not have the legal right to walk away from her mistress. But the angel’s intervention likely carried a spiritual reason for her return to Sarah as well. In essence, the angel instructed Hagar to voluntarily return and confront the source of her pain and degradation—in this case, Sarah—rather than run from it. In return, the Lord would give her a large posterity, beginning with a son, who should be named Ishmael according to the angel’s instructions, and the Lord would hear her afflictions (Genesis 16:10–11). Hagar’s ordeal finds a type with what the Lord prophesied to Abraham: his posterity would live in a strange land where they would be afflicted (Genesis 15:13).[23] The foreigner Hagar was told by God’s messenger to return to a strange land, and the Lord would be with her throughout her afflictions. By submitting to the Lord’s counsel, Hagar would eventually recognize that God’s mission for her exceeded giving birth alone in the wilderness.

Hagar’s involvement in the community was important for years after Ishmael was born.[24] Her obedience to this revelation to return and submit to Sarah put her and her son Ishmael in Abraham and Sarah’s community when, thirteen years later, God established his covenant with the family of Abraham. Because Hagar faithfully returned, Ishmael was included in the covenant, as was evidenced by him being circumcised (Genesis 17:23–26). Restoration scripture reports the importance, especially to God, of her lineage through Ishmael as a further way of “fulfilling, among other things, the promises” of God (Doctrine and Covenants 132:34). As further evidence that the blessings of the priesthood and the covenant were not restricted to Isaac’s lineage but were indeed efficacious among other branches of the family is the later lineage of Midian, another of Abraham’s sons by a third wife named Keturah (Genesis 25:1–2; Doctrine and Covenants 84:6). The clearest example of God’s power being exercised in an alternate branch of the family is when Jethro, a descendant of Midian, ordained Moses to the priesthood (Doctrine and Covenants 84:6–17).

Miraculously, Sarah eventually conceived a child at the age of ninety (Genesis 21:1–5). Jehovah had told Abraham that he would indeed “be a father of many nations” and also that Sarah would be “a mother of nations” (Genesis 17:4, 16).[25] The New Testament attributes the miracle to Sarah’s faith, her assurance of things hoped for even when the evidence is yet unseen (JST Hebrews 11:1, 11), though Abraham is also lauded for his faith in the miracle: “And being not weak in faith, [Abraham] considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb” (Romans 4:19). The birth of Isaac brought great reason to rejoice and celebrate. However, at some point Isaac’s teenage half-brother Ishmael was found “mocking” (Genesis 21:9). Modern scholars have debated what Ishmael was actually doing, ranging from innocently playing with Isaac to molesting him.[26] The Apostle Paul attributed harmful motives in Ishmael, who “persecuted” Isaac (Galatians 4:29). In his history of the Jewish people, Josephus claimed that Sarah loved Ishmael “with an affection not inferior to that of her own son” until she feared that, due to the significant difference in the two boys’ ages, Ishmael should “do [Isaac] injuries when their father should be dead.”[27] As chief wife, Sarah was responsible for the safety of the entire clan, not just Isaac. Whatever occurred between the boys, she concluded that the interaction was not helpful and that the boys needed to be separated. Assuming that Isaac would have been about three or four at his weaning and that Ishmael was thirteen when he was circumcised before Isaac’s birth, Ishmael would have been close to seventeen years old and Isaac would have been a toddler when these problems were reported.[28] Considering the blessings that followed both boys, I would argue that Sarah acted out of desires to provide each son with opportunities best adapted to prepare them for their future God-given assignments.

Readings of the Genesis narrative often portray Sarah as an angry and selfish mother when she directed Abraham to “cast out this bondwoman [Hagar] and her son [Ishmael]: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac” (Genesis 21:10).[29] But when Abraham approached the Lord, saddened with this seemingly insensitive request, Abraham is told, “In all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called” (21:11–12). This suggests that Sarah’s request was more than a vindictive response to perceived slights against her son but was, in fact, divine will. The Lord was working through Sarah who administered the needed reminder to her husband. Moreover, the inclusion of the last clause, “through Isaac shall thy seed be called,” indicates what may have prompted Sarah’s concern—namely, that the birthright may go to the wrong child.

As far as the fate of Hagar is concerned, the language of the text seems to imply that she left as a free woman. Leaving with this free status perhaps parallels another ancient Near Eastern legal code that explains that if the father of sons by a maidservant calls them “my sons,” then when he dies, “the slave-girl’s sons shall not share the treasures in the father’s house with the first wife’s sons after the father has passed to his destiny. An emancipation shall be arranged for the slave-girl and her sons. The first wife’s sons shall have no rights of slavery over the slave-girl’s sons.”[30] Regardless, the text does make clear that Hagar is worthy enough to receive divine revelation herself, having her eyes opened while in the wilderness and being promised that God would be “with” Ishmael as he grew to manhood, making him “a great nation” (Genesis 21:18, 20).

Perhaps reflecting her free status, Hagar would eventually choose a woman from her homeland to be the wife of Ishmael (Genesis 21:21)—who would be directed to safety through God’s intervention—and like Jacob and his twelve sons, Hagar would become the matriarch of the twelve tribes of Ishmael, a posterity divinely destined to bless the earth as part of God’s promises (Doctrine and Covenants 132:34). Centuries later, the Apostle Paul drew on this symbolism by using Hagar and her descendants as representatives of the law of Moses, while Sarah’s descendants symbolized the full law of the gospel. Ishmael’s descendants would need to come to Isaac’s descendants to receive the gospel of Abraham, the power of God, and the promise of exaltation (Galatians 4:21–31; Abraham 2:9–11). Ishmael’s descendants would, however, have these divine promises fully available to them just like Jacob’s descendants—but only when they embraced the gospel of Abraham.

The stories of Sarah and Hagar reinforce that the value God places on an individual is not attached to birthrights. Isaac received a greater responsibility as Abraham’s heir, but that did not make him better or more loved by God than Ishmael was, nor did it make Sarah superior in God’s eyes to Hagar. Sarah administered to Abraham as a second witness to God’s revelation that through the son she bore in her old age, Abraham would establish his covenant (Genesis 17:19–21; 21:12). To Abraham and separately to Hagar, God promised his love and support for Ishmael and that his descendants would be “a great nation” blessed by the name of Abraham (Genesis 21:13, 18–20), underscoring the availability of the covenant blessings to all those who receive the gospel of Abraham (Abraham 2:10). In both cases, the women were necessarily attuned to receive God’s word for their families and played pivotal roles to highlight individual worth in every son or daughter of God.[31] The pattern continued in the next generation when Sarah’s daughter-in-law received divine direction for her children even before they were born.


In the narrative recounting the succeeding generation, Rebekah’s individuality and vitality among the covenant people is striking in stories of her becoming as Isaac’s wife, receiving revelation from God for their sons, and ensuring the bestowal of the birthright on the younger child, as God intended. Rebekah becomes an agent of change in all the stories in which she appears, free to decide and act in ways that fit her perception of what is best for her and her family.[32]

When Isaac came of age, Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac rather than sending Isaac himself (Genesis 24:1–9). After offering a prayer for assistance to identify God’s choice for Isaac’s wife, Abraham’s servant selected Rebekah because she “hasted” to give him drink, volunteered to water all his camels, and then “hasted” and “ran” to complete the task (24:18–20)—an answer to a prayer he had previously offered that would manifest the proper woman for Isaac’s wife. Rebekah’s energy, discipline, and work ethic matched the servant’s list of characteristics for which he sought and prayed. Indeed, her actions more than qualified for the servant’s stipulation that she offer to “give thy camels drink also” (24:14). Although she is identified as the “daughter of Bethuel,” Rebekah ran to “her mother’s house” with news of the stranger’s gifts, which is possible evidence of a matriarchate (24:24, 28).[33] When Rebekah’s family preferred her to remain with them a little longer before departing with the servant, Rebekah answered, “I will go” (24:58). In their response, her family honored her opinion and wishes.[34] Here, Rebekah demonstrates that women had a voice within this ancient culture. Again, the Nuzi texts from the same general region report that although betrothals were arranged by others, the bride had the option to either reject or accept the proposal.[35] Later, we, the readers, will also be asked to trust her when she crafts a plan to secure blessings for Jacob.

