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The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Faculty of the Humanities – Department of Jewish Thought


The Interdisciplinary Program for the Study of Late Antiquity

The Blessed Mother Sarah:


The Figure of Sarah in Genesis Rabbah in Light of Christian Exegesis and the Rise
of the Virgin Mary

A thesis submitted by
Rami Schwartz
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts

September 2017

Adviser: Prof. Maren Niehoff


Abstract
This thesis analyzes the portrayal of the matriarch Sarah in the fifth-century Palestinian rabbinic
midrash Genesis Rabbah. In the book of Genesis Sarah plays an ancillary role and at times is even
portrayed as petty and lacking faith in God. Likewise, the Jewish authors of the second Temple
period do not grant the matriarch a central role in their versions of the biblical narrative. Genesis
Rabbah, however, breaks with this trend. Not only are a relatively large number of drashot
dedicated to the matriarch, but she is repeatedly depicted as a model of personal and religious
excellence. In order to account for this dramatic development, I will point to textual and thematic
parallels from the world of Christian thought and worship. In the New Testament Sarah is
presented as both the spiritual mother of Christianity and a prefiguration of Jesus’ mother Mary.
These two themes are continued in the writings of Origen of Alexandria, an influential early
Christian author. Additionally, the Virgin Mary gradually gains greater and greater importance in
Christian Palestine, culminating with the establishment of a cult of worship dedicated to her. Based
on a close analysis of the midrashic material it can be shown that the rabbis of Genesis Rabbah
were well aware of these developments. Moreover, it will be demonstrated that they used their
portrayal of Sarah to combat the Christian appropriation of the matriarch on the one hand, and to
establish her as a Jewish alternative to the Virgin Mary on the other.

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Acknowledgements
First and foremost, I wish to thank my adviser Professor Maren Niehoff of the Hebrew University
of Jerusalem. My fascination with Genesis Rabbah and its connection to the world of late antiquity
began in a class on the subject which I took with Prof. Niehoff as an undergraduate. Since then she
has continually encouraged my studies and helped me to develop my skills. As my thesis adviser
she volunteered her time to discuss my work and read drafts of each chapter with a discerning eye
to both form and content. I benefited immeasurably from Prof. Niehoff’s helpful suggestions and
constructive criticism. Her input helped transform this thesis from a rough and preliminary study
into what I hope is a meaningful contribution to the scholarship.

‫"עשה לך רב" כיצד? מלמד שיעשה את רבו קבע שילמוד ממנו מקרא ומשנה מדרש הלכות‬
‫ טעם שהניחו לו במשנה סופו למדו לו‬,‫ טעם שהניח לו במקרא סוף שיאמרו לו במשנה‬.‫ואגדות‬
‫ נמצא אדם יוצא‬.‫ הניח במדרש סופו לומדו באגדות‬,‫ הניח בהלכות סופו לומדו במדרש‬,‫בהלכות‬
)‫ פרק ח‬,‫ נוסח א‬,‫ (אבות דרבי נתן‬.‫מלפניו מלא טוב וברכה‬
I am additionally grateful to a number of other people who helped me see this thesis through
to fruition: Mrs. Nava Finkelman who proofread the final draft and saved me from numerous typos
and errors (though any mistakes due to subsequent revisions remain my own), the faculty and staff
of the Jewish Thought Department and the Interdisciplinary Program for the Study of Late
Antiquity under whose auspices I pursued my MA, my friends from Mount Scopus who were ever-
willing to share their thoughts, and my parents, step-parents, and parents-in-law who have always
encouraged my intellectual pursuits. Finally, thank you to my wife Dvoranit.

.‫ועם כול שפרא דן חכמא שגיא עמהא ודלידיהא יאא‬


)‫(מתוך תיאור שרה במגילה החיצונית לבראשית‬
She has provided me with unyielding love and without her limitless patience this thesis could not
have been finished. I dedicate it to her.

‫ ר' יהושע‬...‫ בלא כפרה‬,‫ בלא ברכה‬,‫ בלא שמחה‬,‫ בלא עזר‬,‫כל מי שאין לו אשה שרוי בלא טוב‬
)‫ב‬:‫ (בראשית רבה יז‬."‫ "ראה חיים עם אשה אשר אהבת‬:‫דסכנין בשם ר' לוי אומר בלא חיים‬

Rami Schwartz
Jerusalem, Israel
‫ תשע"ח‬,‫מוצאי ראש השנה‬
"‫"ויי פקד את שרה‬

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Table of Contents

Abstract ...…………………………………………………………………………………………i
Acknowledgments ...……………………………………………………………………………..ii
Introduction ................................................................................................................................... 1
Genesis Rabbah ........................................................................................................................... 1
Previous Scholarship ................................................................................................................... 5
Genesis Rabbah in its Historical Context: Methodological Aspects........................................... 7
Overview of this Study.............................................................................................................. 21
The Text of Genesis Rabbah: Manuscripts, Editions, and Translations ................................... 24
Works Cited............................................................................................................................... 26
1. Sarah in the Hebrew Bible: Passive and Petty ..................................................................... 31
Introduction ............................................................................................................................... 31
Sarah, the Wife of Abraham ...................................................................................................... 33
Sarah and the Foreign Kings ..................................................................................................... 36
Hagar and Ishmael ..................................................................................................................... 39
Sarah and Isaac .......................................................................................................................... 42
Conclusion................................................................................................................................. 47
Works Cited............................................................................................................................... 48
2. Sarah in the Second Temple Literature: Continuing the Biblical Approach ................... 50
Introduction ............................................................................................................................... 50
Book of the Jubilees................................................................................................................... 52
Genesis Apocryphon .................................................................................................................. 54
Book of Biblical Antiquities....................................................................................................... 58
Josephus Flavius........................................................................................................................ 60
Philo of Alexandria ................................................................................................................... 64
Conclusion................................................................................................................................. 69
Works Cited............................................................................................................................... 72
3. Sarah in Genesis Rabbah: Heroine without Precedent ....................................................... 74
Introduction ............................................................................................................................... 74
Sarah as an Exemplar of Jewish Faith and Action .................................................................... 76
Sarah the Prophetess.................................................................................................................. 85

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Sarah and the Foreign Kings ..................................................................................................... 91
Defending Sarah’s Actions...................................................................................................... 103
Sarah and Female Norms ........................................................................................................ 117
Conclusion............................................................................................................................... 125
Works Cited............................................................................................................................. 128
4. Sarah in the New Testament: Appropriation and Subversion ......................................... 132
Introduction ............................................................................................................................. 132
Sarah in the Epistle Literature ................................................................................................. 134
Sarah in the Gospel Literature ................................................................................................. 144
Conclusion............................................................................................................................... 151
Works Cited............................................................................................................................. 153
5. Sarah in the Writings of Origen: Continuing the New Testament Themes .................... 155
Introduction ............................................................................................................................. 155
Origen and Genesis Rabbah .................................................................................................... 158
Sarah as the Christian Matriarch ............................................................................................. 160
Sarah-Mary Typology ............................................................................................................. 166
Sarah as a Counter-Narrative .................................................................................................. 175
Conclusion............................................................................................................................... 179
Works Cited............................................................................................................................. 180
6. The Cult of Mary in Late Antique Palestine: From Virgin Mother to Theotokos .......... 183
Introduction ............................................................................................................................. 183
Mary in the New Testament .................................................................................................... 184
Mary in the Christian Apocrypha and Early Authors ............................................................. 186
The Rise of the Marian Cult .................................................................................................... 192
Marian Veneration in Jerusalem: Textual Evidence ............................................................... 200
Marian Veneration in Jerusalem: Material Evidence .............................................................. 202
The Impact of Marian Veneration Outside of Jerusalem ........................................................ 204
Mary’s Presence in Jewish Literature ..................................................................................... 210
Conclusion............................................................................................................................... 217
Works Cited............................................................................................................................. 219
7. Additional Marian Themes in Genesis Rabbah: Imitation and Adaptation .................. 223
Introduction ............................................................................................................................. 223

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Sarra Lactans .......................................................................................................................... 223
Sarah’s Prayer ......................................................................................................................... 233
Sarah and Light ....................................................................................................................... 235
Sarah and Eve .......................................................................................................................... 241
Conclusion............................................................................................................................... 245
Works Cited............................................................................................................................. 246
Conclusion ..……………………………………………………………………………………248
‫ תקציר עברי‬...………………………………………………………………………………………‫א‬

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Introduction

Genesis Rabbah
This thesis will analyze the portrayal of the biblical matriarch Sarah in the Midrash Aggadah
Genesis Rabbah (GenR). GenR is a collection of rabbinic commentaries on the book of Genesis
which cites hundreds of rabbinic sages spanning several generations. The work not only presents
a detailed exposition of the text of Genesis itself, including verses and even individual words, but
also touches upon a host of topics popular among authors in late antiquity. To name some of those
which will be addressed in this study, GenR is no stranger to inter-religious polemics,1 discussions
of gender roles,2 and eschatological speculation.3 A product of the land of Israel, the midrash is
written in a mix of Hebrew and Jewish Palestinian Aramaic.4 It likewise contains widespread use
of Greek loanwords as well as some Latin terms.5 Regarding the redaction date of GenR, the
midrash quotes sages who lived until approximately 400 CE and contains no references to
historical events later than this.6 In addition, the midrash is familiar with content from the latest
layers of the Jerusalem Talmud, but does not quote it in its final form.7 This confirms that the two

1
For example, in GR 46:3-5 (Albeck 460-463) the midrash defends the custom of physical circumcision as opposed
to metaphorical. Regarding the clear anti-Christian overtones of this argument, see: Maren R. Niehoff, “Circumcision
as a Marker of Identity: Philo, Origen, and the Rabbis on Gen 17:1-14,” Jewish Studies Quarterly 10 (2003): 89–123.
2
For example, in GR 17:8 (Albeck 158-160) the midrash uses an etiological reading of the creation of woman in
Genesis to explain the hierarchy between men and women. For more on this section of GenR, see: Daniel Boyarin,
Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 88–90.
3
For example, in GR 2:4 (Albeck 16-17) the midrash speaks of the four-kingdoms, applying the eschatological
narrative laid out in the book of Daniel, and the King Messiah. For more on the messianism of GenR, see: Martha
Himmelfarb, “Abraham and the Messianism of Genesis Rabbah,” in Genesis Rabbah in Text and Context, ed. Sarit
Kattan Gribetz et al. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 102–5. Himmelfarb counts at least 12 places in GenR which
speaks of the four-kingdoms and 17 references to the King Messiah.
4
Regarding the linguistic character of GenR and its importance for our understanding of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic
and rabbinic Hebrew of the Amoraic period, see: Michael Sokoloff, “The Geniza Fragments of Genesis Rabba and Ms.
Vat. Ebr. 60 of Genesis Rabba [Hebrew]” (Hebrew University, 1971); Edward Yechezkel Kutscher, Studies in Galilean
Aramaic (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University, 1976).
5
For a more recent study on the use of Greek in GenR and its possible implications for the study of the social milieu
of the rabbinic sages, see: Marc Hirshman, “The Greek Words in the Midrash Genesis Rabbah [Hebrew],” in Tiferet
Israel: Festschrift for Israel Francos (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2010), 21–34.
6
Moshe David Herr and Stephen G. Wald, “Genesis Rabbah,” ed. Fred Skolnik and Michael Berenbaum, Encyclopedia
Judaica (Michigan: Macmillan Reference, 2007), 449; Hermann L. Strack and Gunter Stemberger, Introduction to the
Talmud and Midrash (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 279–80.
7
Regarding the material from the Yerushalmi used in GenR, see: Chanoch Albeck, “Introduction and Indexes
[Hebrew],” in Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, ed. Chanoch Albeck and Judah Theodor, vol. 3 (Jerusalem: Wahrmann
Books, 1965), 66–84. Based on the nature of these parallels, Albeck concludes that GenR made use of an edited
version of the Yerushalmi which differed slightly from ours (71). The importance of this conclusion for dating GenR

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works were redacted more-or-less contemporaneously and places the compilation of GenR in the
fifth-century, likely in its first half.8 As such, it is the earliest of the so-called ‘classic Amoraic
midrashim’. Due to this as well as the comprehensive nature of its commentary on Genesis, GenR
is considered the most important work of rabbinic Midrash Aggadah.9
The material in GenR originated primarily within the rabbinic study halls. This is
evidenced by the often complex nature of the midrash and the deep knowledge of the Bible which
it assumes.10 To fully understand a drasha from GenR often requires careful attention to its literary

is highlighted by Strack and Stemberger, Introduction, 278–79. It is worth noting that Mordechai Margulies
questioned Albeck’s conclusion that GenR was familiar with a variant version of the Yerushalmi. He noted that it was
also possible that GenR did not make use of a different finalized edition of the Yerushalmi, but rather of parallel
traditions that existed outside of an edited Talmud. See: Mordechai Margulies, “Introduction [Hebrew],” in Midrash
Wayyiqra Rabbah, vol. 5 (Jerusalem: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1999), xvii–xviii. Moreover, it should
be stressed that one cannot always assume that parallels between GenR and the Yerushalmi are a result of the
midrash quoting the Talmud or a tradition which parallels it. The point comes to the forefront in a more recent
debate between Hans-Jürgen Becker and Chaim Milikowsky over the nature of the redaction of these works. See:
Hans-Jürgen Becker, “Texts and History: The Dynamic Relationship between Talmud Yerushalmi and Genesis
Rabbah,” in The Synoptic Problem in Rabbinic Literature, ed. Shaye J. D. Cohen (Providence: Brown Judaic Studies,
2000), 145–60, and Chaim Milikowsky, “On the Formation and Transmission of Bereshit Rabba and the Yerushalmi:
Questions of Redaction, Text-Criticism and Literary Relationships,” Jewish Quarterly Review 92, no. 3–4 (2002): 521–
67. When all is said and done, Moshe David Herr and Stephen G. Wald conclude that the “only matter of substance”
in this debate is Milikowsky’s point that the question of “exactly what a rabbinic redactor does with the material he
is revising can be determined only on the level of individual passages” and not in regard to the two works as a whole
(Herr and Wald, “Genesis Rabbah,” 448). In other words, it must be determined on a case-by-case basis whether
differences (or lack thereof) in parallel texts are the result of the Talmud reworking earlier material as found in GenR,
GenR reworking an earlier text as found in the Talmud, or simply separate traditions. It is this cautious approach that
I will take when discussing the few parallels to Sarah-related material in GenR which can be found in the Yerushalmi.
8
Strack and Stemberger, Introduction, 279. For a brief listing of the scholarly opinions regarding the dating of GenR
see: Anat Reizel, Introduction to the Midrashic Literature [Hebrew] (Alon Shevut: Tevunot, 2011), 105, 107–8. As
Reiziel summarizes it: “today it is accepted to date the midrash to the fifth-century and to see it as the earlierst and
most important Midrash Aggadah of the Amoritic period” (107-108; translation my own). As she further notes, while
there is broad consensus that GenR was put together in the fifth-century, scholars are not in agreement as to exactly
when in the century this occurred (107 fn12). Chanoch Albeck argued for the second half of the fifth-century and
Jonah Frankel believed it to be a product of the very end of the century. More recently Moshe David Herr and
Stephen G. Wald have stated that the midrash was probably redacted in the early part of the century (Herr and
Wald, “Genesis Rabbah,” 449).
9
Also referred to as the ‘early midrashim,’ this group includes midrashim that came together between 400-600 CE.
Included in it are works such as Leviticus Rabbah and Lamentations Rabbah which were redacted slightly later than
GenR. Regarding the division of rabbinic midrash into different eras and the works from each period, see: Moshe
David Herr, “Midrash,” ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, Encyclopaedia Judaica (Michigan: Macmillan
Reference, 2007), 183–85.
10
Regarding the Sitz im Leben of the midrash, see Jonah Fraenkel, The Ways of Aggadah and Midrash [Hebrew]
(Jerusalem: Yad Le-Talmud, 1991), 27–38.; Ofra Meir, The Drashanic Story in Genesis Rabba [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv:
Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1993), 27–28; Fraenkel, The Ways of Aggadah and Midrash [Hebrew], 27–38. Following the
studies of Leopold Zunz scholars long held that Midrash Aggadah was the product of rabbinic teachings in public
synagogues. However, Fraenkel, Meir, and others have demonstrated that this is inaccurate. Based on the points

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structure and a keen eye to its subtle word-play and use of verses from elsewhere in the Bible.
Indeed, this will prove to be the case regarding much of the material analyzed in this thesis. At the
same time, however, some parts of the midrash are the product of the rabbis’ public teaching and
intended for a more general audience.11 On occasion, drashot are explicitly described as such,
while in other instances this can only be inferred. For example, GenR reports that a sermon critical
of the Nasi was delivered by a certain Yossi of Maon at his local synagogue (GR 80:1, Albeck
950-953).12 A less overt example of this can also be found in the material to be examined in the
thesis. The longest series of petiḥtot (proems) in all of GenR is found on the verse which opens
the Torah reading for Rosh HaShannah: “And the Lord remembered Sarah” (Gen 21:1; GR 53:1-
6, Albeck 554-560).13 This strongly implies that these drashot were originally used in a synagogue
as part of the public liturgy.
Before going any further, it must be noted that an analysis of Sarah’s portrayal in GenR
carries with it the assumption that the midrash can be treated as a stand-alone work worthy of
independent study. This view of the midrash is connected with other important methodological
issues which will be discussed shortly. However, a few crucial points are worth making now. Some
scholars adopt what they call a ‘documentary approach’ to the rabbinic corpus in which each work
is seen as a singular and cohesive document which expresses the particular views of its editors. If
so, then it is a given that GenR can be treated as a singular text with its own unique voice.
However, for reasons that I will address later, I cannot accept such an approach. Nevertheless, a
study of Sarah’s role in GenR alone is justifiable for two reasons. First, the midrash contains a
wealth of drashot from many different periods. As a result, it serves as a crucial snapshot of
rabbinic material regarding the book of Genesis in existence in Palestine by the time GenR was
compiled. Indeed, GenR is of particular importance in this regard because the Jerusalem Talmud

noted above they conclude that the midrash in fact represents the more sophisticated internal discourse of the
rabbinic elite. The various textual studies contained in their works cited above often serve to demonstrate this.
11
See: Moshe David Herr, “Aggada and Midrash in the World of the Sages [Hebrew],” in Higayon L’Yona: New Aspects
in the Study of Midrash, eds. Joshua Levinson, Galit Hasan-Rokem, and Jacob Elbaum (Jerusalem: Magnes Press,
2006), 134–39. Herr cautions against automatically concluding that each and every section of the midrash is a
product of the internal rabbinic discourse and points to several examples of drashot which, based on their style and
content, clearly originate in a public setting.
12
This drasha is analyzed in: Ibid., 135–36. As Herr observes, not only does GenR explicitly state that it was given in
a public setting, but its populist nature implies this as well.
13
As noted by Avraham Goldberg, “Problems of Editing and Arrangement in Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah
That Have yet to be Solved [Hebrew],” in Mehkarei Talmud III, eds. Ya’akov Sussman and David Rosenthal (Jerusalem:
Magnes, 2005), 138–39.

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contains relatively little aggadic material and the other early Midrashei Aggadah focus on other
parts of the Bible.14 Similarly, none of the Tannaic Midrashei Halakhah, which despite their name
actually contain a large amount of aggadah,15 are dedicated to the book of Genesis due to its
relative lack of legal material. Thus, while GenR may not contain all that the rabbis in the land of
Israel had to say about Genesis, it is easily the most important and comprehensive witness to their
commentary on it. Second, GenR is more than just an eclectic compilation of earlier material. As
will be discussed, the Amoraim quoted in GenR at times reworked earlier traditions to their own
ends and the final redactors of the midrash likewise had an active hand selecting which material
to include and how best to frame it.16 As a result, certain unifying trends and characteristic themes
can be identified in the final product of their efforts despite its otherwise composite nature.
Given the exegetical focus of GenR, many scholars have investigated its characterization
of the biblical figures of Genesis.17 However, not all characters who are given special consideration
in GenR have received ample attention from modern scholars. The matriarch Sarah is a striking
example of this. When reading GenR it becomes readily apparent that Sarah is given importance
which goes well beyond anything found in the book of Genesis. Not only are a relatively large
number of drashot dedicated to the matriarch, but she is repeatedly depicted as a model of personal

14
According to the calculation reposted by Stephen Wald and Louis Rabinowitz, only about 1/6 of the material in
the Jerusalem Talmud is aggadah (by comparison, aggadah makes up 1/3 of the Babylonian Talmud). See: Stephen
G. Wald and Louis Isaac Rabinowitz, “Talmud, Jerusalem,” ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, Encyclopaedia
Judaica (Michigan: Macmillan Reference, 2007), 484. It appears that unlike in Babylon, where aggadic material was
compiled along with the rest of the Talmud, in the land of Israel this material was preserved in separate collections
which later became the familiar Midreshei Aggadah.
15
See: Menahem Kahana, “Midreshei Halakhah,” ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, Encyclopaedia Judaica
(Michigan: Macmillan Reference, 2007), 193–94.
16
A similar point is made from Noam Zohar also in the context of Sarah’s portrayal in GenR, see: Noam Zohar, “The
Figure of Abraham and the Voice of Sarah in Genesis Rabbah [Hebrew],” in The Faith of Abraham: In the Light of
Interpretation throughout the Ages, ed. Hannah Kasher, Yohanan Silman, and Moshe Hallamish (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan
University, 2002), 71–72. He justifies a study of Sarah’s role in GenR based on the role of the midrash’s editors in, at
the very least, selecting and arranging material. In addition, he points to the fact that in the over 1,500 years since
its redaction GenR has continually been taken to be a unique literary unit in the eyes of its readers. He argues that
this gives such an approach to the midrash justification at least in the context of Jewish tradition. This last
justification is less relevant for my thesis, however, since I focus on the motivations of the midrash itself and not
how it may have been understood by later readers.
17
For example, the following articles are all dedicated to Abraham in GenR (including only the ones which will be
cited in this thesis): Himmelfarb, “Abraham and the Messianism of Genesis Rabbah”; Judith Frishman, “‘And
Abraham Had Faith’: But In What? Ephrem and the Rabbis on Abraham and God’s Blessings,” in The Exegetical
Encounter between Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity, ed. Emmanouela Grypeou and Helen Spurling (Leiden: Brill,
2009), 163–80; Martha Himmelfarb, “The Ordeals of Abraham: Circumcision and the Aqedah in Origen, the Mekhilta,
and Genesis Rabbah,” Henoch 30, no. 2 (2005): 289–310; Luis Vegas Montaner, “La figura de Abraham en el Midrás
Génesis Rabbah,” ’Ilu: Revista de ciencias de las religiones, no. 3 (2000): 127–46.

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and religious excellence. At times the rabbis even frame her as surpassing her husband Abraham
in closeness to God and spiritual standing. Nevertheless, an in-depth textual and historical study
of Sarah’s portrayal in GenR is lacking. I aim to fill this gap.

In the first part of the thesis (chapters 1-3), I will gather the copious amount of Sarah-
related material in GenR and discuss the textual and literary characteristics of these sections as
well as their relationship to the biblical and second Temple record. Doing so will allow me to
demonstrate not only the extent of the rabbis’ attention to Sarah, but also its uniqueness in the
Jewish tradition. In the second section (chapters 4-7), I will discuss why the midrash presents the
matriarch as it does. Based on textual and thematic parallels from the world of Christian thought
and worship I argue that the midrash’s motivation is to combat the Christian appropriation of Sarah
on the one hand, and to establish her as a Jewish alternative to the Virgin Mary on the other. While
the primary aim of this study is to provide a full understanding of Sarah’s characterization in GenR,
the analysis here has much to contribute to our understanding of two larger matters: the interaction
between Jews and Christians in late antique Palestine and the rabbinic response to the rise of
Christianity.

Previous Scholarship
While this is the first comprehensive study of Sarah’s portrayal in GenR, it does draw upon some
previous scholarly efforts. First, a number of works which focus on the overall portrayal of women
in rabbinic literature make use of texts from GenR regarding Sarah. David J. Zucker and Moshe
Reiss gather together a fair number of Sarah-related texts in their book The Matriarchs of Genesis:
Seven Women, Five Views as does Judith Reesa Baskin in her Midrashic Women: Formations of
the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature.18 These authors note that Sarah is often given a positive
portrayal in rabbinic works and highlight some texts from GenR in particular. However, they tend
to draw their conclusions in a very general sense and without differentiating between the various
works in the rabbinic corpus with their chronological and geographical specifications. Moreover,
when quoting material from GenR, they do not focus on the aspects of Sarah’s portrayal which set

18
David J. Zucker and Moshe Reiss, The Matriarchs of Genesis: Seven Women, Five Views (Eugene: Wipf and Stock
Publishers, 2015), 44–68; Judith Reesa Baskin, Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature
(Hannover: University Press of New England, 2002), 150–54, 131–38.

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it apart from other rabbinic works, nor address the midrash’s particular historical context. As a
result, their conclusions are of limited value for this study.

In addition to these, a few studies have been dedicated to Sarah’s characterization in GenR
in particular. Maren Niehoff has focused upon the midrash’s reading of Sarah and Abraham’s
sojourn in Egypt (Gen 12) in her article “Associative Thinking in the Midrash Exemplified by the
Rabbinic Interpretation of the Journey of Abraham and Sarah to Egypt.”19 She points out that the
rabbis choose to develop Sarah’s character by adding details to this otherwise laconic episode in
the Bible. In fact, in doing so, GenR grants the matriarch a highly sympathetic portrayal. Further,
Niehoff argues that the associative nature of the midrash leads the rabbis to the very exegetical
conclusions they ostensibly sought to avoid. In their attempts to defend Abraham they ultimately
draw attention to his failings and present Sarah as the hero of this episode. I will go beyond these
conclusions by addressing not just the midrash’s reading of this particular story, but nearly all of
the Sarah-related material in GenR. In addition, while Niehoff makes use of psychoanalytic models
in order to highlight the inner dynamics of the midrash, I will focus instead on social and historical
analyses.

In addition to Niehoff, a subsequent study by Noam Zohar uses a larger number of texts
from the midrash and addresses Sarah’s overall portrayal in GenR. In his piece “The Figure of
Abraham and the Voice of Sarah in Genesis Rabbah,” Zohar establishes that the midrash’s
characterization of the matriarch focuses on two main themes: her chaste nature and her personal
relationship with God.20 Additionally, he notes the importance that the midrash grants to Sarah’s
‘voice’. The matriarch is depicted as channeling the word of God while Abraham is praised for
listening to her command. Despite the fact that Zohar expands his study to more sections of the
midrash than Niehoff, he nevertheless sticks mainly to those which address Sarah’s relationship
with Abraham and how the rabbis envisioned the interactions between them. I will widen the scope
of my study to include all sections which shed light on the rabbis’ view of Sarah. Likewise, I will

19
Maren R. Niehoff, “Associative Thinking in the Midrash Exemplified by the Rabbinic Interpretation of the Journey
of Abraham and Sarah to Egypt [Hebrew],” Tarbiz 62, no. 3 (1994): 339–59.
20
Zohar, “Voice of Sarah.”

6
go beyond Zohar’s study by placing this material in its greater context, both the larger Jewish
exegetical tradition and the historical setting of GenR itself.21

Lastly, Sarah’s portrayal in GenR is also analyzed by Gary Porton in his article “How the
Rabbis Imagined Sarah: A Preliminary Study of the Feminine in Genesis Rabbah.”22 Porton notes
how the midrash repeatedly praises Sarah for her modesty and loyalty to God. In this his
conclusions are similar to those of Zohar, though he utilizes even more material from GenR to
substantiate them. Further, Porton points out that GenR makes an effort to defend those aspects of
Sarah’s behavior in the Bible which otherwise appear objectionable. Based on these points, he
argues that GenR wishes to establish the matriarch as role model for all Jewish women. For the
rabbis, she is proof that women can reach the same level of closeness to God as men. This, Porton
posits, should give rise to a more sophisticated understanding of the rabbinic view of women. As
with Niehoff and Zohar, Porton’s conclusions are helpful and I will build upon them over the
course of this thesis. However, here too, I will go beyond Porton’s discussion by both addressing
all relevant material in GenR and using a historical lens to uncover the rabbis’ motivation in
portraying Sarah as they do.

Genesis Rabbah in its Historical Context: Methodological Aspects


In order to fully understand the midrash’s approach to Sarah, I will eventually point to exegetical
developments within GenR as well as historical events that are more-or-less contemporaneous with
its final redaction. However, doing so is a methodological claim that requires explanation. Some
scholars of rabbinic literature have posited that final redactors of midrashic works merely gathered
all the pre-existing material on a given verse that was before them. This stance was especially
popular in the early scholarship of rabbinic midrash and was, for example, put forth by Chanoch
Albeck.23 Likewise, the studies of Isaac Heinemann make it clear that he subscribed to this view,

21
There is one instance where Zohar does offer a tentative historical explanation for a section of the midrash. He
suggests that GenR chooses not to portray Abraham as rescuing Sarah from captivity (as the patriarch did for his
nephew Lot; Gen 14) or even praying for her well-being (as he did for Abimelech; Gen 20) because Jewish men at
the time were helpless to defend their own wives and daughters from violation. In tandem, he posits, the midrash
highlights that Sarah is saved due to her own piety and thus highlights that if a woman is nevertheless saved it is due
to her own merit and inner strength. See: Ibid., 84–85.
22
Gary G. Porton, “How the Rabbis Imagined Sarah: A Preliminary Study of the Feminine in Genesis Rabbah,” in A
Legacy of Learning: Essays in Honor of Jacob Neusner, ed. Alan J. Avery-Peck et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 192–209.
23
Albeck, “Introduction and Indexes [Hebrew],” 1.

7
though he does not say so explicitly.24 According to this approach, the final editors of a given work
as a rule did not create any drashot of their own nor did they choose to substantially change or
leave out any of the material which they received. In tandem with their downplaying of the
redactor’s role, scholars who adopt this view generally give a high level of credence to the
attributions to particular sages as found in rabbinic texts. In other words, a statement recorded in
GenR in the name of R. Abbahu (a 3rd generation Palestinian Amora) is assumed to have actually
been said by him unless there is strong textual or contextual evidence to the contrary. Such an
approach is evident in the historical studies of rabbinic texts by scholars such as Ephriam
Elimelech Urbach.25 If this view is correct then it is the milieu of each individual rabbi quoted
which is of importance for the historical analysis of the midrash and not events which took place
at the time of redaction.

However, this approach has been strongly challenged, in particular by Jacob Neusner and
his students.26 They highlight the fact that the works of the Talmud and midrash were redacted

24
This is noted by Ofra Meir, see: Meir, Drashanic Story, 74–75.
25
For example, see: Ephraim E. Urbach, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Magnes Press,
1975). In addition, this view of rabbinic attributions is attested to in the various essays by Urbach which will be cited
in this thesis. For example, see: Ephraim E. Urbach, “Inheritance laws and after-life [Hebrew],” Proceedings of the
World Congress of Jewish Studies 1 (1965): 133–41. In this piece Urbach argues that the rabbinic conception of the
after-life underwent important changes in the wake of the Temple’s destruction and failure of the Bar Kohkba revolt.
He draws upon sources from both the Tannaic and Amoraic literature and anchors his historical argument in the
rabbinic attributions therein.
26
Neusner lays out his arguments in a large number of different books and essays. I will note here two of them:
Jacob Neusner, Making the Classics in Judaism: The Three Stages of Literary Formation (Atlanta: Scholars Press,
1989); Jacob Neusner, “The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees before 70 in Modern Historiography,” in Method
and Meaning in Ancient Judaism: Third Series (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1981), 185–213. “Rabbinic Traditions”
presents a strong and systematic critique of previous scholarship which generally assumed Talmudic tales to have a
kernel of historical truth. This critique, which is closely connected to his similar argument that rabbinic attributions
are of no historical value, is grounded primarily on the failure of such studies to meet the standards of objective
historical study. As Neusner summarizes (213):
Among the historiographical errors of pseudocritical scholars, three are so serious as to render
their historical results useless: first the failure to carefully and critically analyze the literary and
historical traits of every pericope adduced as evidence; second the assumption that things
happened exactly as the sources allege; third the use of anachronistic or inappropriate analogies
and the introduction of irrelevant issues.
In Making the Classics, Neusner goes on to argue that a so-called documentary approach which sees each rabbinic
work as a stand-alone and unified document is preferable to a source-critical approach which attempts to identify
the various historical layers within rabbinic texts. In the introduction to this book and its first chapter Neusner gives
a general overview of his views and their far-reaching implications for the study of rabbinic literature (1-18). In the
second chapter he presents a series of textual analyses in order to demonstrate his points (18-44). In addition to the
overview of Neusner’s main points which follows here, brief and helpful summaries of Neusner’s arguments which
also cite many of his additional works can be found in: Alan Appelbaum, The Rabbis’ King-Parables: Midrash from

8
long after most of the rabbis referred to therein died. It would therefore be naive to assume that
they accurately reflect the actual words and actions of these figures who lived hundreds of years
previously. In addition, variations concerning rabbinic attributions are not infrequent among the
different manuscripts of rabbinic texts.27 Further, even when the manuscript evidence is clear,
rabbinic traditions sometimes contradict each other, at times in the very same work. In fact, the
Talmud itself frequently provides more than one possible attribution for a statement, has no choice
to but to drastically reinterpret a statement to avoid a contradiction with a statement by the same
sage, or simply admits that either an attribution or the statement itself has been corrupted. 28
Another reason to cast doubt on the accuracy of rabbinic quotations is the highly formalized nature
of rabbinic texts.29 Both halakhic and aggadic material is often packaged into familiar rhetorical
patterns, with stereotyped language and clearly defined and repetitive structures. As a result, the
final version of any given statement is likely many times removed from its original form as
subsequent editors adjusted the material to fit these models. All of these points seriously undermine
the assumption that rabbinic texts can be depended upon to accurately relay the words of earlier
sages. Therefore, I accept that an unconditional reliance on the rabbinic attributions in GenR is
impossible and that material in the midrash cannot always be taken at face value.

the Third-Century Roman Empire (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2010), 20–21; Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Talmudic
Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 3–5; Christine
Elizabeth Hayes, “Halakhah Le-Moshe Mi-Sinai in Rabbinic Sources: A Methodological Case Study,” in The Synoptic
Problem in Rabbinic Literature, ed. Shaye J. D. Cohen (Providence: Brown Judaic Studies, 2000), 61–62.
27
This point is highlighted by William Scott Green, “What’s in a Name? The Problematic of Rabbinic ‘Biography,’” in
Approaches to Ancient Judaism: Theory and Practice, ed. William Scott Green (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1978), 84.
In this article Green argues against the ability of scholars to reconstruct historical biographies of rabbinic figures
based on Talmudic evidence. To do so, he points to several of the methodological points which are central to
Neusner’s approach and builds upon them.
28
To demonstrate some of these points, Green cites bMegilah 31b-32a and Sifre Devarim 188 (Finkelstein 227), see:
Ibid., 92 fn30. In addition, phrases such as ‫ איבעית אימא‬,‫ אי נמי‬,‫ איפכא שמעינן להו‬,‫ חסורי מחסרא והכי קתני‬and others
like them can be found throughout the Talmud. Often they point to the sages’ awareness that traditions and
attributions have been corrupted.
29
For example, see: Neusner, Making the Classics in Judaism, 24–35. In this section Neusner gives several examples
from the Yerushalmi of the Talmud’s “cogent discourse and well-crafted positions” (24). Based on this he concludes
that “[w]hat is portrayed is not real people but a kind of rhetoric” (27) and “a sustained argument, not an anthology
of relevant sayings” (35). Likewise, he states later in regard to the Mishnah (56):
The Mishnah’s formal traits of rhetoric indicate that the document has been formulated all at once,
and not in an incremental, linear process extending into a remote (mythic) past, (e.g. to Sinai).
In addition, see: William Scott Green, “What’s in a Name? The Problematic of Rabbinic ‘Biography,’” in Approaches
to Ancient Judaism: Theory and Practice, ed. William Scott Green (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1978), 80–85.

9
Having rejected the accuracy of rabbinic attributions and the reliability of rabbinic
traditions, Neusner and his students go on to argue that only the final date of redaction can be seen
as a reliable historical anchor when evaluating a given work. They refer to this as a ‘documentary
approach’ because they maintain that each individual text in the rabbinic corpus should be seen as
a stand-alone document. Since it is the editors of each work who ultimately choose which material
to include and how to formulate it, that same work should be understood as a conceptual whole
which reflects their methods and particular ideology.30 To wit, a statement in the GenR which is
attributed to R. Abbahu must be dated to the early fifth-century when the midrash was redacted
and not the sage’s own time around one hundred year earlier. Likewise, R. Abbahu’s words should
be understood to reflect the historical background of a fifth-century redactor and not a fourth-
century rabbi. The final result of the documentary approach is that the historical study of a
particular rabbinic works is largely synchronic.31 The material therein is taken as a snapshot from
the redactor’s own period and none other. Importantly, those who accept Neusner’s view insist
that this is the case even if some of the statements in a rabbinic document could have actually
originated with the sages to whom they are attributed. Since it is nevertheless the final redactors
who are responsible for molding material, both in terms of form and content, to fit needs of their
document, there is no way of knowing what any given rabbinic statement may have looked like in
its original form.

It bears noting that beyond the world of Talmud scholarship Neusner’s view is often taken
as a given by scholars in other disciplines. As a result, Neusner’s methodology has not only been
influential among his own students, but it has had a substantial impact on the way in which those
in additional fields make use of rabbinic texts.32 The frequency of such uncritical application of

30
As one of Neusner’s students summarizes it (Porton, “How the Rabbis Imagined Sarah,” 195):
One of Neusner’s paradigm-shifting arguments is that each rabbinic collection represents a cogent
statement of the values and ideologies of its own particular authorship. This means that we need
to read each rabbinic collection in its own terms.
31
Indicative of this, for example, the Encyclopaedia of Midrash which Neusner edited along with his student Alan
Avery-Peck includes entries such as: “Genesis in Genesis Rabbah,” “Genesis Rabbah, Theology of,” “Pesiqta deRab
Kahana, Theology of,” and “Ruth Rabbah, Theology of” See: Jacob Neusner and Alan J Avery-Peck, eds.,
Encyclopaedia of Midrash: Biblical Interpretation in Formative Judaism (Leiden: Brill, 2005).
32
To give an example of the unquestioning acceptance of Neusner’s formulations from another field of study, one
archeologist writes:
Modern scholarship, however, has proven that no distinguishing criteria can be deduced from
‘neutral’ textual indicators, such as composition or form, to differentiate the older passages of the
texts from newer ones. Consequently the Rabbinic corpus can only be regarded as a product of the

10
Neusner’s theories has been noted, for example, by leading New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders.33
Sanders laments that many other scholars of early Christianity adopt Neusner’s approach to
rabbinic material without proper caution or knowledge of its shortcomings. This is not to say that
Neusner’s work is not important to the critical study of rabbinic literature. Indeed, he is widely
credited with injecting a healthy amount of skepticism into the study of rabbinic literature and
raising important methodological questions.34 However, the answers he provides to those same
questions-- namely the complete rejection of rabbinic attributions coupled with his documentary
approach-- have met with stiff criticism.

First of all, it has been observed that Neusner’s approach has no real parallel in the study
of other bodies of work from antiquity.35 Regarding Greco-Roman and early Christian literature,
for example, the citations of earlier material by later authors are often given a large measure of
credence by historians.36 Even among more skeptical scholars, there is nothing that matches
Neusner’s absolute and uncompromising approach. For example, while one may question the level
of accuracy in Eusebius of Caesarea’s (d. 339/340 CE) quotations from the work of Alexander
Polyhistor (fl. first-century BCE), it is hard to justify treating these quotations (and likewise the

time of its final editorship and its editors. (Stefanie Hoss, “Jewish and Christian Texts on Ancient
Latrines,” in Roman Toilets: Their Archaeology and Cultural History, ed. Gemma C. M. Jansen, Ann
Olga Koloski-Ostrow, and Eric M. Moormann [Leuven: Peeters, 2011], 47.)
Though she does not mention him by name, it is clear that “modern scholarship” here refers to the work of Neusner
and his students.
33
See: E. P. Sanders, “Jacob Neusner and the Philosophy of the Mishnah,” in Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah:
Five Studies (Philadelphia: SCM Press, 1990), 309-31. In addition to merely noting that Neusner’s views have been
uncritically adopted by many of his peers, Sanders endeavors to correct this through a detailed critique of one aspect
of Neusner’s methodology. However, the problems with Neusner’s approach which I will lay out here differ from the
matters addressed by Sanders.
34
See, for example: Joseph Dan, History of Jewish Mysticism and Esotericism, vol. 1 (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar
Center, 2008), 278–85; David Kraemer, “On the Reliability of Attributions in the Babylonian Talmud,” in Essential
Papers on the Talmud, ed. Michael L. Chernick (New York: New York University Press, 1994), 276–92. These authors
both recognize the important contribution of Neusner’s skepticism to the scholarship, while nevertheless pointing
out that it cannot be applied across the board and without due caution. Dan does so in the context of rabbinic
midrash, while Kraemer does so in regard to the Bavli. As Dan puts it while summarizing scholarly approaches to
midrash: “The points that [Neusner] raised are valid and substantial, but it has become clear that it is not possible
to apply this rule in a comprehensive historical discussion” (Joseph Dan, History of Jewish Mysticism and Esotericism,
vol. 1 [Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 2008], 281, fn37; translation my own).
35
This point is made, for example, by Appelbaum, The Rabbis’ King-Parables, 22–23. As he puts it (22):
Responsible and highly-regarded historians of Rome have written, and continue to write,
responsible and highly regarded third-century history on the basis of fourth-century and much
later documents.
36
Or to quote Appelbaum’s example: “[Neusner’s] documentary premise would require us to read Cassius Dio, as
we have him, only for the history of the eleventh century, when Xiphilinus compiled his epitome” (Ibid., 22).

11
even earlier material that Polyhistor himself preserves) as no more than fourth-century material.
Second, Neusner’s approach contradicts the manner in which the texts in question present
themselves.37 The sages often stress the importance of accurately preserving earlier oral traditions,
take pride in doing so, and lament instances where they did not so.

Of course, the fact that scholars in other fields do not adopt a documentary approach or
that rabbinic texts wish to present themselves differently does not mean Neusner’s theories are
inherently mistaken. However, the largest and most crucial flaw in Neusner’s theory is that it fails
to recognize the composite nature of rabbinic texts. A close reading of individual rabbinic works
demonstrates that the material attributed to sages of one period frequently exhibits a consistency—
be it regarding religious practice, ideology, or semantics—which differs from parallel material
found in the name of sages of a different period. Importantly, this is often the case even when
earlier traditions contradict the norms and standards of later authorities. That is not to say that later
sources never reworked earlier traditions to bring them in line with their own ideas. In fact, as I
will note later, there are many examples where they obviously did. However, it can also be shown
that the rabbis often made efforts to preserve pre-existing material even if it did not fit their own
views. As a result, a single rabbinic text can often be successfully broken down into their various
historical strata and likewise be shown to accurately reflect how rabbinic conceptions changed
over time. To cite one example, Richard Kalmin has demonstrated that while there are many
aggadic tales in the Babylonian Talmud which are critical of individual rabbis, such stories are
almost completely absent from the anonymous sections of the Talmud which make up its latest
layers.38 This means that while the later authorities were unwilling to compose such material
themselves, likely for ideological reasons, they were not willing to expunge the work of their
predecessors. Due to this, Kalmin stresses that when analyzing rabbinic discourse special attention

37
Ibid., 24–25.
38
Richard Kalmin, “The Formation and Character of the Babylonian Talmud,” in The Cambridge History of Judaism,
ed. Steven T. Katz, vol. 4 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 845–46. This point is based on his fuller
analysis of “Rabbinic attitudes towards rabbis,” in Richard Kalmin, Sages, Stories, Authors, and Editors in Rabbinic
Babylonia (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994), 143–67. Here Kalmin also demonstrates that the vast majority of both
positive and negative statements made by rabbis about other rabbis are attributed to contemporaries or near-
contemporaries of the sage in question, but that the sages are generally not depicted as making such statements
about sages from a far earlier period. Further, in those cases where rabbis actually do praise much earlier figures it
is mostly when they are prompted by a particular literary source which speaks to the greatness of that earlier sage.
Unprompted, however, later rabbis tend to not make such laudatory statements. These and other such trends grant
a large measure of historical veracity to the attributions of these statements.

12
should be paid to the particular sages quoted and their respective chronological and geographical
milieux.39 These statements can then be compared to corresponding statements by sages from
different eras, in order to map out exegetical developments, as well as the social and historical
setting of that period, in order to better understand its particular context.

Importantly for the study of GenR, the same trend has also been identified in material from
the land of Israel. For example, Christine Hayes has analyzed the use of the term “halakha leMoshe
miSinai” (a law to Moses from Sinai) in rabbinic literature.40 She points out that in the three
instances where the term is used by the Mishnah it has slightly different connotations which at
times conflict. This implies that redactors of this Tannaic work did not force ideological uniformity
upon their sources.41 Further, Hayes demonstrates that while early traditions from the land of Israel
generally distinguish between laws given to Moses and Scripture as emanating from separate
sources of authority, later texts such as the anonymous layer of the Jerusalem Talmud break from
this and see them as one and the same. Yet, despite this theological and linguistic shift, later sages
often preserve the earlier use of the term “halakha leMoshe miSinai” when quoting earlier
traditions. Both Kalmin and Hayes stress that their studies demonstrate the composite nature of
rabbinic texts and as such severely undermine the documentary approach.42 If each rabbinic work
was simply the product of its final editors and reflective of their beliefs and methods alone, as
Neusner and his students claim, one would expect a far greater measure of unity. Final documents
should consistently subsume earlier statements to their own standards or attribute their ideas to

39
See: Kalmin, “Formation and Character,” 860–61. As he summarizes (861):
It is advisable to look for general patterns characterizing Palestinian and Babylonian and early and
latter rabbis, all the while remaining alert to the possibility that the transmitters and editors of
these traditions altered them in subtle or not so subtle ways… Markers of geographical and
chronological provenance supplied by rabbinic compilations, therefore, raise significant questions
and yield potentially significant conclusions…
40
Hayes, “Halakhah Le-Moshe Mi-Sinai in Rabbinic Sources: A Methodological Case Study.”
41
The implications of Hayes’ observations in this regard are highlighted by Appelbaum, The Rabbis’ King-Parables,
24–25.
42
Hayes, “Halakhah Le-Moshe Mi-Sinai in Rabbinic Sources: A Methodological Case Study,” 63–65. Kalmin,
“Formation and Character,” 843–46. Kalmin actually goes so far as to state: “Neusner’s theory has been convincingly
refuted” (Ibid., 844.). Hayes, however, still sees value in Neusner’s synchronic approach at least when used
cautiously. For reasons that will be discussed next it is her approach that I will adopt here. For additional studies that
undermine Neusner’s theories based on similar considerations, see those cited by Hayes, “Halakhah Le-Moshe Mi-
Sinai in Rabbinic Sources: A Methodological Case Study,” 63–64, fn7-10.

13
earlier sages. Since they so often do not, it can only be concluded that later authorities and even
final redactors did in fact faithfully preserve many earlier traditions.

The composite nature of rabbinic literature therefore mandates a source-critical approach


which endeavors to break down a given section into its various sources and historical layers. This
likewise allows these texts to be used for diachronic study of how rabbinic concepts developed
over time. However, Hayes still sees value in supplementing a source-critical approach with the
synchronic approach for which Neusner advocates. Despite the identifiable historical layers in
rabbinic texts, individual works can often be shown to contain unique and overarching themes
which set them apart from other works in the rabbinic corpus. Thus, Hayes demonstrates that in
spite of the overall tendency of the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds to faithfully preserve
earlier conceptions of halakha leMoshe miSinai when all the material therein is taken into account,
certain themes can be identified which typify each work as a whole. For example, the Bavli tends
to avoid grounding “exceptional or disputed” laws in the concept of halakha leMoshe miSinai, but
does use it in aggadic passages that are meant to reinforce rabbinic authority. 43 In contrast, the
overall tendency of the Yerushalmi is to see halakha leMoshe miSinai and scriptural authority as
one and the same and to use the idea to bolster “unstable laws”. Therefore, as she puts it:44

The nature of rabbinic documents as redacted works that at times efface and at
times preserve the heterogeneity of their source materials justifies the judicious
combination of both synchronic and source critical approaches…

Indeed, Hayes’ approach can serve as helpful model for this study. A close reading of the
Sarah-related material in GenR bears witness to the points she raised in regard to halakha leMoshe
miSinai. On the one hand, the midrash often preserves the heterogenic nature of it sources. For
example, as I will discuss in chapter three, while GenR is awash with drashot praising the
matriarch these statements are almost exclusively attributed to sages of the Amoraic period. By
contrast, the Tannaic material preserved in the midrash generally does not address Sarah or is far
more ambivalent about her. It is clear then that the earlier rabbinic material was generally not
reworked to be brought in line with the later and more laudatory approach to Sarah. As a result, a
diachronic analysis of the midrashic material is possible: the special attention given to Sarah by

43
Hayes, “Halakhah Le-Moshe Mi-Sinai in Rabbinic Sources: A Methodological Case Study,” 114.
44
Ibid., 65 (emphasis in the original).

14
the rabbis is a product of the Amoraic period and represents a clear break from the traditions of
the Tannaim. On the other hand, when the Sarah-related material in GenR is taken as a whole,
some important overarching themes can be identified which distinguish it from other works in the
rabbinic corpus. For example, the midrash repeatedly frames Sarah as a role model of Jewish faith
and action. The drashot to this effect are attributed to a wide array of Amoraim as well as to the
anonymous voice of the midrash and therefore cannot be pigeonholed to any one particular
generation of sages or rabbinic school.45 As a result, this theme and others like it can be said to
typify GenR as redacted work. The existence of clear historical developments together with
unifying trends that characterize the midrash as a whole highlights the need for “the judicious
combination of both synchronic and source critical approaches” when analyzing the role of Sarah
in GenR.

In addition, the use of synchronic analysis to identify such overarching themes not only
supplements a source-critical reading, but can actually augment it as well. By being sensitive to
the themes that define GenR as a singular work one is in a better position to identify places in
which the midrash reworks earlier traditions in light of them. As alluded to above, despite the fact
that rabbinic literature can often be shown to accurately preserve earlier traditions, there are also
many instances where later authorities do adapt and change the material before them. David
Rosenthal has compiled a lengthy list of examples wherein rabbinic traditions originating in the
land of Israel are slightly altered when utilized in the Bavli.46 Many of these changes are merely
semantic or reflect the differing realia in Palestine and Babylon.47 However, others are ideological
in nature and reflect a clear attempt by Babylonian sages to rework earlier Palestinian material in
a manner which better suits their beliefs. For example, when the story of Hillel the Elder’s rise to
the position of Nasi is first told in the Jerusalem Talmud it is implied that this is due to the vast

45
As mentioned above, the anonymous material in the Talmud is generally understood to be its latest layer. It is
tempting to apply this conclusion to GenR as well. If so, then the appearance of a large amount of Sarah-related
material in the anonymous sections of the midrash strengthen the claims I am about to make about the influence of
historical events close to the final compilation of the midrash period upon Sarah’s portrayal therein. However,
further study is needed to determine if what has been established regarding the nature of the Talmud is true about
GenR as well.
46
See: David Rosenthal, “Mesorot Ertetz Yisraeliot VeDarkan LeBavel,” Katedra 92 (1999): 7–48.
47
For example, Palestinian sources use the term ‫ איקונין‬frequently and without further explanation. This is because
the meaning of the Greek εἰκών was obvious to the Jewish audience in the land of Israel. Greek, however, was not
well known in Babylon. Therefore, when these statements are recorded in the Bavli, a Hebrew translation is often
added: ‫( דמות דיוקני‬Ibid., 13).

15
amounts of halakhic material he was able to commit to memory in a most accurate fashion.48 This
description fits the rabbinic ideal found elsewhere in Palestinian sources (known as the ‘Sinai’).
However, when this same story is retold in the Bavli it is instead implied that Hillel was chosen as
a result of his ability to extrapolate laws through logical deduction, which is in fact the rabbinic
ideal in Babylonian sources (known as the Oker Harim). In other words, concludes Rosenthal, the
Bavli has knowingly refashioned this story in light of its own ideology.

As with the sages’ tendency to preserve earlier material, the contrasting phenomenon of
reworking it is also not limited to Babylonian sources. Marc Hirshman has recently dedicated a
brief discussion to the manner in which that the Midrash Aggadah Kohelet Rabbah (KohR),
redacted in the sixth- or seventh-century, makes use of Tannaic material. He demonstrates that
KohR not only frequently draws upon pre-existing drashot, but often inserts subtle changes or
otherwise further develops them.49 In one instance a well-known parable from Sifre Devarim which
the midrash there connects to Moses is instead, in KohR, connected to King Solomon, the author
of Kohelet according to Jewish tradition.50 In addition, Hirshman points that some important
Tannaic drashot pertaining to the book of Kohelet are conspicuously absent from KohR. For
example, material which alludes to the rabbinic debate over the holiness of the book of Kohelet is
missing. Since it is likely that the editor of the midrash was aware of these traditions, Hirshman
suggests the he may have chosen to exclude them for ideological reasons. Based on these points,
Hirshman remarks that the evidence from Kohelet Rabbah supports the following conclusion
regarding Midrashei Aggadah overall:51

Starting with the Amoraim themselves and concluding perhaps with the editors of
the midrashim, the Midrashei Aggadah were accustomed to adapting aggadic

48
Ibid., 31–36.
49
Marc Hirshman, Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 1-6 with an Introduction, References, Variant Readings and
Commentary [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Schechter Institute, 2016), xx–xv.
50
Ibid., xxv.
51
Ibid., xxiii–xxiv (Translation my own). Compare the similar formulation of Herr and Wald regarding GenR (Herr
and Wald, “Genesis Rabbah,” 449):
In addition to amoraic statements, Genesis Rabbah naturally contains much tannaitic aggadic
material. Having assembled all of this material, the editor arranged it according to the order of the
verses in the Book of Genesis, abbreviating or modifying as he saw ft.
Meir also makes a statement to this effect, see: Meir, Drashanic Story, 74–75. However, these authors do not
provide concrete examples of this process as Hirshman does. Therefore, I find his treatment more useful for this
methodological discussion.

16
drashot which have their beginnings in the Tannaic period, even formulating them
anew and likewise ignoring ancient midrashim that did not fit their view of the book
in question.

Indeed, the process by which the midrash not only preserves earlier material, but also
reworks and even sometimes ignores it, can be found in GenR as well.52 For example, the midrash
(GR 53:11, Albeck 567-568) presents a series of five drashot which attempt to explain why exactly
Sarah chose to expel Ishmael (Gen 21:9-10). Four of these drashot are cited in the name of
Tannaim, while the fifth is attributed to an Amora. Unlike most of the Sarah-related material in
GenR this section has a direct parallel in earlier rabbinic literature. The same four drashot can be
found in the name of the same four Tannaim in the Tosefta (tSotah 6:6, Lieberman 184-187). I
will compare these two texts in-depth in chapter three, however for now it is enough to note that
the version found in GenR contains some important differences from the version in the Tosefta. In
both the midrash and the Tosefta the final drasha is that of R. Shimon bar Yoḥai. In the Tosefta,
R. Shimon prefaces his statement with a terse defense of the sanctity of Abraham’s house. In GenR,
however, R. Shimon’s drasha is presented without this preamble. In addition, GenR quotes
Tannaim as referring to the matriarch as “our mother, Sarah”. However, this epithet does not
actually appear in the Tosefta, where the Tannaim refer to her simply as Sarah. Though the exact
relationship between GenR and the Tosefta remains an open-ended question,53 it is reasonable to
conclude here that the midrash is actively reworking an earlier Tannaic tradition (even if it did not
receive it directly from the Tosefta).54 As I will demonstrate in chapter three, the changes found in
GenR all further the midrash’s overarching goal of highlighting Sarah’s role as the Jewish

52
Kohelet Rabbah was redacted a century or two later than GenR and therefore it is easier to assume that the
redactors of the Kohelet Rabbah were familiar with Tannaic works such as the Tosefta or midrashei halakha.
Nevertheless, I believe the following example and others which I will discuss in the body of this thesis demonstrate
that Hirshman’s conclusions regarding Kohelet Rabbah are applicable to GenR as well. That is to say, GenR uses,
reworks, and sometimes ignores earlier traditions. This is the case even if the midrash did not receive them directly
from finalized versions of Tannaic works in question.
53
Herr and Wald, “Genesis Rabbah,” 448: “While [the editor of GenR] clearly used the Mishnah, some scholars have
assumed that he did not make use of our Tosefta, or of the extant Midreshei Halakhah, though this issue needs
further investigation.”
54
As I will address in chapter three, it is also possible that GenR received variant Tannaic traditions and chose the
version which matched its needs best. Even if this is the case, however, the midrash can still be said to have actively
chosen material in light of its particular ideology. In addition, it could be argued that GenR presented the only version
of the Tannaic material it received and was unaware of a tradition similar to the one found in the Tosefta. However,
given that the changes here are relatively subtle and match the ideology of GenR so well, both of these possibilities,
the second in particular, are unlikely.

17
matriarch. Thus, not only does GenR here build off earlier material by inserting the comments of
an Amora on the same matter, but it also subtly alters the drashot of the Tannaim to buttress its
approach to Sarah. This example demonstrates the value in combining synchronic and source-
critical approaches. Awareness of the themes and ideology which characterize GenR as a whole
can help draw attention to those places in which the midrash reworks earlier material in light of
them.

To summarize the points made thus far, the earlier view which sees rabbinic works as
accurate collections of previous rabbinic statements with little to no editorial interference cannot
be accepted. Likewise, the view which sees them as no more than documents which are solely
reflective of their final editors must also be rejected. Instead, I take a middle position in regard to
GenR. On the one hand, the midrash contains various historical layers which, with careful study,
can be mapped out to show how rabbinic ideas developed over time. On the other hand, however,
certain overarching themes can be identified which typify GenR on the whole and clearly guided
its later authorities and final redactors. Not only would this effect the material they chose to include
in the midrash, but at times GenR can even be shown to rework earlier traditions to further these
same themes.

Based on all of this an additional point can be made which will prove crucial to the analysis
of Sarah’s portrayal in GenR. Identifying exegetical developments within the midrash as well as
its more overarching themes helps provide a stronger anchor for historical analysis. As noted, I
will argue that a source-critical and diachronic reading of the midrash shows the praise of Sarah
as a development of the Amoraic period (220-500 CE). Therefore, special attention should be paid
to the historical and social realties of Palestine during this time. In tandem, a synchronic reading
shows that the focus on the matriarch uniquely characterizes GenR in its redacted form. Therefore,
special attention should be paid to the period leading up to the midrash’s final compilation in the
early fifth-century. It is in this period that the editors of GenR ultimately chose which material to
integrate into the midrash and how best to present it.

As a result of this periodization it is only natural to turn to the world of Christianity when
attempting to gauge the impact of social and historical realities upon the midrash’s portrayal of
Sarah. No event had as important an impact upon the Roman Empire of late antiquity, and the
land of Israel in particular, as the rise of Christianity. Indeed, much of Christianity’s development

18
from a small and at times persecuted sect into a most dominate religious and political force
chronologically parallels the Amoraic period in rabbinic literature. Though the sages almost never
refer to the rise of Christianity explicitly,55 the role of Christianity in pushing the sages of the land
of Israel to develop their biblical midrash appears likely.56 In the face of Christian claims to be the
true inheritors of the Bible and to supremacy in understanding its meaning, the Jewish sages were
forced to redouble their efforts in biblical study and exegesis.57 What is true regarding the rabbinic
world at large, is likely to be true in regard to individual sections of midrash as well. If the threat
of Christianity in the land of Israel pushed the rabbis to invest major efforts into expanding their
project of biblical exegesis, then it should be expected to also inform their reading of particular
biblical episodes and characters. In fact, a growing number of studies point to parallels and textual
connections between patristic literature and rabbinic midrash and work to demonstrate how they
can be read in light of each other.58

55
Joseph Dan notes that what appears to the only direct reference to the Christianization of the Empire is found in
the following passage from the Talmud Bavli (though in the name of a Palestinian source), Sanhedrin 97a (MS
Jerusalem):
‫תניא ר' נחמיה אומ' דור שבן דוד בא בו העזות תרבה והיקר יעות והגפן יתן פריו והיין ביוקר והמלכות כולה‬
‫ מסייעא ליה לר' יצחק דאמ' ר' יצחק אין בן דוד בא עד שתיהפך כל המלכות כולה‬.‫תיהפך למינות ואין תוכחה‬
".‫ אמ' רבינא מאי קראה "כלו הפך לבן טהור הוא‬.‫למינות‬
Dan goes on to state that the fact that one of the most influential events in human history is only mentioned once
in Talmudic literature (and that this tradition is only found in the Bavli!) must give scholars pause when attempting
to connect rabbinic texts to historical developments (Joseph Dan, History of Jewish Mysticism and Esotericism, vol.
2 (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 2008), 442. Nevertheless, I believe that the textual and historical evidence to
be presented in this thesis more than justifies reading the characterization of Sarah in light of the Christian presence
in the land of Israel.
56
See: Herr, “Aggada and Midrash in the world of the Sages [Hebrew],” 144–45. According to Herr the challenge of
Christianity explains, in large part, why the sources from the Land of Israel engage in far more extensive aggadah
and biblical midrash than their counterparts from Babylon. In the land of Israel Christianity represented an aggressive
and existential threat to Judaism while in Babylon it did not.
57
Bavli, Avodah Zarah 4a is often quoted as an example of the Sages’ awareness of this. R. Abbahu (a sage from the
mixed Christian-Jewish-Pagan city of Caesarea) tells some minim (heretics; sometimes in reference to Jewish
Christians) that R. Safra (a sage from Babylon) is a ‘great man’. However, when the minim question him as to the
meaning of a biblical verse he is unable to answer. Before explaining the verse to them, R. Abbahu clarifies that R.
Safra is a ‘great man’ when it comes to halakhah, but not the Bible (MS Paris):
‫ אנן דשכיחינן גביכו רמינן אנפשין ומעיינינן‬:‫ אמ' להו‬.‫ומאי שנא אתון דידעיתו והוא לא ידע‬
.‫בהו בקראי אינהו דלא שכיחי גביכו לא מעייני ולא רמו אנפשיהו‬
Interestingly enough, this statement has no direct parallel in Palestinian texts. However, it appears to be confirmed
by the nature of Jewish-Christian polemics as described in sources from there. As Yair Furstenberg remarks: “Both
rabbinic and Christian sources [from the land of Israel] locate the intra-religious disputes within the realm of Old
Testament exegesis.” See: Yair Furstenberg, “Midrash of Jesus and the Bavli’s Counter-Gospel,” Jewish Quarterly
Review 22, no. 4 (2015): 304.
58
Burton Visotzky observes that the trend in the comparative study of rabbinic and Christian literature has swung in
the last 20 years or so from emphasizing the Jewish background of early Christian texts to analyzing the effects of
Christianity on the formation of rabbinic Judaism. As he summarizes it: “Currently, midrash and patristic exegesis

19
Regarding GenR in particular, Jacob Neusner has even gone so far as to posit that the work
as a whole should be read primarily as a response to the rise of Christianity and the Christianization
of the Empire.59 Neusner paints this in rather broad strokes and there does not yet appear to be
enough textual evidence to confirm it. Likewise, the problems laid out above regarding his
documentary approach should make one wary of accepting a conclusion such as this which clearly
has a strong documentary aspect. However, even if a response to Christianity is not the main
purpose of GenR, it has become more and more clear to scholars just how much of a role inter-
religious dialogue plays in the midrash. Indeed, as I will endeavor to show throughout this thesis,
the characterization of Sarah is best understood when looking to the parallel world of Christianity.
This includes both Christian ideas which are tied to Sarah as well as additional developments in
Christian thought and worship.

Of particular importance in this regard are the writings of the early Christian author Origen
of Alexandria (c. 185-254). As I will discuss at greater length in chapter five, Origen was active
in Caesarea and maintained close ties with rabbinic scholars there. His works therefore provide an
invaluable window into the kinds of Christian rhetoric to which the sages of the GenR would have
been exposed. In fact, scholars such as Niehoff and Martha Himmelfarb in particular have
documented several instances in which GenR is clearly responding to Origen’s own comments on
Genesis, though the rabbis do not say so explicitly. 60 Not only does the midrash make attempts to
defend against Origen’s Christian interpretation of Scripture, but it also can be shown at times to

and narrative are being compared for evidences of dialogue, symbiosis, and organismic interactions.” (Burton L.
Visotzky, “Midrash, Christian Exegesis, and Hellenistic Hermeneutic,” in Current Trends in the Study of Midrash, ed.
Carol Bakhos (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 117. For examples regarding GenR in particular, see: Emmanouela Grypeou and
Helen Spurling, eds., The Exegetical Encounter between Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity (Leiden: Brill, 2009).
This collection contains several pieces which address sections from the midrash in light of patristic exegetes such as
Ephrem the Syrian, Justin Martyr, and John Chrysostom. The same is true of essays in Sarit Kattan Gribetz et al., eds.,
Genesis Rabbah in Text and Context (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016) in which several essays read GenR in light of
the Christian world. Genesis Rabbah in Text and Context was published as my thesis was nearing completion and as
such I was unable to fully integrate it into my work. Nevertheless, I will do my best to cite the various essays when
relevant.
59
Jacob Neusner, “Genesis Rabbah as Polemic : An Introductory Account,” Hebrew Annual Review 9 (1985): 264–65;
Jacob Neusner, “Genesis Rabbah, Theology Of,” ed. Jacob Neusner and Alan J. Avery-Peck, Encyclopaedia of Midrash
(Leiden: Brill, 2005). In the latter, Neusner fleshes out his claim a bit more. He frames the midrash’s transformation
of “Scripture from history to paradigm” (p105) and its “obsession” (p112) with Rome as “Israel’s brother, counterpart
and nemesis” as a response to the crisis created by the rise of “not a political Rome but a Christian and messianic
Rome” beginning in the fourth century.
60
For example, see: Maren R. Niehoff, “Creation Ex Nihilo Theology in Genesis Rabbah in Light of Christian Exegesis,”
HTR 99 (2006): 37–64; Niehoff, “Circumcision as a Marker of Identity”; Himmelfarb, “Ordeals.”

20
actually adopt Origen’s readings.61 Based on all this Niehoff has concluded that GenR actually
“developed in dialogue with Origen’s interpretations” of Genesis and that his works thus serve as
a hermeneutic key to the midrash.62 Building off this, I will demonstrate that material regarding
Sarah in Origen’s writings can shed important light on her characterization in GenR. Further,
Origen’s arrival in Palestine around 233 CE corresponds with the start of the Amoraic period and
his students continued to be active in Caesarea even after his death. This makes the works he
authored while there all the more valuable for the analysis of developments in rabbinic thought,
such as those regarding Sarah, that can be traced to this era.

Overview of this Study


The first chapter of this thesis focuses upon the characterization of Sarah in the Hebrew Bible.
While biblical scholarship traditionally did not pay much attention to the matriarch, scholars
operating with a Feminist lens have since dedicated several studies to her. They demonstrate that
to a large extent Sarah plays an ancillary role in the book of Genesis. It is the story of Abraham
which is of true importance to the biblical authors. As a result, Sarah’s presence is often not alluded
to in the descriptions of her husband’s travels. Even in those episodes where the matriarch is
mentioned by name, she is usually portrayed as a passive tool for furthering Abraham’s own
interests. Moreover, in those rare instances where the narrative does see fit to describe the
matriarch as an active agent or informs the reader as to her own motivations she comes across as
petty and lacking faith in God’s word. These points will prove important for demonstrating how
GenR breaks from the biblical record in its own portrayal of Sarah. In addition, it will be noted
that some biblical scholars have attempted to read Sarah’s story in a more positive fashion. While
their conclusions are ultimately not convincing, they do highlight nuances in the text which will
assist in analyzing the likewise positive material in GenR.

Chapter two addresses the characterization of Sarah in the works of the second Temple
period. A close reading of the relevant texts shows that the authors of the period were not
particularly concerned with expanding upon Sarah’s role or presenting her as a character of
intrinsic importance. In this sense they continue the approach to the matriarch taken in the Bible,

61
For examples of GenR adopting comments made by Origen, see: Maren R. Niehoff, “Origen’s Commentary on
Genesis as a Key to Genesis Rabbah,” in Genesis Rabbah in Text and Context, ed. Sarit Kattan Gribetz et al. (Tübingen:
Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 139–44.
62
Ibid., 132.

21
though the exact nature of this shifts somewhat from author to author. Pseudo-Philo and Josephus
appear content to merely downplay what little role Sarah is given in the Bible, while the Book of
the Jubilees goes so far as to explicitly highlight the character flaws which are only alluded to in
Genesis. Even the Genesis Apocryphon and Philo who do give Sarah a somewhat more
sympathetic portrayal reiterate that she is ancillary to Abraham and ultimately exists for the sake
of his success. Similar to the biblical material addressed in the previous chapter, this analysis of
second Temple works will help to demonstrate that the midrash’s approach to Sarah has no
precedent in the Jewish exegetical tradition.

Chapter three analyzes the depiction of Sarah in GenR itself. Given the wealth of Sarah-
related material and the associative nature of the midrash, these texts will not be addressed in the
order in which they appear, but rather thematically. First, the midrash presents Sarah as an
exemplar of Jewish faith and action, at times even surpassing Abraham in this regard. Second, it
repeatedly points to Sarah’s role as a prophetess. Third, it makes an effort to fill in the more glaring
narrative gaps in Sarah’s story as recorded in the Bible. Fourth, it repeatedly attempts to justify
Sarah’s ostensibly negative behavior in the book of Genesis. Fifth, it often praises Sarah in a
manner which directly contradicts negative statements about womankind made elsewhere in
GenR. As mentioned above, the use of source-critical and synchronic tools demonstrates that the
special praise of Sarah in the midrash is a development of the Amoraic period, but which can also
be said to characterize GenR as a redacted work.

Having already dedicated a lengthy discussion to the biblical record and second Temple
traditions, an important point can then be made regarding the midrashic material. The obvious
distance between the Bible’s characterization of Sarah and that of GenR makes it apparent that the
portrayal of the matriarch in GenR is not the result of purely exegetical motivations. Likewise, the
unique nature of the midrash vis-à-vis the second Temple texts demonstrates that the midrash’s
presentation of Sarah does not reflect themes already present in the Jewish tradition. Having
demonstrated this, it is clear that in order to uncover the midrash’s reasons for presenting Sarah as
it does attention must be given to the historical and social milieu of GenR.

To begin such an analysis, chapter four is dedicated to an overview of the use of Sarah’s
character in the New Testament. While she is only mentioned a handful of times in the Christian
Bible, two important motifs can be identified. The first appears in the Epistle literature where Sarah

22
is presented as the spiritual mother of Christianity and a model of Christian faith. This theme plays
a central role in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, in addition to some more subtle allusions to this
idea elsewhere. The second motif is found in the Gospel literature wherein Sarah is presented as a
typological prefiguration of Jesus’ mother Mary. This idea is most prevalent in the Gospel of Luke,
but is also alluded to in the Gospel of Matthew. These two themes come together to create an
overall narrative in early Christianity which both subverts and appropriates the Jewish matriarch.
However, to understand the midrash’s approach to Sarah it is not enough to demonstrate that the
authors of the New Testament made use of her character. Concrete and demonstrable links between
these Christian ideas and the Jewish sages must be identified.

To this end, chapter five is devoted to the characterization of Sarah in the writings of the
third-century Christian exegete and theologian Origen of Alexandria. A close reading
demonstrates that Origen makes use of both New Testament themes. He repeatedly frames Sarah
as the Christian matriarch and as a prefiguration of Mary. This is important for, as stated above,
Origen is known to have maintained close contact with rabbinic leaders in the land of Israel. In
addition, in a few crucial instances, statements in GenR belie the rabbis’ direct knowledge of
Origen’s use of the New Testament’s twin themes regarding Sarah. This confirms that the rabbis
were indeed aware of the Christian subversion and appropriation of the Jewish matriarch. Such a
Christian narrative regarding Sarah would have given GenR ample reason to expand her role,
framing her as a paragon of Jewish belief and practice, and in doing so attempt to reclaim her.

Chapter six focuses on the rise of Mary in Christian thought and worship. Though the New
Testament shares relatively few details regarding Mary’s biography, descriptions of her life and
praise of her personal piety soon appear in the Christian apocrypha. This new interest in the figure
of Mary eventually gives way to a fully formed cult of worship surrounding her role as the
Theotokos (God-bearer). The epicenter of the Cult of the Virgin Mary was in the land of Israel,
and Marian worship there included churches dedicated to her, an annual celebration in her honor,
and popular religious amulets bearing her name. A careful examination of the textual and
archeological record shows that this cult reached new levels of importance and influence in the
late fourth- and early fifth-century, the very same period in which GenR was redacted. In fact,
strong evidence will be presented to suggest that the rabbis of GenR were directly aware of these
developments. The added attention given to Mary in late antique Palestine would have only drawn

23
more attention to the Christian claim that she had supplanted Sarah. As with Origen’s use of this
idea, the Marian cult would have provided a strong impetus for the midrash to attempt to reclaim
Sarah as it does. In addition, the ascendancy of a female religious figure in the Christian world
may have motivated the rabbis to answer with one of their own.

