Women of the Torah and Co-Founders of Israel

Ibrahimi Mosque (Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron, West Bank
Joel Carillet / Getty Images

One of the great gifts of biblical scholarship is to provide a complete picture of how people lived during ancient times. This has been especially true for four women of the Torah—Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel – who are recognized as co-founders of Israel equal in stature to their more renowned husbands, respectively Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Traditional Interpretation Overlooks Women

The stories of Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel are found in the Book of Genesis. Traditionally, both Jews and Christians have referred to these "ancestor stories" as "the patriarchal narratives," writes Elizabeth Huwiler in her book Biblical Women: Mirrors, Models, and Metaphors. However, this label doesn't appear in the scriptures themselves, so directing the focus to the men in the ancestor stories apparently resulted from biblical interpretations down through the centuries, Huwiler continues.

As with many Bible stories, it is nearly impossible to authenticate these narratives historically. Nomads such as Israel's matriarchs and patriarchs left behind few physical artifacts, and many of those have crumbled into the sands of time.

Nonetheless, over the past 70 years, studying the stories of women of the Torah have given clearer understandings of the practices of their times. Scholars have successfully correlated hints in their narratives with major archaeological finds. While these methods don't verify the specific stories themselves, they provide a rich cultural context to deepen understandings of the biblical matriarchs.

Women and Parenthood

Childbearing was a productive social contribution in biblical times. The extended family was not merely a kin relationship; it was the primary production unit of the ancient economy. Women who were mothers performed a tremendous service to the family and to society at large. More people equaled more workers to till lands and tend flocks and herds, assuring tribal survival. Motherhood becomes an even more significant achievement when considering the high rate of maternal and infant mortality in ancient times.

All of the significant figures of the ancestral period, whether male or female, are known because of their parenthood. As Huwiler writes:

"Sarah might not be well known in the tradition if she were not remembered as an ancestor of the people of Israel – but the same is certainly true of Isaac [her son and the father of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau]."

God's promise to Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation could not have been fulfilled without Sarah, making her an equal partner in carrying out God's will.

Sarah, the First Matriarch

Just as her husband, Abraham, is regarded as the first patriarch, Sarah is known as the first matriarch among women in the Torah. Their story is told in Genesis 12-23. Although Sarah is involved in several episodes during Abraham's travels, her greatest fame comes from the miraculous birth of Isaac, her son with Abraham. Isaac's birth is considered miraculous because both Sarah and Abraham are extremely old when their son is conceived and born. Her motherhood, or the lack of it, causes Sarah to exert her authority as a matriarch on at least two occasions.

First, after years of childlessness, Sarah urges her husband Abraham to conceive a child with her maidservant, Hagar (Genesis 16) in order to fulfill God's promise. Though brief, this episode describes a practice of surrogacy, in which a female slave of a childless, higher-status woman bears a child to the woman's husband.

Elsewhere in scripture, a child resulting from this surrogacy is referred to as "born on the knees" of the legal wife. An ancient statuette from Cyprus, shown on the website All About the Bible, shows a scene of childbirth in which the woman delivering a baby is seated in the lap of another woman, while a third female kneels in front of her to catch the infant. Finds from Egypt, Rome and other Mediterranean cultures have led some scholars to believe that the phrase "born on the knees," traditionally attributed to adoption, may also be a reference to the surrogacy practice. The fact that Sarah would propose such an arrangement gives evidence that she has authority within the family.

Secondly, a jealous Sarah orders Abraham drive Hagar and their son Ishmael out of the household (Genesis 21) in order to preserve Isaac's inheritance. Once again, Sarah's action testifies to a woman's authority in determining who can be part of the family unit

Rebekah, the Second Matriarch

Isaac's birth was greeted with joy as the fulfillment of God's promise to his parents, but in adulthood, he is overshadowed by his clever wife, Rebekah, also known as Rivkah among women of the Torah.

Rebekah's story in Genesis 24 shows that a young woman of her time apparently had considerable autonomy over her own life. For example, when Abraham bids a servant to find a bride for Isaac from among his brother's household, the agent asks what he should do if the chosen lady refuses the invitation. Abraham replies that in such a case he would release the servant from his responsibility to fulfill the task.

Meanwhile, in Genesis 24:5, it is Rebekah, not Abraham's servant nor her family, who decides when she will leave to meet her prospective bridegroom, Isaac. Clearly, she could not make such a decision without some social prerogative to do so.

Finally, Rebekah is the only matriarch who gets direct, privileged information from Yahweh about the future of her twin sons, Esau and Jacob (Genesis 25:22-23). The encounter gives Rebekah the information she needs to concoct a scheme with her younger son, Jacob, to gain the blessing that Isaac intends for their firstborn, Esau (Genesis 27). This episode shows how women of ancient times could use clever means to subvert the intentions of their husbands, who had greater authority over the family inheritance.