As the narrative progresses, it would be another twenty years after her marriage to Isaac before Rebekah gave birth to her two sons. The biblical text reports that “Isaac entreated the Lord for his wife, because she was barren” (Genesis 25:21). God heard Isaac’s prayers, and Rebekah conceived.[36] When she experienced unusual discomfort in her pregnancy,[37] Rebekah spoke of her concerns directly to God, and he responded directly to her (25:22–23): she sought divine wisdom and received it. Of note, her communication with the Divine occurred during her pregnancy and not after her children were born, an indication that her individual worth to God was not dependent on giving birth. The fact that she recognized God’s multifaceted revelation also suggests that communication with God was not a novelty for Rebekah. She had likely already nurtured a relationship with her Lord and thus had developed the spiritual sensitivities necessary for clear communication.

In response to her prayer, Rebekah learned three prophetic truths: she would give birth to twin boys, each son would be a leader of a nation, and the secondborn would lead the firstborn (Genesis 25:23). In time, all three prophecies were fulfilled. The Apostle Paul referred to Rebekah’s revelation about her two sons as evidence for the doctrine of election, God’s practice of choosing specific missions for individuals and peoples before their mortal births (Romans 9:11).

At the time of the inheritance blessing for passing on the stewardship of the covenant to the next generation, Isaac was nearly incapacitated, described as “old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see” (Genesis 27:1). He was unable to distinguish his sons from each other and considered his mortal life nearly at its end (27:2). Yet he still had the divine responsibility to pronounce God’s blessings upon his children, including accountability for the covenant. Isaac “loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison” and announced that he would give his firstborn his blessing after he brought back some venison for him to eat (25:28; 27:3–4). Like Abraham, who showed acceptance for Ishmael as heir, Isaac appears satisfied to give Esau the blessing.

The reader is not told whether or not God revealed to Isaac what Rebekah knew about the boys or even whether Rebekah had relayed the answer to her prayer to him. Ready to accept whatever “curse” may befall her for orchestrating a plan that sounded deceptive even to Jacob, she directed the events that followed. God had prepared a matriarch to administer to her husband to endorse or reconfirm that Jacob was to be the birthright son.[38] As soon as Esau departed to hunt for his father’s favorite meat, Rebekah directed Jacob to fetch meat from the flock of goats near at hand so that she could prepare it before Esau returned (Genesis 27:5–10). Her preparation also included covering Jacob in Esau’s “goodly raiment” and putting animal skin over Jacob’s skin (27:15) so that he would more closely resemble his older brother. [39]

The deceptive nature of this scene can be difficult to reconcile. Her leadership in engineering the setting is undeniable and seemingly manipulative by modern standards. Yet this type of approach is not unique in the Old Testament. Several other examples of women applied what we can call trickery that was not in and of itself unethical, especially when a more direct approach did not work.[40] For example, Michal used a pillow in bed to trick Saul’s hit man into thinking that David was sick in bed, thereby giving David time to escape (1 Samuel 19:11–18); the midwives Shiphrah and Puah tricked Pharaoh into thinking that Hebrew women delivered babies so quickly that no midwife was needed in childbirth, thereby saving many male babies (Exodus 1:16–20); and Jael deceived Sisera by promising hospitality when, in fact, she killed him in his sleep (Judges 4:18–22). In each case, lives were spared and God’s blessings spread. Whatever the nature of Rebekah’s actions, they produced an effect that she perceived was necessary to the fulfilling of God’s purposes—namely, the blessing placed upon Jacob instead of Esau.[41]

Isaac’s subsequent blessing to Jacob (when Isaac thought the recipient was Esau) echoed the revelation that Rebekah received before the twins’ birth as well as portions of the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 27:28–29; 28:4). When Isaac discovered what had happened, he did not rescind the blessing but instead blessed Esau with “the fatness of the earth, and the dew of heaven from above,” then reiterated what Rebekah learned before he was born, that “[Esau] . . . shalt serve [his] brother” (27:39–40). Having proper authority to pronounce inspired blessings, it was later written that “by faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come,” implying that Isaac was directed by the Spirit (Hebrews 11:20). Whatever the impetus was behind this unusual incident, in 1880, President John Taylor defended both Rebekah and Jacob in their action on this occasion: “There was neither unrighteousness in Rebekah nor in Jacob in this matter; but on the contrary, there was the wisdom of the Almighty, showing forth his providences in guiding them in such a manner as to bring about his purposes . . . that He might ratify and confirm [the birthright] upon the head of Jacob.”[42]

Whatever one’s personal interpretation of Rebekah’s plan to deceive Isaac in order to create an environment where God’s will could be enacted, she prioritized her actions in order to please God and help her sons. She is never shown to turn her back on Esau, neither when he married the daughters of Hittites (Genesis 26:34–35) nor when he threatened to slay Jacob for “[taking] away [his] birthright” (27:36, 41). Juxtaposed with the scene where Sarah sent Ishmael away and kept Isaac at home, Rebekah sent Jacob away and kept Esau at home so she could watch over him.[43] In order to properly perpetuate the covenant blessings to the next generation, Jacob needed to secure the birthright blessing from his father and to secure a wife from an approved lineage, or a community of apparent believers—not from among the local women as his brother had done. The matriarch’s concern for both her sons is captured in her words to Jacob, “Arise, flee thou to Laban my brother to Haran . . . until thy brother’s anger turn away from thee, and he forget that which thou hast done to him: then I will send, and fetch thee from thence: why should I be deprived also of you both in one day?” (27:43–45).

The narrative hints that Esau did indeed change while his brother was away. After Jacob’s departure, Esau noted his parents’ pleasure when his younger brother “obeyed his father and his mother” in pursuing a wife from an acceptable lineage and how Esau had hurt them when he married two Hittite women (Genesis 26:34–35; 28:6–8). So Esau visited Ishmael and married one of his daughters (28:6–9). This passage may imply that Isaac and Ishmael had remained in contact through the years (25:9). It also allows for the interpretation that Esau may have tried to repair his relationship with his mother when he married into a family more closely related to their immediate ancestors. Another possible indication that Esau may have changed is that Esau’s anger toward Jacob had evaporated by the time the brothers met again some twenty years later (33:1–15). Remarkably, it was Esau and not Jacob who initiated their reunion, and Esau who “ran to meet [Jacob], and fell on his neck and kissed him” (32:6–8; 33:4). A final amicable encounter is recorded when the brothers met to bury their dead father (35:29).

Rebekah was unflinching in her desire to ensure that the divinely chosen son would receive the birthright, and she was confident when she administered to Isaac as he confirmed the promises to both sons. Far from colorless and helpless in what one would expect in a patriarchal culture, Rebekah’s emotions, leadership, and willingness to act make her real to the modern reader. Through all, she retained a relationship with God. The narrative also provides a reminder that all that Rebekah and Isaac contributed to the future greatness of the covenant people came through the power of God and the covenant, despite their personal shortcomings. In the millennia that followed, distrust and war frequently defined the relationship between Esau and Jacob’s descendants. The same, however, could not be said in Rebekah’s day. As with other matriarchs in the patriarchal era, Rebekah was a key player in encouraging the healing of family breaches and accepting divine directives for establishing the covenant.

Leah and Rachel

After receiving the birthright blessing from his father and threats on his life from his brother, Jacob escaped to his mother’s homeland in hopes of finding a God-fearing wife and thereby establishing the covenant for another generation. In Haran he found just such individuals in Leah and Rachel, daughters of Laban (Rebekah’s brother). As pawns in their father’s strategy to exploit Jacob’s favor with God, Leah and Rachel found themselves married to the same man. The biblical text reports Jacob’s anger and dismay when he discovered that he had been deceived into marrying Leah instead of his beloved Rachel, but no mention is made of the women’s response (Genesis 29:25). Regardless of their initial feelings, Leah and Rachel competed for a place of honor in Jacob’s lineage while being equally appropriate wives for Jacob.[44] In their generation as matriarchs, the question of inheritance would not be contested between only two sons because all twelve sons received covenant responsibilities as the twelve tribes of Israel.

In addition to being used as a mere bargaining chip for her father’s financial gain, Leah felt the sting of knowing her husband had a particular affinity for Rachel, whom he had originally sought in marriage (Genesis 29:31). Leah’s family members may not have been sensitive to her feelings of inferiority, but she believed that God certainly was. As reported in Genesis, the author offers glimpses of Leah’s life after her marriage to suggest God’s compensatory blessings to this faithful woman: “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb . . . and Leah conceived, and bare a son, . . . and she conceived again, and bare a son; . . . and she conceived again, and bare a son; . . . and she conceived again, and bare a son” (29:31–35).