The seventh and final chapter analyzes several particular Marian themes popular in
Christian Palestine. In the written and material evidence discussed in the previous chapter a few
motifs repeatedly stand out: Mary’s nursing of Jesus, reference to the power of her prayers and
efficacy of her intercessions, her association with light, and her connection to the figure of Eve. A
careful reading of GenR shows that these same themes also appear in the midrash’s descriptions
of Sarah. Having already established the pervasive influence of the Marian cult in the land of Israel
and how that would have motivated the rabbis to focus upon Sarah, it stands to reason that their
adaption of these themes is intentional. By crafting Sarah in the very same manner that Christians
did Mary, GenR is able to present the Jewish matriarch as being of equal or even greater stature
than the Virgin Mother. The result is almost paradoxical. By adopting Marian imagery and
imbuing Sarah with her qualities, the rabbis make use of Christian traditions in order to fight them.

The Text of Genesis Rabbah: Manuscripts, Editions, and Translations


Quotations from GenR are taken from the manuscript Vat. Ebr. 30 (Vat. 30) as copied from the
“Ma’agarim” website of the Academy of the Hebrew Language.63 I have reformatted the text
slightly and added some minor punctuation. Michael Sokoloff has dedicated several studies to Vat.
30 and demonstrated that it is without question the best existent manuscript of GenR.64 As a rule,
I will quote from this manuscript as it appears and leave any of the more involved philological
discussions, when necessary, to the footnotes. Nevertheless, in those instances where there is

63
Academy of the Hebrew Language, “Bereshit Rabbah,” Ma’agarim: The Historical Dictionary Project [Hebrew],
2017, http://maagarim.hebrew-academy.org.il/Pages/PMain.aspx?mishibbur=14000. In addition to preparing the
text of Vat. 30 for “Ma’aragim,” Michael Sokoloff also published a facsimile edition of the manuscript: Michael
Sokoloff, Midrash Bereshit Rabba (MS Vat. Ebr. 30) with an Introduction and Index (Jerusalem: Makor, 1971).
64
Most recently he has summarized his findings as well as those of the scholars who came before him: Michael
Sokoloff, “The Major Manuscripts of Genesis Rabbah,” in Genesis Rabbah in Text and Context, ed. Sarit Kattan Gribetz
et al. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 23–32. See, also: Sokoloff, Midrash Bereshit Rabba (MS Vat. Ebr. 30) with an
Introduction and Index. Beyond Sokoloff’s studies of Vat. 30 an important work regarding the manuscript and its
characteristics, the history of its study, and its relationship to other manuscripts and textual witnesses is: Lewis M.
Barth, An Analysis of Vatican 30 (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College, 1973). For a full list of the MSs of GenR, Genizah
fragments, printed editions and translations, see: Strack and Stemberger, Introduction, 280–83.

24
strong reason to question the reliability of Vat. 30, I will utilize other textual witnesses as well.65
In particular, the related manuscript Vat. Ebr. 60 (Vat 60) and fragments from the Cairo Genizah
are of value for this.66 They will also be used when quoting from the few sections of GenR which
are missing from Vat. 30, as unfortunately it is not a complete manuscript. Citations from other
rabbinic sources outside of GenR are likewise taken from “Ma’agarim” with additional reference
to critical editions when relevant.

When citing the midrash I will also provide the page number from the critical edition of
Julius Theodor and Chanoch Albeck (Albeck).67 While the Albeck edition is an extremely
important milestone for the study of rabbinic midrash, it utilizes manuscript BM Add. 27169
(London) which is inferior to the Vatican manuscripts.68 Likewise, the variants as recorded in the
apparatus criticus are often mistaken. Despite these drawbacks, Albeck’s version is the only
critical edition of GenR and its use is common among both scholarly and more general audiences.
I will therefore refer to this edition in order to make it easier for the interested reader to look up
the passages quoted in context. All translations of the midrash into English are my own. To date
there have been two scholarly English translations of GenR, that of Harry Freedman and that of
Jacob Neusner.69 Despite its somewhat dated style Freedman's translation remains, to my mind,
the best and most accurate of the two, and I have been aided by it throughout.

65
Vat. 30 was actually written by three different scribes. Sokoloff has demonstrated that the second of the three
(referred to as Vat. 302) copied from a text of the midrash which was linguistically later than that of scribes one and
three (Vat. 301,3) and which was corrupted by Jewish Babylonian Aramaic. Therefore, in addition to the more obvious
scribal errors which are found in every text, special attention must be paid to those sections of GenR which are taken
from Vat. 302. For more on this matter, see: Sokoloff, “The Major Manuscripts of Genesis Rabbah,” 27–30.
66
Ibid., 31–32. For a fuller treatment of these texts, see: Sokoloff, “The Geniza Fragments of Genesis Rabba and Ms.
Vat. Ebr. 60 of Genesis Rabba [Hebrew].” Texts from the Genizah fragments will be taken from Sokoloff’s critical
edition: Michael Sokoloff, The Geniza fragments of Bereshit Rabba [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences
and Humanities, 1982). In most of the sections of GenR which are missing from Vat. 30, the “Ma’agarim” site utilizes
Vat. 60 and the text will be copied from there. Otherwise, texts from Vat. 60 will be based on a facsimile edition of
the manuscript: A. P. Sherry, Midrash Bereshit Rabbah (MS Vat. Ebr. 60) (Jerusalem: Makor, 1972).
67
Chanoch Albeck and Judah Theodor, eds., Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, 3 vols. (Jerusalem: Wahrmann Books, 1965).
Theodor published the first 80 pages of his critical edition of GenR along with a commentary titled “Minchat
Yehudah” in 1903. After his death in 1923, the work was continued by Albeck who completed the work in 1936.
Because the lion’s share of the final version of the text as well as the commentary was ultimately done by Albeck,
this edition is generally referred to by his name.
68
Regarding the background of the Albeck edition, it importance to the scholarship, and its shortcomings, see:
Sokoloff, “The Major Manuscripts of Genesis Rabbah,” 24–26; Jonah Fraenkel, “Editors of the Agadic Texts,” in
Midrash and Agadah [Hebrew], vol. 3 (Tel Aviv: The Open University of Israel, 1996), 967–68.
69
Harry Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, ed. Harry Freedman and Maurice Simon, 3rd ed., 4 vols. (London:
Soncino Press, 1983); Jacob Neusner, Genesis Rabbah: The Judaic Commentary to the Book of Genesis, a New

25
Works Cited
Academy of the Hebrew Language. “Bereshit Rabbah.” Ma’agarim: The Historical Dictionary
Project [Hebrew], 2017.
http://maagarim.hebrewacademy.org.il/Pages/PMain.aspx?mishibbur=14000.
Albeck, Chanoch. “Introduction and Indexes [Hebrew].” In Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, edited by
Chanoch Albeck and Judah Theodor, Vol. 3. Jerusalem: Wahrmann Books, 1965.
Albeck, Chanoch, and Judah Theodor, eds. Midrash Bereshit Rabbah. 3 vols. Jerusalem:
Wahrmann Books, 1965.
Appelbaum, Alan. The Rabbis’ King-Parables: Midrash from the Third-Century Roman Empire.
Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2010.
Barth, Lewis M. An Analysis of Vatican 30. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College, 1973.
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Chapter One
Sarah in the Hebrew Bible: Passive and Petty
Introduction
Before analyzing the material in both GenR and the earlier second Temple literature it is important
to first address Sarah’s portrayal in the Bible itself. The biblical material, of course, provides the
textual base for the subsequent exegesis in Jewish antiquity. Therefore, a nuanced reading of
Sarah’s characterization in the book of Genesis is important for a proper understanding of the
manner in which later authors choose to present her. This is true both of their approach to particular
verses and also in regard to more overarching trends. A comprehensive assessment of the biblical
text makes it possible to understanding how these authors chose to read a particular verse or
episode in the Bible and, sometimes no less importantly, which possible readings of the text they
reject. Likewise, a detailed analysis of the Bible is necessary in order to gauge the extent to which
later exegetes maintain a close connection to the biblical material itself and to what extent they
stray from it.

Traditionally, scholars of the Hebrew Bible have seen Sarah as playing an ancillary role in
the book of Genesis. They conclude that in the eyes of the biblical authors she is merely a
supporting character in what is, ultimately, Abraham’s story. Therefore, for the most part, Sarah’s
words and actions are not given much attention in the narrative. Instead, she is portrayed as a
passive tool who exists for her husband’s sake. It is through her that he gains wealth and progeny.
Moreover, in those few cases where Sarah’s own behavior is recorded she comes across as jealous,
petty, and lacking faith in God.

As a result of these conclusions, contemporary scholars often do not go beyond these


general points when addressing Sarah’s character.1 Just as they determine that the Bible relegates

1
This pattern can be seen clearly in two now-classic works: Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, trans. John H
Marks (London: SCM Press, 1961) and Ephraim Avigdor Speiser, Genesis, Anchor Bible Commentary (Garden City:
Doubleday, 1964). While these works are somewhat dated, they remain important in the scholarship and many of
their conclusions regarding the Abraham narrative and the role of Sarah are still widely accepted. Both of these
works focus heavily on Abraham: his character in Genesis, his role in the greater history of Israel, and what this
narrative can teach about the various source documents. Sarah is typically addressed only to the extent that it
furthers the understanding of the aforementioned matters. The same can be said of the more popularly known work:
Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis: The World of the Bible in the Light of History (New York: Schocken, 1966).
For a list of additional biblical scholars who take such an approach, including some more recent ones, see: Tammi J.
Schneider, Sarah: Mother of Nations (New York: Continuum, 2004), 6–7, fn19, 20. Though, as will be noted,
Schneider argues against them.

31
her to a secondary role, they do not see her as meriting further discussion as a standalone character.
Due to the relative lack of attention in standard biblical scholarship, the use of contemporary
Feminist scholarship is invaluable for creating a fuller picture. Feminist scholars decry the fact
that so frequently in the critical study of the Hebrew Bible female characters are not examined
“seriously for their inherent significance.”2 In their attempts to fix this state of affairs, these
scholars have put out a large and growing number of works dedicated to the women of the Bible.
In general, there are two discernable trends in these studies. 3 The first draws attention to the fact
that the Bible represents an androcentric text from a male dominated society. With this
understanding the generally negative portrayal of female characters therein can be better
understood and analyzed. The second, conversely, argues for a “depatriarchalizing” of the biblical
text: a reading which rejects the assumed sexism of the text and approaches it without preconceived
notions regarding the Bible’s view of women.4 In doing so they often point to the heterogenetic
nature of the Bible and search for the more egalitarian messages which may be hidden therein.
While such readings generally accept that the Bible is a patriarchal text overall, they nevertheless
search for positive messages about women which can be found among the tapestry of traditions
from different authors and communities which make up the Hebrew Bible.

What is true of the study of biblical women in general is true in regards to Sarah in
particular. Despite receiving little special attention in typical scholarship, as noted above, Sarah
has received a large amount of attention in the work of authors utilizing a Feminist lens. Likewise,
both trends in the scholarship, that which highlights masculine bias and that which highlights
hidden importance, are attested to in these works. Of these, the first is more prevalent. As in the

2
Sharon Pace Jeansonne, The Women of Genesis: From Sarah to Potiphar’s Wife (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990),
1.
3
A similar formulation is put forth by Sarah Shectman, Women in the Pentateuch: A Feminist and Source-Critical
Analysis (Sheffield: Phoenix Press, 2009), 18. As she notes, these camps are not mutually exclusive and some scholars
take both approaches in tandem. Her introduction is a useful primer in Feminist scholarship, its history, schools of
thought, and leading scholars: Ibid., 9–54.
4
This phrase was coined by Phyllis Trible, “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation,” Journal of the American
Academy of Religion 41, no. 1 (1973): 31. The article itself focuses primarily on the creation story and its depiction
of God and the creation of man and woman therein. In this piece Trible argues that by using the hermeneutics of
depatriarchalization the biblical record as a whole can be re-read in a manner which rejects male domination and
the patriarchy. However, scholars following in her wake have used this tool to draw a more nuanced picture which
includes themes both positive and negative. For more on depatriarchalizing and its effects on the scholarship, see:
Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2006), 167–
69.

32
more standard readings of Sarah, they agree that she is a marginalized character who at times is
even presented as petty and cruel. However, they go beyond these somewhat superficial
conclusions and investigate how the patriarchal society which the Bible occupies led to such a
portrayal. These studies make a most convincing case and the analysis of Sarah’s characterization
in the Bible which follows will be based in large part upon them. In addition to this, some have
taken the second approach and endeavored to show how more positive messages regarding Sarah
can still be found in the book of Genesis, even if it is ultimately an androcentric text. The points
they raise though this depatriarchalization of the Bible help give crucial nuance to Sarah’s
character and will be utilized here as well.

Beyond this, a small number of scholars take so-called depatriarchalizing to the extreme.
They argue that the Bible actually presents Sarah as a biblical hero in her own right. Unlike like
those who look to uncover traditions concealed within the text or ideas all but lost through
androcentric redaction, these scholars argue that the narrative actually wished to present Sarah as
equal to her husband. According to them, previous scholarship missed this not because of the
inherent bias of the biblical text itself, but because of the preconceived notions of scholars
regarding the nature of the Hebrew Bible. While this wholly positive approach to Sarah is
ultimately to be rejected, it does draw attention to alternative readings of the biblical material
which will prove helpful when analyzing Jewish exegesis from the second Temple and rabbinic
eras.

Sarah, the Wife of Abraham


An overview of the biblical material shows that the biblical narrator himself was not all too
concerned with the matriarch. Sarah is conspicuously absent from the Bible’s depiction of several
key episodes in the Abraham narrative (Gen 12-25). In the dramatic opening of Genesis 12
Abraham is told by God: “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land
that I will show you” (12:1).5 Sarah, however, is not alluded to in this command nor in the
subsequent promises and blessings God bestows upon her husband (12:2-3). Indicative of her role,
Sarah is instead presented as merely another part of Abraham’s household (12:5):

5
English translations are based on the NJPS edition of the Hebrew Bible, with some adjustments. Sarah and Abraham
are known as Sarai and Abram until their names are changed by God (Gen 17:5, 15). For the sake of simplicity I will
refer to them as Sarah and Abraham even when referring to the sections of Genesis in which they are still known by
their original names, unless directly quoting a verse.

33
Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had
amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land
of Canaan.

Continuing this trend, Sarah does not warrant mention as Abraham later successfully negotiates a
parting of the ways with Lot, nor when he later goes to war in order to rescue him (13:5-13; 14:13-
24). Similarly, she is not alluded to when her husband receives additional divine promises of land
and children (12:7, 13:14-18). The same is true when Abraham later receives reassurance of these
promises and makes a covenant with the Lord (15:1-20). Continuing to some of the important
events later in Abraham’s life, this tendency to ignore Sarah repeats itself. The Bible gives
relatively lengthy descriptions of the negotiations between the patriarch and Abimelech (21:22-
34) as well as Abraham’s great test known as the Akeida (Binding of Isaac) (22:1-19). However,
the matriarch plays no part in these vignettes.

Given her absence from much of Abraham’s story, the minimal amount of attention she is
given in traditional scholarship may not be surprising. However, the lack of concern for Sarah in
the narrative actually belies an important aspect of the Hebrew Bible which Feminist scholarship
has highlighted. As Tikva Frymer-Kensky succinctly put it, the first and most basic impact of
women’s studies on the study of the Bible is the “recognition that the Bible is a patriarchal
document from a patriarchal society.”6 While this is not to say that individual women could not
achieve power and importance in the Bible, as a rule they “were subordinate to the men of the
household and men exerted control over [their] sexuality.” Moreover, scholars applying these
insights note that the stories involving the matriarchs are “not primarily about the women
themselves as individuals, but rather about their roles as the legitimate or ‘current’ wife and
mother.”7 This point can help explain why Sarah is completely absent from God’s command to
Abraham which starts his journey or such important episodes as the rescuing of Lot and the Akeida.

6
Frymer-Kensky, Studies, 160. The fullest and most forceful argument for the pervasive and pernicious nature of the
Bible’s androcentrism is that of Esther Fuchs, Sexual Politics in the Biblical Narrative: Reading the Hebrew Bible as a
Woman (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000). Nevertheless, some of the depatriarchalizing approaches which
will be discussed here temper the starkly negative readings she presents.
7
Gale A. Yee, “Sarah,” ed. David Noel Freedman, Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992). While the
Anchor Bible Dictionary is not a work of feminist scholarship itself, it has done well to incorporate the fruits of such
scholarship as evidenced by the above quote.

34
While these events are central to Abraham’s story, they have nothing to do with Sarah’s role as
wife and mother. As a result, in the eyes of the biblical authors, she need not appear.

Yet despite all this, some scholars have attempted to carve out a more important role for
the matriarch while still accounting for the relative dearth of Sarah-related material. In an
interesting case of such depatriarchalization, Savina Teubal has put forth that the character of Sarah
was in fact originally that of a Mesopotamian priestess, but that this matriarchal tradition was all
but lost as it encountered the androcentrism of the biblical editors.8 Her reading has been rejected
as “haphazard and methodologically problematic” due to its reliance on historical conjecture and
lack of a strong textual basis and as such cannot be seriously entertained here. 9 However, it is
nevertheless a provocative example of the attempts to uncover more positive approaches to Sarah
latent in the Bible while recognizing that she is not mentioned as often or as positively as one
might expect.

In addition, arguments for a more positive reading of Sarah’s character can be made from
events which, despite the fact that the matriarch herself is not present for them, imply that she is
to be given greater significance. Some scholars note that Abraham does not abandon his wife
despite her barrenness.10 Likewise, God informs Abraham that He will change Sarah’s name just
as He did Abraham’s (17:15). In addition, except for his purchasing of a burial site for Sarah,
Abraham’s story essentially comes to an end upon her death (23:1-2).11 This may be taken to imply
that his story lacks importance without her. An even more extreme version of these arguments is
made in a recent book by Tammi Schneider.12 According to her, a close reading of Genesis
demonstrates that Sarah actually surpasses Abraham as the biblical hero and that the narrative is
in fact highly critical of his mistreatment of her.

I will return to some of Schneider’s particular arguments later, but it should be stated that
readings which see Sarah as on par with or even greater than Abraham have not gained wide

8
Savina J. Teubal, Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis (Ohio: Swallow Press, 1986).
9
Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, “More than the Stars of Heaven: Critical, Rabbinical, and Feminist Perspectives on Sarah,”
in Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville: John Knox, 1991), 122.
10
Joe Ann Davidson, “Modern Feminism, Religious Pluralism, and Scripture,” Journal of the Adventist Theological
Society 10, no. 1–2 (2000): 415–16; Janice Nunnally-Cox, Foremothers: Women of the Bible (New York: Seabury
Press, 1981), 9.
11
Davidson, “Scripture,” 417.
12
Schneider, Sarah.

35
purchase in the critical study of the Hebrew Bible. While it is true that some more positive voices
can be occasionally identified within Genesis, such an approach is hard to justify in regard to
Sarah’s presentation as a whole. Sarah’s absence from some of the most important sections of the
narrative is good example as to why. As discussed, it highlights the fact that her importance is
limited to her role as Abraham’s wife and mother to his son. Moreover, not only is Sarah ignored
in many crucial parts of the Abraham story, but the gap in the narrator’s overall approach to the
two is palpable. Fitting to a text produced within a decidedly patriarchal society, Abraham is
credited with an intimate relationship with God which Sarah is not. To wit, Abraham is referred to
in Genesis as a “prophet,” “fearer of God,” the “elect of God,” and described as the first to “call
in the name of God” (20:7; 22:12; 23:6; 12:8; 13:4). However, no such terminology is used for
Sarah. Her position as perceived by the biblical authors is reflected in her being referred to simply
as “the wife of Abraham” (29:31; 12:17; 16:1,3; 20:18) and listed as part of his household (12:5;
13:1).

Sarah and the Foreign Kings


The pattern of Sarah’s absence from the narrative is also evident in two episodes which, in theory,
should place the matriarch at their center. Twice the Bible relates that Sarah was taken from
Abraham and given to a foreign king.13 The first of these incidents occurs when, due to a famine
in the land of Canaan, Abraham moves along with his household to the land of Egypt (12:10-20).
Fearing for his life, Abraham requests of Sarah to present herself as his sister and not his wife.
Subsequently, she is abducted into the Pharaoh’s palace while Abraham is remunerated with
“sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels” (12:16). Pharaoh and his
household, however, are punished by the Lord with plagues “on account of Sarai, the wife of
Abram” (‫על דבר שרי אשת אברם‬, 12:17). Angered and recognizing the true nature of their
relationship, the king returns Sarah to Abraham and sends him away. Despite the fact that this

13
The two stories involving Sarah and the foreign king and use of the same wife-sister motif, as well as a third parallel
tale regarding Rebecca (Gen 26:6-11), have long led scholars to conclude that the stories originate from separate
sources. For example, see: Ephraim Avigdor Speiser, “The Wife-Sister Motif,” in Biblical and Other Studies, ed.
Alexander Altmann (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), 15–18. Speiser concludes that the three stories
originate from two authors, J and E. For the purposes of this overview, however, it is not crucial how the biblical text
came to be. Rather, it is important how the character of Sarah is ultimately presented by the time Bible reached its
final state and how this portrayal stands in relation to later exegesis. Nevertheless, I will note some of the more
important points made by critical scholarship in this regard. This is because the textual nuance highlighted by modern
scholars can often give a fuller picture of the biblical record which proves useful for understanding the motivation
of ancient exegetes, even if the methods and conclusions of the two differ greatly.

36
story ostensibly revolves around Sarah, she is given a starkly passive role. The narrator tells
nothing of her experience, thoughts, or actions.

This all repeats itself when Abraham later makes his way to the city of Gerar (20:1-18).
Yet again Sarah is presented as Abraham’s sister and yet again she is taken by the local king, this
time Abimelech (20:2). Here too, God punishes the locals “because of Sarah, the wife of Abraham”
(20:18). Unlike with Pharaoh, God actually appears to Abimelech to inform him that Sarah is a
married woman and tells him to return her to her husband (20:3-7). When Abimelech confronts
Abraham, the patriarch explains that he asked Sarah to do the “kindness” of passing herself off as
his sister out of fear for his own safety (20:13). The king then gives Abraham “sheep and oxen,
and male and female slaves” and “restore[s] his wife Sarah to him” (20:14). Subsequently,
Abraham prays for the recovery of those stricken by God and continues his journey (20:17). Once
more, Sarah herself is ignored as a character. The reader is not told, for example, if she voiced any
objection to her husband’s ruse. Likewise, the narrator gives no information as to what she may
have thought, said, or done while held captive.

Though Sarah is ostensibly the most important character in these episodes, the Bible does
not actually see her as such. Instead, the focus is on Abraham’s behavior and how the capture of
his wife ultimately affects him. The patriarch speaks of his own fears and the dangers he faces,
however nothing is said about Sarah in this regard. Likewise, the Bible details how Abraham (and
not Sarah) is twice compensated for his troubles (12:16, 20:14). In other words, in both the Pharaoh
and Abimelech stories no attempt is made to address Sarah as a character of intrinsic value. The
matriarch is a merely a device through which Abraham achieves wealth and improves his stature.

Returning to Feminist scholarship, understanding the patriarchal natural of the text can help
explain why it shows no interest in Sarah’s own experience. In these episodes, Sarah is not acting
within her role as mother, but rather as a tool for Abraham’s benefit. Therefore, the details of her
experience are irrelevant to the narrator. Likewise, the nature of male control over female sexuality
is made clear in these tales. As Sarah is shuffled back-and-forth between her husband and the
foreign kings, the question at hand is which of these men has legitimate rights over Sarah and her
body. Sarah herself, however, is not given a say. While traditional scholars often refer to these
stories as ‘wife-sister’ episodes, focusing on Abraham’s subterfuge, Feminist critique terms them

37
instead “disposable-wife tales.”14 When matters are viewed as such, the portrayal of Sarah’s
capture is a strong example of a more general patriarchal trend in the Hebrew Bible. As Esther
Fuchs states, it often “reduces women to auxiliary roles, suppresses their voices and minimizes
their national and religious significance.”15

Nevertheless, some scholars have attempted to depatriarchalize these events. They point to
the fact that Abraham must ask Sarah to cooperate with his plan.16 For them, this demonstrates that
he is in fact reliant upon her and not the master of her actions as often assumed. Schneider takes
this approach even further. She argues that not only is Sarah not minimized in these episodes, but
that she is portrayed in a highly sympathetic fashion by a narrator who is actually quite critical of
Abraham. She notes that the Bible juxtaposes Abraham’s inaction when Sarah is taken by Pharaoh
with his willingness to go to battle to save Lot in the very next chapter (14:10-16).17 Likewise,
Abraham does not intercede when Sarah is taken by Abimelech, despite being quick to pray on
behalf of the king and his people when they were punished by God.18 Finally, she notes that in both
instances it is God who directly intervenes to save the matriarch from the situations in which
Abraham has placed her. Schneider argues that all of the above shows the strength of Sarah’s
connection to the Lord and demonstrates the narrative’s critique of Abraham as someone who is
“selfless… in relation to anyone other than his wife.”19

While some of these points are suggestive, the idea that the repeated abduction of Sarah
into the harem of a foreign king actually demonstrates that her husband is beholden to her or that
she maintains a special relationship to God is not convincing. While it is readily apparent that
Abraham does not feel compelled to act in order to save his wife, it is not at all clear that the Bible
intends for this to be judged as a failing on his part. The fact that the reader is not told anything of
Sarah’s actions or thoughts while captive implies strongly that the narrator did care to arouse the
reader’s sympathy for her, much less criticize Abraham. The objectionable nature of Abraham’s
behavior in the eyes of modern audiences does not change this. The same is true of Abraham’s

14
Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 225.
15
Fuchs, Sexual Politics, 1.
16
Nunnally-Cox, Foremothers, 8–9; Davidson, “Scripture,” 415–17.
17
Schneider, Sarah, 37.
18
Ibid., 91.
19
Ibid., 37.

38
willingness to intervene for the sake of Lot and Abimelech. These men are independent agents
who maintain financial and diplomatic ties with Abraham. In a patriarchal society this would
warrant his intercession on their behalf. The same cannot be said for a woman such as Sarah who
does not operate independently outside the framework of Abraham’s household. As a result, it is
far more likely that the narrator was not at all bothered by Abraham’s willingness to let his wife
be taken. Moreover, even the divine intervention on Sarah’s behalf is, in both cases, ultimately
connected to the fact that she is the “wife of Abraham” (12:17, 20:18). In no way does the Bible
hint that God intervenes out of deference to Sarah. In fact, God explicitly tells Abimelech that he
must return Sarah not because of any injustice done to her, but rather because “she is a married
woman” )‫ב ֻעלַת בעל‬,
ְּ 20:3). Due to all this, those readings which argue that in these disposable-wife
tales Sarah is not in fact a passive and ancillary character are to be rejected. With that, they do
present interesting ways of approaching the biblical text which will prove useful when analyzing
how these stories are understood in subsequent Jewish exegesis.

Hagar and Ishmael


Moving beyond those instances where Sarah’s actions are left out of the Bible’s account, Sarah
does not fare any better in those episodes where her words and actions are detailed. With regard
to her interactions with Hagar, the annunciation and birth of Isaac, and the banishment of Ishmael,
the scholarship traditionally points out that the narrative is quite critical of Sarah. In these episodes
she comes off as petty and lacking faith in God’s plan. Here too, Feminist scholarship adds more
nuance by framing this within a world which severely limits a woman’s role and makes certain
assumptions about her nature. Indeed, it is telling that all the incidents in which Sarah is seen as
an active agent involve child-bearing or rearing. This fits the fact that Sarah’s primary role is, as
with most women in the Bible, that of mother and wife.20

After years of failing to have a child, Sarah entreats Abraham to take her handmaiden Hagar
in hopes of “building” a family through her (16:2). Abraham complies and Hagar is soon with
child. However, this leads to strife as the servant begins to look upon the mistress with “lowered
esteem” (16:4, ‫)ותקל גברתה בעיניה‬. Sarah complains to Abraham who tells her to “deal with [Hagar]
as you think right” (16:6). In turn, Sarah “treats [Hagar] harshly” (‫ )ותענה‬causing her to flee. The
pregnant handmaiden returns only after an angel of God enjoins her to do so (16:7-12). Shortly

20
A similar observation can be found in Darr, “More than the Stars,” 119.

39
thereafter Ishmael is born. Unlike Sarah’s original plan, however, there is no indication that this
son is seen in any way as her own.

While Sarah exerts a controlling influence on Abraham here, a subtle critique of the
matriarch’s conduct can be seen in the narrative. Sarah pushes her husband to take her maidservant
as a consort, only to abuse her when she conceives. Though this is triggered by Hagar’s newfound
disdain for Sarah, the matriarch’s response is nevertheless marked with “jealousy and a shocking
cruelty” which all but forces Hagar to flee.21 It could be argued that Sarah’s behavior is given some
measure of legitimacy by the angel’s command to Hagar that she “return and submit” herself to
her mistress (16:9). However, the divine assurances Hagar receives that her offspring will be “too
many to count” and that the Lord has “paid heed to [her] suffering” (‫ )שמע יי אל עניך‬would seem to
preclude such a reading (16:10-11). Instead, Hagar appears as victim and Sarah as victimizer.22

A similar pattern is eventually seen after the birth of Isaac when Sarah presses Abraham to
send Hagar and her son Ishmael away for good.23 Despite the fact that Sarah now has her own
child, old tensions resurface when “Sarah [sees] the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to
Abraham playing” (21:9, ‫)ותרא שרה את בן הגר המצרית אשר ילדה לאברהם מצחק‬. She demands that
Abraham cast out Ishmael and his mother. Despite Abraham’s initial objection, God tells Abraham
that “whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says” and the two are expelled (21:12). As with the
previous episode, the reader is told in detail of Hagar’s suffering. Further, after Hagar loses all
hope and resigns herself to Ishmael’s death an angel calls out to reassure her that “God has heeded
the cry of the boy” and will “make a great nation of him” (21:17-18). As a result it is easy to see
why Gerhard von Rad observed that, despite the divine endorsement, “the narrator seems to be
most sympathetic towards Hagar.”24

While the overtly negative characterization of Sarah in these episodes is evident, placing
them in their patriarchal context adds some nuance. For women in such a society being childless
represents a complete loss of status. Sarah’s insecurity regarding her position in Abraham’s house
and her utter lack of compassion towards Hagar and Ishmael should be seen as a direct result of

21
Yee, “Sarah.”
22
A similar point is made by: Sarna, Understanding Genesis, 129.
23
Here too the parallels between the two tales of Hagar’s expulsion lead to the conclusion that they are variants of
the same tradition as preserved in two different sources, see: von Rad, Genesis, 232–35.
24
Ibid., 196.

40
this.25 This is compounded by the fact that the narrative’s point of view, even when speaking for
Sarah, ultimately identifies with the patriarchy. Indeed, Athalya Brenner demonstrates that in its
portrayal of Sarah and Hagar the Bible conveys a strong critique of basic female nature. 26 This
pair, like the other co-wives of Genesis, remain continually at odds despite a shared interest in
cooperation. As noted, Abraham and his rivals Lot and Abimelech are able to negotiate an
amicable end to their disputes. Unlike these men who manage to settle matters diplomatically, the
author appears to assume that women are unable to do so. Given this perspective on the differences
between male and female, it is little wonder that Sarah comes off as jealous and spiteful in the
narrative.

Beyond simply explaining why Sarah is portrayed so poorly, some other Feminist scholars
have argued for a depatriarchalized reading of the Sarah-Hagar episodes which is more
sympathetic towards the matriarch. They note that Sarah is not just a victimizer, but herself a
victim. As J. Cheryl Exum puts it, the matriarch is part of a world which “challenges [her] intrinsic
worth with patriarchal presuppositions” and forces her into a “vicious cycle in which women are
played against each other in the quest for status.”27 Likewise, Sarah’s complaints to Abraham
regarding her treatment by Hagar can be taken to represent a brusque indictment of the patriarchal
system which binds her.28 While the narrative might ultimately accept this social hierarchy as it is,
Sarah’s dissenting voice is still heard.

Other scholars go beyond these points which merely soften the Bible’s critique of Sarah
and actually attempt to read these incidents to her credit. Schneider justifies the matriarch’s
conduct by noting that according to ancient Near Eastern law Sarah was well within her rights to
send her slave away.29 In addition, Joe Ann Davidson argues that the repeated expulsion of Hagar

25
J. Cheryl Exum, “‘Mother in Israel’: A Familiar Figure Reconsidered,” in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, ed.
Letty M. Russell (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), 76.
26
Athalya Brenner, The Israelite Woman: Social Role and Literary Type in Biblical Narrative (Sheffield: JSOT, 1985),
95–96. She develops this point and also explores its connection to the so-called ‘Birth of a Hero’ paradigm and the
‘Hero’s Mother’ type therein.
27
Exum, “Mother in Israel,” 77. For a similar reading which highlights the tragic circumstances of both Sarah and
Hagar, see: Frymer-Kensky, Studies, 170–71; Yee, “Sarah,” 982.
28
On this, see: Exum, “Mother in Israel,” 77.
29
Schneider, Sarah, 53. A more in-depth discussion of ancient Near Eastern law and its relevance to the Sarah-Hagar
tales can be found in Frymer-Kensky, Studies, 230–37. However, unlike Schneider, Frymer-Kensky does not claim
that the Bible in any way wishes to present Sarah’s behavior as justified.

41
is meant to show Sarah’s control over her household and her husband.30 According to Davidson,
Sarah is portrayed as a woman who “say[s] what she wants when she wants” and whose husband
invariably complies with her demands.

However, these arguments for a more extreme depatriarchalizing of the Sarah-Hagar


episodes are relatively weak. Though it is certainly the case that Sarah is the active and driving
force in these stories, her portrayal is hardly laudatory as a result. For example, it is true that God
bids Abraham to do as his wife demands and exile Hagar and Ishmael. However, as when Hagar
is sent away the first time, the reader is told in great detail of the slave-woman’s anguish and of
the divine reassurances she receives. This greatly mitigates any possible endorsement of Sarah’s
actions and clearly implies that God’s approval is only granted after the fact, perhaps in order to
avoid Sarah wrath. Indeed, as noted, the description of Hagar “burst[ing] into tears,” Ishmael’s
own cries, and the Lord’s ultimate protection of them seems engineered to leave Sarah looking
cold and cruel by comparison (21:16-19). Moreover, the Bible makes a point of recording that
Abraham was “distressed” at what might befall the two, while Sarah clearly had no such qualms
(‫וירע הדבר מאד בעיני אברהם‬, 21:11). Finally, it may very well be that Sarah is not to be seen as
violating any ancient slave law. However, this does not mean that her behavior is actually approved
of by the narrator. Instead, he continually crafts Sarah’s interactions with Hagar in a manner which
leaves the matriarch looking vindictive and petty.

Sarah and Isaac


In addition to her interaction with Hagar, Sarah is also portrayed poorly when told of the future
birth of Isaac. Before anything is revealed to Sarah, God appears to Abraham (then still Abram)
and changes his name (17:5):31

And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I
make you the father of a multitude of nations. ]‫[כי אב המון גוים נתתיך‬

God then goes on to assure him that the promises he has received will be fulfilled not through
Ishmael, but through a son he will have with Sarah (17:15-16):

30
Davidson, “Scripture,” 417.
31
The similarities (and crucial differences) between the two episodes in which God makes a covenant with Abraham
and promises him offspring are generally understood by biblical scholars to be indicative of different sources for the
two. See, for example, von Rad, Genesis, 197–203.

42
As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. I
will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall
give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her.
]‫[והיתה לגוים מלכי עמים ממנה יהיו‬

Sometime after this, three men (later identified as angels) appear at Abraham’s tent and inform
him that this son’s birth will take place in one year’s time (18:10). Sarah actually starts the episode
silently and in the background. Abraham orders her to “knead and make cakes” for the unexpected
guests, but Sarah does not herself meet them (18:6). Rather, she remains secluded in her tent.
However, when the angels make their dramatic announcement the narrator pushes Sarah to the
foreground. The elderly Sarah overhears these interlocutors and reacts incredulously (18:12):

And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have


enjoyment—with my husband so old?”

While Sarah might be forgiven for being a bit skeptical at such a promise from three
strangers, the Bible presents this as indicating a lack of faith (18:13-15):

Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth
bear a child, old as I am?’ Is anything too wondrous for the Lord? I will return to
you at this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah lied, saying, “I did
not laugh,” for she was frightened. But He replied, “No. You did laugh.” [ ‫ויאמר לא‬
‫]כי צחקת‬

The contrast between Sarah’s futile attempt to lie and the blunt and unfriendly nature of God’s
reply is, in von Rad’s words, an “effective, serious conclusion to the scene.”32 This exchange is of
particular importance as it is the only instance in the Bible where Sarah and God interact directly.
The fact that it results in a rather stinging indictment of Sarah is therefore all the more damning.

As with Sarah’s treatment of Hagar, here too use of a Feminist lens can add depth by
shedding light on the underlying assumptions of the text.33 The scene appears engineered to draw

32
von Rad, Genesis, 207.
33
For more on Sarah’s portrayal in this episode by a scholar who heavily emphasizes the patriarchal nature of the
text, see: Esther Fuchs, “The Literary Characterization of Mothers and Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible,” in Women
in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader, ed. Alice Bach (New York: Routledge, 1999), 129.

43
a contrast between Abraham and Sarah. Just as the Bible seems to assume that women, unlike
men, are unable to settle their grievances in a diplomatic fashion, the author here apparently
believes that they are not capable of the same trust in the word of God. In contrast to Abraham
who is the consummate man of faith, Sarah not only laughs at the divine promise, but foolishly
attempts to lie about it. Indeed, this episode seems to be a rather explicit example of a point which
the Bible makes in a more subtle fashion elsewhere. As mentioned previously, Abraham is referred
to by epithets such as “prophet” and the “elect of God,” a tribute to his direct connection to God.
As merely the “wife of Abraham,” Sarah receives no such praise because she has no such
connection.

Despite these conclusions, those scholars who take a depatriarchalizing approach do


manage to find some more positive aspects to the annunciation episode. Pointing to the
heterogenetic nature of the Hebrew Bible, they note how both messages of equality and oppression
sometimes compete with each other in the very same biblical context.34 This is the case regarding
God’s promise of a child, first to Abraham (Gen 17) and later to Sarah as discussed above (Gen
18). Looking to Genesis 17, Frymer-Kensky notes that when God repeats his promise to grant
Abraham a child, Abraham replies that this has already been fulfilled with the birth of Ishmael.
God then corrects him and states that the covenant can only be fulfilled through his child with
Sarah (Gen 17:18-19). When read thus it is clear that Genesis 17 actually contains two distinct
voices regarding the covenant: one which focuses solely on Abraham and one which involves
Sarah as well. By presenting the episode in such a manner and by attributing the more egalitarian
view to the Divine, the narrator “warns both ancient and modern readers not to be too quick to
accept Abraham’s androcentric view of the nature of the covenant.”35

As opposed to trying to separate between competing ideas in the same episode as Frymer-
Kensky has done here, others attempt to identify how parallel texts belie subtly different
approaches to the same tradition. For example, by fusing Feminist critique and traditional source-
criticism, Sarah Shectman has argued that the Pentateuch is witness to a process of the “subsuming
of women to men” in which the later Priestly sources (known in the scholarship as P) rework the

34
For an overview of this approach and some illustrative examples, including her own which is described here, see:
Frymer-Kensky, Studies, 167–69.
35
Ibid., 169.

44
earlier non-Priestly traditions (known in the scholarship as non-P) in a more androcentric mold.36
Of the sections which she analyzes in order to illustrate this point are the twin accounts of the
annunciation of Isaac’s birth. In Genesis 18, the section quoted above, Sarah is told of her
impending pregnancy, and the etiology of Isaac’s name is linked to her laughter. In the parallel
tradition recorded in Genesis 17, however, only Abraham is told of the future birth and a covenant
is made with Abraham alone. Likewise, Isaac’s name is tied to his reaction (17:17):

Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, “Can a child
be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?”

According to Shectman, these two sections bear witness to the aforementioned pattern of
‘subsuming’. The version in Genesis 18 (attributed to non-P) in which Sarah plays a central role
is transformed into a version where Sarah is absent in Genesis 17 (attributed to P).37 By isolating
these variant traditions Shectman attempts to reveal a non-patriarchal layer of the texts regarding
Sarah which has been hidden through later editing.38 Of course, this is a very different take on
Genesis 18 than that of Frymer-Kensky, who viewed it as expanding Sarah’s role. Likewise, the
rather negative nature of Sarah’s portrayal in Genesis 18, as discussed above, may weaken
Shectman’s case. If Genesis 18 is in fact a matriarchal text, one would expect a more laudable
description of Sarah—not one in which she is rebuked by the Lord. Either way though, both
Shectman’s reading and Frymer-Kensky’s reading represent efforts to open the door for a more
positive view of Sarah by highlighting how the Bible subtly grants her an important role in God’s
covenant.

An even more extreme example of a Feminist re-reading of the annunciation of Isaac is


advanced by Schneider.39 It will be recalled that Frymer-Kensky and Shectman both recognize the
ultimately patriarchal nature of the text, but wish to point to the praise of Sarah which nevertheless

36
Shectman, Women in the Pentateuch, 178.
37
Ibid, 137–40.
38
A similar use of higher criticism to highlight the heterogenetic nature of the biblical text and in doing so identify
female voices therein can be found in: Ilana Pardes, Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1992). For a brief but helpful discussion of this methodology, see her introduction entitled
“Preliminary Excavations”: Ibid., 1–12. As she notes, such an approach attempts to find a medium between those
that use depatriarchalizing as a tool to re-read the Bible in a manner which rejects the patriarchy entirely, and those
who continue to maintain that the Bible is wholly androcentric and misogynistic.
39
Schneider, Sarah, 70–74.

45
lay hidden in it. Unlike them, Schneider consistently maintains that Sarah is in fact the true heroine
of the narrative. This is true even in regard to what is generally seen as Sarah’s worst moment:
laughing at the divine promise of Isaac’s birth. Schneider starts by arguing that the Hebrew of the
final line of that scene is actually ambiguous (18:15):

.‫ותכחש שרה לאמר לא צחקתי כי יראה ויאמר לא כי צחקת‬

Nearly all translators and scholars understand that the unnamed male whom Sarah fears and lies
to is God (“But He replied, ‘You did laugh’”). However, it could in theory be referring to Abraham
instead (“But he replied, ‘You did laugh’”). Schneider concedes that if it is in fact God who rebukes
Sarah, then the reader must certainly accept that Sarah demonstrated a lack of faith through her
laughter and lie. However, Schneider argues that God cannot be the one rebuking her here. This is
based in large part on her previous argument that God actually shows His closeness to Sarah by
intervening on her behalf when she is captured. As such, Schneider posits that it is actually
Abraham who responds to Sarah’s laughter. If so, she continues, then the reader cannot take this
as a serious indictment of Sarah’s character. In keeping with her reading of previous episodes,
Schneider states that Sarah has every reason to fear her husband. After all, he failed to protect her
from Pharaoh and allowed Hagar to disrespect her. Further, Abraham’s rebuke is hypocritical as
he himself laughed when told of Isaac’s birth just one chapter previously (17:17). 40 Therefore,
Schneider concludes that the narrative does not intend for the reader to take this rejoinder as a
critique of Sarah’s faith, but rather as another example of Abraham’s mistreatment of her.

As with the other examples of more extreme depatriarchalization discussed previously, this
argument is a bit of stretch. As Schneider herself notes, reading Sarah’s rebuke as coming from
Abraham relies heavily upon her previous conclusions that the biblical authors wished to criticize

40
As Schneider herself notes, her approach throughout is literary and not source-critical (Ibid., 2.). The juxtaposition
of Abraham’s laughter with Sarah’s is a prime example of this. From a source-critical standpoint these represent two
distinct attempts to account for Isaac’s name (a third can be found 21:5-6; see: Speiser, Genesis, 157). As a result,
they should not necessarily be read each in light of the other. However, Schneider sees trying to reconstruct the
various sources which make up the Bible to be a fool’s errand. Instead, she investigates how a reader of the final
version of Genesis should understand the parallels between the various stories and events in the narrative. This, of
course, assumes that the editors of the Bible were aware of the nuanced readings they were creating by preserving
variant traditions, and wished for their audience to draw said conclusions. However, this is not necessarily a justified
assumption nor a simple matter to prove. The larger debate between literary and source-critical approaches to the
Hebrew is beyond the scope of this study. However, these general observations may point to a certain weakness in
Schneider’s argument here.

46
the patriarch for his overall treatment of Sarah and also wanted to present her conduct towards
Hagar as proper. However, there is no strong reason to see this as the case. To repeat points made
earlier, the Bible is not actually critical of Abraham’s treatment of his wife nor does it wish to
defend Sarah’s oppression of her slave. Thus, there is no reason to buck the overwhelming
scholarly consensus that the terse reproach Sarah receives is from God.41 Nevertheless, despite the
fact that Schneider’s reading of this episode is not convincing, it does draw attention to some
aspects of the biblical text which may lend themselves to alternative and creative readings. This
will prove important later when analyzing how the rabbis of GenR read this episode.

Conclusion
The biblical record is less than kind to Sarah. Her own thoughts and actions are often ignored by
the narrator as he relays Abraham’s story. When the reader is told of her conduct she comes off as
petty, jealous, and even lacking faith in God’s word. Turning to the work of Feminist scholars,
some nuance can be added to these more traditional conclusions. They demonstrate how the
patriarchal nature of the Bible would have informed the crafting of Sarah’s character therein. With
that, a so-called depatriachalization of the book of Genesis sheds light upon some more positive
messages regarding the matriarch which can be found hidden in the text. While this does
undermine the conclusion that Sarah’s depiction on the whole is negative, it is important to
recognize that the heterogenetic nature of the Bible also gives expression to other voices. All these
points will prove important when analyzing the subsequent portrayal of Sarah in second Temple
and rabbinic sources. In addition, a handful of scholars have argued that Sarah is actually portrayed
as biblical hero in her own right. While this more extreme depatriachalization has not gained
widespread acceptance, it may nevertheless still play a role in the study of early Jewish exegesis
by drawing attention to certain textual nuances and possible (even if not probable) readings.

41
In addition to this, the Bible states that Sarah “laughed to herself” ]‫[ותצחק שרה בקרבה‬. Therefore, it is not at all
clear that Abraham would have heard Sarah’s laugh in the first place in order to rebuke her as Schneider would
have it.

47
Works Cited
Brenner, Athalya. The Israelite Woman: Social Role and Literary Type in Biblical Narrative.
Sheffield: JSOT, 1985.
Darr, Katheryn Pfisterer. “More than the Stars of Heaven: Critical, Rabbinical, and Feminist
Perspectives on Sarah.” In Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical
Women, 85–131. Louisville: John Knox, 1991.
Davidson, Joe Ann. “Modern Feminism, Religious Pluralism, and Scripture.” Journal of the
Adventist Theological Society 10, no. 1–2 (2000): 401–40.
Exum, J. Cheryl. “‘Mother in Israel’: A Familiar Figure Reconsidered.” In Feminist
Interpretation of the Bible, edited by Letty M. Russell, 73–85. Philadelphia:
Westminster Press, 1985.
Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. Reading the Women of the Bible. New York: Schocken Books, 2002.
———. Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society,
2006.
Fuchs, Esther. Sexual Politics in the Biblical Narrative: Reading the Hebrew Bible as a
Woman. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.
———. “The Literary Characterization of Mothers and Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible.”
In Women in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader, edited by Alice Bach, 177–136. New York:
Routledge, 1999.
Jeansonne, Sharon Pace. The Women of Genesis: From Sarah to Potiphar’s Wife. Minneapolis:
Fortress Press, 1990.
Nunnally-Cox, Janice. Foremothers: Women of the Bible. New York: Seabury Press, 1981.
Pardes, Ilana. Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1992.
Rad, Gerhard von. Genesis: A Commentary. Translated by John H Marks. London: SCM Press,
1961.
Sarna, Nahum M. Understanding Genesis: The World of the Bible in the Light of History.
New York: Schocken, 1966.
Schneider, Tammi J. Sarah: Mother of Nations. New York: Continuum, 2004.
Shectman, Sarah. Women in the Pentateuch: A Feminist and Source-Critical Analysis.
Sheffield: Phoenix Press, 2009.
Speiser, Ephraim Avigdor. Genesis. Anchor Bible Commentary. Garden City: Doubleday,
1964.
———. “The Wife-Sister Motif.” In Biblical and Other Studies, edited by Alexander
Altmann, 15–28. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963.
Teubal, Savina J. Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis. Ohio: Swallow Press,
1986.

48
Trible, Phyllis. “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation.” Journal of the American
Academy of Religion 41, no. 1 (1973): 30–48.
Yee, Gale A. “Sarah.” Edited by David Noel Freedman. Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York:
Doubleday, 1992.

49
Chapter Two
Sarah in the Second Temple Literature: Continuing the Biblical Approach

Introduction
Though rabbinic literature often receives the most attention, the Jewish exegetical tradition
actually begins earlier in the post-biblical era.1 Starting in the centuries before the destruction of
the Jerusalem Temple (70 CE) until the transmission of the Mishnah (220 CE), Jewish authors
produced a rather extensive corpus generally called ‘second Temple literature’. In addition to
religious law and liturgy, much of this body of work is dedicated to reflections on the Hebrew
Bible. Several of the authors, whose names have often been lost to history, rewrite biblical stories
and fill in gaps in the biblical narrative.2 In many cases their exegesis demonstrates a mix of both
textual sensitivity vis-à-vis the Bible and ideological interpretations in a manner which anticipates
later rabbinic midrash. Indeed, in the last 50 years scholarship of second Temple literature has
placed more and more of an emphasis on its relationship to rabbinic texts, both legal and exegetical.
In addition to its significance as an independent body of work, this corpus plays an important role
in our understanding of the world from which rabbinic midrash emerged.3 First analyzing the
manner in which Sarah is portrayed in the Jewish works which predate the rabbis makes it possible
to judge to what extent GenR is innovative and to what extent it merely continues existing trends
in the Jewish exegetical tradition. While the limits of this study prohibit discussion of the expansive
corpus of second Temple Judaism in its entirety, the works presented here represent a good cross-
section of the more substantial texts and influential authors of the period. In addition, they cover a

1
This brief introduction to the literature of the second Temple period is based in large part on Louis H. Feldman,
James L. Kugel, and Lawrence H. Schiffman, “Introduction,” in Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to
Scripture, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2013), xv–xviii.
2
Regarding the difference between ‘gaps and ‘blanks’ in literary theory, see: Joshua Levinson, The Twice Told Tale:
A Poetics of the Exegetical Narrative in Rabbinic Midrash (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2005), 46–48. Gaps are created
by information that is left out of the text by the author and which the reader must fill in on their own in order to
make the world of the text coherent. However, blanks refer to information that is lacking in the text because it does
not interest the author to relay it and thus has no literary importance. Therefore, the reader is under no obligation
to fill in this information. As Levinson notes in the context of rabbinic midrash, however, the rabbis’ approach to the
biblical text often means that the line between gaps and blanks is blurred. Frequently, blanks in the biblical narrative
are actually seen by the midrash as gaps which it then endeavors to fill. The same is often true of the second Temple
texts which will be discussed here. As a result, in both my discussions of rabbinic and second Temple texts I will not
always use the terms gap and blank in the exact sense which literary theorist do.
3
Many works have been dedicated to the connections between rabbinic literature and its second Temple
antecedent. A brief and helpful introduction to these matters along with illustrative examples can be found in:
Avigdor Shinan, The World of the Aggadah [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: MOD Books, 1987), chaps. 3–5.

50
relatively wide chronological and geographical range, making it possible to draw some overall
conclusions regarding how Sarah was conceptualized in the second Temple period.

If the Bible itself takes a less than favorable approach to Sarah, she hardly fares better in
the literature of the second Temple period. In general, these early Jewish exegetes give the
matriarch little to no special attention. In the versions of the Genesis story found in Book of the
Jubilees, Genesis Apocryphon, Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities, and Josephus’ Judean
Antiquities, the authors see no need to expand upon Sarah as a character or fill in the more glaring
gaps in her biography.4 While some of these authors do make attempts to expunge a portion of the
less flattering depictions of Sarah from the biblical record, they invariably do so by diminishing
her role and removing those instances where she is an active agent. In contrast, others have no
qualms highlighting Sarah’s flaws as depicted in the Bible, and critique her outright. The only
clear exception to this is Philo, who not only expands upon parts of Sarah’s story, but also grants
her a fair measure of importance in his writing. Nevertheless, even for him, Sarah still remains
secondary to Abraham and an ancillary part of his story. When all this is taken into account, it can
be concluded that second Temple authors more-or-less continue the portrayal of Sarah found in
the Hebrew Bible. At best she is an auxiliary part of Abraham’s story, and at worst she is a negative
character who stands in contrast to her righteous husband.

Returning to the phraseology of modern Bible study, it can be said that if some Feminist
scholars uncover different approaches to the biblical text through a depatriarchalized reading, these
early Jewish exegetes do not take advantage of such openings in the text. They choose not to grant
Sarah a more important role in Abraham’s story and as a rule they do not emphasize the aspects
of her character which might be taken in a more positive direction. It may be hard to discern if this
is a result of their own ideology, a faithful reflection of the Bible’s own patriarchal bias, or both.
Whatever the cause, though, these points will prove important when analyzing the depiction of the
matriarch in GenR. With earlier Jewish exegesis as background, the unique nature of the midrash
becomes clear.

4
A helpful collection of much of the second Temple literature involving Sarah can be found in: David J. Zucker and
Moshe Reiss, The Matriarchs of Genesis: Seven Women, Five Views (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015), 36–
44.

51
Book of the Jubilees
The Book of the Jubilees was one of the central texts of the community associated with the Dead
Sea Scrolls.5 Jubilees purports to be a book given to Moses, along with the Torah itself, by an
angel of God on Sinai. The book’s title (which does not appear to be its original name) refers to
the fact that it makes a point of giving dates to various events of the Genesis story and does so
according to the Jubilee (i.e., period of 49 years; cf. Lev 25:8) in which the event happened. It not
only fills in the dates which are often missing from the biblical narrative, but it also adds new
information to biblical stories and addresses their gaps. Regarding its ideology, Jubilees
continually highlights Israel’s connection with God. It emphasizes that the heroes of Genesis
worshiped God and kept the Torah just as would be later proscribed at Sinai and also advocates
for an almost militant separatism from foreign peoples. The book is roughly dated to the early
second-century BCE. Though it was written in Hebrew, the only known complete version is a
translation into Ge’ez. This is supplemented by a few fragments in the original Hebrew which have
survived, as well as others from Latin and Syriac translations.6

As part of its retelling of Genesis, Jubilees gives a truncated overview of several events in
Sarah’s life. These include her capture by Pharaoh (though not the parallel story involving
Abimelech), the giving of Hagar to Abraham, the annunciation of Isaac, and the eventual
banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. When it comes to Sarah’s characterization in these episodes,
the author more or less sticks to a terse version of the facts as laid out in the Bible, though there
are occasional adjustments. For example, when it relays that Sarah was taken by Pharaoh, it
removes Abraham’s request that she claim they are siblings. Also, it states that Pharaoh gave
Abraham gifts only after Sarah was returned to him, not before as in the Bible (Jub 13:13-15).7
These acute changes were probably done to protect Abraham’s honor and as such bear witness to
the author’s discomfort with the original story.8 If the gifts were given only after Sarah was taken
then it could imply, as some scholars who emphasis the patriarchal nature of the Bible indeed
maintain, that Abraham was a willing partner to the exchange. This would be anathema to the

5
This brief introduction to Jubilees is based in large part on James L. Kugel, “Jubilees,” in Outside the Bible, 272–78.
6
Unfortunately, no Hebrew fragments have survived from the sections of Jubilees that will be quoted here. For a
full list of these fragments, see: Michael Segal, The Book of Jubilees: Rewritten Bible, Redaction, Ideology and
Theology [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2007), 256–57.
7
Citations and translations of Jubilees: Kugel, “Jubilees.”
8
As noted by Kugel in the commentary to his translation: Ibid., 341.

52
separatism of Jubilees and the author would do well to change the narrative as he did.9 Similarly,
it could be that the author of Jubilees was bothered by the fact that Abraham would ask his wife
to lie for him. Not only would this call into question the patriarch’s integrity, but he could also be
seen as placing his fate in his wife’s hands, as some depatriarchalized readings of the Bible have
indeed concluded. By getting rid the wife-sister motif, such problems are avoided. The general
approach of Jubilees to this incident is best summed up by its comment several chapters later,
when it reviews the various tests God gave Abraham leading up to the akeida. Among tests such
as leaving his land, famine, and circumcision, Jubilees states: “He tested him with his wife, when
she was taken from him” (17:17). In other words, not only is Abraham’s conduct when his wife
taken not a strike against him, but it is actually an example of how he “was faithful [to God] in all
of his afflictions.” The fact that the whole episode is framed here as a test for Abraham only
highlights that Jubilees views Sarah as a tool for furthering Abraham’s story. Of course, it is not
hard to see how the author could reach this conclusion from the Bible itself.

Not only does Jubilees relegate Sarah to a passive role during Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt,
but it has no qualms about recording ignoble behavior on her part elsewhere. Faithful to the Bible’s
account, it states Sarah “laughed” when told about Isaac’s birth (16:2). So too, according to the
Jubilees, when reproached for this “she was afraid and denied” it (16:2). Likewise, the author
retains the sympathetic portrayal of Hagar and the divine promises the maidservant receives when
she and her son Ishmael are expelled (17:10-12). As in the Bible, this leaves Sarah looking cruel
by comparison. More to the point, the Bible somewhat vaguely recounts that Sarah was triggered
to banish the two when she saw Ishmael “playing” (Gen 1:9). Jubilees states that Sarah saw
“Ishmael playing and dancing and Abraham rejoicing very greatly. And she was jealous of
Ishmael” (Jub 17:4). In clearing up the Bible’s ambiguity the author of Jubilees not only renders
Ishmael’s behavior quite innocuous, but also portrays Sarah in an even more negative manner.
Lastly, Jubilees’ rendering of Sarah’s blessing in Genesis 17:16 should be noted. In the Bible,
Abraham is told that his wife will be blessed and that “she shall give rise to nations [and that]
rulers of peoples shall issue from her.” In the version found in Jubilees, God still states that Sarah

9
Regarding the importance of separatist ideology in Jubilees, see: Christine Elizabeth Hayes, Gentile Impurities and
Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002),
73–81. She notes the important role that Abraham plays as the first protector of the ‘holy seed’ against the impurity
of the foreign nations. Thus, there would be all the more reason for Jubilees to downplay any possible involvement
on his part in this incident.

53
will be blessed with a child, but the promise of ‘nations’ and ‘rulers’ is made in regards to Isaac’s
progeny instead (15:16):10

And I will bless her and I will give you a son from her. And I will bless him. And he
will become a people. And kings of nations will come from him.

As discussed, some Feminist scholars see the Bible’s blessing as speaking to Sarah’s own
importance in the divine covenant. Whether or not this is the case, Jubilees precludes such a
reading. It reworks the blessing into one which values Sarah only to the extent that she is the
mother of Isaac. 11

To briefly summarize, while Jubilees does make an effort to blunt possible criticism of
Abraham, its portrayal of Sarah remains fairly close to the original characterization of Sarah in the
Bible itself. This is most apparent regarding her time with Pharaoh. The author removes aspects
which might reflect negatively on Abraham and goes so far as to describe the incident as a ‘test of
faith’ which he passed. However, like the Bible, Jubilees ignores Sarah’s own experience
completely. Also like the Bible, Jubilees quite frankly recounts Sarah’s laughter at the divine
promise of a child, and, in an even more explicit fashion than the Bible, her jealous and petty
treatment of Hagar. Finally, the individual blessing Sarah does receive in the book of Genesis is
presented in a fashion that subtly minimizes her role.

Genesis Apocryphon
The Genesis Apocryphon is an additional work associated with the Qumran sect.12 It remained
unknown until fragments were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. The surviving sections
develop the story of Noah and the early parts of the Abraham narrative. It is not clear exactly how
much additional material has been lost, though it appears that there was considerably more to the

10
Emphasis my own. Betsy Halpern Amaru notes that Jubilees here parallels the rendering of this blessing in the
Septuagint, see: Betsy Halpern Amaru, “Women in Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities,” in “Women like This”: New
Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman World, ed. Amy-Jill Levine, Early Judaism and Its Literature 1
(Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991), 89 fn21.
11
Betsy Halpren-Amaru has actually argued that Jubilees “enhances the character of Sarah over her biblical
counterpart,” see: Betsy Halpern Amaru, “The Portrait of Sarah in Jubilees,” in Jewish Studies in a New Europe, ed.
Ulf Haxen, Hanne Trautner-Kromann, and Karen Lisa Goldschmidt Salamon (Copenhagen: C.A. Reitzel, 1998), 336
and her fuller treatment in: The Empowerment of Women in the Book of Jubilees (Leiden: Brill, 1999). However, I
find her arguments unconvincing in light of the evidence presented here.
12
This brief introduction is based on Matthew J. Morgenstern and Michael Segal, “The Genesis Apocryphon,” in
Outside the Bible, 237–39.

54
original text. The Apocryphon is a rather eclectic text which appears to draw upon various sources
and uses different writing styles throughout. For example, some sections are narrated in the first
person by Biblical protagonists, while others are relayed in the third person. Despite this, scholars
have identified some overarching exegetical trends in the work. Often the Apocryphon will
rearrange events in the Bible to make for a smoother narrative or harmonize matters which are
repetitive or incongruous in the original. In addition, scholars have noted several parallels between
this work and the aforementioned Jubilees, though the exact relationship between these texts
remains an open question. The Apocryphon is generally dated to some point between the third-
and first-centuries BCE and the work survives in its original Aramaic. In fact, it is the lengthiest
Jewish-Aramaic text to have survived from the second Temple period.

Of all the material in the Apocryphon which deals with Abraham (GA 19-22), it is only in
regard to his time in Egypt that Sarah is mentioned (19:14-20:33).13 Unlike Jubilees which glosses
over it tersely, the Apocryphon actually does add substantial details to this story. A prominent
addition to its version of the story involves a prophetic dream which Abraham receives as the
couple crosses into Egypt (19:14-17). In this dream, which Abraham narrates in the first person,
the patriarch is represented by a “cedar tree” (‫ )ארזא‬and his wife by a “palm tree” (‫(תמרתא‬. The
palm tree (Sarah) “cried out” on behalf of the cedar tree and claimed “both of us have [sprouted]
from one root” (19:16). As a result “the cedar tree was spared for the sake of the palm tree and
was not chopped down” (19:16-17). Upon awakening from his dream Abraham fears for his safety
and Sarah encourages him to share with her what he has seen (19:18). He then tells Sarah of the
dangers waiting for him in Egypt and asks her to claim that they are siblings (i.e., of “one root”)
in order that he may be saved. Abraham then concludes by stating that “Sarai cried at my words
that night,” a description of the matriarch which is certainly more empathetic than anything seen
thus far.

Another rather blatant addition in the Apocryphon is the extended description of Sarah’s
attractiveness which Pharaoh’s ministers relay to him (GA 20:2-8). While the Bible itself does
mention that both Abraham and the Egyptians recognized Sarah’s beauty (‫אשה יפת מראה‬, Gen
12:11; ‫יפה ִהוא מאד‬, 12:14), the Apocryphon goes beyond this. It details Sarah’s various features at

13
Citations and translations according to: Morgenstern and Segal, “The Genesis Apocryphon.” Quotation from the
original Aramaic are taken from: Nahman Avigad and Yigael Yadin, A Genesis Apocryphon: a Scroll from the
Wilderness of Judea [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1956).

55
length, including her “splendid” face, “lovely” eyes, “delightful” nose, the “radiance” of her face,
and much more (20:2-8).14 The ministers finish their report to the king by stating (20:7-8):

More than all women she is beautiful, and her beauty surpasses them all [ ‫ועליא שפרהא‬
‫]לעלא מן כולהן‬. And with all this beauty, there is much wisdom in her [‫;]חכמא שגיא עמהא‬
her handiwork is fine ]‫[ודל ידיהא יאא‬.

Upon hearing this, Pharaoh “greatly desired her, and quickly and had her brought” (20:8-9). He
immediately sees that his ministers did not exaggerate. The king is “astounded at all her beauty”
and takes her as wife. Along with the sympathetic recounting of Sarah’s reaction to Abraham’s
dream, the author’s insertion of a detailed description of her comeliness helps give a far more
positive portrayal of Sarah than is found in the Bible or Jubilees. Indeed, even though the heavy
emphasis in on her fine physical features, the Apocryphon also notes her “wisdom” and
“handiwork”.

However, this portrayal of Sarah has clear limits. Other than the fact that she follows
Abraham’s instructions and tells Pharaoh they are siblings, the author of the Apocryphon tells the
reader nothing of Sarah’s personal experience when captured. Indeed, despite its observation that
Sarah cried upon hearing Abraham’s dream, the Apocryphon seems mostly concerned with
defending Abraham’s actions. Like Jubilees, the author of the Apocryphon is apparently
uncomfortable with Abraham’s request that Sarah claim they are siblings. Rather than removing
it, as Jubilees did, the Apocryphon instead justifies it by recounting a prophetic dream which
motivates Abraham to do so (19:14-27).15 Also like Jubilees, the Apocryphon wishes to make clear
that Abraham was not a willing partner out to gain from his wife’s capture. In fact, it goes so far
as to describe his emotional prayers for her protection when she is taken. According to the
Apocryphon, that night Abraham “prayed, entreated, and asked for mercy” with “tears running
down” (‫בליליא דן צלית ובעית ואתחננת ואמרת באתעצבא ודמעי נחתן‬, 20:12). As mentioned, one Feminist

14
The portrayal of Sarah’s beauty in the Apocryphon is discussed by Tamar Kadari, “The Beauty of Sarah in Rabbinic
Literature,” Forthcoming, 16–18. Kadari notes that unlike the Bible and other sources which merely remark that
Sarah was beautiful, the Apocryphon gives an objective report of her features. In this it reveals the author’s ideal of
feminine beauty.
15
As opposed to this apologetic reason for the insertion of this dream, Kugel has argued for a more exegetical
motivation, see: James L. Kugel, “Biblical Exegesis in Qumran [Hebrew],” in The Qumran Scrolls and Their World, ed.
Menahem Kister, vol. 2 (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2009), 395–97. However, I believe that while Kugel’s
exegetical reading may explain how the Apocryphon goes about inserting and crafting this piece, it is the apologetic
reasons noted here which can explain why the author feels motivated to do so.

56
reading of Genesis notes that Abraham’s prayers for Abimelech highlight his failure to pray for
Sarah. Though this does not appear to be the intent of the biblical authors, the author of the
Apocryphon may also have noticed this discrepancy. Though it does not mention the Abimelech
episode, it does describes how Abraham eventually prays for Pharaoh to be healed after the king
returns Sarah (20:24-30). In this manner the Apocryphon actually harmonizes the two stories.16
However, merely combining the two stories in this way would make Abraham’s failure to pray for
Sarah rather blatant. By additionally depicting Abraham’s evocative prayers for Sarah’s safety, the
Apocryphon removes the possibility of such a critique.

Further, the content of this prayer makes it clear that the author sees Pharaoh’s actions as
a crime against Abraham and is not concerned with Sarah for her own sake (20:14-15; emphasis
my own):

Now, I place my complaint before you, regarding Pharaoh Zoan, king of Egypt,
because my wife has been taken away from me by force ]‫[די דברת אנתתי מני בתוקף‬.
Mete out justice to him for me ]‫[עבד לי דין‬, and show your great hand against him
and all his household; let him not be allowed this night to defile my wife for me!
]‫[לטמיא אנתתי מני‬

The repeated emphasis here is on the fact that Pharaoh committed a crime against Abraham, not
Sarah. In addition, the remark that Sarah was taken “by force” further absolves Abraham of any
guilt for her capture.

When all this material is taken into account it is clear that, through the Apocryphon does
show a fair amount of sympathy for Sarah, it is not overly concerned with her as a standalone
character. Ultimately, its expansions upon the story involving her capture by Pharaoh are aimed at
defending Abraham and highlighting how he was wronged. As with the Bible, Sarah’s experience
or the notion that she herself was victimized are absent. Likewise, for all its praise of Sarah, the
Apocryphon does not see any need to give actual examples of her “wisdom” and “handiwork”.
Thus, it appears that this laudatory description of Sarah is as much concerned with explaining why
Pharaoh was so intent on taking her as it is with garnering the readers support for her. Perhaps also

16
This use of details from the Sarah-Abimelech episode to fill in the Sarah-Pharaoh episode is noted by Morgenstern
and Segal, “The Genesis Apocryphon,” 254.

57
indicative of the secondary role she is granted here, the matriarch is not mentioned again outside
of this context in the Apocryphon, as noted. However, given that much of the original text has been
lost, one must be cautious about such an argumentum ex silentio.

Book of Biblical Antiquities


The Book of Biblical Antiquities (Liber antiquitatum biblicarum, LAB) is a ‘rewritten Bible’ even
more extensive than those just discussed.17 The book reviews the biblical narrative from Genesis
to Samuel, retelling and revising the familiar stories. Like Jubilees and the Apocryphon it not only
adjusts the biblical material along exegetical and ideological lines, but also occasionally inserts
episodes which are not alluded to in the Bible. Biblical Antiquities is actually substantially later
than these two works, having being written sometime after the destruction of the Temple, between
70 and 150 CE. Indicative of this, many of the traditions it works into its version of the biblical
narrative have clear precedent in the earlier second Temple era works. In addition, the work places
a huge emphasis on the belief that God will never fully abandon the Jewish people, no matter how
dire their situation. Biblical Antiquities was originally written in Hebrew and as such was almost
certainly compiled in the land of Israel. However, no Hebrew version of the text has survived. The
only extant manuscripts of Biblical Antiquities are Latin translations of an earlier Greek version.
The anonymous author of this work is often referred to as Pseudo-Philo, due to the erroneous
attribution in these manuscripts.

If previous works from the land of Israel did not really expand upon Sarah’s character,
Pseudo-Philo takes this trend a step further. He actually deletes nearly all the Sarah-related material
from his version of the Bible. As a result, Biblical Antiquities makes no mention of Sarah’s being
taken by the foreign kings, her dialogue with God, or the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. Though
it should be pointed out that Pseudo-Philo also skips much of the biblical material involving
Abraham, he nevertheless refers repeatedly to Abraham’s faith, the blessings he receives from
God, and the covenant between them (LAB 7:4, 8:3, 18:5, 32:1-2).18 Thus, despite removing some
familiar stories, the author stays true to the major themes associated with the patriarch in the Bible.
The idea that Abraham is the ultimate hero of faith is also found in one of the noticeable additions

17
This brief introduction is based in large part on Howard Jacobson, “Pseudo-Philo, Book of Biblical Antiquities,” in
Outside the Bible, 470–72.
18
Citations and translations of Biblical Antiquities taken from: Jacobson, “Pseudo-Philo, Book of Biblical Antiquities.”
Quotations from the Latin text are taken from Howard Jacobson, A Commentary on Pseudo-Philo’s Liber
Antiquitatum Biblicarum: With Latin Text and English Translation (Leiden: Brill, 1996).

58
that Pseudo-Philo makes to the Genesis narrative. In Biblical Antiquities, Abraham is inserted into
the Tower of Babel episode. The author describes at length how Abraham refuses to take part in
the sacrilegious building plan and is willingly thrown into a fiery furnace only to be miraculously
saved by God as reward for his loyalty and faith (6:1-6:18).19

By contrast, in addition to deleting most of her appearances from the biblical record,
Pseudo-Philo also sees no need to praise Sarah or to insert additional stories concerning her. In
fact, in those rare instances where he does mention her, the author actually makes a conscious
effort to minimize her role.20 As with Jubilees, the treatment of Sarah’s blessing that she “shall
give rise to nations [and that] rulers of peoples shall issue from her” is indicative (Gen 17:16). If
Jubilees moved this promise to Isaac instead, Pseudo-Philo just does away with it altogether. 21
After informing Abraham that Sarah’s name is to be changed, God tells him “I will give to you
from her an eternal seed and will establish my covenant with you” (LAB 8:3).22 In an even starker
fashion than found in Jubilees, Sarah’s role in the covenant, which was so stressed in the
depatriarchialized readings of the Bible, is unceremoniously removed. Instead, she is a merely a
tool through which the promise to Abraham can be fulfilled.

Similarly, while the biblical narrative records that Sarah suggested that Abraham take
Hagar, Pseudo-Philo chooses to do away with this. Instead, he credits the initiative to Abraham
himself: “Since Sarai his wife was sterile and had born no children, Abram then took Hagar his
maid and she bore him Ishmael” (LAB 8:1). Yet again, a scene which some have taken as evidence
of a more important, or at least more active, role for Sarah has been removed in Biblical Antiquities.
While Pseudo-Philo has nothing particularly negative to say about Sarah, he clearly avoids
addressing her character. If the Bible presents the matriarch as secondary to Abraham, Pseudo-
Philo appears to take this one step further. For him Sarah is hardly worthy of mention in Abraham’s
story at all.

19
A similar trial by fire, which recalls events in the book of Daniel (Dan 3:1-30), can be found in GenR as well (GR
38:13), though there it is not connected to the Tower of Babel. Elsewhere in rabbinic literature, however, a
connection between Abraham and the Tower can be found. See: Jacobson’s comments: Ibid., 486.
20
As noted by Amaru, “Women in Pseudo-Philo,” 87–89.
21
Ibid., 89.
22
Emphasis my own. That “you” is a reference to Abraham alone and not both he and Sarah is clear from the Latin:
“Et dabo tibi ex ea semen sempiternum, et disponam testamentum meum te cum.”