Sisters Leah and Rachel join Sarah and Rebekah to complete the set of matriarchs among women of the Torah. They were daughters of Jacob's uncle Laban and thus their husband's first cousins as well as his wives. This close kinship would be frowned upon if not outlawed in contemporary times because of what is now known about the possibility of reinforcing familial genetic defects. However, as multiple historical sources have pointed out, marriage practices in biblical times were designed to serve tribal needs to preserve bloodlines, and so close kinship marriages were permitted.

Beyond their close kinship, the story of Leah, Rachel, and Jacob (Genesis 29 and 30) turns on a fundamental tension in their family dynamic that gives insight into the tragic nature of family feuds.

Leah's Marriage, Made by Deception

Jacob had fled to his uncle's household after he deprived his brother Esau of the firstborn's blessing from their father Isaac (Genesis 27). However, the tables were turned on Jacob after he worked for seven years to gain Laban's younger daughter, Rachel, as his wife.

Laban deceived Jacob into marrying his firstborn daughter, Leah, instead of Rachel, and Jacob only discovered he'd been tricked after his wedding night with Leah. Having consummated their marriage, Jacob couldn't back out and he was furious. Laban placated him by promising he could marry Rachel a week later, which Jacob did.

Laban's trickery may have gained Leah a husband, but it also set her up as a rival to her sister Rachel for their husband's affections. Scripture says that because Leah was unloved, Yahweh endowed her with fertility, with the result that she gave birth to six of Jacob's 12 sons—Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun – and to Jacob's only daughter, Dinah. According to Genesis 30:17-21, Leah gave birth to Issachar, Zebulun, and Dinah after she had reached menopause. Leah is not only a matriarch of Israel; she's a metaphor for how high fertility was prized in ancient times.

The Sisters' Rivalry

Sadly, Rachel whom Jacob loved was childless for many years. So in an episode reminiscent of Sarah's story, Rachel dispatched her maid, Bilhah, to be Jacob's concubine. Once again, there is an apparent reference to the ancient cultural practice of surrogacy in Genesis 30:3 when Rachel tells Jacob: "Here is my maid, Bilhah. Consort with her, that she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have children."

Learning of this arrangement, Leah tried to maintain her status as senior matriarch. She dispatched her maid, Zilpah, to be Jacob's second concubine.

Both concubines bore children to Jacob, but Rachel and Leah named the children, another sign that the matriarchs maintained authority over the surrogacy practice. Bilhah gave birth to two sons whom Rachel named Dan and Naphtali, while Zilpah mothered two sons whom Leah named Gad and Asher. However, Bilhah and Zilpah are not included among the women of the Torah considered matriarchs, something scholars interpret as a sign of their status as concubines rather than wives.

Finally, after Leah had borne her third post-menopausal child, Dinah, her sister Rachel gave birth to Joseph, who was his father's favorite. Rachel later died giving birth to Jacob's youngest son, Benjamin, thus ending the sisters' rivalry.

Buried Together

All three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, claim the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Bible as their ancestors. All three faiths hold that their fathers and mothers in the faith – with one exception—are buried together in the Tomb of the Patriarchs located in Hebron, Israel. Rachel is the one exception to this family plot; tradition holds that Jacob buried her in Bethlehem where she died.

These ancestor stories show that the spiritual progenitors of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were not model human beings. By turns they were distrustful and devious, often jockeying for power within their family structures according to the cultural practices of ancient times. Nor were they paragons of faith, for they often manipulated their circumstances to try to achieve what they understood as God's will according to their own timetables.

Nonetheless, their faults make these women of the Torah and their spouses all the more accessible and in many ways, heroic. Unpacking the many cultural hints in their stories brings biblical history to life.


All About the Bible, www.allaboutthebible.net/daily-life/childbirth/

Huwiler, Elizabeth, Biblical Women: Mirrors, Models, and Metaphors (Cleveland, OH, United Church Press, 1993).

Stol, Marten, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible: its Mediterranean setting (Boston, MA, Brill Academic Publishers, 2000), page 179.

The Jewish Study Bible (New York, Oxford University Press, 2004).

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Astle, Cynthia. "Women of the Torah and Co-Founders of Israel." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, learnreligions.com/women-of-torah-israel-co-founders-116361. Astle, Cynthia. (2023, April 5). Women of the Torah and Co-Founders of Israel. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/women-of-torah-israel-co-founders-116361 Astle, Cynthia. "Women of the Torah and Co-Founders of Israel." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/women-of-torah-israel-co-founders-116361 (accessed June 1, 2023).