Leah’s voice is also recorded as she named her first four sons in a manner that may reflect her growing realization that the Lord’s grace and enduring love for her personally was compensation for any feelings of heartbreak or inferiority she may have felt or experienced due to her circumstances in marriage. After giving birth to Reuben, she said, “Surely the Lord hath looked upon my affliction; now therefore my husband will love me” (Genesis 29:32). When her second son was born, she called him Simeon “because the Lord hath heard that I was hated, he hath therefore given me this son also” (29:33). After her third son, Levi, was born, she said, “Now this time will my husband be joined unto me, because I have born him three sons” (29:34). And with the birth of Judah, she exclaimed, “Now will I praise the Lord” (29:35). Like the other matriarchs, she “encoded” her exclamations of gratitude and struggles into the names of her children.[45] In all, Leah bore six sons and one daughter.

On the other hand, the beautiful Rachel was fortunate to receive Jacob’s adoring love but was deprived of bearing children, the cultural and visual evidence that gave women value in her society.[46] Her cry “Give me children, or else I die” gives painful reality to the void in her life (Genesis 30:1). Her husband’s love and visible gifts did not provide an escape from serious disappointment and trials of faith. As he did for Leah, God would also lead Rachel to where only he could help her. Jacob’s response to Rachel concerning the predicament, “Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?” indicates his realization of the same truth (30:2).

Throughout the generations of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all but one of the matriarchs faced trial and refinement through a period of barrenness. For a significant length of time, all except Leah feared that they might never bear a child. In addition to contributing to the strength of society, a son for these matriarchs was the assurance of the continuation of God’s covenant with Abraham. As we’ve seen, even after giving birth, the matriarchs were responsible to ensure that the son that God had elected inherited the birthright, that he married an appropriate woman, and that the covenant was properly perpetuated through a worthy heir. In light of this, the trial of barrenness may be understood as a uniquely tailored trial that demonstrate the spiritual capacity of these women, highlighting their faith in their God.[47] From this perspective, Rachel’s plea “Give me children, or else I die” was more than an instinctive maternal yearning. It was a profound longing to fulfill her God-given responsibility to continue the Abrahamic covenant through future generations. It may also highlight a stark reality. Women of the time lived on average only thirty years because of complications associated with childbirth in comparison to men, who could expect to live to at least forty, even allowing for military involvement.[48] Rachel was probably representative of more women than are noted in the Bible in that she died shortly after giving birth to her second son, Benjamin (Genesis 35:17–18).

Despite the expanding size of his son-in-law’s family and their greater use of his land for over twenty years, Laban was loath to see Jacob’s large family depart. Jacob, Leah, Rachel, and their servants were a significant workforce to him and collectively contributed incredible wealth. Clearly, the Lord had blessed Laban’s clan since Jacob’s coming (Genesis 30:30). Should they depart, Laban’s holdings and potential for expansion would be dramatically reduced. Laban’s insistence that Jacob had no right to take away his wives and their children from their family home indicates a coexisting and competing system of marriage in that era. Rather than bring a wife into the husband’s father’s clan, the system that Laban assumed echoes Adam’s instruction, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife” (Genesis 2:24). Arguably, Laban was legally protected in his demands to keep his daughters’ families at their maternal home.[49]

After Rachel gave birth to Joseph, her first son and Jacob’s eleventh, and after Laban changed his payment agreement with Jacob for the tenth time, the Lord directed Jacob to return to his homeland in Canaan (Genesis 31:3). Rachel and Leah also found dishonesty in their father’s dealings with them. Rather than providing each with a dowry, derived at least in part from the bride price paid to the bride’s family, Laban had “quite devoured” it (31:15). The dowry was compensation for a daughter’s separation from the family property and was a critical part of establishing a new household, including what she contributed toward an inheritance for the next generation and her security should she become widowed or divorced.[50] Thus, Leah and Rachel were angry with Laban because he failed to give them their dowries or bride wealth earned from the fourteen years Jacob worked for them (31:14–16).

Betrayed by their earthly father, Leah and Rachel could have been tempted to distrust others close to them. But here, the sisters appear at their best. Their finest moment in scripture occurs when their voices combine to give inspired counsel to their husband. The Lord commanded Jacob to depart from Haran, but before acting upon the command, Jacob counseled with Leah and Rachel (Genesis 31:4). Despite the fact that their departure would be in obedience to God, leaving under such circumstances would damage the relationship between the women and their father. The decision to leave therefore required partnership. Surrounded by a flock of sheep in their father’s fields, Rachel and Leah were united and grounded in their reverence for God’s word as they counseled Jacob, “Whatsoever God hath said unto thee, do” (31:16). Different from Sarah and Hagar, Leah and Rachel eventually overcame their rivalry and united in their family’s best interest.[51] The two matriarchs contributed inspired support to Jacob’s revelation considering that their children’s futures would be shaped by this decision.

In the short time that Laban needed to organize his pursuit of Jacob’s clan, Laban must have surveyed the security of his greatest valuables only to find that his teraphim were missing.[52] Scripture reports that “Rachel had stolen the images that were her father’s” just before they secretly departed (Genesis 31:19). Because no explanation is given for the significance of the “images” or for Rachel’s motive for taking them, a plethora of varied justifications have been proposed. For example, Josephus posited that she took them as a form of collateral to barter for their freedom should her father try to stop them.[53] Rabbinic literature depicts Rachel as trying to break Laban from his reliance on idolatry by removing the figurines from his home.[54] Because teraphim were used for divination in other biblical accounts (1 Samuel 15:22–23; 2 Kings 23:24; Ezekiel 21:26; Zecheriah 10:2), she may have feared her father could detect their whereabouts if he had them.[55]

Again, the Nuzi texts may provide insight since modern scholars have considered them as a source to suggest that possession of the household gods determined inheritance or paterfamilias.[56] Others suggest that teraphim were believed to invite their ancestor or a divine presence to protect their households from harm[57] or guarantee “them a place in the family’s heritage”[58] or bestow upon them divine gifts, including childbirth.[59] Each of these explanations is worthy of consideration, although no one of them has been overwhelmingly accepted in the absence of further evidence. One’s preferred explanation is likely based on how one perceives Rachel. Did she look to figurines for answers and protection, or did she trust in Jacob’s God for these blessings? Considering her important role as a matriarch of the covenant, I can’t help but assign her a God-fearing motive in light of the dearth of details.

Whatever Rachel’s motives or the significance of the “images,” she did not tell Jacob what she had done (Genesis 31:32). She also succeeded in sending her father home without them, although she may not have kept them either. In preparing his family to enter their new homeland and make an offering to God at Bethel, Jacob required them all to “put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments” (35:2), suggesting that others in the traveling group brought similar artifacts of idolatry. The narrator reports that “they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem” (35:4). If Laban’s teraphim were indeed household gods, Rachel did not keep them but instead buried them in the ground along with other “strange gods” that others in the company had carried with them.

Leah and Rachel’s individual responses to God in the midst of their unexpected trials helped to shape the foundation of God’s covenant people. Centuries after the patriarchal era, community leaders in Bethlehem would bless a new bride named Ruth, praying that she would be a woman “like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel” (Ruth 4:11). The Hebrew word translated here as “build” appears frequently in the Old Testament and is used to describe literal and figurative construction, be it men constructing a physical edifice (Genesis 8:20; 1 Kings 6:1) or women creating an individual, family, or nation through childbirth (Genesis 16:2; 30:3). Genesis also uses this verb in conjunction with God’s works: God “built” woman from a rib (2:22).[60]

Different in appearance from each other as well as in their challenges, Rachel and Leah are known best by what they accomplished together. Along with their maids Zilpah and Bilhah, Leah and Rachel are the mothers of the twelve tribes of Israel. Rachel became the ancestor of many of the Israelites’ leaders from the time of the conquest of Canaan, including Joshua; the judges Gideon, Deborah, Jephthah, and Samuel; and Saul, the first king of Israel. One of her two sons, Joseph, also received the birthright blessing, which includes important responsibilities in the latter days (2 Nephi 3). Leah’s posterity was every bit as impressive. She was the ancestor of Moses and Aaron and the other administrators of the Levitical priesthood down to John the Baptist. Most notably, through her son Judah, Leah was an ancestor of the kings of Israel and Judah from David until Jesus Christ. Recognizing that all of Abraham’s children and all of the tribes of Israel are invited to receive the Lord’s choicest blessings, Leah and Rachel remind us that our specific lineage is not as critical as what we do with the opportunities gleaned through the covenant. That truth is magnified in the next generation through the unique approach of a matriarch connected to Judah’s family.