59
Josephus Flavius
Unlike the texts presented until now, the works of the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius (d. ca.
100) were not written in the land of Israel nor for a primarily Jewish audience. 23 Though raised
and educated in Jerusalem, Josephus made his way to Rome after the failure of the Great Revolt
in which he himself fought. Living the rest of his life in the heart of the Empire, Josephus produced
an expansive body of work which includes some of the most important accounts of Jewish life in
the late second Temple period. As part of his Judean Antiquities, a survey of the people of Israel’s
history through to his own time, Josephus dedicates several books to a rewriting of the biblical
narrative in its entirety. While the study of Josephus’ works has traditionally focused on the nature
of the historical evidence in his works, more recent scholarship has highlighted his role as a biblical
exegete as well. Despite his own promise not to add or omit anything to his presentation of the
Bible (JA 1.17), Josephus, like all the authors discussed here, often does. Frequently he frames
characters and episodes in a manner which utilizes motifs familiar to his Greco-Roman audience
or, at the very least, which avoids offending their sensibilities. Judean Antiquities was completed
in 93/94 CE and like all of Josephus’ works was written in Greek.

When it comes to his portrayal of Sarah, some scholars have argued that Josephus presents
Sarah in a rather positive manner.24 They note that he emphasizes Sarah’s chaste beauty and
removes perceived flaws in her character in order to make her a more perfect matriarch. Not only
does Josephus make a point of magnifying Sarah’s beauty and highlighting her elegant nature, 25
but he takes pains to justify Sarah’s treatment of Hagar. As discussed, the Bible simply refers to
the maidservant’s “lowered esteem” (Gen 16:5) for her mistress, which leaves Sarah’s decision to
expel her seem overly harsh. Josephus instead speaks of Hagar’s “insolence” towards Sarah
(ἐξυβρίζειν εἰς τὴν Σάρραν, JA 1.888).26 Further, he reports that the maidservant’s need to flee

23
This brief introduction is based in large part on Steve Mason, “Introduction to the Judean Antiquities,” in Judean
Antiquities 1-4, ed. Steve Mason, vol. 3, Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2000), xiii–
xxxvi.
24
This is the opinion of James L. Bailey, “Josephus’ Portrayal of the Matriarchs,” in Josephus, Judaism, and
Christianity, ed. Louis H. Feldman and Gohei Hata (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987), 154–61. His
approach is also adopted by Louis Feldman who speaks of Josephus’ “aggrandizement” of Sarah, see: Louis H.
Feldman, Josephus’s Interpretation of the Bible, Hellenistic Culture and Society (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1998), 225.
25
See the sources cited by Bailey, “Josephus’ Portrayal of the Matriarchs,” 157–58.
26
Translations of Judean Antiquities from: Louis H. Feldman, Judean Antiquities 1-4, ed. Steve Mason, vol. 3, Flavius
Josephus: Translation and Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2000). For more on how Josephus augments the biblical record
to defend Sarah and Abraham’s treatment of Hagar, see Feldman’s comments here and Bailey, “Josephus’ Portrayal

60
was the direct result of her being “thoughtless and stubborn” (ἀγνώμονα καὶ αὐθάδη, 1.189). In
addition, Josephus mentions how Sarah and Abraham graciously pardon Hagar upon her return, a
detail with no support in the biblical text itself (1.190). Later, Josephus similarly justifies Sarah’s
banishment of Ishmael, which in the biblical account leaves the matriarch looking especially
heartless. According to Josephus, however, Sarah was forced to do so out of fear that the elder son
would “cause [Isaac] harm after his father had died” (1.215). Not only this, but he adds that Sarah
actually cared deeply for Ishmael “showing [him] no less affection than if it were her own son”
(1.215).27 In other words, unlike in the Bible, Sarah’s actions are no longer jealous or petty. Instead,
they are the difficult but correct decision of a concerned mother.

In fact, Sarah’s interactions with Hagar and Ishmael are not the only place where Josephus
makes an effort to do away with what would otherwise be seen as shameful behavior on her part.
To this same end, he removes Sarah’s conversation with God after she laughs at the promise of a
child. As a result he can expunge her subsequent lie and the rebuke she receives. Based on these
points, James Bailey has concluded that Josephus fashioned Sarah using “Hellenistic literary
models which exalted the beautiful and exemplary aristocratic women.”28 According to him,
Josephus’ positive take on Sarah was meant to “win admiration” for the matriarch and her people
despite Josephus otherwise “sharing commonly held attitudes which were condescending towards
women.”29

However, it would be a mistake to conclude from all this that Josephus’ portrayal of Sarah
is in fact so wholly positive. As with the biblical record, scholars with a Feminist– sensibility
argue for a more nuanced approach.30 While she concurs that Josephus meant to portray Sarah
according to a Hellenistic ideal, Betsy Halpern Amaru notes that this has some rather negative
consequences for the matriarch. Like proper wives in this literary tradition, Sarah is characterized

of the Matriarchs,” 159. Citations of the original Greek are taken from Benedikt Niese, Flavii Iosephi Opera, vol. 1–4
(Berlin: Weidmann, 1955), http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0526:001:65015.
27
Noted by Bailey, “Josephus’ Portrayal of the Matriarchs,” 160.
28
Ibid., 155.
29
Ibid. Regarding Josephus’ negative attitude to women in general, see: Ibid., 155–57 and more fully and most
recently: Tal Ilan, “Josephus on Women,” in A Companion to Josephus, ed. Honora Howell Chapman and Zuleika
Rodgers (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), 210–21.
30
See: Maren R. Niehoff, “Mother and Maiden, Sister and Spouse: Sarah in Philonic Midrash,” Harvard Theological
Review 97, no. 4 (2004): 416–18; Betsy Halpern Amaru, “Portraits of Biblical Women in Josephus’ Antiquities,”
Journal of Jewish Studies 39 (1988): 144–48.

61
by “submissiveness” and “public silence.”31 This explains why Josephus gives Sarah no direct
speech and removes most of the instances where she takes initiative in the Bible.32 As with Pseudo-
Philo, for example, according to Josephus it is not Sarah who insists that Abraham take Hagar as
a wife. If Pseudo-Philo attributes the idea to Abraham, in Judean Antiquities it is the command of
God.33 Further, in Josephus’ rewriting of Genesis, Abraham does not ask for Sarah’s help when
they arrive in Egypt. Instead, the patriarch himself “pretended that he was [Sarah’s] brother and
instructed [ἐδίδαξεν] her that she should feign this” (1:162).34 While Josephus changes matters as
presented in the Bible, he does not see a need to do away with Abraham’s misleading of Pharaoh,
as some other second Temple authors do. Therefore, it is not Abraham’s duplicity which bothered
Josephus. As discussed, some modern Bible scholars have pointed to the fact that Abraham needed
to request that Sarah lie in order to argue that he is actually beholden to his wife, even implying a
level of equality. It appears that this is the exact conclusion that Josephus felt compelled to avoid.
Hence, he states that Abraham told Sarah what to do. This also explains why, unlike the Bible
which states clearly that the deception is done for Abraham’s sake, Josephus writes that Abraham
informed Sarah that doing so “was in their interest [συμφέρειν γὰρ αὐτοῖς]”.35 Given his silent
and passive portrayal of Sarah when addressing those instances where the matriarch appears in the
Bible, it not surprising that Josephus, like other authors of his era, does not choose to expand upon
those places in the Bible where details of Sarah’s story are left out. Blanks in the biblical narrative,
such as her own thoughts and actions during her time with Pharaoh or Abimelech, simply do not
interest Josephus and are not addressed in Judean Antiquities.

31
Amaru, “Portraits,” 148.
32
Ibid., 144, 145.
33
The use of this subtle change in order to downplay Sarah’s role is noted by Niehoff, “Mother and Maiden,” 416;
Amaru, “Portraits,” 147. In contrast, Feldman takes Josephus’ crediting of God with what is mentioned in the Bible
as Sarah’s idea as proof that Josephus understood Sarah to be a prophet (Feldman, Josephus’s Interpretation, 225).
This, of course, requires Josephus to have believed that his retelling does not come in place of the original text, but
instead builds upon it (something Feldman argues elsewhere). Likewise, for Feldman’s conclusion to be correct,
Josephus would have had to assume his audience was familiar enough with the Bible to notice his subtle change
from the original and draw the proper conclusion. Such nuance would no doubt be missed by the Roman audience
for whom Josephus wrote his work, but probably by Greek-speaking Jews as well. Therefore, the conclusion of
Niehoff and Amaru that Josephus intended to give Sarah less of an active role by crediting the idea to God is
preferable.
34
Noted by Amaru, “Portraits,” 145.
35
Emphasis my own.

62
While Amaru sees Josephus’ downgrading of Sarah as an unfortunate side-effect of his
attempt to portray Sarah as a heroine in the Hellenistic mold, Maren Niehoff argues that Josephus
may have had a more pernicious motivation.36 She points to Josephus’ apparent lack of sympathy
for the matriarch and his desire to distance her from God. For example, Josephus emphasizes that
God’s anger with Pharaoh is due to the fact that he “wished to outrage the wife of the stranger”
and not, as the Bible would have it, “on account of Sarai, the wife of Abram” (1.164; Gen 12:17).37
It is possible to understand from the language of the Bible that God intervened on Sarah’s behalf,
as some depatriarchalized readings do. However, in Josephus’ formulation any such implications
are removed. He makes it clear that Pharaoh is punished for a violation of basic morals, not for
Sarah’s sake. A less subtle change from the biblical record can be found in Josephus’ account of
the Akeida. In his telling, Josephus inserts Sarah into the narrative despite the fact she is not
mentioned in the Bible’s version. He notes that Abraham “conceal[ed] from his wife the command
of God,” lest she or others in the household prevent him from “rendering service to God” (1.225).
As noted, Josephus generally omits Sarah from the narrative wherever possible. Yet, as Niehoff
notes, here he actually chooses to insert her into an episode where she does not appear in the
original. 38 The fact that he does so for the sole purpose of questioning the matriarch’s commitment
to God speaks volumes as to his approach to Sarah.

In addition to these examples given by Niehoff and Amaru, a further instance of Josephus’
minimizing of Sarah’s role and distancing her from God can be found in his representation of the
divine blessing which she receives in Genesis 17. Some Feminist scholars have highlighted the
role that this blessing gives Sarah in the Israelite covenant. The removal of this aspect in the
rewriting of the blessing found in Jubilees and Pseudo-Philo has been noted, and Josephus does so
as well. He records God’s words to Abraham regarding the son that would be born to Sarah as

36
Niehoff, “Mother and Maiden,” 416–18. In a similar fashion, Tal Ilan has critiqued Amaru’s assertion that Josephus’
primary aim is to portray the woman of the Bible in the Hellenistic model of the pious wife and that this is what leads
to the good measure of the chauvinism therein. She argues that Greco-Roman literary molds should be understood
more as an “exegetical tool” and a “method to cope” with the fact that the biblical women act in a manner which
poses problems for male readers throughout history (Ilan, “Josephus on Women,” 213). In other words, Josephus’
use of this Greco-Roman model is the result of his chauvinism and not the cause of it. Supporting this is Niehoff’s
comment (in context of Philo) that the Hellenistic world offers “more than just a language of misogyny,” including
women who are goddesses and priestesses (Ibid., 415). Therefore, Josephus’ choice of model for Sarah which is
passive and silent speaks volumes.
37
Niehoff, “Mother and Maiden,” 416–17.
38
Ibid., 417–18.

63
follows: “And He bade him to call him Isakos, revealing that there would be great nations and
kings from him [ἔθνη μεγάλα ἀπ’ αὐτοῦ καὶ βασιλεῖς]” (JA 1.191). While it may not be clear
if the final ‘him’ in this line is Isaac or Abraham, it is clear either way that Sarah’s blessing is
taken from her.39

When all of this evidence is taken into account, it becomes apparent that despite Josephus’
decision to gloss over some of the negative aspects of Sarah’s portrayal in the Bible, he has no
desire to develop Sarah’s character in the story or to present her as an important character in her
own right. Despite arguments to the contrary, Sarah’s portrayal appears very much in line with
Josephus’ general attitude towards women. She remains an “altogether passive tool” in Abraham’s
story,40 unworthy of special attention or a relationship with the Divine.

Philo of Alexandria
The last early Jewish exegete to be discussed here is Philo of Alexandria (d. c. 50 CE).41 Philo
produced a body of work that is unparalleled in its size and scope among Jewish authors of the
period. While not much is known about Philo’s biography, it appears that he was born to a wealthy
and influential family in Egypt. Based on his writings it can also be surmised that he received an
extensive education in both the Greek and Jewish intellectual traditions. With this, Philo does not
appear to have any real knowledge of Hebrew and he relies solely upon the Septuagint for his
reading of the Hebrew Bible. While his writing includes political and historical musings, more
than anything he attempts to synthesize between Judaism and the Hellenistic world. To this end,
he dedicates the greater part of his literary corpus to commentary and the elucidation of the

39
Feldman understands the ‘him’ to be Abraham: “Josephus is careful not to remove the spotlight from Abram…
[He] centers the blessing on Abram, saying that he will have a son by Sarai and that great nations and kings will spring
from him” (Feldman, Judean Antiquities 1-4, 3:72 fn595). On the other hand, in the Septuagint’s rendering of Genesis
17:16 the blessing clearly focuses on Isaac: “εὐλογήσω δὲ αὐτὴν καὶ δώσω σοι ἐξ αὐτῆς τέκνον· καὶ εὐλογήσω αὐτόν,
καὶ ἔσται εἰς ἔθνη, καὶ βασιλεῖς ἐθνῶν ἐξ αὐτοῦ ἔσονται”. If Josephus here based himself on the LXX then it seems
that he also meant to refer to Isaac. In any event, either by moving the focus to Abraham or by adopting the LXX’s
rendering, Josephus takes Sarah out of the picture. In addition to Jubilees, which was noted, a similar rendering to
that of LXX is found in the Vulgate, Peshitta, and Pseudo-Jonathan. Regarding the various textual witnesses for this
verse in LXX and elsewhere (though he does not mention Josephus), see: Moshe A. Zipor, The Septuagint Version of
the Book of Genesis [Hebrew] (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University, 2005), 222–23. This and all further citations from LXX
are taken from A. Rahlfs, ed., Septuaginta, 9th ed. (Stuttgart: Württemberg Bible Society, 1971),
http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0527:001:0.
40
Niehoff, “Mother and Maiden,” 416.
41
This brief introduction is based in large part on Kenneth Schenck, A Brief Guide to Philo (Louisville: Westminster
John Knox Press, 2005), 9–48.

64
Pentateuch in a manner that utilizes contemporaneous philology and philosophy to better
understand the word of God. Philo’s biblical exegesis takes two forms: literal and allegorical. He
often weaves these two approaches together when expanding upon the biblical narrative its events
and characters, sometimes making it difficult to differentiate between the two. However, this is
still a helpful prism through which to analyze his views on a given matter. For the Alexandrian
sage, the allegorical sense of the text represents its highest form. Its relationship to the literal
meaning is like that of a “soul” to the “body” (Mig 93).42 With that, Philo emphasizes that the
allegorical meaning of the text does not neutralize the literal aspect altogether. Jewish Law, for
example, must still be observed in its literal sense as proscribed by the Torah despite its additional
allegorical meaning. He is harshly critical of those who would abandon the “customs fixed by
divinely empowered men greater than those of our time” in favor of merely fulfilling their
symbolic purpose (90). Philo wrote his works in Greek and most have survived in the original. In
addition, some are found only in subsequent translations into Latin and Arminian, and a handful
of his works have been lost in part or in whole.

Sarah factors into both the literal and allegorical sections of Philo’s writings on Genesis
and by all accounts he dedicates more attention to Sarah than any of the other second Temple
exegetes.43 In the more literary passages he presents her story in a sympathetic and even laudatory
fashion, while in the allegorical sense he takes Sarah to represent wisdom and virtue. Thus, not
only is Philo exceptional among these authors in that he dedicates much space to Sarah herself,
but he is also singular in the level of importance he grants her. Nevertheless, Philo’s praise and

42
Translations and citations of Philo are taken from the Loeb Classical Library edition: F. H. Colson, Philo with an
English Translation, 10 vols., Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1984). These sources regarding
the literal and allegorical in Philo are also quoted by Schenck, A Brief Guide, 31–33. Citations from the original Greek
are taken from Leopold Cohn, Philonis Alexandrini Opera Quae Supersunt (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1962),
http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0018:020:0.
43
Philo’s take on Sarah has been analyzed by Dorothy Sly, Philo’s Perception of Women (Atlanta: Scholars Press,
1990), 147–52, and in more depth by Niehoff, “Mother and Maiden.” Sly sees Philo’s approach to Sarah as negative
overall. For her, the limiting of Sarah’s role in the literal rendering of Abraham’s story’s is complemented by the
allegorical reading which grants her a wider role in a certain sense, but also minimizes her standing as a woman and
makes her further subservient to Abraham. A similar take on Philo’s allegorical use of Sarah is that of Judith Romney
Wegner, “Philo’s Portrayal of Women – Hebraic or Hellenic?,” in Women like This: New Perspectives on Jewish
Women in the Greco-Roman World, ed. Amy-Jill Levine (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991), 54–56. In opposition, Niehoff
argues for a more nuanced reading of the literal sections which in fact portray Sarah in a quite positive fashion. In
general, I have followed Niehoff’s reading as it more accurately takes into account the clear break between Philo’s
portrayal of Sarah and the mostly negative one found in the biblical record. As for the allegorical sections, she grants
that it undermines Sarah’s importance as a woman, but notes that this creates a tension between Philo’s literal and
allegorical approaches to Sarah and that the two are not harmonious as Sly agues.

65
development of Sarah has clear boundaries. In keeping with the biblical record, he still assumes
that Sarah’s status is secondary to that of Abraham. Likewise, she can only truly symbolize a
vaunted ideal such as virtue when stripped of her femininity, as Philo’s general approach to women
dictates.

Philo’s literal approach to Sarah appears primarily in his tract On Abraham. In this work
he dedicates special attention to Sarah’s character and adds important details not found in the
biblical record nor other second Temple works. As he himself puts it, “many a story I could relate
in praise of this woman” (Abr 247). This comes across clearly when Philo addresses Abraham and
Sarah’s time in Egypt. While other second Temple sources expanded upon Sarah’s beauty as
mentioned in the Bible, Philo makes a point of speaking not just of her physical beauty, but also
of her “goodness of soul” (ψυχὴν ἀρίστη, 93). Like his contemporaries, Philo does make sure to
absolve Abraham of any wrongdoing or culpability in Sarah’s capture. He notes that “her husband
was helpless [οὐδὲ γὰρ ὁ ἀνὴρ ἔσθενεν ἀρήγειν], menaced as he was by the terror of stronger
powers” (Abr 95). However, Philo is exceptional in that he chooses to address the rather glaring
biblical gap regarding Sarah’s experience while with Pharaoh. He makes a point of referring to
Sarah’s predicament “in a foreign country… at the mercy of a licentious and cruel-hearted despot
and [having] no one to protect her.” Moreover, if the Apocryphon inserted Abraham’s prayers
when Sarah was taken, Philo states that both he and Sarah prayed for her safe return.44 In doing so
Philo wishes to rouse the reader’s sympathy for the captive matriarch, something not seen in the
Bible or subsequent second Temple authors. The only possible precedent for this is found in the
Apocryphon, but Philo clearly goes beyond even this earlier work.

An additional example of Philo’s special regard for Sarah can be found in his rendering of
her interactions with Hagar.45 Not only does Philo, unlike some of the authors discussed, retain
Sarah’s request that Abraham take the handmaiden, but he adds a monologue in which the
matriarch explains her selfless motivation and dedication to “the union of man and wife” (Abr
248). Philo goes on to describe Abraham as awestruck by Sarah’s expression of loyalty and love
and later speaks of Sarah as Abraham’s “life-long partner” (κοινωνὸν τοῦ σύμπαντος βίου,

44
The partial parallel to the Apocryphon as well as the exceptional nature of Philo’s occupation with Sarah’s plight
is noted by Niehoff, “Mother and Maiden,” 425.
45
Ibid., 421.

66
256). In a similar sense, Philo removes Sarah’s repeated expulsion of Hagar. Deleting these
episodes, notes Niehoff, allows Philo to present Sarah as a paragon of virtue and rationality.46 Like
Abraham, Sarah’s mind controls her emotions. This starkly contrasts a work such as Jubilees
which not only tells of the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael, but actually emphasizes the pettiness
of Sarah’s behavior as already found in the Bible.

Lastly, Philo’s desire to defend Sarah’s character can be seen in his retelling of the
annunciation of Isaac. In the Bible, as noted, Sarah’s skeptical response to the angels’ promise is
taken as a sign of her lack of faith. Even Josephus, who elsewhere was critical of Sarah’s lack of
dedication to God, felt it prudent to remove much of this episode. Philo, however, keeps it in and
yet manages to give it a positive spin. First, he states that both Abraham and Sarah “did not pay
serious regard” to this promise due to its spectacular nature (111). Second, while Philo faithfully
records that Sarah laughed and then tried to deny it, he explains that she did so because she was
“ashamed,” as she of course “knew that all things were possible with God, a truth which she had
learned long ago (112).” At this moment, continues Philo, Sarah realizes that the unannounced
guests are in fact messengers of God. By retelling this episode in this way, he does away with the
Bible’s critique of Sarah. Not only that, concludes Niehoff, but it instead serves as an opportunity
for Philo to expand upon Sarah’s faith and her relationship with God.47

Philo’s unique focus on Sarah at times brings him close to the more extreme
depatriarchalizing seen in some modern readings of Genesis. Like them, Philo points to Abraham’s
reliance on Sarah and even their equality in some respects. So too, he does not shy away from
recognizing her important role in the covenant and highlights her faith in God. In fact he manages,
like one such Feminist scholar, to read the story of the angels’ visit in a manner that actually speaks
well of Sarah. However, these parallels should not be exaggerated. If anything, Philo’s literal
reading of Sarah recalls those moderately depatriarchalized readings of Genesis which, while
highlighting some of the positive themes found in Sarah’s story, do not deny the basic patriarchal
bias of the text. For all the positive attention Philo gives her, his portrayal of Sarah still belies a
basic androcentrism. For example, when Sarah is taken by Pharaoh, not only is Abraham’s passive
conduct defended, but Philo makes it clear that Sarah is ultimately saved due to his merit.

46
Ibid., 419.
47
Ibid., 427.

67
According to Philo: “the chastity of the woman was preserved, while the nobility and piety of the
man was evidenced [ἐπιδείξασθαι] by God.” Similarly, he states that God intervened in order
that “[Abraham’s] marriage, which would have been in almost immediate danger of violation,
should remain free from harm and outrage” (98). Likewise, while the description of Sarah’s
partnership with Abraham is striking, her value ultimately remains tied to her ability to help
Abraham continue his line. This is clear in Sarah’s moving speech to her husband as recorded by
Philo. In it, Sarah states her intention to “lead [Abraham] to a bride who will supply what is lacking
in myself [τὸ ἐνδέον ἐμοὶ]” (250). Based on Philo’s special concern for Sarah, it is safe to say that
Dorothy Sly goes too far when she claims that Philo’s literal reading “downplays [Sarah’s]
initiative and molds [her] into [a] submissive helpmate.”48 Indeed, when Philo’s reading of Sarah
is compared to the second Temple sources who in fact do this, the positive aspects of his portrayal
jump out even more. However, it cannot be overlooked that even for Philo, Sarah’s primary
importance centers upon her role as wife and mother. Likewise, she is clearly secondary to
Abraham.

This is even clearer when Philo’s allegorical renderings of Sarah, which are scattered
throughout his writings, are taken into account. Again Philo stands out for the importance he gives
Sarah, but certain basic assumptions about womankind limit his praise. For Philo, Sarah
symbolizes virtue and wisdom.49 In this, Niehoff demonstrates, Philo builds upon earlier Jewish
exegetes in Alexandria who applied the Platonic metaphor of the soul’s pregnancy to the biblical
story of Sarah’s conception.50 Sarah, that is to say virtue and wisdom, is the only aspect of man
which comes into contact with the divine realm. This contact is represented allegorically in the
Bible when Sarah becomes pregnant by way of divine promise. In addition to his Jewish
predecessors, Philo also draws upon philosophical readings of Athena popular in Hellenistic
sources, using the same phraseology and motifs.51 For example, Philo builds upon these ideas when
reading God’s command to Abraham that he “listen to Sarah’s voice” (Gen 21:12). Philo notes
that “a woman such as Sarah” is seen as “paramount virtue [τὴν ἄρχουσαν ἀρετήν]” (LA 3.244).

48
Sly, Philo’s Perception, 146. Compare: “Mother and Maiden,” 421–23.
49
For a collection of the various places in the Philonic corpus where this idea appears, see: Sly, Philo’s Perception,
150–52. and in greater length Niehoff, “Mother and Maiden,” 430–38.
50
Niehoff, “Mother and Maiden,” 430.
51
Ibid., 439–40.

68
He continues that just as the “wise Abraham complies with her,” so too “let that which seems good
to virtue be law for each of us” (νόμος ἡμῶν ἔστω ἑκάστῳ τὸ δοκοῦν ἀρετῇ, 3.245). Elsewhere
when addressing the relationship between Sarah and Abraham he observes that “virtue is the wife
and consort of the wise man, and through her are born virtuous thoughts and fine deeds and
praiseworthy words” (QG 4.11).

However, his allegorical expansion of Sarah’s role is not without a major caveat. Sarah
can embody virtue and wisdom only after she is stripped of her femininity. 52 In tandem with
Aristotelian gender constructs, Philo understands feminine nature to be “irrational” and under the
control of “bestial passions” (QG 4.15).53 Therefore, if Sarah is to represent a masculine trait such
as ‘virtue’ she must first do away with all that is womanly (Cher 50). This is what it means, says
Philo, when the Bible states that “Sarah had stopped having the periods of women” (Gen 18:11).
In fact, Philo’s takes the de-feminizing of Sarah so far as to say that she returned to a state of
virginity and was in fact herself born from God—not from a woman. Romney Wegner observes
that only in this way can Sarah become “an exception to the rule of female inferiority” in Philo’s
worldview.54 In other words, it allows Philo to overcome the tension between the importance he
grants Sarah and the inherent flaws he sees in womankind. While in Philo’s literal approach Sarah
was secondary, she nevertheless was Abraham’s partner and an active character deserving of
attention and sympathy in her own right. Philo’s allegorical reading upends this. In this symbolic
framework, Sarah’s role as Abraham’s partner takes on a far more passive meaning. As Sly puts
it, “when she is allegorized, Sarah is absorbed into Abraham as a quality of his character.” 55
Abraham represents the wise man and Sarah his wisdom, Abraham the virtuous man and Sarah his
virtue. While Philo’s approach to Sarah remains outstanding among the early Jewish exegetes, the
price that she pays when allegorized tempers things more than a bit.

Conclusion
As a rule, Sarah’s character is not given a large amount of importance in Jewish exegesis from the
second Temple era. The Book of the Jubilees downplays Sarah’s role in the story of Abraham and

52
In addition to the sources cited here, the various places where this idea appears in Philo’s writings are discussed
by Sly, Philo’s Perception, 152–54 and Niehoff, “Mother and Maiden,” 437–43.
53
The connection between Philo’s view of virtue as a masculine trait and Aristotelian constructs is noted by Niehoff,
“Mother and Maiden,” 432.
54
Romney Wegner, “Philo’s Portrayal,” 55.
55
Sly, Philo’s Perception, 152.

69
does not shy away from presenting her as petty and lacking faith in God’s promise. Turning to the
Genesis Apocryphon it does show some sympathy for the matriarch and highlights her physical
beauty in particular. However, it is ultimately not concerned with her own experiences and Sarah
still remains ancillary to her husband at best. Even more starkly, Pseudo-Philo simply removes
Sarah from the narrative altogether. In Biblical Antiquities even those few instances in the Bible
where Sarah plays an active role are done away with. For his part, Josephus Flavius molds Sarah
into a particular feminine ideal taken from the Hellenistic world. Thus, while Judean Antiquities
does draw attention to Sarah’s elegance and chastity and justifies some of her more problematic
behavior, it also transforms her into a silent and wholly passive character. In addition, Josephus
makes a point of distancing her from the Divine. An partial exception to these trends is Philo of
Alexandria. In his literal commentary he presents Sarah as Abraham’s partner, and even adds a bit
of information regarding her time with Pharaoh. Likewise, in his allegorical rendering Sarah
represents virtue. However, despite all this, Sarah is still limited to a large extent by her gender.
In the literal sense, she remains secondary to her husband and their partnership is limited to matters
of the home. In the allegorical sense, she only is given symbolic importance after she ceases to be
a woman.

As has been noted in regard to the limits placed upon Sarah’s character by Josephus and
Philo, it could very well be that the relative lack of interest in Sarah by other post-biblical authors
is also connected to the prevailing views of women in antiquity. Nevertheless, whatever their own
historical context or ideological motivations, these early exegetes can also be seen as continuing
the Bible’s own approach to Sarah. As laid out in the previous chapter, the biblical authors did not
see Sarah as a protagonist in her own right. Rather, they framed her as a secondary player in
Abraham’s story. If Sarah’s importance is ultimately ancillary, then it is not surprising that the
subsequent authors addressed here generally do not attempt to fill in the gaps in her story or
otherwise expand upon her character. Likewise, it is easy to understand how the ambivalence
towards Sarah in the biblical narrative, which at times borders on outright opprobrium, could
inform some of the more overtly negative portrayals of Sarah seen here. Though some modern
scholars have pointed to the possibility of more forgiving readings of Sarah’s story in the Bible, it
is clear that these second Temple era sources ignore such avenues. In fact, in several cases they
appear to actively avoid just such readings through the addition or deletion of certain details from
the Bible.

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These early exegetical sources are relatively diverse: chronologically, ideologically, and
geographically. Jubilees and the Apocryphon are associated within the more cloistered
environment of the Dead Sea sect and developed well before the destruction of the second Temple.
Biblical Antiquities, on the other hand, while also from the land of Israel, is written in a wholly
different social and historical reality: in the wake of the fall of Judea. All three however were
originally written in either Hebrew or Aramaic and often seek to emphasize the unique connection
between God and Israel. Unlike these, Josephus and Philo operated in the Hellenistic diaspora and
wrote in Greek. The two adopt very different approaches in their biblical commentary: Josephus
endeavors to turn the Bible into work of classical history while Philo seeks to reveal its
philosophical truths. However, in both cases the Greco-Roman milieu has a decisive influence.
The eclectic nature of these early sources allows for a rather full picture of second Temple attitudes
towards Sarah’s character. As such, they provide the necessary historical context for understanding
her role in rabbinic midrash which will be discussed next. In light of this exegetical background
the uniquely positive nature of the Sarah-related material in GenR will be made clear.

71
Works Cited
Amaru, Betsy Halpern. “Portraits of Biblical Women in Josephus’ Antiquities.” Journal of
Jewish Studies 39 (1988): 143–70.
———. The Empowerment of Women in the Book of Jubilees. Leiden: Brill, 1999.
———. “The Portrait of Sarah in Jubilees.” In Jewish Studies in a New Europe, edited by Ulf
Haxen, Hanne Trautner-Kromann, and Karen Lisa Goldschmidt Salamon, 336–48.
Copenhagen: C.A. Reitzel, 1998.
———. “Women in Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities.” In “Women like This”: New
Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman World, edited by Amy-Jill
Levine, 83–106. Early Judaism and Its Literature 1. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991.
Avigad, Nahman, and Yigael Yadin. A Genesis Apocryphon: a Scroll from the Wilderness of
Judea [Hebrew]. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1956.
Bailey, James L. “Josephus’ Portrayal of the Matriarchs.” In Josephus, Judaism, and
Christianity, edited by Louis H. Feldman and Gohei Hata, 154–79. Detroit: Wayne
State University Press, 1987.
Cohn, Leopold. Philonis Alexandrini Opera Quae Supersunt. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1962.
http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0018:020:0.
Colson, F. H. Philo with an English Translation. 10 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge:
Harvard University, 1984.
Feldman, Louis H. Josephus’s Interpretation of the Bible. Hellenistic Culture and Society.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
———. Judean Antiquities 1-4. Edited by Steve Mason. Vol. 3. Flavius Josephus:
Translation and Commentary. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
Feldman, Louis H., James L. Kugel, and Lawrence H. Schiffman. “Introduction.” In Outside
the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture, xv–xviii. Philadelphia: Jewish
Publication Society, 2013.
Hayes, Christine Elizabeth. Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and
Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Ilan, Tal. “Josephus on Women.” In A Companion to Josephus, edited by Honora Howell
Chapman and Zuleika Rodgers, 210–21. Wiley-Blackwell, 2016.
Jacobson, Howard. A Commentary on Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum: With
Latin Text and English Translation. Leiden: Brill, 1996.
———. “Pseudo-Philo, Book of Biblical Antiquities.” In Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish
Writings Related to Scripture, edited by Louis H. Feldman, James L. Kugel, and
Lawrence H. Schiffman, 1:470–613. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2013.
Kadari, Tamar. “The Beauty of Sarah in Rabbinic Literature,” Forthcoming.

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Kugel, James L. “Biblical Exegesis in Qumran [Hebrew].” In The Qumran Scrolls and Their
World, edited by Menahem Kister, 2:387–408. Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2009.
———. “Jubilees.” In Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture, edited
by Louis H. Feldman, James L. Kugel, and Lawrence H. Schiffman, 1:272–465.
Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2013.
Levinson, Joshua. The Twice Told Tale: A Poetics of the Exegetical Narrative in Rabbinic
Midrash [Hebrew]. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2005.
Mason, Steve. “Introduction to the Judean Antiquities.” In Judean Antiquities 1-4, edited by
Steve Mason, 3:xiii–xxxvi. Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary. Leiden:
Brill, 2000.
Morgenstern, Matthew J., and Michael Segal. “The Genesis Apocryphon.” In Outside the Bible:
Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture, edited by Louis H. Feldman, James L.
Kugel, and Lawrence H. Schiffman, 1:237–62. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society,
2013.
Niehoff, Maren R. “Mother and Maiden, Sister and Spouse: Sarah in Philonic Midrash.”
Harvard Theological Review 97, no. 4 (2004): 413–444.
Niese, Benedikt. Flavii Iosephi Opera. Vol. 1–4. Berlin: Weidmann, 1955.
http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0526:001:65015.
Rahlfs, A., ed. Septuaginta. 9th ed. Stuttgart: Württemberg Bible Society, 1971.
http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0527:001:0.
Romney Wegner, Judith. “Philo’s Portrayal of Women – Hebraic or Hellenic?” In Women
like This: New Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman World, edited by
Amy-Jill Levine, 41–66. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991.
Schenck, Kenneth. A Brief Guide to Philo. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.
Segal, Michael. The Book of Jubilees: Rewritten Bible, Redaction, Ideology and Theology
[Hebrew]. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2007.
Shinan, Avigdor. The World of the Aggadah [Hebrew]. Tel Aviv: MOD Books, 1987.
Sly, Dorothy. Philo’s Perception of Women. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990.
Zipor, Moshe A. The Septuagint Version of the Book of Genesis [Hebrew]. Ramat Gan: Bar
Ilan University, 2005.
Zucker, David J., and Moshe Reiss. The Matriarchs of Genesis: Seven Women, Five Views.
Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015.

73
Chapter 3
Sarah in Genesis Rabbah: Heroine without Precedent
Introduction
Having reviewed the biblical record as well as the second Temple traditions which build upon it,
it is possible to fully appreciate just how far the rabbis of GenR went in praising Sarah. For them,
Sarah is a paragon of loyalty and religious devotion. She maintains a close connection to God and
at times supplants Abraham as hero of the story. Further, the drashot dedicated to the matriarch
often maintain little to no real connection with the verses which serve as their exegetical base. In
this regard, many of the points made in modern scholarship of the Hebrew Bible, as discussed in
chapter one, are of use. They help to demonstrate the large distance between Genesis and GenR.
On the other hand, the midrash does sometimes recall the positive readings of Sarah found in the
more extreme depatriarchialized interpretations discussed previously. While this approach has
generally been rejected in biblical scholarship itself, these parallels show just how far the midrash
goes in its praise of Sarah.

Not only is GenR exceptional vis-à-vis the biblical text, it is far removed from anything
seen in earlier Jewish exegesis. As seen in chapter two, these authors tend to downplay Sarah’s
role and some even critique her outright. The rabbis of the midrash, on the other hand, take pains
to highlight her central role and to make her voice heard in places where their predecessors
endeavored to silence it. In fact, the midrash even appears at times to rework some of the very
same traditions found in second Temple texts in order to achieve this goal. Further, the midrash
easily surpasses the praise of Sarah found in the writings of Philo, the one early exegete who did
grant her a sympathetic and positive portrayal. All this is a clear testament to the unique and
innovative nature of GenR in the Jewish exegetical tradition.

Beyond the individual significance of each drasha, the sheer number of sections related to
Sarah in the midrash is striking. In order to present the wealth of material in an organized fashion,
the drashot will not necessarily be analyzed in the order in which they appear in GenR, but rather
thematically: Sarah as an exemplar of Jewish faith and action, her role as a prophetess, her time
with the foreign kings, the defense of her negative behavior, and finally Sarah’s presentation as it
relates to female norms elsewhere in GenR. Following the methodological discussion in the
introduction to this thesis, I will combine both source-critical and synchronic analysis when
addressing the midrashic material. Such a reading demonstrates that the special attention paid to

74
Sarah is a clear development of the Amoraic period which can also be said to characterize GenR
on the whole as a reacted work.

Before analyzing this wealth of positive material in the midrash, it must be noted that GenR
does at times find fault with Sarah’s behavior. Regarding her relationship with Hagar, the Bible
records that, feeling slighted by her slave, Sarah lashes out to Abraham (Gen 16:5):

And Sarai said to Abram, “The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my maid
in your bosom; now that she sees that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem.
May the Lord decide between you and me!

The midrash gives several possible explanations as to the more exact content of Sarah’s protest
and then ends with some more general statements about womankind. Among them is the following
remark (GR 45:5 Albeck 453):

‫ "ותאמר שרי אל אברם חמסי‬:‫ אסטט יות‬.‫ אף אסטט יות ודבר יות‬:'‫ר' יהושע בן חמיה אמ‬
.)‫א‬:‫ "ותדבר מרים ואהרן במשה" (במדבר יב‬:‫ דבר יות‬.)‫ה‬:‫עליך" (טז‬

R. Yehoshua ben Neḥemiah said: [women] are also instigators and chatterboxes.
Instigators: “The wrong done me is your fault!” (16:5). Chatterboxes: “and Miraim
and Aaron spoke about Moses” (Num 12:1).

In this drasha Sarah’s complaint against Abraham is presented as the result of her feminine
propensity to cause strife, just one of a slew of character flaws typical of her sex. In addition, the
midrash also finds fault in Sarah for invoking divine judgment here. It states that she was meant
to live as long as Abraham, but because of her demand that “The Lord shall judge between you
and me,” 38 years were taken from her life (Gen 16:5; GR 45:5, Albeck 453).

It should be stressed, though, that the criticism of Sarah in GenR is not unique. The midrash
does not shy away from reproaching biblical heroes no matter how vaunted. For example, in
addition to various criticisms of Abraham’s treatment of Sarah which will be discussed later, the
midrash quite openly reprimands Jacob for his hubris, (GR 79:8, Albeck 949; GR 80:4, Albeck
955). It should not be a surprise then that Sarah is not an exception to this rule. However, when
compared to the large amount of overtly positive material which will be analyzed and the manner
in which the midrash defends her behavior elsewhere, these critiques are relatively minor and do
little to tarnish the overall portrait of Sarah in GenR.

75
Sarah as an Exemplar of Jewish Faith and Action
GenR repeatedly highlights Sarah’s praiseworthy conduct and her embodiment of religious ideals.
For example, according to the midrash, Sarah is granted a child as a reward for her righteous
behavior (GR 53:5, Vat. 30, Albeck 560):

‫ החזיר לו הקב'ה‬,‫ עמלק הפקיד אצל הקב'ה חבילות שלקוצים‬.‫ בעל פקדו ות א י‬:‫אמ' ר' אחא‬
"‫ "וייי פקד את שרה‬,‫ שרה הפקידה אצל הקב'ה מצות ומעשים טובים‬.‫חבילות שלקוצים‬
.)‫א‬:‫(בראשית כא‬

Said R. Aḥa: a trustee am I. Amalek deposited with the Holy One blessed be He a
bundle of thorns. The Holy One blessed be He returned to him a bundle of thorns.1
Sarah deposited with the Holy One blessed be He commandments and good deeds.
“And the Lord remembered [pakad] Sarah” (Gen 21:1).

The verse quoted introduces the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah (Gen 21:1-
2):

The Lord remembered [pakad] Sarah as He had promised, and the Lord did for
Sarah as He had spoken. Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age,
at the set time of which God had spoken.

Though the word pakad here means to ‘remember’ or ‘take note,’ the midrash understands it in
the sense in which the word is used as a legal term elsewhere in the Bible and, even more often, in
rabbinic sources: a deposit [pikadon].2 Thus, the Lord's ‘remembering’ of Sarah is taken to mean
that He returned Sarah's deposit by granting her a son.

Given the biblical descriptions of Abraham, it is not surprising that the midrash elsewhere
refers to his “commandments and good deeds.”3 Indeed, several scholars have noted the manner
in which GenR picks up where its predecessors left off. The midrash continues the depiction of

1
In MS Vat. 60 and MS London a proof text is cited here (1Sam 15:2):
...‫כה אמר ייי צבאות פקדתי את אשר עשה עמלק לישראל‬
2
Regarding the use of these terms in the Bible, see: Menachem Zevi Kaddari, “‫פקד‬,” in A Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew
(Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University, 2006), 872–74. and Ibid., “‫פיקדון‬,” 874. For the use of the term Pikadon in rabbinic
literature from the land of Israel, see: Michael Sokoloff, “‫פיקדון‬,” in A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of the
Byzantine Period, 2nd ed. (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University, 2002), 432.
3
See, for example: GR 39:3 (Albeck 366-367).

76
Abraham as a religious hero already found in Genesis and some second Temple works.4 However,
use of the above phrase in regards to Sarah is remarkable. Beyond the play on words with pakad,
reference to Sarah’s “commandments and good deeds” lacks any real anchor in the biblical text.5
In the book of Genesis, Sarah’s piety is not mentioned nor is Isaac’s birth framed as a result of her
virtue. This is also exceptional in comparison to most of the second Temple sources. As
demonstrated, they made a marked effort to remove even the slightest hint that Sarah had an active
role in the covenant from their reworking of the biblical material. The rabbinic midrash, however,
not only gives Sarah a role in Isaac’s birth, but directly connects it to her conduct. The importance
of Sarah's character is also highlighted by the juxtaposition the midrash creates between her and

4
For example, Judith Frishman notes that the aforementioned link drawn in GenR between “Abraham’s recognition
of the one God and faith in him” and Abraham’s “acceptance of the Torah and doing good deeds” is “not unique to
the rabbis but a common theme developed in Jubilees, Philo, and Josephus.” See: Judith Frishman, “‘And Abraham
Had Faith’: But In What? Ephrem and the Rabbis on Abraham and God’s Blessings,” in The Exegetical Encounter
between Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity, ed. Emmanouela Grypeou and Helen Spurling (Leiden: Brill, 2009),
174. In addition, Frishman identifies three themes that are central to GenR’s general portrayal of Abraham:
proselytism, hospitality, and circumcision (174-177). Along similar lines, Luis Vegas Montaner demonstrates that
GenR highlights Abraham’s faith and trust in God, fulfillment of Jewish law, hospitality, proselytism, universal
importance, and his passing of the great test of the akeida. See: Luis Vegas Montaner, “La figura de Abraham en el
Midrás Génesis Rabbah,” ’Ilu: Revista de ciencias de las religiones, no. 3 (2000): 127–46. In addition to these overall
points, scholars have connected specific aspects of Abraham’s portrayal in GenR to inter-religious dialogue and
polemics. For example, see: Martha Himmelfarb, “Abraham and the Messianism of Genesis Rabbah,” in Genesis
Rabbah in Text and Context, ed. Sarit Kattan Gribetz et al. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 99–114; Frishman, “‘And
Abraham Had Faith’”; Martha Himmelfarb, “The Ordeals of Abraham: Circumcision and the Aqedah in Origen, the
Mekhilta, and Genesis Rabbah,” Henoch 30, no. 2 (2005): 289–310; Maren R. Niehoff, “Circumcision as a Marker of
Identity: Philo, Origen, and the Rabbis on Gen 17:1-14,” Jewish Studies Quarterly 10 (2003): 89–123. The limited
scope of this thesis prevents a full discussion of Abraham’s depiction in GenR, but this brief summary of some of the
previous scholarship into the matter is enough to establish the important role the patriarch is given and some of its
defining characteristics. Abraham’s laudatory portrayal in the midrash (which has ample precedent in the biblical
and second Temple literature) makes it all the more remarkable that Sarah is compared to him and given praise
which rivals his (something that has no such precedent).
5
An allusion to Sarah’s “good deeds” (though not ‘commandments’) can be found in one place in earlier rabbinic
literature (Mekhilta deRebbi Yishmael, Amalek [Yitro] 1, MS Oxford):
'‫ וכשעשה מעשים טובי‬."‫ שנ' "וילך משה וישב אל יתר חת ו‬,‫ מתחילה לא היו קורין אותו אלא יתר‬."‫"וישמע יתרו‬
‫ שמתחילה ל א היו קורין אותו אלא אברם וכשעשה‬,‫ כן את מוצא באברהם‬.‫הוסיפו לו אות אחת ו קרא יתרו‬
‫ וכן את‬.‫ שמתחילה שרי וגו' ו קראת שרה‬,‫ וכן את מוצא בשרה‬.‫מעשים טובים הוסיפו לו אות אחת ו קרא אברהם‬
."‫ שמתחילה וג" 'ויקרא משה להושע‬,‫מוצא ביהושע‬
Here the Mekhilta ties Sarah’s “good deeds” to the changing of her name, as opposed to GenR which connects them
to her pregnancy. Given that the birth of Isaac is continually framed in Genesis as a promise made to Abraham and
as a reward for his dedication to God, whereas the changing of Sarah’s name is part of her own blessing, GenR
appears to make more of an exegetical leap than the Mekhilta. The use of the phrase ‫ מעשים טובים‬is not uncommon
in Tannaic literature, but as far as I can tell the phrase ‫ מצות ומעשים טובים‬is found only in the Amoraic literature. It
appears a few times in the Jerusalem Talmud and is slightly more common in GenR. For example, see: GR 44:5
(Alebck 428) and 57:4 (Albeck 616).

77
Amalek. In rabbinic literature, Amelek is often used as an archetype of antagonism towards Israel.6
As such, this indicates that Sarah herself is to be seen as more than just a righteous individual, but
as an archetype of righteousness.

Indeed, not only is Sarah understood by the rabbis to be an exemplar of Jewish practice,
but she is seen as active in her husband’s religious endeavors (GR 39:14, Vat. 30, Albeck 378-
379):7

‫"ויקח אברם את שרי אשתו ]ואת לוט בן אחיו ואת כל רכושם ואת הנפש אשר עשו]" (בראשית‬
,‫ אם מתכ סים הם כל באי העולם לברות יתוש אחד‬:‫ ר' אלעזר בש' ר' יוסי בן זימרה‬.)‫ה‬:‫יב‬
.‫ "ואת ה פש אשר עשו"? אלא אילו הגרים שגיירו‬:'‫ ואת אומ‬.‫ אי ן יכולין‬,‫לזרוק בו את ה שמה‬
‫ ויאמר‬.‫ למה ''שעשו''? אלא ללמדך שכל מי שהוא מקרב את הגוי כאילו בראו‬,‫ויאמר שגיירו‬
.‫ אברהם היה מגייר את הא שים ושרה את ה שים‬:‫ למה ''שעשו''? אמ' ר' חו יא‬,''‫''שעשה‬

“And Abram took his wife Sarai ]and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that
they had amassed, and the persons (lit. souls) that they had acquired (lit. made) in
Ḥaran”] (Gen 12:5). R. Elazar [said] in the name of R. Yossi ben Zimrah: If all of
humanity came together to create one insect, to throw a soul in it, they could not.8
Yet, you read: “and the souls that they made”. Rather these are the proselytes that
they converted. Then let it say “that they converted,” why “that they made”? This
is to teach you that anyone who brings in a gentile is as if he created him. And let
it say “that he made,” why “that they made”? Said R. Ḥonia: Abraham was
converting the men and Sarah the women.

6
As Jakob Petuchowski notes in a discussion of the typological nature of rabbinic thought, for the rabbis “Amalek
even plays the role of a cosmic evil principle, of some kind of Antichrist” (Jakob J. Petuchowski, Studies in Modern
Theology and Prayer [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998], 119).
7
This drasha, like many others in GenR, is repeated more than once in the midrash. In general, I will not cite such
parallels unless there is special significance. The interested reader can find citations of these parallels in Albeck's
edition.
8
Regarding the meaning of the word ‫ עולם‬in the phrase ‫באי עולם‬, see: Shamma Friedman, “The Mysteries of olam,”
in Studies in the Language and Terminology of Talmudic Literature (Jerusalem: The Academy of the Hebrew
Language, 2014), 32–34. Here the word ‫ עולם‬is used in connection with the physical world and hence the phrase ‫באי‬
‫ עולם‬should be rendered ‘all of humanity’ (lit. all comers to the world). However, Friedman has also demonstrated
that the word ‫ עולם‬is often meant to have a different connotation and each time the word appears in the midrash it
must analyzed individually to determine the intent.

78
Conversion as a formal and rigid institution was unknown in the biblical period. While
scholars argue about why and at what exact point this changed,9 for the rabbis it was understood
as a clearly defined religious category which they maintained was likewise governed by their legal
conceptions.10 Thus, it is not unexpected that the rabbis of GenR read Abraham’s biography and
his repeated ‘calling in the name of God’ through this lens.11 Indeed, Joshua Levinson has noted
that starting in the Tannaic period Abraham is presented as the “paradigmatic proselytizer.”12 This,
he observes, is an important ideological development from the second Temple texts, which
consistently refer to the patriarch as a philosopher or the first convert, but never a converter of
others. The application of this epithet to Sarah is likewise a conscious development by GenR.13 In
contrast to the biblical version in which only Abraham ‘calls in the name of God’ and the other
rabbinic sources which speak only of Abraham as a converter of the masses, the midrash presents
Sarah as an equal partner in this endeavor. In other words, the unique rabbinic conception of
Abraham is now utilized in order to widen Sarah’s role as well. This even outdoes the ‘partnership’
between Abraham and Sarah as envisioned by Philo. Unlike Philo, for whom this harmony of

9
In the biblical record it appears that joining Israel was not a ‘religious’ act, but rather a change in ethnic self-
identification. Yehezkal Kaufman and Sara Japhet nevertheless argue that the development of conversion in the
religious sense develops out of the Persian period and the ‘Return to Zion’. See: Yehezkel Kaufmann, History of the
Religion of Israel [Hebrew], vol. 8 (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1953), 290–303; Sara Japhet, The Ideology of the Book
of Chronicles and its Place in Biblical Thought [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1995), 278–99. In contrast, Shaye
Cohen sees it as a development which begins during the period of the Hasmonean Dynasty and reaches full
development even later, see: Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 109–39.
10
For an overview of the relevant sources regarding conversion and its development and formalization in rabbinic
law, complete with ritual ceremonies, see: Moshe Samet, “Conversion in the First Centuries CE [Hebrew],” in Jews
and Judaism in the Second Temple, Mishna, and Talmud Periods, ed. Aharon Oppenheimer, Yeshayahu Gafni, and
Menahem Stern (Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi, 1993), 316–43.
11
GR 39:16 (Albeck 381): ‫ התחיל מגייר גיורים‬."‫"ויקרא בשם ייי‬. See also: GR 43:7 (421), 54:6 (583).
12
Joshua Levinson, The Twice Told Tale: A Poetics of the Exegetical Narrative in Rabbinic Midrash [Hebrew]
(Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2005), 98. Translation my own.
13
The final statement that “Abraham was converting the men and Sarah the women” is attributed to R. Ḥonia. While
a certain R. Ḥonia is quoted a few times in the Tosefta )for example: Ohalot 2:8, MS Wein), this does not appear to
be the R. Ḥonia quoted throughout GenR. Elsewhere in the midrash, R. Ḥonia brings drashot in the name sages from
transfer period between Tannaim and Amoraim such as Abba Koehn bar Delay (GR 76:9, Albeck 907; 80:5, 955), and
Amoraim such as R. Υusta bar Tevet (see: 80:6, 960). Likewise, in other midrashai aggadah from the period R. Ḥonia
quotes Amoraim, such as R. Hoshiya (see: LevR 18:4) Therefore, R. Ḥonia statement should be understood as
Amoraic in nature. This is fitting as he is portrayed in this section of the midrash as building off a statement made by
R. Elazar (a 4th generation Amora) in the name of R. Yossi ben Zimra (the transfer period between the Tannaim and
Amoraim).

79
purpose existed only in regard to matters of the home, the midrash actually sees Sarah as an equal
partner in Abraham’s religious mission.

Lastly, the presentation of Sarah in this fashion also appears to be a creative take on God’s
promise that Sarah “shall give rise to nations (goyyim) [and that] rulers of peoples shall issue from
her” which accompanies the changing of her name (Gen 17:16). According to the midrash, one
who “brings in a gentile (goy)” has in fact “created him.” Thus, by converting gentiles (goyyim)
Sarah is indeed responsible for giving rise to new nations (goyyim) as the first half of the verse
states. If the biblical Sarah was mother merely to the nations which came from Isaac and his
progeny, the midrashic Sarah is also the mother and ‘creator’ of countless female converts and all
the now Jewish offspring these women will have. Unlike the second Temple sources which tend
to downplay or delete the direct blessing Sarah receives in the Bible, the midrash expands it and
gives it important new meaning.

A similar sentiment can be found in the following drasha which is based on Sarah’s
exclamation after Isaac’s birth: “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle
children?!” (Gen 21:7; GR 53:9, Vat. 30, Albeck 564-565):

‫ אמ' לה אבי ו‬.‫ שרה אמי ו היתה צ ועה יתר מדיי‬.‫ ה יקה ב איין‬.)‫ז‬:‫"ה יקה ב ים" (באשית כא‬
.‫ אלא גלי את דדייך כדי שידעו הכל שהתחיל הקב'ה עשות סים‬,‫ אין זו שעת הצ יע‬:‫אברהם‬
‫והיו מטרו יות באות ומ יקות את ב יהן ממ ה והיו‬. ‫וגילה את דדיה והיו נובעים כש י מעיי ות‬
.‫ שליצחק‬14‫ אין א ו כדיי לה יק את ב ים מחלבו של צדיק‬:'‫אומ‬

‫ אף מי שלא‬:'‫ ר' אחא אמ‬.‫ כל מי שבא לשם שמים נעשה ירא שמים‬:'‫ רב ין אמר‬.‫רב ין ור' אחא‬
‫ ולא עשו אלא כיון שהפליגו עצמן בסי י ולא קיבלו את‬.‫בא לשם שמים תן לו ממשלה בעולם‬
‫ "מוסר מלכים פתח ויאסר אזור‬:]‫ הדה ה[וא דכתיב‬.‫התורה ניטלה אותה מהם אותה הממשלה‬
.)‫יח‬:‫במת יהם" (איוב יב‬

“Suckle children” [banim] (Gen. 21:7). She suckled builders [bani’in = bonim]. Our
mother Sarah was extremely modest. Our father Abraham said to her: This is not a
time for modesty, rather expose your breasts in order that all should know that the
Holy One blessed be He has begun to work miracles. He then exposed her breasts
and they gushed forth like two springs. And the Roman noble women would come

14
Vat. 30 reads "‫ "שצדיק‬and has been amended to "‫ "של צדיק‬according to in Vat. 60. This same change is found in
the version of the text found in “Ma’agarim”.

80
and have their children suckled by her, saying: We are not worthy to nurse our sons
from the milk of the righteous one, of Isaac.

The Rabbis and R. Aḥa. The Rabbis said: anyone who came for the sake of heaven
was made a fearer of heaven. R. Aḥa said: Even one who did not come for the sake
of heaven was given domination in the world.15 However, they did not continue
[with this domination], for when they removed themselves at Sinai and did not
accept the Torah that domination was taken from them. As it is written: “He undoes
the belts of kings and fastens loincloths on them” (Job 12:18).

The exegetical problem in the verse from Genesis which GenR addresses is the word
“children” as, of course, Sarah only had one. To account for this the midrash states that Sarah
nursed not only Isaac, but the children of others as well. In doing so, the drasha plays off a common
theme of the period: wet nursing.16 First, wet nursing was a well-known part of the realia of
antiquity. Use of a wet nurse was extremely common among upper class families,17 hence the
midrash’s reference here to matronot (Roman noble women). In fact, medical texts and personal
correspondences from the period show that carefully choosing a properly suited nurse was
considered a matter of great importance among the Roman elite.18 In addition to being physically
fit for the task and leading a healthy lifestyle, a nurse was also expected to be of the utmost
character and even ideally speak Greek. This is because a wet nurse was often seen as playing a
crucial role in the child’s early education and influencing the rest of his life. Gail Paterson
Corrington further notes that as a result of the pedagogical importance granted to actual wet

15
I have translated ‫ עולם‬as ‘world,’ though perhaps ‘era’ is to be preferred. As Friedman notes, sometimes the line
between the two uses is unclear. Friedman, “Studies,” 98–99.
16
The importance of this theme for understanding the drasha was pointed out by Joshua Levinson in the course
“Women of the Bible in the Literature of the Midrash and Aggadah [Hebrew]” (Hebrew University of Jerusalem,
2014).
17
Tim G. Parkin, “The Demography of Infancy and Early Childhood in the Ancient World,” in The Oxford Handbook
of Childhood and Education in the Classical World, ed. Judith Evans Grubbs, Tim G. Parkin, and Roslynne Bell (New
York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 54.
18
A number of primary texts regarding wet nurses in the classical world have been compiled in: Mary R. Lefkowitz
and Maureen B. Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome (London: Duckworth, 1982), 28, 110–11, 178–80. For
example, the influential physician Soranus of Ephesus writes that the nurse should be “self-controlled, sympathetic,
and not ill-tempered, a Greek, and tidy” (Ibid., 164) and later remarks that “by nature the nursling becomes similar
to the nurse” (165-166). Another author from this period states that nurses play a role “foremost and prefatory to
the whole of the child’s life, in her nursing, as concerns his being raised well” (Ibid., 110–11). For a recent summary
of these and other texts as well as a more general analysis of breastfeeding in the Roman world, see: Parkin, “The
Demography of Infancy and Early Childhood in the Ancient World,” 50–57.

81
nursing, a second, symbolic, theme developed as well.19 Nursing was often used metaphorically
by philosophers to represent the transferring of knowledge. As a result, several Greco-Roman
thinkers refer to themselves as “nurses responsible for the discipline and education of those who
were infants in knowledge.”20 Use of this metaphor is also found in a more religious context. For
example, Philo alternatively refers to God, wisdom, and reason as “nurse,” while some early
Christian texts speak metaphorically of the “milk of Christ.”21 Finally, the use of the connection
between nursing and education can also be found elsewhere in GenR.22

Returning to the midrash’s image of women bringing their children to be nursed by Sarah,
it clearly makes use of the two themes. In the plain sense, by acting as wet nurse for the children
of Roman noblewomen, Sarah is in position to influence their early education and plays an
important role in their future conduct. Likewise, it speaks to the greatness of Sarah’s character that
not only is she chosen as a wet nurse, but that these noblewomen actually say they are “not worthy”
of her services. In a metaphorical sense, it is her spiritual milk that may impart the ‘fear of heaven’
upon the children, at least those who have been brought to her for the right reason. Indeed, as
Levinson has emphasized in his analysis of the drasha, the use of the term “fearers of heaven”
(yirei shamyim) is not happenstance.23 In rabbinic texts it is a technical term which denotes a group
known in Greek as theosebeis (God-fearers). These individuals, who are more widely attested to
in late antique sources outside of rabbinic literature, were pagans who adopted various Jewish
practices. Despite this, however, they did not convert and were by no means an integral part of the
Jewish communities to which they affiliated. According to Levinson, the description of Sarah
nursing foreign children and thus turning them into God-fearers is an attempt by the rabbis to

19
Gail Paterson Corrington, “The Milk of Salvation: Redemption by the Mother in Late Antiquity and Early
Christianity,” Harvard Theological Review 82, no. 4 (1989): 406.
20
Ibid.
21
For example, see Philo’s use of the metaphor in On Drunkenness (Ebr 31) and Clement’s statement in Paedagogus
(Paed 1.35.3). These and several other sources are cited by Ibid., 406–7, 412–13.
22
For example, the midrash takes the Bible’s reference to Moses as ‘nurse’ (Num 11:12) to mean ‘tutor’ (‫ ;פידגוג‬GR
1:1, Albeck 1). In addition, elsewhere it remarks that Abraham “acquired good deeds and commandments” despite
the fact that “no breasts gave him suck, not commandments and not good deeds” (39:3, 366-367). See also GR 31:7
(280) where a more subtle parallel is drawn between ‘nurse’ and ‘tutor’. While perhaps more frequent in GenR, use
of such imagery is not unique to the midrash. For example, Sifre Devarim (321, MS London):
.‫ שהיו מ יקין דברי תורה כיו ק זה שיו ק חלב מדדי אמו‬.)‫כה‬:‫"יו ק" (דברים לב‬
Regarding the use of the term ‫פידגוג‬, τhe Greek term παιδαγωγός literally refers to a slave who was charged with
leading a child to and from school, but often has the more general connotation of ‘tutor’ in classic literature, see:
Henry G. Liddell and Robert Scott, eds., An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 584.
23
Levinson, The Twice Told Tale, 139–48.

82
create “a cultural biography [for the theosebeis]… that serves to explain their being both in and
out, both similar and different.”24 In this, Levinson focuses on how the midrash uses the figure of
Sarah to address a wider cultural and social issue. Such a reading is complemented by further
noting that this drasha also plays a significant role in the rabbis’ conception of Sarah herself and
the singular importance they grant her.

Moreover, as with the description of Sarah’s missionary work, this drasha may be another
way for the rabbis of GenR to fulfill the biblical prediction that Sarah “shall give rise to nations
[and that] rulers of peoples shall issue from her” (Gen 17:16). Though she is not a biological
mother of those children that she nurses, she nevertheless plays an important mother-like role for
them. Hence, here too she can be seen as giving “rise to nations” as she did through her
conversions.25 In addition, as the children are described in the midrash as being of noble birth, they
may one day go on to be the “rulers of people” which were promised to Sarah. As the midrash
states, even those who were brought to her for the wrong reason will have domination in this world
(albeit short lived). Through all this Sarah is depicted as an important religious figure in her own
right and her role as the ‘mother of nations’ is given special attention. Once again these
developments lack a strong anchor in the Bible and go beyond anything in the second Temple
traditions.

An additional example demonstrates just how far the rabbis are willing to go in order to
draw attention to Sarah’s unique importance (GR 53:6, Vat. 30, Albeck 560):

‫ אבל שרה‬.‫ אפעלגב דאמ' רב הו א מלאך הוא שהוא ממו ה על התאוה‬:‫אמ' ר' יהודה בר' סימון‬
."‫ "וייי פקד את שרה‬.‫ אלא הוא בכבודו‬,‫לא צרכה לדברים הללו‬

Said R. Yehudah bar Simon: Even though as R. Huna said there is angel appointed
over physical desire, Sarah did not require such things, rather He in His glory:26
“And the Lord remembered [pakad] Sarah” (Gen 21:1).

24
Ibid., 145. Translation my own.
25
Compare Isa 60:16:
You shall suck the milk of the nations, suckle at royal breasts. And you shall know that I the Lord am
your Savior, I, The Mighty One of Jacob, am your Redeemer.
26
Amended according to MS Vatican 60 (and identical to the text of Albeck’s edition as well). In V30 this line reads:
"‫"אבל שרה לא צרכה אלא הוא בכבודו לדברים הללו‬. The change in the order of the words appears to be a mistake on the
part of the copyist.

83
Yet again the midrash plays on the word pakad, which can also mean to ‘visit’ or to ‘arrive’ in the
Bible.27 Likewise, in both biblical and rabbinic literature the term carries with it sexual
connotations on rare occasions.28 Thus, according to the midrash God did not merely remember
his promise to Sarah, but rather He personally arrived in order to carry it out.29 There is obviously
much to be said regarding this drasha and its striking implications regarding the nature of Sarah’s
conception of Isaac. This piece will be analyzed in greater depth in chapter five, but for now it is
enough to note that the midrash goes out of its way to emphasize Sarah’s ascetic piety and the
direct nature of her relationship with God.

As with previous examples, there is almost no need to demonstrate that this drasha strays
from the plain meaning of the verse quoted. This is clearly true in regard to the creative use of the
word pakad, but also in the manner by which Sarah’s lack of carnal desire is presented. When the
coming birth of Isaac is announced in the Bible, Sarah remarks: “Now that I am withered, am I to
have enjoyment—with my husband so old?” before being chastised for her lack of faith (Gen
18:12). Yet, not only does the midrash maintain that Sarah’s lack of physical desire is actually to
her great credit, it goes on to claim that as a result of this God Himself brought about her pregnancy.

To summarize, GenR continually presents Sarah as paragon of Judaism. According to the


rabbis, the matriarch’s conduct is marked by “commandments and good deeds” and as such she is
an archetype of righteousness. Further, the midrash depicts her as an active and equal partner in
her husband’s religious endeavors. As they do with Abraham, the rabbis imagine Sarah as a
paradigmatic proselytizer who brings others into Judaism. Not only this, but Sarah is depicted as
spreading the “fear of heaven” among Gentiles. In addition to this conception of her role as ‘mother

27
See again: Kaddari, “‫פקד‬.”
28
This point is noted by Mirkin in his commentary on this drasha, see: Moshe Aryeh Mirkin, ed., Bereshit Rabbah
[Hebrew], vol. 2, Midrash Rabbah (Tel Aviv: Yavneh, 1968), 240. Use of the term in a sexual manner is possibly found
in Judges 15:1 ( ‫ויהי מימים בימי קציר חטים ויפקד שמשון את אשתו בגדי עזים ויאמר אבאה אל אשתי החדרה ולא נתנו אביה‬
‫ )לבוא‬and more clearly in Job 5:24-25 (.‫ וידעת כי רב זרעך וצאצאיך כעשב הארץ‬.‫)וידעת כי שלום אהלך ופקדת נוך ולא תחטא‬.
In rabbinic literature, such a use is found in bYevamot 62:2 (MS Munich):
.‫ ש " 'וידעת כי שלום אהליך" וגו‬,‫ חייב אדם לפקד את אשתו בשעה שיצא לדרך‬:‫ואמ'ר יהושע בן לוי‬
And perhaps in a similar sense in GenR itself (17:8, Albeck 159):
‫ לאחד שיש בידו פיקדון ומבקש אדם אמן‬:‫ אמ' להם‬.‫למה האיש מפקיד זרע באשה ואין האשה מפקדת זרע באיש‬
.‫שיפקיד ו בידו‬
29
The midrash also states that God formed Sarah’s womb (GR 47:2, Albeck 472; 53:5, 559):
.‫ עיקר מיטרין לא היה לה וגלף לה הקב'ה עיקר מיטרין‬:‫לקיש‬-‫ר' יודן בש' ריש‬
The same remark is made about Rebecca (63:5, 681), but the midrash does not go so far as to credit God with
impregnating her as it does with Sarah.

84
of nations,’ Sarah is also portrayed as maintaining a close and direct connection to God. The rabbis
take this idea so far as to suggest that the matriarch was personally ‘visited’ by God so that she
could bear a child. The depiction of Sarah as model of Jewish belief and action in GenR is even
more remarkable because it has no real connection to the biblical record. Moreover, the midrash
often demonstrates Sarah’s importance through creative readings of individual biblical verses
which bear little resemblance to the actual meaning of the text. No less remarkably, these
developments in GenR have no real parallel in the second Temple texts. In these works, Sarah is
generally ignored or even maligned. Further, even in those rare instances where the second Temple
authors do defend Sarah they stop well short of granting her religious significance in her own right
as the midrash so forcefully does. From a synchronic standpoint, the repeated portrayal of Sarah
as model of Jewish faith means that it can be seen as theme which typifies GenR as a whole. In
addition, it should be noted that these drashot are, as a rule, relayed in the name of prominent
Amoraim, such as R. Aḥa and R. Yehudah bar Simon. From a source-critical standpoint, this
implies that such attention to Sarah may be a development of the Amoraic period in particular.
Indeed, the analysis of addition Sarah-related material which follows will confirm this.

Sarah the Prophetess


So great is Sarah’s religious stature in the eyes of the rabbis that they emphasize that God spoke
to her directly (GR 48:20, Vat. 30, Albeck 495):

'‫ ר' יודן בר‬.)‫טו‬:‫"ותכחש שרה לא[מר לא צחקתי כי יראה ויאמר לא כי צחקת]" (בראשית יח‬
‫ מעולם לא זקק הקב'ה להשיח עם אשה אלא עם‬:‫סימון ור' יוח ן בש' ר' אלעזר בר' שמעון‬
‫ כמה כירכורים כירכר לשוח‬:‫ ר' אבא בר כה א בש' ר' כירי‬.‫ אף הוא על ידי עילא‬,‫אותה הצדקת‬
."‫ "ויאמר לא כי צחקת‬.‫עמה‬

“Sarah lied, saying, ‘I did not laugh,’ for she was frightened. But He replied, ‘No.
You did laugh’” (Gen 18:15). R. Yuden bar Simon and R. Yoḥanan [said] in the
name of R. Elazar bar Shimon: Never did the Holy One blessed be He need to speak
with a woman except for this righteous woman [Sarah], and even that with cause.
R. Aba bar Kehana in the name of R. Kiri [said]: And what a roundabout way did
He find in order to speak with her. “But He replied, ‘No. You did laugh.’”

Unlike her husband who regularly converses with God and is explicitly called a prophet (Gen
20:7), Sarah is not portrayed as such in the Bible. In fact, God’s caustic reply “No. You did laugh”

85
to Sarah’s expression of disbelief upon hearing the annunciation of Isaac is actually the only
instance in which God speaks to Sarah in the Bible. Therefore, while the midrash’s statement that
God spoke to Sarah here is technically correct, it is clearly not the point that the biblical author
was trying to make regarding Sarah’s relationship with God. Even Feminist Bible scholar Tammi
Schneider, who claims that this episode is not to be taken as a critique of Sarah, can only do so by
arguing that it was Abraham and not God that replies to Sarah. As she notes, “interpreting the
Deity as blaming Sarah demands that all of Sarah’s previous actions in this unit be viewed as
negative.”30 The midrash, however, wishes to have it both ways. On the one hand, it makes a point
of reading this as an exchange between God and Sarah and thus granting her the title of prophet.
On the other hand, it ignores what is then the clear meaning of the reply: God’s stern rebuke of
Sarah’s lack of faith. Not only does the midrash look past this, but instead refers to her as “this
righteous woman”. This shift in focus speaks of a clear aim on the part of GenR to present Sarah
as a religious hero by reworking a scene in the Bible which implies otherwise.

While it could be argued that the midrash’s remark that God needed special “cause” to
speak with Sarah should be seen as tempering her praise, this does not appear to be the case. First,
GenR chooses to reject the plain implications of the biblical episode and instead read it in a manner
which praises Sarah. Second, the midrash also insists that God communicated with Sarah despite
His general aversion to interacting with women.31 While this may not speak well of how the rabbis
saw the nature of God’s relationship with women in general, it highlights Sarah’s singular
importance. For her and only her God found “cause” to make an exception to this rule.32

That the purpose of this drasha is indeed to highlight Sarah’s exceptional nature is further
confirmed in the continuation of this section (GR 48:20, Vat. 30, Albeck 495-496):

‫ על‬:‫ ר' יהושע בר נחמיה בש' ר' אידי‬.)‫יג‬:‫והכת[יב] "ותקרא שם ייי הדבר אליה" (בראשית טז‬
.‫ על ידי מלאך‬:'‫ ר' לוי בש' ר' חמא בר' ח י א אמ‬.)‫כג‬:‫ והכת[יב] "ויאמר ייי לה" (כה‬.‫ידי מלאך‬
.‫ על ידי שם‬:'‫ר' לעזר בש' ר' יוסי בן זימרה אמ‬

30
Tammi J. Schneider, Sarah: Mother of Nations (New York: Continuum, 2004), 70.
31
This point is also made by Zohar, “The Figure of Abraham and the Voice of Sarah in Genesis Rabbah,” 74.
32
On the other hand, a different opinion can be found elsewhere in GenR which maintains that all the matriarchs
were prophets (GR 67:9, Albeck 765; 76:2, 845):
.‫ האימהות ביאות היו‬:‫ר' חגיי בשם ר' יצחק‬
.‫ אימהות ביאות היו‬:‫אמ' ר' ח יה בר פזי‬

86
But it is written: “And [Hagar] called the Lord who spoke to her” (Gen 16:13). R.
Yehoshuah bar Neḥemiah in the name of R. Idi [said]: Through an angel. But it is
written: “And the Lord answered [Rebecca]” (Gen. 25:23). R. Levi in the name of
R. Ḥama bar Ḥanina said: through an angel. R. Elazar in the name of R Yossi ben
Zimrah said: though Shem.

