Last week’s torah portion ended on a cliff hanger. A missing cup is found in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph demands that Benjamin remain in Egypt as his slave. Judah begs Joseph to allow him to take Benjamin’s place as Jacob will not survive Benjamin’s loss. At this point Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. They are – understandably – astonished that the young frightened boy they left in the pit so many years ago has become this most powerful Egyptian official. Meanwhile Pharaoh learns that Joseph’s brothers are in Egypt and tells Joseph to invite Jacob and the entire household to come live in Egypt in the land of Goshen. So Jacob and Joseph have an emotional reunion. The family work as shepherds, the famine continues, and Joseph manages the country, selling grain for land until by the end of the famine Pharaoh owns all of the land in the country, except for that owned by the priests. Once the famine ends, Joseph gives seed to all the people telling them that they must repay Pharaoh with one fifth of their harvest.
Joseph is at the centre of the complex threads of the narrative, but look around the stage and other figures come into view. Those who caught my attention this year are the ones who are barely sketched out, yet who are noted in the genealogical lists, and this always bears further examination. There is the Canaanite woman, unnamed, who bears a son – Saul – to Shimon, apparently a different mother than that of his other five sons. She reappears again in the list in Exodus (Ch. 6) as the mother of Shimon’s son Saul, and yet other Canaanite women who bore sons to the family are not singled out like this – we already met the unnamed wife of Judah, introduced only as the daughter of the Canaanite Shua, whose children Er and Onan so dishonoured Tamar in Gen 38, yet she is not mentioned here.
Then there are the other unnamed wives we find in verse 5: “And Jacob rose up from Beer-Sheva; and the sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, and their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry him.” And there is the somewhat ambiguous language of verse 7 where we are told of “[Jacob’s] sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters, and all his seed brought he with him into Egypt.”
Only two ‘daughters’ are mentioned here by name – Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah whose sad story has already been told, and Serach, the daughter of Asher, granddaughter of Jacob and Zilpah, the maid of Leah. Yet the word ‘daughters’ is in the plural – there were clearly other women who were born into the household, even though they remain unnamed and indeed uncounted in the famous statement that seventy souls went down to Egypt with Jacob. Is the number seventy to be understood literally here, in which case there has to be some creativity with the arithmetic in the names listed here? Or is it the symbolic number it is often used as elsewhere. Seventy is the multiplication of two perfect numbers (seven and ten), it is the number of elders appointed to help Moses (Num 11:16), the number of nations and languages after the flood. Seventy symbolises a whole world, and we know that Jacob brings a whole world of his wives, his children and of his grandchildren – both sons and daughters, yet the listed names show only two female descendants – Dina, and Serach bat Asher.
So who is Serach bat Asher and why is her name remembered? No story remains extant in the narrative, but there are some tantalising intimations.
She appears here in the list of those who left Canaan to go to Egypt, and she appears also in the census at the end of the Israelites sojourn in the desert (in Numbers 26:46). That is it as far as bible is concerned, but the aggadic literature is intrigued by this woman who apparently lives for over four hundred years and whose name bookends both the leaving of Canaan and the return to the Land.
The first function of Serach bat Asher is to hold memory. She links the generation of the ancestors to the generation of the exodus, from the “family” of Israel to the post-Sinai “people” of Israel. She is the original “oral tradition”, and the midrash (Pirkei d’rabbi Eliezer) has her validating Moses as the man who will redeem the Israelites from Egypt, as she knew the secret sign given by Joseph to his brothers to signify that divine deliverance was imminent.
So not only does she link the generations and hold the memory of the divinity, she also provides the authority and authenticity of the leadership. The man from whom rabbinic tradition derives its whole substance is essentially given his legitimacy by the woman, Serach bat Asher. Something to think about as we hear the howls of outrage in some quarters when women scholars are finally given the respectful title that recognise their abilities.
According to the midrash Serach was a musician and a singer. When the sons of Jacob wanted to tell him that Joseph was still alive, they feared that the shock of the news might kill him, so they enlisted the talents of Serach who revealed the information to him gently. In response he blessed her, and said “the mouth that told the news that Joseph is alive will never taste death” (see Midrash hagadol on Gen 46 and Targum pseudo Yonatan) This blessing gave Serach immortality, and like the prophet Elijah some traditions tell of her going to heaven while still living.
Serach was not only the link between the patriarchal generations and the post Sinai people. She was also the possessor of all kinds of hidden or lost knowledge that she would reveal when appropriate. So, for example, she knew the place where Joseph’s body was kept in Egypt, and when the time came for Moses to take the bones out with the people of Israel in accordance with the promise made to Joseph on his deathbed (Exodus 13) it was Serach who could lead him to the coffin. She explains biblical text, in one midrash she corrects a rabbi’s teaching about the splitting of the reed sea, saying that the waves looked like a wall rather than a lattice work. And in the story in the book of Samuel when a wise woman averts a crisis that Yoav, the captain of the army of King David, is not dealing with well – the midrash assumes that this is Serach bat Asher, and gives her the words “I am the one who completed the number of Israel; I am the one who linked the faithful to the faithful, Joseph to Moses” (Bereishit Rabbah)
Serach bat Asher is never married in the midrashic literature. Yet this does not stop Nachmanides suggesting she is named in the census because her descendants would inherit land. The aggadic tradition creates a life filled with miracles and wisdom, with courage and scholarship, a woman whose life extends for hundreds of years and who teaches about redemption. And yet at the same time she barely registers on the awareness of many students of Jewish tradition, and it is Elijah who catches our imagination, who visits every brit milah and pesach seder, whose chariot drives our stories of messianic redemption.
Serach bat Asher does not wander our world, unlike Elijah. And while there is a Sephardic tradition that she died in the twelfth century – there was even a grave site in Isfahan – she disappeared long before she was so conveniently laid to rest. This confining of her seems to be almost deliberate – she is just too much for the medieval Jewish world to accept, she has been veiled and contained and controlled. Her name – which may well be a cognate of the verb samech reish chet – would mean to be abundant, to be excessive, to go free, to loosen the hair, to roam; yet more often dictionaries suggest that her name is just a variant of Sarah – to be a princess. And we know what happens to princesses in most fairy stories – they end up locked in the tower and hidden.
So may Serach bat Asher find her way back to her freedom to walk in the world, correcting rabbinic teachings which close things down and reminding us of the signs that show who truly speaks the words of God. Her job was to remember, to reveal, to connect us to our foundational stories, to open the world for us. We need her to cut through the thickets that have grown up since those stories were recorded. Serach bat Asher, another woman’s voice in our tradition that was quieted over time, calls to us once more.
I’m going to think of a way to symbolise her at the seder table. Thank you, as always, Sylvia.