A lesser-known matriarch in Genesis is Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah and mother of two of his children. Her story can provide another example of administering when the continuity of Judah’s lineage was threatened. Although some within Judah’s clan at the time may have found Tamar’s application of wit and wisdom shameful in securing an heir, her reaction to Judah’s deceit fit the acceptable customs of the day and established his lineage among the other tribes of Israel.

A comparison of Judah’s character before Tamar’s influence on him and after it, with his portrayal in later Genesis chapters, reveals a dramatic transformation. Judah concocted the plan to sell Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn and the chosen heir, to the Ishmaelites/Midianites, because “what profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood?” (Genesis 37:26–33). When this portrayal of Judah’s jealous and mercenary attitudes is contrasted with his mature actions years later when he believed that his youngest brother Benjamin was in mortal danger, a significant change of heart is evident. Judah offered himself as a slave in place of Benjamin, who had replaced the seemingly dead Joseph in their father’s heart (44:18–34). Judah, the betrayer, offered his own life to redeem his victim’s successor. The only story included in the Genesis narrative to possibly explain Judah’s transformation is the story of Tamar.

In the ancient Near East, a woman’s marital obligation was to her husband’s family, which obligation continued for as long as her husband’s brothers or her father-in-law lived. Since there was no welfare, life insurance, or social security in ancient Israel and since a woman’s security in old age was dependent upon her sons, the law of the levir (Latin for “husband’s brother”) stated that a widow of childbearing age was entitled to bear children through a male in-law acting as proxy for her dead husband (Deuteronomy 25:5–6). The men in the family could refuse, but in so doing would be shamed in a public ritual, probably similar to that described in the later law of Moses, where the widow is instructed to remove a shoe of the unwilling man and spit in his face (25:7–9). The levirate duty both honored the dead brother by continuing his family line and reaffirmed the young widow’s inclusion in the family of her dead husband.[61] According to a Middle Assyrian law from the fourteenth century BC, a widow’s father-in-law was obliged to arrange a levirate marriage for her if she had not borne a son. The same law stipulated that if a father-in-law had no other son over the age of ten years, he himself could be the levir for a widowed daughter-in-law.[62] This ancient law also declared that a woman was only truly a widow when her husband and father-in-law were both dead and she had no son. According to these ancient laws, Judah was a legal proxy for Tamar’s deceased husband. Yet Judah is depicted as not fulfilling his duties, instead leaving Tamar without a spouse and therefore without the legitimate means to continue her husband’s line, which, as we shall see, is the impetus to recognizing Tamar’s willingness to do what she can to secure the blessing of posterity.

The narrative begins with Judah selecting Tamar as a wife for Er, his eldest son. As a result of Er’s wickedness, “the Lord slew him,” and Judah gave Tamar to his second son, Onan, to marry “and raise up seed to [Er],” as allowed by the law of the levir (Genesis 38:7–8). Because Onan’s actions also “displeased the Lord . . . he slew him also,” leaving Judah with only one remaining son, Shelah (38:10). The scriptures report that Judah instructed Tamar to “remain a widow at thy father’s house, till Shelah my son be grown, . . . lest peradventure he die also, as his brethren did” (38:11). Though the text suggests that the reason for Tamar remaining a widow is because of the young age of Judah’s third son, Shelah, Judah’s concern that Shelah would die like his brothers suggests that he may have feared that the environment surrounding Shelah could lead to him being as wicked as his brothers or that Tamar herself was the reason behind the brothers’ premature deaths.[63] What is clear is that Judah’s concern here was clearly for Shelah and not for Tamar. Yet, after marrying into Judah’s family, she no longer belonged to her father’s family.[64] Thus, the incident highlights Tamar’s precarious and anomalous position in her society because, by marrying, she was no longer a legitimate member of her father’s clan, and without producing an heir for Judah’s family, she was not yet a full member of Judah’s clan.[65]

Tamar had done all that she was asked as a member of Judah’s family, but she was once again in the vulnerable position of being without any legal ties to family support and honor. Her only other option was to risk death if she illegally went outside Judah’s family in order to procure the security that only a son could provide her. To make matters worse, Judah appears to have avoided visiting her or allowing her to see Shelah, thus placing her in a position where she could not fulfill her marital responsibilities. In this predicament, Tamar takes matters into her own hands, demonstrating again the seriousness to which these women sought to fulfil their responsibilities. When she heard that Judah would be traveling nearby on his way to shear sheep, she set out to meet him and, in so doing, saw that Shelah was with Judah and noted that “Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife” (Genesis 38:13–14).

The narrator does not explain Tamar’s intent when she intercepted her father-in-law in his travels, nor does the text state she was right or wrong in what follows. The Genesis account only tells us that she removed any indication of her widowhood, covered herself with a veil so as not to be recognized, and sat in an open place to await Judah’s arrival along the road (38:14). Wearing a veil did not in and of itself signify that a woman was a prostitute.[66] On the contrary, veils most often indicated respectability. Rebekah donned a veil before meeting Isaac (Genesis 24:65). Leah was probably veiled for her wedding to Jacob to disguise the fact that she was not Rachel (29:23–25). By contrast, harlots were expected to reveal their faces to clearly communicate who and what they were, as indicated by a Middle Assyrian law that banned prostitutes from wearing veils on penalty of punishment to prevent them from being mistaken as honorable women.[67]

Although the reader is not told Tamar’s initial intention, Judah’s intent is clear; he solicited a solitary woman whom he assumed to be easy game.[68] Judah saw what he wanted to see, whether the woman was veiled or not. Stated another way, the text does not call Tamar a harlot—Judah did (Genesis 38:15). With that said, Tamar does establish whereby Judah’s response may have been expected, and in so doing, she shamed him into performing his proper responsibilities. “And [Judah] turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter in law)” (38:16). Tamar accepted his proposition with a request for some form of collateral from him until he could send payment. The fact that a woman thought to be a harlot was not condemned or chastised suggests that prostitution was an occurring line of work for marginalized women who lived outside the family unit and beyond society’s boundaries.[69] If Judah wanted to treat his neglected daughter-in-law as a prostitute, she could play the role to ensure that her legal family rights were met.

Tamar wanted something that would clearly prove that the man who slept with her was Judah. She requested as security “[Judah’s] signet, and [his] bracelets, and [his] staff which is in [his] hand” (Genesis 38:18), thus securing items that would have clearly identified Judah as the father if she succeeded in conceiving.[70] When Judah’s Canaanite friend returned with a kid goat for payment to “the harlot,” no woman by such a description could be found. So Judah decided to forfeit his pledge and avoid public ridicule, saying to his friend, “Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed” (38:23), or, in other words, “Let her keep the things, or we shall become a laughingstock.”[71] These details seem to suggest that there was some sort of moral concern running throughout the logistics of the story and the appearance behind the unfolding events.

Three months after his encounter with “the harlot,” Judah was informed that his “daughter in law hath played the harlot” because she was pregnant (Genesis 38:24). Even though she lived with her own father, by law Tamar was still responsible to Judah, the head of her husband’s family. Knowing that Shelah had not been near her, Judah assumed that Tamar had acted outside his family. As head of Er’s clan and protector of the family’s honor, Judah therefore sentenced Tamar to be burned. As Tamar was being led to her death, she publicly announced, “By the man, whose these are, am I with child. . . . Discern, I pray thee” (38:25). The collateral she collected from Judah now vindicated her. Upon realizing his role in Tamar’s pregnancy, Judah honestly owned up to his fault and declared, “She hath been more righteous than I” (38:26). He admitted that he had behaved unjustly toward his daughter-in-law, absolved her of any guilt in her unconventional act, and acknowledged that she had assumed greater responsibility for guaranteeing the continuity of the family than he had done.[72] Her extreme example humiliated him and helped to awaken him to repent.

