Ed Gaskin

Patriarchs and Matriarchs: A Reflection of Spiritual Equality

The Cave of Machpelah or the Tomb of the Ancestors

When I was in Hebron, I visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, also called the Cave of Machpelah. I entered from both the Jewish and Muslim sides. What surprised me was the tombs of the matriarchs. Even though the Bible clearly says they are buried together. Because of my preconditioning — from childhood I heard about the Patriarchs but never the Matriarchs unless someone was focusing on the women of the Bible.

Scripture often speaks of “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” But when we sing the Amidah in many congregations today, we honor the matriarchs as well as the patriarchs:

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, God of our fathers and mothers,

God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob,

God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah,

The great, mighty and awesome God, transcendent God

Who bestows loving kindness, creates everything out of love,

Remembers the love of our fathers and mothers,

And brings redemption to their children’s children for the sake of the Divine Name.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs is the oldest Jewish site in the world and among the holiest sites for the Jewish people. According to Genesis, after Sarah died, Abraham purchased the plot of land containing the cave to bury her. Later, he was buried there too, as were Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca, and Leah. Of all the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs, only Rachel is missing, because she was buried near Bethlehem after dying in childbirth there.

In the scriptures, God speaks to the women just as he speaks to the men. In Genesis 21:12, God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah.

Tomb of Sarah in Hebron

God speaks to Sarah, and the Abrahamic religions would not exist without her. She and the matriarchs all have miraculous birth stories, and without them, Israel as we know it would not exist. They are truly the mothers of the nation of Israel, and so they are rightly seen as playing an equal role to their husbands.

The stories of the matriarchs serve as a source of inspiration and guidance for followers of Judaism. These women’s virtues, struggles, and devotion to God and to their families highlight the values of faith, compassion, and resilience, which are cherished in Jewish tradition.

I initially thought including the matriarchs in our prayers was a form of political correctness connected to a desire to use inclusive rather than sexist language, ideas about egalitarianism between men and women, and a feminist view of the Hebrew scriptures. I was surprised to learn that there was a Biblical as well as rabbinic tradition of honoring the matriarchs along with the patriarchs.

The tomb in Hebron is indeed a tomb of the patriarchs and matriarchs, and it has been so since ancient times, when rabbis designated Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel as the fathers and mothers of Israel. Honoring the patriarchs has never precluded honoring the matriarchs as well.

Tomb of Leah in Hebron

Witnessing this inclusiveness firsthand provided me with a new perspective but also raised questions. Variations of the phrase “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” appear repeatedly in the Bible, in three broad categories: passages that trace lineage, passages that recount the promises made by God, and passages highlighting the connection between these patriarchs and the divine relationship with the Israelites. In all three categories, the matriarchs could have been included — and in my view, they should have been. Does their exclusion say something about God or about the authors of the Hebrew scriptures? If so, what? Do the scriptures reflect the unconscious bias of cis males and/or sexist intent?

We have labeled the period covered by the family stories in Genesis as the patriarchal period. It could just have easily been called the matriarchal period. But it should have been labeled the family period since it is a collection of stories about families and features men, women and their children. God didn’t name this the patriarchal period, males did. I believe the mistake we make is to go from inference to interpretation and application. In other words, we infer that Matriarchs are inferior because the women aren’t mentioned. That inference becomes the basis of interpretation and application. But our inference is just that, OUR inference.

What we often do is say the scriptures were written the way they were because of a sexist slant unlike our modern enlightened perspective. But what if God never intended us to understand the scriptures in a hierarchical way in the first place and we only see hierarchy and inferiority because of our own bias and “enlightened” perspective?

I don’t know why the scriptures exclusively say, “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” That can be one of the questions we ask God when we meet. However, I believe it’s a mistake to interpret the phrasing to mean that women aren’t spiritually equivalent to men, or that only men can be rabbis, or that men must be in charge. It is not a mistake but rather a question as to why the scriptures say, “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” But the right interpretation is to honor the men and women equally, as we do in the Ten Commandments, the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and some versions of theAmidah.

In terms of hermeneutics, I have become increasingly suspicious of our sin nature and power when in comes to interpretation. In other words, those in power have a way of interpreting scriptures that reinforces their power.

Do we infer that because the scriptures spend more time talking about Rebecca than Isaac that she is more important or righteous than Isaac? Why not?  Do we infer that because Adam was created first, he is more important, or as the creation story is told Eve and thus women are more important because they are the height or pinnacle of creation?  Or do we understand them as co-equal because they were created together? Let us create humanity in our own image. Gen 1:26.

Given there are 613 Commandments covering every area, even the smallest details of life, then God could easily have a commandment, never under any circumstance put women in charge of anything, thus says the Lord your God because women are inferior creatures. But there is no such scripture.

The Conservative movement includes the concept of tradition and change. I found this very helpful in my own understanding of the scriptures, as it differs from the practice I learned, where we elevated the literal interpretation or the plain reading of the text. You could point to a passage and be assured that the plain reading of the text was also how it was to be interpreted. In other words, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it” was the refrain. But that locks us into some bad interpretations, such as the Biblical basis for slavery.

The concept of tradition and change and a process for making changes enables the Torah to come alive. There’s a fear that if the scriptures can change, then everything is relative, there are no absolutes, and people will make the Bible mean whatever they want. But that just hasn’t been the case. Changing the Amidah is a perfect example of how this concept should be applied. We need to make sure in the religious education of our children we promote equality between men and women, so we are preconditioned to expect it and not surprised to see it. For me, learning about this has been another step on my spiritual journey.

About the Author
Ed Gaskin attends Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts and Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Roxbury, Mass. He has co-taught a course with professor Dean Borman called, “Christianity and the Problem of Racism” to Evangelicals (think Trump followers) for over 25 years. Ed has an M. Div. degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and graduated as a Martin Trust Fellow from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He has published several books on a range of topics and was a co-organizer of the first faith-based initiative on reducing gang violence at the National Press Club in Washington DC. In addition to leading a non-profit in one of the poorest communities in Boston, and serving on several non-profit advisory boards, Ed’s current focus is reducing the incidence of diet-related disease by developing food with little salt, fat or sugar and none of the top eight allergens. He does this as the founder of Sunday Celebrations, a consumer-packaged goods business that makes “Good for You” gourmet food.