The midrash objects to the statement that of all the women of Genesis, God only spoke with Sarah
by invoking verses which imply that God also spoke to Hagar and Rebecca (Gen 16:13, 25:23). It
then rejects this possibility by claiming that there were in fact interlocutors who mediated between
God and these women.33 It is not hard to argue that Hagar was spoken to by an angel, as the Bible
repeatedly says so (16:7-11).34 However, the case for Rebecca is difficult to make as neither an
angel nor Shem are mentioned anywhere in the text. Yet, despite a complete lack of evidence, the
midrash states that God did not actually speak to Rebecca Himself. By reading these verses in this
manner, GenR is able to keep them in line with the preconceived notion that God would not speak
to a woman and at the same time defend the claim that Sarah is a unique exception to this rule.
Likewise, it shows that rabbis are not above using creative exegesis to nullify the plain meaning
of a verse which states that God spoke to women. This makes the midrash’s decision not to do so
in regard to Sarah, but instead draw attention to the fact that God spoke to her, all the more
significant.

All of the above stands out when compared to how this episode is dealt with in the second
Temple era sources discussed in chapter two. The author of Jubilees, for example, records that
after overhearing the angels’ message to Abraham, “Sarah laughed… and we [the angels]

33
In addition to Hagar and Rebecca, the Bible also states that God spoke with Eve (Gen 3:16). In its comments on
that verse, GenR also invokes the drasha under discussion, here to wishing to state that Sarah was in fact the only
woman in Genesis with whom God spoke (GR 20:6, Albeck 188). However, unlike its explanations for Hagar and
Rebecca, the midrash there does not given any reason for why this verse should be understood differently. In his
commentary, Albeck notes that in the parallel found in ySotah this matter is addressed.
34
Biblical scholarship attributes the change in reference from an “angel of the Lord” (Gen 16:7-12) to the “Lord”
(16:13) to the stitching together of variant sources or the revision of an earlier tradition to match later ideals. For
example, von Rad argues that the appearance of God to Hagar was part of ancient traditions regarding shrines and
holy sites in which God Himself appeared. However, later authors inserted an angel as a mediating figure as a result
of “distinct theological reflection” (Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, trans. John H Marks [London: SCM
Press, 1961], 149). The midrash, of course, would reject such a division between the sources and reads the later
attribution to an angel as merely a clarification of the manner in which God spoke to her. Indeed, if von Rad is correct
in his reading, then the midrash’s conclusion is the very one which the later biblical authors hoped their readers
would reach.

87
reproached her” (Jub 16:2). Despite Jubilees attributing the rebuke of Sarah to the angels and not
to God as in the Bible, the main thrust of the episode is the same: Sarah displays a lack of faith
and is admonished for it. Likewise, the fact that she interacted with divine messengers is in no way
seen as a credit to her. The midrash, by contrast, takes the exact opposite approach. It emphasizes
that Sarah interacted with God and the negative content of that interaction is completely ignored.

Less pejorative than Jubilees is Josephus’s rendering. Nevertheless, he is still far less
positive than the midrash. In Judean Antiquities all the censure which Sarah receives in the Bible
is removed. Sarah’s comment that a woman her age cannot give birth is what causes the angels to
reveal their true nature, but is not taken as an expression of doubt in God’s ability (JA 1.197). As
a result, both the rhetorical question “Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?” and the final retort
“No. You did laugh” are simply taken-out. However, as seen in the previous chapter, Josephus’
desire to eliminate some of the more negative aspects of Sarah’s portrayal in the Bible does not
change the fact that he continually distances her from God. Thus, the interaction between Sarah
and God is simply removed, rather than rewritten in a more positive manner. The midrash, on the
other hand, does not shy away from highlighting that God spoke with Sarah, nor drawing positive
conclusions from this regarding her character.

GenR is exceptional even when compared to Philo, the only early exegete who did present
this episode in a manner complimentary to Sarah. Like Josephus, Philo appears to have been
uncomfortable with the stern nature of God’s rebuke as documented in the Bible. Philo records
that Sarah laughed and “afterwards when they [the angels] said, ‘Is anything impossible with
God?’ was ashamed and denied her laughter” (Abr 112). Not only does Philo attribute this
rhetorical question to the angels and not to God,35 but he also makes no mention of the terse
comeback “No. You did laugh” which ends the scene. Instead, Philo goes straight into his
explanation of why Sarah was ashamed, which actually speaks of her knowledge of God, and then
credits her with comprehending the divine nature of her guests. For its part, however, GenR not

35
In all three of the second Temple sources discussed here, it is the angels who speak throughout the episode, while
God Himself is not mentioned. This is slightly different in the biblical version where God Himself eventually speaks
in order to question Sarah’s faith and rebuke her (Gen 18:13-15). The Septuagint also renders matters in the same
fashion as the Masoretic text in this regard. Given this, and that this subtle change is found in both Jubilees (which
critiques Sarah) and Josephus and Philo (who defend her), it appears that no single explanation can be given for this
change in all three. Rather, each author had his own particular reason for doing so, some of which have been
discussed here.

88
does not ignore this final line. Instead, it actually makes “No. You did laugh” the prooftext for
Sarah’s prophecy. While it is difficult to know if the rabbis were familiar with these early
exegetical traditions or not, the contrast between them nevertheless draws attention to the
innovative approach of the midrash.

Finally for this section of the midrash, it is possible that the attempt to reinterpret Sarah’s
actions in a way that praises her also finds expression in the archeological record. The floor mosaic
found in the remains of a fifth-century synagogue in Sepphoris (Tzipori) contains a large three-
panel section illustrating the events of the akeida.36 The largest of these panels portrays the
announcement of Isaac’s future birth to Abraham (figure 1). Though little of the original has
survived scholars have been able to reconstruct it. In the center are Abraham and the angel while
to left stands Sarah in a doorway listening to their conversation. The readiness of the artist to place
this scene so prominently in the synagogue implies that for his audience Sarah’s conduct was no
longer taken in a negative fashion. This, of course, contradicts the plain meaning of the biblical
text and the way in which it was likewise understood by second Temple authors. It may not be
coincidence that this piece of Jewish artwork appears to take a positive approach to Sarah’s role
in this episode just as the midrash does. As noted, the synagogue is dated to the fifth-century, the
very period in which GenR was redacted.

Figure 1 (Taken from: Weiss, The Sepphoris Synagogue, 229.)


A reconstruction of a panel from the floor mosaic in the Sepphoris synagogue.
Sarah stands in the doorway listening to Abraham and the angel.

36
This panel is described and reconstructed in Zeev Weiss, The Sepphoris Synagogue: Deciphering an Ancient
Message through Its Archaeological and Socio-Historical Contexts (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society: Institute of
Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2005), 228–29.

89
The annunciation of Isaac is not the only place where GenR speaks of Sarah as receiving
God’s word. In response to Sarah’s request that Abraham take Hagar as a consort, the midrash
remarks (GR 45:2, Vat. 30, Albeck 449):

:'‫ כמה דאת אמ‬.‫ לקול רוח הקודש‬:'‫ ר' יוסי או‬.)‫ב‬:‫"וישמע אברם לקול שרי" (בראשית טז‬
.)‫א‬:‫"ואתה תשמע לקול דברי [ייי]" (שמואל א טו‬

“And Abram listened to Sarai’s request” [lit. her voice] (Gen 16:2). R. Yossi said:
To the voice of the Holy Spirit. As you read: “And you, listen to the voice of the
words of God” (1Sam 15:1).37

According to the midrash, Sarah’s voice is equal to that of God. This, of course, has no basis in
the episode as recorded in the Bible. It is true that several chapters later, when Sarah tells Abraham
to cast out Hagar and Ishmael, God does command Abraham “whatever Sarah tells you, do as she
says” (Gen 21:12). However, this only highlights the fact that no such divine endorsement is noted
here. Moreover, even in this later episode Sarah does not speak for God, as the midrash claims she
does here. Rather, the Lord only sanctions her request after the fact. Here, by contrast, Sarah
actively speaks in God’s name, just as the prophet Samuel did. Indeed, the connection to Samuel
plays an important role in the drasha. It could have been argued that by attributing Sarah’s request
to the Holy Spirit the midrash actually downplays her own intrinsic significance by implying that
her words only carry weight when they are actually God’s. However, by invoking Samuel’s words
the midrash appears to preclude such a reading. Like the prophets, the fact that Sarah’s words are
actually those of the Divine does not lessen her importance. Rather, it is further evidence of her
personal significance and closeness to God.38

Here too, looking back to the second Temple authors makes clear just how far this drasha
goes in drawing attention to Sarah’s importance. For example, Pseudo-Philo, apparently ill at ease
with the idea of Abraham taking orders from his wife, removes Sarah from the scene and states
that Abraham took Hagar on his own initiative. Similarly, as part of his downplaying of Sarah as
an active agent Josephus credits the Lord, and not Sarah, with telling Abraham to take Hagar.

37
Τhe verse as quoted by the midrash is different than that of the Masoretic text, which reads:
...‫( ועתה שמע לקול‬And now listen to the voice…).
38
For reading of this drasha which also sees it as highlighting Sarah’s greatness, but for different reasons, see: Zohar,
“Voice of Sarah,” 74–75.

90
Going back to the midrash, it also portrays this advice as ultimately coming from God. However,
there is a crucial difference. Josephus omits Sarah’s role entirely, while the midrash instead
imagines her as relaying God’s message. It is true that the rabbis, by nature of their genre, would
have more difficulty skipping over the fact that Sarah speaks these words, as Josephus can and did
in his ‘re-written Bible’. However, the midrash is under no obligation to draw the connection
between Sarah and Samuel. In choosing to do so, the rabbis send a very strong message regarding
Sarah’s standing. While Josephus and Pseudo-Philo are uncomfortable with the idea that Abraham
would obey his wife, the midrash not only embraces this point but expands upon it by equating
Sarah’s voice with God’s.

To summarize, GenR twice highlights that Sarah is a prophetess. This is exceptional given
that she is never referred to as such in the Bible and the only instance therein where God addresses
her directly actually involves a curt reproach for her lack of faith. The midrash also stands out
when compared to the second Temple authors who generally continued the Bible’s approach in
this regard. Even Philo, who did praise Sarah’s ability to recognize the divine messengers who
visited her, does not describe Sarah as receiving the direct word of God. Lastly, as the midrash
itself notes, the conception of Sarah as a prophetess is exceptional in light of the rabbis’ notion
that God avoids speaking to women. It should be mentioned that the two sections of the midrash
which speak to Sarah’s role as a prophetess are exceptional in that they are based on material
attributed to Tannaim, for example R. Elazar bar Shimon and R. Yossi. The vast majority of the
material praising Sarah elsewhere is attributed to Amoarim or the anonymous voice of GenR. Of
course, given that such attention to Sarah is an overarching theme in the midrash as a whole, it is
no surprise that the redactors of GenR chose to preserve this earlier material.

Sarah and the Foreign Kings


In addition to the material presented above regarding her personal traits and greater religious role,
GenR dedicates a large amount of space to discussing the most striking lacuna in Sarah’s story:
her time with the foreign kings. Addressing the couples’ descent into Egypt, the midrash starts by
criticizing Abraham’s conduct even before his wife is taken (GR 40:4, Vat. 30, Albeck 383-384):

‫ "ותשלח‬:‫ ברק‬.‫ אברהם וברק‬:‫ ש י ב י אדם היו עיקר ועשו עצמן טפילה‬:‫ר' פי חס בש' ר' ראובן‬
"]‫ותקרא לברק בן אבי ועם… ויאמר אליה אם תלכי עמי והלכתי ואם לא תלכי [עמי לא אלך‬
‫ "ולאברם היטיב בעבורה" (בראשית‬:‫ אברהם היה עיקר ו עשה טפילה‬...)‫ ח‬,‫ו‬:‫(שופטים ד‬
.)‫טז‬:‫יב‬

91
R. Pinḥas [said] in the name of R. Reuven: two persons were principal and made
themselves subordinate, Abraham and Barak. Barak: “And [Deborah] summoned
Barak, son of Abinoam… but Barak said to her, ‘If you will go with me, I will go;
if [you will] not [go with me], I will not go.’”… Abraham was principal but was
made subordinate: “And because of her, it went well with Abram” (Gen 12:16).

According to the midrash, Abraham subordinated himself to Sarah during their time in Egypt. The
proof of this is the Bible’s statement that Abraham is rewarded only ‘because of his wife’. This
particular verse refers to the many gifts Abraham is given by Pharaoh when Sarah is taken, but in
a more general sense the midrash clearly wishes to point out that Abraham was dependent upon
his wife for survival while in Egypt.39 This of course is clearest in Abraham’s request of Sarah to
tell the locals that they are brother and sister, as some Feminist Bible scholars have argued. Further,
the comparison to Deborah—a prophetess and judge of Israel— serves to emphasize Sarah's
importance, just like the comparison to Samuel mentioned above.

While it may not have been the intent of the biblical author to portray Abraham as so
beholden to his wife that he was obligated to ask her to lie for him, the fear of such a reading may
have contributed to the blurring of this matter in second Temple sources. To recall, the Apocryphon
says the patriarch was motivated to do so by a prophetic dream, while Jubilees and Philo simply
remove the wife-sister motif. While these authors may have been more troubled by the fact that
Abraham would lie than by the fact that he would put himself at his wife’s mercy, the same cannot
be said for Josephus. He records that Abraham himself lied and then told Sarah to go along with
his ruse, as discussed. Given the nature of this change, it clearly is not Abraham’s willingness to
lie that upsets Josephus, but rather the fact that he was depicted in the Bible as beholden to his
wife in order to do so. The midrash, on the other hand, has no qualms about highlighting this exact
point. Like some modern scholars, the rabbis note that in their sojourn in Egypt Abraham
demonstrated his subordination to Sarah and placed his fate in her hands.

The message that Sarah’s stature at times eclipses that of Abraham can also be seen when
the midrash addresses the punishment Pharaoh received for taking Sarah. In this context, the

39
Niehoff makes similar points regarding this drasha, but sees the critique of Abraham as less intentional than I
argue. See: Maren R. Niehoff, “Associative Thinking in the Midrash Exemplified by the Rabbinic Interpretation of the
Journey of Abraham and Sarah to Egypt [Hebrew],” Tarbiz 62, no. 3 (1994): 346–54.

92
midrash uses the verse “the righteous flourish like a date palm; they thrive like a cedar in Lebanon”
as the base for a metaphor about Abraham and Sarah (Ps 92:13) (GR 41:1, Vat. 30, Albeck 387):

"]‫ "צדיק כתמר יפרח כארז בלב[נון] יש[גה‬.)‫יז‬:‫"וי גע ייי את פרעה געים גדולים" (בראשית יב‬
‫ מעשה בתמרה אחת שהיתה עומדת באמתו ולא היתה עושה‬:‫אמ' ר' ת חומה‬... )‫יג‬:‫(תהילים צב‬
.‫ כיון שהרכיבה עשת פירות‬.‫ עבר דקל אחד וראה אותה אמ' ארכיבה לזו סוכה אחת מיריחו‬.‫פרי‬

“But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his household with mighty plagues” (Gen
12:17). “The righteous bloom like a date palm; they thrive like a cedar in Lebanon”
(Ps 92:13). Said R. Tanḥumah: Once there was a date palm in Amathus40 that did
not bear fruit. A palm gardener passed by and saw it. He said: I will graft her with
the branch of a tree from Jericho. Since he grafted her, she bore fruit.

Sarah (the date tree) is without children (fruit) until God (the palm gardener) intervenes to connect
her with Abraham (the tree in Jericho).41 If in the Bible God is primarily concerned with assuring
Abraham of his ability to have children and Sarah’s main purpose is to facilitate that, in GenR this
is turned around dramatically. According to the midrashic retelling, God takes special note of
Sarah and then involves Abraham in order to help her. In other words, Sarah’s ability to conceive
is God’s main concern and Abraham is merely a tool to achieve that.

Use of this symbolism for Abraham and Sarah in the context of their time in Egypt can
actually already be found in the second Temple period. Returning to Abraham’s prophetic dream
in the Apocryphon, Abraham tells Sarah the following when he asks her to pose as his sister (GA
19:14-17):

And I, Abram, dreamt a dream on the night that I entered the land of Egypt. I saw in
my dream a cedar tree and a date palm42… together from [one] roo[t]. People came,
seeking to chop down and to uproot the [ce]dar tree and to spare only the date palm.
Now the date tree cried out and said, “Don’t cut down the [c]edar, for both of us

40
Translation based on Albeck’s comment that ‫ אמתו‬is a Hebrew rendering of the Greek Ἀμαθοῦς, an ancient city
in Transjordan.
41
Ironically, Jericho is actually referred to in the Bible as “the city of date palms” (Deut 34:3). Perhaps the midrash
means to allude to the fact that Sarah (the date palm) is out place and should be with her husband and in her natural
home (Jericho) and not abandoned by him in Pharaoh’s harem.
42
In the original: ‫תמרא‬. Morgenstern and Segal actually translate this as “palm tree,” but I have chosen to render it
as date palm in keeping with how I translated the Hebrew equivalent ‫ תמרה‬in the midrash and ‫ תמר‬in the biblical
verse.

93
have [sprouted] from one root,” and the cedar tree was spared for the sake of the
date palm and was not chopped down.

The Egyptians wish to kill Abraham (cedar tree), but he is saved due to Sarah (date tree) who states
that they are siblings (of one root). As discussed in chapter two, the purpose of this prophecy is
quite clear. It allows the author of the Apocryphon to defend Abraham’s request of Sarah and his
general inaction as divinely sanctioned.

The same symbolism is later found in GenR which refers to Sarah as a ‘date palm’ and
Abraham as a ‘cedar tree’.43 In fact, this is not the only instance where a tradition regarding
Abraham and Sarah’s time in Egypt found in the Apocryphon later appears in GenR. Levinson
notes that both works report that Hagar was one of the gifts that Pharaoh gave Abraham as he left
Egypt, but that GenR then goes on to develop this idea further by stating that Hagar was in fact
Pharaoh's daughter (GA 20:32, GR 45:1).44 Here too, it seems likely that the rabbis adopt the pre-
existing tree imagery and knowingly develop it.45 While the earlier tradition found in the
Apocryphon focuses on the cedar tree (Abraham), GenR highlights the role of the date palm
(Sarah). While the Apocryphon uses this parable to defend Abraham’s actions, the midrash instead
uses it to draw attention to Sarah’s close relationship with God.

Moreover, as this section continues, the date palm is given even greater metaphorical
significance (GR 41:1, Vat. 30, Albeck 388):

‫ סיבים‬,‫ חריות לסיכוך‬,‫ לולבים להלל‬,‫ אלא תמרים לאכילה‬,‫מה תמרה זו אין בה פסולה‬
,‫ כך הם ישראל אין בהם פסולת‬.‫ שפעת קורות לקרות בהם את הבית‬,‫ ס סי ים לכרכד‬,‫לחבלים‬
.‫ מהן בעלי הגדה‬,‫ מהן בעלי תלמוד‬,‫ מהן בעלי מש ה‬,‫אלא מהן בעלי מקרא‬

43
The midrash only refers to Abraham as a “tree in Jericho” without specifying the type. However, based on the
verse that it opens with (“The righteous flourish like a date palm; they thrive like a cedar in Lebanon”) it can be
inferred that if Sarah is a “date palm” then Abraham is a “cedar”. This is also the implication of the continuation of
this drasha which appears to be referring to the miraculous ability for both Sarah and Abraham to conceive:
‫ הארז‬,‫ … או מה‬."‫ "כארז‬:]‫לו[מר‬-]‫ תל[מוד‬.‫ אתמהא‬.‫ כך הם הצדיקים‬,‫ תמרה זו אין עושין ממ ה כלים‬,‫…או מה‬
."]‫ "צדיק כתמר [יפרח‬:]‫לו[מר‬-]‫ תל[מוד‬.]‫ אתמה[א‬.‫ יכול כך הם הצדיקין‬,‫אי ו עושה פירות‬
44
Levinson, The Twice Told Tale, 137–39.
45
The parallel between the tree imagery in Apocryphon and the verse from Psalms as quoted by the midrash is noted
by Avigdor Shinan, The world of the aggadah [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: MOD Books, 1987), 55–56. However, Shinan does
not note the manner in which GenR further develops this early tradition in a fashion which sends a starkly different
message regarding Sarah’s role.

94
Just as this date palm tree has no waste, rather dates for eating, branches [lulavim]
for the Hallel prayer, twigs for covering [the booths of Sukkot], fibers for ropes,
leaves for besoms, and inclined beams for ceiling the home. So too, Israel has no
waste. There are those who are masters of Bible, those who are masters of Mishnah,
those who are masters of Talmud, those who are masters of aggadah.

According to the midrash, the date palm is now representative of all of Israel. It is significant that
the midrash chooses the tree associated with Sarah, and not that associated with Abraham, for this
extended metaphor. As noted, the midrash has already stated that Sarah is the principal actor in
this episode and not her husband. Perhaps it is not surprising then that, in the context of their
conduct while in Egypt, GenR views Sarah as a more fitting symbol for Israel than Abraham. In
addition, it should be noted that from the fourth- through seventh-centuries depictions of the lulav
and etrog were frequently used to decorate synagogues in the land of Israel.46 Like the slightly
more common menorah they were taken to symbolize Judaism and the Jewish people. The
midrash’s use of the palm tree to represent all of Israel expresses this same idea and would have
struck a familiar chord with synagogue-goers. Likewise, the ubiquitous nature of the lulav in
ancient synagogue art strengthens the conclusion that by connecting Sarah with the palm tree the
midrash wishes to portray her as representing the Jewish people as a whole.

In addition, the decision to make Sarah symbolic of all of Israel also fits the midrash’s
description of the matriarch while abandoned in Pharaoh’s harem. Unlike the second Temple
authors, GenR has much to say about Sarah’s experience there. Not only does it fill in this gap in
the narrative, but it presents Sarah as one who nobly embodies important religious ideals (GR 41:2,
Vat. 30, Albeck 389-390):

‫ מצא י זקן אחד למוכי‬:‫ אמ' רבן שמעון בן גמליאל‬.‫ פרעה ברתן לקה‬:‫ריש לקיש מש' בר קפרא‬
‫ כ'ד מי י שחי ין הם ואין לך מכולם שהתשמיש קשה לו שהאשה קשה‬:‫שחין בציפורין ואמ' לי‬
"‫ "על דבר שרי אשת אברם‬:'‫ אפילו קורות ביתו לקו והכל אומ‬:‫ אמ' ר' אחא‬.‫לו אלא רתן בלבד‬
.‫ על דטולמיסן למקרב למס א דמטרו א‬:‫ אמ' ר' ברכיה‬.)‫יז‬:‫(בראשית יב‬

.‫ רבון העולמים! אברהם יצא בהבטחה‬:‫וכל אותה הלילה היתה שרה שטוחה על פ יה ואומרת‬
‫ וכל‬:‫ אתמהא!? אמ' לה הקב'ה‬.‫ וא י בתוך הסירה‬.‫ אברהם חוץ לסירה‬.‫וא י יצאתי באמו ה‬

46
Rivka Ben-Sasson, “Botanics and Iconography Images of the Lulav and the Etrog,” Ars Judaica 8 (2012): 7–12. In
addition to a discussion of the archeological evidence (including several pictures), Ben-Sasson cites some midrashic
traditions connected to the lulav (10-11). However, she does not mention the section from GenR analyzed here.

95
‫ על‬:‫ אמ' ר' ברכיה‬."‫ "על דבר שרי אשת אברם‬:'‫מה שא י עושה בשבילך א י עושה והכל אומ‬
.‫דטולמיסן למיקרב למיס א דמטרו א‬

‫ אין אמרת‬.‫ מחי‬,‫ אין אמרת לי מחי‬.‫ כל אותו הלילה היה המלאך עומד ומגלב בידוי‬:‫אמ' ר' לוי‬
‫ ר' אליעזר דת י‬.‫ ולא היה פורש‬,‫וכל כך למה? שהיתה אומרת לו אשת איש א י‬. ‫ שביק‬,‫לי שבוק‬
‫ מנ' ליתן את‬.‫ שמע ו בפרעה שלקה בצרעת ובאבימלך בעיצור‬:'‫לה בש' ר' אליעזר בן יעקב או‬
.‫ גזירה שוה‬."‫ "על דבר‬,"‫ "על דבר‬:'‫לו‬-'‫האמור שלזה בזה ואת האמור שלזה בזה? תל‬

R. Shimon ben Lakish said in bar Kappara's name: Pharaoh was struck with lupus.47
Said Raban Shimon ben Gamaliel: An old man suffering from boils in Sepphoris
found me and said: There are twenty-four varieties of boils, but of all of them only
lupus makes intercourse injurious, a woman injurious. Said R. Aḥa: Even the beams
of [Pharaoh’s] home were struck, and all would say: “on account of Sarai, the wife
of Abram” (Gen 12:17). Said R. Berechiah: because he dared come close to the
shoe of that noblewoman.

And that whole night Sarah was prostrated upon her face saying: Master of the
Ages!48 Abraham went out with a promise (cf. Gen 12:1) and I went out with faith.
Abraham is out of this prison while I am within this prison. How strange!? The
Holy One blessed be He said to her: All that I do, I do for your sake, and all will
say: “on account of Sarai, the wife of Abram” (Gen 12:17). Said R. Berechiah:
because he dared come close to the shoe of that noblewoman.

Said R. Levi: That entire night an angel stood with a whip in his hand. If she said
strike, he struck. If she said desist, he desisted. And why [was he punished] in such
a manner? For she said to him: I am a married woman. Yet, he would not leave her.
R. Eliezer said (as it is taught in the name of R. Eliezer ben Yaakov): We know that
Pharaoh was struck with leprosy and Abimelech with closing (of orifices). From
where do we know to apply what was said with one to the other? The verse says:
“on account” and “on account” (Gen 12:17, 20:18). Thus, a parallel may be drawn.

47
Translation according to Freedman (332). Compare this to Ableck comments ad loc (388-389).
48
Here I have translated ‫ עולמים‬here as ‘ages’ and not ‘worlds,’ see: Friedman, “Studies,” 41–42. Of additional note,
Friedman suggests that use of the term ‫ רבון העולמים‬here and elsewhere in GenR may be an addition of a later
copyist (41 fn194).

96
Before addressing the individual statements of this section, I would like to draw attention to the
focus of the text. As it often does, the midrash here weaves together drashot attributed to a number
of different sages who span several generations as well as anonymous material unique to GenR,
all of which can be connected to the same verse. In this case, the drashot quoted can all be linked
to the line: “But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his household with mighty plagues on account of
Sarai, the wife of Abram” (Gen 12:17).

However, if the final form of this section is put aside and a source-critical approach is
taken, then an important development in the rabbinic approach to the Sarah-Pharaoh episode
becomes apparent. To a certain extent all the sages quoted wish to demonstrate that Pharaoh did
not have intercourse with Sarah. However, the Tannaic sources focus upon Pharaoh and his
punishment while the Amoraic shift their focus to Sarah and her protection. R. Eliezer ben Yaakov
(a 2nd generation Tanna) draws a parallel between Pharaoh and Abimelech, thereby adding to the
punishments each received. R. Shimon ben Gamliel (a 4th generation Tanna) speaks to the painful
side effects of lupus and Bar Kappara (from the transition period between Tannaim and Amoraim)
identifies the exact form of “boils” which struck Pharaoh. Again, while concern for Sarah’s virtue
may stand in the background, ultimately all of these drashot concern Pharaoh and center upon the
nature his punishment and its effects upon him and his household.

By contrast, the drashot attributed to Amoraim focus upon Sarah and the way in which
God defends her.49 R. Levi (a 2nd/3rd generation Amora) provides the details of her angelic
guardian, while R. Berechiah (a 4th generation Amora) adds that Pharaoh was punished for even
daring to go near Sarah.50 The change in focus from Pharaoh to Sarah is even found in the one

49
I believe it is fair to assume that unattributed remarks in GenR are Amoraic in nature, unless there is a strong
reason to conclude otherwise. As such, I have grouped the anonymous description of Sarah praying together with
the statements explicitly attributed to Amoraim. However, as noted in the introduction to this thesis, the exact
nature of the anonymous material in the midrash requires further study.
50
Ofra Meir points out that both R. Levi’s description of the angel striking at Sarah’s command and his statement
that Pharaoh was punished because Sarah told him she was married and he ignored her are a play on the Bible’s
statement that Pharaoh was punished ‫על דבר שרי‬. In this context, the term literally means “on account of Sarai,” but
could be taken to mean ‘by the word of Sarai’. Thus, says R. Levi, it is on Sarah’s ‘word’ that the angel strikes and
due to the fact that Pharaoh ignored her ‘word’ when she said she was married. See: Ofra Meir, “The Exegetical
Narrative in Early and Late Midrash [Hebrew],” Sinai 86 (1980): 253. Regarding the exact phrase used by R. Berechiah
and its source in a Roman legal code, see: Saul Lieberman, Greek in Jewish Palestine (New York: Jewish Theological
Seminary of America, 1962), 39–43. The Tannaic material here as well as R. Berechiah’s statement also appears in
yKetubot 7:10. However the rest of this section including the midrash’s description of Sarah’s prayer and her angelic
defender does not and is unique to GenR.

97
Amoraic comment here which at first glance appears to center upon the king, that of R. Aḥa (a 4th
generation Amora). According to him, when the Bible speaks of the plagues visited upon the
“house” of Pharaoh it actually refers to his physical house. This is why “all,” even outsiders, could
see and exclaim that Pharaoh was being punished “on account of Sarai, the wife of Abram.” By
placing this reference to Sarah in the mouths of the Egyptian onlookers, he, like the other Amoraim
quoted, also shifts attention to the matriarch. In addition, all of these statements are complemented
nicely by the longer description of Sarah’s prayer and the divine promise of protection she receives,
all of which is relayed in the anonymous voice of GenR itself. As discussed at length in the
introduction to this thesis, rabbinic texts can often be broken down into their various historical
layers in order to trace how ideas develop over time. This section of the midrash is an excellent
example of this and highlights the growing attention Sarah receives in the Amoraic period.

From a more synchronic standpoint the motivation of the midrash to gather material, both
from Tannaim and Amoraim, which repeatedly shows that Pharaoh did not have intercourse with
Sarah is not hard to understand. This matter is actually left somewhat open-ended in the biblical
account.51 While the Bible states that Abimelech “did not come near” Sarah, it does not do so in
regard to Pharaoh (Gen 20:4). The midrash, however, finds several ways to reject any improper
conclusions from this rather suggestive difference. In addition to the more general statement that
the details of the Abimelech incident should be applied to that of Pharaoh, it also remarks that
Pharaoh’s particular form of boils would have inhibited intercourse and further describes how an
angel stopped his advances. In fact, the insistence that Pharaoh did not have intercourse with Sarah
is not unique to GenR. The addition of an explicit statement to this effect in the retelling of the
Sarah-Pharaoh episode can be found in several early exegetes, including Philo, Josephus, and the
Apocryphon.52 Likewise, the midrash’s statement regarding the effect of Pharaoh’s boils on his
sexual ability also appears in the Jerusalem Talmud. However, there is no parallel outside of GenR
to Sarah’s impassioned prayers for salvation nor the miraculous defense which the midrash

51
Yair Zakovitch and Avigdor Shinan argue that the biblical author actually did mean to imply that Pharaoh had his
way with Sarah, but purposely left this point ambiguous. See: Yair Zakovitch and Avigdor Shinan, “What Happened
to Sarah in Pharaoh’s House? [Hebrew],” in That’s Not What the Good Book Says (Tel Aviv: Yediot Achronot, 2004),
205–11. Further, they see the repeated insistence of later exegetes such as GenR that this was not the case to be a
tacit admission on their part that such a reading had gained acceptance among ancient readers.
52
In addition to these authors which have been discussed here, the statement that Pharaoh did not have intercourse
with Sarah can be found in the translation of Pseudo-Jonathan and in the historical writing of Psuedo-Eupolemus
(likely a Samaritan author), see: Ibid., 205–11.

98
describes. The fact that GenR goes so far as to envision God directly responding to Sarah and later
an angel standing by her side and beating back Pharaoh at her command speaks to the unique
importance of the matriarch in the midrash’s eyes. While many other Jewish exegetes were
concerned with protecting Sarah’s purity, none other than GenR do so in a manner which highlights
her connection to the Divine.53

In a similar manner, comparison to earlier Jewish exegesis sheds light on the midrash’s
insertion of prayer into this episode. As has been noted, GenR is not the first work to do so. It can
already be found in both the Apocryphon and Philo. In the Apocryphon, for example, it is Abraham
who tearfully “prayed, entreated and asked for mercy” knowing he was otherwise helpless to save
Sarah (GA 20:12). Thus, not only is it Abraham alone who prays, but the author actually uses his
prayer to highlight that the patriarch is not to blame for his wife’s plight. Moreover, as mentioned
in the earlier discussion of the Apocryphon, the closing lines of this prayer make it clear that
Abraham is understood to be the real victim (20:14-15, emphasis my own): “Mete out justice to
him [Pharaoh] for me [Abraham]… let him not be allowed this night to defile my wife for me!”
Adding to the points made in chapter two, the Apocryphon implies here that God intervenes in
order to insure that Pharaoh receives just punishment for his crime against Abraham. Likewise,
Sarah is rescued not for her own sake, but in order to save Abraham from the shame of having a
defiled wife.

For his part, unlike the Apocryphon, Philo does imagine that Sarah prayed along with
Abraham: “join[ing] him in fleeing for refuge to the last remaining championship, that of God”
(Abr 95). However, Philo agrees with the author of Apocryphon that Abraham should not be held
responsible for his wife’s situation, as noted previously. Likewise, Philo also assumes that Sarah
is saved by Abraham’s merit. He refers to her rescue as proof of the patriarch’s “nobility and
piety”. GenR disagrees with these earlier authors on all counts. The midrash maintains that it is
Sarah and Sarah alone who entreats God and makes no attempt to defend Abraham’s actions.
Further, it emphasizes that God saves Sarah as a result of her own merit and not out of deference
to her husband. Lastly, the detailed description of Sarah’s prayers may carry with it an implicit
critique of Abraham. As discussed in chapter one, at least one Feminist scholar has posited that

53
Compare Porton, “How the Rabbis Imagined Sarah,” 200, who states that the rabbis use the story of Sarah and
Pharaoh to “underscore the special relationship between God and Sarah.”

99
the Bible’s description of Abraham praying for Abimelech’s sake is meant to draw the reader’s
attention (and scorn) to the fact that Abraham did not do the same for his wife. This may be a
stretch in terms of the Bible itself, but the midrash makes the dissonance between Abraham’s
willingness to pray for a foreign king and failure to do so for his own wife even more blatant.
Unlike the second Temple authors who imagined that Abraham did pray, the midrash forgoes any
such a defense. In fact, by choosing to describe Sarah’s prayers in such an emotional and
sympathetic fashion, GenR only highlights the fact that Abraham was silent here.54

Not only does the very depiction of Sarah engaging in such emotional supplication speak
of her piety, but more attention should be paid to her cry as imagined by the midrash: “Abraham
went out with a promise and I went out with faith.” This is clearly a reference to the ‘going out’
which opens the Abraham narrative in Genesis 12. The midrash here implies that Sarah should be
given more credit for this than Abraham. While Abraham was guaranteed success through a series
of divine promises (Gen 12:1-3), Sarah accompanied him without being given any such assurances.
From the perspective of the biblical narrative, the fact that God never reveals himself to Sarah as
He does for Abraham is obviously no more than a result of her ancillary role her husband’s story.
Yet, the midrash instead turns it in into a sort of argumentum ex silentio which demonstrates that
she was willing to follow God’s command on faith alone and without the assurances her husband
needed.55 Ironically, given the greater context here of the midrash’s attempt to address a lacuna in
Sarah’s story, instead of trying to fill in a blank, the midrash actually uses the Bible’s silence
regarding the matriarch to her advantage.

In addition, the midrash’s use of the biblical phrase “on account of Sarai, the wife of
Abram” in its description of Sarah’s prayers deserves closer analysis. As noted, Feminist scholars
who emphasize the patriarchal bias of the Bible note that it makes sure to emphasize that Pharaoh
is punished because he took “the wife of Abram”. In other words, it implies that God saves Sarah

54
A similar point is made by: Zohar, “Voice of Sarah,” 80–81; Niehoff, “Associative Thinking,” 358.
55
In her attempts to frame Sarah as the heroine of the biblical narrative, Schneider makes a similar claim regarding
Abraham’s being tested through the binding of Isaac (Schneider, Sarah, 106.):
The test highlights the difference between Sarah’s and Abraham’s relationship with the Deity.
Sarah does not need to be tested. Sarah’s dedication, without any direct conversations and
promises from the Deity, appears strong through the text.
I think it is clear that this conclusion regarding the Bible itself is not very convincing. Indeed, the fact that it is such a
stretch only serves to highlight just how far the rabbis stray from the plain meaning of the text in making a similar
point regarding God’s command to Abraham to “go forth”.

100
because of her illustrious husband and not for her own sake. This, they note, is certainly the general
thrust of the episode in which Abraham is rewarded handsomely for his wife’s troubles. Likewise,
this is the reading reflected in most of the second Temple works. However, GenR turns this all on
its head. The midrash inserts this words “on account of Sarai, the wife of Abram” as a prooftext
for God’s proclamation to Sarah that “all that I do, I do for your sake.” Instead of yet another
allusion to Sarah’s secondary nature, the verse now becomes proof of her inherent importance and
intimate connection with God as the rabbis envision it. As the midrash did previously when it used
the verse which states that Abraham was rewarded “because of her” as proof that he was beholden
to Sarah from the moment they arrived in Egypt (Gen 12:16), here too the midrash uses the term
“on account of Sarah” as proof that God acted for her sake alone.

Moving to Sarah’s time with Abimelech, the midrash likewise points to Sarah’s
subordination of Abraham. When God informs Abimelech that Sarah is a “married woman,” the
Bible employs the phrase be’ulat ba’al (Gen 20:3). The use of this rather rare term is expanded
upon by the midrash (GR 52:5, Vat. 30, Albeck 547):

.‫ בעלה נתעטר בה והיא לא תעטרה בבעלה‬:‫ אמ' ר' אחא‬.)‫ג‬:‫"והיא בעולת בעל" (בראשית כ‬
‫ "כל אשר‬,‫ ברם הכא‬.‫ בכל מקום האיש גוזר ואשתו מקיימת‬.‫ מדימה בבעלה‬:‫רב ין אמרין‬
.)‫יב‬:‫תאמר אליך שרה שמע בקולה" (כ‬

“For she is a married women [be’ulat ba’al]” (Gen 20:3). Said R. Aḥa: Her husband
is crowned through her, yet [in contrast] she is not crowned through her husband.
The Rabbis say: she silenced her husband. Normally the man gives orders and his
wife fulfills them, but here: “whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says” (20:12).

It appears that the midrash wishes to read the term “be’ulat ba’al” (a married woman) as ba’alat
ba’al (her husband’s master) instead.56 In doing so, the midrash posits, like some modern readers
of the Bible, that Sarah was actually in control of her husband when she was taken by Abimelech.
As with its reading of the Sarah-Pharaoh episode, the midrash is referring again to the fact that
Abraham was forced to rely on his wife to lie for him in order to survive and was only safe due to
her.

56
This point is made by Albeck in his commentary. See, also Zohar’s discussion of this section which comes to some
similar conclusions: Zohar, “Voice of Sarah,” 76–80.

101
This point is strengthened by noting the midrash’s use of the verse “whatever Sarah tells
you, do as she says” (Gen 10:12). In its original biblical context this line is spoken by God to
Abraham after Sarah demands that he send Hagar and Ishmael away for good. In that scene, it is
clear that Sarah is the active and driving force behind her husband’s actions. It is striking then that
the midrash applies it here regarding her time with Abimelech. In this episode, Sarah is ostensibly
passive and helpless. However, by utilizing this verse the rabbis imply that just the opposite is true.
For them it is Sarah who is her husband’s master and who grants him his so-called ‘crown’— not
the other way around.

Lastly, the midrash is quite clear that Abraham’s behavior towards Sarah was selfish and
cynical. For example, it states (GR 52:4, Albeck 544):

]‫"ויאמר אברהם אל שרה אש[תו] אחתי (הי') [היא] ויש[לח] אבימ[לך] מל[ך] גר[ר] ויק[ח] א[ת‬
.‫ על כרחה שלא בטובתה‬:)‫ב‬:‫שר[ה]" (בראשית כ‬

“Abraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister.’ So King Abimelech of Gerar
had Sarah brought to him” (Gen 20:2): Against her will and not for her own good.

In addition, a most startling critique of Abraham’s behavior is put into the mouth of Abimelech
(GR 52:2, Albeck 551):

‫ "ולשרה אמר ה ה נתתי אלף‬.)‫יד‬:‫"ויקח אבימ[לך] צאן ובקר" "ויתן לאבר[הם]" (בראשית כ‬
'‫ אמ' ר' יהודה בר‬.)‫טז‬:‫כסף לאחיך הנה הוא לך כסות עינים לכל אשר אתך ואת כל ונכחת"(כ‬
‫ הילך ממון וכסי‬,‫ ואין ממון את בעי‬.‫ אתית להכא וסחרת בה‬,‫ אזלת למצרים וסחרת בה‬:‫אלעיי‬
.‫מי ה עיי ה‬

“Abimelech took sheep and oxen” “and gave them to Abraham” (Gen 20:14). “And
to Sarah he said, I herewith give [your brother] a thousand pieces of silver, [this
will serve you as vindication before all who are with you and for you a covering of
the eyes” (20:16). R. Yehudah bar Ilai said: You went to Egypt and trafficked in
her, and you came here and trafficked in her. If you desire money, here is money
and cover up [your] eyes from her (cf. 20:16).

Niehoff notes that this is the most damning statement in the midrsah regarding Abraham’s conduct
in the foreign king episodes.57 Despite the fact that the observation is attributed to Abimelech, R.

57
Niehoff, “Associative Thinking,” 553.

102
Yehudah bar Ilai (a 4th generation Tanna) presents his reading so matter-of-factly that there is no
reason to think the midrash wishes to distance itself from his condemnation. Similarly, though
GenR does follow with other opinions as to the meaning of the Bible’s ambiguous phrase
“covering of the eyes,” none seem to take issue with the manner in which Abraham’s behavior is
described. Clearly, the midrash sees this harsh critique of Abraham as fair game.

Many of the other sections of the midrash which critique Abraham’s conduct do so while
empowering Sarah, akin to the more positive Feminist readings of the Bible itself. However, this
drasha strikes a very different chord. Like those scholars who emphasize the patriarchal context
of the Bible and how it serves to disenfranchise Sarah, the midrash here rather bluntly accuses
Abraham of repeatedly trading his wife for personal gain.58 While this certainly does not serve to
glorify Sarah, it does heighten the reader’s sympathy for her. In addition, it is worth noting that
this statement is made in the name of Tanna. R. Yehudah bar Ilai is highly critical of Abraham,
yet he stops short of using this as platform to praise Sarah. By contrast, for example, R. Aḥa’s (a
3rd generation Amora) statement “her husband is crowned through her, yet [in contrast] she is not
crowned through her husband” not only critiques Abraham for allowing Abimelech to take his
wife, but also praises Sarah. This may be further evidence of how rabbinic attitudes towards Sarah
developed during the period of the Amoraim as she was given a more important role then in
Tannaic traditions.

To summarize, GenR has much to say about Sarah’s capture by the foreign kings, and by
Pharaoh in particular. The rabbis choose to fill in the gaps in the biblical text in a manner which
not only protects Sarah’s honor, but also emphasizes her close relationship with God. In doing so,
the midrash stands in sharp contrast to the biblical record in which Sarah’s thoughts and actions
during these episodes are ignored and Abraham’s behavior is implicitly endorsed. This same can
be said in regard to the second Temple writings which to a large extent continue the Bible’s
approach. In fact, the midrash goes far beyond even those few second Temple authors who do
sympathize with Sarah’s plight. Unlike them, the midrash highlights Abraham’s ultimate reliance
upon Sarah for his safety and repeatedly criticizes him for both allowing his wife to be taken and

58
Perhaps a similar sentiment can be found in the following (GR 18:5, Albeck 166):
‫ הראשון פטור והש י חייב משם "והיא בעולת‬,‫ זו ה היא שעומדת בשוק ובאו עליה ש ים‬:‫ר' יו ה בש' ר' שמואל‬
.‫ בעילה בב י נח קו ה שלא כדת‬:'‫ הדה אמ‬,‫ וב תכוון הראשון לק ותה בבעילה‬.)‫ג‬:‫בעל" (בראשית כ‬
While the midrash is making an observation about how rabbinic law looks at a certain aspect of non-Jewish marriage,
the use of the verse regarding Sarah in the description of a harlot is suggestive.

103
failing to act on her behalf. In a synchronic sense, the large number of drashot dedicated to Sarah’s
time with the foreign kings clearly sets GenR apart from other exegetical works. In addition,
source-critical analysis shows that the use of these biblical episodes in order to focus upon and
expand Sarah’s character is a development that can be identified with Amoraic sages in particular.

Defending Sarah’s Actions


The midrash also builds upon its positive portrayal of Sarah in the way in which it deals with those
episodes in Genesis which present the matriarch in a disparaging fashion. GenR repeatedly
interprets them in a manner contrary to the biblical record in order to remove the stains from
Sarah’s character. One such example of this has already been analyzed. The account of the
annunciation of Isaac was turned from a critique of Sarah’s lack of faith, as found in the Bible,
into an exchange which proves her closeness to God in GenR. The midrash repeats this approach
in what might be the most damning portrayal of Sarah in the Bible, her interactions with Hagar
and Ishmael. Sarah first expels Hagar after she becomes pregnant, as discussed in chapter one. The
Bible does not give much detail regarding Hagar’s perceived slight towards Sarah, but does
describe in an extremely sympathetic manner the maidservant’s anguish at being sent away. As
Bible scholars note, this serves to make Sarah’s actions seem petty and vindictive. The midrash,
however, explains why Sarah had no choice but to exile her handmaiden (GR 45:4, Vat. 30, Albeck
450-451):

‫ שכל תשעים ש ה שלא ילדה שרה היתה ככלה‬.‫ היא מתכארת‬,‫שכל זמן שהאשה מקבלת עוברים‬
‫ ושאלו‬:‫ והיתה שרה אומרת להן‬.‫ והיו מצריות באות למישאל בשלומה שלשרה‬.‫בתוך חופתה‬
‫ ראת צדקת ואי ה‬,‫ שרי גברתי אין סתרה כגלויה‬:‫ והגר היתה אומ' להן‬.‫בשלומה שלהגר‬
…‫ וא י ללילה אחד עיברתי‬.‫ ראה כמה ש ים לא עיברה‬,‫ אילו היתה צדקת‬.‫צדקת‬

As long as a woman is having children, she becomes ugly.59 During the 90 years
that Sarah did not give birth, she was like a bride in her canopy. Egyptian women
used to come to ask about Sarah’s wellbeing and Sarah would say to them: ask
about Hagar’s wellbeing. But, Hagar would say to them: Sarai, my mistress, is not
inwardly as she is outwardly. She appears to be righteous and is not righteous. Were

59
Or even: ‘she becomes repulsive,’ see: Marcus Jastrow, “‫ כאר‬,‫כער‬,” in A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud
Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), 657.

104
she righteous [would you] see her [go] so many years without conceiving? But I in
one night conceived…

The midrash imagines that Hagar was not only disrespectful to Sarah, but actually went out of her
way to cynically embarrass her. Given the manner in which GenR has elsewhere spoken of Sarah’s
righteousness, the slave’s claim that it is merely a public guise only compounds her gall. As Judith
Baskin puts it, the rabbis “explain the story as much to Sarah’s credit as possible, invoking the
right of a mistress over her servant and impugning Hagar.” Further, Ofra Meir notes that in a sharp
play on Hagar’s claim that Sarah is not the same internally as she is externally, the midrash presents
Hagar as both ugly without (since she has had a child) and within (malevolent and disrespectful).60
The purpose of this drasha is quite clear. It justifies Sarah’s behavior in an episode which would
otherwise undercut the midrash’s portrayal of Sarah as a paragon of righteousness and piety.

Not only is this a clear break from the plain meaning of the biblical text, the midrash even
goes beyond the two second Temple authors who also saw fit to validate Sarah’s behavior towards
Hagar. As mentioned, Josephus added that the maidservant was “thoughtless and stubborn” and
later asked Sarah’s forgiveness (JA 1.189), while Philo simply deleted the episode altogether. The
rabbinic midrash, however, is far more forceful and sophisticated. It cleverly reverses the way in
which things are presented in Genesis by making Hagar the cruel and heartless abuser and Sarah
the abused and sympathetic victim. The demonization of Hagar goes beyond anything found in
earlier exegesis as does, in tandem, the justification of Sarah’s actions.

A similar defense of Sarah can be found in regard to her later demand that Abraham expel
Hagar and Ishmael. The Bible describes the trigger for Sarah’s demand as follows (Gen 21:9-10):

Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing
]‫[מצחק‬. She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son
of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

The exact nature of Ishmael’s ‘play’ is not specified here. The word is sometimes used in the Bible
to signify scorn or derision (Gen 19:14, 21:6; Ez 23:32) and occasionally it even denotes sexual

60
Ofra Meir, The Drashanic Story in Genesis Rabba [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1993), 102–5. It should
be noted that some of Meir’s reading is based on the midrash’s use of word ‫ עלובה‬as a description of Hagar, which
she notes appears in all manuscripts other than Vat. 30 (which I use here). In any event, the main thrust of her
analysis remains accurate even according to Vat. 30.

105
matters (Gen 26:8, 39:14, 17). However, the most basic meaning of the term ‘play’ is just that,
namely harmless recreation or an expression of joy (for example: Ex 32:6, Jud 16:25, 1 Chr
15:29).61 Indeed, the majority of Bible scholars conclude that Sarah was bothered by the very sight
of Ishmael’s innocent playing.62 Beyond the textual support for this reading, it is strengthened
contextually by the fact that it would fit Sarah’s jealous and petty portrayal elsewhere and
Ishmael’s young age at the time of this incident.63 In contrast to this, the midrash takes it as given
that Ishmael’s behavior was reprehensible and warranted expulsion (GR 53:11, Vat. 30, Albeck
567-568):

‫ ר' עקיבה היה אומ' בו דבר‬:‫ אמ' ר' שמעון‬.)‫ט‬:‫"ותרא שרה את בן הגר המצית" (בראשית כא‬
.‫ וא י או' בו דבר לשבח‬,‫לג יי‬

‫"ותרא שרה את בן הג[ר] המצ[רית] [אשר ילדה לאברהם מצחק]" (בראשית‬:‫דרש ר' עקיבה‬
‫ כמה דאת אמ' "בא אלי העבד העברי [אשר הבאת לנו‬.‫ אין "מצחק" אלא גילוי עריות‬.)‫ט‬:‫כא‬
‫ מלמד שהיתה שרה אמ ו רואה את ישמעאל מכבש גגות וצד שי‬.)‫יז‬:‫לצחק בי]" (בראשית לט‬
.‫א שים ומע ה אותם‬

‫ שנ[אמר] "וישב העם לאכול ושתה‬.‫זרה‬-‫ אין הלשון הזה צחוק אלא עבודה‬:‫ת י ר' ישמעאל‬
‫ מלמד שהיתה שרה אמי ו רואה את ישמעאל בו ה במוסיות וצד‬.)‫ו‬:‫ויקמו לצחק" (שמות לב‬
.‫חגבים ומקריב עליהם‬

‫ היך דאת‬.‫ אין הלשון הזה צחק אלא לשון שפיכות דמים‬:'‫ר' אלעזר ב ו שלר' יוסי הגלילי או‬
)‫יד‬:‫ "יקומו א ה ערים וישחקו לפ י ו" (שמואל ב' ב‬.'‫אמ‬

61
In some of these examples the root used is actually ‫ שחק‬and not ‫ צחק‬as in Genesis 21:9. However, in Biblical
Hebrew the terms carry the same meaning: ‫ שחק‬is a later form of the word which eventually overtook the earlier
form of ‫צחק‬. See: Menachem Moreshet, “Tzachak - Sachak; Yitzchak - Yischak [Hebrew],” Beit Mikra: Journal for
the Study of the Bible and Its World 13, no. 4 (1968): 127–30.
62
For example, among the scholars who have been cited previously, Speiser and (in a slightly more cautious fashion)
von Rad. See: Ephraim Avigdor Speiser, Genesis, Anchor Bible Commentary (Garden City: Doubleday, 1964), 155; von
Rad, Genesis, 232. A listing of additional contemporary scholars who understand Ishmael’s ‘play’ to be no more than
harmless fun can also be found in: Schneider, Sarah, 93–94. Schneider herself appears to accept this understanding
of the term, but in keeping with the general theme of her book, posits that Sarah’s response is to be seen as justified
for other reasons.
63
Despite this, some scholars do maintain that Ishmael’s ‘play’ should be understood in light of the word’s more
pernicious use in the Bible: derision or improper sexual behavior. See: Joseph Fleishman, “The Expulsion of Ishmael
[Hebrew],” Beit Mikra: Journal for the Study of the Bible and Its World 44 (1999): 152–56. Fleishman lists both
traditional sources and modern scholars who, like the above, understand Ishmael’s play innocuously (152, fn31-33)
as well as those who read it as alluding to scorn and derision (153 fn36). Fleishman himself goes on to argue that
Ishmael’s play is connected to sexual matters (an opinion he notes is already found in the midrash) (154-156).
However, given the textual and contextual support for reading Ishmael’s behavior as harmless play I accept such a
reading instead.

106
‫ והיה ישמעאל נוטל חיצים ומיירה כלפי‬.‫ אמ' נלך ו ראה חלקי ו בשדה‬:‫ר' עזריה מש' ר' לוי‬
‫לה היורה זקים חצים ומות כן איש רימה את‬-‫ שנ[אמר] "כמתלה‬.‫יצחק ועושה עצמו מצחק‬
.)‫יט‬-‫רעה" ואמ' "הלא משחק א י" (משלי כו יח‬

.‫ שבשעה ש ולד אבי ו יצחק היו הכל שמחים‬.‫ אין הלשון הזה צחוק אלא לשון ירושה‬:'‫וא י או‬
‫ "כי לא‬:‫ שמתשובה שאמרה שרה אמי ו‬.‫ א י בכור וא י נוטל פי ש ים‬,‫ שוטים אתם‬:‫אמ' להם‬
.‫ "עם יצחק" אפעלפי שאי ו ב י‬.‫ "עם ב י" אפעלפי שאי ו יצחק‬.‫יירש בן האמה הז'" את למד‬
."‫ "עם ב י עם יצחק‬,‫קל וחומר‬

“Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing” (Gen
21:9). Said R. Shimon: R. Akiva would understand this as a matter of shame and I
would understand this as a matter of praise.

R. Akiva interpreted: “Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to
Abraham playing.” There is no ‘play’ other than sexual immorality. As you read:
“The Hebrew slave [whom you brought into our house] came to me [to play with
me]” (Gen 39:17). This teaches you that Sarah, our mother, saw Ishmael capturing
roofs, hunting married women and dishonoring them.

R. Ishmael taught: The language of ‘play’ is none other than idol worship. As it
says: They sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to celebrate [lit. to play]” (Ex.
32:6). This teaches you that Sarah, our mother, saw Ishmael building alters, hunting
locusts, and sacrificing upon them.

R. Elazar the son of R. Yossi the Galilean said: The language of ‘play’ is none other
than the spilling of blood. As you read: “Let the young men come forward and
sport [lit. play; i.e., fight] before us” (2Sam 2:14).

R. Azariah [said] in the name of R. Levi: They64 said let us go and see our portion
in the field. And Ishmael would take arrows and shoot towards Isaac, pretending to
be playing. As it says: “Like a madman scattering deadly firebrands, arrows. As
one who cheats his fellow and says, “I was only playing” (Prov 26:18-19).

64
Because the Hebrew is abbreviated in here ('‫ )אמ‬this may instead be ‘he said’ (i.e., Ishmael) and not ‘they said’
(i.e., Ishmael and Isaac).

107
And I [R. Shimon] say: The language of ‘play’ is none other than inheritance. For
at the time when our father Isaac was born all were happy. He [Ishmael] said to
them: You are fools! I am the first born and I take double. This can be learned from
the retort of Sarah our mother: “for the son of that slave shall not share in the
inheritance [with my son, with Isaac]” (Gen 21:9). “With my son”-- even though
he is not Isaac. “With Isaac”-- even though he is not my son. How much the more
so “with my son, with Isaac.”

Sarah’s expulsion of Ishmael is the focus of extensive and protracted exegetical efforts here. Five
sages spanning several generations address the nature of Ishmael’s ‘play,’ and all but one are
highly critical of him. R. Akiva (a 3rd generation Tanna) accuses Ishmael of sexual crimes. While
the description of Ishmael raping married women may have no anchor in the story of Genesis, the
word ‘play’ itself does sometimes carry a sexual connotation in the Bible as noted. This is amply
demonstrated by the prooftext that R. Akiva brings from the episode of Joseph and the wife of
Potiphar (Gen 39:17). In fact, R. Akiva’s opinion is unique among the sages quoted here in that it
invokes an actual definition of the word ‘play’.

R. Ishmael (a 3rd generation Tanna) accuses Ishmael of idol worship. This is not based on
an additional meaning of the word ‘play,’ but rather on its use in one particular context. The Bible
records that after offering sacrifices to the Golden Calf, the Israelites ate, drank, and “rose to
celebrate [lit. play]” (‫ויקומו לצחק‬, Ex 32:6).65 Unlike the verse quoted by R. Akiva where the word
was a direct reference to sex, here ‘play’ is merely used in a larger episode which involves idol
worship. Interestingly enough, R. Ishmael remains cognizant of the fact that Ishmael is still a child
when Sarah expels him. Moshe Aryeh Mirkin notes that this explains why Ishmael is described as
offering locusts and not large animals.66 While this may be an odd offering, it would be more
practical for someone Ishmael’s age. This attempt by R. Ishmael to fit Ishmael’s crime into the
greater narrative of the Abraham story actually highlights that R. Akiva’s explanation, despite its
more accurate use of the word ‘play,’ strays from the original biblical context by assuming adult
behavior on the part of Ishmael.

65
Ironically, it seems possible that the ‘playing’ referred to here (translated by NJPS as ‘dancing’) carries with it a
sexual connotation as well.
66
Mirkin, Bereshit Rabbah [Hebrew], 2:245.

108
Both R. Elazar (a 4th generation Tanna) and R. Levi (a 2nd/3rd generation Amora) connect
Ishmael’s ‘play’ with the spilling of blood. As with R. Ishmael’s drasha they cite instances where
the word is used in the context of killing, though, again, ‘play’ clearly does not possess such a
meaning on its own. In the verse quoted by R. Elazar two groups of soldiers are made “to sport”
before their commanders )‫וישחקו לפנינו‬, 2 Sam 2:14) and eventually kill each other (2:16). In the
verse quoted by R. Levi one who cheats his friend and claims to be only “joking” (‫הלא משחק אני‬,
Prov 26:19) is compared metaphorically to one who shoots deadly arrows.

Despite the fact that both R. Elazar and R. Levi accuse Ishmael of murder (or in the case
of R. Levi, attempted murder) there is an important distinction between them. R. Elazar accuses
Ishmael of bloodshed, but does not imply that he was a direct threat to Isaac’s own safety. The
same is actually true of R. Akiva and R. Ishmael. While they accuse Ishmael of heinous crimes,
they do not accuse him of targeting Isaac sexually nor enticing him to worship idols. According to
R. Levi, however, Ishmael actually attempted to kill Isaac himself. R. Levi underscores this point
drawing a subtle parallel here between Ishmael and Cain, the archetype of fratricide. 67 Elsewhere
in GenR the rabbis attempt to explain what lead Cain to murder Abel (Gen 4:8). The midrash states
that this act was a result of an argument between the two (GR 22:7, Vat. 60, Albeck 213):

‫"ויאמ[ר] קין אל הבל אחיו ויהי בהיו[תם] בש[דה] [ויקם קין אל הבל אחיו ויהרגהו]" (בראשית‬
‫ אחד נטל את הקרקעות ואחד‬.]‫ בא ונחלק את העו]לם‬:‫ על מה היו אותן הדיינין? אמרו‬.)‫ח‬:‫ד‬
...‫נטל את המטלטלים‬

‫ שניהן נטלו את הקרקע' ושניהן נטלו את המטלטל' ועל מה היו אותן‬:‫ר' יהוש' דסכ' בש' ר' לוי‬
‫ "ויהי בהיותם‬.‫ בתחומי בי' המקדש ניבנה‬:'‫ בתחומי בית המקדש ניבנה וזה או‬:'‫הדיינין? זה או‬
‫ [והר הבית לבמות‬...]‫ הא כ' ד' א' "ציון שדה תח[רש‬.'‫ ואין ''שדה'' אל' בית המק‬.)‫בשדה" (שם‬
."]‫ "ויקם קין אל הבל אח[יו] ויהר[גהו‬:‫ מתוך כך‬.)‫יב‬:‫יער]" (מיכה ג‬

Cain said to his brother Abel and when they were in the field [Cain set upon his
brother Abel and killed him] (Gen 4:8). Over what were these quarrels? They said:
Come let us divide up the world. One took the land and one took the chattel…

R. Yehoshua of Sakhnin said in the name of R. Levi: Both took the land and both
took the chattel. And over what were these quarrels? This one said: In my domain
the Temple will be built. And this one said: In my domain the Temple will be built.

67
The parallel between R. Levi’s drasha on Ishmael and his drasha on Cain was pointed out to me by Maren Niehoff.

109
“And when they were in the field” and there is no “field” other than the Temple, as
you say: “Zion shall be plowed as a field… [and the Temple Mount a shrine in the
woods]” (Micah 3:12). Due to this: “Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him”
(Gen 4:8).

The parallel between R. Levi’s comments here regarding Cain and his comments above regarding
Ishmael are noticeable. In this drasha, R. Levi focuses on the fact that Cain and Abel’s altercation
happened in the “field” ]‫[שדה‬. This echoes his statement above that Ishmael tried to kill Isaac after
they went out to the “field” [‫[נלך ונראה חלקינו בשדה‬.68 Likewise, R. Levi describes that Abraham’s
sons went to the field in order to see their “portions”. This word comes from the same Hebrew root
as the word used in the opening line of the drasha which describes Cain and Abel’s desire to
“divide” ]‫ ]נחלק‬the world between them. These intertextual connections highlight that according
to R. Levi Ishmael posed a mortal danger to Isaac just as Cain did to Abel. Moreover, Ishmael’s
truly evil nature is confirmed by the subtle comparison to Cain, perhaps the Bible’s most notorious
murderer.69

The final opinion listed in the midrash is that of R. Shimon. Unlike the others, R. Shimon’s
understanding of the word ‘play’ is far from incriminatory. According to him, Ishmael scoffed at
those who celebrated Isaac’s birth because he still remained the firstborn. R. Shimon even refers
to this as ‘praise’ for Ishmael, apparently in the sense that it shows that he took pride in his
birthright. In this manner he also understands Sarah’s statement when demanding that Ishmael be
cast out and “not share in the inheritance” of Isaac (Gen 21:10). It is not merely a figurative way

68
The Masoretic text of Gen 4:8 is actually laconic: “Cain said to his brother Abel [...] and when they were in the
field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.” Whatever Cain said to Able apparently motivated the murder.
However, the words Cain spoke are missing (some manuscripts of the Pentateuch even contain a space in the middle
of this verse). This gap in the text is no doubt what triggers the midrash to debate exactly what was said. However,
some early textual witnesses of the Pentateuch do contain Cain’s words. For example, in the Samaritan Pentateuch:
‫ נלכה השדה‬and in LXX: Διέλθωμεν εἰς τὸ πεδίον. R. Levi’s insertion regarding Isaac and Ishmael (‫נלך ונראה חלקינו‬
‫ )בשדה‬is somewhat similar to Cain’s words to Abel in these versions of Genesis 4:8. This may the conclusion that R.
Levi means to connect the two events. Regarding Gen 4:8 from the perspective of textual criticism, see: Emanuel
Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 53, 236–37.
69
Regarding the portrayal of Cain in this section of GenR, see: Yair Zakovitch and Avigdor Shinan, “‘And when they
were in the field’: The Story of Cain and Abel in the Midrash Genesis Rabbah [Hebrew],” in Once Again: That’s Not
What the Good Book Says (Tel Aviv: Yediot Achronot, 2009), 67–77. They note that the various explanations the
midrash gives as to Cain’s motivation for murdering his brother “appear to cover all the possible reasons that would
bring a man to take another’s life: financial conflict, religious struggle, and jealousy regarding women” (34,
translation my own). This portrait of Cain as the archetypical murderer makes the connection to Ishmael all the more
damning for Abraham’s eldest son.

110
for the matriarch to describe the result of her demand, but actually an explanation of her
motivations. While R. Ishmael might agree that Sarah was within her rights to defend Isaac’s
position in Abraham’s home, his conception of Ishmael here is hardly villainous.

Having addressed the individual statements in this section of the midrash, additional
attention should be paid to the rhetorical framework employed by the midrash here. The discussion
above is presented as an objective etymological debate over the meaning of the word ‘play’. As
the midrash would have it, if these drashot come together to paint a rather damning picture of
Ishmael this is merely the result of impartial textual study. However, the exegetical leaps which
the sages make to connect the word ‘play’ with the sins they attribute to Ishmael are palpable.
Therefore, it appears that the supposedly neutral linguistic debate is actually a cover for the
midrash’s true aim. It seeks to justify Sarah’s behavior in a biblical episode that otherwise leaves
the reader with an image of the matriarch as jealous and petty. Instead, the rabbis wish for their
audience to see Sarah as a loving mother who takes the necessary steps to protect her son from
danger. Indicative of this, the possibility that the sight of Ishmael’s innocent play so enraged Sarah
that she demanded he be sent away is ignored altogether. Such a reading, while in line with the
most basic use of the word in the Bible, would leave one hard-pressed to accept Sarah’s actions as
proper. Moreover, even if one were to argue that the Bible did actually intend to use the word
‘play’ in a more sinister sense in regard to Ishmael’s behavior, the fact that the midrash refuses to
even acknowledge this common and obvious meaning of the term here speaks volumes.

This point is made even clearer when compared to the treatment this episode receives in
second Temple sources. The author of Jubilees, for example, understood the word ‘play’ in its
most basic sense. He stated that Ishmael was “playing and dancing” and even added that Abraham
was joyful to see this (Jub 17:4). Sarah, however, became “jealous” and threw the child out. In
addition, a similar understanding of the term appears to be found in the Septuagint as well.70 These
versions support a reading, which the midrash forcefully rejects, that sees Sarah’s actions as petty
and spiteful. On the other hand, Philo, who generally avoids such critique of the matriarch, saved

70
LXX, Gen 21:10: παίζοντα μετὰ ᾿Ισαὰκ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτῆς. Thus, the Septuagint records that Sarah saw Ishmael
“playing with Isaac her son” which some scholars believe actually reflects the original text of the verse (see: Speiser,
Genesis, 155 fn11). Either way, Moshe Zipor notes that that the language of the Septuagint strongly implies that
Ishmael and Isaac were simply playing as brothers do. See: Moshe A. Zipor, The Septuagint Version of the Book of
Genesis [Hebrew] (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University, 2005), 259.

111
face by deleting the episode. Yet he did not make any special effort to justify Sarah’s actions as
seen in GenR. Indeed, the only early exegete who comes close to the midrash in this regard is
Josephus. He adds that Sarah cared for Ishmael and only sent him away as she feared what he
might do to Isaac after Abraham’s death (JA 1.215). Nevertheless, GenR still goes much further
than even Josephus. The midrash compiles a startling list of Ishmael’s possible crimes and states
that Sarah actually witnessed Ishmael’s heinous deed, not that she was merely concerned by some
future possibility.

Moreover, the sins which Ishmael is accused of by the midrash are often presented in
rabbinic literature as the cardinal sins which, in contrast to the Gentiles, Jews avoid: sexual
immorality, idol worship, and murder.71 By protecting her son from Ishmael’s influence in these
matters, the rabbis also seem keen to frame Sarah as a protector of Jewish values. Not only this,
but it shows her to be a more capable defender of the faith than her husband. In the continuation
of the biblical story, Abraham initially objects to the expulsion of Ishmael. This means that Sarah
alone was able to see his true colors and understood the dire need to expel him.

It is true that R. Shimon offers an approach which is far less critical of Ishmael and by
extension does far less to defend Sarah. Nevertheless, it should not be seen as undermining the
overall thrust of the midrash. First, R. Shimon’s opinion alone cannot erase the strong impression
left by rabbis Akiva, Elazar, and Levi. Second, despite his downplaying of Ishmael’s sin, R.
Shimon does not read Ishmael’s play as innocent childlike behavior. This would be a
straightforward reading of the biblical text, but it would likewise portray Sarah in the most negative
way possible. It seems then, that while R. Shimon is unwilling to strongly criticize Ishmael, he

71
These three seem to appear first as an explicit and defined group starting in the Amoraic literature (as opposed to
the way they are simply used in passing by the Tannaim quoted in this section). For example, they are used as the
rhetorical example of the most serious sins in yḤagigah (1:7, MS Leiden):
‫ מצא ו שויתר הקב'ה ליש' על ע'ז ועל גילוי עריות ועל שפיכות‬:‫ר' חו ה ר' ירמיה בשם ר' שמואל בר רב יצחק‬
'‫ "ויאמר י'י" ''על אשר עשו ע'ז וגילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים'' אין כת‬:'‫ מה טע‬.‫ ועל מאסם בתורה לא וויתר‬,‫דמים‬
".‫אלא "ויאמר י'י על עזבם את תורתי‬. ‫כאן‬
And the cause of drought in ySanhedrin (6:4, MS Leiden):
‫ ע'ז דכת' "פן יפתה לבבכם" וסמיך ליה "ועצר את‬.‫ ע'ז וגילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים‬:‫בעון ג' דברים גשמים נעצרין‬
‫ שפיכות דמים ש ' "כי‬."‫ גילוי עריות דכת' "וימ עו רביבים ומלקוש לא היה ומצח אשה זו ה היה לך‬."‫השמים‬
."‫הדם הוא יח יף את הארץ‬
In a similar sense, GenR uses them to explain the greatness of the sins which brought about the deluge (GR 31:6,
Albeck 280):
"‫ "חמס‬.‫ "חמס" שפיכות דמים‬.‫ "חמס" גילוי עריות‬.‫זרה‬-‫ "חמס" עבודה‬:‫ אמ' ר' לוי‬."‫"כי מלאה האר' חמס‬
‫ "מחמס‬:‫ "חמס" שפיכות דמים‬."‫ "חמסי ושארי על בבל‬:‫ "חמס" גילוי עריות‬."‫ "כי מלאה הארץ חמס‬.‫זרה‬-'‫עבוד‬
.‫ "חמס" כמשמעו‬."‫ב י יהודה אש' שפכו דם נקי‬

112
does not wish to harshly impugn the matriarch’s character either. Hence, he chooses to understand
Ishmael’s ‘play’ as bragging about his position as firstborn, and Sarah’s reaction as an attempt to
protect Isaac’s birthright. While R. Shimon parallels the biblical record by maintaining that
Ishmael committed no great sin, even he breaks with it by refusing to imply that Sarah did. Instead,
he remains rather ambivalent towards the matriarch.

Having established, in more synchronic sense, that this section of the midrash wishes to
defend Sarah’s actions by defaming Ishmael, some addition points should be made from a source-
critical standpoint. Unlike most of the Sarah-related material found in GenR, this section actually
has a parallel in an earlier rabbinic text. As mentioned in the introduction to this thesis, a parallel
series of Tannaic drashot appears in the Tosefta as well. Though there are some semantic
differences between the two versions, the list of Tannaim quoted and their interpretations of the
word ‘play’ are the same. Nevertheless, there are some more meaningful differences between the
versions which bear mentioning. In the Tosefta, R. Shimon likewise states that Ishmael’s ‘play’
refers to ‘inheritance’. However, his comment opens with an important preface (tSotah 6:6, MS
Berlin):72

‫ איפשר מי שכתוב בו "כי ידעתיו למען אשר‬.‫ חס ושלום! לא היה בביתו של צדיק כך‬:'‫וא י אומ‬
.)‫יט‬:‫" (בראשית יח‬...]‫יצוה את ב יו ואת ביתו אחריו [ושמרו דרך יהוה לעשות צדקה ומשפט‬
.‫ אלא אין ''צחוק'' האמור כאן אלא ירושה‬.‫יהא ב ו עובד עבו[דה] זרה ומגלה עריות‬

And I say: Heaven forfend! It was not so in the house of [the] righteous one [i.e.,
Abraham]. Could it be that one for whom it is written: “For I have singled him out,
that he may instruct his children and his posterity73 [to keep the way of the Lord by
doing what is just and right]...” (Gen 18:19) would have a son who worships idols
and commits sexual crimes!?74 Rather, the ‘play’ said here is none other than
inheritance.

72
As noted in the introduction to this thesis, I make use of the text of the Tosefta as found in “Ma’agarim.” The small
differences between this and Lieberman’s edition of the text (Lieberman 184-187) do not affect the analysis here.