Tamar’s solution to her impossible situation is difficult to square with moral standards of today. She used deception to obtain what was rightfully hers. We would never advise a young woman to try a similar stunt to achieve her dream of motherhood. But like some of the former matriarchal stories, such behavior ends up playing a major part in an individual’s ability to obtain blessings that result in God’s plan moving forward. Sarah agrees to claim she is Abraham’s sister rather than his wife, Rebekah disguises Jacob to appear like Esau, and Leah barters with Rachel to spend a night with Jacob. Through Tamar’s unusual yet courageous actions, Judah reawakened his loyalty to the covenant family. If she had remained docile and obedient to Judah’s commands by living without hope in her father’s house, Judah would have likely remained separate from his father and siblings. Because Tamar led him to face his own deceit, Judah learned that to act shamefully before the Lord will bring heartache in return. After losing his wife, two sons, and almost his last son, Judah experienced a change of heart to sense a greater concern for what God thought of him than for what his neighbors thought of him. The Genesis narrative of Judah’s future encounters with his family, including Joseph, indicates that this change of heart was profound and permanent (Genesis 43:8–9; 44:18–34). While we witness human imperfections and difficult decisions that are made within these stories (which are not always extolled or credited to God’s direct involvement or directives), we see that God works with well-intentioned individuals who are trying their best to act for the greater good and with a desire to accomplish the works of God for their families. Within these unconventional stories, we also see that God is concerned for the destitute and enables people to change and receive their greatest righteous desires, especially through the most difficult of circumstances.

Tamar eventually bore Judah twin sons, Pharez and Zarah (Genesis 38:27–30). These boys secured their mother’s place in Judah’s family and support for her in her old age. But, more importantly for religious history, they were sons of Judah who were chosen to prepare a royal lineage that began with King David and culminated with the Savior’s birth. Centuries after she joined with Jacob’s clan, Tamar’s descendants noted her lasting contribution to set aright Judah and his family. On Boaz and Ruth’s wedding day, the community at Bethlehem pronounced a blessing on them: “Let thy house be like the house of Pharez, whom Tamar bare unto Judah” (Ruth 4:12). Obed, the son of Ruth and Boaz, was a progenitor of David and of Jesus. Matthew recognized the magnitude of these events when he noted them in the Savior’s genealogy, “And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar” (Matthew 1:3). Tamar is one of only four women named in the genealogy that introduces the reader to Mary, the mother of Jesus. The other three are Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. A plausible explanation for this unusual inclusion is that each of these four women combine two elements that make them types of Mary, the mother of Jesus: (1) they experienced an irregular marital history that could be misjudged as scandalous by outsiders and (2) each woman showed initiative in carrying out God’s plan and thereby continued the chosen lineage of the Son of God.[73]


God’s power and authority for the miraculous deliverance of the Israelites centers on Moses and his older brother, Aaron. Several women also played prominent roles that exemplified unshakable benevolence and established a foundation from which a God-fearing people could develop—chief among such people being Zipporah (Exodus 2:16–21).

Zipporah, we are told, was the eldest daughter of Jethro, who himself was a descendant of Midian, one of six sons born to Abraham and his third wife Keturah (Genesis 25:2). It was Jethro who later taught Moses about delegating responsibility when the weight of governing the children of Israel in the wilderness became especially onerous (Exodus 18:13–27). From Restoration scripture, we learn that it was also from Jethro that Moses received the Melchizedek Priesthood, Jethro having received the higher priesthood by the laying on of hands as it had been handed down to each generation beginning with Adam (Doctrine and Covenants 84:6–17). Knowing that Jethro held legitimate priesthood authority provides the needed connection for the appropriateness of Zipporah as a wife for Moses, who would be Jehovah’s elected deliverer and leader of the Israelites (Exodus 2:21). Without clarification from this modern revelation, Zipporah is easily imagined as an outsider from the faith and covenant of Abraham.[74]

While not much is said about Zipporah, one account demonstrates her matriarchal qualities to act in order for the covenant to be established. According to Exodus 4, on their way back to Egypt, having received his prophetic commission at Sinai, “the Lord met [Moses], and sought to kill him” (Exodus 4:24). The circumstances behind this meeting are not given in the text, but according to the account, in response to the divine death threat, “Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his [Moses’] feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he [the Lord] let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision” (Exodus 4:25–26).

This passage has been recognized as one of the most difficult in the Old Testament to decipher and understand because so much appears to be missing.[75] Some have suggested that the blood of Moses’s firstborn son vicariously functioned to save him, foreshadowing the use of blood to save the Israelites from the destroying angel and the destruction of the firstborn as recorded in Exodus 12:12–14, 43–48. In this analysis, the rite of circumcision is subsumed into the larger ritual of vicarious purification for sin to enjoy the blessings of salvation.[76]

Bernard P. Robinson explains God’s anger against Moses to be the result of Moses’s reticence to obey God in the important task at hand: confronting Pharaoh with the potential death of his son if he refused to free the Israelites (Exodus 4:21–23). Robinson argues for “son-in-law” as a better translation than “husband” or “bridegroom” for the Hebrew hātān in Zipporah’s statement in Exodus 4:25–26 because they were no longer newlyweds (Zipporah had borne two sons), and in the absence of her father, Zipporah became a surrogate father-in-law to perform circumcision, which was considered “a male role.” Like William Propp, Robinson concludes that “if Israel is to survive the wrath of YHWH, it must, our text implies, be by virtue of the spilling of atoning blood. . . . Gershom’s blood saves Moses, just as the blood of the Passover lamb will save the Israelites.” Therefore, Zipporah should be praised, Robinson argues, as a “foreign woman who puts Israelites to shame and earns the right to be held up as a model for imitation.”[77]

Godfrey Ashby assigned God’s anger against Moses to his omission of “liturgical conformity,” or failure to heed the requirement of ordinances in his obedience to God, though this was made right by Zipporah’s obedience. Ashby argues for the importance of circumcision and blood in the story as “a token sacrifice for the whole person” and by extension the sacrificial offering of the firstborn son to God. Ashby further connects blood with the power of holiness in the way Paul used it in Colossians 1:15–20 to describe Jesus as the firstborn who redeemed humankind with his own blood. To Ashby, “Bridegroom of blood” or “bloody husband” is evidence of Zipporah’s triumphant administrations that finally qualified Moses completely to lead the covenant people of God. Similar to others, Ashby sees the episode as a type of the Passover and as the Israelites’ deliverance occurring on condition of their “willingness to serve” God.[78]

Finally, Christopher B. Hays suggests that the blood of Zipporah’s son is a type or echo of the blood of the lamb and that Zipporah’s actions represent “its vicarious sacrificial value.” Hays explores whose feet Zipporah touched with her son’s blood because the wording is vague (Zipporah “cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet”). The feet could belong to any male present: Moses, their son, or Jehovah. Hays opines that she touched Jehovah’s feet with the blood to signify her claims to divine kinship in the covenant Jehovah made with Abraham.[79] In all four arguments, Zipporah’s actions are depicted as positive acts that save the lives of both her husband and son, acts that are even prophetic in that they seem to foreshadow the same divine protection for all of the Israelites in their attempt to escape Egypt.

Latter-day revelation provides even greater understanding to the narrative, with the Joseph Smith Translation underscoring Zipporah’s role as Moses’s rescuer and a believer. First, the JST specifies the reason for the Lord’s ire: “The Lord was angry with Moses, and his hand was about to fall upon him, to kill him; for he had not circumcised his son” (JST Exodus 4:24). No explanation is given in the JST for why Moses had failed to honor God’s directive to circumcise his son, but God’s displeasure is obvious. So Zipporah administered the required token of the covenant, satisfying the Lord and saving her husband’s life: “And the Lord spared Moses and let him go, because Zipporah, his wife, circumcised the child. And she said, Thou art a bloody husband [unto me]. And Moses was ashamed, and hid his face from the Lord, and said, I have sinned before the Lord” (JST Exodus 4:25–26). As the JST makes clear, Moses had not fulfilled his patriarchal duty (for whatever reasons) and had therefore instigated divine retribution. This lack of information is important because it makes Zipporah’s quick and immediate action the significant act in the narrative. Her immediate obedience becomes the center of the story at this pivotal moment in the history of the Israelites’ deliverance. Moreover, it appears that her actions caused Moses to feel guilty, thus bringing him back into a state of repentance whereby God could again trust in Moses, his servant. Thus, like the matriarchs before her, Zipporah not only ensured the future of her posterity but also made it possible for her husband to fully become what the Lord needed him to be.


The patriarchs in the pre-Exodus stories of the Bible are portrayed as having God’s authority and power to pronounce God’s blessings on the next generation and to act as heads of their extended families. A close reading of the text supplies sufficient evidence to argue that God also allotted the matriarchs significant positions to act and actively influence the well-being of their families and to help shape an environment where life can progress and achieve God’s divine plan. Each woman also illustrates how her struggles surrounding motherhood were essential to forming a personal relationship between herself and God. The roles of men assigned as patriarchs and protectors of these ancient societies were not diminished but rather magnified by the complementary authority exercised by the matriarchs. The text reinforces the reality that women and men need each other to fulfill their divine missions and that both need to establish a personal relationship with God.

