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Parshat Chayei Sarah: An independent woman

It takes a special woman for the Bible to seek out her opinion -- and value it!
Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes delivers Caractacus, King of the Silures, to the Roman General Ostorius,, by Francesco Bartolozzi (Public doman/ Wikimedia Commons)
Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes delivers Caractacus, King of the Silures, to the Roman General Ostorius,, by Francesco Bartolozzi (Public doman/ Wikimedia Commons)

Following the election victories this week of Einat Kalisch Rotem who became the first female mayor of Haifa, of Aliza Bloch who was elected as the first woman to lead the city of Beit Shemesh, and nine other women who became heads of local governments, I want to look this week at someone who I consider to be the strongest and most independent woman in the Torah.

But before we go back to the Bronze Age of the matriarchs, let’s first look at some early English history.

Most people have heard of Boudicca, the first century Queen of the Iceni who led an army of 100,000 Celts against the occupying Romans and almost caused Nero to withdraw his troops from Britain before she was ultimately defeated.

But fewer people have heard of Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes, who ruled her Yorkshire-based tribe in the north of the country at the same time. Tacitus tells us of the alliance Cartimandua made with the Romans, which allowed her to rule from 43 CE until 69 CE. At first, her husband, Venutius, ruled alongside her, but she eventually divorced him and married his armour-bearer, Vellocatus.

Her pact with the Romans allowed her to retain her kingdom when Venutius launched a war against her in 57 CE. However, she was eventually defeated by her ex-husband and disappears from the record, though she may have gone to live out her final days in Rome. She forged alliances, made tough political decisions, and led her subjects in relative peace for decades.

These two women may have been the only female rulers in England for almost a millennium — until Ælfthryth in the 10th century. Each earned their place in history through their brave and independent actions and decisions and proved that women leaders were the equals of men (which seems to have been obvious to those living in England at the time, though not to the Romans).

Statue of Boudicca by Thomas Thornycroft near Westminster pier. (CC0/ Pixabay)

Even though this week’s Torah reading is named Chayei Sarah, the true heroine is Rebecca, who becomes Isaac’s wife. And for the very first (and one of the very few) times a woman’s opinion is sought and valued.

Sure, Eve famously gave the fruit of the forbidden tree to her husband, but when challenged she claimed the snake had made her do it. Sarah told Abraham to evict Ishmael, but her husband only listened to her after God told him to. Lot’s wife and his daughters each made decisions on their own, but no man ever asked their advice.

However, when Abraham instructs his servant Eliezer to go and find a wife for Isaac, “The servant said to him, ‘Perhaps the woman will not want to go with me to this land…’” (Genesis 24:5). This is the first time in the Bible that a man has ever considered a woman may say no.

When Eliezer arrives at the well to find a wife for his master’s son he intentionally sits back and waits for Rebecca to make decisions and take action.

Rebecca and Eliezer by Alexandre Cabanel, 1883 (Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

And even more incredibly, when Rebecca’s family are reluctant to let her go immediately to get married they ask her what she wants to do. “They said, ‘Let us call the young woman and ask her,’” (Genesis 24:57).

True, Jacob asked his wives’ opinions before leaving Laban’s house, but only after telling them that God has instructed him to leave.

But compare the story of Rebecca to that of Jacob meeting Rachel, the love of his life (Genesis 29). There, Jacob tells Rebecca who he is, leaves her to run home and tell her father, and all the negotiations are carried out between Jacob and Laban. Neither ever asks the opinion of Rachel or Leah and the women are merely pawns used by the men.

There are certainly other women in the Torah who make decisions and take action — Potiphar’s wife, Pharaoh’s daughter and Miriam. Later, in the Prophets, we encounter other strong women — Rachav, Yael, Delilah Abigail, and Batsheva, to name just a few. But with the exception of Deborah, none of them is asked for their opinion by a man.

Before she is even introduced to us, Rebecca is portrayed as someone who has an opinion and can refuse to come with Eliezer. Perhaps this was the kind of wife that Isaac needed after his death on the altar at the hands of his father. Without Rebecca taking the lead, Jacob would never have become the third patriarch, and the Jewish history would be entirely different, or possibly nonexistent.

The young woman who brings water to the camels is also the strong woman who stands up for herself, makes decisions against the recommendations of her family, and is respected in the biblical man’s world for her opinions and actions.

Let us hope that all the newly elected mayors and regional council heads make the best decisions and are respected for their views, regardless of gender.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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