73
Literally: “his house after him.” R. Shimon draws upon this language to demonstrate that such crimes could not
have happened ‘in the house’ of Abraham.
74
The fact that murder is not mentioned is not important. Based on the context it is clear that R. Shimon would
object to this as well. Indeed, ‘idol worship and sexual crimes’ is likely a merism for all three cardinal sins. Compare
to the first print edition of the Tosefta which reads:

113
In other words, R. Ishmael rejects the previous opinions as to Ishmael’s crimes because he believes
that such acts could not have been committed in Abraham’s home. Based on his assumptions
about the patriarch R. Ishmael is forced to look for an alternative definition of ‘play’. In this sense,
his view and the other highly critical readings of Ishmael’s behavior are presented as mutually
exclusive. Either one accepts that such behavior could take place under Abraham’s nose or one
does not. As a result, R. Ishmael’s rhetoric goes a long way in undermining the overall critique of
Ishmael in the Tosefta and in tandem its defense of Sarah.

In GenR, however, this preamble regarding the nature of the patriarch’s household does
not appear.75 Instead, R. Shimon goes straight into his explanation of the term ‘play’. Unlike in the
Tosefta, the different exegetical options regarding Ishmael are put on equal footing and the four
critical opinions are not blunted by R. Shimon’s impassioned defense of Abraham. It appears then
that GenR has intentionally ignored R. Shimon’s opening remark (or at the very least chosen a
competing tradition which does not contain it) as it would undermine its defense of Sarah. As the
relationship between GenR and the Tosefta is still an open-ended question, it is possible that the
midrash is merely utilizing the only tradition it received. However, since the midrash’s version of
R. Shimon’s statement fits its particular ideology so well I believe that this is unlikely.

An additional discrepancy between the Tosefta and GenR also appears to be the result of
the midrash reworking earlier material. In the Tosefta when the Tannaim describe the sins which
Sarah saw Ishmael commit they refer to the matriarch simply as “Sarah”.76 However, in the
midrash she is referred to as “Sarah, our mother,” even in quotes from the Tannaic material.77
Indeed, it appears that the term “Sarah, our mother” becomes popular in rabbinic literature only

‫… ואני אומר חס ושלום שיהי' בביתו של אותו צדיק ההוא כך אפשר למי שנאמ' עליו כי ידעתיו למען אשר יצוה‬
… ‫וגומר יהא בביתו עבודה זרה וגילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים‬
75
In addition to this crucial piece which is not found in GenR, the Tosefta also opens with a somewhat different
version of R. Shimon’s remark regarding R. Akiva:
...‫ ארבעה דברים היה ר' עקיבא דורש וכך אני דורש ודבריי אני רואה מדבריו‬:'‫ר' שמעון בר יוחי אומ‬
For more on this line, its parallels, and the other drashot of R. Akiva with which R. Shimon disagrees, see: Saul
Lieberman, Tosefta Kifshutah [Hebrew], vol. 8 (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1967), 669.
76
According to the Tosefta:
‫ מלמד שהיתה שרה רואה ישמעאל‬...‫דרש ר' עקיבא‬
...‫ מלמד שהיתה שרה רואה את ישמעאל‬...'‫ר' ישמעאל אומ‬
...‫ מלמד שהיתה שרה רואה את ישמעאל‬...'‫ר' אליעזר בנו של ר' יוסי הגלילי אומ‬
77
According to GenR:
..‫ מלמד שהיתה שרה אמ ו רואה את ישמעאל‬...‫דרש ר' עקיבה‬
...‫ מלמד שהיתה שרה אמי ו רואה את ישמעאל‬...‫ת י ר' ישמעאל‬
...‫ שמתשובה שאמרה שרה אמי ו‬...‫ואני [ר' שמעון] אומר‬

114
starting in the Amoraic period and in GenR in particular.78 Thus, there is good reason to conclude
that the Tannaic tradition which the midrash received did not contain this epithet. Instead, it was
added by GenR as part of its overall emphasis on Sarah’s role as the Jewish matriarch. As noted
in the introduction, the parallel between the Tosefta and GenR here demonstrates the usefulness
of combing both source-critical and synchronic approaches to rabbinic texts. Noting the Sarah-
related themes which characterize the midrash as a whole makes it easier to identify this instance
where GenR reworks an earlier tradition to support them.

Similarly, the drashot in this section of the midrash also fit an already familiar diachronic
pattern. Once more, in a group of statements by sages from different eras, it is the Amoraic material
which reflects most positively upon Sarah. With the exception of R. Shimon who does not paint
Ishmael as a villain, the Tannaim quoted here present Ishmael as a threat to the spiritual sanctity
of Abraham’s home. However, R. Levi takes this a step further. According to him, Ishmael was
not just a bad influence on Isaac, but actually wished to murder him. Sarah’s expulsion of the
handmaiden and her son is therefore all the more heroic. By doing so she ensures that the tragic
history of Cain and Abel does not repeat itself.

If any further proof were needed of the midrash’s desire to portray Sarah as a heroine for
expelling Ishmael, the very next drasha in GenR provides it. Immediately after R. Shimon’s
relatively benevolent reading of Ishmael’s conduct, the midrash makes yet another statement
which alludes to his vile nature and Abraham’s failure to notice it (GR 53:12, Albeck 569):

‫ "עוצם עי יו‬:]‫ הד[א] ה[וא‬.)‫יא‬:‫"וירע הדבר מא[ד] בעי י אברהם על א[ו]ד[ות] ב ו" (בראשית כא‬
‫ [כי ביצחק יקרא‬...‫ "ויאמר אלים אל אברה[ם] אל ירע בעי יך‬.)‫טו‬:‫מראות [ברע]" (ישעיהו לג‬
'‫ ר‬."‫ אלא "ביצחק‬,‫ ''יצחק'' אין כת[יב] כן‬:‫ אמ' ר' יודן בר' שלום‬.)‫יב‬:‫לך זרע]" (בראשית כא‬
.‫ במי שהוא מודה בש י עולמים‬,‫ בי תריין‬:‫עזריה בש' בר חיטה‬

78
Several Amoraic texts refer to the matriarch as ‫ אימנו שרה‬or ‫שרה אימנו‬. For example: ySanhedrin 2:5 (MS Leiden),
bYevamot 64b (MS Munich), Leviticus Rabbah 30:10 (MS Paris), and Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 9 (MS Oxford). The term
is used a bit more frequently in GenR (GR 53:8, 9, 11). As for the Tannaic literature, it seems to be used more rarely,
if at all. Of all the places where Sarah is mentioned in texts of this period, the only example I could find using the
“Ma’agarim” database where she is called “our mother” is in Sotah 5:12 (MS Wien). (Not only is this the only example
I found, but it also relates to Sarah and Ishmael. These two points may imply that the use of the title “our mother”
was added to Sarah’s name by a copyist himself familiar with the epithet from the Amoraic corpus). As I will note in
chapter four, reference to Sarah as “our mother” does appear once in the New Testament (Gal 4:26).

115
‫ "זכרו נפלאותיו אש[ר] עש[ה] מופתיו משפטי פיהו" (תהלים‬:]‫ כת[יב‬:‫אמ' ר' יודן בר' שלום‬
,"‫ כל מי שמודה בש י עולמים "יקרא לך זרע‬.‫ מופת נתתי למי שהוא מוציא מתוך פיו‬.)‫ה‬:‫קה‬
.‫וכל מי שהוא אי ו מודה בש י עולמים אין קרא לך זרע‬

“And the matter distressed Abraham greatly [lit. was evil in Abraham’s eyes], for
it concerned a son of his” (Gen 21:11). This is [what is written]: “Shuts his eyes
against looking [at evil]” (Isa 33:15). “But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be
distressed [lit. it should not be evil in your eyes] […for it is through Isaac that
offspring shall be called for you’] (Gen 21:12). Said R. Yudan bar Shalom: It does
not say here “Isaac” [Yitzḥak], but rather “through Isaac” [be-Yitzḥak]. R. Azariah
in the name of bar Ḥitah: Through two [as the letter Bet has a numerical value of
two], through he that professes belief in two eras.79

Said R. Yudan bar Shalom: “Remember the wonders He has done, His portents and
the judgments He has pronounced” (Ps 105:5).80 A portent I gave to him that
pronounces aloud. Anyone that professes belief in two eras ‘shall be called your
offspring’ and anyone who does not profess belief in two eras is not ‘called your
offspring.’

In addition to its critique of Abraham’s ‘closing his eyes’ to who his eldest son truly was, GenR
states that Isaac deserved to inherit Abraham because he, unlike Ishmael, believed in “two eras”:
this era and the era-to-come.81 Using the story of Isaac and Ishmael as a platform, the rabbis
emphasize that it is not enough to be a biological descendant of the patriarch. In order to be a Jew
of good standing one must also accept this core rabbinic teaching regarding the afterlife. 82 As a

79
I have translated the word ‫ עולם‬as ‘era’ in these sources, despite the fact that the translation ‘world’ (i.e., ‘this
world’ and the ‘world-to-come’) is more familiar in common parlance and scholarly literature. Friedman has
demonstrated that the word ‫ עולם‬when used in this manner refers to a period of time or an era and not a physical
world (parallel to the Greek term αἰών). See: Friedman, “Studies,” 70–88.
80
The next verse reads: “O offspring of Abraham [‫]זרע אברהם‬, His servant, O descendants of Jacob, His chosen ones”
(Ps 105:6). Hence the connection to the verse above “through Isaac that offspring ]‫ [יקרא לך זרע‬shall be called for
you’.
81
Compare tBerachot 6:21 (MS Wien) which likewise speaks of those who deny the existence of two eras and
explicitly refers to them as ‘this era’ and the ‘era-to-come’:
'‫ משקלקלו המי ין (י)[ו]אמרו אין עולם אלא אחד התקי ו שיהיו או‬.‫כל חותם ברכות שהיו במקדש היו עד העולם‬
.‫ מודיעים שהעולם הזה בפ י העולם הבא כפרוצדור בפ י טרקלין‬.‫מן העולם ועד העולם‬
(The slight emendation is according to MS Erfurt and the partial parallel in mBerachot 9:5 [MS Kaufmann]).
82
Regarding the importance of the belief in the ‘era-to-come’ in rabbinic thought as a response to historical and
theological challenges, see: Ephraim E. Urbach, “Inheritance laws and after-life [Hebrew],” Proceedings of the World

116
result, Isaac has become an archetype for all proper Jews, and Ishmael, by extension, an archetype
for all those who must be cast out. Returning to Sarah, this darsha which is brought in the context
of Sarah’s rejecting Ishmael indirectly reinforces the two themes seen previously. First, it confirms
that she, not Abraham, understood the need to expel him. Second, by connecting Ishmael’s
banishment to a lack of faith in the era-to-come, it reinforces the earlier portrayal of Sarah as a
defender not just of Isaac, but of Jewish values as a whole.

To summarize, this midrash’s desire to present Sarah as a heroine comes across clearly in
its take on Sarah’s interactions with Hagar and Ishmael. In the Bible, these scenes put Sarah at her
lowest: spiteful and indifferent to the suffering of others. Likewise, most second Temple authors
make no special efforts to defend Sarah’s conduct. The midrash, however, attempts to interpret
these stories in a manner which justifies Sarah’s behavior. It highlights Hagar’s cynical disrespect
for the matriarch and portrays Ishmael as a danger to the sanctity of Abraham’s home and Isaac’s
own safety. Unlike the negative impression given by the Bible, the midrash praises Sarah for
protecting Jewish values and seeing the dangers that her husband did not. As with other such
themes, the development of Sarah’s character in this manner can be traced to the Amoraic period
in particular. Not only this, but in at least one place the midrash appears to actively rework earlier
material in order to achieve this end.

Congress of Jewish Studies 1 (1965): 138–41. According to Urbach, while the Bible only speaks of divine reward and
punishment during one’s lifetime, the idea that such recompense occurs after death as well appears for the first
time towards the end of the second Temple period. He argues that these two ideas, reward and punishment in this
era and the next, existed side-by-side for a time. However, in the wake of the Temple’s destruction and failure of
the Bar Kohkba revolt, the concept of divine reward and punishment was transferred completely to the era-to-come
while one’s standing in this era was completely disconnected from his religious and ethical conduct.
For more recent collections of rabbinic sources regarding the era-to-come (or as they render it: the world-
to-come), see: Alan J. Avery-Peck, “Death and the Afterlife in the Early Rabbinic Sources: The Mishnah, Tosefta, and
Early Midrashic Compilations,” in Judaism in Late Antiquity: Death, Life-after-Death, Resurrection and the World-to-
Come in the Judaisms of Antiquity, ed. Alan J. Avery-Peck and Jacob Neusner (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 243–66; Jacob
Neusner, “Death and the Afterlife in the Later Rabbinic Sources: The Two Talmuds and Associated Midrash-
Compilations,” in Judaism in Late Antiquity: Death, Life-after-Death, Resurrection and the World-to-Come in the
Judaisms of Antiquity, ed. Alan J. Avery-Peck and Jacob Neusner (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 267–91. Avery-Peck concludes
that the Tannaic texts are not part of a systematic treatment of the post-mortem, but rather develop in a piecemeal
fashion as a response to “more general questions about the nature and responsibilities of life in this world,” which
in turn introduces ancillary issues such as what will eventually happen to those who keep the Torah and to those
who do not (244). Neusner maintains that the Amoraic texts take a more systematic approach and seek to
demonstrate God’s justice in “both private life and the domain of all Israel” and emphasizes the role that the after-
life plays in rabbinic theodicy (267).

117
Sarah and Female Norms
The exceptional nature of Sarah’s character in GenR is further born out in comparison to the more
general conception of women found in the midrash. In has been noted that the idea that Abraham
took orders from Sarah so bothered earlier authors such as Josephus and Pseudo-Philo that they
made sure to do away with it. Indeed, it appears that the rabbis of GenR agreed to a large extent
with their predecessors regarding the hierarchy between man and wife. As the drasha previously
quoted regarding Sarah’s time with Abimelech notes, “normally the man gives the orders” and not
the woman.83 Nevertheless, the midrash, unlike these second Temple sources, does not make an
attempt to rewrite Sarah’s story in light of what they believed to be proper gender roles. Just as the
rabbis spoke of Sarah’s direct interaction with God, despite the fact that they believed He would
not speak to a woman, they speak of Sarah commanding Abraham despite the fact that it is not
‘normal’ for a wife to give orders to her husband.

Indeed, the midrash does show itself willing to chastise other matriarchs when they violate
similar hierarchical norms. In the book of Genesis, Rachel trades away her turn to lay with Jacob
in exchange for her sister Leah’s mandrakes, which she hopes will improve her chances of
conceiving (Gen 30:14-21).84 Commenting on this episode, the midrash both remarks that Rachel

83
While GenR contains many different statements about female nature in general (some of which will be discussed
later), I have not found another which speaks so directly and explicitly about the need for a man to lead and “give
the orders” as this drasha does (though this is no doubt the natural implication of some of the other more negative
statements regarding womankind). Closest to making this same point is the remark (GR 8:12, Albeck 66):
'‫ מנ‬,‫ שכל אשה היוצאה לשוק סופה להיכשל‬,‫ האיש כובש את אשתו שלא תצא לשוק‬: )‫כח‬:‫וכבשה כת' (בראשית א‬
.)‫א‬:‫ מדינה דכת' ותצא דינה וגו ' (לד‬.‫לן‬
However, I have not included it in this study as this line is not found in MS Vat. 30 which I have utilized throughout
(nor the important MS Vat. 60) and therefore appears to be a later addition. Two additional statements in the
midrash might also carry with them a similar message, but if so then more subtly. The first appears in regard to the
verse in which Eve is told “and [your husband] shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16; GR 20:7, Albeck 191). The midrash
relates here a somewhat laconic anecdote about a noble woman whose husband was of low birth. The exact meaning
of the text is ambiguous, however in his translation of GenR Freedman reads it as saying that the husband
demonstrated that he was in control of his wife despite the difference in their backgrounds (166). When taken as
such, the midrash implies that the immanent reality of this verse overcomes other factors when it comes to the
hierarchy between man and wife. (However, Albeck has a slightly different take on the matter in his comments ad
loc). The second example is found in regard to Rebecca’s following of Abraham’s servant back to Isaac. The midrash
states (GR 60:14, Albeck 654):
.‫ שכעור לאיש להיות מהלך אחרי האשה‬:‫ אמ' ר' יוח ן‬.)‫סא‬:‫"ותלכ ה אחרי האיש" (בראשית כד‬
Based on the biblical context, this statement is a directive regarding modest conduct while walking (lest a man gaze
upon a woman’s backside). However, it may also be a more general command that the man should lead and the
woman follow.
84
The rabbinic critique of Rachel and Leah in this episode is noted by Baskin, though she reads it differently, see:
Judith Reesa Baskin, “Women, Midrashic Constructions Of,” in Encyclopedia of Midrash, ed. Alan J Avery-Peck and
Jacob Neusner, vol. 2 (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 994–95.

118
was punished for forgoing her time with Jacob85 and later calls Leah a “harlot” for demanding that
the patriarch sleep with her as per the arrangement with her sister.86 In other words, the rabbis
criticize Rachel for passing on her conjugal rights while censuring Leah for demanding them. 87
However, these are not paradoxical reactions. In both cases Jacob’s wives have violated proper
gender roles as understood by GenR. This is made clear when looking to a series of questions
regarding the differences between men and women which was put to R. Yehoshua. He answers
each query with etiological explanation based on Adam and Eve. Among these, the midrash
recounts the following which is pertinent to the matter at hand (GR 17:8, Albeck 159): 88

‫ לאחד שאיבד‬:]‫ אמ' להן [ר' יהושע‬.‫מפ י מה האיש תובע באשה ואין האשה תובעת באיש‬
.‫ הוא מבקש אבידתו ואבידתו אי ה מבקשתו‬.‫אבידה‬

85
GR 72:3 (Vat. 30, Albeck 838):
"‫ "לכן ישכב עמך‬:‫ הוא דהיא אמרה‬.‫ לפיכך אי ה כ סת עמו לקבורה‬,‫ לפי שזילזלה בצדיק‬:‫ת י ר' שמעון בן יוחי‬
.‫ עימי לית הוא דמיך‬,‫ עמיך הוא דמיך‬:‫ אמ' לה‬.)‫טו‬:‫(בראשית ל‬
86
GR 80:1 (Vat. 30, Albeck 952):
"[‫ "ותצא לאה לקראתו [ותאמר אלי תבוא‬:]‫ אמ' להם [ר' שמעון בן לקיש‬.‫…אם כן אימי ו לאה זו ה הייתה‬
.‫ מלמד שיצאת מקושטת כזו ה‬.)‫טו‬:‫(בראשית ל‬
87
In a dissenting opinion elsewhere, however, the midrash defends Leah’s action’s by saying they were done with
proper intentions and were justified by the results, see: GR 72:5 (Albeck 841(.
88
Continuing the Bible’s own etiology in the opening chapters of Genesis, the sections dealing with the Garden of
Eden story in general and this subsection in particular contain the highest concentration of discussions on the nature
of womankind in GenR, and perhaps in the whole of rabbinic literature. As a result, they have received a fair amount
of attention in studies of the midrash which focus on matters of gender and sexuality. For just two prominent
examples, see: Daniel Boyarin, Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1993), 88–90 and at greater length Judith Reesa Baskin, Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic
Literature (Hannover: University Press of New England, 2002), chaps. 2–3. Boyarin summarizes the section
containing the questions put to R. Yehoshua’s (p89):
[It is the] most extended piece of contempt for women produced in the midrash [here Boyarin is
referring to all of midrashic literature, not just GenR – R.S.]… and even here the discourse is
complicated… despite the open misogyny of the passage, once it turns to procreation, the
emphasis is positive.
Baskin takes an even more negative approach to this text and concludes that it highlights the “blame and guilt”
forever attached to women by the rabbis and the use of these ideas to justify male domination of women (p75).
On the other hand, Rosen-Zvi critiques Baskin for oversimplifying this text (and others like it) though her
use of a “binary lens” which reads it as either good or bad, egalitarian or misogynistic (Ishay Rosen-Zvi, “Misogyny
and Its Discontents: Midrashic Women: Formulations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature (Review),” Prooftexts
25, no. 1–2 (2002): 220). He notes that while this text does present the inferior condition of women as part of the
natural order, it does not actually attempt to justify this situation. While many other midrashic texts do so, a slightly
different voice is heard here and the heterogenic nature of rabbinic literature should not be overlooked. Recognizing
this point is important for the discussion here which highlights that the portrait of Sarah in GenR is often at odds
with its statements about women in general.

119
Why does the man demand [sex] from the woman,89 but the woman does not
demand [sex] from the man. Said to them [R. Yehoshua]: It is like one that lost an
object. He seeks what he lost, but the lost object does not seek him.

In other words, men seek women as Adam would seek his lost rib. This conception of human
nature explains the rabbis’ disapproval of the behavior of both Leah and Rachel. By deciding when
and with whom Jacob would have sexual intercourse, they are guilty of asserting control in a
manner that is unnatural and that violates the natural hierarchy between man and wife. The midrash
therefore reproaches them.

For Sarah, however, it seems that this standard does not apply. While she repeatedly
violates the gender constructs found in GenR, she is actually praised for this - not punished. The
rabbis draw attention to Sarah’s controlling force over her husband just as they highlight her
prophetic gifts. While the rabbis are somewhat critical of Abraham himself for allowing his wife
such control and for failing to be her “crown,” its overall handling of these matters nevertheless
points to Sarah’s unique importance in their eye.

In fact, these are not the only examples of the tension between Sarah’s portrayal and the
midrash’s preconceived notions about women in general. In its comments on Sarah’s complaint to
Abraham “the wrong done me is your fault” (Gen 16:5), part of which was quoted earlier, the
midrash observes how various flaws inherent in women are exemplified by different females in
the Bible (GR 45:5, Vat. 30, Albeck 452-453):

‫ "ותקח‬:‫ גרגר יות‬.‫ ק יות‬,‫ עצילות‬,‫ ציית יות‬,‫ גרגר יות‬:‫ ארבע מידות ב שים‬:'‫ורב ין אמרי‬...
.)‫י‬:‫ "ושרה שומעת פתח האהל והוא אחריו" (יח‬:‫ ציית יות‬.)‫ו‬:‫מפריו ותאכל" (בראשית ג‬
)‫א‬:‫ "ותק א רחל באחותה" (ל‬:‫ ק ייות‬.)‫ו‬:‫ "מהרי שלש סאים" (יח‬:‫עצלות‬

89
That the ‘demand’ in question is of a sexual nature is confirmed the question asked before:
‫ כיון שאתה נותן לתוכה‬,‫ אדם נברא מאדמה‬:‫ אמ' להם‬.‫ומפ י מה האיש נוח להתפתות ואין האשה נוחה להתפתות‬
.‫ אפילו אתה שורה עצם כמה ימים במים אי ו ישור‬,‫ וחוה בראת מעצם‬.‫טיפת מים מיד היא ישורת‬
And after:
‫ לאחד שיש בידו פיקדון ומבקש אדם‬:‫ אמ' להם‬.‫מפ י מה האיש מפקיד זרע באשה ואין האשה מפקדת זרע באיש‬
.‫אמן שיפקיד ו בידו‬
Compare to the similar use of the term in the later work Avot DeRebi Natan, Nusaḥ A, 2b (MS Rab 25):
‫ מלמד‬."‫ "והוא ימשול בך‬.‫ מלמד שהאשה משתוקקת על בעלה בשעה שהוא יוצא לדרך‬."‫"ואל אישך תשוקתך‬
.‫שהאיש תובע בפה והאשה תובעת בלב‬

120
‫ "ותאמר שרי אל אברם חמסי‬:‫ אסטט יות‬.‫ אף אסטט יות ודבר יות‬:'‫ר' יהושע בן חמיה אמ‬
.)‫א‬:‫ "ותדבר מרים ואהרן במשה" (במדבר יב‬:‫ דבר יות‬.)‫ה‬:‫עליך" (טז‬

:‫ פרד יות‬. )‫יט‬:‫ "ותג ב רחל את התרפים" (בראשית לא‬:‫ ג ביות‬.‫ אף ג ביות פרד יות‬:'‫ר' לוי אמ‬
.)‫א‬:‫"ותצא די ה בת לאה" (לד‬

The Rabbis said, there are four types of women: Gluttons, Eavesdroppers, Sloths,
and Envious. Gluttons: “[Eve] took of its fruit and ate” (Gen 3:6). Eavesdroppers:
“Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent” (18:10). Sloths: “Quick, three seahs
of choice flour!” (18:6). Envious: “And Rachel became envious of her sister”
(30:1).

R. Yehoshua ben Neḥemiah said: they are also instigators and chatterboxes.
Instigators: “The wrong done me is your fault!” (16:5). Chatterboxes: “and Miriam
and Aaron spoke about Moses” (Num 12:1).

R. Levi said: also thieves and gadabouts. Thieves: “And Rachel stole her father’s
household idols” (Gen 31:19). Gadabouts: “And Dinah the daughter of Leah went
out” (34:1).

Despite the basic assumptions about women put forth here,90 GenR nevertheless is willing to
present Sarah as a model of religious devotion and closeness to God. This is striking given the fact

90
In addition to those mentioned so far, GenR contains several other remarks regarding the nature of women. Like
the series of statements relayed in the name of R. Yehoshua, most are concerned with connecting the inferior station
of women and negative traits associated with them to characters and stories in Genesis. For example (GR 70:11,
Albeck 810):
.‫ שדיבור מצוי ב שים‬:‫ הדה אמרה‬."‫ "וה ה רחל בתו‬.‫ ואין פיטטין את בעי‬."‫"ויאמרו שלום‬
In other places the rabbis attribute positive qualities to them, though not without descent (dissent?) (18:1, Albeck
160-161; compare: 65:4, Albeck 715):
‫ נתן בי ה באשה יותר מן‬:‫ ר' אלעזר בש' ר' יוסי בן זימרא‬.''‫ ''ויבן‬."‫"ויבן ייי אלים את הצלע אש' לק' מן האדם‬
‫ דרכה שלאשה להיות יושבת בתוך ביתה ודרכו‬.‫ אית דמחליפין‬:‫האיש… ר' ירמיה בשם ר' שמואל בר רב יצחק‬
.‫שלאיש יוצא לשוק ולמד בי ה מן ב י אדם‬
However, as a rule the most positive statements about women are in connection to their roles as wives. For example
(GR 8:9, Albeck 63; 17:2, 151-152; 17:7, 158):
‫ לא איש בלא אשה ולא אשה‬."‫ "בצלמי ו כדמתי ו‬:‫ מיכן ואילך‬.‫לשעבר אדם נברא מאדמה וחוה נבראת מאדם‬
.‫בלא איש ולא ש יהם בלא שכי ה‬

‫ "לא‬:‫ בלא טוב‬.‫ בלא כפרה‬,‫ בלא ברכה‬,‫ בלא שמחה‬,‫ בלא עזר‬,‫ כל מי שאין לו אשה שרוי בלא טוב‬:‫ תני‬."‫"לא טוב‬
‫ "וכפר בעדו‬:‫ בלא כפרה‬."‫ "ושמחת אתה וביתך‬:‫ בלא שמחה‬."‫ "אעשה לו עזר‬:‫ בלא עזר‬."'‫טוב היו' האד' לבד‬
‫ ר' חייא בר גומרי‬."'‫ "ראה חיים עם אשה אשר אהב‬.‫ בלא חיים‬:'‫ ר' יהושע דסכנין בשם ר' לוי אמ‬."‫ובעד ביתו‬
."‫ "כי בצלם אלים‬.‫ אף ממעט את האדם‬:'‫ ויש אומ‬."‫ "ויברך אתם ויקרא את שמם אדם‬.‫ אף אי ו אדם שלם‬:'‫אמ‬
'‫ ר' יהושע בר‬."‫ ואם לא זכה "כ גדו‬."‫ אם זכה "עזר‬."‫ "אעשה לו עזר כ גדו‬."‫ "ואתם פרו ורבו‬:‫מה כת' אחריו‬
.‫ כאשתו שלר' יוסי הגלילי‬,‫ ואם לא‬.‫ כאשתו שלר' ח יה בן חכי אי‬,‫ זכה‬:'‫חמיה אמ‬

121
that the midrash exemplifies three of these feminine failings though Sarah herself (eavesdroppers,
sloths, and instigators). All this demonstrates how important it was for the rabbis of GenR to
expand Sarah’s character even though it meant looking past her perceived flaws as a woman.

Additionally, the dissonance between the rabbis’ laudatory conception of Sarah and their
beliefs about womankind is summed up well in the following section, which addresses the
changing of her name from Sarai to Sarah (GR 47:1, Albeck 471):

.‫ יוד ש טל הקב'ה משרי חלק חציו לשרה וחציו לאברהם‬:‫אמ' ר' יהושע בן קרחה‬

:‫ אמ' לפ יו‬.‫ יוד ש טל הקב'ה משרי היה טס ופורח לפ י כסא הכבוד‬:‫אמ' ר' שמעון בן יוחיי‬
:‫ אמ' לו הקב'ה‬.‫ על שא י קט ן שלאותיות נטלת י והוצאת י משמה שלצדקת‬:]‫רבונ[ו] שלעול[ם‬
‫ עכשיו א י נות ך בשמו שלזכר ובראשן‬,‫לשעבר הייתה נתון בשמה של קבה ובסופן שלאותיות‬
.)‫טז‬:‫ "ויקרא משה להושע בן נון יהושע" (במדבר יג‬.‫שלאותיות‬

.‫ עכשיו היא שרה לכל באי העולם‬,‫לשעבר היתה שרי לעצמה‬: ‫אמ' ר' מ א‬

Said R. Yehoshua ben Karḥa: the Yod that the Holy One Blessed be He took from
Sarai was divided, half to Sarah and half to Abraham.

Said R. Shimon bar Yoḥai: the Yod that the Holy One Blessed be He took from
Sarai flew up and came before the throne of glory. He said before [the Lord]:
‘Master of Eternity:91 Not only am I the smallest of the letters, but You took out of
the name of the righteous one [Sarah]?! Said to him the Holy One Blessed be He:
‘In the past you were placed in the name of a female and last among the letters, now
I place you in the name of a male and first among the letters. “Moses changed the
name of Hosea ben Nun to Joshua”’ (Num 13:16).

. ‫ אין א ו מועילין להקב'ה כלום‬:‫ אמרו‬.‫מעשה בחסיד אחד שהיה נשוי לחסידה אחת ולא העמידו ב ים זה מזה‬
‫ שהכל‬.‫ וזו נשאת לרשע אחד ועשת אותו צדיק‬,‫ הלך זה ו שא לרישעה אחת ועשת אותו רשע‬.‫עמדו וגרשו זה את זה‬
.‫מן האשה‬
Beyond these general conclusions, a fuller study is needed in order to determine the exact manner in which GenR
relates to women and gender roles. Mirkin compiles a helpful list of many of the statements found in GenR regarding
women, but does not attempt to draw any real conclusions from them: Moshe Aryeh Mirkin, “Introduction
[Hebrew],” in Bereshit Rabbah, ed. Moshe Aryeh Mirkin, vol. 1, Midrash Rabbah (Tel Aviv: Yavneh, 1968), 10.
91
Regarding this rendering of ‫עולם‬, see again: Friedman, “Studies,” 41–42.

122
Said R. Mana: In the past she was a princess [Sarai] to herself, now she is princess
[Sarah] to all of humanity.92

The midrash presents three traditions connected to the changing of Sarah’s name. In the first, R.
Yehoshua ben Karḥa (a 4th generation Tanna) opines that the Yod (numerical value of 10) in Sarai
was spilt into the two Heis (numerical value of five each) which were then used to create the names
Abraham and Sarah. Though this remark is somewhat ambiguous, beyond the straightforward
numerology it may be another attempt on the part of the midrash to demonstrate Sarah’s equality
with Abraham. Just as the midrash elsewhere took her to be an integral part of her husband’s
religious endeavors, this statement might imply that the changing of Abraham’s name and all the
blessings that come with that are connected to Sarah’s influence as well. If so, then this strikes a
similar chord to the depatriarchalized readings of Genesis which stress the fact that Sarah is the
only woman in the Bible whose name is changed by God and that this symbolizes her important
and perhaps equal role in the covenant.

In the second drasha R. Shimon bar Yoḥai (a 4th generation Tanna) takes a less enthusiastic
approach to Sarah, just as he did regarding her expulsion of Ishmael. 93 While the matriarch is an
important enough figure that the Yod would bemoan the fact that it was taken from her name, God
is able to console the letter with the fact that it will placed in the name of Joshua. R. Shimon is not
content to describe this as preferable just because the Yod will now be the first letter of a name
(and not the last as in Sarai), but he also highlights that it will now be part of a man’s name. The
sexual hierarchy which informs such a statement is clear.94 Thus, while R. Shimon does not deny
Sarah’s significance, he alludes to the fact that she ultimately remains a member of the lesser sex.

92
A parallel to this section appears in pSanhedrin 2:4 with slightly different attributions and without R. Mana’s final
statement. As mentioned, it appears that GenR was familiar with traditions from the Jerusalem Talmud and this may
mean that the midrash here builds upon the material already found there by adding R. Mana’s statement. In
addition, a similar statement to R. Mana’s appears without attribution in tBerachot 1:13 (MS Wien):
.‫ עכשיו הרי היא שרה על כל באי עולם‬.‫כתחלה הרי היא שרי על עמה‬
It is often assumed that GenR did not make use of the Tosefta. Be that as it may, however, this section from GenR is
a prime example of how the midrash expands upon Sarah’s praise, either by weaving together different sources,
reworking earlier sources, or through the use of a stand-alone text.
93
In addition to the opinions of R. Shimon already mentioned, he is also the sage quoted by GenR as being critical
of Rachel’s giving away of her conjugal rights. An analysis of R. Shimon’s approach to women in general and to the
matriarchs in particular (at least as they are presented in GenR) is beyond the scope of this study. However, it is
interesting to note that the Bavli records that the same R. Shimon hid in a cave lest his wife reveal his whereabouts
to the Romans, because (bShabbat 33b, MS Oxford): "‫"ידענא דנשי דעתן קלה עליהן‬
94
Compare to the sentiments found here (GR 26:4, Albeck 246-247):

123
Turning to the third and final drasha in this section, the praise of Sarah which might be
implied by R. Yehoshua ben Karḥa is expressed more forcefully and unequivocally by R. Mana (a
5th generation Amora). R. Mana affirms Sarah’s universal role by stating that with the changing of
her name she becomes a princess for “all humanity.” It has already been demonstrated that while
some second Temple authors found ways to remove Sarah’s divine blessing that she would “give
rise to nations [and that] rulers of peoples shall issue from her” (Gen 17:16), the midrash does not
shy away from it. Here too GenR alludes to this blessing and then expands it. Not only will Sarah
give birth to many nations and leaders, but she herself is a princess for all peoples of the world.
Like the midrash’s description of Sarah nursing the masses, she is again portrayed as a figure
whose importance crosses ethnic and national boundaries. It is also significant that of the three
drashot here the one that goes the furthest in praising Sarah is attributed to an Amora, R. Mana,
while the more subdued praise of Sarah is attributed to Tannaim.

The fact that R. Shimon’s statement which alludes to the lesser standing of women is
recorded in this context is telling. It highlights a tension that is found throughout the midrash’s
treatment of Sarah as the matriarch is continually depicted in a manner which goes beyond the
normal expectations of women and the limits placed upon them. While the midrash does not
necessarily make an attempt to justify this state of affairs, it nevertheless accepts it as the
unquestioned reality. Therefore, its willingness to constantly portray Sarah as it does is all the more
remarkable. In this regard comparison to Philo is helpful. In Philo’s literal reading of Genesis
Sarah was described as Abraham’s partner, and in his allegorical reading the matriarch is
represented as no less than virtue itself. However, despite his praise of Sarah, Philo does not
transcend his own preconceived notions regarding the nature of womankind. Sarah’s partnership
with Abraham is limited to matters of the home and in order for her to embody virtue she must
first be stripped of her female nature and its immanent flaws. Unlike Philo, however, the midrash

. ‫ מלמד שהיו שופכין את זרעם על העצים ועל האב ים ולפי שהיו שטופין בז ות הרבה להן הקב'ה ב קיבות‬."‫"לרוב‬
".‫ "ויהי כי החל האד[ם] לרוב על פ י האד[מה] וב ות יולדו‬:'‫הד' הי‬
'‫ דכת‬:‫ אמ' ליה‬.‫ מה הן‬:‫ אמ' ליה‬.‫ התחיל הקב'ה לברכך‬:‫ חמתיה ר' חייה אמ' לה‬.‫ר' שמעון בר' ילדה אשתו נקבה‬
‫ כך וכך‬:‫ אמ' ליה‬.‫ שימחך הבבלי‬:‫ אמ' ליה‬,‫ עלה אצל אביו‬."‫"ויהי כי החל האד' לר' ע' פ' הא' וב ות יול' להם‬
,‫ צורך לחיטים וצורך לשעורים‬.‫ צורך ליין יתר מן החומץ‬,‫ צורך ליין צורך לחומץ‬,‫כן‬-‫ אפעלפי‬:‫ אמ' ליה‬.‫אמ' לי‬
...‫ לא יהא ליך מחזרו הכה‬:‫ הוא או' לה‬.‫ משאדם משיא את בתו ומוציא יציאות‬.‫צורך לחטים יותר מן השעורים‬
The opening remark which states that God ensured that daughters were born in order to meet the sexual needs of
the men reflects a patriarchal and immanent view of womankind wherein their importance is limited to their role in
serving men. On the other hand, R. Ḥiyyah’s statement and the ensuing discussion implies that having a daughter is
to be seen as a blessing. The only downside is of a practical nature (the financial loss associated with marrying off a
daughter), but not based on a negative judgment regarding the inherent value of women.

124
does not limit its praise of Sarah to those matters which otherwise fit its conception of a woman’s
role. Likewise, it does not feel the need to dispossess Sarah of her womanhood or otherwise exempt
her from the perceived failings of her sex in order to grant her full veneration.

Lastly, the singular nature of the midrash’s reading of Sarah is also clear when compared
to the treatment GenR gives to the other matriarchs. GenR certainly does have many positive things
to say about them.95 Rebecca is credited with bringing back to the patriarch’s camp the divine
blessing and providence which left upon Sarah’s death (GR 60:16, Albeck 656), protecting her
chastity before marriage (60:5, 645), being a “lily among the thorns,” despite coming from a family
of deceivers (63:4, 680-681), and God is described as forming the womb she lacked so that she
could conceive (63:5, 681).96 Regarding Leah, the midrash notes that great men of Israel were her
descendants (70:15, 814-815) and praises her desire to give birth to the tribes of Israel (72:5, 841).
Moving to Rachel, attention too is drawn to her important descendants (70:15, 814-815), she is
referred to as the “mainstay” of Jacob's home (‫ ;עיקרו שלבית‬71:2, 823), and praised for not revealing
that her father had substituted Leah for her (Gen 29:22-26) and for her willingness to give her
maidservant over to Jacob in order to bear children (73:4, 847-848).

The above list covers nearly all, if not all, the material regarding the other matriarchs found
in GenR. The contrast between this and the Sarah-related material is self-evident. First, it is clear
that the amount of material relating to the other matriarchs cannot compare to the sheer volume of
drashot dedicated to Sarah. Second, the statements about Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah do not come
anywhere close to matching the broad range of praise which the midrash gives to Sarah. No other
matriarch is presented as such a model of religious devotion and no other matriarch is credited
with closeness to God that rivals and even outdoes that of her husband. Therefore, the portrayal of
Sarah in GenR goes beyond not just what is expected from women in general, but also what the
other matriarchs are credited with as well.

95
In compiling this list, I was aided by the collection of rabbinic sources found in: David J. Zucker and Moshe Reiss,
The Matriarchs of Genesis: Seven Women, Five Views (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015), 144–150 (Rebecca),
177–183 (Rachel), 206–213 (Leah). For a more recent discussion of several of the texts quoted, see: Laura Lieber,
“Stage Mothers: Preforming the Matriarchs in Genesis Rabbah and Yannai,” in Genesis Rabbah in Text and Context,
ed. Sarit Kattan Gribetz et al. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 155–72.
96
This statement is also made twice in regard to Sarah (GR 47:2, Albeck 472; 53:5, 559). As noted, in regard to Sarah
the midrash goes even farther than this and states that God Himself also impregnated her while no such statement
is made in regard to Rebecca.

125
Conclusion
The characterization of Sarah in GenR is remarkable. The matriarch is transformed from a
secondary and largely negative character to a religious role model and central figure in the history
of Israel. Not only does the midrash find Sarah important enough to make a concerted effort to fill
in the blanks in her biography, but it repeatedly praises her conduct and closeness to God. For the
rabbis, she is a paragon of Jewish excellence, a prophetess, and a matriarch of universal
importance. The midrash’s approach to Sarah is all the more exceptional because it is so very
different from the portrayal of Sarah in the book of Genesis itself. Likewise, these developments
in the midrash lack any strong precedent in the second Temple literature. In fact, in those few cases
where a connection between midrash and earlier Jewish exegesis can be identified, GenR actually
adapts themes found in second Temple sources in order to transform them into praise of Sarah
where none existed before. Further, the midrash’s praise of Sarah goes far beyond anything GenR
has to say about the other matriarchs and she is even presented as an exception to the limits the
rabbis place on womankind in general. The drashot developing Sarah’s character can be found
throughout the midrash and typify GenR on the whole as a redacted work. Likewise, in one
instance the midrash appears to subtly rework a Tannaic tradition in order to buttress its laudatory
view of Sarah. In addition, when sections of the midrash are broken down into their different
chronological layers it can often be shown that the special attention given to Sarah appears in
Amoraic material, while the Tannaic material is generally more ambivalent towards her.97

It is important to emphasize that the drastic reconceptualization which Sarah undergoes in


the midrash cannot be explained merely by pointing to the textual nuance or narrative gap that
fueled the midrash on a given verse. For example, the lack of information regarding Sarah’s time
in the house of Pharaoh certainly prompts the imagination, but it alone cannot account for the
decision of the midrash to depict Sarah prostrated in prayer or defended by an angel. At the same
time, some of the points which the midrash makes, such as Abraham’s dependence on Sarah or
God’s direct protection of her, do have parallels in the so-called depatriarchalized readings of
Sarah’s character. Indeed, in some cases these modern Feminist readings have been helpful in
creating a framework for better understanding the midrash’s exegesis. Nevertheless, the rabbis

97
Of the references to Sarah in the Tannaic literature itself (and not merely the quotes from Tannaim in GenR), I
have only found a few which can be said to expand positively upon Sarah’s character. Most defend Sarah’s expulsion
of Ishmael (tBerachot 1:13, tSotah 5:12, 6:6, Sifre Devarim 31) and one states that Sarah’s name was changed as a
reward for her “good deeds” (Mekhilta deRebbi Yishmael, Amalek [Yitro] 1).

126
were obviously quite far both methodologically and ideologically from both modern Bible
scholarship and Feminist critique. Therefore, it would be a mistake to think that the midrash arrived
at its conclusions regarding Sarah’s importance for the same reasons as these modern scholars.
Thus, whatever the value of these similarities in reading the midrash, they too are not enough to
explain why GenR approaches Sarah the way it does. Further, GenR makes statements that even
the most enthusiastic Feminist readings would not. This includes the midrash’s position that “No.
You did laugh” is at the same time both God’s reply to Sarah and a testament to her faith or even
more imaginative ideas such as that God Himself impregnated Sarah.

If neither earlier exegetical traditions or the internal dynamics of the midrash can explain
the approach to Sarah in GenR, then what can? In the chapters that follow I will argue that the key
to understanding Sarah’s new role in the Jewish tradition is to be found in a body of literature
which develops at the same time as the rabbinic corpus of antiquity, that of early Christianity.
Indeed, given that the rabbinic focus on Sarah can be traced to the Amoraic period it is almost
natural to do so. It is during this era that Christianity grew into the official religion of the Roman
Empire and gained unparalleled political and social influence in the land of Israel. In fact, a close
reading of Sarah’s portrayal in the New Testament and its further development in the writings of
Origen of Alexandria will prove crucial in uncovering the rabbis’ own motivations in portraying
the matriarch as they do. Likewise, subsequent developments regarding the Virgin Mary’s role in
Christian thought and worship which occur around the same time that GenR was redacted will also
be shown to have had an important influence on Sarah’s characterization in the midrash.

127
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Tov, Emanuel. Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.
Urbach, Ephraim E. “Inheritance laws and after-life [Hebrew].” Proceedings of the World
Congress of Jewish Studies 1 (1965): 133–41.
Weiss, Zeev. The Sepphoris Synagogue: Deciphering an Ancient Message through Its
Archaeological and Socio-Historical Contexts. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society:
Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2005.
Zakovitch, Yair, and Avigdor Shinan. “‘And when they were in the field’: The Story of Cain
and Abel in the Midrash Genesis Rabbah [Hebrew].” In Once Again: That’s Not What the
Good Book Says, 67–77. Tel Aviv: Yediot Achronot, 2009.
———. “What Happened to Sarah in Pharaoh’s House? [Hebrew].” In That’s Not What the
Good Book Says, 205–11. Tel Aviv: Yediot Achronot, 2004.
Zipor, Moshe A. The Septuagint Version of the Book of Genesis [Hebrew]. Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan
University, 2005.

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Zohar, Noam. “The Figure of Abraham and the Voice of Sarah in Genesis Rabbah [Hebrew].” In
The Faith of Abraham: In the Light of Interpretation throughout the Ages, edited by
Hannah Kasher, Yohanan Silman, and Moshe Hallamish, 71–85. Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan
University, 2002.
Zucker, David J., and Moshe Reiss. The Matriarchs of Genesis: Seven Women, Five Views.
Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015.

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Chapter Four
Sarah in the New Testament: Appropriation and Subversion
Introduction
The New Testament contains 27 books written in Greek by various authors affiliated with the
nascent Christian movement, approximately between the years 50 and 120 CE.1 The first four
books of the New Testament are known as the Gospels. They tell the story of Jesus’ life and
mission and are attributed to the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, for whom they are
named. The next book Acts of the Apostles was written by the same author as Luke and is a sequel
of sorts to the Gospels. It recounts how Christianity spread among both Jews and Gentiles after
the death of Jesus and gives special focus to the missionary work of Paul of Tarsus. The second
section of the Christian Bible is known as the Epistles. It contains 21 letters written by Christian
leaders to various communities which address matters of religious theory and practice. The
majority of the epistles are attributed to Paul, though modern scholarship questions the veracity of
this in regards to some of them. It is important to note that despite the fact that Paul’s letters
describe events which occurred after those in the Gospels, they were actually written before the
Gospels and represent the earliest stratum of the New Testament. The New Testament closes with
the Book of Revelation, an apocalyptical work attributed to a prophet named John. These works
which make up the New Testament in its present canonical form are not monolithic, rather, they
represent different schools of thought in early Christianity. In some cases these variant texts
complement each other, while in other cases they belie ideological tensions among the earliest
Christians.

Unlike her husband Abraham who appears in dozens of verses and whose figure is invoked
time and time again in the New Testament,2 Sarah is only directly referred to in five places.3
Despite this, however, these sources contains two crucial thematic developments. First, in the
Epistle literature Sarah is framed as the mother of Christian believers and not as the mother of
Jews. Second, Gospel traditions regarding Mary subtly imply that Sarah is to be seen as a

1
This brief introduction to the New Testament is largely based on: Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical
Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 8–15.
2
In his list of references to Hebrew Bible characters in the New Testament, Norman Cohen counts 75 appearances
of Abraham, see: Norman M. Cohen, Jewish Bible Personages in the New Testament (Lanham: University Press of
America, 1989), 37, 40.
3
Sarah is mentioned by name in Romans 4:19, 9:9, Hebrews 11:11, and 1Peter 3:6. She is also referred to directly,
but without use of her name, in Galatians 4:21-31.

132
prefiguration of her. Though they are separate themes and are found in different parts of the New
Testament, they seem to supplement each other nicely. If Sarah is seen as the Christian matriarch
it makes sense that she would also be identified with the mother of Jesus.

The New Testament is first and foremost the Christian Bible. That is to say, it is a collection
of texts that represents the religious movement that built up around the figure of Jesus and spread
through the Roman world of antiquity. However, more and more scholars have emphasized that
the New Testament should be seen in many ways as a ‘Jewish’ text.4 Not only was Jesus himself
Jewish, but so were several of the New Testament authors and often their target audience is a
Jewish one. Moreover, when the works of the New Testament were first written, the so-called
‘parting of the ways’ had yet to occur. Therefore, even when it turned outward to the Gentile world,
Christianity remained for all intents and purposes a movement within Judaism. As a result, the
New Testament often acts as a window into Judaism as it was in the first two centuries CE and
exhibits a connection to the second Temple writings discussed in chapter two. In fact, as they have
done with works like the Genesis Apocryphon, scholars have noted many instances where ideas
later found in rabbinic midrash are first attested to in the New Testament.5

However, even if in many respects the New Testament can be seen as part and parcel of
the larger corpus of early Jewish literature, this does not mean that all the exegetical traditions
therein should be identified with its greater Jewish matrix. As a body of literature developing
within a particular religious group and with its own particular ideological aims, the New Testament
also has a voice of its own. Often the Christian Bible presents a unique worldview or contains
exegetical developments without precedent in the Jewish world. As will be demonstrated in this
chapter, the New Testament’s approach to Sarah is an example of this. Its characterization of the
matriarch is without parallel among other second Temple era texts and as such should be seen as
a development indigenous to the New Testament authors and the movement they represent.

4
A thorough treatment of the New Testament in this sense can be found in Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler,
eds., The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). The brief overview here is based
in large part on the preface to this work, see: Ibid., “The Editor’s Preface,” xi–xiii.
5
As with other texts from the period, many studies have been dedicated to the connections between the New
Testament and later rabbinic midrash. Again, a brief and helpful introduction to these matters along with illustrative
examples can be found in: Avigdor Shinan, The World of the Aggadah [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: MOD Books, 1987), chap.
11. In addition, the commentaries included in the above-cited Jewish Annotated New Testament often highlights
sections which parallel ideas in second Temple and later rabbinic literature.

133
Sarah in the Epistle Literature
It is in the epistles of the New Testament where Sarah receives direct attention, as opposed to the
Gospels where she is merely alluded to. In addressing these sources I will stray from their assumed
chronological order and instead present them in ascending order based on the importance they
grant Sarah. An ostensibly negative use of Sarah’s character (at least by modern standards) is found
in the First Epistle of Peter. Despite the title, scholars usually do not attribute this work to Peter
himself, but rather to one of his students. The letter itself is addressed to an audience of converts,
both pagan and Jewish, to the Christian movement and aims to encourage their faith and holy
conduct in light of the persecution they face.6 The author mentions Sarah as part of his instruction
to wives that they are to obey their husbands, (1 Peter 3:5-6):7

It was in this way long ago that the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn
themselves by accepting the authority of their husbands [ὑποτασσόμεναι τοῖς
ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν]. Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord [κύριον αὐτὸν
καλοῦσα, cf. Gen 18:12]. You have become her daughters as long as you do what
is good and never let fears alarm you.

Scholars of the Hebrew Bible often note that Sarah is presented as submissive to her husband, for
example when twice taken by foreign kings (Gen 12:10-20, 20:1-18). Nevertheless, the author of
this epistle clearly chooses to ignore episodes in Genesis which send a different message, such as
God’s direct command to Abraham to obey his wife and take Hagar.8 Likewise, Peter is not
interested in the actual context in which Sarah refers to Abraham as her lord, which hardly speaks
of Sarah’s reverence of Abraham.9 To recall, it was part of her incredulous laughter at the idea that
she could conceive given that she is postmenopausal and her “lord is old” (‫ואדוני זקן‬, Gen 18:12;

6
See: John H. Elliott, “Peter, First Epistle Of,” ed. David Noel Freedman, Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York:
Doubleday, 1992), 269.
7
Translations and citations from the New Testament according to the New Revised Standard Version with some
adjustments. The Greek text is taken from K. Aland et al., eds., The Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart:
Württemberg Bible Society, 1968), http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0031:001:0.
8
This point is also made by Dorothy Sly, who states that the author of 1 Peter “has molded Sarah to the image of
the ideal Hellenistic wife, even at the price of reversing the biblical record” (Dorothy I. Sly, “1 Peter 3:6b in the Light
of Philo and Josephus,” Journal of Biblical Literature 110, no. 1 (1991): 129). She also argues that the author is similar
to Philo and Josephus in this manner and that this points to his similar Hellenistic outlook. Though, as discussed
previously, I have adopted a slightly different reading of Philo.
9
Also noted by John H. Elliott, 1 Peter: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible (New
York: Doubleday, 2000), 571.

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LXX: ὁ δὲ κύριός μου πρεσβύτερος). Thus, Peter’s take on Sarah’s relationship with Abraham
can find some support in the Bible, it appears to be more a reflection of the contemporaneous view
of a wife’s role.10 This would seem to be confirmed in the verse which comes next in 1 Peter. After
addressing the wives, the author asks husbands to “show consideration for your wives in your life
together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker vessel [ἀσθενεστέρῳ σκεύει]” (3:7). This
removes any doubt as to the overall view of the sexes adopted here.

Nevertheless, additional attention should be paid to the remark that the women who obey
their husbands will “have become [Sarah’s] daughters, as long as you do what is good and never
let fears alarm you” (3:6). At first glance, this line appears to be no more than an attempt to justify
the chauvinistic demand that women submit to their husbands, by claiming it as the heritage of the
vaunted patriarchs. With that, it is still an explicit call to Christian women to see Sarah as their
role model and to emulate her. Thus, even within a limited and patriarchal framework this does
grant Sarah a measure of new importance. In addition, it should be pointed out that this comment
is made in the explicit hope that husbands will be “won over” by the submissive conduct of their
wives and choose to join the Christian movement (3:1). Even if this is no more than an apologetic
justification for the submission of women,11 it still gives Sarah and those who emulate her an
expanded religious role.

Further still, John Elliot has argued for an even more positive approach to 1 Peter, in a
similar fashion to the depatriarchalized readings of Sarah’s character in the Hebrew Bible seen
previously. He maintains that these verses implicitly frame Sarah as both the spiritual mother of
the nascent Christian movement and as a prototype of Christian faith.12 Therefore, Peter refers to
Christian wives as the “daughters” of Sarah and encourages them to “do good” in spite of the

10
As noted above, LXX renders the Hebrew word ‫ אדוני‬in Gen 18:12 as κύριός μου. Elliot points out that that in the
antique world “the female was always under the tutelage and authority of some male known as kyrios” (Ibid., 571)
and that the LXX and its reformulation in 1 Peter 3:6 “reflect the conventional view of wives as under the authority
of their husbands” (572). Contra: Troy Martin argues that neither Gen 18:12 nor the parallels to Philo and Josephus
can explain the use of the term ‘lord’ here. Instead, he points to the Testament of Abraham in which Sarah repeatedly
calls her husband “lord,” as supplying the proper background. See: Troy W. Martin, “The TestAbr and the Background
of 1 Peter 3,6,” Zeitschrift Für Die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft Und Die Kunde Der Älteren Kirche 90, no. 1–2
(1999): 139–46.
11
As noted by David L. Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive: The Domestic Code in 1 Peter (Chico: Scholars Press, 1981),
104–5.
12
Elliott, 1 Peter, 573.

135
dangers. Indeed, Elliot also notes, in this way the author of 1 Peter enlists Sarah into two of the
overarching themes of the epistle as a whole. First, the epistle repeatedly refers to the Christian
community it addresses as “visiting strangers” and “resident aliens” (παρεπιδήμοις διασπορᾶς,
1 Peter 1:1; παροίκους καὶ παρεπιδήμους, 2:11; παροικίας, 1:17), adopting the language used
in regards to Abraham in Genesis (‫גר ותושב אנכי‬, Gen 23:4; LXX: Πάροικος καὶ παρεπίδημος
ἐγώ εἰμι). As such, the author clearly wishes for his readers to see Abraham as their spiritual
father. By encouraging the women to likewise be “daughters” of the matriarch, the author now
extends the role of spiritual ancestor to Sarah as well. Second, much of 1 Peter is aimed at
strengthening Christians in the face of oppression, as noted. The reference to ‘doing good without
fear’ as the legacy of Sarah frames the matriarch as a role model for the faithful to do just that. 13
Thus, while Sarah is only mentioned in 1 Peter in the rather limited context of spousal dynamics
and in a seemingly patriarchal fashion, the passage in question is actually quite suggestive. It can
be seen as subtly granting Sarah heightened importance as the spiritual mother of Christians and
as a paragon of religious dedication.

An even more explicit expansion of Sarah’s role may perhaps be found the Epistle to the
Hebrews. Though this work appears in the Pauline corpus, it was not written by the apostle.
Likewise, the title should not be taken to accurately reflect its audience, which remains unclear. In
any event, much of the letter focuses on strengthening the religious commitment of its readers and
deepening their understanding of Christ. In this vein, the author dedicates a chapter to listing and
describing in brief ‘heroes of faith’ from the Hebrew Bible (Heb 11). He concludes this list by
stating (11:39-40):

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was
promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart
from us, be made perfect.

13
Elliot states that ‘doing good without fear’ has “no relation to the story of Sarah and Abraham,” but that ‘doing
good’ is a major theme of the letter which repeats itself elsewhere and ‘without fear’ appears to be taken from
Proverbs 3:25 (573-574). Nevertheless, it may be that 1 Peter is actually referring to Sarah’s behavior when Abraham
asked her to tell the foreign kings that she is his sister in order to save him. This would certainly been seen in the
author’s eyes as an example of Sarah both accepting her husband’s authority and ‘doing good without fear’ of the
consequences.

136
That is to say, while these individuals are truly exemplars of faith, it is still an imperfect one which
will only perfected by faith in Christ. It is in this context that Hebrews records the following
regarding Abraham (11:8-10):

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out… [Πίστει καλούμενος
Ἀβραὰμ ὑπήκουσεν ἐξελθεῖν] By faith he stayed for a time [Πίστει
παρῴκησεν] in the land he had been promised. For he looked forward to the city
that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

Continuing this description, the author of Hebrews also mentions Sarah. As the exact
translation of this verse is a matter of some contention, the Greek text will be presented first
(11:11):

Πίστει καὶ αὐτὴ Σάρρα στεῖρα δύναμιν εἰς καταβολὴν σπέρματος ἔλαβεν
καὶ παρὰ καιρὸν ἡλικίας, ἐπεὶ πιστὸν ἡγήσατο τὸν ἐπαγγειλάμενον.

Because Greek verbs are not gender specific it is not immediately clear to whom the verse is
referring: Sarah or Abraham.14 Some scholars argue that given the reference to Sarah at the start
of the verse, the matriarch should be understood as the subject throughout. Therefore, the verse
should be translated:15

By faith Sarah herself, though barren, received power to conceive, even when she
was too old, because she considered him faithful who had promised.

If taken as such, then Hebrews portrays Sarah as herself a ‘hero of faith,’ on par with Abraham in
her unwavering belief in God. This would be a marked departure from matters as presented in the
Hebrew Bible. Therein only Abraham’s loyalty in God is ever noted and Isaac’s birth is not
connected in any way to Sarah’s conduct, as discussed in chapter one. Moreover, when Sarah

14
My discussion of the possible readings is based on the fuller treatment by Craig R. Koester, Hebrews: A New
Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 487–88. In addition
to the textual and contextual arguments which I mention here, Koester also notes that there are some variations
regarding this verse in a few of the minor manuscripts of the New Testament. However, he does not give them much
weight in his discussion and as such I will not address them here. After analyzing the arguments for both readings
and the various scholars and translators who debate the matter, Koester concludes that the verse is referring to
Abraham’s faith and not Sarah’s.
15
This is the secondary translation in the NSRV. Their primary translation, which refers instead to Abraham’s faith,
will be noted shortly.

137
actually overhears that she will soon be with child, not only does she not demonstrate faith in
God’s promise, but she actually laughs in disbelief and is rebuked by Him. In contrast, according
to this rendering of Hebrews 11:11 not only did Sarah maintain her faith in God throughout, but
her eventual power to conceive is seen as a direct result of this.

However, the majority of scholars do not accept such a reading. Instead they understand
that Abraham is the subject of the verse and that it is therefore an additional description of
Abraham’s faith, not his wife’s.16 This view is supported by the overall context of Hebrews 11:11,
as Abraham is clearly the subject of the verses both before and after it. In addition, Hebrews 11:11
utilizes the phrase “δύναμιν εἰς καταβολὴν σπέρματος” (lit. the power to deposit seed) which was
used in antiquity to describe the man’s role in procreation. As a result, the reference to Sarah
should be seen as a parenthetical clause within the verse and as a whole it should be rendered:17

By faith he [Abraham] received power of procreation, even though he was too


old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered Him faithful who had
promised.

Thus it is almost certain that the author of Hebrews did not wish to include Sarah in his list of
‘heroes of faith’. However, it does remain a tantalizing possibility. In addition, at least some
prominent Christian authors in late antiquity did read Hebrews 11:11 as referring to Sarah and her
faith. For example, in his homilies on this epistle John Chrysostom (d. 407) makes it clear that he
reads it this way.18 Likewise, Sarah is also the subject of the verse in the Latin translation found in

16
See the scholars and translators listed in: Koester, Hebrews, 487–88.
17
Following the primary translation in the NSRV. This is the primary rendering among scholars who see Abraham as
the subject of the sentence. However, Koester notes that some argue that “and Sarah herself was barren” should
not be read as a parenthetical clause in nominative, but rather a prepositional clause in the dative (i.e., “with Sarah
herself who was barren”). Such a reading is possible because early manuscripts did not include the iota subscript.
He rejects this possibility because even in later manuscripts where the iota subscript is used it is not employed here
and because the term ‘deposit seed’ does not seem to use the dative case in reference to the woman’s role.
Therefore, he too renders Hebrews 11:11 along the lines of the NSRV.
18
Homily 23 on Hebrews:
“By faith also Sarah herself,” he says (Heb 11:11). Here he began [speaking] in a way to put them
to shame, in case, that is, they should show themselves more faint-hearted than a woman. But
possibly someone might say, How “by faith,” when she laughed? Nay, while her laughter indeed
was from unbelief, her fear [was] from Faith, for to say, “I laughed not” (Gen 13:15), arose from
Faith. From this then it appears that when unbelief had been cleared out, Faith came in its place.
Translation taken from: Philip Schaff, ed., “Homilies on the Epistle to the Hebrews,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies
on the Gospel of St. John and the Epistle to the Hebrews, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of
the Christian Church 14 (New York: Scribner, 1906), 472.

138
the Vulgate.19 Putting aside the question of the original author’s intent, the understanding of
Hebrews 11:11 taken in these two sources implies that such a reading could have been well-known
in their own day and might have even already gained purchase in an earlier period as well.

Lastly in regards to the Epistle literature, Sarah appears a handful of times in the letters of
Paul. Two of these references can be found in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. This letter is the
longest of the epistles and was addressed to Gentile followers of Jesus.20 While Sarah appears in
the larger context of Paul’s innovative theological message, the manner in which she herself is
portrayed is not really any different than in the Hebrew Bible. First, Paul states that Abraham did
not weaken in his faith despite “the barrenness of Sarah’s womb” (Rom 4:19). This comes as part
of Paul’s greater argument that Abraham was ‘justified by faith’ and not ‘works’. Hence, Abraham
is chosen by God even before he is circumcised. According to Paul, this demonstrates that “the
promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through
the Law [διὰ νόμου], but through the righteousness of faith [ἀλλὰ διὰ δικαιοσύνης πίστεως]”
(4:13). In the second reference to Sarah in Romans, Paul refers to God’s “promise” to Abraham
that Sarah will bear him a son (9:9). Like the previous allusion to Sarah, this statement is made in
the context of Paul’s related argument that “it is not the children of the flesh [τὰ τέκνα τῆς
σαρκὸς] who are the children of God, but the children of the promise [τὰ τέκνα τῆς
ἐπαγγελίας]” (9:8). However, putting aside the Christological underpinnings of these remarks,
the representation of Sarah as barren (yet promised a child) is no different than in the Hebrew
Bible.21 In addition, the manner in which theses verses focus upon Abraham primarily and only
invoke Sarah in order to exemplify the nature of his own relationship with God echoes the
patriarchal orientation of the biblical source.

19
“fide et ipsa Sarra sterilis virtutem in conceptionem seminis accepit etiam praeter tempus aetatis quoniam fidelem
credidit esse qui promiserat.” (Text according to the edition of the German Bible Society, Stuttgart). Though the
Vulgate is known as the handiwork of Jerome (d. 420), it is not clear just how involved in the New Testament portion
of the translation. See: D. C. Parker, “Vulgate,” ed. David Noel Freedman, Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York:
Doubleday, 1992).
20
See: Charles D. Meyers Jr., “Romans, Epistle to The,” ed. David Noel Freedman, Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York:
Doubleday, 1992), 816–17.
21
For example, regarding Rom 9:9, Joseph Fitzmyer notes that Paul “quotes and conflates Gen 18:10, 14, using words
from the LXX. Although the quotation is not exact, it captures the spirit of the Genesis story.” See: Joseph A. Fitzmyer,
Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 561
fn9.

139
These same themes, but with an important addition, can also be found in Paul’s Epistle to
the Galatians. In this letter, as in Romans, Paul addresses Gentile followers of Christ and dedicates
much space to the nature of Christian faith and its connection to God’s ‘promise’. 22 However,
unlike the above section from Romans where it is Abraham who is used to demonstrate these
points, in this epistle Sarah also plays a central role. In fact, she is presented as the spiritual mother
of Christianity in a most explicit and expansive fashion. This section from Galatians is by far the
most important reference to Sarah in the New Testament and it should be quoted in full despite its
length (Gal 4:21-5:1):

Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the Law [οἱ ὑπὸ νόμον θέλοντες εἶναι],
will you not listen to the Law [τὸν νόμον οὐκ ἀκούετε]? For it is written that
Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One,
the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh [κατὰ σάρκα]; the other, the
child of the free woman, was born through the promise [δι’ ἐπαγγελίας]. Now this
is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from
Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and
corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But
the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our
mother. For it is written (Is 54:1):

“Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children,

burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs;

for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous

than the children of the one who is married.”

Now you, my friends, are children of the promise [ἐπαγγελίας τέκνα], like Isaac.
But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh [κατὰ σάρκα]
persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit [κατὰ πνεῦμα], so it is
now also. 30) But what does the scripture say? “Drive out the slave and her child;

22
Hans Dieter Betz, “Galatians, Epistle to The,” ed. David Noel Freedman, Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York:
Doubleday, 1992), 872.

140
for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free
woman” (Gen 20:10). 31) So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of
the free woman 5:1) For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and
do not submit again to a yoke of slavery [ζυγῷ δουλείας].

In this section, Paul posits that the story of Sarah and Hagar is to be understood
allegorically. Hagar represents Mount Sinai, the earthly Jerusalem, and is mother to ‘children of
the flesh’. These children, like their mother before them and the earthly Jerusalem now, are
enslaved. In contrast, Sarah represents the heavenly Jerusalem and is mother to ‘children of the
promise’ who are born ‘according to the Spirit’. Like their foremother and the Jerusalem on high,
these children are free. Paul uses this allegory to demonstrate that those who wish to be “subject
to the Law” (i.e., Mount Sinai and the commandments), should instead “listen to the Law” (i.e.,
the Bible according to Paul’s reading). Just as Scripture relates that the slave-woman and her son
were to be cast out, so too those who wish to be children of the freewoman must reject the “yoke
of slavery” and find freedom in Christ, not the commandments.23

To a large extent, Paul’s language and terminology here in Galatians mirrors that which he
used in Romans. In both epistles he states that Christians, like Isaac, are ‘children of the promise’
(τέκνα τῆς ἐπαγγελίας, Rom 9:8; ἐπαγγελίας τέκνα, Gal 4:28). Likewise, in both texts he
argues for their supremacy over those who are merely the descendants of Abraham through ‘the
flesh’ (τὰ τέκνα τῆς σαρκὸς, Rom 9:8; κατὰ σάρκα, Gal 4:29). Finally, in both letters the
contrast between ‘promise’ and ‘flesh’ is meant to demonstrate that belief in Christ has primacy
over observance of the Law.

However, Paul actually goes much further in Galatians than he does in Romans. As just
stated, in Romans he posits that Gentiles who had faith in the “promise” are thereby the true
decedents of Abraham (Rom 4:13). Additionally, though, Paul makes it clear that this is true of

23
Shaye J. D. Cohen observes that the use of the term ‘yoke’ here parallels its use in Acts 15:10. There, while arguing
against the idea that Gentile followers of Jesus need keep the commandments, Peter states (Acts 15:10):
Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke
that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?
In addition, Cohen notes that the phrase ‘yoke of commandments’ is common in rabbinic literature, “but for the
rabbis the rhetoric serves to justify the rejection of the commandments, as in Paul, but their affirmation.” See: Shaye
J. D. Cohen, “The Letter of Paul to the Galatians with Introduction and Annotations,” in The Jewish Annotated New
Testament, ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 341.

141
the so-called “adherents of the Law” as well (τῷ ἐκ τοῦ νόμου, 4:16). In other words, if Torah-
observant Jews have the proper faith in Christ, they too can also be considered children of
Abraham. Thus, in Romans the dichotomy between ‘Law’ and ‘promise’ is not absolute. In
Galatians, however, Paul is adamant that the two are mutually exclusive (Gal 3:16-18, emphasis
my own):

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say,
“And to offsprings,” as of many; but it says, “And to your offspring” (Gen 22:18)
that is, to one person, who is Christ. My point is this: the Law, which came four
hundred thirty years later, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so
as to nullify the promise For if the inheritance comes from the Law, it no longer
comes from the promise [οὐκέτι ἐξ ἐπαγγελίας]; but God granted it to Abraham
through the promise [τῷ δὲ Ἀβραὰμ δι’ ἐπαγγελίας κεχάρισται ὁ θεός].

In other words, to be considered a child of Abraham one must not only accept the ‘promise’ but
must also reject the ‘Law’.24

This more staunch opposition to observance of the Law may be connected to the greater
historical context of Galatians. In the opening chapters of the epistle Paul relates that proponents
of the so-called “circumcision faction” have attempted to convince the members of the Gentile
church that Paul established in Galatia that they must adopt Torah law, or, as he puts it, “live like
Jews” (2:12, 14). This explains, for example, the connection Paul draws between ‘Mount Sinai’
and ‘earthly Jerusalem’ as it was the Jerusalem based church, perhaps even led by Jesus’ own

24
The exact nature of Paul’s relationship to Jewish law has long been a matter of contention among scholars of the
New Testament. Many early scholars saw Paul as antagonistic toward Judaism and advocating for the complete
abandonment of the Torah and its laws. However, several more recent studies argue that he only rejected the Law
for Gentiles wishing to join the Christian movement. For example, Mark D. Nanos states that Paul advocated for
“continued Jewish identity and Torah observance for Jesus-following Jews, alongside Torah-respectful behavior for
Jesus-following non-Jews,” see: Mark D. Nanos, “Paul and Judaism,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, ed.
Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 553. While these matters are beyond
the scope of my thesis, it should be noted that Galatians contains Paul’s most forceful and vitriolic arguments against
the observance of the Law. As Shaye Cohen has summarized them, in this particular epistle Paul insists that the
Torah does not come from God (Gal 3.19-20), has no salvific role (3:21-22), the worship it proscribes is like that of
pagan gods (4.9-10), and that the Jewish people are neither the true seed of Abraham (3.16) nor God’s true Israel
(6:16), see: Cohen, “Galatians,” 332.

142
brother James, which preached a Law-observant gospel to the Gentiles.25 Perhaps the fear of his
church being usurped by a rival faction is what led to Paul’s strong uncompromising stance here.
In any event, no matter what Paul’s ultimate motivation, the zero-sum nature of his argument in
Galatians is clear.

As opposed to his offhand remarks regarding the matriarch in Romans, it is in the far more
polemic context of Galatians that Paul directly addresses Sarah. Just he maintains here that those
who observe the Law cannot claim to be the true children of Abraham, so too Paul argues that they
are not true children of Sarah either. As they remain subjugated to the Law, they are actually the
spiritual offspring of the slave-woman Hagar and “born according to the flesh.” It is only those
who profess faith in Jesus that are Sarah’s descendants. Like Isaac they are “children of the
promise” and “born according to the Spirit.”

The rhetorical impact of Paul’s portrayal of Sarah in Galatians goes well beyond her
usefulness in his attack on Jewish law as the “yoke of slavery.” As Jeremy Punt has put it
succinctly, “Sarah’s role as mother of the Jewish race is subverted and she is re-appropriated as
the model of faith in the Christian tradition.”26 Unlike Paul’s comments in Romans where the
characterization of Sarah remains similar to that of the Hebrew Bible, his words in Galatians
represent a completely new conceptualization of the matriarch. As he did with Abraham earlier in
the same epistle, Paul claims that Sarah is not just the mother of Christianity, but that she is the
mother of Christianity exclusively. Not only does this grant Sarah a centrality and importance not
seen in the Hebrew Bible, but whatever biological claims Jews might have based on the biblical
record are now null and void. Perhaps it is not happenstance that in this context Paul refers to
Sarah as “our mother” (μήτηρ ἡμῶν, Gal 4:26).27 In Galatians she ceases to be the Jewish
matriarch and is instead solely the mother of believers in Christ.

25
As noted by J. Louis Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible
(New York: Doubleday, 1997), 349.
26
Jeremy Punt, “Subverting Sarah in the New Testament: Galatians 4 and 1 Peter 3,” Scriptura 96 (2007): 465.
27
“Our mother” as an epithet for Sarah does not appear in the Hebrew Bible (the closest thing to it is probably Isa
51:2: ‫)שרה תחוללכם‬. Likewise, as near as I can tell it does not appear in the second Temple literature discussed in
chapter two. In any event, as discussed in chapter three, this term only becomes common in rabbinic texts from the
Amoraic period. This being well after Paul, it implies that the phrase was not something common among Jews in
general in Apostle’s time. If this is the case, the very use of the title “our mother” in reference to Sarah should be
seen as part of Paul’s attempts to appropriate Sarah for the Christians.