The lives of the matriarchs bespeak their good intentions and the powerful effects they had on their families. Their lives demonstrate courage and a desire to fulfill the purposes of God. The result of the joint efforts between these husbands and wives, patriarchs and matriarchs, are described in a revelation relating to the eternal nature of the marriage covenant and may be summarized as follows: when this covenant is sealed by “the Holy Spirit of promise,” the Lord taught that “Abraham received concubines, and they bore him children; and it was accounted unto him for righteousness, because they were given unto him, and he abode in my law; as Isaac also and Jacob did none other things than that which they were commanded; and because they did none other things than that which they were commanded, they have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods” (Doctrine and Covenants 132:37; emphasis added). Exaltation is not awarded to a patriarch alone; modern scripture teaches that in order to obtain this highest eternal reward, “a man must enter into . . . the new and everlasting covenant of marriage” (Doctrine and Covenants 131:2). Together, the patriarchs and matriarchs performed their divine roles to establish and spread God’s covenant blessings that continue to strengthen us today.

In summary, by considering the biblical text in light of Restoration scripture and teachings, we may appreciate four truths about the leading women of Israel’s ancestral era. First, the matriarchs are as interesting and capable as their male counterparts. The matriarchs acted with divine insight, desired to accomplish the purposes of God, and took initiative to do their best to fulfill his purposes. Second, the matriarchs and patriarchs need to work together through difficult environments to ensure the perpetuation of the covenant. Whatever the circumstance, matriarchs and patriarchs need divine direction to decipher the best responses. Third, the matriarchs were as much the recipients God’s love and concern as were the patriarchs. God spoke directly to these women to accomplish his plan and promises to their families.

Finally, evidence of women and men receiving God’s power in their weakness is palpable during the ancestral era. These leaders were human and often responded in ways that appear unusual to us. As some have observed, the men and women of the ancestral era show that God was “working not with angels or puppets, but with believable human persons, male and female, whose lives reflect the conflicting dimensions of free personhood.”[80] Despite some of the challenging and unique circumstances they encountered in their lives and despite some of the unusual solutions that were enacted to address these situations, in every case, the narratives of these imperfect women highlight their awareness of God’s purposes and plans for the men, women, and children in their lives, while at the same time demonstrating that women themselves could have deep, individualized relationships with God.

The biblical story of establishing the Abrahamic covenant commences with men and women teaching each other, supporting each other, and depending on each other to do much more than survive. Unmistakably, the Bible teaches us today that women and men still need each other to succeed in God’s plan to save them. Indeed, this early biblical era underscores that salvation is both an individual and a community endeavor. This era also highlights that in nothing did the covenant people succeed without God’s enabling power.


[1] Tammi J. Schneider, Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), 15–17; Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories (New York: Schocken Books, 2002): 5; Nelly Furman, “His Story Versus Her Story: Male Genealogy and Female Strategy in the Jacob Cycle,” in Women in the Hebrew Bible, ed. Alice Bach (New York: Routledge, 1999), 119–26; Esther Fuchs, “The Literary Characterization of Mothers and Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible,” in Bach, Women in the Hebrew Bible, 127–39; Naomi Steinberg, Kinship and Marriage in Genesis (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 5; Rachel Havrelock, “The Myth of Birthing the Hero: Heroic Barrenness in the Hebrew Bible, Biblical Interpretation 16 (2008): 154–78; Terry J. Prewitt, “Kinship Structures and the Genesis Genealogies,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 40, no. 2 (1981): 87–98.

[2] See also Abraham 2:10: “As many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy [Abraham’s] name”; Galatians 3:7–9, 29: “They which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham,” and “if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise”; Romans 4:11, 16: Abraham is the “father of all them that believe”; 2 Nephi 30:2: “As many . . . as will repent are the covenant people of the Lord”; Doctrine and Covenants 84:33–34: “Those who are “faithful” and “sanctified by the Spirit” are those who are “the seed of Abraham.”

[3] Cynthia R. Chapman discusses kinship that is defined by being nursed by the same woman rather than through blood, as in Song of Solomon 8:1: “‘Oh that you were like a brother to me, one who had nursed at my mother’s breast:’ Breast Milk as a Kinship-Forging Substance,” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 12, no. 7 (2012): 1–41.

[4] John Bright, A History of Israel, 4th ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 70; William G. Denver, “Patriarchal Traditions: Palestine in the Second Millennium BCE: The Archaeological Picture,” Israelite and Judean History, ed. John H. Hayes and J. Maxwell Miller (Philadelphia: S.C.M. Press;Trinity Press International, 1977), 92–102.

[5] Carol Meyers, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 138; Carol Meyers, “Women and the Domestic Economy of Ancient Israel,” in Bach, Women in the Hebrew Bible, 33–43.

[6] Meyers, “Women and the Domestic Economy of Ancient Israel,” 36; Meyers, Discovering Eve, 168–73; Carol Meyers, “Double Vision: Textual and Archaeological Images of Women,” Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 5, no. 2 (2016): 126–27; Henry Jackson Flanders, Robert Wilson Crapps, and David Anthony Smith, People of the Covenant, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford, 1996), 163.

[7] See Genesis 14:1–2, 18; 20:2; 23:10; 32:6; 46:5–7; Meyers, Discovering Eve, 73.

[8] Ze’ev W. Falk, Hebrew Law in Biblical Times, 24; Bright, History of Israel, 76, 96. Some seventy men were included in Jacob’s clan at one time, indicating that subsequent smaller clans were created when numbers of members became sufficiently large (Genesis 46:27).

[9] Meyers, Discovering Eve, 173; Flanders, Crapps, and Smith, People of the Covenant, 165.

[10] Meyers, “Domestic Economy,” 35, notes that “the apparent hierarchical control of men over women may have been functionally far less powerful than might be expected.”

[11] Meyers, Discovering Eve, 167; Meyers, “Double Vision,” 128.

[12] Meyers, “Domestic Economy,” 37–38.

[13] Margaret English de Alminana, “A Biblical Investigation of Matriarchal Structures in Ancient Semitic Life,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 25, no. 1 (2016): 58–73; C. Meyers, “Domestic Economy,” 39; Discovering Eve, 186.

[14] Drawing on traditions handed down to his day, Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived some two thousand years after the patriarchs and matriarchs, recorded a divinely assigned mission for Abraham similar to one Joseph Smith received by revelation in the Book of Abraham. Josephus explained that while in Egypt, Abraham was to hear the Egyptian priests’ views concerning their gods and “to convert them into a better way, if his own notions proved the truest.” Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, in The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 1.8.1–2.

[15] Schneider, Mothers of Promise, 27–28; Steinberg, Kinship and Marriage in Genesis, 61.

[16] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 1.10.4.

[17] Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, 7 vols, trans. Henrietta Szold (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 1.237.

[18] Jonathan Paradise, “Marriage Contracts of Free Persons at Nuzi,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 39, no. 1 (1987): 1–36, especially 28–29; M. J. Selman translates “land of Lullu” as a “Nullu woman” or a slave girl. M. J. Selman, “The Social Environment of the Patriarchs,” Tyndale Bulletin 27 (1976): 128.

[19] Anna Fisk explores the story through Hagar’s eyes as a parallel to African-American slavery in “Sisterhood in the Wilderness: Biblical Paradigms and Feminist Identity Politics in Readings of Hagar and Sarah,” Looking Through a Glass Bible, ed. A. K. M. Adam and Samuel Tongue (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 115–21.

[20] Schneider, Mothers of Promise, 30.

[21] Law code no. 146, in M. E. J. Richardson, Hammurabi’s Laws: Text, Translation, and Glossary (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 87. The Akkadian term translated here as “temple-woman” is nadītu, which refers to a female devotee or priestess, thus a high-ranking female (241); see also Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1997), 109, for an alternate translation of the law.

[22] Jo Ann Hacket, “Rehabilitating Hagar: Fragments of an Epic Pattern,” in Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, ed. Peggy L. Day (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 12–27; de Alminana, “Matriarchal Structures,” 66–68. See also Aaron Schade’s chapter on Isaac and Jacob in this volume.

[23] Tikya Frymer-Kensky, “Hagar,” in Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Bible, Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, ed. Carol Meyers (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 87; Meyers, Women in Scripture, 87.

[24] Fisk, “Sisterhood in the Wilderness,” 121–37.

