In the fall of 1994, I visited Wabash College in Indiana to give a mathematics lecture. At the beginning of my talk, I looked out at the audience and noticed something unusual; everyone in the classroom was male. "Where are the female students?" I wondered. Then it dawned on me, "Wabash is a men's college so of course, there are no women students!" The mystery was solved.
You might experience a "Wabash moment" when reading through the members of the patriarch Jacob's extended family at the time of their migration to Egypt (Gen 46:8-27). Of the nearly 70 children and grandchildren of Jacob mentioned in these verses, only two—his daughter Dinah (v. 15) and granddaughter Serah (v. 17)—are female. Where are all the women?
Unlike the student body of Wabash College, the descendants of Jacob were not, of course, exclusively male. Other daughters and granddaughters were part of the family (v. 7). The list in Gen 46 was intended to be representative, not exhaustive. There are 70 names recorded (v. 27) and taken together they make a symbolic statement. The number 70 in the Bible represents the totality of nations in the world (Gen 10). Therefore a group of 70 Israelites reminds us of Israel's mission to convey God's blessing to all people (Gen 12:3). The LORD even foretold that an important part of that mission to bless would require relocating the Patriarch's family to Egypt (Gen 15:12-16).
As we survey Gen 46, one name on the list of 70 doesn't seem to make sense. As you would expect, the record concentrates on Jacob's sons and grandsons because the future tribes and clans of Israel take their names from these male descendants. Dinah's name is familiar as the only daughter of Jacob mentioned in Scripture, and her inclusion in the list assures us that she was still alive and headed with them to Egypt after the tragic events recorded in Gen 34. But the significance of the remaining female, Serah, is unknown. The Bible only tells us that she was a daughter of Asher (Num 26:46; 1 Chron 7:30).
From this tiny bit of information, a rich body of legends developed within Judaism to explain Serah's possible contributions to Israel's history.(1) The starting point for these stories seems to have been Numbers 26, which gives a tribe-by-tribe census of adult males conducted in the final year of Israel's wilderness wanderings. In that same census report, there are a few parenthetical comments including a reminder that Asher had a daughter named Serah (v. 46).
The mention of Serah in Num 26 led to the inference that she might have lived through the entire period of Israel's sojourn in Egypt and survived to participate in the Exodus. This thought, in turn, gave rise to the suggestion that a person who enjoyed such great longevity could have played a valuable role in preserving and passing on traditions from the days of Jacob to the time of Moses.
For example, when Jacob's son Joseph reached the end of his life, he expressed faith in God by asking that the children of Israel take his bones with them to the Promised Land (Gen 50:24-25). Later, Moses made sure to honor this request (Exod 13:19). According to Jewish lore, he was able to find Joseph's burial in Egypt by consulting Serah, who provided him with the location.(2)
Joseph also told his brothers, "God will surely visit you." (Gen 50:25). The Hebrew for surely visit is pakod pakad'ti, an example of a double-verb construction, often employed in the Bible for emphasis. In this case, Joseph underscored the certainty that God would fulfill his promise to Abraham by bringing the Israelites back to Canaan. (Joseph's faith was an example to the early church, Heb 11:22.)
Later, at the burning bush, God instructed Moses to tell the elders of Israel that "I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt" (Exod 3:16). The Hebrew for have observed is the same double-verb phrase, pakod pakad'ti. With his brother Aaron's help, Moses brought this message to the elders of Israel along with signs given to him by God (Exod 4:30). In response, the Israelites believed Moses and Aaron "when they heard that the LORD had visited the people of Israel" (v. 31). Again, had visited is pakod pakad'ti.
Ancient interpreters put these verses together and concluded that the distinctive phrase pakod pakad'ti was functioning as a password indicating that the time for Israel's redemption had arrived. Joseph revealed the password to his brothers, so the story goes, and Serah memorized it. When Moses and Aaron repeated this phrase to the elders of Israel, Serah was able to identify Moses and Aaron as the ones through whom God would deliver them, based on their use of the double-verb password. As a result, the people believed Moses and Aaron.(3)
Further anecdotes about Serah claim that she lived on as the Israelites became established in the Promised Land, and her wisdom continued to serve the nation. One tradition identifies Serah as the wise woman of Abel Beth Maacah who persuaded Joab to stop his siege of that city during the reign of David (2 Sam 20). Another tale even asserts that Serah never saw death, but was instead transported alive to the Garden of Eden.
The Serah legends are fanciful, but they point to the importance of preserving truth and passing godly wisdom to subsequent generations. Israel's success did not depend upon the existence of a wise woman (or man) who would live for five hundred or a thousand years. But Israel did need people who would keep faith and hope alive. We know that many such people existed during Israel's time in Egypt because the Israelite population continued to grow even as the nation suffered in slavery (Exod 1:12). Bringing a new generation into the world is itself an act of faith.
The writer of Hebrews praises the Mother (and Father) of Moses for defying Pharaoh's edict by refusing to drown their infant son (11:23). Other faithful women also lived during Israel's years in Egypt. We know the names of some of them—the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, for instance, and Moses' sister Miriam. Others, like Jacob's unnamed daughters and granddaughters in Gen 46:7, we don't. But the mention of Serah keeps us mindful that they (and we) are no less essential for the progress of God's kingdom. Let us celebrate and learn from these anonymous "sisters of Serah" along with other heroes and heroines of our faith.
(1) 1 One place to read about these legends is the book Moses' Women by Shera Aranoff Tuchman and Sandra E. Rapaport, KTAV Publishing House, 2008.
(2) See for example Sotah 13a in the Babylonian Talmud.
(3) Moses' Women, Chapter 25.
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