143
To summarize, while Sarah is not mentioned often in the epistolary material of the New
Testament, a crucial theme can be identified: Sarah becomes the mother of Christianity and a
model of their faith. In doing so, these New Testament authors go beyond Sarah’s portrayal in the
Hebrew Bible where her importance is mostly ancillary, and imbue Sarah with her own inherent
significance. In the First Epistle of Peter, Christian women are called upon to emulate Sarah and
thus become her daughters. While this statement is made in the context of wifely obedience, it
appears to allude to a greater role for Sarah as the spiritual mother of Christian women and role
model for faith under oppression. In addition to this, some scholars read the Epistle to the Hebrews
as including Sarah in its list of so-called ‘heroes of faith’ who pave the way for the later and more
perfect faith in Christ. Though most reject this translation, it was understood this way by some
subsequent Christian authors. Lastly, the idea that Sarah is a religious role model and the mother
of Christianity is presented in its most forceful fashion in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. In
Galatians Paul states unequivocally that Sarah is the Christian matriarch and paragon of their faith.
In this, Paul goes well beyond these other works both in terms of the unambiguous nature of his
claim and the extent of it.28 He makes clear that not only is Sarah the mother of Christianity, but
that Christians have exclusive rights to this heritage.

Sarah in the Gospel Literature


Moving to the Gospels, Sarah is never referred to directly nor mentioned by name. Nevertheless,
she is given a subtle, yet important role. In more than one instance, Jesus’ mother Mary is
established as a typological fulfillment of Sarah. Typology is a common element in the New
Testament by which individuals, events, and themes from the Hebrew Bible (types) are employed
in the framing of those in the Christian Bible (antitypes).29 This tool, which is both exegetical and
theological, is generally used to imply that the Christian antitype is a perfected version of the
original type. For example, in several places in the New Testament, Jesus is presented using

28
This is not meant to imply that Paul was familiar with 1 Peter or Hebrews, but merely that he presents a similar
approach to Sarah while going much further than the others. This parallel between 1 Peter and Paul’s formulation
in Galatians is noted by Elliott, 1 Peter, 573. As he observes, Paul is concerned with the “issue of freedom from the
Law” while the author of 1 Peter, even with his subtle expansion of Sarah’s role, is ultimately occupied with “the
proper relation of wives to their husbands”.
29
In this general definition of ‘typology’ I more-or-less follow Norman Cohen who draws upon several influential
studies of the matter. See: Norman M. Cohen, Jewish Bible Personages in the New Testament (Lanham: University
Press of America, 1989), 13–15.

144
phrases and themes associated with Isaac in the biblical and early Jewish tradition.30 The most
well-known example of this Isaac-Jesus typology is probably the manner in which the New
Testament authors draw upon the Binding of Isaac in their own portrayal of Jesus.31 It is no
coincidence, for example, that God refers to Jesus as his “beloved son” (ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός,
Mt 17:5, Mk 9:7) just as Isaac was called when God told Abraham to sacrifice him (‫את בנך את‬
‫יחידך אשר אהבת‬, Gen 22:2; LXX: τὸν υἱόν σου τὸν ἀγαπητόν ὃν ἠγάπησας).32 This and other
such allusions are meant to portray Jesus (who unlike Isaac is ultimately sacrificed by his father)
as a more perfect version of Isaac and the true fulfillment of the promises regarding him found in
the Hebrew Bible.

While New Testament typology is at times rather blatant, the connection between Sarah
and Mary is drawn more subtly. First off, it is perhaps latent in the connection between Isaac and
Jesus just discussed. If Jesus plays the role of Isaac, then his mother Mary can be seen as playing
the role of Sarah by implication.33 Beyond this rather roundabout fashion, more straightforward

30
For a terse overview of the use of Isaac typology in the New Testament, see: J. Edwin Wood, “Isaac Typology in
the New Testament,” New Testament Studies 14, no. 04 (1968): 586–89.
31
The most important study of the influence of the ‘binding of Isaac’ upon the New Testament portrayal of Jesus is
Géza Vermè s, “Redemption and Genesis 22 - The Binding of Isaac and the Sacrifice of Jesus,” in Scripture and
Tradition in Judaism: Haggadic Studies (Leiden: Brill, 1973), 193–227. According to Vermè s early Jewish sources shift
the story’s emphasis from Abraham to Isaac and further view of the story as “the key to the doctrine of Atonement
or Redemption” (193). This, in turn, heavily impacts the framing of the Christian doctrine of Redemption in the New
Testament in which the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus plays a similar role.
For a more recent review of the matter, see: Peter Rodgers, Text and Story: Narrative Studies in New
Testament Textual Criticism (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 64–67. Rodgers vigorously defends Vermè s
against the critiques of some contemporary scholars who wish to see the aforementioned Jewish doctrine as actually
influenced by early Christian thought and not the other way around. He bases much of his counter-argument on the
fact that key witnesses for this doctrine appear in Jubilees and 4Q225 therefore demonstrating that they already
existed in the period outside of the New Testament.
32
This parallel is cited by David Flusser, Jesus, trans. R. Steven Notley (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2001), 132. The
language of the LXX here (τὸν ἀγαπητόν) is somewhat different than the Masoretic text )‫(את יחידך‬. One possibility
is that the LXX’s version of Gen 22:2 read ‫ ידידך אשר אהבת‬and not ‫ יחידך אשר אהבת‬as in the MT. It is also possible
that the translator’s vorlage did in fact read ‫יחידך‬, but that he chose to give this word a non-literal translation
because Isaac was not Abraham’s only son. See the discussion of this verse in Moshe A. Zipor, The Septuagint Version
of the Book of Genesis [Hebrew] (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University, 2005), 268. As Zipor also notes, GenR is aware of
this incongruence as well and offers an explanation as to why God would nevertheless refer to Isaac as ‫( יחידך‬GR
39:9, Albeck 372). Whatever the reason for the LXX’s version, however, the repetitive use of ‘beloved’ makes the
parallel between Isaac and Jesus in the New Testament even stronger.
33
This point is made by Mati Meyer, “Refracting Christian Truths Through The Prism Of The Biblical Female In
Byzantine Illuminated Manuscripts,” in Jews in Byzantium, ed. Guy G. Stroumsa et al. (Brill, 2011), 980. Of interest,
Meyer demonstrates that the idea that Sarah prefigures Mary often influences the depiction of Sarah in Byzantine
art.

145
examples can be found in the Gospel of Luke. Unlike the parallel infancy story which appears in
Matthew and starts with the annunciation and eventual birth of Jesus, Luke first relays a different
annunciation tale, that of John the Baptist. A certain elderly priest named Zachariah is informed
by the angel Gabriel that his barren wife Elizabeth will soon be with child (Lk 1:5-25). The promise
indeed comes true and that child goes on to become the man who baptizes Jesus. In Luke, this
episode paves the way for the story of the annunciation to Mary of Jesus’ birth which immediately
follows and is framed in a very similar fashion (1:26-38). Indeed, scholars have noted that both
these episodes are built upon a “five-element pattern” of birth announcement taken from the
Hebrew Bible.34 However, it is clear that of all the barren couples in the Bible Zachariah and
Elizabeth are modeled after Abraham and Sarah in particular.35 Two examples should suffice to
demonstrate this. First, Abraham and Sarah are the only such couple who are referred to as “old”
(‫ואברהם ושרה זקנים באים בימים‬, Gen 18:11; LXX: Αβρααμ δὲ καὶ Σαρρα πρεσβύτεροι
προβεβηκότες ἡμερῶν), just as Luke describes Zachariah and Elizabeth (καὶ ἀμφότεροι
προβεβηκότες ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις αὐτῶν ἦσαν, Lk 1:7). Second, in the case of Abraham and Sarah
it is the husband who is told of the coming pregnancy (Gen 18:9-10), where in most other cases it
is the wife. So too, here it is Zachariah who is told and not Elizabeth (Lk 1:11-13). After laying
out these and other parallels, Raymond Brown concludes that Luke opens with such a heavy-
handed allusion to Abraham and Sarah in order “to make the infancy narrative [of John] a bridge
between Israel and Jesus.”36 In other words, the author of this Gospel wishes to frame the birth of
Jesus as the final step in a story that begins with the birth of Isaac. In doing so, he first opens with
a story that is in essence that of Sarah before moving on to that of Mary. Thus, in addition to the
clear use of Isaac-Jesus typology, the use of Elizabeth also establishes the Sarah-Mary typology.

Further, scholars have noted that beyond the parallels between Abraham/Sarah and
Zachariah/Elizabeth there are also a large number of parallels between the birth narratives of John
and Jesus within Luke’s Gospel itself. To mention only a few: both Zechariah and Mary are
“troubled” by the appearance of Gabriel (ταράσσω, 1:12, 29), question the truth of his message

34
See: Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, The Anchor Bible
(Garden City: Doubleday, 1981), 335.
35
Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, The
Anchor Bible (Garden City: Doubleday, 1993), 269.
36
Ibid., 247.

146
(1:18, 34), and are given miraculous signs to verify the promise (1:20, 36). Indeed, these textual
and thematic parallels continue through the birth and childhood of the John and Luke. However,
as Joseph Fitzmyer has demonstrated, these parallels are not drawn for their own sake. Rather, it
is “a parallelism with one-upmanship” wherein the “Jesus-side always comes off better.”37 Thus,
for example, when Zachariah questions Gabriel’s promise he is struck dumb as both rebuke and
proof, whereas Mary is reassured by the angel and told that Elizabeth’s pregnancy will act as her
proof (Lk 1:18-22; 34-36). As such, Fitzmyer concludes that the parallels between the two stories
ultimately “put John in the proper perspective vis-à-vis Jesus… making clear that John is the
precursor of the Messiah.” Regarding their mothers the same can be said: Elizabeth parallels Mary,
but ultimately is merely a precursor. For example, while both Elizabeth and Mary miraculously
conceive, Elizabeth does so with her husband while Mary bears her child after being ‘come upon
by the Holy Spirit’ (1:35). Given that Elizabeth is fashioned after Sarah so blatantly, the subtext is
clear. Sarah is to be seen as paving the way for a more perfect version: Mary.

Beyond the parallels between Sarah and Mary which are established through Elizabeth, the
Sarah-Mary typology also appears directly in the annunciation of Jesus. As alluded to, when Mary
is told by Gabriel that she is to become pregnant she is skeptical at first (1:34-37):

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel
answered, “The Holy Spirit [Πνεῦµα ἅγιον] will come on you, and the power of
the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the
Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age,
and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word
from God will ever fail. And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let
it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

These verses recall quite strongly the following from the annunciation of Isaac to Sarah, which has
already been discussed at length (Gen 18:12-14):

And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have


enjoyment—with my husband so old?” Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did
Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ Is anything too

37
Fitzmyer, Luke, 351.

147
wondrous for the Lord? I will return to you at the time next year, and Sarah shall
have a son.” Sarah lied, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was frightened. But He
replied, “No. You did laugh”.

Like Sarah, Mary has trouble believing she will in fact have a child. The angel’s response is to
provide a proof by pointing to Elizabeth, who like Sarah gives birth at an advanced age. Even more
to the point, Gabriel ends his message to Mary by delivering a line (“For no word from God will
ever fail”) that parallels the one that God originally delivered in response to Sarah’s disbelief (“Is
anything too wondrous for the Lord?”). The Greek in Luke 1:37 (ὅτι οὐκ ἀδυνατήσει παρὰ τοῦ
θεοῦ πᾶν ῥῆμα) is nearly identical to the Septuagint’s rendering of the first half of Genesis 18:14
(μὴ ἀδυνατεῖ παρὰ τῷ θεῷ ῥῆμα) and the author of Luke is clearly quoting it.38 Furthering this
parallel, Brown notes that Jubilees states that Sarah became pregnant in the sixth month of the year
(Jub 16:12). Luke utilizes this tradition by claiming that Mary conceived in the sixth month of
Elizabeth’s pregnancy.39 The purpose of all this is clear. The author of Luke wishes for the reader
to draw a direct connection between the two matriarchs: Sarah and Mary. In a manner fitting to
New Testament typology Mary is obviously meant to be a perfected antitype of the original type
that is Sarah. God’s direct involvement in Mary’s pregnancy obviously outdoes anything the
Hebrew Bible states in regards to Sarah and Mary accepts the annunciation with joy, unlike Sarah
who scoffs at God’s promise and is admonished.

Additionally, the language used in both Luke and the Gospel of Matthew in regard to
Mary’s miraculous conception may also belie the use of the Sarah-Mary typology. Like the
aforementioned verses in Luke which state that the “Holy Spirit” came upon Mary (Lk 1:35:
Πνεῦµα ἅγιον ἐπελεύσεται ἐπὶ σέ), Matthew makes a similar claim (Mt 1:18):

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary
had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be
with child from the Holy Spirit [πρὶν ἢ συνελθεῖν αὐτοὺς εὑρέθη ἐν γαστρὶ
ἔχουσα ἐκ πνεύµατος ἁγίο].

38
The parallel between Gen 18:14 and Lk 1:37 is noted in the translation of Ibid., 334 and others.
39
Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 319.

148
These two passages are generally taken to be the only references in the New Testament to the idea
that Mary conceived while still a virgin. While this is unambiguous in Matthew’s account, there
are some scholars who question whether it is in fact true in Luke’s account as well.40 Without
entering into this debate or the synoptic issues which may arise here, it is clear that both authors
share the belief that Mary’s pregnancy was connected to the “Holy Spirit” in a direct manner. This
strongly recalls Paul’s statement that Isaac was the son of Sarah “born according to the Spirit”
(γεννηθεὶς… τὸν κατὰ πνεῦµα, Gal 4:29). The synoptic Gospels are generally understood to
have been written after the works of Paul. Therefore, it appears that the authors of Matthew and
Luke may have actually been reacting to, and expanding upon, a phrase coined by Paul.41 To wit,
they take Paul’s original statement regarding Sarah’s connection to the Spirit and apply it to Mary
instead. In other words, the use of this concept in the Gospels might actually be an example of
Sarah-Mary typology created not through the lens of the Hebrew Bible, but rather earlier Christian
material. Even if this attempt to recreate the methods of Matthew and Luke themselves may be
somewhat speculative, the resulting connection between Sarah and Mary would have not been lost
on the earliest Christians readers of the New Testament.42 As they generally saw the Gospels and
the works of Paul as part of a conceptual whole, the shared description of both Sarah and Mary
bearing children ‘through the Spirit’ would have reinforced in their eyes the connection between
the two seen elsewhere.

Noticeably, evidence for the Sarah-Mary typology has been given from two of the synoptic
Gospels, Matthew and Luke, but not the third, the Gospel of Mark. The lack of such Sarah-Mary

40
An overview of the scholarly debate over this matter can be found in Ibid., 299–303. Brown notes that the majority
of scholars believe that Luke, like Matthew, is advocating for Mary’s virgin conception and argues for this position
himself.
41
I do not accept the view of a small number of scholars who argue that Paul here is utilizing an idea in Hellenistic-
Jewish circles that the patriarchs were born of God. In keeping with this conclusion, they have taken Paul’s
description of Isaac being ‘born of the spirit’ to be an allusion to his belief in Sarah’s virgin conception. Some even
take this argument a step further and claim that Paul’s use of the term ‘born of the spirit’ shows that he too knew
of a doctrine of virgin conception in regard to Mary. These matters are discussed by: Raymond E. Brown, “Appendix
IV: Virginal Conception,” in The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke,
The Anchor Bible (Garden City: Doubleday, 1993), 523–24. Among the weaknesses in these arguments, Brown notes
that Paul himself states clearly that the patriarchs, while ‘children of the promise,’ were nevertheless born in the
natural way (Romans 9:10-11). Also, Brown points out that the only Hellenistic-Jewish author known to speak of
Sarah’s divine conception is Philo. However, as he further notes, there is no reason to conclude based on Philo’s
allegorical statements about divine conception that Hellenistic Jews believed such matters literally as well.
42
Regarding the acceptance of the words of Jesus and the writings of his apostles among early Christians as well as
the protracted process of canonization, see: Ehrman, The New Testament, 10–13.

149
material here is actually not strange. When compared to the other synoptic Gospels, Mary herself
is nearly absent in the Markian account of Jesus’ life. For example, there is no mention of the
annunciation to her nor any allusion to a miraculous conception on her part. In fact, Mark generally
portrays tensions between Jesus and his family. At one point they even attempt “to restrain [Jesus]”
fearing he had “gone out of his mind” (Mk 3:21). This leads to the following scene in which Jesus
rejects his family, mother included, in favor of his followers (3:32-35):

A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your
brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my
mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here
are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and
sister and mother.”

Stephen Shoemaker has surmised that Mark’s approach to Mary is connected to Paul’s fight with
the Jerusalem Church which was led by members of Jesus’ family.43 Scholars generally understand
Mark to be squarely “within the Pauline trajectory” based on theological themes shared between
the two. As a result, it makes sense to conclude that Mark also echoes Paul’s polemics against the
‘circumcision faction’ by portraying tensions between Jesus and his siblings and likewise
downplaying the role of Mary. The lack of Sarah-Mary typology in Mark fits this same pattern. If
Mark did not wish to draw special attention to Mary, he certainly would avoid connecting her to
Sarah. Similarly, the Pauline antagonism towards Jesus’ family may also explain why, for all the
praise of Sarah and expansion of her role in Christianity, Paul does not draw any connections
between her and Jesus’ own mother. Such a connection would obviously grant added importance
to Mary, and by extension to the Jerusalem Church connected to her family.

As noted in the introduction to his chapter, the works of the New Testament originate in a
largely Jewish milieu. As such, it might be tempting to see the attention paid to Sarah in the
Christian Bible as evidence of her character being given more widespread importance among
second Temple Jews as a whole. If this were the case, then the further development of her character
in GenR could be seen as a continuation of a Jewish exegetical trend which first appeared in the
beginning of the Common Era. In this vein, for example, one might be tempted to see GenR’s

43
Stephen J. Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 42.

150
statement that Sarah ‘converted the women’ as a later iteration of an early Jewish tradition which
connected Sarah to conversion as already found in the New Testament. To recall, the author of 1
Peter declares that a wife has the power to win her husband over to Christianity if she is obedient
like Sarah.44

However, such an approach must be rejected. Based on the second Temple material
discussed in chapter two it can be stated with certainty that no early Jewish exegesis from the
period frames Sarah as the New Testament does. Lacking any such evidence it is difficult to
maintain that the importance the earliest Christian authors give Sarah was actually a familiar theme
among Jews at the time.45 Instead, the development of Sarah’s character should be seen as a
phenomenon unique to the Christian Bible. Further, even if despite these points one still wishes to
argue that the conception of Sarah in the New Testament is evidence of a more widespread
phenomenon among second Temple Jews, it still cannot explain the sudden and unprecedented
explosion of Sarah-related material in the Amoraic period and GenR in particular. The handful of
references to her in the New Testament, even if they are somehow reflective of more general
Jewish conceptions, cannot by themselves lay the ground-work for the immense amount of
attention the matriarch receives in GenR.

Conclusion
To summarize the New Testament’s approach to Sarah, it can be said there are two subtle yet clear
goals: to present Sarah as the mother of Christian believers and to position her as a prefiguration
of Mary. The first of these two themes comes across clearest in the Epistle literature. In a portion
of these letters, Galatians in particular, Sarah is portrayed as the Christian matriarch and the model
of their faith. The second theme appears in the Gospel literature, primarily Luke. In the typological
formulation used there, Sarah paves the way for Mary. The mother of Jesus is modeled as a more
perfect version the mother of Isaac. While these two motifs do not appear together in the same

44
Balch makes such a point, quoting sources from Ginsberg’s Legends of the Jews which speak to Sarah’s connection
to converts. Though, of the Jewish texts he references, only those from GenR are truly relevant to this claim, as the
rest come from a much later period. See: Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive, 104–5.
45
Again referring to Vermè s’ study of the connection between Isaac and Jesus as an example is helpful. Some of the
major themes he points to in the New Testament have parallels in other second Temple works in particular. This
makes it easier to conclude that such ideas found in the Christian Bible are not unique to it, but in fact are part of a
greater Jewish milieu. This exact point is made by Rodgers in his more recent defense of Vermè s’ thesis, which was
also cited previously. He uses it to refute the arguments of scholars who claimed that the themes Vermè s points to
actually originate in the New Testament itself. As stated here, this is not true of the development of Sarah’s
importance which, outside of the New Testament, does not appear in texts of the period.

151
context, they nevertheless complement each other nicely. If Sarah is equated with Mary, then only
those who identify with the latter’s son can see themselves as children of the former. These themes
clearly grant Sarah an importance that goes beyond her marginalized role in the Hebrew Bible.
Likewise, the New Testament’s portrayal of Sarah is unique among the second Temple texts which
to a large extent share its historical and social background. As result, these developments should
be seen as unique to the Christian Bible and not as part of a more general Jewish exegetical
tradition.

Through the use of these twin themes, the New Testament seeks to undermine the Jewish
connection to Sarah and links her instead to the Christian faith. Moving past the period of the New
Testament itself, this all plays an important role in later Christian thought and worship and will
ultimately prove vital for understanding Sarah’s portrayal in GenR. In order to demonstrate how
the Christian subversion and appropriation of the matriarch could have impacted her portrayal in
the midrash, attention will next be given to the works of the Christian theologian and exegete
Origen of Alexandria. Origen’s use of the early Christian themes regarding Sarah will prove to be
an important link between the rhetoric found in the New Testament and the rabbis of the midrash.

152
Works Cited
Aland, K., M. Black, C.M. Martini, and A. Wikgen, eds. The Greek New Testament. 2nd ed.
Stuttgart: Württemberg Bible Society, 1968.
http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0031:001:0.
Balch, David L. Let Wives Be Submissive: The Domestic Code in 1 Peter. Chico: Scholars Press,
1981.
Betz, Hans Dieter. “Galatians, Epistle to The.” Edited by David Noel Freedman. Anchor Bible
Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Brown, Raymond E. “Appendix IV: Virginal Conception.” In The Birth of the Messiah: A
Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, 517–33. The Anchor Bible.
Garden City: Doubleday, 1993.
———. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and
Luke. The Anchor Bible. Garden City: Doubleday, 1993.
Cohen, Norman M. Jewish Bible Personages in the New Testament. Lanham: University Press of
America, 1989.
Cohen, Shaye J. D. “The Letter of Paul to the Galatians with Introduction and Annotations.” In
The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler,
332–44. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Elliott, John H. 1 Peter: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor
Bible. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
———. “Peter, First Epistle Of.” Edited by David Noel Freedman. Anchor Bible Dictionary.
New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Fitzmyer, Joseph A. Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The
Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
———. The Gospel According to Luke: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. The Anchor Bible.
Garden City: Doubleday, 1981.
Flusser, David. Jesus. Translated by R. Steven Notley. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2001.
Koester, Craig R. Hebrews: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor
Bible. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Marc Zvi Brettler. “The Editor’s Preface.” In The Jewish Annotated New
Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, xi–xiii. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2011.
———, eds. The Jewish Annotated New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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Martin, Troy W. “The TestAbr and the Background of 1 Peter 3,6.” Zeitschrift Für Die
Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft Und Die Kunde Der Älteren Kirche 90, no. 1–2 (1999):
139–46.
Martyn, J. Louis. Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor
Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
Meyer, Mati. “Refracting Christian Truths Through The Prism Of The Biblical Female In
Byzantine Illuminated Manuscripts.” In Jews in Byzantium, edited by Guy G. Stroumsa,
Robert Bonfil, Rina Talgam, and Oded Irshai, 969–98. Brill, 2011.
Meyers Jr., Charles D. “Romans, Epistle to The.” Edited by David Noel Freedman. Anchor Bible
Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Nanos, Mark D. “Paul and Judaism.” In The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-
Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, 551–54. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Parker, D. C. “Vulgate.” Edited by David Noel Freedman. Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York:
Doubleday, 1992.
Punt, Jeremy. “Subverting Sarah in the New Testament: Galatians 4 and 1 Peter 3.” Scriptura 96
(2007): 453–68.
Rodgers, Peter. Text and Story: Narrative Studies in New Testament Textual Criticism. Eugene:
Pickwick Publications, 2011.
Schaff, Philip, ed. “Homilies on the Epistle to the Hebrews.” In Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on
the Gospel of St. John and the Epistle to the Hebrews, 335–522. A Select Library of the
Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church 14. New York: Scribner, 1906.
Shinan, Avigdor. The World of the Aggadah [Hebrew]. Tel Aviv: MOD Books, 1987.
Shoemaker, Stephen J. Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 2016.
Sly, Dorothy I. “1 Peter 3:6b in the Light of Philo and Josephus.” Journal of Biblical Literature
110, no. 1 (1991): 126–29.
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(1968): 583–89.
Zipor, Moshe A. The Septuagint Version of the Book of Genesis [Hebrew]. Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan
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Chapter 5
Sarah in the Writings of Origen: Continuing the New Testament Themes

Introduction
Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-254) was one of the most influential and prolific early Christian
authors. His works include extensive commentaries on both the Old and New Testaments,
homilies, theological tracts, a philosophical defense of Christianity, and a textual-philological
study of the Hebrew Bible and its translations. Born and educated in Alexandria, Origen served as
the head of the catechetical school there until internal conflicts in the Church forced him to leave
around 233 CE.1 Origen then settled in Caesarea and continued to teach, write, and preach in what
was the very heart of the rabbinic world at the time. Caesarea in the Roman period was a
cosmopolitan city where Jews and Christians of all backgrounds interacted on a daily basis. 2 In
fact, scholars have long noted was that Origen himself maintained contact with his rabbinic
counterparts and that references, both direct and indirect, to the rabbis and rabbinic exegesis are
common in his works.3 Origen may very well have been the most prolific author of the ancient
world.4 Even though only a relatively small portion of his full corpus has survived, the number of
extant works is still quite large. Of these, some have survived in the original Greek while most are
only preserved in later Latin translations.

While discussions of the Old Testament are only a part of Origen’s literary legacy,
understanding his approach to the Jewish Bible in particular is crucial for analyzing the
presentation of Sarah in his writings. Already during his time in Alexandria, Origen was
exceptional among Christian authors for the theological importance he granted the Old Testament.5

1
Details of Origen’s biography are taken from Henri Crouzel, Origen, trans. A. S. Worrall (Edinburgh: T & T Clark,
1998), 1–36.
2
See: Lee I. Levine, Caesarea under Roman Rule (Leiden: Brill, 1975), 80–86.
3
The classic work in this regard is N. R. M. De Lange, Origen and the Jews: Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations in
Third-Century Palestine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976). Like most works on the subject, this book
focuses on Origen’s knowledge of rabbinic ideas and how rabbinic texts may shed light on those of Origen.
4
Regarding the extent of Origen’s writing and the preservation of his works, see: Crouzel, Origen, 37–49; Ronald E.
Heine, “Introduction,” in Origen: Homilies on Genesis and Exodus (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America
Press, 1982), 25–27.
5
The following overview of Origen’s Old Testament exegesis and the changes it underwent after his arrival in
Caesarea is based on Maren R. Niehoff, “Origen’s Commentaries on the Old Testament,” in The Oxford Handbook of
Origen, ed. Ronald E. Heine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Forthcoming). In the other chapters of this thesis I
avoid using the term ‘Old Testament’, as it represents a Christian outlook on Scripture, in favor of the term ‘Hebrew
Bible’. However, in this chapter I will refer to it as the ‘Old Testament’. Following Niehoff, I utilize the phrase in the

155
According to Origen the literal meaning of its verses may be accepted when they agree with reason,
however the Old Testament’s ultimate aim is to elevate the reader through deeper spiritual truths.
These truths are signaled by incongruities and obscurities in the text which Origen systematically
identifies and expounds upon in order to reveal their hidden meaning. In this sense, Origen is
highly indebted to Philo who used the tools of Homeric scholarship to identify ‘problems’ in the
text which could then be ‘solved’ allegorically. Origen adopts this hermeneutical approach and
adapts it to his own Christian discourse. Likewise, Origen uses such openings in the text to
highlight the unseen connections between Old and New Testaments.

While these aspects remain in Origen’s later writing, his move to Palestine motivated a
certain shift in his exegetical and theological orientations. In Alexandria, Origen based his Old
Testament commentaries on the Greek of the Septuagint. Subsequent to his arrival in Palestine,
however, Origen shows a keen awareness of the importance of the original Hebrew for properly
understanding textual nuance. This was no doubt motivated by his exposure to the Jewish
community in Caesarea and its rabbinic elite. They would have presented him with fierce
competition over the biblical canon and its proper methods of interpretation. Likewise, it is in
Caesarea that Origen engages rabbinic exegesis for the first time. In his works written in the land
of Israel, Origen makes a point of seriously addressing Jewish understandings of the text. On
occasion he accepts readings learned from the rabbis, while in in other cases he rejects them and
explains why his own interpretation is to be preferred.6 In addition to its effects upon his exegetical
methods, the realities Origen confronted in the land of Israel also affected the theological issues
which he chose to address. In Alexandria, Origen focused, for example, on explaining the Bible’s
anthropomorphism which was attacked by Platonic philosophers and Gnostics alike. In Caesarea,
however, other matters became more pressing. Origen’s first sustained contact with a large and
vibrant Jewish community forced him to rethink the relationship between Christians and Jews and
its theological meaning.7 As a result, it is only when in Caesarea that Origen gives serious attention
to the Pauline corpus where this issue is addressed in the New Testament.

context of Origen’s works as it “reflects [his] Christian perspective on the Bible of the Jews” and “leaves open
whether he relates to the Hebrew original or the Greek translation.”
6
In addition to Niehoff’s comments in ibid, for a more detailed discussion of Origen’s direct engagement with
rabbinic traditions, see: Maren R. Niehoff, “Origen’s Commentary on Genesis as a Key to Genesis Rabbah,” in Genesis
Rabbah in Text and Context, ed. Sarit Kattan Gribetz et al. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 133–38.
7
Ronald E. Heine, Origen: Scholarship in the Service of the Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 174.

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These points will prove important when examining his characterization of Sarah. Sarah
appears in a number of places in Origen’s homilies and commentaries. Based on a close reading
of these sources, I will demonstrate that Origen makes a marked effort to further develop the two
Sarah-related themes in the New Testament. First, he portrays Sarah as the Christian matriarch.
Second, he views her as a prefiguration of the Virgin Mary. In addition to his general methodology
of reading the Old Testament in light of themes from the New Testament, the particular Caesarian
milieu of these texts is evident. In them, Origen both belies his knowledge of earlier rabbinic
statements regarding the matriarch and also uses her character as a vehicle to address larger
theological matters concerning to the relationship between Christians and Jews.

Beyond the importance of Origen’s arrival in Palestine for understanding his own writings,
several recent studies of GenR have demonstrated the crucial role that the Christian author can
play in the study of the midrash. As discussed in greater length in the introduction to this thesis, I
will build off this body of scholarship and argue that Origen is likewise vital to understanding the
midrash’s depiction of Sarah. Since there is no evidence that rabbinic sages in the land of Israel
were directly familiar with the text of the Christian Bible itself,8 Origen’s role as a witness to which
ideas the rabbis were nevertheless exposed is that much more critical. As stated, both of the Sarah-
related themes in the New Testament are adopted by Origen. This alone makes it likely that the
rabbis would have been aware of these themes and their important place in Christian theology.
Moreover, I will point to particular parallels between Origen and GenR which make it clear that
there is a direct relationship between them and that the midrash is directly responding to Origen’s
rhetoric.

Origen and Genesis Rabbah


Before analyzing how the New Testament themes regarding Sarah are utilized by Origen, a few
additional points should be made regarding his connection to GenR. Sometimes the parallels
identified by scholars between Origen and the rabbis of GenR are thematic in nature. In these

8
Yair Furstenberg, “Midrash of Jesus and the Bavli’s Counter-Gospel,” Jewish Quarterly Review 22, no. 4 (2015): 303–
4. Based on tShabbat 13:5, Furstenberg notes that the “Palestinian rabbinic law strictly forbids handling books of
heretics in general and the Gospels in particular” (304). As a result of this, he remarks that it is not surprising that
the rabbis in the land of Israel do not exhibit any “direct knowledge” of the New Testament. This also explains why
Palestinian rabbinic sources which engage Christianity focus on “rivalry over Israel, the coming of the Messiah and
the nature of the divine through the interpretation of the Old Testament,” and not the “quality and meaning of the
Christian textual heritage.”

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cases, while Origen is representative of the Christian rhetoric to which the rabbis responded, there
is not always enough textual evidence to conclude that he was their direct source for such ideas.
To give just one example, Günter Stemberger has pointed to a parallel between the commentaries
of Origen and GenR regarding the promise of an heir which Abraham receives from God in
Genesis 15.9 Origen uses Isaac-Jesus typology to claim that, after the arrival of Christ, the Jewish
covenant with God has been supplanted by the Christian one. GenR appears to respond to such an
argument by describing how Abraham asked God for reassurances that his covenant would never
be replaced, even if a supposedly more righteous individual were to come along. Due to the rather
general nature of this parallel, it cannot be assumed that the rabbis are directly responding to
Origen. Rather, he merely acts as a window into Christian thought prevalent in the rabbis’ sphere
of influence.

However, in other instances there is ample proof of direct connections between Origen and
GenR.10 Martha Himmelfarb notes that in its discussions of Abraham’s circumcision and of the
akeida, GenR draws a connection between these acts, ritual sacrifice, and redemption, in a fashion
similar to Origen. However, unlike Origen, the midrash conspicuously avoids the subject of blood.
Himmelfarb concludes that this silence is not by chance, but rather a direct reaction to “Christian
claims for Christ’s blood and Origen’s comparison of circumcision and the crucifixion in
particular.”11 Because the midrash’s evasion of blood is best understood in light of Origen’s
particular Christological argument, Himmelfarb is able to conclude that the connection between
the rabbis and Origen is direct and not merely thematic.

9
Gü nter Stemberger, “Genesis 15 in Rabbinic and Patristic Interpretation,” in The Exegetical Encounter between
Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity, ed. Emmanouela Grypeou and Helen Spurling (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 160–61.
10
In addition to the studies discussed here, see: Ephraim E. Urbach, “Rabbinic Exegesis and Origen’s Commentaries
on the Song of Songs and Jewish-Christian Polemics,” Tarbiz 30, no. 2 (1960): 148–70. and Reuven Kimelman, “Rabbi
Yokhanan and Origen on the Songs of Songs: A Third-Century Jewish-Christian Disputation,” The Harvard Theological
Review 73, no. 3/4 (1980): 567–95. Both of these studies argue that midrashic themes regarding Song of Songs be
seen as a rebuttal to Origen’s Christological reading of the book. While they focus on midrashic works other than
GenR, they do both give some examples of drashot in GenR which respond to ideas found in Origen. Further,
Kimelman argues that R. Yoḥanan “led the exegetical battle against Origen.” While the prooftexts he brings for this
are not from GenR, the selfsame R. Yoḥanan is a fixture of GenR. In fact, Niehoff pointed to an example of Origen’s
familiarity with a statement attributed to R. Yoḥanan in GenR (Niehoff, “Origen’s Commentary on Genesis as a Key
to Genesis Rabbah,” 142–43. All this strengthens the conclusion there are direct connections between GenR and
Origen.
11
Martha Himmelfarb, “The Ordeals of Abraham: Circumcision and the Aqedah in Origen, the Mekhilta, and Genesis
Rabbah,” Henoch 30, no. 2 (2005): 300.

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In a similar sense, Niehoff has argued that much of the discussion in GenR regarding
Abraham’s circumcision is actually molded as a response to the Christian arguments against the
practice, several of which are taken from Origen.12 She has also pointed to the manner in which
philosophical and Christological ideas regarding the creation story which Origen brought with him
to Caesarea affected how the rabbis in GenR understood matters themselves.13 Origen’s direct
influence is belied by changes in the rabbis’ approach to Genesis which, based on rabbinic
attributions, are more-or-less contemporaneous to Origen’s arrival in Caesarea and correspond
directly to points made by the Christian exegete. More recently, as mentioned in the introduction,
Niehoff has taken the issue of Origen’s effect on GenR even further. She argues that GenR actually
“developed in dialogue with Origen’s interpretations” as found in his Commentary on Genesis.14
To demonstrate this Niehoff presents several examples where the midrash is clearly reacting to
Origen’s own exegetical points. In some the midrash chooses to adopt parts of Origen’s exegesis,
while in other cases it offers a wholly alternative take on matters.15 While not all of these instances
are polemic in nature, several are, and the debate between Judaism and Christianity is rarely far
from the surface.

Sarah as the Christian Matriarch


Having addressed the overall connections between the rabbis and Origen I will now turn to
Origen’s approach to Sarah. Given the points made above, demonstrating how the New Testament
themes regarding Sarah are further developed by Origen is crucial because it indicates that the
rabbis of GenR could have been exposed to these ideas. Origen pays the most attention to Sarah
in his Homilies on Genesis. These homilies are part of a greater corpus of sermons which were

12
Niehoff, “Circumcision as a Marker of Identity.” Contra: Himmelfarb argues that Niehoff’s claim of a direct
connection between Origen’s arguments against circumcision and the midrash’s response is “uncertain” because
the rabbinic statements are attributed to sages (R. Ishmael and R. Akiva) who predated Origen’s homilies by around
a century (Himmelfarb, “Ordeals,” 293. If Himmelfarb is correct, then such a parallel probably still exists, but it is
merely thematic in nature. With that, as just discussed, Himmelfarb does argue that GenR directly responds to a
different aspect of Origen’s take on circumcision.
13
Maren R. Niehoff, “Creation Ex Nihilo Theology in Genesis Rabbah in Light of Christian Exegesis,” HTR 99 (2006):
37–64.
14
Niehoff, “Origen’s Commentary on Genesis as a Key to Genesis Rabbah,” 132.
15
Ibid., 139–45. In addition to demonstrating several places where the midrash is clearly engaging the commentary
of Origen, Niehoff also demonstrates instances where Origen demonstrates awareness of rabbinic traditions found
in GenR and also identifies examples where comparison to Origen can shed light on the Hellenistic background of
the midrash and how it uses the same tools as Origen (Ibid., 145–52). Hence, her conclusion that the two bodies of
work developed in dialogue and that Origen’s commentary is a ‘key’ to understanding GenR.

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delivered by Origen as part of the liturgical service in his church.16 It is most likely that the extant
homilies, those on Genesis included, were all delivered in Caesarea. 17 In these lectures Origen
expounds upon episodes in Genesis while weaving together the verses and themes from the Jewish
Bible with those in the Christian Bible. In addition, Origen’s homilies are marked by heavy use of
allegory to uncover the ‘true’ meaning of the biblical text. Not infrequently Origen will mention
contemporaneous Jewish exegesis in order to explain why his approach is superior.18 As will be
demonstrated, in his homilies Origen furthers the narrative, which originated in the epistles of the
New Testament, that Sarah is in truth the matriarch of Christianity.

In keeping with his general methodology, Origen dedicates several homilies to allegorical
and Christological readings of the Abraham narrative. Unlike the Bible itself, which generally
ignores Sarah in these episodes, Origen actually pays a fair amount of attention to the matriarch.
Much of this material is concentrated in Homily VI which addresses Sarah’s time with Abimelech.
According to Origen, Sarah is first and foremost an allegory for the “virtue of the soul” (HomGen
VI:1).19 Origen was heavily influenced by Philo and the Jewish author is no doubt the source for
this idea.20 Origen then goes on to utilize this allegory while adding a Christological twist.
According to Origen, Abimelech represents “the studious and wise men of the world… [who]
perceive that God is the father and king of all things,” a play on his name which means “my father
is king” (VI:2). Though Abimelech (wise men) was pure of heart and worthy of receiving Sarah
(virtue), the “time had not yet come” (VI:3). As a result:

16
This brief description of the background of Origen’s homilies follows: Heine, “Introduction,” 19.
17
According to Heine the only exception to this are Origen’s homilies on 1 Samuel which seem to have been delivered
in Jerusalem.
18
Origen’s critique of Jewish exegesis has been investigated by Marc Hirshman, see: Marc Hirshman, “Origen’s View
of ‘Jewish Fables’ in Genesis,” in The Exegetical Encounter between Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity, ed.
Emmanouela Grypeou and Helen Spurling (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 245–54. Hirshman compares several places where
Origen refers to “Jewish Fables” with passages in GenR and shows how the midrash can shed light on the kind of
exegesis Origen rejects.
19
Translations and citations from Origen’s Homilies on Genesis are taken from: Ronald E. Heine, trans., Origen:
Homilies on Genesis and Exodus (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1982).
20
This parallel between Philo and Origen is noted by Heine: Ibid., 391. In addition to this, Origen also understands
the biblical observation that “Sarah had stopped having the periods of women” (Gen 18:11) to teach that one must
remove all feminine aspects from his soul in order to “beget joy and gladness as a son from your wife, virtue and
wisdom” (VIII:10). This is quite similar to Philo’s statement that in order for Sarah to embody virtue she must be
stripped of her female nature (Cher 50) as was discussed in chapter two.

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Virtue, therefore remains with Abraham; it remains with circumcision, until the
time should come that in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom “dwells all the fullness of
deity corporeally,” (Col 2:9) complete and perfect virtue might pass over to the
Church of the Gentiles.

In the Bible, Abimelech could not “approach her” and Sarah remained with Abraham (Gen 20:4).
However, the coming Jesus ushered in a new historical era in which the allegorical Sarah (virtue)
may move on from Abraham (the Jews) and finally join Abimelech (the Church). In other words,
Origen synthesizes the Philonic allegory of Sarah as virtue with the Pauline allegory of Sarah as
the spiritual mother of Christians.

The key to all this, explains Origen earlier in the homily, is the ‘death of the Law’:

Now this present time is the time of the calling of the Gentiles and of the death of
the Law, in which time free souls, at last loosed from the Law of the husband, can
marry a new husband, Christ.

In fact, Origen continues, not only does the death of the Law free souls to find a husband in Christ,
but it allows them to bear “sons of the Church” and “sons of the Spirit.” Likewise, states Origen
later, these are the same children whom Paul called “my little children, of whom I am in labor
again, until Christ be formed in you” (Gal 4:19). Tying this all back to the Sarah-Abimelech
episode itself, Origen finally concludes the homily by stating that these children are represented
by the children who were born to Abimelech after God healed him from the punishment he
received for taking Sarah (Gen 20:17).

As mentioned, in addition to his use of Philo’s conception of Sarah as virtue, Origen draws
heavily upon Paul’s allegorical reading of Sarah in Galatians as ‘mother in Spirit’. Not only does
Origen refer to Christians as Sarah’s progeny and her “sons of the Spirit,” but he explicitly invokes
a verse from Galatians (Gal 4:19) which Paul used in the build-up to the allegory of Sarah and
Hagar. While Paul only applied this idea to the biblical episode involving Sarah and Hagar, Origen
takes it a step further and uses it, along with Philo’s allegory, to interpret other aspects of Sarah’s
story. In addition to his treatment of the Abimelech-Sarah episode in Homily VI, the same use of
these allegories is repeated in Homily VII which addresses subsequent events in the life of Sarah
(HomGen VII:2-4).

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All this demonstrates the importance the Christian appropriation of Sarah in Origen’s own
theological discourse. Continuing one of the crucial Sarah-related themes in the New Testament,
Origen claims that Sarah is truly the mother of Christianity and has left Judaism permanently. Like
Paul, who railed against the Torah-observant gospel of the Jerusalem Church, Origen may very
well have hoped that this would help combat the Judaizing tendencies of some of the Christians in
his audience.21 Elsewhere in his homilies Origen is critical of Christians who observe certain
aspects of Jewish law and even attend synagogue services.22 It is therefore possible that his primary
goal in continuing the New Testament’s appropriation of Sarah was to undercut the value his
parishioners might see in Jewish heritage and custom. Nevertheless, such rhetoric has dire
implications for the Jews, even if they were not his direct target.23 Like Paul before him, Origen
argues that the matriarch no longer belongs to them.

Indeed, the greater social context of Origen’s public preaching gives reason to assume that
Jews living in Caesarea could have been aware of the content of Origen’s homilies. The close ties
between Jews and Christians in the city were not only economic and social but included the
exchange of ideas as well.24 This would have made it easy for Origen’s ideas to reach a wider

21
Like the pagan God-fearers who have already been mentioned, ‘Judaizing Christians’ or ‘Jewish Christians’ were a
well-known hybrid group in late antiquity. In a general sense this term refers to Christians who observed Jewish law
and custom. Likewise, it can be also used in reference to Jews who professed faith in Christ. See: Charlotte Elisheva
Fonrobert, “Judaizers, Jewish Christians, and Others,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, ed. Amy-Jill Levine
and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 554–57. While the terms themselves are probably
more indicative of how their opponents (both Jewish and Christian) viewed them rather than how they saw
themselves, they are commonly used in the scholarship. This group was a favorite target of polemists in late
antiquity. The most well known of these is probably John Chrysostom’s Adversus Judaeos.
22
For a collection of these sources and a short analysis of them, see: Heine, Origen, 175–79.
23
As alluded to above, the delineation between ‘Judaizing Christian’ and ‘Jew’ would not always have been clear in
late antiquity given the often vague and porous borderlines between religions and ethnicities. Nevertheless,
reference to Jewish Christians as opposed to Jews is still helpful when differentiating between those who may have
been the direct target of Origen’s polemics and those were not, but still would have felt their effect.
24
Levine, Caesarea under Roman Rule, 80–86. As Levine demonstrates, Jews and Christians “shared many of the
same interests politically, economically and intellectually” and as a result “[i]ntimate inter-communal relationships
were found at all levels of society (80-81). In addition to informal meetings between Christians and Jews, Levine
states that Caesarea, like other cities, had fixed meeting places where religious debates were held, sometimes before
large audiences. Such events would provide a formal setting for Jews to be confronted with Christian rhetoric, see:
Ibid., 82–83. Record of one such formal debate is found in Origen’s work Contra Celsum. He recounts an argument
he had with a group of Jews regarding the miraculous accounts of Jesus’ life found the Gospels and opens by stating
(Cels. 1.45):
I remember that once in a discussion with some Jews, who were alleged to be wise, when many
people were present to judge what was said, I used the following argument…
(Translation and citation from: Henry Chadwick, trans., Origen: Contra Celsum [Cambridge:
University Press, 1953], 41.)

162
audience. In addition, just as some Christians found their way into synagogues, it can only be
assumed that some Jews also made their way into churches. Perhaps some Caesarian Jews did not
just learn of the Christian appropriation of Sarah from their Gentile neighbors, but actually heard
it from Origen himself. Of course, to these general connections between Jews and Christians in
Caesarea, the well-documented contact between Origen and his rabbinic peers should be added.

In fact, Origen’s reading of the Sarah-Abimelech episode is an excellent example of these


contacts and how life in Caesarea affected his exegetical orientation. At the end of Homily VI,
Origen enjoins his audience to accept his reading and “in this way not disgrace the words of the
Holy Spirit with foolish Jewish fables” (VI:3). According to him, the Jews and others who are
“friends of the letter, not of the Spirit” maintain that Abraham “not only lied to king Abimelech,
but also surrendered his wife’s chastity to him.” Unlike them, however, Origen’s allegorical
reading does away with such problems and protects the patriarch’s honor. As discussed in chapter
three, while GenR devotes attention to Sarah’s plight with Abimelech, it does not try to clear
Abraham’s name. Instead, the midrash explicitly states that he acted selfishly and against Sarah’s
own best interests. Based on this, Marc Hirshman has observed that when Origen speaks of “Jewish
fables” which do not recognize the “Spirit” of scripture he is likely referring to the reading of the
episode as later expressed in GenR.25 Operating in Caesarea, it is not enough for Origen to just
present the allegorical truth behind the biblical text. He also feels the need to explicitly engage
Jewish commentary and explain why his interpretation is to be preferred. Further, the fact that
Origen refutes the Jewish approach from the pulpit implies that not only was he well aware it, but
that he assumed that his parishioners were as well.

This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that the midrash’s harshest critique of Abraham
is attributed to the earlier sage R. Yehudah bar Ilai (4th generation Tanna) who accuses Abraham
of cynically “trafficking” his wife for profit (GR 52:2, Albeck 551).26 As R. Yehudah bar Ilai was
active shortly before Origen’s arrival in the land of Israel, it is logical that his statement represents

Origen makes a similar statement in Cels. 1:50, but in that case there is no mention of an audience to the
debate. For more on Origen’s direct “disputations and discussions” (89) with Jewish sages, see: De Lange,
Origen and the Jews, chap. 8.
25
Hirshman, “Origen’s View of ‘Jewish Fables’ in Genesis,” 246–47. Hirshman observes that, unlike the rabbis,
Origen’s homilies are marked by a “refusal to see the saints and the patriarchs alike as anything but paragons of
virtue who achieved extraordinary levels of spirituality” (246).
26
Hirshman likewise notes the particularly harsh criticism of R. Yehudah bar Ilai and the especially stark contrast
between his drasha and Origen’s overall approach, see: Ibid., 247.

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the Jewish exegesis with which Origen was confronted. Moreover, this example of overlap
between the rabbis and Origen in regard to the Sarah-Abimelech episode increases the likelihood
of an active dialogue between Origen and GenR over Sarah’s character. If Origen became directly
aware of such a Tannaic statement through his contacts with rabbinic leaders in Caesarea, then it
is a distinct possibility that these same rabbis were exposed to Origen’s own take on matters.

Indeed, the midrash appears to respond to the central themes of Origen’s Paul-inspired
reading of the episode. Looking again at the end of the midrash’s description of Sarah nursing the
masses, the midrash states (GR 53:9, Vat. 30, Albeck 564-565):

The Rabbis and R. Aḥa. The Rabbis said: anyone who came for the sake of heaven
was made a fearer of heaven. R. Aḥa said: Even one who did not come for the sake
of heaven was given domination in the world. However, they did not continue [with
this domination], for when they removed themselves at Sinai and did not accept the
Torah that domination was taken from them. As it is written: “He undoes the belts
of kings and fastens loincloths on them.” (Job 12:18).

As discussed in chapter four, Paul argues that those who accept the covenant at Sinai are not in
fact the true children of Sarah. Instead, it is those who reject the Law in favor of faith in Christ
who may lay claim to the title. This narrative was continued by Origen in his allegorical
understanding of Sarah’s relationship with Abimelech. According to him, after the “death of the
Law” Sarah moves on from Abraham in order to become the mother of the Church and bear the
“sons of the Church” who are her true “sons of the spirit.” Further, the coming of Jesus replaces
the giving of the Torah as the ultimate covenantal event. Paul alludes to this when he states that
“Christ has set us free… [from] a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1), the ‘yoke’ here being the Law. Origen
applies this same line of thought when he states that Sarah only remains with Abraham “until the
time should come that in Christ Jesus our Lord” she can be “loosed from the Law of the husband”
(HomGen VI:3).

The drasha above rebuts these very same claims. First, it emphasizes that the true children
of Sarah are those who keep the Law, not those who reject it as the Christian narrative would have
it. In fact, the midrash emphasizes, it is actually those who reject the Law that demonstrate they
lack a “fear of heaven.” Second, GenR argues that the revelation at Sinai remains the defining
moment in human history. Thus, it has not been superseded by Christ’s arrival. These points, made

164
in the larger context of the rabbis’ development of Sarah’s character, make it clear that as far as
GenR is concerned the matriarch remains connected to the Jewish people. As such, this drasha
should be seen as a rabbinic counter to the Christian subversion of Sarah. In the Christian narrative
the appropriation of Sarah becomes a central symbol of the lager theological claim that faith in
Christ has replaced fealty to the Law. The rabbis here respond in kind by using the figure of Sarah
as vehicle to express the centrality of the Torah and its continued relevance.

Regarding the midrash’s reference to ‘fearers of heaven,’ Levinson’s observation that it is


an attempt to create a cultural biography for the theosebeis (God-fearers) was noted in chapter
three. However, this does not contradict the reading of this drasha as part of a rabbinic response
to the sort of claims made by Origen. As Levinson himself notes, Christian leaders of the period
were strongly critical of the God-fearer phenomenon.27 Beyond any inherent objections to Jewish
custom, they no doubt saw it as a threat to their own attempts to capture the hearts and minds of
the pagan masses. The existence of pagans (or Judaizing Christians for that matter) who choose to
adopt some aspects of Jewish law undercut a central tenet of their message to the Roman world:
the irrelevance of the Torah for those wishing to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. By connecting the
God-fearers to both Sarah and the Law given at Sinai the rabbis not only create a backstory which
explains their ambiguous status, but also reinforce the anti-Christian aspect of their conduct. This
message no doubt would have been important in regards to the theosebeis themselves, but perhaps
more so in combating Christian polemics and strengthening communal cohesion in the rabbinic
bailiwick.

Recalling the delineation made earlier between general thematic parallels as opposed to
more direct ones, there may not be enough textual evidence from the above drasha to conclude
that the rabbis are directly responding to Origen’s particular homily on Genesis. All the same,
Origen here grants a crucial window into the kinds of Christian rhetoric the rabbis would be faced
with. His use of Paul’s appropriation of Sarah demonstrates that this idea made it to the rabbis’
world and gives important context to the drasha. Nevertheless, Origen’s open dialogue with the
rabbis surrounding the Sarah-Abimelech episode is perhaps suggestive of a more direct
engagement. If Origen was informed of earlier rabbinic statements which disparaged Abraham,

27
Joshua Levinson, The Twice Told Tale: A Poetics of the Exegetical Narrative in Rabbinic Midrash [Hebrew]
(Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2005), 143.

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then there is a distinct possibility that Origen’s rabbinic peers were informed of Origen’s
allegorical response which spoke to Sarah’s role as the Christian matriarch. Indeed, the reference
to R. Aḥa (a 3rd generation Amora) places the drasha in a period, while after Origen’s own time,
where his impact would certainly still be felt.28

Sarah-Mary Typology
Origen’s adaptation of the New Testament themes regarding Sarah is not limited to her role as the
spiritual mother of Christians. He also adopts the Sarah-Mary typology which is found in the
Gospels. The most direct example of this is in his Commentary on Genesis. Though most of this
work has been lost, the fragments which have survived were recently compiled by Karin Meltzer.29
This extant material offers a fascinating look into Origen’s exegetical world. Unlike his homilies
which make heavy use of allegorical exegesis, Origen takes a more literal approach in this
commentary, often addressing acute textual and contextual issues. Much of his work on this
commentary was done in Caesarea and, like with his homilies, connections to material in GenR
have been identified.30 As will be seen, one such parallel demonstrates rabbinic awareness of
Origen’s use of Sarah-Mary typology and their attempts to respond.

Among the surviving texts is one of particular importance when it comes to Sarah. 31
Commenting on God’s promise to Abraham to “bless” Sarah and grant him a son with her (Gen
17:16), Origen writes (Fragment E41, including secondary tradition):32

28
Following Himmelfarb’s statement, when arguing that the midrash directly responds to Origen regrading a
different matter, that “second-, third-, and fourth-generation amoraim” operate in “precisely the generations in
which one would expect Origen’s impact to be felt most strongly.”(Himmelfarb, “Ordeals,” 300–301). In addition to
Himmelfarb’s observation, I will add that Origen’s legacy in Caesarea was strongly continued during these
generations by Pamphilus (d. 309) and Eusebius (d. 340). Pamphilus re-established Origen’s school and organized a
large library containing the works of Origen and other early Christian authors. Eusebius was a close student of
Pamphilus who became the bishop of the city around 315. Beyond his leadership role in the Church, Eusebius was
also a prolific and influential writer. See: Levine, Caesarea under Roman Rule, 124–27. In other words, two dedicated
followers of Origen continued to teach, preach, and lead in the growing Christian community of Caesarea well into
fourth generation of Amoraim.
29
Karin Metzler, Origenes: Die Kommentierung des Buches Genesis, Origenes Werke Mit Deutscher Ubersetzung 1
(Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010).
30
As demonstrated by Niehoff, “Origen’s Commentary on Genesis as a Key to Genesis Rabbah.”
31
In addition to the fragment which will be analyzed here, Sarah is mentioned or alluded to in fragments e39 (p228),
e51 (p236), e52 (p236), and e57 and its ‘secondary tradition’ (p240). However, these fragments do not appear to
contain any additional information about Sarah herself as a character.
32
Metzler, Origenes: Die Kommentierung des Buches Genesis, 230. The original Greek text is taken from here. The
translation is my own.

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[Πρώτην ταύτην εὑρίσκομεν εὐλογημένην ὑπὸ θεοῦ γυναῖκα· καὶ χρησόμεθα
τῷ ῥητῷ εἰς προτροπὴν γυναικῶν. ὡς ἂν δὲ μᾶλλον γένηται ἅγιος Ἰσαάκ,]
πρὸς τῷ εὐλογεῖσθαι τὸν Ἀβραάμ, εὐλογεῖται καὶ Σάρρα, ἵνα γνήσιος γένηται
εὐλογημένος ἐκ δύο εὐλογημένων.

[We find that she (Sarah) is the first woman blessed by God; and we shall use this
verse in exhorting women. In order for Isaac to be born holy,]33 Sarah was also blessed
in addition to Abraham’s blessing, so that he may be born legitimate and blessed
[coming] from two blessed persons.

Before addressing Origen’s crucial reference to Sarah as “the first women blessed by God,”34 it is
worth noting that the Bible actually states in the first chapter of Genesis (Gen 1:27-28):

And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and
female He created them. God blessed them [‫להים‬-‫ויברך אתם א‬, LXX: καὶ

33
The portion enclosed in brackets is found in the secondary tradition (Sekundärüberlieferung) and not the primary
text of E41. The exact nature of the secondary traditions is not always a simple matter, but in this case it should
indeed be attributed to Origen, as I will explain. The fragments in group E are scholia from later catenae. These
scholia can, in general, be confidently attributed to Origen or at the very least to students who recorded his
teachings. In addition, several of the fragments in group E are accompanied by secondary traditions taken from the
works of Procopius of Gaza (d. 528). Procopius based himself on the same sources as the compiler of the catenae
did, but Procopius does not give attributions when quoting previous authors and sometimes adds his own
commentary. Therefore, while the secondary texts do preserve comments by Origen which would not have
otherwise survived, one cannot always assume that they are not in fact Procopius’ own additions. Here, for example,
the primary text of E41 is taken from the catena on Genesis where it explicitly quotes Origen. The secondary text,
that of Procopius, is identical to that of the catena along with an additional two lines in the beginning (those in
brackets). In this case, however, it is clear that Procopius is in fact quoting Origen. Beyond the internal cohesiveness
of the text as a whole, this can be concluded based on another manuscript of the catenae (not presented by Metzler)
which contains a text nearly identical to that of Procopius. This third version of the text is unattributed. However,
given that it is basically the same as Procopius’ and that they both contain the words attributed to Origen in the
shorter fragment from the catenae, it can be concluded that the longer version of the text is also to be attributed to
Origen. A full presentation of the textual variants and witnesses for this piece of the catenae can be found in: François
Petit, La chaîne sur la Genèse. Édition intégrale III: Chapitres 12 à 28 (Leuven: Peeters, 1995), 98. I thank Karin Metzler
for explaining these matters to me and showing me Petit’s edition of the texts. Metzler is currently preparing an
edition of Origen’s commentary on Genesis for Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten Jahrhunderte
(GCS) and will be translating this piece according to the secondary tradition preserved in Procopius.
34
The attention paid to the first use of a term in the Bible is reminiscent of statements found throughout rabbinic
literature and in GenR in particular. For example, the midrash notes the first use of the terms ‫ חולה‬and ‫( זקן‬or at
least their first use in a specific context) and remarks: ...'‫( מתחילת הספר ועד כאן אין כת‬GR 96:2, Albeck 1241, 1242). In
addition, GR 53:13 (Albeck 533) appear to use this line in regard to the word ‫התפלל‬, though a textual error has crept
in. Elsewhere, the midrash implicitly builds on the above point to explain why God decided to introduce the
phenomena of sickness and old age into the world only then. See: GR 65:9 (Albeck 717, 718)

167
ηὐλόγησεν αὐτοὺς ὁ θεὸς] and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the
earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the
living things that creep on earth.”

Due to this, one might object that Sarah is not in fact the first woman blessed by God as Origen
claims. However, in Homilies on Genesis, Origen reads this blessing in Genesis 1 as being given
to Adam before Eve herself was actually created (HomGen I:14). While his exact argument there
is not relevant to this discussion, it does explain how Origen is able to maintain in his commentary
that Sarah was indeed the first woman blessed by God and also demonstrates how these two works
complement each other and should be read together.

Returning to Origen’s rather terse statement about Sarah in his commentary, it actually
speaks volumes regarding his approach to the matriarch. First, by pointing to Sarah as the first
woman blessed by God, Origen chooses to acknowledge the matriarch as a recipient of divine
blessing. In this he shows that he views the non-allegorical Sarah positively, just as he did her
allegorical counterpart. Second, Origen speaks here of Sarah’s practical value for encouraging the
faithful. In doing so, he recalls the use of the matriarch by the author of 1 Peter who encouraged
Christian women to look to Sarah and “become her daughters” (1 Peter 3:6). This is an additional
example of how Origen furthers New Testament themes regarding the matriarch. Lastly, by
highlighting Sarah’s blessing, Origen is alluding to an additional matter of even greater
importance: the connection between Sarah and Mary.

In the Gospel of Luke, after the annunciation of Jesus, Mary goes to visit Elizabeth who is
indeed with child as the angel promised (Lk 1:41-42):

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth
was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed
[Εὐλογημένη] are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!

Reference to Mary as “blessed” repeats itself twice more in this episode (1:45, 48) and once more
later in Luke (11:27).35 The phrase ‘blessed among women’ eventually becomes synonymous with

35
In the other verses the word for blessed is μακάριος or μακαρίζω (as opposed to εὐλογέω in Luke 1:42), but
these certainly remain in the same semantic field. The later reference to Mary as blessed in 11:27 deserves a bit of
explanation. The author describes how an onlooker cries out to Jesus “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the
breasts that nursed you” and that Jesus retorts: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”(Lk

168
Mary in Christian thought and liturgy and Origen himself actually gives it special attention in
Homilies on Luke. In Homily VII, Origen connects Mary’s blessing with the miraculous success
of Christianity (HomLk VII:6):36

For, unless the Savior’s birth had been heavenly and blessed, unless it had had
something of the divine that surpassed human nature, his teaching would never have
spread to the whole world.

Given the importance of Mary’s blessed nature in the New Testament and Origen’s own writing,
it is clear from this that the emphasis on Sarah as the first woman blessed by God is not
happenstance. Origen wishes to connect her with another woman blessed by God: Mary.

The conclusion that Origen is engaging in Sarah-Mary typology here in his Commentary
on Genesis is reinforced by the manner in which he links Sarah’s blessing with that of Isaac as
well. As seen, Origen posits that Isaac is “born holy” and “blessed” as a result of Sarah’s own
blessed nature. In the section from his homily on Luke just quoted, Origen makes the same
connection between a mother’s blessing and her son’s unique nature in regard to Jesus and Mary.
By describing them in matching terms, Origen makes it clear that he wishes to draw a parallel
between the two mother-son pairs. In addition, the fact that the Isaac-Jesus typology plays an
important role in Origen’s reading of the Bible makes it logical that he would connect between
their mothers as well.37

11:28). Some have taken this to reflect negatively on Mary. However, Stephen Shoemaker argues that is should be
read in light of the portrayal of Mary in the first chapter of Luke in which she is framed as close to God and loyal to
His command. As such, Jesus’ response is less a “correction” and more a “clarification” that Mary’s blessed nature is
connected to her willingness to follow the word of God. This is the example that Jesus sees in Mary and wishes for
others to follow. See: Stephen J. Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 2016), 38.
36
Citation and translation according to: Joseph T. Lienhard, trans., Origen: Homilies on Luke, Fragments on Luke
(Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996). As he does with Sarah in his commentary on Genesis,
Origen also notes here that the figure of Mary may be used to encourage women to lead pious lives, (Ibid., 33). The
blessed nature of Mary is also an important theme in the Protoevangelium of James, an early apocryphal work which
probably influenced Origen and will be discussed later.
37
A few examples suffice to demonstrate the prominence of the Isaac-Jesus typology in Origen’s writing. In Homilies
on Genesis Origen states (HomGen XIV:1):
…although our Lord Jesus Christ is one in his substance and nothing other than the son of God,
nevertheless he is represented as various and diverse in the figures and images of the Scriptures.
For example… Christ himself was Isaac, in type, when he was offered as a holocaust.

169
An additional example of Origen’s Sarah-Mary typology is even blunter. In his
Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Origen describes Sarah’s conception of Isaac in terms
similar to Mary’s conception of Jesus (ComRom VI:15, emphasis my own):38

… it is not by the course of a fleshy birth that Isaac is born, since Abraham was
already considered to have a dead body and Sarah’s womb was dead, as it was said
above (cf. Rom 4:19). But it is through the power of Him who said, “At this time I
come and Sarah will have a son” (Gen 18:10). Therefore, he is called a son by merit,
not by flesh, but of God, who is born out of the arrival and discourse of God.

According to Origen not only was Sarah unable to bear and void of carnal desire, but Isaac is
actually born through an act of God and without recourse to the physical. In this Origen goes
beyond what is said about Sarah in the book of Genesis and even in the letters of Paul. Genesis
credits God with blessing Abraham and Sarah with a child, but it is clear that Abraham is the one
who actually impregnates Sarah.39 Likewise, even in Paul’s references to Sarah’s pregnancy
through “promise” and Isaac’s birth through “Spirit,” he does not imply that Isaac was actually

In this vein, Origen reads Abraham’s response to Isaac at the akeida “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering,
my son” (Gen 22:8), as meaning that “the Lord himself will provide himself a sheep in Christ” (VII:6). Origen also
reads the blessing Abraham receives after passing this divine test (Gen 22:15-18) as proof that (IX:1):
the promise which should apply to that people which is saved by the passion and resurrection of
Christ is renewed at the time, no less, of the passion of Isaac.
Likewise, in his both his Homilies and Commentary on Genesis Origen states that Isaac carrying the wood for the
alter (Gen 22:6) is a ‘typological anticipation’ of Jesus bearing his cross (VIII:6, Fragment E 55). This particular
statement has been analyzed by Niehoff and Himmelfarb and will be discussed shortly. The use of Isaac-Jesus is not
limited to his works on Genesis either. For example, see: Commentary on Romans VI:15, which will also be discussed
here.
38
Translation and citation taken from Thomas P. Scheck, trans., Origen: Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans,
Books 6-10 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2002). The parallel drawn by Origen between
Sarah and Mary here is also noted by Meyer. See: Mati Meyer, “Refracting Christian Truths Through The Prism Of
The Biblical Female In Byzantine Illuminated Manuscripts,” in Jews in Byzantium, ed. Guy G. Stroumsa et al. (Brill,
2011), 980.
39
Some modern scholars have conjectured that ancient mythic traditions about men born of God or other divine
agents may have left their mark on the Hebrew Bible. For example, Shinan and Zakovitch read the description of the
“divine beings” which have children with the “daughters of men” (Gen 6:1-4) as well as the story of Samson’s birth
(Jud 13:2-24) as adaptations of such myths by the Bible in a manner which removes the more objectionable aspects
and makes it acceptable to Israelite monotheism. See: Yair Zakovitch and Avigdor Shinan, “Who Were the ‘Sons of
God’? [Hebrew],” in That’s Not What the Good Book Says (Tel Aviv: Yediot Achronot, 2004), 29–41; Yair Zakovitch
and Avigdor Shinan, “What Happened at Samson’s Birth? [Hebrew],” in That’s Not What the Good Book Says (Tel
Aviv: Yediot Achronot, 2004), 173–79. However, whatever early material might have likewise inspired the authors
of Genesis here, it is clear that they had no intent to imply that Abraham was not the biological father of Isaac.

170
conceived in anything other than the natural physical manner.40 This should not be surprising as
there is no reason to think that Paul was familiar with the idea of Jesus’ virgin birth. As a result,
he should not be expected to apply it to Sarah. For Origen, however, the virgin birth of Jesus was
already fact. Thus, it is clear that his intent here is to describe Sarah in Marian terms. 41

Like the fragment from his Commentary on Genesis, which used Sarah-Mary typology
while also alluding to the connection between Isaac and Jesus, the link between the two sons is not
far from the surface here in his Commentary on Romans. To wit, after stating that Sarah became
pregnant “through the power of [God]” Origen then remarks that Isaac is therefore a “son of merit,
not by flesh, but of God.” This terminology, of course, immediately brings to mind Jesus.
According to the New Testament, he was born from a woman who “found favor with God,” was
“come upon by the Holy Spirit,” and as a result is called the “son of God” (Mt 1:30, 35). Thus, it
appears that Origen is not only aiming to expand upon the miraculous birth of Isaac, but also to
buttress the claim that he is a prefiguration of Jesus.

Strikingly, Origen’s statement about the miraculous nature of Sarah’s conception is found
in almost identical form in GenR. As noted earlier, the midrash comments on the verse “The Lord
remembered [pakad] Sarah as He had promised” (Gen 12:1; GR 53:6, Albeck 560):

Said R. Yehudah bar Simon: Even though as R. Huna said there is an angel
appointed over physical desire, Sarah did not require such things, rather He in His
glory: “And the Lord remembered [pakad] Sarah” (Gen 21:1).

In addition to the distance between this drasha and the verse it is based on, which was discussed
in chapter three, the implication is startling: God Himself impregnated Sarah. The overtly Christian

40
As noted in the previous discussion of Galatians in chapter four, some scholars have attempted to argue that Paul
was indeed referring to a virgin conception on the part of Sarah. However, this approach has been soundly rejected.
Indeed, elsewhere Paul himself makes it clear that the patriarchs, while ‘children of the promise,’ were nevertheless
born the natural way (Romans 9:10-11). See: Raymond E. Brown, “Appendix IV: Virginal Conception,” in The Birth of
the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, The Anchor Bible (Garden City:
Doubleday, 1993), 523–24.
41
In speaking of Sarah’s virgin conception, Origen would have found precedent in Philo. As part of his removal of
the feminine from the allegorical Sarah, Philo states that God returned her to a virgin state and then impregnated
her (Cher 50). See the discussion of Philo’s allegory in Maren R. Niehoff, “Mother and Maiden, Sister and Spouse:
Sarah in Philonic Midrash,” Harvard Theological Review 97, no. 4 (2004): 436–38. However, even if Origen is
influenced by Philo here, the connection he draws to the virgin birth of Jesus is unmistakable given his own religious
context. Whatever his inspiration, Origen uses this idea in a Christian context in order to further Marian typology.

171
implications of such a statement could not have been lost on the fifth-century editors of the midrash
nor R. Yehudah bar Simon himself (a 3-4th generation Amora), if the attribution is to be given
credence.42 It is therefore hard to imagine that the midrash reached such a conclusion without
some foreign influence.

Indeed, the parallel with Origen is remarkable.43 He too stated that Sarah conceived without
recourse to “flesh,” but rather through the “arrival and discourse of God.” Given all that is known
regarding rabbinic contact with Origen and the exceptional nature of this drasha, there is every
reason to think that Origen is the source of the midrash’s portrayal of Sarah here. This parallel
goes beyond merely the thematic and points to the direct use of Origen’s idea on the part of the
rabbis. The fact that this statement is ascribed to R. Yehudah bar Simon supports this conclusion.
Not only was he active in a period in which Origen’s impact would still be felt, but Ephriam Urbach
has pointed to an instance elsewhere in midrashic literature where R. Yehudah bar Simon responds
to a Christian claim as put forth by Origen.44

In fact, this would not be the only example of GenR using a clearly Christological reading
of the Hebrew Bible taken from Origen. Of the many instances of the Isaac-Jesus typology
scattered throughout Origen’s works, one of the more explicit ones is found in his Commentary
on Genesis. The Bible states that “Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his
son Isaac” as they walked to the akeida (Gen 22:6). Origen comments that this verse is a
“typological anticipation” of Jesus bearing his cross on the way to be crucified.45 Niehoff has noted

42
Even if the rabbis were aware of the fact that Philo made a similar statement about Sarah’s virgin pregnancy
centuries before, the particularly Christian significance of ‘virgin birth’ in their own social and historical setting would
have been clear to them. As a result, it cannot be argued that they are innocently making use of Philonic material.
43
Some scholars have previously recognized the rather Christian nature of this statement, but they have not noticed
the direct parallel with Origen. See: Martha Himmelfarb, “The Mother of the Messiah in the Talmud Yerusahlmi and
Sefer Zerubbabel,” in The Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture, ed. Peter Schäfer and Catherine Hezser
(Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1998), 380 fn47. In addition, Meir notes that GenR credits Sarah with “humility and deep
faith,” thus adding a “spiritual dimension” similar, in a general sense, to Mary. However, she does not note this more
direct parallel. Meyer, “Refracting Christian Truths,” 980 fn53.
44
Urbach, “Song of Songs,” 155.
45
The analysis of this parallel follows Niehoff, “Origen’s Commentary on Genesis as a Key to Genesis Rabbah,” 139–
40, and the translation of Origen is that of Niehoff. Origen’s statement regarding Isaac and the cross also appears in
his Homilies on Genesis (Homily VIII:6). The parallel between this homily and GenR is noted by Martha Himmelfarb
who suggests a slightly different reading than Niehoff. See: Himmelfarb, “Ordeals,” 297–99.