[25] In setting up the covenant with Abraham, God also gave new names to the couple—Abram became Abraham, and Sarai became Sarah. The assignment of new names likely underscores God’s promises to them and their posterity by establishing this covenant; Abraham and Sarah would become a father and mother of many nations. See Flanders, Crapps, and Smith, People of the Covenant, 160.

[26] For example, the LXX Greek is often translated as “sporting.” E. A. Speiser, Genesis (New York: Doubleday, 1962), 155; Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York: Norton, 1996), 98, acknowledges attempts to portray Ishmael as a child molester but prefers to translate Ishmael’s interaction with young Isaac as “playing”; C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch imagine Isaac being the object of “profane sport” because Ishmael was full of “unbelief, envy, [and] pride of carnal superiority.” C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 1:156, while Steinberg, Kinship and Marriage in Genesis, 80, considers sexual perversion in Ishmael’s actions.

[27] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 1.123.

[28] Ambiguity in the wording of Genesis 21:1–5 makes it unclear who nursed Isaac. Chapman suggests that Hagar may have been a wet nurse to Isaac, which strengthens kinship ties and also could explain why only then did Sarah wish to dismiss Hagar and Ishmael from the clan. Chapman, “Breast Milk as Kinship-Forging,” 26–30.

[29] Others have perceived more selfish motives in Sarah. For example, see John Van Seters, “The Problem of Childlessness in Near Eastern Law and the Patriarchs of Israel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 87, no. 4 (1968): 401–8, who posits that Sarah’s objective in banishing Hagar and Ishmael was to keep the inheritance intact for Isaac alone rather than splitting it between the sons.

[30] Hammurabi Law no. 171a, in Richardson, Hammurabi’s Laws, 95; Roth, Law Collections, 114.

[31] Michelle A. Clifton-Soderstrom, “Beyond the Blessed/Cursed Dichotomy: The Barren Matriarchs as Oracles of Hope,” Covenant Quarterly 69, nos. 1–2 (February–May 2011): 51–53.

[32] According to Jack M. Sasson, Rebekah “proves to be the most determined of Israel’s matriarchs” in “The Servant’s Tale: How Rebekah Found a Spouse,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 65, no. 4 (2006): 265. In Schneider, Mothers of Promise, 50–59, Schneider consistently describes Rebekah as “decisive” and “willing to act without hesitation.” Fuchs concluded that Rebekah is more “active, assertive, and talkative” than other females in the Bible. Esther Fuchs, “Structure and Patriarchal Functions in the Biblical Betrothal Type-Scenes,” in Bach, Women in the Hebrew Bible, 47. Frymer-Kensky posits that Rebekah devoted her life to God’s covenantal promise as his “divine helper.” Fyrmer-Kensky, Reading Women of the Bible, 19, 22. In Steinberg, Kinship and Marriage in Genesis, 91, 96–97, Steinberg argues for a more selfish Rebekah who chooses to act in ways that will secure her best interests in the future, such as favoring Jacob who would then favor her when he rises to power. See also Clifton-Soderstrom, “Beyond the Blessed,” 53–54.

[33] Cynthia Ruth Chapman, “The Biblical ‘House of the Mother’ and the Brokering of Marriage: Economic Reciprocity Among Natal Siblings,” in In the Wake of Tikva Frymer-Kensky, ed. S. Holloway, J. Scurlock, R. Beal, (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2009): 143–69; de Alminana, “Matriarchal Structures,” 58–73.

[34] E. Hamori observes that Rebekah’s initiative in this circumstance is key to appreciating her strategy for obtaining the birthright blessing for Jacob in Genesis 27, and her subsequent confidence to tell Jacob to obey her three times underscores this exercise of her agency to leave her homeland with Abraham’s servant in Women’s Divination in Biblical Literature: Prophecy, Necromancy, and Other Arts of Knowledge (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015): 44–45; see also Sasson, “The Servant’s Tale,” 261–63.

[35] See Paradise, “Marriage Contracts,” 34–35; see also Cyrus H. Gordon, “The Status of Woman Reflected in the Nuzi Tablets,” Zeitschrift fur Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archaologie 43, nos. 1–4 (1936): 159; Speiser, Genesis, 184–85, interprets the Nuzi passage as the woman’s “declaration of concurrence” with the marriage proposal and by saying “[I do this] of my own free will.” Selman refutes claims that the Nuzi tablets specifically describe the Hurrian culture and are therefore the best source for explaining the patriarchal era in the Bible because additional ancient Mesopotamian texts could also be cited for similar customs. He therefore concludes that people of Nuzi as well as Hurrians and the patriarchs were influenced by the larger Mesopotamian society from which they may have each adopted certain laws and customs. Selman, “The Social Environment of the Patriarchs,” Tyndale Bulletin 27 (1976): 114–36.

[36] Others translate Genesis 25:21 as follows: “Yahweh responded to [Isaac’s] plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived” (Speiser, Genesis, 193); or “The Lord granted his plea” (Alter, Genesis, 126); whereas the King James Version translates the first part as follows: “And the Lord was entreated of him,” which may not communicate as clearly as later translations do that God heard and answered Isaac’s prayer.

[37] Hamori, Women’s Divination, 52, suggests that Rebekah feared her pregnancy may be ending because she argues for a better translation than “struggled” for what Rebekah felt between her unborn offspring when they “crushed one another within her,” noting that the same Hebrew word is used to describe the skull of Abimelech being crushed by a millstone dropped from a tower (Judges 9:53) or people being crushed with oppression (Amos 4:1; Hosea 5:11).

[38] In Schneider, Mothers of Promise, 51, Schneider interprets Rebekah’s actions as motivated by her desire to see that promise be given to the one identified by God; Hamori, Women’s Divination, 59–60, concludes that Rebekah took “independent and decisive action in family matters” because of her ability to inquire of God to understand and then to interpret the outcome; David Zucher hypothesized that Isaac understood that Jacob was the God-selected heir because neither Rebekah nor Jacob were even chastised for what they did and because Isaac took Rebekah’s counsel to immediately send Jacob to her brother’s home and furthermore blessed him in their plan. David Zucher, “The Deceiver Deceived: Rereading Genesis 27,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 39, no. 1 (2011): 46–58.

[39] According to a Jewish midrash, Esau’s “wonderful garments . . . were the high-priestly raiment in which God had clothed Adam,” which had been handed down to Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, and finally to Esau, as Isaac’s firstborn. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1.332. The Lord clothed Adam and Eve with “coats of skins” (Genesis 3:21; Moses 4:27), and Joseph was given a covering by his father that his older brothers envied (Genesis 37:3–4). Later in the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Zechariah warned against false prophets who wear “a rough garment to deceive” (Zechariah 13:4). The resultant image is that of the true covenant son is covered with the skins of a sacrificed animal in preparation of inheriting stewardship over the covenant people.

[40] Frymer-Kensky argues that trickery is often the best recourse for influencing circumstances for good, particularly by the “powerless”; their wit is often underestimated by those in power, thereby they are able to level the playing field and bring about God’s plan. Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, 19.

[41] See John E. Anderson, Jacob and the Divine Trickster: A Theology of Deception and YHWH’s Fidelity to the Ancestral Promise in the Jacob Cycle (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 73–75; Speiser, Genesis, 195; Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women in the Bible, 18. In an 1841 essay to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Apostles Brigham Young and Willard Richards suggested that God was prescient that Esau would lose his birthright so instigated a plan to preserve the blessing: “Through unbelief, hardness of heart, and hunger, [Esau] sold his birthright to his younger brother, Jacob, and God knowing beforehand that [Esau] would do this of his own free will and choice, or acting upon that agency which God has delegated to all [people], said to his mother, the elder shall serve the younger.” Brigham Young and Willard Richards, “Election and Reprobation,” Millennial Star 9, no. 1 (January 1841): 222. We do not learn the details of how this will happen, nor does the story tell us that Rebekah learn such details, but we know that Jacob is to become the birthright son.

[42] John Taylor, in Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1881), 21:370–71.

[43] Speiser, Genesis, 211, reads Rebekah’s intent and her plan’s consequences for Jacob differently than I do; he sees Rebekah in a negative light in her scheme to get Jacob the blessing and that Jacob therefore paid the price of a “strong-willed mother” with “twenty years of exile.”

[44] Leah and Rachel’s struggles to gain acceptance as the chief wife are often marginalized as petty jealousy without accounting for a mother’s responsibility to ensure a secure future both for her children and for herself.

[45] The name Reuben comes from “Look, a son”; Simeon, from “Hearing”; Levi, from “Joined”; Judah, from “Praise”; Issachar, from “Recompense”; and Zebulon, from “Endued” or “Exalted.” Alter, Genesis, 156, observes that the etymologies of these names are Leah’s “ad hoc improvisations” and are a “midrashic play on the sounds of the names.” See Havrelock, “Myth of Birthing the Hero,” 154.

[46] In the ancient world, being barren was an “acutely painful predicament.” Alter, Genesis, 128; Meyers, “Women and the Domestic Economy of Early Israel,” 37–38; Susan Niditch, “The Wronged Woman Righted: An Analysis of Genesis 38,” Harvard Theological Review 72, nos. 1–2 (January–April 1979): 143–49; Van Seters, “The Problem of Childlessness,” 401–8.

[47] Havrelock, “Myth of Birthing the Hero,” 160; Clifton-Soderstrom, “Beyond the Blessed,” 47–64.

[48] Meyers, Discovering Eve, 112; Meyers, “Double Vision,” 126.

[49] de Alminana, “Matriarchal Structures,” 61–65.

[50] See the following laws dealing with a father’s obligation to pay a dowry from the Code of Hammurabi: #138 as security if her husband divorces her, #163–64 as security if she cannot bear children, and #183–84 as security whether or not her father dies before she marries. Ze’ev W. Falk notes that the father’s dowry to his daughters at marriage finally gives them independence from their father in Hebrew Law in Biblical Times, 2nd ed. (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2001), 143.

[51] Alice Ogden Bellis, “A Sister Is a Forever Friend: Reflections on the Story of Rachel and Leah,” Journal of Religious Thought 55–56, nos. 1–2 (1999): 109–15.

[52] The Hebrew term is of uncertain etymology but may reflect a custom in Aram where figurines were used as deities that represented household gods or ancestors believed to hold some special power or influence in the clan. See Edward M. Curtis, “Idol, Idolatry,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols., ed. David Noel Freedman, (New York: Doubleday, 1992); 3:378–79.

[53] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 1.19.8.

[54] Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:374.

[55] Rabbinic literature assigns fears in Rachel that her father would use the teraphim to learn about their “flight” and where to find them, so she stole them. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:371–72.

[56] Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 219; see, for example, Cyrus H. Gordon, who cites the Nuzi texts to show Rachel’s attempt to make Jacob the head of the family after Laban died, “Biblical Customs and the Nuzu Tablets,” Biblical Archaeology 3 (1940): 1–12, and Anne E. Draftkorn, who cites both family leadership and inheritance as justification for Rachel taking the images in “Ilani/Elohim,” Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957): 216–24, as does Alter, Genesis, 169.

[57] Frymer-Kensky, “Rachel,” in Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Bible, Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, edited by Carol Meyers (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), page 139. Ktziah Spanier argues, “Rachel stole her father’s teraphim in order to enhance her position in the family and to secure Joseph’s position among his brothers,” thus setting the stage for the future rivalry between the House of Joseph and the House of Judah in “Rachel’s Theft of the Teraphim: Her Struggle for Family Primacy,” Vestus Testamentum 42, no. 3 (1992): 404–12.

[58] Flanders, Crapps, and Smith, People of the Covenant, 152.

[59] Moshe Greenburg, “Another Look at Rachel’s Theft of the Teraphim,” Journal of Biblical Literature 81, no. 3 (1962): 239–48. In Bright, History of Israel, 79, Bright considers the Nuzi texts “especially illuminating” for explaining the Laban-Jacob stories but acknowledges that any explanation may be disputed.

[60] The same Hebrew word בנה (banah) is translated in the KJV as “made” (a woman) in Genesis 2:2, “obtain” (children) in Genesis 16:2, and “have” (children) in Genesis 30:3 but most often “build/builded” when describing physical construction of edifices.

[61] Niditch, “Wronged Woman Righted,” 145–46.

[62] Middle Assyrian Law 33: “If a woman is residing in her own father’s house, her husband is dead, and she has sons . . ., or [if he so pleases], he shall give her into the protection of the household of her father-in-law. If her husband and her father-in-law are both dead, and she has not son, she is indeed a widow; she shall go wherever she pleases.” Roth, Law Collections, 165; Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 182.

[63] Mordecai Friedman assumes that Judah blamed Tamar for his sons’ deaths in “Tamar, A Symbol of Life: The ‘Killer Wife’ Superstition in the Bible and Jewish Tradition,” Association for Jewish Studies Review 15 (1990): 23–61; see also Alter, Genesis, 219.

[64] Niditch, “Wronged Woman Righted,” 146; Alter, Genesis, 219, points out the social disgrace that would have attended Tamar by having to return to her father’s house “after having been twice married.”

[65] Niditch, “Wronged Woman Righted,” 144–46.

[66] Victor P. Hamilton suggested, “Tamar’s wearing of the veil was not to make Judah think she was a prostitute. Rather, it was intended to prevent him from recognizing her. It is not the veil but Tamar’s positioning herself [alone on an open road] that made her appear to be a prostitute” in Book of Genesis: Chapters 18–50, New International Commentary on the Old Testament Series, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 442–43.

[67] Middle Assyrian Law #40: “Wives of a man, or [widows], or any [Assyrian] women who go out into the main thoroughfare [shall not have] their heads [bare]. . . . A concubine who goes about in the main thoroughfare with her mistress is to be veiled. A prostitute shall not be veiled, her head shall be bare. Whoever sees a veiled prostitute shall seize her, secure witnesses, and bring her to the palace entrance…They shall strike her 50 blows with rods; they shall pour hot pitch over her head.” Roth, Law Collections, 167–68.

[68] Schneider, Mothers of Promise, 153–56.

[69] Niditch, “Wronged Woman Righted,” 147.

[70] In Genesis, 298, Speiser explains that Judah gave Tamar his “seal on the cord,” which was a cylinder seal used for legal identification, and that his staff would have also contained personalized markings. See also Alter, Genesis, 221.

[71] Alter, Genesis, 222; Frymer-Kensky, Women in Scripture, 162.

[72] Steinberg, Kinship and Marriage in Genesis, 127; Speiser, Genesis, 300; Alter, Genesis, 223.

[73] Raymond E. Brown, Mary in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978): 82. If Matthew’s intent in the genealogy of Jesus was to dissuade Jews of his day from discounting Mary’s divine role because of questions surrounding the paternity of her son, Matthew may have listed these four women, who were considered heroines in his day but were wrongfully judged by some at the time over these irregular episodes, which would have made this theory very attractive.

[74] Edith Deen, All the Women in the Bible (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 54–56, describes Zipporah as “prejudiced and rebellious,” as indicated by Deen’s conjecture that Midianites and Hebrews had such different religious views, so Zipporah refused to allow their sons to be circumcised. In Siegfried Herrmann, A History of Israel in Old Testament Times, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 75, Herrmann maintains that nothing in the text supports suggestions that Jethro and the Midianites followed Jehovah worship either previous to Moses’s residence with them or as a result of his residence with them. In Bright, History of Israel, 127, Bright acknowledges that one might read Exodus 18 to mean that Jethro was already a worshipper of Jehovah before Moses came but that “many scholars” argue against such an interpretation. Restoration clarifies that Jethro was indeed a worshipper before and ordained Moses to the higher priesthood; see Doctrine and Covenants 84:6–7.

[75] William H. Propp, “That Bloody Bridegroom (Exodus IV 24–6),” Vestus Testamentum 43, no. 4 (1993): 495–519; Bernard P. Robinson, “Zipporah to the Rescue: A Contextual Study of Exodus IV 24–6,” Vestus Testamentum 36, no. 4 (1986), 447–61; Godfrey W. Ashby, “The Bloody Bridegroom: The Interpretation of Exodus 4:24–26,” Expository Times 106 (1995): 203–5.

[76] Propp, “That Bloody Bridegroom,” 495–519.

[77] Robinson, “Zipporah to the Rescue,” 447–61; Susan Ackerman goes so far as to call Zipporah a priestess because she assumed the male role of a priest or spiritual leader during a transitional time for Moses, see Susan Ackerman, “Why Is Miriam Also among the Prophets? (And Is Zipporah among the Priests?),” Journal of Biblical Literature 121, no. 1 (2002): 47-80, specifically 71–75.

[78] Ashby, “The Bloody Bridegroom,” 203–5.

[79] Christopher B. Hays, “‘Lest Ye Perish in the Way’: Ritual and Kinship in Exodus 4:24–26,” Hebrew Studies 48 (2007): 39–54.

[80] Flanders, Crapps, and Smith, People of the Covenant, 164.