172
that the rabbis copy this almost statement almost word-for-word in GenR (GR 56:3, Vat. 30,
Albeck 598):

.‫ כזה שהוא טוען צלובו בכתיפו‬:"]‫"ויקח אברהם את עצי העו]לה וישם על יצחק בנו‬

“Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac.” As
one who carries his cross on his shoulder.

As she further demonstrates, the rabbis do not attempt to refute Origen’s typological reading of
Isaac. Rather, they are comfortable using clearly Christian imagery for their own exegetical ends,
highlighting Isaac’s own suffering and self-sacrifice in this episode. With that, the midrash’s
adaptation of Christian material has a clear boundary. GenR adjusts Origen’s statement slightly by
removing the explicit reference to Jesus. As a result, the rabbis take advantage of Origen’s
evocative imagery, without endorsing his Christian typology.

These conclusions create the proper framework for understanding the midrash’s comments
concerning Sarah here. It is clear the rabbis are have no problem using an overtly Christian idea in
order to help demonstrate Sarah’s personal piety and closeness to God. Likewise, the rabbis are
clearly not attempting to disprove Origin’s typological reading of Sarah, yet they subtly shift its
emphasis. While Origen ultimately focuses on the ‘non-fleshy’ nature of Isaac’s birth as part of
his view that Isaac prefigures Jesus, the rabbis instead emphasize Sarah’s miraculous conception.
In doing so, they manage to adopt Origen’s reading in order to add to their laudatory portrayal of
the matriarch without lending credence to his larger claim of an Isaac-Jesus typology in the Hebrew
Bible. Likewise, they are able to praise Sarah without signaling any acceptance of Origen’s larger
claim, expressed in his commentary on Romans, that salvation is found only through Christ.

Further, it is possible that the connection drawn by Origen between Mary and Sarah
affected GenR in another manner. Origen was crucial in expanding the role played by the Virgin
Mother in the early Christian world. In his works on the Gospels, he refers to her as “filled with
the Holy Spirit” (HomLk VII:3) and the “first fruit among women” due to her chastity (ComMt
X:17).46 Additionally, she is described as a prophetess of the first rank and a model of proper
Christian conduct for all to emulate (HomLk VIII:1). Finally, due to her piety she “was the one

46
Translation and citation according to: John Patrick, “Origen’s Commentary on Matthew,” in The Ante-Nicene
Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers down to A.D.325, ed. Allan Menzies, 5th ed., vol. 10 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
1969), 411–512.

173
most suitable to bear God’s son” and merited to “have God’s power protecting her” (HomLk
VII:2). Beyond these words of praise, Origen is also closely identified with the use of the term
Theotokos (God-bearer) in reference to Mary, which speaks of her importance in his eyes, and
would go on to become her official title in a later period after the Council of Ephesus (431 CE).47

Given the manner in which the midrash made use of Origen’s Mary-like depiction of
Sarah’s pregnancy, it is possible that GenR also adopted his approach to Mary elsewhere in regards
to Sarah. In addition to merely assisting the rabbis’ attempts to praise Sarah, the use of Marian
themes would help the rabbis combat the typological claim that Mary was a perfected version of
Sarah by presenting her as on par with her Christian counterpart. To wit, Origen’s presentation of
Mary as a role model of piety and religious conduct is matched by the midrash’s presentation of
Sarah. Similarly, like Origen does for Mary, the rabbis speak of the special divine protection Sarah
receives. Moreover, the midrash emphasizes that Sarah is a prophetess and that her words are
actually those of the “Holy Spirit,” just as Origen stated in regard to Mary. Perhaps this also
explains why the midrash was so insistent that while God normally does not speak with women, a
special exception was made for Sarah and Sarah alone. This would have the benefit of excluding
all other women, Mary in particular. Lastly, returning to Mary’s miraculous conception, it is worth
observing that Mary’s virginity becomes an important point in early Christian thought in general
and in Origen’s writing in particular.48 For example, his Commentary on Matthew contains a
lengthy discourse which touches on Mary’s virginity and the religious value of asceticism (ComMt
X:17). This strikes a similar chord to the midrash’s portrayal of Sarah as so ascetically pious that
she had no use for the “angel appointed over physical desire” (GR 53:6, Albeck 560). An attempt
to frame Sarah in such a manner may also account for the midrash’s insistence, mentioned in
chapter three, that for the ninety years before she gave birth Sarah remained like “a bride in her
canopy” (GR 45:4, Albeck 451). This is despite the Bible’s explicit statements that she was “old,”
“advanced in years,” and “withered” (Gen 18:11-12). In fact, Mati Meyer notes that in Christian
art from the post-iconoclastic era Sarah is sometimes depicted as a young woman.49 This, she
demonstrates, is part of an artistic attempt to present Sarah as a prefiguration of the youthful Virgin

47
John McGuckin, “The Early Cult of Mary and Inter-Religious Contexts in the Fifth-Century Church,” in The Origins
of the Cult of the Virgin Mary, ed. Chris Maunder (London: Burns and Oats, 2008), 9–10.
48
See the lengthy discussion of this with an emphasis on Origen in: David G. Hunter, “Helvidius, Jovinian, and the
Virginity of Mary in Late Fourth-Century Rome,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 1 (1993): 61–71.
49
Meyer, “Refracting Christian Truths,” 979–81.

174
Mary. While this artwork comes from a period later than GenR, it has been demonstrated that the
typological parallel between the two women was a part of Christian thought long before.
Therefore, it is noteworthy that the depictions of Sarah in Byzantine art bear a striking resemblance
to the depiction of a youthful Sarah in the midrash.50 This may also support the idea that the
midrash is engaged in a dialogue with Christian concepts.

Sarah as a Counter-Narrative
It is worthwhile summarizing what has been demonstrated up to this point. The Christian
subversion and appropriation of Sarah which began in the New Testament is further developed in
the writings of Origin. Given Origen’s prominence in the land of Israel and his established contacts
with the rabbinic world, the appearance of these ideas in his works lends credence to the conclusion
that they would have been familiar to the rabbis of GenR. Further, parallels between Origen and
the rabbis, which include the midrash’s striking use of Origen’s description of Sarah’s pregnancy
through God, make it clear that midrash was indeed confronted with the claim that Sarah was both
the Christian matriarch and a prefiguration of Mary.
As discussed in chapter three the midrash’s development of Sarah can be generally traced
to the Amoraic period. Because Origen arrived in Caesarea around the time of the first generation
of the Amoraim it can then be stated with some confidence that the rabbinic expansion of Sarah
takes place in a period when the rabbis would have already been exposed to his rhetoric and when
his impact would still be felt.51 Likewise implying that Origen is the link between the Christian
subversion of Sarah and the rabbis’ own development of her character, several of Origen’s
statements regarding Mary have parallels in rabbinic statements about Sarah. By emphasizing that
Sarah was close to God and herself both a prophetess and role model of ascetic piety, the rabbis
grant her an inherent significance and personal greatness which matches that of Mary. In this
manner the midrash could battle the Christian portrayal of Mary as a perfected antitype of Sarah.
This trend reaches its height in the midrash’s description of Sarah’s divine pregnancy. For

50
In addition, according to archeologists’ reconstruction of the floor mosaic from the synagogue in Sepphoris
Sarah is also depicted as a young women there (just as the midrash states). See: Zeev Weiss, The Sepphoris
Synagogue: Deciphering an Ancient Message through Its Archaeological and Socio-Historical Contexts (Jerusalem:
Israel Exploration Society: Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2005), 229. However, given
that only the very top of Sarah’s head has actually survived it may be hard to say for certain.
51
Compare: Himmelfarb, “Ordeals,” 300–301. Regarding the connection she identifies between Origen and GenR
regarding the akeida, Himmelfarb points to the fact that the statements in GenR which she argues are responding
to Origen are all attributed to Amoraim, thus strengthening her claim.

175
Christians, this is the ultimate expression of Mary’s typological superiority over Sarah. However,
the rabbis undercut this point by stating the Sarah, just like Mary, became pregnant though God
Himself.
Having used Origen to demonstrate the connection between these Christian ideas and
rabbinic midrash allows for a more far-reaching claim which goes beyond the particular parallels
discussed thus far: the overall development of Sarah in GenR is an attempt by the rabbis to create
a counter-narrative to combat the Christian appropriation of Sarah.52 Christian attempts to frame
Sarah as they did explain the motivation of the rabbis in filling in gaps in the matriarch’s story and
stressing her closeness to God. Through this they created a depiction of Sarah which could combat
the Christian one.53 Instead of the mother of Christendom, the midrash emphasizes that Sarah was
and remains the prototype of Jewish faith and practice. GenR therefore repeatedly speaks of
Sarah’s piety, her role as a conduit for God’s word, and her fulfillment of the commandments. In
addition, it makes clear that Sarah is to been seen not just as the biological mother of Israel, but
also its spiritual matriarch: she converts women and nurtures God-fearers. All of this serves to
challenge the Christian claim that despite the Jewish connection to Sarah in ‘flesh’ she is no longer
their mother in ‘Spirit.’
Given that the rabbis’ approach to Sarah has been framed in such a polemic context, an
additional point is worth mentioning. The verse “And the Lord remembered Sarah” (Gen 21:1) is
used by GenR as part of more petiḥtot (proems) than any other.54 Abraham Goldberg has pointed
out that the relatively large amount of material attached to Genesis 21:1 is probably a result of the

52
Use of the term “counter-narrative” is taken from Peter Schäfer’s Jesus in the Talmud in which he argues that the
rabbinic portrayal of Jesus in Talmudic literature is not meant to be an attempt at historical writing on the part of
the rabbis, but rather aims to fashion a narrative that competes with the Christian portrayal of Jesus in the New
Testament, see: Peter Schäfer, Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 10.
53
A similar trend in regard to other biblical characters has been demonstrated in several of the essays contained in
the recent collection: Kattan Gribetz et al., Genesis Rabbah in Text and Context. As Gribetz and Grossberg summarize
(Sarit Kattan Gribetz et al., eds., “Introduction: Genesis Rabbah, a Great Beginning,” in Genesis Rabbah in Text and
Context (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 13.
One important trend revealed by these essays is that Genesis Rabbah frequently engages with its
Christian context though its development of biblical characters in ways that reveal awareness of
and often efforts to undermine Christian exegetical and theological ideas associated with those
same figures; these essays deal specifically with Enoch, Abraham, Abraham’s family, Isaac, and
Joseph as figures reimagined by rabbinic interpreters to counter contemporaneous Christian
appropriations of these personalities.
54
Noted by Avraham Goldberg, “Problems of Editing and Arrangement in Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah That
Have yet to be Solved [Hebrew],” in Mehkarei Talmud III, ed. Ya’akov Sussman and David Rosenthal (Jerusalem:
Magnes, 2005), 138–39. The verse is used in eight or nine times, depending on which MS is used.

176
fact that it was the opening verse of the Torah reading for Rosh HaShannah.55 As such, it is most
likely that the drashot on this verse were crafted for use in the synagogue services as opposed to
the more cloistered environment of the rabbinic study halls.56 This adds another reason why the
rabbis would find interest in connecting the verse to a rebuttal of Christian themes regarding
Sarah.57 If so, it is not coincidental that among the drashot on Genesis 21:1 are both the Mary-like
description of Sarah’s divine pregnancy and the one which credits Isaac’s birth to Sarah’s
“commandments and good deeds” (GR 53:5, Albeck 599). Each year anew attention was drawn to
Sarah’s character in the public liturgy and the rabbis would do well to use this opportunity to affirm
their own counter-narrative regarding her. In spite of Christian claims to the contrary, the rabbis
maintain that Sarah remains the mother of the Jewish people. She is the role model for all of Israel
who was repaid by God for her “commandments and good deeds” and whose piety meant that “He
in His honor” was directly responsible for her pregnancy.

55
According to the Mishnah (Megilah 3:5) a section from Leviticus (“In the seventh month, on the first day of the
month,” Lev 23:24) is actually what is read on Rosh HaShannah. However, the Tosefta (Megilah 3:6, Lieberman 345)
also lists “And the Lord remembered Sarah” as an option and according to the later testimony of the Bavli (Megilah
31a) that this was the section read in practice. The Bavli’s testimony is confirmed by the large amount of midrashic
material contained in GenR. That the large number of drashot on this verse is due to its use in the Rosh HaShannah
reading is noted by Goldberg as well (ibid.).
56
As I noted in the introduction to this thesis, contemporary scholarship prefers the rabbinic study halls as the Sitz
im Leben for the midrashic material and has moved away from the earlier approach which placed it in the context
of public drashot. However, Herr has demonstrated one should not be too quick to assume that a particular drasha
was born in the beit midrash and not the beit kenneset. Given the use of Gen 12:1 in the Rosh HaShannah liturgy I
believe that it is fair to view these drashot as most likely created for use in the synagogue.
57
Bernard Zlotowitz has actually argued that the reading for Rosh HaShannah was chosen so as to use the akeida
story to defend against the Christian use of the Isaac-Jesus typology, see: Bernard M. Zlotowitz, “The Torah and
Haftarah Readings For The High Holy Days,” Central Conference of American Rabbis Journal 91 (1975): 98–101. His
assertion is problematic for two reasons. First, it is not entirely clear how the mere reading of this section would
undercut Christian claims regarding Isaac and Jesus. Second, according to the Tosefta the reading for Rosh
HaShannah was “And the Lord remembered Sarah” (Gen 21:1) which tells the story of Sarah’s pregnancy and Isaac’s
birth, but not the akeida. The reading which begins with “Sometime afterward, God put Abraham to the test” (Gen
22:1) and tells the story of the akeida was indeed the reading for the second day of Rosh HaShannah, as noted by
the Bavli, when the custom developed to celebrate two days. Yet, this is likely due to the fact that it is the very next
section in the Torah after “And the Lord remembered Sarah” which was read on the first day, not because the rabbis
wished to insert the reading of the akeida in particular (as pointed out to me by Prof. Shlomit Elitzur). Moreover, it
appears that the Jewish communities in Byzantine Palestine generally only kept one day of Rosh HaShannah (see:
Joseph Tabory, Jewish Festivals in the Time of the Mishnah and Talmud (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2000), 231–32.). This,
of course, means they would not have read the section containing the akeida on Rosh HaShannah at all. I mention
these weaknesses in order to clarify that I am not suggesting that the section “And the Lord remembered Sarah”
was itself chosen as the reading for the first day of Rosh HaShannah for polemic purposes. Rather, the rabbis later
chose to inject polemic meaning into it with the drashot they delivered alongside the reading.

177
Finally, understanding Sarah’s portrayal in GenR as a counter-narrative to pervasive
Christian rhetoric surrounding the matriarch can also help account for the unique aspects of the
midrash’s focus on her laid out in chapter three. First, the need to respond to the Christian
appropriation of Sarah may explain why, in praising her, the midrash is so willing to go beyond
the limits it generally places upon women. Combating Christian claims trumped the desire to
remain loyal to accepted gender roles. Second, it makes clear why, of all the matriarchs, the
midrash chooses to focus so much attention on Sarah in particular. It was Sarah who played such
a central role in the Christian polemic described above and therefore it is she among all the biblical
mothers who must be reclaimed. Third, it explains why such a development typifies as a redacted
work and sets it from other works of Jewish exegesis. In addition to their exposure to Origen’s
ideas, the rabbis of GenR were faced with a challenge that their second Temple and Tannaic
predecessors were not: an increasingly powerful and entrenched Christian community in the land
of Israel.58

Conclusion
Building on the New Testament material, Origen highlights Sarah’s role as a typological
anticipation of Mary and matriarch of Christianity. The interactions between Origen and the rabbis
of GenR mean that his use of these narratives would have been well-known in the rabbinic
bailiwick. This would give the rabbis ample reason to attempt to reclaim Sarah as their own and

58
As Gribetz and Grossberg note (Kattan Gribetz et al., “Introduction: Genesis Rabbah, a Great Beginning,” 7):
“Genesis Rabbah is the first work of rabbinic midrash that post-dates the Christianization of the Roman Empire.”
Isaiah Gafni summarizes the demographic changes in the land of Israel from the standpoint of the Jewish population
(Isaiah Gafni, “The World of the Talmud: From the Mishnah to the Arab Conquest,” in Christianity and Rabbinic
Judaism: A Parallel History of Their Origins and Early Development, ed. Hershel Shanks (Washington, D.C.: Biblical
Archaeology Society, 1992), 227.:
At the beginning of the third century, the Jews were still the predominant ethnic community in the
Land of Israel… Even by the year 325, one year after all of the Eastern empire came under the rule
of the first Christian emperor… Christians in Palestine… had a long way to go before emerging as a
major demographic force. Within one century, however, the proportions slowly began to reverse
themselves; by the end of the fourth and early fifth centuries, the Jews comprised barely one-third
of the total population, while the Christian community gradually emerged as a dominant
demographic factor.
Beyond these demographic changes, a cultural and conceptual shift was also apparent. Andrew Jacobs has
summarized this form the standpoint of the Christian empire (Andrew S. Jacobs, Remains of the Jews: The Holy Land
and Christian Empire in Late Antiquity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 14:
…Christians staked their imperial claims on a self-conscious appropriation of Jewish space and
knowledge; that is they embedded their power and authority in the authenticated existence of a
religious, political, and cultural “other.”

178
explains the thematic and textual connections which have been demonstrated here. But while
Origen overlapped chronologically with many of the rabbis quoted in GenR, and awareness of his
ideas by rabbis in later generations has been well established, there is still a historical gap between
him and the final redaction of the midrash in the early fifth-century. Lacking addition historical or
textual evidence, a strong case could still be made for the pervasive influence of Christian
narratives regarding Sarah, as found in Origen, upon the matriarch’s portrayal in GenR. However,
such an argument is unnecessary. As I will discuss next, in the period in which the midrash was
redacted the Christian world is witness to the rise of the Virgin Mary as an important religious
figure in her own right. In addition to the very appearance of a dominant female figure on the
religious scene, given the connection drawn in Christian rhetoric between Mary and Sarah, the
rabbis’ motivation for granting Sarah a greater role becomes even more apparent.

179
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Chapter 6
The Cult of Mary in Late Antique Palestine: From Virgin Mother to Theotokos
Introduction
The rabbis’ motivation in granting Sarah such a large role in GenR actually goes beyond the direct
subversion of Sarah as seen in the works of Origen. While in chapter five I focused upon Origen’s
writings in particular, in this chapter I will expand the discussion to a wider array of Christian texts
in order to demonstrate the development and spread of Marian worship in late antique Palestine.
Starting in the first centuries of the Common Era and through to the period of the midrash’s
redaction in the early fifth-century, the Virgin Mary gains increasing significance in Christian
thought and worship.1 Beyond the handful of references to Mary in the New Testament, she is
given special attention in some extra-canonical works of the second- and third-centuries. However,
what started as an increased focus upon the Virgin Mary in exegetical texts eventually gave way
to a fully formed cult of worship which was both popular among the laity and sanctioned by the
religious leadership. By the late fourth-century, Christian authors begin to portray Mary as an
object of veneration and even direct prayer. This trend continues into the early fifth-century where
liturgical and archeological evidence shows that religious ceremonies and celebrations dedicated
to the so-called Theotokos (God-bearer) were popular in the land of Israel. In fact, there is also
good reason to conclude that that this brand of Marian worship was well-known in Jewish circles.

Not only would Mary’s new importance bring added attention to the Christian claim that
she typologically supplanted Sarah, but the very rise of a female religious figure in land of Israel
is noteworthy. Both these factors would have given the rabbis ample reason to focus on developing
their own counter-narrative which highlighted Sarah’s connection to the Jewish people and shaped
her as an important religious icon. Not only this, but Marian worship actually intensified at the
exact time when GenR was redacted. Therefore, the rabbinic development of Sarah, which began
as response to New Testament themes forwarded by Origen, would have good reason to continue
as a response to the Cult of Mary into the early fifth-century. Moreover, as discussed in greater

1
Marian veneration in antiquity has been the subject of a series of studies by Stephen Shoemaker, including: Stephen
J. Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016); Stephen
Shoemaker, “The Cult of the Virgin in the Fourth Century: A Fresh Look at Some Old and New Sources,” in The Origins
of the Cult of the Virgin Mary, ed. Chris Maunder (London: Burns and Oats, 2008), 71–87; Stephen Shoemaker, “The
Ancient Palestinian Cult of the Virgin Mary and the Early Dormition Traditions,” in Ancient Traditions of the Virgin
Mary’s Dormition and Assumption, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 78–141.
These works were essential to the writing of this chapter and will be cited throughout. Occasionally, however, my
conclusions will differ from his and I will discuss some late antique sources that he does not.

183
length in the introduction to this thesis, the final editors of GenR had an active hand in the selection
and arrangement of the texts found in the midrash. Therefore, understanding their particular
historical and social realities is of great importance for understanding exegetical developments
which typify the midrash as a redacted work.

Mary in the New Testament


Mary is not exactly a central character in the New Testament, but she does play an important role
in some of the Gospel traditions. Several aspects of Mary’s portrayal have already been discussed
in chapter four, but a number of additional points are still worth making. In the earliest stratum of
New Testament literature, reference to Mary is rather paltry. Paul refers in passing to the fact that
Jesus has a mother (Gal 4:4), but neither gives her any real attention nor mentions her by name. 2
In a similar sense, the Gospel of Mark, which is considered the earliest of the synoptic Gospels,
does not contain anything particularly positive regarding Mary. The miraculous birth of Jesus is
not mentioned and the author actually portrays tensions between Jesus and his family, Mary
included (Mk 3:20-35).

Nevertheless, beyond Mark, a more positive depiction of Mary is found in the later
Gospels. In Matthew she becomes pregnant through the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:18) and the estrangement
between Mary and her son as recorded in Mark is absent. In the Gospel of Luke Mary receives
even more direct attention. Not only does the author speak of her divine conception and omit any
familial tensions, but he3 places her at the center of an expanded annunciation story as discussed
in chapter four. Gabriel appears to Mary (and not Joseph as in Matthew’s version) and when
visiting Elizabeth (again unique to Luke) she is called “blessed among women” (Lk 1:42). Mary
then delivers a lengthy song of praise to God known as her Magnificat (1:46-56). Further, the
author of Luke three times describes how Mary is given special knowledge regarding Jesus’ true

2
Mary Margaret Pazdan, “Mary, Mother of Jesus,” ed. David Noel Freedman, Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York:
Doubleday, 1992), 584. The possible connection between the lack of attention given to Mary in the works of Paul
and his battle with the Jerusalem Church associated with Jesus’ family was noted in chapter four. Likewise, it was
noted that the close relationship between the Mark and the Pauline corpus may account for lack of importance given
to Mary in the Markian tradition as well.
3
Interestingly enough, due to the special attention Mary and other female characters receive in Luke some scholars
have suggested that the author was a woman or, at the very least, had access to traditions preserved by women.
See: Jane Schaberg, “Luke,” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 364–65. While the possibility of female authorship has generally been rejected
in the scholarship as “improbable” (366), it nevertheless draws attention to the importance granted to women such
as Mary in the Gospel of Luke.

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nature and twice remarks that she ‘treasured these things in her heart’ (2:15-19, 33-35, 48-51). In
fact, Brown notes that Mary is the only character appearing in Luke’s infancy narrative who is also
present during Jesus’ ministry.4 On the whole, Luke’s portrayal of Mary emphasizes Mary’s close
relationship with God and her belief in Jesus’ ministry. In doing so the author frames her as not
just the mother of the Messiah, but as a “model of Christian discipleship.”5

A similar portrayal is found in the Gospel of John as well, with the notable exception of
Mary’s miraculous pregnancy which is only found in Matthew and Luke. Though Mary’s name is
not used, she is referred to often, sometimes as the “mother of Jesus” (Jn 2:1, 2, 5, 19:25-26) and
also “woman” (2:4, 19:26). Importantly, her presence is explicitly noted throughout Jesus’ public
ministry. According to John, Mary is with her son when he turns water into wine at the wedding
in Cana (2:1-11), when he travels to Capernaum (2:12), and at his eventual crucifixion (19:25-27).
In his version of events, the author of John even applies a measure of character development to
Mary. At Cana it appears that Jesus mildly rebukes his mother for a “lack of comprehension” of
his mission (2:3-4), yet she continues to remain at his side. According to Gottfried Krodel, her
continued presence signifies that she came “ultimately to solid faith”.6 This is proven by her
subsequent appearance in John’s version of the crucifixion. According to John Mary stands
alongside an unnamed “beloved disciple,” while Jesus, shortly before dying, instructs the two to
be like mother and son (19:26-27). Mary Pazdan observes that John’s portrayal of Mary here
“parallels the Lukian image” and presents her as a loyal follower of Jesus and a member of his true
family.7

It is tempting to read these sources chronologically and to conclude that the later authors
Matthew, Luke, and John rework earlier traditions found in Paul and Mark in order to grant Mary
a more important role. However, as Stephen Shoemaker points out, the in-fighting between Paul
and the faction associated with Jesus’ immediate family makes it hard to determine if this is the

4
Raymond E. Brown et al., eds., Mary in the New Testament: A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman
Catholic Scholars (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 151. As the title states, this book is a collaborative work.
Chapter six, which analyzes Mary’s portrayal in Luke, is based on a discussion led by Brown which was then worked
into its book form by John Reumann.
5
Ibid., 152.
6
Ibid., 194. This chapter’s discussion was led by Gottfried Krodel and the draft was composed by K. P. Donfried.
7
Pazdan, “Mary, Mother of Jesus,” 585. In addition, Revelations contains some scenes which some see as alluding
to Mary (Rev 12:1-6, 13-17). However, as Pazdan notes, it is far from clear that she is the woman in question.

185
case. It is also possible that Matthew and Luke are actually representative of earlier traditions
which those in Paul’s orbit wished to expunge.8 Whatever the historical background, however, it
is clear that some of the New Testament authors saw fit to highlight Mary’s relationship with God
and her importance as both mother and disciple of Christ. This might imply that some believers in
the first-century CE also gave Mary religious importance in her own right, but there is certainly
no evidence that she was an object of direct worship in the period.

Mary in the Christian Apocrypha and Early Authors


The attention paid to Mary in early Christianity texts, however, is not limited to the New
Testament. The mother of Jesus also appears in some of the earliest Christian works outside of the
canon. In general, these authors touch upon her virginity in particular, as part of greater
Christological claims as to Jesus’ divine nature. The late first-century work known as the
Ascension of Isaiah describes the eponymous prophet’s journey into the heavens. As part of this it
also contains a recounting of Mary’s virgin conception and birth, which is the same in some
respects to Matthew, and is crafted to highlight Jesus' divine origins.9 A similar use of Mary can
be found the Odes of Solomon, a collection of Christian hymns from the second-century. Ode 19
opens by referring to Jesus’s relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit: “The Son is the cup. /
And the Father is He who was milked. / And the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him” (Ode 19:2).
Later the Ode turns to his miraculous birth: “the Virgin became a mother / with great miracles”
(Ode 19:7).10 After continuing to praise Mary, the Ode closes: “She loved with salvation / And she
protected with kindness / And she declared with greatness” (19:11). This same emphasis on Mary’s
virginity in the context of Jesus’ unique and miraculous nature can also found in the works of early
Christian authors Ignatius of Antioch (d. ca. 107), Justin Martyr (d. 165), and Irenaeus of Lyons

8
Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion, 39–43. Given that the differences between the two
traditions (Matthew/Luke/John and Paul/Mark) fit ideological lines so well it seems unlikely that they are merely
two separate traditions which developed independently. However, this is also a possibility.
9
For more on the description of Mary in this work, see: Jonathan Knight, “The Portrait of Mary in the Ascension of
Isaiah,” in Which Mary?: The Marys of Early Christian Tradition, ed. F. Stanley Jones (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 91–106. As
he summarizes (104):
The use of Marian traditions in the apocalypse is Christologically determined. What is said about
Mary supports the miraculous nature of the intervention that the heavenly descent scheme
introduces… This leaves no doubt that Jesus’ person and ministry are conceived in supernatural
terms.
Regarding the dating of this work, Knight notes that most scholars place it at the end of the first-century, though
some put it as late as the third (93).
10
Translation and citations from: James H. Charlesworth, The Odes of Solomon (Cambridge: James Clarke, 2009).

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(d. 202).11 Importantly for the development of Christian conceptions of Mary, Justin and Irenaeus
speak of Mary as the ‘second Eve’ who atones for the original woman’s disobedience and
immorality. Such a belief is also alluded in the aforementioned Ode which states that Mary felt
no pain in childbirth, as such suffering is understood in the Bible to be the result of Eve’s sin (Ode
19:8; cf. Gen 3:16).

Attention to Mary is also found in some of the apocryphal Gospels. Despite the fact that
they were ultimately not included in the New Testament, many of them were popular and
influential in early Christianity.12 Like the canonical Gospels, these works contain the stories of
Jesus and those in his inner circle, though often from a point of view not found in the New
Testament. For example, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is a somewhat lighthearted account of
Jesus’ childhood: he works in his father Joseph’s carpentry shop, outwits his teachers, and
performs miracles.13 In this work Mary appears when she and Joseph return to the Temple after
the Passover holiday in search of their son (an expansion of an episode recorded in Lk 2:41-52).
Mary finds Jesus sitting among the elders “explaining the chief points of the Law and the parables
of the prophets” (Inf. Thom 19:2). Those with Jesus go on to tell Mary: “You are most fortunate
among women, because God has blessed the fruit of your womb” (19:4). Therefore, despite the
fact that this apocryphal Gospel does not give Mary an overly important role nor refer to her
pregnancy from the Holy Spirit, the author does emphasize Mary’s unique standing among women
and her blessed nature.

The most extensive treatment of Mary in the Christian apocrypha is found in the
Protevangelium of James. This work purports to be the handiwork of James, hence its name.
Despite the title, though, it is actually dedicated to Mary’s life, from her own miraculous birth until
that of Jesus. Indeed, in many early manuscripts this Gospel is actually given names such as the
Birth of Mary or the Story of the Birth of Saint Mary, Mother of God.14 Not much is known about
the background of this Greek proto-Gospel and its exact place and time of origin remains unclear.
It was probably written in Egypt or Syria and since the work is alluded to by both Clement of

11
For an overview of the use of Mary by these authors, see: Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion,
43–47. Shoemaker also mentions the Ascension of Isaiah and the Odes to Solomon in this context.
12
Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It into the New Testament (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2003), 8.
13
Translation and citations from: Bart D. Ehrman, “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas,” in Lost Scriptures, 57–62.
14
Ehrman, Lost Scriptures, 63.

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Alexandria and Origen it is usually dated to sometime in the latter half of the second-century CE.15
The large number of manuscript traditions and widespread use of the Protevangelium show that
the work was extremely popular from the time of its writing through to the mediaeval period. 16
This is particularly true in the Christian East, where the book was made part of liturgical services
starting in the fifth-century. However, even in the West, where the work faced some opposition
and was ultimately not accepted as authoritative, it still was very influential. There too it left a
mark upon Marian traditions and dogma. In addition to the textual evidence for the popularity of
the Protevangelium, physical evidence has survived as well. The earliest known visual depiction
of Mary, found in a third-century wall painting from the church in Dura Europos, portrays the
annunciation to Mary according to details recorded in the proto-Gospel and not those recorded in
Luke or Matthew.17 The same is true later when annunciation imagery begins to appear elsewhere
in the fourth- and early fifth-century. These depictions are likewise always based on themes found
in the Protevangelium and not the canonical Gospels.

Building off well-known biblical motifs, the Protevangelium opens with Joachim and
Anna, a righteous and wealthy Jewish couple, who are unable to have children. They turn to God
and are answered by an angel who appears to Anna and informers her (Prot. Jas. 4:1):18

The Lord has heard your prayer. You will conceive a child and give birth, and your
offspring will be spoken of throughout the entire world.

15
This dating of the Protevangelium has long been held and represents the mainstream view in the scholarship. For
example it is accepted by J. K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature
in an English Translation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009), 48–49; Ehrman, Lost Scriptures, 63; Willem S. Vorster,
“James, Protevangelium Of,” ed. David Noel Freedman, Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 629;
Brown et al., Mary in the New Testament, 248.
However, some scholars question whether Clement and Origen are in fact to referring to the proto-gospel
and not simply similar traditions taken from elsewhere. Based on this and other factors they instead argue for a date
slightly later in the second-century or even the early third-century. For a more detailed overview of this matter, see:
Lily C. Vuong, “Accessing the Virgin: Gender and Purity in the Protevangelium of James” (PhD Thesis, McMaster
University, 2010), 44–53. Vuong herself prefers this approach.
16
Regarding these points and the general popularity and influence of the Protevangelium, see: Shoemaker, Mary in
Early Christian Faith and Devotion, 47–51; Vuong, “Accessing the Virgin,” 15–18; Pazdan, “Mary, Mother of Jesus,”
586.
17
Mary Joan Winn Leith, “Earliest Depictions of the Virgin Mary,” Biblical Archaeology Review 43, no. 2 (2017): 42–
43.
18
Citations and translations from: Bart D. Ehrman, “The Proto-Gospel of James,” in Lost Scriptures: Books That Did
Not Make It into the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 63–72.

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Out of thanks and joy, and here too the proto-gospel uses a biblical motif,19 Anna promises to
dedicate the child to the Temple in Jerusalem (ibid.):

As the Lord God lives, whether my child is a boy or a girl, I will offer it as a gift to
the Lord my God, and it will minister to Him its entire life.

In due time a daughter is born to Joachim and Anna and they name her Mary. At age three
she is taken to live in the Temple where she is “cared for like a dove, receiving her food from the
hand of an angel” (8:1). Further, Mary is “brought up in the Holy of Holies… and heard the hymns,
and danced before [God]” (15:3). When she reaches 12 years, Mary is wedded to Joseph, an older
widower who is chosen to be her husband through a divine sign. The marriage, however, is not
to be consummated. Instead Joseph is told: “You have been called to take the Lord’s virgin into
your safe-keeping” (9:1). Sometime later, while she is spinning a curtain for the temple, an angel
appears to Mary and tells her “Greetings, you who are favored. The Lord is with you. You are
blessed among women” and that she will “conceive a child by [God’s] Word” (10:1-2). An angel
also appears to Joseph to assure him that Mary’s child “comes from the Holy Spirit” and not
another man (14:2). The couple even survive a test akin to the ‘ordeal of the bitter water’ (cf.
Numbers 5) administered by the High Priest (16:1-3). Eventually, Joseph and Mary set out from
Jerusalem for Bethlehem, but stop on the way as Mary goes into labor. Joseph brings a “Hebrew
midwife” to attend to Mary (19:1),20 but by the time they arrive Jesus has already been born. Upon
seeing the newborn the midwife proclaims: “My soul has been magnified today, for my eyes have
seen a miraculous sign: salvation has been born to Israel” (19:2). In addition, the Protevangelium

19
Compare 1 Sam 1:11 where a different Anna (Ḥannah) makes a similar vow:
…O Lord of Hosts, if You will look upon the suffering of Your maidservant and will remember me
and not forget Your maidservant, and if You will grant Your maidservant a male child, I will dedicate
him to the Lord for all the days of his life; and no razor shall ever touch his head.
20
It would seem that the author of the Protevangelium inserts this in order to connect Jesus with Moses who was
himself delivered by “Hebrew midwives” (Ex 1:15). The Hebrew of the Masoretic Text (‫ (למילדות העבריות‬is
ambiguous. It could be taken to mean the midwives were themselves Hebrews or that they merely were the
midwives of the Hebrews, but not necessarily Hebrews themselves. The Septuagint’s translation of this verse (ταῖς
μαίαις τῶν Εβραίων) seems to favor the second option, namely that they were not Hebrews themselves. On the
other hand, rabbinic midrash favors the first option, namely that the midwives were themselves women of Israel
(See: Sifrei Bamidbar 78 [Horowitz Ed. p74] and bSotah 11b). Interestingly enough the language of the
Protevangelium (μαῖαν... Ἑβραίαν) is closer to the rabbinic reading. The Greek of the Protevangelium is taken
from: Émile Amann, Le Protevangile de Jacques et Ses Remaniements Latins (Paris: Letouzey et Ane, 1910), 250.

189
maintains that Mary remains a virgin even post-partum. This is demonstrated graphically when a
certain Salome “inserted her finger in order to examine [Mary’s] condition” (20:1).

Drawing upon themes from the Jewish and Christian Bibles the proto-gospel repeatedly
highlights Mary’s profound piety and unique closeness to God. While some of the descriptions of
Mary’s life in the Protevangelium do draw upon material in the infancy narratives of Matthew and
Luke, it clearly goes far beyond anything in the New Testament itself. Likewise, much of it, such
as Mary’s miraculous birth and sanctified childhood, is wholly without precedent. The same is
true of its emphasis on Mary’s continuous virginity. This theme can be found in both Matthew and
Luke and is highlighted in some other early texts, but nothing compares to the significance it is
given in the Protoevangelium. As Shoemaker summarizes it, the proto-Gospel “portrays her as the
epitome of sacred purity, as perfect holiness embodied in a human body.”21

Scholars have offered different suggestions for what motivated the author of the
Protoevangelium.22 Some emphasize the desire to fill in gaps in Mary’s story as presented in the
New Testament and see the work as part of greater trend in antiquity to give more complete
biographies to biblical and historical figures.23 Others posit that the heavy importance the proto-
gospel places on Mary’s virginity shows the work was meant to be an apologetic defense against
claims that Jesus’s birth was illegitimate.24 Yet others see the proto-Gospel as another attempt to
glorify Jesus himself by expanding upon the sanctity of the events leading up to his birth.25 While
all this certainly played a role, the Protevangelium singles Mary out for praise which clearly goes
beyond merely filling in the blanks in her story, defending the legitimacy of Jesus’ birth or
elevating her son’s own status. Were these the author’s primary aims then many of the outstanding

21
Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion, 60.
22
For an extensive overview of the scholarly discussion surrounding the aims of the proto-gospel, see: Vuong,
“Accessing the Virgin,” 68–76.
23
Brown, for example, understands the proto-gospel to be an example of “Christian midrash” which took the stories
in Matthew and Luke and “rewrote the biblical material in a creative way” (Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the
Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, The Anchor Bible [Garden City: Doubleday,
1993], 559). He further states that the term midrash is fitting to works written after the Gospels, such as the
Protevangelium and other apocryphal gospels, but not the infancy narrative of the canonical gospels themselves.
Rather, he sees them as part of a genre he terms “infancy narratives of famous men” (561).
24
For example: Pazdan, “Mary, Mother of Jesus,” 586; Vorster, “James, Protevangelium Of,” 631.
25
For example, Miri Rubin argues that the purpose of the proto-gospel was to both defend the idea of virgin birth
and help to prove that “Jesus’ life [was] worthy of his death and of his emergent divinity”. See: Miri Rubin, Mother
of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 13.

190
aspects of the Protevangelium would be unnecessary. The detailed descriptions of Mary’s own
miraculous birth and her time in the Temple, for example, shows that this work sees Mary as a
figure of utmost significance in her own right and thus seeks to present her in the most laudatory
fashion possible.26

While most of these apocryphal texts mention Mary in a greater Christological context and
focus mainly on her virginity, the Protevangelium takes things much further. It tells Mary’s own
story and details her unique holiness and piety. The existence of a proto-Gospel dedicated to Mary
in the late second-century and its wide-spread popularity is highly suggestive. It appears to signify
a growing fascination with Mary’s character for its own sake and an attempt to imbue her with
inherent religious importance. With this, however, the Virgin Mother does not yet seem to be a
direct object of worship. Even the Odes, for instance, which invoked Mary in a liturgical context,
neither addressed the prayer to her nor otherwise requested her intercession. Similarly, the
Protevangelium neither speaks of Mary as an address for supplication nor alludes to a cult
dedicated to her worship.

In addition to these pseudepigraphical works, the writings of Origen of Alexandria also


play an important role in the development of Mary’s standing in Christian thought. Writing in the
third-century, he furthers some of the Marian themes of the first two centuries as just discussed.
To recall, in chapter five it was noted that in Origen’s homilies and commentaries he draws
attention to Mary’s piety and personal connection to the Holy Spirit. Further, he proffers that she
is a role model of loyalty and obedience to the word of God for all Christians. In addition to
continuing these themes which are similar to those found in the Protoevangelium, Origen also
argues for Mary’s post-partum virginity as does the proto-Gospel. Whether the Protevangelium
directly influenced Origen may be hard to determine, but it is beyond question that he further
develops the idea that Mary is a figure of inherent religious significance first found in the proto-
Gospel.

26
That the primary goal of the Protevangelium is to praise Mary and develop her character is the conclusion of
several scholars, including: Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion, 55–56, 60–61; Vuong, “Accessing
the Virgin,” 76; Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999), 108–
9. Hans-Josef Klauck puts it (Hans-Josef Klauck, Apocryphal Gospels: an Introduction [London: T & T Clark, 2003], 66):
The Protevangelium offers an encomium of Mary, a laudatory address which follows the rules of
rhetoric applicable to this genre, beginning with her noble origins (genos), her birth (genesis), her
education (paideia) and her deeds (praxeis).

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In addition, Origen is closely identified with the use of the term Theotokos in reference to
Mary.27 Though modern scholars have rejected Socrates Scholasticus’ (fifth-century) statement
that Origen was the first to make use of the title, it does seem that he was influential in popularizing
it. The term appears in or is alluded to in several fragments which have survived from otherwise
lost works of his and its use is seen in the writings of several authors who were known to be
otherwise influenced by him. The title is only officially endorsed by the Church slightly later, as
part of the fallout from the Nestorian Controversy, at the Council of Ephesus (431). However,
Nestorian objection to Theotokos and the council’s subsequent rejection of this view demonstrates
just how commonplace the term already was. Indeed, there are strong indications that it was
already in standard use by the Council of Nicaea (325).28 Whatever its original source, the use of
this mononym is evidence of the growing religious importance given to Mary in the formative
centuries of Christianity and to a certain extent Origen’s hand in that.

As will be addressed next, at some point after Origen Mary becomes the focal point of an
important cult of worship. Indeed, Origen’s own praise and expansion of Mary’s character may
have played an important role in this development. John McGuckin argues that “Origen
develop[ed] the theological basis for Marian veneration in all its chief lineaments.”29 For example,
the term Theotokos, whose connection with Origen has been noted, is prominent in Marian
devotion. Though others scholars do not grant Origen such a direct role in the start of Marian
worship,30 it remains a fact that the earliest signs of such worship appear shortly after Origen and
that several of them come from authors and geographical locations which were heavily influenced
by his works.

The Rise of the Marian Cult


Beyond the inherent religious significance granted to Mary in the Protevangelium and by Origen,
the Virgin Mother eventually becomes an address for prayer and supplication. The earliest allusion
to the practice of calling upon Mary for intercession is probably found in the Book of Mary’s

27
John McGuckin, “The Early Cult of Mary and Inter-Religious Contexts in the Fifth-Century Church,” in The Origins
of the Cult of the Virgin Mary, ed. Chris Maunder (London: Burns and Oats, 2008), 9–10.
28
Richard M. Price, “Theotokos and the Council of Ephesus,” in The Origins of the Cult of the Virgin Mary, ed. Chris
Maunder (London: Burns and Oats, 2008), 90.
29
McGuckin, “The Early Cult of Mary and Inter-Religious Contexts in the Fifth-Century Church,” 10.
30
For example, Shoemaker takes a more skeptical approach than McGuckin when it comes to Origen’s role in the
development of the Marian cult. See: Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion, 68.

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Repose (also known by its Latin title Liber Requiei Mariae).31 The Repose is part of a large group
of texts dedicated to the story of Mary’s Dormition (death) and Assumption (rise to heaven). 32
These works are generally concentrated in the late fifth- and early sixth-centuries when there was
“suddenly an efflorescence of diverse traditions, both narrative and liturgical, all celebrating the
Virgin’s departure from this world.”33 The Repose, however, is a precursor to this development.
Scholars have concluded that the latest possible date for this work is the early fifth-century and
Shoemaker argues strongly that it was written as early as the third. Due to its consistent focus on
sites in Jerusalem, Shoemaker also concludes that the traditions it contains originated in Palestine.
In addition to the evidence he cites for this, Shoemakers contention will likewise be supported here
by noting that the Repose contains ideas also found in rabbinic midrash from the land of Israel,
whether the result of a shared historical and geographical background or more direct contact.

Due to its importance for understanding Marian worship and, as I will eventually argue,
the midrash’s portrayal of Sarah a somewhat detailed overview of the Repose is needed. Much of
the Repose is esoteric and it contains many cryptic passages and use of Gnostic terminology and
concepts. However, a general overview of the text makes it clear that the author wished to present
Mary as a figure of unique importance and one with the power to intercede on behalf of the faithful.
The Repose opens with Mary being presented with a divine book by a “great angel” (LR 1).34 The
book, she is told, is to be given to the apostles and read before her “for on the third day you will
die.” The angel then takes Mary to the Mount of Olives where the “trees inclined their heads and
venerated the book that was in her hands” (3). Taken aback by this miracle, Mary recognizes that

31
This brief overview of the Repose is based on Ibid., 100–104.
32
For a terse overview of the genre and its various works, see: Michel van Esbroeck, “Virgin, Assumption of The,”
ed. David Noel Freedman, Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992). Esbroeck notes that there are 70
different Dormition texts, but the general outline is usually the same. Mary is informed by an angel of her impending
death and the apostles gather to help her prepare and hear her last words. Next, Christ descends from heaven to
take Mary’s soul and her body is taken to Gethsemane by the apostles for burial. On the way, a Jew attempts to
destroy her body and is punished. The apostles remain outside Mary’s tomb for three days, before heavenly voices
declare her body has been assumed to heaven. The Repose more or less follows this formula, but has some unique
aspects which will be discussed.
33
Stephen Shoemaker, Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption, Oxford Early Christian
Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 1.
34
Translation and citations of the Book of Mary’s Repose from: Stephen Shoemaker, “Appendix A: The Ethiopic Liber
Requiei,” in Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption, Oxford Early Christian Studies
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 290–350. In several sections Shoemaker provides a translation from a
Georgian version of the text in addition to the Ethiopic. Of these, in the sections I quote here there is no substantial
difference between the versions and for the sake of continuity all quotes will be taken from the Ethiopic version.

193
her angelic companion is none other than her son Jesus. The angel confirms this epiphany and
reminds her that when she and Joseph fled to Egypt after his birth (cf. Mt 2:13-15), he instructed
a date-palm: “incline your head with your fruit and satisfy my mother and father” (7). After the
tree did so, Jesus praised the date-palm for its obedience and explained that it was ‘expelled from
paradise’ and sent to Egypt when Adam was cast out of Eden so that man may eat from it (9).
Then, continues Jesus, “just as my father sent me for the salvation of humanity… he also instructed
me concerning the fruit” and the date-palm returns to Paradise. According to Shoemaker, this
episode is an early version of the so-called palm narratives, a popular sub-category of Assumption
stories wherein Mary is presented with a miraculous palm branch taken from the Tree of Life. 35
To this, it should also be added that the connection of the palm tree to Mary’s flight to Egypt is
reminiscent of an early Jewish tradition regarding Sarah which was discussed in chapters two and
three. In both the Genesis Apocryphon and later in GenR, Sarah is referred to as a date-palm in the
context of her time in Egypt (GA 19:14-17; GR 41:1, Albeck 387-388). This thematic parallel may
strengthen the conclusion that the Repose originated in the land of Israel.

Next, Jesus teaches Mary a secret prayer which he received from the Father and which is
needed in order to ascend to heaven. He enjoins her to “know where the prayer has come from and
what it is, as you will need to observe it with every word” (LR 15). In this context, the Repose also
invokes the Mary-Eve typology seen previously. Jesus tells Mary that this prayer “transcends
[Eve’s] nature, which prevails in every creature… and will raise the dead and give life to all” (16).
Apparently Mary is the first person entrusted with these secrets and as such is told to teach the
prayer to the apostles.36 After this, the Repose continues with an enigmatic parable that appears to
draw upon Gnostic creation myth and recounts stories from the Israelite slavery in Egypt which
also appear in later rabbinic midrash.37 Finally, the Christ-Angel reveals his true name,
“Adonai’el,” and then “became light and ascended into heaven” (35).

35
Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion, 104. However, it may be that the tree in question here is
actually the Tree of Knowledge. This is for two reasons. First, the Repose connects the date-palm to the expulsion of
Adam (Gen 2:16-17, 3:1-24), which was a result of eating from the Tree of Knowledge and not the Tree of Life.
Second, later in the book the Tree of Life is referred to by name repeatedly (LR 89, 101), implying that the un-named
tree here is a different one.
36
Ibid., 113–14.
37
Regarding the parallels with Gnostic themes, see: Ibid., 111–17. However, Shoemaker is careful not to conclude
that the Repose as a whole is a Gnostic work. Regarding the parallels in rabbinic literature here, see: Frédéric Manns,

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After Jesus departs, Mary returns to her home with the divine book and prepares for her
death. Speaking to the apostles she refers to Christ as the “Great Cherub of light” who “dwelt in
her womb” and professes her faith in his promise that she will ascend to heaven upon death (52).
She goes on to command the people around her to light lamps and shows the apostles the funeral
garments in which to bury her. When the day of her death arrives, the apostles wait outside her
house and Peter addresses those who have gathered. Alluding to their candlelight vigil, he states
(55):

The light of our sister Mary’s lamp fills this world and will not be extinguished
until the end of days, so that those who have decided to be saved will receive
assurance.

Peter continues his “learned discourse” through the night until finally “Jesus Christ came on a
cloud with an innumerable multitude of angels” and placed Mary’s soul in the hands of the angel
Michael (54, 67).

With her soul now in heaven, Mary’s body is taken by the apostles to her tomb and they
wait for Christ to return for it as he has promised. Eventually the Lord arrives accompanied by
“ten thousand” angels and Michael at their head (89). Not only is Mary’s body brought into heaven
by this divine entourage, but the apostles are taken as well. Mary’s body is placed beside the Tree
of Life and her soul is returned to it. Later, accompanied by Michael, Mary and the Apostles are
brought to the opening of Gehenna to see “the damned people” (90). Michael, Mary, and the
apostles are taken aback by the harsh nature of the punishments meted out in Hell and the damned
turn to them for help. They plead with the apostles and then beg Mary (99):

Mary, we beseech you, Mary, light and the mother of light; Mary, life and mother
of the apostles; Mary, golden lamp, you who carries every righteous lamp; Mary,
our master and the mother of our Master; Mary our queen, beseech your son to give
us a little rest.

Due to these supplications, Jesus agrees to grant the tormented “nine hours of rest on the Lord’s
day” (101). Interestingly enough, GenR contains a tradition in which Abraham stands at the gates

Le récit de la dormition de Marie (Vatican grec 1982): contribution à l’étude des origines de l’exégèse chrétienne
(Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 1989), 76–77.

195
of hell and saves Jews who have been circumcised.38 While it seems unlikely that the rabbis were
directly familiar with the Repose, the shared use of such a theme may nevertheless point to the
Palestinian origin of the Repose. Finally, the Repose ends with Mary being seated on a throne
among “ten thousand angels and three virgins” (135). The Virgin Mother remains “in the third
heaven,” while Michael makes the apostles descend back to earth.

Despite all its attention to Mary and the clear theological importance it grants her,
Shoemaker notes that “devotion to the Virgin is just an occasional theme of this ancient Marian
biography” and the Repose contains “only the most basic elements of Marian veneration.”39 This
implies that at the time of its composition these ideas were less than fully formed and narrow in
scope. For example, though she is associated with a secret prayer, it is dedicated to the Lord and
not Mary herself. In addition, though she is called upon to intercede on behalf of the faithful, she
is only one of several figures who are prayed to and the success of her intercession is limited.
Nevertheless, if Shoemaker’s dating of the Repose to the third-century is correct, it is still the first
evidence of Mary’s role as an object of worship. Moreover, because of the special focus given to
Jerusalem landmarks, such as the Mount of Olives and Mary’s tomb, and its use of traditions with
parallels in Jewish exegeses, such as the palm tree and Mary at the gates of hell, it appears that this
earliest indicator of Marian piety came from the land of Israel.

More widespread and explicit textual evidence that the Virgin Mother became an object of
direct Christian worship begins in the late fourth-century. Often these texts give the impression
that such traditions date back even earlier and therefore help confirm that the trend is already
present, at least in its most basic form, in the Repose. For example, Gregory of Nyssa (d. ca. 395)
provides the first report of a Marian apparition, attributing it to a third-century figure Gregory the
Wonderworker.40 In addition, Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390) recounts a story in which a maiden
in distress directs her supplications to the Virgin Mother.41 Neither of the Cappadocian Fathers,

38
GR 48:8, Vat. 30 (Albeck 483):
‫ ואותם שחטאו יותר‬.‫ לעתיד לבוא אברהם יושב על פתח גיהנם ואינו מניח אדם מהול לירד בתוכה‬:‫אמ' ר' לוי‬
'‫ ונותנה להן ומורידן לגיהנם שנ‬,‫מדיי מהוא עושה לם? מעביר את הערלה [מ]על גבי תינוקות שמתו עד שלא מלו‬
."‫"שלח ידיו בש' חללבריתו" "כחום היום" לכשיבוא אותו היום שכת' בו "כי הנה היום בא בוער‬
39
Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion, 103.
40
“Life of Gregory the Wonderworker by St. Gregory of Nyssa,” (Trans. Michael Slusser, in St. Gregory Thaumaturgus:
life and works [Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1998], 53–54).
41
Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 24, 11 (Trans: Martha Vinson, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: Select Orations
[Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003], 149. Both of the sources just cited are noted by
Shoemaker, “The Cult of the Virgin in the Fourth Century: A Fresh Look at Some Old and New Sources,” 73.

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upon whom Origen’s influence was great, present these matters as particularly exceptional and the
implication is that they reflected well-established traditions. Beyond these texts which originate
with the clerical elite, a number of Coptic fragments which invoke the protective powers of the
Virgin Mother have also been found. A widely studied example, known by its title in the Latin
translation as the Sub tuum praesidium (Beneath your protection), reads:42

We take refuge beneath the protection of your compassion, Theotokos. Do not


disregard our prayers in troubling times, but deliver us from danger, O only pure
and blessed one.

This piece was likely part of a protective amulet and scholars generally place it in either the third-
or fourth-century.43 In addition this fragment, a number of additional magical texts which call upon
the protective powers of the Theotokos have also been discovered.44 These papyri speak to a
slightly different form of Marian veneration, perhaps more popular among the laity, than attested
to by the Cappadocian fathers.

Additional proof of widespread Marian piety can be found in the writings of Epiphanius of
Salamis (d. 403). In a piece known as the “Letter to Arabia,” which is preserved in his larger work
Panarion, Epiphanius speaks in harsh terms about a group of women that “substitute [Mary] for
God” and give a bread offering in her name (Pan 78:23.4).45 His objection to this practice is part
of his greater objection of the veneration of saints as heretical which appears throughout the

42
The fragment is held in the Rylands Papyri collection at the John Rylands University Library, Manchester. It is
catalogued as “Greek Papyrus 470” and high resolution photograph can be found on the library’s website:
[http://enriqueta.man.ac.uk/luna/servlet/detail/ManchesterDev~93~3~22419~100285:Christian-Prayer].
The translation of the text is that of Shoemaker, based on the reconstruction of Otto Stegmüller, see: Shoemaker,
Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion, 69.
43
See Shoemaker’s summary of the research into this fragment: Ibid., 68–73. For his part, Shoemaker prefers the
third-century dating of the fragment.
44
I have found three such texts in the larger collection: Marvin W. Meyer and Richard Smith, eds., Ancient Christian
Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999). See: text 13 (38), 16 (40-41), 24
(48), and 115 (231). The first three of these texts are dated, very generally, to the fifth or sixth century. The fourth
is not dated.
45
Citations and Translations according to: Frank Williams, trans., “Against Antidicomarians,” in The Panarion of
Epiphanius of Salamis: Books II and III, De Fide, 2nd ed., Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies 79 (Leiden: Brill,
2013), 616–37. (Epiphanius’ “Letter to Arabia” has survived in a full as a quote within his “Against Antidicomarians”).

197
Panarion. Epiphanius returns to this group in more detail in the next section of his book, calling
them “Collyridians” (79:1.7):46

Certain women decorate a barber’s chair or a square seat, spread a cloth on it, set
out bread and offer it in Mary’s name on a certain day of the year, and all partake
of the bread…

Epiphanius goes on to label this group as a “devilish” (δαίμων) and a “deviation” (ἀλλοιόω) both
because it gives women a clerical role and because it venerates the Virgin Mother.47 As he puts it:
“Mary’s body was holy, but she was not God… she was not given us to worship” (79:2.3; 4.6).48
Whether or not the Collyridians really existed as Epiphanius describes them, namely as a female-
led cult that worshiped Mary like a God, is of less importance in this context. What is important is
the fact that this late fourth-century polemicist saw it fit to explicitly condemn worship of Mary,
another strong implication of it pervasiveness in his time.

While some aspects of the Marian cult Epiphanius describes may be embellishments, he
did not invent it whole cloth. The description of the Collyridians has a direct parallel with Marian
ritual as described in the Six Books Dormition Apocryphon.49 This work was composed at some
point in the fourth-century, if not before.50 Like the Repose, it purports to be the miraculously
revealed account of the events leading up to Mary’s death and her subsequent ascension into
heaven. However, unlike the other texts discussed which add to Mary’s biography, the Six Books
was clearly used from its inception in liturgical readings.51 In fact, it contains strong evidence for
a fully formed cultic veneration of Mary. Before telling its version of Mary’s Dormition, the work
opens with an invocation to God to open “the gates of heaven to our prayers at this time” and

46
Citations and Translations according to: idem. “Against Collyridians,” 637–45.
47
Greek text taken from Karl Holl, Epiphanius, Bände 1-3: Ancoratus Und Panarion (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1933),
http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?2021:002:0.
48
Further tying such practices to idolatry, Epiphanius later notes that their form of worship parallels what is
described by Jeremiah (Jer 7:18; Pan 79:8.2):
The children gather sticks, the fathers build the fire, and the mothers knead dough, to make cakes
for the Queen of Heaven, and they pour libations to other gods, to vex Me.
49
The parallels between the two works are discussed by Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion,
145–52; Ally Kateusz, “Collyridian Déjà vu: The Trajectory of Redaction of the Markers of Mary’s Liturgical
Leadership,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 29, no. 2 (2013): 85–89 and others.
50
This overview of the Six Books follows: Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion, 130–45.
51
Translation of the Six Books is taken from: William Wright, “The Departure of My Lady Mary from This World,”
Journal of Sacred Literature and Biblical Record, New Series, 7 (1865): 417–48.

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eventually asks “bless, Lord, our congregation that exalts the commemoration of Thy mother, my
Lady Mary.”52

In addition to standard elements of a Dormition account - miraculous events in Mary’s


lifetime, her death, and the journey of her soul through the levels of heaven - in the Six Books the
veneration of Mary herself also plays a crucial role. When Mary visits her son’s tomb to pray,
contemporaneous figures such as John, the other apostles, and a Roman governor kneel before the
Virgin Mother and praise her. Even more striking, when Mary dies Christ comes to receive her
soul accompanied by prophets and patriarchs. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and others all take
turns honoring Mary. This continues as Mary enters the heavenly Jerusalem and is worshiped by,
among others, the sun, the moon, lightning, and fire. Even the angels Gabriel and Michael bow
before her. Only thereafter does Mary herself worship the Heavenly Father.

Also in Six Books Mary is repeatedly described as interceding on behalf of Christian


believers. Sick and cursed individuals come to her over and over again in order to be healed by her
miraculous powers. In addition, people living near Mary witness “angels of the Lord” visiting her
and gather together to plead “Holy virgin, mother of God, beseech the Messiah, whom thou hast
in heaven, to send us healing.”53 Later the author even describes how Mary herself miraculously
appears and rescues believers throughout the Christian world. To mention only some, in Rome
she comes to the aid of men set upon by bandits and a widow whose son fell into a well, while in
Egypt she rescues two women who were set upon by a large snake. They all cry out “my Lady
Mary, mother of God, have mercy” and are saved by the Virgin Mother.54

By recording such a large number of descriptions of Mary’s past intercessions, the Six
Books no doubt encourages the faithful to direct their own individual prayers to Mary. In addition
to this, it also prescribes “a commemoration of my Lady Mary three times in the year” and
promises that “if mankind celebrates her memory, they will be delivered from wrath.”55 Later, the
Six Books goes on to present a liturgical handbook laying out the three days to be celebrated and
outlining the liturgical readings to be made from the Bible and the Six Books itself.56 In addition,

52
Ibid., 129–30.
53
Ibid., 143.
54
Ibid., 147–48.
55
Ibid., 132.
56
Ibid., 152–55.

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it records that a bread offering to the Virgin Mary is to be placed upon the church alter and then,
after the service, taken home so that “great help and the benison of the blessed one [Mary] shall
enter his [the worshiper’s] dwelling.”57

Returning to Epiphanius and his description of the Collyridians, he too states that the
worshipers of Mary gave a bread offering. This has led scholars to conclude that there is a direct
connection between the liturgical rites described in Six Books and the polemic attack of Epiphanius
in his Panarion.58 While Epiphanius probably was not aware of the apocryphal work itself, he
appears to have been familiar with the cult it described. Further, the fact that Epiphanius first
speaks about the Collyridians in his “Letter to Arabia,” which he wrote while in Palestine, strongly
implies that he encountered the kind of Marian worship described in the Six Books while in the
land of Israel. 59

Marian Veneration in Jerusalem: Textual Evidence


If the veneration of Mary gains more and more momentum by the late fourth-century, by the early
fifth-century religious celebrations and ceremonies dedicated to Mary are more than well-
documented in the land of Israel.60 The Jerusalem Armenia Lectionary is a liturgical manual which
lists the dates of various memorial days marked by Christians in Jerusalem and their proper
readings. It was put together sometime between 417 and 439.61 Among the special days noted is
a feast held each year on August 15th in memory of “Mary, the Theotokos.”62 This feast probably
was initiated as a result of the official adaptation of Mary’s title at the Council of Ephesus (431),
though it may have begun sometime prior to this. Interestingly enough, Hagith Sivan demonstrates
the very date of the celebration was likely chosen for polemic purposes as it overlaps with the 9th

57
Ibid., 153.
58
Shoemaker, “The Cult of the Virgin in the Fourth Century: A Fresh Look at Some Old and New Sources,” 148–50;
Kateusz, “Collyridian Déjà vu: The Trajectory of Redaction of the Markers of Mary’s Liturgical Leadership,” 86–88. In
addition to the bread offering, Kateusz argues that Mary is portrayed in the Six Books as having “liturgical authority”
over those who worship her and acting as a priest (80). She sees this as a parallel to Epiphanius and evidence that
his reference to the Collyridians as a female-led cult is to be taken at its word. Shoemaker, however, dismisses this
idea (159-60).
59
Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion, 152.
60
A wider discussion of the liturgical evidence can be found in ibid.,178–202. Here I will limit the discussion to texts
from the land of Israel no later than the fifth-century.
61
Athanase Renoux, Le codex arménien Jérusalem 121: Introduction, Textes, Traduction et Notes, vol. 2, Patrologia
Orientalis, XXXVI (Turnhout: Brepols, 1969), 13.
62
Ibid., 2:217–18. The readings laid out for the day are: Isa 7:14, Ps 109:3 (LXX), 109:3, and Lk 2:7.

200
of Av, the Jewish day of mourning for the Temple.63 The Lectionary lays out the liturgical readings
for the celebration which included Isaiah’s ‘prophecy of Immanuel,’ understood by Christians to
refer to the Virgin Birth (Isa 7:10-16; cf. Mt 1:22-23), the birth of Jesus as recorded in Luke (Lk
2:1-7), and Paul’s statement in Galatians that those who “belong to Christ… are Abraham’s
offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29). Just as the festival’s date was likely chosen
for polemic purposes, this last verse contains a strong anti-Jewish message. In addition to these
scriptural readings, homilies in honor of the Virgin Mother were delivered at the feast. Two of
them, the fifth and sixth homilies of a Jerusalem priest named Hesychius, have survived. These
homilies are based on the same verses as listed in the Lectionary and both glorify the Virgin Mother
and engage in anti-Jewish rhetoric. According to Hagith Sivan, the content of the sixth homily in
particular “presuppose[s] a Jewish-Christian controversy over the meaning of the feast” and
Christian claims regarding Mary.64 This suggests that Jews would have been aware of the Christian
celebration of Mary.

Finally, a collection known as the Jerusalem Gregorian Chantbook contains an impressive


number of hymns which mention Mary or are wholly dedicated to her. Many of these can be dated
to the late fourth- and early fifth-century. These hymns both gave praise to the Theotokos and call
upon her to intercede on behalf of the faithful. For example, in one the congregation would sing:65

She who gave birth to God, by word and without seed,

Let us sing to her the Virgin Mary,

Who intercedes for the salvation of our souls.

It is important to point out that this hymn and several others like it were used as part of the regular
Sunday services and not just special Marian celebrations. This shows just how pervasive Mary’s
presence was in the Christian world at the time. Moreover, much of the liturgical material predates

63
See: Hagith Sivan, Palestine in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 232–33; Hagith Sivan,
“Contesting Calendars: The 9th of Av and the Feast of the Theotokos,” in Pèlerinage et Lieux Saints Dans l‘antiquite
et Le Moyen Âge, ed. Beatrice Caseau, Jean-Claude Cheynet, and Vincent Deroche (Paris: Centre de recherche
d’Histoire et Civilisation de Byzance, 2006), 443–56. Sivan points out that the nature of the Jewish and Christian
calendars in antiquity differed from their current form, thus allowing for these dates to align.
64
Sivan, Palestine in Late Antiquity, 234.
65
Translation according to Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion, 192.

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the Council of Ephesus in 431.66 This further demonstrates that while the officially endorsed
memorial feast may only have begun after the council, devotion to the Theotokos had gained
prominence even before.

Marian Veneration in Jerusalem: Material Evidence


The conclusions from the textual record regarding Marian veneration in the land of Israel is
supported by material evidence as well.67 Archeologists have discovered the remains of major
churches dedicated to Mary in Jerusalem. The most important of these is known as the Kathisma
(seat) of the Theotokos and was located on the route from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The spot was
apparently chosen to commemorate where, according to some Christian traditions, Mary rested on
her way to give birth to Jesus.68 The church was likely built as a result of the Council of Ephesus, 69
though a smaller church or shrine may have existed even before this.70 Archeologists in the last 75
years have actually discovered two churches in the same general area that both match descriptions
of the Kathisma: one is in what is now Ramat Raḥel and the other near what is now the Mar Elias
monastery.71 It is clear to all that one of these is the Kathisma, but there is some debate as to which
one it is. Most scholars now prefer the identification of the church with the remains near Mar

66
As also highlighted by Ibid., 189.
67
A more in-depth discussion of the material that follows can be found in the chapter “The Churches of Mary: The
Fifth Century,” in: Vered Shalev-Hurvitz, Holy Sites Encircled: The Early Byzantine Concentric Churches of Jerusalem
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 117–67 and Shoemaker, “The Ancient Palestinian Cult of the Virgin Mary
and the Early Dormition Traditions,” 81–115.
68
The earliest mention of this spot is in the Protevangelium of James (17:2), however in the proto-Gospel’s version
it is in a nearby cave that Mary actually gives birth and not in Bethlehem. See: Shalev-Hurvitz, Holy Sites Encircled,
117–19.
69
This is the conclusion in Ibid., 139–41.
70
As argued by: Shoemaker, “The Ancient Palestinian Cult of the Virgin Mary and the Early Dormition Traditions,”
96.
71
Regarding the church at Ramat Raḥel, see: Yohanan Aharoni, “Excavations at Ramath Rahel, 1954: Preliminary
Report,” Israel Exploration Journal 6 (1956): 102–11, 137–57. Regarding the church near Mar Elias, see: Rina Avner,
George Levas, and Irini Rosidis, “‘Jerusalem, Mar Elias’ [Hebrew],” Hadashot Arkheologiyot: Excavations and Surveys
in Israel 113 (2001): 89–92.

202
Elias.72 Another possibility is that there were in fact two Kathisma churches, something that has
tentative support in written sources from the period.73

With its construction, the church became central to Marian worship in Palestine. It is here,
for example, that the aforementioned Marian feast was celebrated each year and by the mid-fifth
century a monastic community had built up around it.74 In fact, the church’s location on the road
leading to Jerusalem is important regarding the matter of Jewish knowledge of Marian veneration.
Not only does Sivan argue that the date of the Christian celebration was chosen to coincide with
the 9th of Av, but sources from the period attest to the fact that Jews made their way to Jerusalem
on this day in order to mourn their Temple.75 As she surmises from this, Jews coming from the
south would have passed right by the church on the very day when Christians celebrated the Marian
feast there. Indeed, Hesychius himself shows that he was probably cognizant of this fact. In one of
the homilies delivered then he refers to Mary as “another Temple larger than heaven.”76 This rather
strange epithet for the Virgin Mother appears to have been chosen by Hesychius in order to
highlight that the Jews’ earthly Tempe lay in ruins.

In addition to the Kathisma, another fifth-century church was found in the Kidron valley,
not far from the Garden of Gethsemane.77 This church too was dedicated to Mary and archeologists

72
For example, Shalev-Hurvitz has recently argued strongly in favor the identification of the Kathisma with the Mar
Elias church, see: Shalev-Hurvitz, Holy Sites Encircled, 117–26, 139–40. This identification is also accepted by the
Israeli Antiquities Authority in their official publications where the site near Mar Elias is referred to as the Kathisma.
The IAA’s report on the church can be found on their website:
[http://www.antiquities.org.il/images/archinfo/091-120/110.pdf].
73
Shoemaker, “The Ancient Palestinian Cult of the Virgin Mary and the Early Dormition Traditions,” 95–96.
Shoemaker prefers this explanation, though he admits it is hard to be certain.
74
Ibid., 82–84.
75
Sivan, Palestine in Late Antiquity, 238–39. Sivan cites Jerome’s (d. 420) In Sophoniam (On Zephaniah) 1.15–16 and
the midrash Lamentations Rabbah (LevR) 1.17. Jerome describes triumphantly how the Jewish masses gather in
Jerusalem on the 9th of Av to wail and cry over the ruins of the Temple. LevR compares, speaking in the first-person
voice, the joyous pilgrimages before the destruction as opposed to the mournful ascent to Jerusalem and the Temple
Mount in its own day. Beyond those Jews who came to Jerusalem to mourn the Temple (on the 9th of Av in particular)
there is no evidence of Jewish residency in Jerusalem during the Byzantine period. Some Christian sources even
speak of legislation banning Jews from Jerusalem, though the attribution of this law to Constantine has little to
support it. For an in-depth discussion of these matters, see: Oded Irshai, “Constantine and the Jews: The Prohibition
Against Entering Jerusalem - History and Hagiography [Hebrew],” Zion 60 (1995): 129–78.
76
Cited by Sivan, Palestine in Late Antiquity, 234.
77
Bellarmino Bagatti, Michele Piccirillo, and A. Prodomo, New Discoveries at the Tomb of Virgin Mary in Gethsemane,
trans. L. Sciberras (Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 1975), 11–58. For more recent discussions of the physical
and textual evidence for this church, see: Shalev-Hurvitz, Holy Sites Encircled, 141–58; Shoemaker, “The Ancient
Palestinian Cult of the Virgin Mary and the Early Dormition Traditions,” 98–107. Shoemaker dates the church to the

203
identify it as one built to mark the site believed by Christians to be Mary’s tomb. Supporting this
conclusion, these scholars note that the Kidron church actually appears to have been built into a
first-century necropolis. Further, there are some texts which indicate that Mary’s home was also a
holy site at this time, though material evidence has yet to be found.78 All-in-all, there were at least
two prominent Marian churches in fifth-century Jerusalem and possibly one or two more.

The Impact of Marian Veneration Outside of Jerusalem


The impact of the Marian cult of worship, however, was not limited to its focal point in Jerusalem.
In addition to these churches, a relatively large amount of eulogiai (from the Greek for blessing)
connected to the Virgin Mary have been discovered throughout the land of Israel. Eulogiai are
small trinkets such as coins, lamps, and flasks, which were carried home by pilgrims returning
from holy sites.79 These sacred items were believed to take with them the holiness of the places
visited or the relics with which they came into contact. It is therefore not surprising that a plethora
of eulogiai have been found and dated to the same period in which these Marian churches became
so prominent. For example, in Jerusalem archeologists discovered a fifth-century silver medallion
bearing the inscription “a blessing of Theotokos of the rock.”80 This suggests that the medallion
was associated with the Marian cult. In fact, it may even have originated at the Kathisma, as
according to some slightly later traditions the church was built around a large rock where Mary
supposedly sat.81 While the aforementioned medallion was probably made for a wealthy or
important individual, eulogiai were often intended for a more common audience. As a result, these
items provide a window into the religious life of everyday Christians. Even more clearly than the
magical texts mentioned above, eulogiai speak to their religious sensibilities in a manner which
institutionalized churches or texts written by members of an intellectual elite might not. When
such evidence is taken together with the remains of various churches and more formal liturgical

middle of the fifth-century and Hurvitz similar concludes that was inaugurated in the 440s. The IAA’s report on this
church can be found on their website:
[http://www.antiquities.org.il/images/archinfo//061-090/074.pdf]
78
Shoemaker, “The Ancient Palestinian Cult of the Virgin Mary and the Early Dormition Traditions,” 106–7.
79
Jodi Magness, “Illuminating Byzantine Jerusalem: Oil Lamps Shed Light on Early Christian Worship,” Biblical
Archaeology Review 24, no. 2 (1998): 70.
80
Shoemaker, “The Ancient Palestinian Cult of the Virgin Mary and the Early Dormition Traditions,” 113.
81
Ibid. References to a rock in the Kathisma church first appear in sources from the sixth-century. A rather large rock
was found in the Mar Elias church, which is one of the main reasons that Shalev-Hurvitz concludes that is the true
Kathisma. See Shalev-Hurvitz, Holy Sites Encircled, 121–23, 139–41. However, Shoemaker and others find this
evidence less convincing. See: Shoemaker, “The Ancient Palestinian Cult of the Virgin Mary and the Early Dormition
Traditions,” 88–98.

204
texts from the period, it is obvious that the Cult of Mary was both sanctioned by religious leaders
and embraced by the laity.

Figure 1 (Taken from: Loffreda, Light and Life, 10.) Figure 2 (Taken from: ibid., 42.)
A small slipper lamp decorated with both a cross A large slipper lamp decorated with an inscription
and palm branches (picture not to scale). reading “of the Theotokos” (picture not to scale).

The most common form of eulogiai in late antiquity were so-called slipper lamps.82 Slipper
lamps themselves were a popular type of miniature oil lamp which came in two sizes: small and
large. 83 The smaller versions average 8 cm in length and 5 cm in width, are ovular in shape with a
low circular ring base and a medium-sized filling hole (figure 1). They are generally decorated
with raised lines around the filling hole. The larger lamps are basically the same, but a bit bigger,
averaging 9.5 cm in length and 6.3 cm in width, and with an elongated nozzle (figure 2). On these
lamps the raised line around the filling hole also extends down to the wick hole as well. The smaller
lamps can be roughly dated from the second half of the fourth-century through the middle of the

82
A detailed analysis of dozens such lamps from Byzantine Palestine, including color photos, can be found in:
Stanislao Loffreda, Light and Life: Ancient Christian Oil Lamps of the Holy Land (Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press,
2001).
83
The details regarding these lamps are taken from: Jodi Magness, Jerusalem Ceramic Chronology: Circa 200-800 CE
(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 249–59; Loffreda, Light and Life, 7–15.

205
sixth, while the larger ones are placed in the middle of the sixth-century until the late seventh-
century, making them less directly relevant to this study.

When used as eulogiai these lamps were imbued with religious significance through their
decoration with Christian symbols or inscriptions invoking the divine. In addition to the use of
crosses and palm-branches, lamps with Greek epigraphs around their filling hole, reading “the
light of Christ shines for all” or “of the Theotokos” have also been found. Indeed, this reference to
Mary is one of the more common inscriptions found on slipper lamps from the land of Israel. 84 In
general, religious symbols were used on both the small and large slipper lamps, while the majority
of the inscribed lamps are of the larger kind. Nevertheless, some of the smaller lamps bear
inscriptions as well.85 Archeologists have found the highest concentration of slipper lamps in the
Jerusalem area, where they were made and sold, but a rather wide distribution of such lamps
throughout Palestine is evident.86 The same holds true for slipper lamp eulogiai as well. They
would have been purchased at Marian churches and landmarks in Jerusalem by pilgrims and
brought back with them to their hometowns elsewhere in Palestine in order to fill their home with
the light of Mary’s blessing.

84
Magness, “Illuminating Byzantine Jerusalem: Oil Lamps Shed Light on Early Christian Worship,” 42. Magness
demonstrates based on parallels to other such inscription that the term “of Theotokos” should be understood to
mean ‘blessing of Theotokos.’ I would add that it could also be understood to mean ‘light of the Theotokos’ with the
flame of the lamp standing in for the word itself. Regarding the palm-branches, Magness speculates that it is a
Christian adaptation of a Jewish menorah symbol, but notes that some scholars see it as symbolizing the Tree of Life
(41). If taken as such, it may have also been connected to Marian veneration as seen in the aforementioned palm
narratives.
85
Ibid., 41.
86
Magness, Jerusalem Ceramic Chronology, 176. Magness makes this observation while discussing the larger style
of lamp, but the same is no doubt the case in regard to the smaller lamps.

206
Figure 3 (Taken from: Rahmani, “Eulogia Tokens From Byzantine Palestine,” 113.)
Depicted on this coin is the Dormition of Mary. Mary’s body lies in the foreground
surrounded by four apostles. Above her body is a monogram signifying her name. The
figure in the upper center (which has only survived in part) is probably meant to be
Christ carrying her soul.

How Marian eulogiai would have spread throughout the land of Israel is tangibly
demonstrated by a coin found in Beit She’an (Scythopolis) which dates to the sixth-century.87 A
small image engraved upon the coin depicts the Dormition of Mary (figure 3) and in keeping with
what is known of eulogiai the token would have originated in the church associated with Mary’s
tomb in Kidron.88 A pilgrim living in Beit She’an would have purchased it at this church and
returned home with it. Like the larger slipper lamps, this particular coin has been dated to a period
slightly later than the one under discussion. However, it is important to this study because it clearly
shows how the presence of a Marian shrine in Jerusalem would also be felt in other parts of the
land of Israel. The discovery of eulogiai from the second half of the fourth-century and onwards
attest to the fact that the popularity of the Marian cult was not limited just to Jerusalem, where the
Jewish presence was minor,89 but extended to all of Christian Palestine.

87
L. Y. Rahmani, “Eulogia Tokens From Byzantine Palestine,” ’Atiqot 22 (1993): 113–15.
88
See: Shoemaker, “The Ancient Palestinian Cult of the Virgin Mary and the Early Dormition Traditions,” 108–12.
Shoemaker critiques Rahmani’s comparison of the Dormition as depicted on the coin to a certain textual tradition
regarding Mary’s death, but otherwise accepts Rahmani’s date and location.
89
As part of the fallout of the failed Bar Kokhba rebellion (135 CE) the Romans ‘de-Judaized’ Judea and Jerusalem
and for all intents and purposes it ceased to be a Jewish city until the 20 th century. See: Shaye J. D. Cohen, “Judaism

207
Lastly, it should be noted that there is a small amount of evidence suggestive of Marian
activity in the heavily Jewish Galilee.90 These come from the travel logs of Christian pilgrims who
made their way to the Holy Land in antiquity. One of the most extensive examples of these is the
pilgrimage diary of a woman by the name of Egeria.91 Egeria arrived from the West, probably
Spain, and the historical information contained in this text places it in the late fourth-century.
While much of her diary centers upon sites in Jerusalem, Egeria also spent time in the Galilee.
While in Nazareth she reported seeing “a big and very splendid cave in which [Mary] lived” and
in which “an alter has been placed.”92 Additional evidence for Marian shrines in predominately
Jewish areas comes from a later traveler known as the Piacenza Pilgrim who made his way from
Italy to the land of Israel in the mid- to late sixth-century.93 He records that he and his travel party
arrived in Tzipori and “venerated… the flagon and the bread-basket of Saint Mary” and saw a
chair upon which she sat.94 Continuing to Nazareth he observed that the house of Mary, which
Egeria also reported visiting, was now a basilica and that relics from the Virgin Mother’s clothes
are “the cause of frequent miracles.” While the Piacenza Pilgrim visits Israel sometime after the
period under discussion here, a Christian legend originating in the fifth-century describes the
discovery of Mary’s robe in the Galilee.95 This may support the notion that Marian relics in the
area, such as those mentioned by the Piacenza Pilgrim in the sixth-century, were already known in
an earlier period.

to the Mishnah: 135-220 CE,” in Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism: A Parallel History of Their Origins and Early
Development, ed. Hershel Shanks (Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1992), 196–97.
90
Regarding the Jewish character of the Galilee, Cohen states that after the ‘de-Judaization’ of Jerusalem and Judea
(Ibid.):
The center of Jewish life moved from Judea to towns and villages in Galilee that had survived the
war unscathed… With the emergence of Galilee as a major center of Jewish life, the rabbinic
leaders also moved there. From places like Yavneh and Lydda in Judea, the migrated north. Indeed
the first rabbinic literary works were redacted in Galilee, not Judea.
91
The background information on this text as well as the translations are taken from: John Wilkinson, ed., Egeria’s
Travels to the Holy Land (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1999). Several sections of the earliest manuscript of the work
were lost over the centuries and Wilkinson also includes parts which only survive in later works.
92
Ibid., 193. This description of Mary’s cave is found the extensive quotations of Egeria’s Travels by Peter the Deacon
an Italian monk of the twelfth-century, but is accepted as originally the words of Egeria.
93
Background and translations from: John Wilkinson, ed., “The Piacenza Pilgrim,” in Jerusalem Pilgrims before the
Crusades (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 2011), 78–89.
94
Of note, the reference to Mary’s bread basket recalls the bread offering mentioned in the Six Books and by
Epiphanius.
95
Ora Limor, “Mary and the Jews: Story, Controversy, and Testimony,” Historein 6 (2006): 62. For an overview of the
different versions of this tale, see: Norman H. Baynes, “The Finding of the Virgin’s Robe,” Annuaire de l’Institute de
Philogie et d’Hisoire Orientales et Slaves 9 (1949): 89–95.

208
When all the textual and material evidence discussed until now is taken into account, a
rather neat historical picture emerges. The somewhat ancillary role given to Mary in the first-
century, as seen in the New Testament and earliest Christian authors, is developed and expanded
upon in the second and third-centuries, as demonstrated in the Protevangelium of James and the
works of Origen. At some point thereafter allusions to Mary’s power of intervention begin to
appear, the earliest of these likely being the Book of Mary’s Repose. By the fourth-century the
most basic forms of Marian veneration seem to have taken root. This is demonstrated by the
assorted references from the period to prayers addressed to the Virgin Mother as well as the fuller
account found in the Six Books Dormition Apocryphon. This trend reaches a new zenith in the late
fourth- and early fifth-century with a fully formed cult of worship, as evidenced by liturgical and
archeological evidence. The Marian cult boasts churches, eulogiai, and festivals and is well-known
throughout the Christian world. It is also around this time that Mary’s status as the Theotokos,
which appears to have been widely used for some time, finally received official status at the council
of Ephesus (431). Of course, historical and religious developments over such large periods are
rarely so simple. For example, the fact that the archeological record of Marian churches and
eulogiai starts only the turn of the fifth century does not necessarily mean that they did not exist
before then. It could be that evidence from an earlier period simply did not survive or has yet to
be discovered. Similarly, the fact that the earliest texts which expand upon Mary’s life do not
mention her as an object of worship does not make it certain that such worship did not exist. It
could be that the Protoevangelium, for example, was actually written to justify a contemporaneous
cult. Be all this as it may, the greater historical narrative laid out above is the most convincing way
to explain the known physical and textual evidence as well as the relationship between them.

Whatever the exact historical process, the wealth of material over such an extended period
of time demonstrates the dominant presence that Mary had in the religious landscape of late antique
Palestine. Though the heart of the Marian cult was Jerusalem, where Jewish presence in this period
was minimal, it is clear that these developments would have been known to Jews throughout the
land of Israel. Not only is this implied in the homilies of Hesychius, which defend the celebration
against Jewish critique, but Jews coming to Jerusalem to mourn their Temple passed right by the
Kathisma church on the very day when Christians celebrated Mary there. Further, the large number
of eulogiai which have been found all-over Palestine demonstrates that Marian worship left its
mark throughout the land of Israel. Lastly, there is some scant evidence that Marian shrines were

209
also found in the Galilee, the heart of Jewish Palestine. All this makes it clear that Jews, both the
laity and rabbinic elite quoted in GenR, would have been aware of the important role Mary was
now playing in Christian thought and worship. Importantly, while the evidence for Marian worship
in the land of Israel spans a long period of time, it reaches a head in the early fifth-century—the
very same time when GenR was redacted. In chapter five it was demonstrated that the rabbis of
the midrash were aware of the fact that Christian rhetoric laid claim to Sarah as the Christian
matriarch and drew connections between her and Mary. The subsequent rise of Mary described
here would therefore serve as additional motivation for the midrash to develop its own counter-
narrative involving Sarah. In doing so the rabbis not only combat Christian claims regarding the
matriarch, but also create a female religious figure on par with the Theotokos.

Mary’s Presence in Jewish Literature


The conclusion that the rabbis of GenR used Sarah as a response to the rise of Mary in Christian
Palestine can be further solidified by looking to examples elsewhere in Jewish literature. Scholars
of Jewish history have noted some other places where the Virgin Mother clearly left her mark on
Judaism. The majority of these studies focus on the influence of Mary and Marian cult in periods
well after the talmudic era. However, these can still be of some use when analyzing the midrash,
as they demonstrate a pattern in which Jewish authors become aware of Mary’s central role in
Christianity and react to it. This suggests the possibility that a similar process occurs in GenR.
More than one example of this process can be found in regard to the widespread revival of
Marian worship in twelfth-century Christian Europe. For example, Peter Schäfer notes that the
form of Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah believes in the “feminine potency of God and its
embodiment on earth” called the shekhinah.96 He traces the first appearance of this idea to the
Bahir, a highly influential text which reached its final form in twelfth-century Provence (southern
France). Schäfer then suggest that this innovation in the Jewish understanding of the Divine is
directly influenced by aspects of Marian devotion which come to the forefront in Christian
theology of the period. In a more extensive piece, Arthur Green looks to additional kabbalistic
works from a slightly later period, the Zohar in particular, and reaches a similar conclusion. As he
puts it: “The unequivocal feminization of shekhinah in the Kabbalah of the thirteenth century is a
Jewish response to, and adaptation of, the revival of devotion to Mary in the twelfth century

96
Peter Schäfer, “Mirror of His Beauty: The Femininity of God in Jewish Mysticism and in Christianity,” Irish
Theological Quarterly 70, no. 1 (2005): 49.

210
Western church.”97 It should be noted that other scholars of Jewish mysticism reject these
conclusions.98 However, they still find anti-Marian polemics elsewhere in the Zohar and likewise
point to the manner in which Jewish mystics “create a new system of thought that imitates their
Christian neighbors” and their veneration of Mary. 99 In addition, Ephraim Shoham-Steiner has
pointed out that the biblical character of Miriam (who of course shares a name with Jesus’ mother)
is given increased attention by rabbinic authors in Ashkenaz from the late twelfth-century and until
the fourteenth. Several exegetical and homiletic works of the era bear witness to what he terms the
‘empowering’ of Miriam as a figure of religious importance and influence. In some cases, these
texts also grant Miriam the kind of praise found in Christian discussions of Mary. Based on this
he contends that Miriam’s new role is “linked to the rise in prominence of the figure of the Virgin
Mary as well as with the interface between her cult and the Jews.”100 While all these examples
come from a period well after that of GenR and from a different geographical location, they are
still helpful for establishing a pattern of Jewish reaction to the growth of Mary’s role Christianity.
In this sense, GenR can actually be seen as an earlier iteration of this historical model whereby the
rise of Mary causes the parallel rise of a strong female figure within Judaism.

Looking to texts which originate closer to GenR’s own milieu, there is also evidence of
Jewish engagement with the Virgin Mary. One example comes from a piyyut (liturgical poem)

97
Arthur Green, “Shekhinah, the Virgin Mary, and the Song of Songs: Reflections on a Kabbalistic Symbol in Its
Historical Context,” AJS Review 26, no. 1 (2002): 1. As Green notes, Schäfer “anticipates several of the conclusions”
of his study (p21 fn88).
98
See the discussion in Daniel Abrams, “The Virgin Mary as the Moon That Lacks the Sun: A Zoharic Polemic Against
the Veneration of Mary,” Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts 21 (2010): 10–14.
99
Ibid., 23.
100
Ephraim Shoham-Steiner, “The Virgin Mary, Miriam, and Jewish Reactions to Marian Devotion in the High Middle
Ages,” AJS Review 37, no. 1 (2013): 77. In his introductory remarks Shoham-Steiner notes studies by other scholars
who point to possible Jewish responses to the role of Mary in the middle ages (79-80). Beyond mentioning Schäfer
and Green, he also relays that Yisrael Yuval notes that some adaptations of the Jewish prayer of Aleinu involved
harsh language against Mary. Elliot Wolfson sees the conception of Lilith as the female embodiment of impurity as
connected to her use as a stand-in for Mary. Ivan Marcus suggests that the common medieval conception of Mary
nurturing baby Jesus influenced a rite popular in Ashkenaz wherein a child was initiated into the word of Torah study.
Elisheva Baumgarten points to possible echoes of the Marian cult in Jewish female customs and life-cycle
ceremonies. Katrin Kogman-Appel and Sara Offenberg discuss the attempts seen in Jewish art to refute Christian
claims regarding Mary. These examples all demonstrate Mary’s widespread influence in the mediaeval Jewish world.
However, I will not discuss them here as I wish to focus on the rise of important female figures within Judaism (in
this case the Shekhinah and Miriam) as a response to Mary. As I argue, this is the same process seen in GenR
regarding Sarah.

211
which was written for use in the revelry that accompanied the holiday of Purim.101 The exact date
of the poem may not be clear, but based on the language and style it was written in the land of
Israel during the Byzantine period. The parodic poem presents itself as an elegy made by Haman’s
wife Zeresh as she “wailed and screamed at the sight” of her ten sons “crucified”. Based on various
textual allusions, Ophir Münz-Manor concludes that “behind the figure of Zeresh lamenting her
sons stands the figure of Mary lamenting Jesus.”102 To add insult to injury, the poem ends by

101
Translations of this piyyut and the background information are taken from Ophir Münz-Manor, “Carnivalesque
Ambivalence and the Christian Other in Aramaic Poems from Byzantine Palestine,” in Jews in Byzantium: Dialects of
Minority and Majority Cultures, ed. Robert Bonfil et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 837–40. For all the disparaging of Zeresh
(and by extension Mary) in the poem, Münz-Manor also stresses that her “sincere grief is powerfully narrated” in a
manner with which the audience can identify (p837).
102
Ibid., 840. In addition to this piece, Chana Shacham-Rosby has argued that other piyyutim from the land of Israel
in the sixth- to eighth-century, the so-called classic period of early piyyut, also belie anti-Christian polemics in their
use of the matriarch Rachel. See: Chana Shacham-Rosby, “‘From His Place He Heard Rachel’s Prayer And
Remembered Her’: Rachel the Matriarch in Early Palestinian Midrash and Piyyut From the Byzantine Era and Her
Role in the Jewish-Christian Polemic [Hebrew]” (MA, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 2011), 53–65. Of particular
interest in regard to Mary’s influence on the Jewish world, she notes that some of these speak to the intercessory
power of Rachel’s prayers, a theme prevalent in Christian portrayals of Mary. As such, she suggests that Rachel is
framed in these piyyutim as a counter to the Virgin Mother (p64-65).
In addition to the piyyut evidence, Shacham-Rosby also analyzes the portrayal of Rachel in rabbinic midrash
from the land of Israel (p31-41). In fact, she reads some of the material in GenR as meant, at least in part, to present
Rachel as Jewish response to Mary (see her concluding remarks on p41). However, I find this part of her study less
convincing. In a general sense, the attention given Rachel does not really go beyond that granted to the other
matriarchs, as I have noted previously. This makes it hard to conclude that Rachel was meant to be an answer to
such a powerful and widespread phenomenon as the Cult of Mary was at the time. Further, of all the sections from
GenR which do expand upon Rachel’s role, the number of these texts which Shacham-Rosby ties to polemics against
Mary herself is actually quite small. With the exception of a few drashot which speak of Rachel’s prayers (p37-38),
which as noted is also a Marian theme, the other sections address more overarching matters, such as God’s election
of Rachel’s children as opposed to those of Esau (p33-36). These drashot, for example, certainly have an anti-
Christian subtext given the rabbis’ identification of Esau with Rome, but the connection to Mary is not as strong.
Therefore, while Shacham-Rosby makes a convincing case both regarding Rachel’s role in classical piyyut and
Rachel’s use in the more general anti-Christian polemic in GenR, I think it is stretching the evidence too far to
conclude that the midrash wishes to use Rachel as a direct response to Mary in particular.
Further, as far as I can tell there is little evidence that late antique Christians themselves drew a parallel
between Rachel and Mary. As a result, there is less reason to assume that the rabbis would respond along these
lines. The only Christian text from the period that Shacham-Rosby presents which alludes to a possible connection
between Rachel and Mary in their eyes is taken from the travel diary of the Piacenza Pilgrim (p40). The Pilgrim
mentions the close proximity of the Kathisma and Rachel’s burial site. However, not only does this text post-date
GenR, but regardless of the date it does not appear to be strong evidence that Christians drew a parallel between
the two figures. All this stands in in contrast to the Sarah-related material in GenR which I have analyzed. Not only
is it far more expansive that the Rachel-related material in general, but it also contains several strong parallels to
Marian traditions from Christian Palestine. In addition, unlike in the case of Rachel, connections are drawn between
Sarah and Mary over and over again in early Christian literature, both before and during the period of the midrash.
This means that the rabbis, as discussed, would have a motive to frame Sarah as a Jewish answer to Mary that they
would not have had with Rachel.

212
referring to Zeresh as a “harlot”.103 If Münz-Manor is correct regarding the use of Zeresh as a
stand-in for Mary, then this is no doubt an allusion to the well-known Jewish claim that Jesus was
born out of wedlock.104 Beyond this polemic attack on Jesus’ legitimacy and Mary’s chastity, the
piyyut suggests that Jews (at least those educated enough to understand the author’s language and
clever enough to pick up on his allusions) may have been familiar with the importance Christians
granted to Mary’s presence at the cross (cf. John 19:25-27). Moreover, it is clear that the author of
this poem understood what a central figure Mary was for Christians, such that mocking her would
have been seen as both amusing for his audience and hurtful for their religious adversaries.

Even more importantly, a series of scholars have pointed to connections between Marian
themes and the midrashic work Lamentations Rabbah (LamR).105 As mentioned, LamR likewise
comes from the land of Israel and is more-or-less contemporaneous with GenR. Fitting to the
subject matter of the book of Lamentations itself, LamR contains a lengthy martyrological section.
Illustrating the verse which opens “For these things do I weep, my eyes flow with tears” the
midrash relays several stories of Jews who chose to die rather than forsake their God (Lam 1:16;
LamR 1:46-51). Central among these vignettes is the tale of a woman named Miriam and her seven
sons (1:50).106 Miriam and her sons were imprisoned by the Romans and one by one the children

103
Münz-Manor, “Carnivalesque Ambivalence and the Christian Other in Aramaic Poems from Byzantine Palestine,”
839.
104
A popular Jewish attack on Christianity in antiquity was the accusation that Jesus was in truth the son a Roman
soldier named Panthera. Record of this accusation is first found in Origen’s Contra Celsum (1.32), where Celsum
credits the Jews with this claim. Such a view of Jesus’ parentage also appears in several places in talmudic literature,
both of the Tannaim and Amoraim. See the discussion of this trope in: Peter Schäfer, Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2007), 15–20.
105
For an analysis of these sections from LamR which is far more skeptical of direct influence of Christian ideas upon
the midrash, see: Joseph Dan, History of Jewish Mysticism and Esotericism, vol. 2 (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center,
2008), 457–63. However, I believe the textual and historical arguments which will be laid out here support the
conclusion that the rabbis are directly responding to Marian themes.
106
I follow here the analysis of this section of LamR in: Martha Himmelfarb, “The Mother of the Seven Sons in
Lamentations Rabbah and the Virgin Mary,” Jewish Studies Quarterly 22 (2015): 325–51; Galit Hasan-Rokem, Web
of Life: Folklore and Midrash in Rabbinic Literature (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 114–25. The earliest
version of this story is found in 2 and 4 Maccabees wherein the mother does not play a crucial role and remains
nameless. Likewise, a version of this story in the Bavli also does not mention her name. In medieval versions of the
tale her name becomes Ḥannah. See: Himmelfarb, “The Mother,” 328; Hasan-Rokem, Web of Life, 118–19. Both
Hasan-Rokem and Himmelfarb refer to her as Miriam bat Tanḥum, based on Salomon Buber’s edition of the text. I
note, however, that in MS Munich used by Ma’agarim her name is Miriam bat Naḥtom (i.e., the baker’s daughter).
The translations of LamR 1:50 are taken from “Appendix: Translation of Lam. Rab. 1:50 according to the Buber
edition” in: Himmelfarb, “The Mother,” 348–51. Beyond the protagonist’s name, in the lines quoted there are some
other noticeable differences between Buber’s text and that of MS Munich. However, these changes do not affect
the overall analysis here.

213
were brought to the Caesar and ordered to bow before an idol. One by one they refuse and are
executed. The story reaches its climax when the youngest son is brought before the emperor. He
not only refuses to bow, but also rejects the Caesar’s offer that he bend over to pick up a ring and
therefore only appear to be bowing. Before her last son is executed Miriam asks that she be allowed
to “kiss him and embrace him.” Her request is granted and after her young son is given to her:
“she bared her breasts and nursed him.” As the Roman guards take her seventh son away and kill
him, Miriam calls:

My son, do not let your heart grow faint and do not be frightened. You are going to
your brothers, and you will be placed in the bosom of Abraham our father. Tell him
in my name, ‘You built an alter and did not sacrifice your son, but I built seven
alters and sacrificed my sons on them. And not only that: yours was a test and mine
was deeds.

Several days later, the midrash relates, Miriam “went mad” and jumped to her death from a roof.
Upon this the Holy Spirit cried out: “For these things do I weep” (Lam 1:16).

Gilat Hasan-Rokem argues that this section should be seen, at least in part, as the result of
Jewish-Christian dialogue. This conclusion is only natural given that this section of the midrash
clearly wishes to express that Judaism is under siege by the Romans. Like GenR, LamR was
compiled at a time when Rome was identified with Christianity and the land of Israel was under
its rule. According to Hasan-Rokem, the comparison that Miriam makes between herself and
Abraham should be understood in this vein.107 Explicitly, Miriam states that her suffering is even
greater than that of Abraham. The patriarch was only asked to sacrifice one son and even he was
eventually saved. Miriam, however, sacrificed seven. Implicitly, however, Miriam is also
comparing herself to Mary, with whom she shares a name. Inverting the terminology I have
discussed previously, it can be said that Miriam is portrayed as a more perfect Jewish antitype of
the original Christian type Mary. Mary only sacrificed one son, while Miriam sacrificed seven. In
addition to the fact that author of the midrash chooses the name Miriam for the central character,
Hasan-Rokem’s conclusion may also be strengthened by the important role that the akeida played
in Christian typology of Jesus during late antiquity. The Christian appropriation of this biblical

107
Hasan-Rokem, Web of Life, 125.

214
event would give the rabbis of LamR all the more reason to use its symbolism to praise Miriam,
their version of Mary, and claim that her sacrifice was far greater.

In a subsequent article on LamR 1:50, Himmelfarb points to an even starker adaptation of


a Marian theme in the midrash. She notes that several Christian sources highlight Mary’s role as
the nurse of Christ.108 Some even go so far as to allude to the salvific power of Mary’s milk which
can insure life after death. While the sources Himmelfarb cites are not necessarily from the land
of Israel, their relatively widespread nature leads her to conclude that Jews would have
encountered the idea.109 If that is the case then this theme sheds new light on the imagery of Miriam
nursing her son right before his execution. Miriam nurses her son “not only to show maternal love
but also to confer eternal life on him before he meets death.” Himmelfarb also notes a similar idea
may stand behind description of Sarah nursing in GenR,110 and I will return to the subject of
Christian sources and their connection to this particular drasha in the next chapter. For now, it is
important to note that the portrayal of Miriam in LamR is further evidence of rabbinic awareness
and use of Christian concepts regarding the Virgin Mother in late antique Palestine.111

In contrast to this story in which a Marian theme is adopted and adapted by the rabbis,
Sivan points to a drasha in the very next section of LamR which is intended to rebut Marian
veneration (LamR 1:51).112 The petiḥta of this drasha is the continuation of the above-quoted verse
from Lamentations: “Far from me is any comforter [menaḥem] who might revive my spirit” (1:16).
The midrash opines that this “comforter” is actually the king Messiah and provides a story as proof.
A certain Jew is ploughing with his oxen when a passing Arab tells him: “Detach your oxen…
because the Temple of the Jews is (to be) destroyed.” The Jew does so, but a moment later the

108
Himmelfarb, “The Mother,” 336–40.
109
Ibid., 340.
110
Ibid., 342–44.
111
Another possible polemic against Mary in LamR (14:5) is identified and analyzed by Burton L. Visotzky, “Anti-
Christian Polemic in Leviticus Rabbah,” in Fathers of the World: Essays in Rabbinic and Patristic Literatures (Tübingen:
J.C.B. Mohr, 1995), 101–5.
112
Sivan, Palestine in Late Antiquity, 236–40. The translations from this section of LamR are those of Sivan based on
Buber’s edition (p336-337). The connection between this drasha and the Virgin Mary is also noted by Himmelfarb,
“The Mother,” 346–47 though she reads it differently than Sivan. A parallel to this section from LamR can be found
in the Yerushalmi as well (pBerachot 4:2). Additional discussions of this midrash (either in LamR, the Yerushalmi, or
both) can be found in Peter Schäfer, The Jewish Jesus: How Judaism and Christianity Shaped Each Other (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2014), 214–35; Jonah Fraenkel, Studies in the Spiritual World of the Aggadic Story
[Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2010), 159–63; Hasan-Rokem, Web of Life, 152–60.

215
Arab tells him: “Harness your ox and tie up your plough because the deliverer of the Jews is born.”
He then goes on to inform the Jew that the deliverer’s name is Menaḥam (lit. the comforter) the
son of Ḥezekiah and that he may be found “at Birat HaArba, which is in Bethlehem in Judaea.”
The Jew then sells his ox and plough, becomes a “peddler of baby garments” and makes his way
to Birat HaArba. All the local mothers buy clothing from him except for one who refrains from
doing so. When he asks her why, she replies: “Because I fear that a harsh fate is in store for my
baby… on account of his birth the Temple is to be destroyed.” The peddler attempts to assuage
her fears (and make another sale), telling her: “Just as close on his birth it is to be destroyed so
close on that day it will be rebuilt.” He gives her some linens for the child and informs her that he
will come to her house in few days to collect payment. When the peddler returns the child is gone.
The mother tells him:

Did I not tell you that a harsh fate is in store for him? Misfortune has dogged him
and a whirlwind swept him off.

While some of the finer points of this drasha may be hard to understand, Sivan observes that it
clearly makes use of Christian beliefs about the relationship between the child-Messiah and his
mother.113 Likewise, it shows knowledge of Christian traditions regarding Jesus’ birth from both
the New Testament and later authors.114 Moreover, the rabbis forge a connection between “the

113
Sivan, Palestine in Late Antiquity, 237. Of additional note, the midrash’s description of the baby being ‘carried off
by a whirlwind’ )‫ (אתון רוחין ועלעולין‬recalls the death of Elijah (2 Kings 2:11). In fact, Yonah Frankel notes that the
language here very similar to the Aramaic Targum of the verse (‫)וסליק אליהו בעלעולא לצית שמיא‬. See: Fraenkel, Studies
in the Spiritual World of the Aggadic Story [Hebrew], 163 fn19. Though Frankel himself does not make use of Christian
material in his analysis of this drasha (p159-163), it should be added that the use of this verse in regard to the child
is further evidence that he is meant to represent Jesus. Elijah’s death serves as the prototype for the New Testament
description of Jesus’ own ascension into heaven (Mark 16:19-20, Acts 1:9-11). Regarding themes related to Elijah in
Hebrew Bible and their use by the New Testament authors, see: Yair Zakovitch and Avigdor Shinan, “Did Moses Die?
[Hebrew],” in That’s Not What the Good Book Says (Tel Aviv: Yediot Achronot, 2004), 164–72.
114
Regarding the parallels between this drasha and the birth of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, see:
Hasan-Rokem, Web of Life, 155–56. Regarding its of Christian traditions which only developed by the second century,
see: Sivan, Palestine in Late Antiquity, 237. Hasan-Rokem prefers to see the parallels between the New Testament
and this drasha as the shared use of folk traditions regarding the birth of the Messiah and not a rabbinic response
to Christian claims. However, given the greater historical context of the LamR and the Yerushalmi (where this section
also appears) and the doomed manner in which the drasha presents the Messiah-child, I think it is best to conclude
that this is yet another example of the inter-religious polemics which are common in texts of this period. A similar
critique of Hasan-Rokem’s reading is made by Schäfer, The Jewish Jesus, 230–31. He sees the use of New Testament
themes in the midrash a way of building “a counternarrative, a parodistic inversion of the New Testament, of the
Christian claim that this child Jesus, born in Bethlehem, the city of David, was indeed the Messiah” (p231). He goes
on to argue that the story reflects “the very moment [Christianity] sprang from the loins of Judaism” and a Jewish
attempt to tell this story from its point of view (p233).

216
birth and the deathly disappearance of the baby on the one hand and the destruction and rebuilding
of the Temple on the other.”115 The aim of this, Sivan argues, is to undermine the Christian belief
that Jesus’ coming insured the Jewish Temple would forever remain in ruins. Continuing this line
of thought, she also connects the drasha with the Christian celebration of Mary which took place,
as discussed, on the 9th of Av. In the rabbis’ homiletic commentary on Lamentations, the very book
they associate with this day of mourning, they make use of Christian traditions associated with
Jesus’ birth in a subtle polemic against Christian dogma. Accordingly, Sivan concludes, the
midrash should be seen as a rebuttal to the “appropriation of 9th of Av as a Marian festival.”

These late antique sources demonstrate that awareness of Marian themes left its mark on
some Jewish texts and that the conscious use of Marian symbolism was not foreign to the rabbis.
So too, their desire to combat Mary’s religious standing in Christianity is apparent. Of course,
these examples are nowhere near as pervasive as the influence I have argued for regarding the
figure of Sarah in GenR. However, the fact that such trends are recognizable elsewhere in rabbinic
literature of the period strengthens the conclusion that the midrash also is partner to them, albeit
in a much more expansive and forceful manner.

Conclusion
Mary’s increasing importance in Christian worship would have served to highlight the claim that
the Virgin Mother had supplanted Sarah. Not only does the historical evidence from the land of
Israel make it clear that the rabbis would have been aware of the Marian cult, some rabbinic texts
outside of GenR also belie engagement with her figure. Like the Christian appropriation of Sarah
discussed in chapter four, the rise of Mary would have pushed the rabbis to advance their own
counter-narrative through the development of Sarah’s character. So too, the growing significance
of a female figure in Christian theology may have motivated the rabbis of GenR to create one of
their own. Indeed, historians have argued for a similar back-and-forth in the middle ages regarding
the use of both Miriam and the shekhinah in Jewish texts. With this in mind, it should be reiterated
that the Cult of Mary reached a new level of prestige and influence in early fifth-century Palestine,
the very same time and pace in which GenR was redacted. This development would bear heavily
on the minds of the midrash’s editors as they gathered, selected, and crafted material. It can

115
Sivan, Palestine in Late Antiquity, 238. Emphasis in the original.

217
therefore go a long way in explaining why GenR grants such unprecedented attention to Sarah and
why Sarah-related themes can be said to characterize the midrash as a redacted work.

218
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Chapter 7
Additional Marian Themes in Genesis Rabbah: Imitation and Adaptation

Introduction
Having established both the pervasive influence of the Marian cult in the land of Israel and its
connection to the expanded role of Sarah in GenR, we are in a position to better understand some
of the particular themes regarding Sarah in the midrash. A close reading of GenR in light of
Christian material demonstrates how the rabbis repeatedly made use of Marian themes and applied
them instead to Sarah. Some general parallels between Sarah in GenR and Mary in the writings of
Origen, such as their prophetic powers and ascetic piety, were already mentioned in chapter five.
Even more directly, it was demonstrated how the midrash adapted Origen’s description of Sarah’s
Mary-like virgin conception. Like chapter six, however, this chapter will focus on a wider array of
Christian sources. In particular, I will note the following additional themes which become closely
associated with the Virgin Mary: her nursing of Jesus, reference to the power of her prayers and
intercessions, her association with light, and her connection to the figure of Eve. All of these ideas
find parallels in the portrayal of Sarah in GenR. If the New Testament and later Origen subverted
and appropriated Sarah in order to give Mary added importance, the midrash seeks to subvert and
appropriate Marian symbolism in order to grant Sarah a greater role within Judaism and combat
the Virgin Mother’s growing significance.

Sarra Lactans
A clear use of Marian imagery is found in the midrash’s description of Sarah nursing the Roman
children at Abraham’s command. To recall, the midrash states (GR 53:9, Vat. 30, Albeck 564):

“Suckle children” [banim] (Gen. 21:7). She suckled builders [bani’in = bonim]. Our
mother Sarah was extremely modest. Our father Abraham said to her: This is not a
time for modesty, rather expose your breasts in order that all should know that the
Holy One blessed be He has begun to work miracles. He then exposed her breasts
and they gushed forth like two springs. And the noble women would come and have
their children suckled by her, saying: We are not worthy to nurse our sons from the
milk of the righteous one, of Isaac.

Regarding this drasha, its use of the theme of wet nursing has been discussed. In antiquity, wet
nursing was given a crucial role in both the literal sense, that is to say the pedagogical role played

223
by the nurse herself, and the metaphorical sense, that is to say its use as a symbol for the passing
on of knowledge. However, in addition to the common use of breastfeeding as a metaphor for
religious and philosophical education, the rather halting description of Sarah nursing Roman
infants recalls another image: that of the Virgin Mother nursing her son Jesus.

I have already mentioned that Himmelfarb reads this drasha as adopting the Christian idea
that Mary’s milk can bring salvation. While I agree with her conclusion that the midrash uses
Marian symbolism here, a more in-depth study of this theme in early Christian sources will shed
new and important light upon it.1 Likewise, based on the connections I have established between
GenR and Christian rhetoric surrounding Sarah and the rise of Mary, I will additionally argue that
this drasha should be understood in a far more polemic fashion.

By the medieval period depictions of Mary nursing baby Jesus, known as Maria lactans,
are a familiar icon in churches throughout the Christian world. However, such portrayals of Mary
and Jesus do not appear to be as common in late antiquity. In fact, one scholar has gone so far as
to say that “for the first five centuries of the Christian era, there appear to be no representations of
Mary nursing the infant Christ.”2 If that is indeed the case, of course, then the description of Sarah
nursing cannot be an appropriation of Marian imagery. However, a close analysis of the physical
and textual evidence suggests a more nuanced picture.

The earliest visual representations of Mary nursing Jesus were long considered to be two
third-century frescos from the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome.3 More recent scholarship, however,
has cast doubt on this identification. The first of these two images lacks any overt Christian

1
Himmelfarb also dedicates a portion of her study to the portrayal of Mary as Jesus’ nurse in Christian sources, see:
Martha Himmelfarb, “The Mother of the Seven Sons in Lamentations Rabbah and the Virgin Mary,” Jewish Studies
Quarterly 22 (2015): 336–40. Some of the sources I will discuss here are also noted by her. However, I will utilize
some important primary material that she does not. In particular, I will point to texts from the land of Israel and
which are connected to the rise of the Marian cult there.
2
Gail Paterson Corrington, “The Milk of Salvation: Redemption by the Mother in Late Antiquity and Early
Christianity,” Harvard Theological Review 82, no. 4 (1989): 407.
3
A typical example of this unquestioned understanding of the frescos can be found in Peter Murray and Linda
Murray, The Oxford Companion to Christian Art and Architecture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 289. The
authors likewise assume that such imagery of Mary here and elsewhere is clearly a Christianized version of Isis
suckling Horus. However, in addition to the identity of mother and son, the connection between Mary and Isis has
also been questioned in more recent scholarship. For an overview of more recent and nuanced views see, Sabrina
Higgins, “Divine Mothers: The Influence of Isis on the Virgin Mary in Egyptian Lactans-Iconography,” Journal of the
Canadian Society of Coptic Studies 3–4 (2012): 76–79.

224
overtones and may simply be a “poignant funerary portrait of a dead mother and child.”4 The
second is more certainly a depiction of Mary and her baby, but despite the fact that Jesus is close
to her breast it is not so clear that she is nursing him. More likely to be a depiction of Mary
suckling Jesus is an engraving found on an Egyptian tombstone from the fourth-century.5 In
addition to an early representation of Maria lactans, scholars have traditionally understood this
image to be a clear example of Christian adaptation of symbolism associated with the Greco-
Roman Cult of Isis. This cult was known throughout the empire, but was especially popular in
Egypt where it originated. 6 On this particular tombstone the common image of Isis with her breast
exposed to feed the infant Horus who is seated upon her lap appears to have been replaced by Mary
who is feeding the newborn Jesus.7 Yet, scholars have questioned this conclusion as well. They
note that it is difficult to discern if the mother and son are in fact Mary and Jesus, the original pair
of Isis and Horus, or perhaps even the anonymous woman buried there and her child. Indeed, when
all is said and done, it can now be said that the earliest uncontested examples of Maria lactans are
those found in the cells of Coptic monks and dated to the seventh-century.8

Given the late date of the images for which a scholarly consensus has been reached, it
might seem that the image of Mary nursing Jesus is not relevant to the historical context of GenR.9

4
Geri Parlby, “The Origins of Marian Art in the Catacombs and the Problems of Identification,” in The Origins of the
Cult of the Virgin Mary, ed. Chris Maunder (London: Burns and Oats, 2008), 48.
5
Regarding the dating of this image, which was previously assumed to be from the fifth century at the earliest, see:
Higgins, “Divine Mothers: The Influence of Isis on the Virgin Mary in Egyptian Lactans-Iconography,” 74.
6
In rabbinic literature there is what appears to be a clear reference to Isis, in the context of prohibitions concerning
aspects of pagan cult (Tosefta, Avodah Zara 6:1; MS Wein):
.‫ אף דמות מ יקה וסרפס‬.'‫ ר' יהודה או‬.‫המלח‬-‫מצא טבעת עליה צורת חמה צורת לב ה יוליך לים‬
Indeed, Saul Lieberman concluded that ‫ מניקה‬is a reference to Isis (Saul Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine
[New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1962], 163). However, Emmanuel Friedheim has since argued
that it is in fact a reference to Nysa nursing the infant Dionysus. Among the evidence he brings for this conclusion is
the fact that the cult of Isis was not common in the land of Israel in the Roman period, whereas the mythic narratives
involving Dionysus were. See: Emmanuel Friedheim, “Who Are the Deities Concealed behind the Rabbinic Expression
‘A Nursing Female Image’?,” Harvard Theological Review 96, no. 2 (2003): 239–50. In addition, Lieberman finds a
reference to Isis (though without mention of the nursing theme) in the Sifrei (See: Saul Lieberman, Greek in Jewish
Palestine [New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1962], 139–41).
7
This image on the tombstone is understood as such, for example, by: Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity:
From Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971), 142–43.
8
Higgins, “Divine Mothers: The Influence of Isis on the Virgin Mary in Egyptian Lactans-Iconography,” 75–76.
9
For example, though Himmelfarb does mention the paintings of Mary nursing Jesus in her discussion of the
midrashic depiction of Miriam nursing her child in LamR, she remarks that “the earliest known images of the Virgin
nursing the Christ child come from Egypt, beginning (with a single uncertain exception) in the six and seventh
centuries” and therefore post-date LamR. As result, she bases her reading of the midrash solely on textual
representations of Mary nursing Jesus. See: Himmelfarb, “The Mother,” 339.

225
However, I believe that such a conclusion misses the mark. It should be pointed out that discussions
of the appearance of Maria lactans generally attempt to date the phenomenon based solely on the
material evidence presented above. Nevertheless, the lack of such visual representations should
not be taken to mean that the imagery of a mother nursing her son was not closely identified with
Mary and Jesus already at a much earlier period. In fact, it is highly doubtful that a lack of physical
imagery means that rank-and-file Christians would not have naturally envisioned baby Jesus at his
mother’s bosom.

The textual evidence supports this claim. As noted previously, in many early Christian
sources it is actually Jesus or the Church who are referred to as ‘giving milk’.10 This of course
plays upon the metaphorical understanding of nursing in the Greco-Roman world. But, whatever
theological or philosophical qualms may have led some early Christian authors to speak of the
‘milk of Christ’ instead of the ‘milk of Mary,’ the description of the Virgin Mother as Maria
lactans can also be found in Christian literature from its earliest stages. In a section which has
already been mentioned in chapter five, the Gospel of Luke records this short episode (Lk 11:27-
28):

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the
mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those
who hear the word of God and obey it.”

Whatever this terse exchange might tell us about Jesus’ own attitude towards his mother,11 it is
clear that the author of Luke saw nothing strange in describing Mary as the one who nursed Jesus.
The same is true of the author of the Protevangelium of James. According to the pseudo-

10
For a discussion of the use of milk as metaphor in Christian texts which are not associated with Mary and why
some authors preferred to not speak of Mary’s milk, see: Elizabeth S. Bolman, “The Enigmatic Coptic
Galaktotrophousa and the Cult of the Virgin Mary in Egypt,” in Images of the Mother of God: Perceptions of the
Theotokos in Byzantium, ed. Maria Vassilaki (Burlington: Ashgate, 2005), 17–18. A slightly different use of this them
is also found in the following lines from the Odes of Solomon quoted in chapter six (Ode 19:2):
The Son is the cup. / And the Father is He who was milked. / And the Holy Spirit is She who milked
Him.
11
Himmelfarb also mentions this reference to Mary as Jesus’ nurse and remarks that “Jesus’ response does not
display much enthusiasm for the topic” (Himmelfarb, “The Mother,” 336). However, Shoemaker argues strongly that
when read in the greater context of Mary’s portrayal in Luke this should not be seen as a negative appraisal of Mary,
despite how it looks at first glance (Stephen J. Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion [New Haven:
Yale University Press, 2016], 38–39). Moreover, even if Himmelfarb is correct it is still important to note that the act
of nursing itself it is not seen as exceptional. Instead, it is a natural description of Mary which the author of Luke has
no objection to using.

226
Gospel when Joseph takes the midwife into the cave where Mary sits with her newborn child (Prot.
Jas. 19:2):12

Right away the cloud departed from the cave, and a great light appeared within, so
that their [Joseph and the midwife] eyes could not bear it. Soon that light departed,
until an infant could be seen. And it went and took hold of the breast of Mary, its
mother. The midwife cried out, “This is a great day for me, for I have seen this new
wonder.”

In addition, the influential theologian and bishop Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), in recounting the
sojourn of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in Egypt, also mentions that:13

In short, our Savior came into Egypt by the power of His Father, and He passed
three years there, and He proclaimed to the Egyptians what they ought to do whilst
He was at the breast of His mother Mary.

Cyril’s reference to Jesus “at the breast of His mother” might only be a colloquialism meant to
emphasize his young age at the time and not to imply that he actually gave instruction to the
Egyptians while nursing. Nevertheless, it is clear that Cyril is comfortable speaking of Jesus and
Mary in such terms. The same is true of one of the aforementioned Coptic spell texts which calls
out to:14

…My mother Mary. The breast… the breast from which our Lord Jesus Christ
drank…

In addition to all this, reference to Mary’s nursing of Jesus appears in two works which are
closely identified with the Marian cult in the land of Israel. In the Book of Mary’s Repose the
Christ-angel reminds Mary of the moment when “the child stopped [nursing from] your breast,
this one who is greater than all things,” before speaking to Joseph and telling him to climb the date

12
Translation: Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It into the New Testament (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2003), 69.
13
Cyril of Jerusalem, “Discourse on Mary Theotokos” (Trans. Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge, Miscellaneous Coptic Texts
in the Dialect of Upper Egypt [London: British Museum, 1915], 635). Cyril's recounting of Mary’s life is taken almost
verbatim from the Protevangelium, a testament to both its influence and the rising importance of Mary during Cyril's
lifetime.
14
Marvin W. Meyer and Richard Smith, eds., Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1999): text 115 (p231). Unfortunately, this text is not dated.

227
tree to pick fruit for his wife (LR 7).15 The Six Books Dormition Apocryphon also alludes to Mary’s
role as Jesus’ nurse, but in a slightly more subtle fashion. It describes how the Holy Spirit informed
the apostles of Mary’s impending death so that they may go to Bethlehem and greet her
beforehand.16 In fact, even those followers of Jesus who had themselves already died are
temporarily resurrected in order that they may do so. Upon arriving before the Virgin Mother each
one in turn “kissed her on her breast and on her knees.”17 This is the first of many acts of veneration
by the apostles and they are portrayed as doing so because, as Shoemaker notes, Mary’s breast and
the knees are “important symbols of her Divine Maternity.”18 Jesus sat upon his mother’s knees
and nursed from her breast.

Other early Christian texts could be cited, but these should suffice to make the point clear.
They bear witness to the fact that the image of Mary nursing Jesus was not at all foreign to early
Christian authors and their audiences. In some, such as the Protevangelium and the Repose, the
matter-of-fact nature of these descriptions implies that it was seen as a rather obvious aspect of
Jesus’ infancy. In others, such as the Six Books and the Coptic fragment, it is even portrayed as an
important symbol of Mary’s role as the mother of God. Importantly, the use of this imagery can
be found in works which originate in the land of Israel or have otherwise been demonstrated to be
known there in late antiquity. This means that the Christian description of Mary nursing Jesus was
something that the rabbis of GenR likely would have been familiar with.

As with the rise of the Marian cult, the written and physical evidence for Maria lactans
complement each other nicely. In fact, this may shed light on the ambiguous nature of the early
images mentioned previously. Just as it is not always clear to scholars if these depictions were
originally intended to be of Isis, Mary, or an anonymous mother, it may very well be that it was
not so clear, or important, to ancient worshipers. Individuals would have understood the image
before them in light of their own cultural matrix. As the textual record shows, the image of Mary
nursing Jesus was already part of Christian discourse from an early stage. Therefore, an image of
a mother nursing her son in a context with religious overtones, such as a burial site, would have

15
Translation: Stephen Shoemaker, “Appendix A: The Ethiopic Liber Requiei,” in Ancient Traditions of the Virgin
Mary’s Dormition and Assumption, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 294.
16
William Wright, “The Departure of My Lady Mary from This World,” Journal of Sacred Literature and Biblical
Record, New Series, 7 (1865): 136–38.
17
Ibid., 138.
18
Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion, 136.

228
inspired rather obvious associations for believing Christians. This is especially true in a period
when the lines between the various religions and forms of worship were not always clearly
demarcated, as was the case in late antiquity. Thus, if scholars have shown that the only images
which can be conclusively determined to depict Mary nursing Jesus are relatively late, this can
only be said in regard to their creator’s original intent. From the perspective of the ancient viewer,
cultic depictions of a mother nursing her child could have easily been understood in connection
with Mary. Again, the exact nature of the relationship between the Cult of Isis and the Cult of
Mary is still a matter of much debate. However, even those who do not believe that the Greco-
Roman cult directly influenced the Christian cult generally acknowledge that the popularity of Isis
made the figure of Mary more palpable to many who chose to adopt Christianity.19 This too
supports the contention that the common image of Isis nursing her divine son Horus could have
been interpreted as Mary and Jesus by many Christians.

After establishing that Maria lactans imagery, be it written or visual, was actually quite
prevalent in early Christianity, we are in a better position to understand the midrash’s portrayal of
Sarah nursing and its connection to rabbinic polemics. In chapter five I argued that the second half
of this same drasha contains a clear response to Christian rhetoric against Judaism. After
describing how the Roman noble women brought their children to nurse from Sarah, the midrash
records (GR 53:9, Vat. 30, Albeck 564-565(:

The Rabbis and R. Aḥa. The Rabbis said: anyone who came for the sake of heaven
was made a fearer of heaven. R. Aḥa said: Even one who did not come for the sake
of heaven was given domination is the world. However, they did not continue [with
this domination], for when they removed themselves at Sinai and did not accept the
Torah that domination was taken from them. As it is written: “He undoes the belts
of kings and fastens loincloths on them” (Job 12:18).

In the face of Christian claims, in the writings of Paul and Origen, that Sarah is truly the spiritual
mother of Christianity, the midrash counters here that she is actually the mother of those Jews who
remain loyal to the covenant at Sinai and those theosebeis (God-fearers) who affiliate with them.
The depiction of the matriarch nursing Roman children, Sarra lactans as it were, in a section which

19
Higgins, “Divine Mothers: The Influence of Isis on the Virgin Mary in Egyptian Lactans-Iconography,” 77–78.

229
contains a strong anti-Christian message about the importance of the covenant at Sinai is no
coincidence. It should not be read as an innocent adaptation of Marian imagery, but rather as part
and parcel of the rabbinic use of Sarah as a response to contemporaneous Marian piety. What for
Mary was an act that symbolizes her role as the biological mother of Jesus and the spiritual mother
of Christianity is now an act which establishes Sarah as the mother of all those who are faithful to
the Torah. In other words, this drasha represents another attempt by GenR to combat the Christian
appropriation of Sarah on the one hand and present her as an alternative to the Mary on the other.

Further, in chapter three I noted that GenR makes a point of presenting Sarah as a figure
of universal significance. For example, the matriarch is described as the ‘converter of women’ and
even a ‘princess for all humanity.’ This theme is continued in a symbolic fashion here. Her nursing
of the Roman children is depicted as an act of universal influence: her breasts are exposed “in
order that all should” witness God’s miracle and her milk is said to impact all the children who are
brought to her. This also explains why Sarah is depicted as nursing many children, even though
the parallel to Mary would require her only to nurse one. Rome, the capital of the Empire, often
represents the whole of the ecumene in late antique discourse. Therefore, by depicting Sarah as
nursing the children of the Roman nobility the rabbis again stress her influence on all of the
civilized world.

Here too a connection to Christian conceptions of Mary can be identified. As the rabbis
do with Sarah, some Christian sources grant symbolic and universal meaning to Mary’s milk. One
of these is Cyril of Alexandria (d. ca. 444). Cyril played a central role in the adaptation of the
Mary’s title of Theotokos at the Council of Ephesus and he dedicates several homilies to the Virgin
Mother. In his “Discourse on the Virgin Mary” he states:20

[Jesus] lifted up His eyes to thy [Mary’s] face. He stretched out His hand, He took
thy breast, and He drew into His mouth the milk which was sweeter than manna.
The savor of thy sacrifice was sweeter unto Him than the savor of the sacrifice of
Noah. Having drunk from thy spotless breasts, He called thee ‘My mother’.

In addition to the literal description of Jesus at his mother’s breast, Mary’s milk is given a more
symbolic role through its comparison to the manna, the ‘bread which rained from heaven’ to feed

20
Translation taken from Budge, Miscellaneous Coptic Texts in the Dialect of Upper Egypt, 717–18.

230
the Israelites while in the desert (Ex 16:4). Indeed, Cyril strengthens this parallel later by speaking
of Mary’s breasts as “being filled with milk in heaven.”21 Further, Cyril’s statement that Mary’s
milk was “sweeter unto Him than the savor of the sacrifice of Noah” is suggestive of a universal
and redemptive quality. After the waters of the deluge abated, Noah gave an offering to God. As
a result of its “pleasing odor” God promised: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man”
(Gen 8:10-21). By stating that Mary’s milk is greater than this, Cyril alludes to a belief that her
milk can help bring salvation to the world in an even greater fashion than Noah’s sacrifice.

Unlike Cyril who blends both a literal and more symbolic understanding of Mary nursing
Jesus, a wholly metaphorical use can be found in the works of Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373). In his
Hymns on the Nativity he presents the nursing of Jesus by Mary as a parallel to the symbolic
nursing of the world by Jesus. In doing so Ephrem utilizes both the concept of the ‘milk of Christ,’
which appears in many Christian works of the period, and the symbolism of Mary nursing Jesus
(Hymn 4: 148-150, 183-186):22

The Lofty One became like a little child, yet hidden in Him was a treasure of
Wisdom that suffices for all. He was lofty but he sucked Mary’s milk, and from His
blessing all creation sucks. He is the Living Breast of all creation sucks… From the
great treasury of all creation Mary gave to Him everything that she gave. She gave
Him milk from what He made exist. She gave Him food from what He had created.
He gave milk to Mary as God. In turn, He was given suck by her as human.

In a manner more explicit than Cyril of Alexandria, Ephrem connects Mary’s milk with the
blessing and salvation of “all of creation.” Unlike Cyril, however, Ephrem presents Mary’s role as
that of an intermediary. To wit, God gave Mary milk and she in turn fed Jesus who himself acts as
the “Living Breast” for all the world. Nevertheless, the symbolism which informs such rhetoric is
unmistakable. Mary’s milk, whatever its original source and whomever ultimately gives it to the
world, is intimately connected (at least in a symbolic fashion) to Christ’s “Wisdom” and his
“blessing” for all of creation.

21
Ibid., 719.
22
Kathleen E. McVey, trans., Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 100, 102. This source is also
noted by Himmelfarb, “The Mother,” 337.

231
Returning to the midrash, these texts bear a suggestive parallel. According to the rabbis,
Sarah’s lactating breasts show the whole world God’s power and her milk itself is said to have a
redeeming influence. In this sense it recalls Cyril’s allusion to the universally salvific role of
Mary’s milk. Likewise, the halting description of Sarah breasts publicly exposed in order to give
suck to all strikes a similar chord to Ephrem’s reference to Jesus as the “Living Breast” from which
“all creation sucks.” It is also worth noting that just as Ephrem invoked both the imagery of Mary
nursing and the concept of the ‘milk of Christ,’ the midrash records that upon seeing Sarah the
Roman women remark: “We are not worthy to nurse our sons from the milk of the righteous one,
of Isaac.” While it is true that Sarah began lactating on account of Isaac, he is not otherwise
mentioned in this drasha and the sudden description of the milk as his, as opposed to Sarah’s, is
somewhat incongruent. Given that the rabbis have shown themselves elsewhere to be aware of the
Isaac-Jesus typology in Christian rhetoric, perhaps the choice to refer to the ‘milk of Isaac’ here is
meant to be a subtle rejoinder to the Christian ‘milk of Christ’.23

It appears then that rabbis utilize the Christian idea that Mary’s milk has a universal and
redemptive power in order to buttress their own conception of Sarah’s universal influence. By
doing so, they add additional praise to the Jewish matriarch and further establish her as a counter
to the Theotokos. Unlike many of the sources discussed above, these last two in particular do not
originate in Palestine. However, given the prevalence of Marian worship in the land of Israel and
Mary’s significance as the nurse of Jesus in this context, there is reason to think that they could
have also been exposed to these ideas as well.24

23
Perhaps an allusion to this incongruity can be found in the manuscript traditions for this line. MSs Vatican 30 and
60 both render it as reference to Isaac’s milk. Vat. 30 reads: ‫( מחלבו שצדיק שליצחק‬according to “Ma’agrim” the word
‫שצדיק‬, which appears in the MS itself, is an error by the copyist and to be deleted). Vat. 60 reads: ‫מחלבו של צדיק‬. MS
London (and with it Albeck’s edition), however reads: ‫מחלב הצדקת‬. Given that V30 and V60 are the two most reliable
manuscripts of GenR it can be assumed that the original text indeed referred to the milk of Isaac. The copyist of MS
London however changed it into a reference to Sarah’s milk. While an unintentional error may certainly be the cause
of this, there is no real graphic or phonetic reason why he would make such a mistake. Another possibility is that
copyist assumed that the reference to Isaac’s milk was a mistake given its context within the drasha which focuses
upon Sarah and chose to emend the text. If so, then the text of MS London highlights just how out of place the
reference to Isaac seems.
24
For a discussion of parallels between Ephrem’s Commentary on Genesis and GenR, see: Judith Frishman, “‘And
Abraham Had Faith’: But In What? Ephrem and the Rabbis on Abraham and God’s Blessings,” in The Exegetical
Encounter between Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity, ed. Emmanouela Grypeou and Helen Spurling (Leiden:
Brill, 2009), 163–80. Frishman argues that the similar portrayal of Abraham in these two works is evidence of a
shared cultural background. This conclusion supports the use of Ephrem’s statements regarding Mary as evidence
of the ideas the rabbis would have been exposed to.

232
Sarah’s Prayer
In addition to the midrash’s portrayal of Sarah’s conception with God and her nursing of Roman
children which are unquestionably adopted from Marian symbolism, there are a number
descriptions of Sarah which may also borrow from Christian traditions. The following examples
are a bit more speculative, but they appear to fit the general trend demonstrated until now. The
first involves the power of Sarah’s prayers. As discussed, one of the larger blanks in Sarah’s story
in the Bible is what exactly happened during her time in Pharaoh’s harem. The midrash is not only
adamant that Pharaoh was unable to come near Sarah, but it depicts her emotional pleas to God
(GR 41:2, Vat. 30, Albeck 389):

And that whole night Sarah was prostrated upon her face saying: Master of the
Ages! Abraham went out with a promise (cf. Gen 12:1) and I went out with faith.
Abraham is out of this prison while I am within this prison. How strange!? The
Holy One blessed be He said to her: All that I do, I do for your sake, and all will
say: “on account of Sarai, the wife of Abram” (Gen 12:17).

In my discussion of the Sarah-related material in GenR, I noted that this portrayal of Sarah’s
prayers is unique. It lacks an anchor in the biblical text and there is not much precedent for it in
earlier Jewish exegesis. The only partial exception is Philo, who does remark that Abraham joined
his wife in prayer. However, as noted, even if the rabbis of the midrash did somehow encounter
Philo’s reading, their take on Sarah’s prayer still goes well beyond his.

Further, the manner in which the midrash describes Sarah’s communication with God is
noteworthy in the context of Marian themes. She turns to Him directly and is immediately
answered by Him. This brings to mind the central role given to Mary’s own prayers in some of the
Christian texts previously discussed. In the Six Books, for example, Mary is repeatedly called upon
to entreat God on behalf of the faithful. This is slightly different than Sarah’s portrayal in the
midrash, where she only prays for herself. However, the overall power of Sarah’s prayer is still
similar. Likewise, the midrash uses Sarah’s prayers as a device to emphasize her close relationship
with God. This too is what the Six Books does in its depiction of Mary. Moving to the Repose, the
theme of prayer is even more pronounced. As discussed, a central aspect of this Ascension
narrative is the unique prayer which Jesus teaches Mary in order that her soul should reach heaven.

233
In addition to the prayer itself (which is not actually recorded in the Repose) Mary is described as
calling to God (LR 37):25

Hear the prayer of your mother Mary, who cries out to you. Hear my voice and send
your goodness on me, and no power will come upon me on that day, when [my
soul] goes forth from my body…

The direct and personal nature of this prayer for protection recalls the manner in which the rabbis
portray Sarah calling upon God to protect her. Again, both the Six Books and the Repose appear to
have originated in the land of Israel and were highly influential in the development of the Marian
cult there. Given that the rabbis were clearly sensitive to the rise of Mary in Christian Palestine,
they may very well have been familiar with such traditions regarding the Virgin Mother’s prayers.
These evocative descriptions may have in turn informed the midrash’s own portrayal of Sarah and
her prayers.

Similarly, these two Marian texts repeatedly emphasize Mary’s interaction with angels.
This is not only the case after she dies and her soul is greeted by them in heaven, but also while
Mary still lives. The Six Books, for example, records that “angels of the Lord were seen, entering
into and going out of Jerusalem to my Lady Mary.”26 For its part, much of the Repose focuses on
Mary’s interaction with the Christ-angel, otherwise known as the Great Cherub of Light or
Adonai’el. Returing to the midrash’s description of Sarah’s prayers to God, R. Levi posits that she
was answered with an angelic guardian (GR 41:2, Vat. 30, Albeck 389):

Said R. Levi: That entire night an angel stood with a whip in his hand. If she said
strike, he struck. If she said desist, he desisted. And why [was he punished] in such
a manner? For she said to him: I am a married woman. Yet, he would not leave her.

Ofra Meir points out that both R. Levi’s description of the angel striking at Sarah’s command and
his statement that Pharaoh was punished because of Sarah’s statement that she was married both
play on the Bible’s statement that Pharaoh was punished al davar Sarai eshet Avram (Gen 12:17).27
The phrase literally means “on account [davar] of Sarai, the wife of Abram,” but could be taken

25
Shoemaker, “Appendix A: The Ethiopic Liber Requiei,” 311.
26
Wright, “The Departure of My Lady Mary from This World,” 143.
27
Ofra Meir, “The Exegetical Narrative in Early and Late Midrash [Hebrew],” Sinai 86 (1980): 253.

234
as “by the word [davar] of Sarai, the wife of Abram.” Thus, it is on the ‘word of Sarai, the wife of
Abram’ that the angel strikes Pharaoh. In tandem, this is due to the fact that he disregarded the
‘word of Sarai’ that she was ‘the wife of Abram.’ Beyond the internal mechanics of the drasha,
another observation should be made. Sarah here is portrayed as not only pious enough to receive
an angel of God as her personal guardian, but holy enough to command him. The same is true of
Mary in the Christian tradition. While the circumstances are different, the impression it leaves
regarding the two matriarchs is the same. Here, too, the rabbis may have adopted a common
Christian description of Mary to portray Sarah as equal to her Christian foil.

Sarah and Light


In addition, the following section of GenR, which has not been discussed before, may belie the use
of a few Marian themes together. Again building upon Abraham and Sarah’s journey to Egypt, the
midrash states (GR 40:5 Albeck 384-385):

‫ כיון‬.‫ נת ה בתבה ו על בפ יה‬.‫ ושרה היכן היא‬.)‫יד‬:‫"ויהי כבוא אברם מצרימה" (בראשית יב‬
‫ א א‬:'‫ אמ‬.‫ מ ין את טעין‬:‫ אמרון ליה‬.‫ א א יהב‬:'‫ אמ‬.‫ הב מכסא‬:‫דמטא למכסא אמרון ליה‬
.‫ מרגלין את טעין‬:‫ אמרון ליה‬.‫ א א יהב מטכסין‬:'‫ אמ‬.‫ מטכסין את טעין‬:‫ אמרון ליה‬.‫יהב דמ ין‬
‫ וכיון שפתחה‬.‫ לית אפשר אלא פתח א וחמי ן מה בגווה‬:‫ אמרון ליה‬.‫ א א יהב דמרגלין‬:'‫אמ‬
.‫הבהיקה ארץ מצרים מאורה‬

“When Abram entered Egypt” (Gen 12:14). And where was Sarah? He placed her
in a chest and locked it before her. When he came to the customs house, they said
to him: pay the customs dues. He said: I will pay. They said to him: You carry
garments. He said to them: I will pay for garments. They said to him: You carry
silks. He said: I will pay for silks. They said to him: You carry pearls. He said: I
will pay for pearls. They said to him: Impossible. Rather open and we shall see
what is inside. And since they opened it the land of Egypt shined from her light.

The midrash here is compelled to account for the fact that Sarah is not mentioned in the verse
which describes Abraham’s decent into Egypt. It does so by asserting that Abraham hid her in a
box in order to keep her from Pharaoh. Use of this ‘girl in the chest narrative’ appears elsewhere
in GenR and has somewhat of a precedent in ancient literature and art.28 As for the light which

28
Jacob is said to have likewise hidden Dinah from Esau (GR 76, Albeck 907). The motif of someone being hidden
away in chest also appears several times in Greek mythology. To list just two: Danaë is placed into a chest along with

235
shines forth when the box is opened, Meir has noted that it is actually a manner of explaining the
continuation of the verse with which the drasha opened: “[When Abram entered Egypt] the
Egyptians saw how very beautiful the woman [Sarah] was” (Gen 12:14).29 Since Sarah’s light lit
up all of Egypt, every Egyptian could know of her attractiveness as the verse states. However, by
associating Sarah with light the rabbis here choose to connect the matriarch to a motif which is not
just symbolic of beauty, but is frequently used to represent godliness and spiritual influence. 30

Looking to the Christian material which shaped the Marian cult in late antiquity, the motif
of light is actually used quite often in this sense when describing Mary. In these sources light
symbolizes the honor she is given and her eternal impact. As with so many Marian themes, this
can first be found in the Protevangelium where light plays an important role in her arrival at the
Temple (Prot. Jas. 7:2):31

When the child [Mary] turned three, Joachim said, “We should call the undefiled
daughters of the Hebrews and have them take torches; let them set them up, blazing,
that the child not turn back and her heart be taken captive away from the temple of
the Lord.” They did this, until they had gone up to the Lord’s temple. And the priest
of the Lord received her and gave her a kiss, blessing her and saying, “The Lord

her newborn son and cast out to the sea by her father after she bears Zeus’ child, and Athena places Erichthonios in
a chest wishing to hide him to raise him secretly. The placement of Danaë into the chest has been found depicted
upon painted pottery from the classical era. For more on this theme and its literary and material representations in
the Greek world, see: Francois Lissarrague, “Women, Boxes, Containers: Some Signs and Metaphores,” in Pandora:
Women in Classical Greece, ed. Ellen D. Reeder (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 91–93. The term “girl
in the chest narrative” is borrowed from Marie-Claire Beaulieu, The Sea in the Greek Imagination (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 90.
29
Meir, “The Exegetical Narrative in Early and Late Midrash [Hebrew],” 249–50. Meir is cited by Tamar Kadari who
likewise notes that light is used a sign of beauty elsewhere in rabbinic literature, in particular with reference to
Adam. See: Tamar Kadari, “The Beauty of Sarah in Rabbinic Literature,” Forthcoming.
30
There are many examples of the use of light as symbolic of such matters in GenR. For example, GR 3:4 (Albeck
20):
'‫ הד' הי' "הנה כבוד אלהי יש' בא מד' קד' וק' כק' מי‬.‫ ממקום בית המקדש נברא' האורה‬:'‫ר' ברכ' בש' ר' יצח‬
'".‫ "כסא כב' מר' מראש' מק' מקדש‬:'‫הא כ' ד' א‬. ‫ ואין ''כבודו'' אל' בית המקדש‬."'‫רב' והא' הא' מכ‬
GR 2:5 (Albeck 2:5):
‫ "והארץ הי' תה' ובהו" אילו‬.‫ מתחילת ברייתו שלעו' צפה הק' מעשיהן שלצדיק' ומעשיהן שלרשעים‬:'‫ר' אבהו א‬
.‫ "ויאמר אלהים יהי או' ויה' אור" אילו מעשיהם שלצדיקים‬.'‫מעשיהן שלרשע‬
GR 11:2 (Albeck 88-89):
‫ כיון שראה‬.‫ אותה האורה שניברא בה העו' היה אדם צופה ומביט בה מסוף העו' וע' סופו‬:'‫א' ר' יהודה בר' סי‬
.‫ ומנ' שהתקינו‬.'‫הק' מעשה דור אנו' ומעשה דור המבול ומעשה דור ה]פלגה] עמד וגנזו והתקינו לצדיק' לעת' לב‬
".‫ דכת' "ואורח צדיק' (לעת) כאו' נוגה‬.'‫ ומנ' שהתקינו לצדקי‬."‫דכת' "וימנע מרש' אורם‬
31
Translation from Bart D. Ehrman, “The Proto-Gospel of James,” in Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It
into the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 66.

236
has made your name great for all generations. Through you will the Lord reveal his
redemption to the sons of Israel at the end of time.”

The motif of light also appears in the portrait of Mary found on the church wall in Dura
Europos. In this painting of Mary’s annunciation, which for other reasons is clearly based upon
the scene as found in the Protevangelium, she has a star on her chest and two lines arching behind
her back which may be meant to depict a ray of light.32 In addition, Cyril of Alexandria reports
that after the Council of Ephesus authorized Mary’s title of Theotokos, the bishops returned home
from “the city’s great church, dedicated to Mary the Theotokos” accompanied by a torchlight
parade and “much joy and lighting of lights in the city.”33 Moreover, given the widespread
popularity of the Protevangelium it is possible that its own description of Mary being accompanied
to the Temple by virgins bearing torches may have encouraged the faithful in Ephesus to celebrate
her in the same way.

Similarly, the Book of Mary’s Repose also mentions the lighting of lamps as a way in which
Mary was shown honor. To recall, it relates that just before her death the Virgin Mother asked
those around her (LR 38):

…that you perform an act of kindness here on this night. Let each of you take a
lamp, and do not let them go out for three days, and I will tell you all of my charity.

32
Michael Peppard, The World’s Oldest Church: Bible, Art, and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 2016), 179–82; Mary Joan Winn Leith, “Earliest Depictions of the Virgin Mary,” Biblical Archaeology
Review 43, no. 2 (2017): 43. Peppard first identified the images surrounding Mary as lines and a star. Based on this
he concluded that they were meant to represent the incarnation by which God impregnated Mary. Winn Leith is
somewhat skeptical that these images are in fact meant to be lines and star. But, she suggests that if Peppard is
correct in his identification then the two lines form a band which may be a ray of light.
33
Cryil of Alexandria, Letter 24.1. Translation taken from: John I. McEnerney, trans., St. Cyril of Alexandria: Letters
1-50 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1987), 107. In McEnerney’s translation Mary is actually
referred to as the “Mother of God.” However, I have rendered it as Theotokos here in order to remain more faithful
to the original Greek (μαρία θεοτόκος) which connects the parade more clearly with the Council's decision to give
Mary's title an official status. The Greek text can be found in Eduard Schwartz, ed., Concilium universale ephesenum,
vol. 1 (Berolini: W. de Gruyter, 1962), Text 28, 117-118. Some scholars have speculated that this use of torchlight to
celebrate Mary may have drawn upon themes from the Egyptian Isis cult. The possible influence of Isis upon Marian
worship has been touched upon in brief, but either way Christians clearly identified this act of veneration and
celebration with Mary, whatever its original source. For more on this, see: John McGuckin, “The Early Cult of Mary
and Inter-Religious Contexts in the Fifth-Century Church,” in The Origins of the Cult of the Virgin Mary, ed. Chris
Maunder (London: Burns and Oats, 2008), 13–14. McGuckin suggests the possibility that at least a portion of those
in the procession were not Christians, as Cyril describes, but rather pagans celebrating what they believed to be an
iteration of Isis.

237
Likewise, the Six Book Apocryphon records that just before Mary’s soul exits her body, Jesus tells
her:34

I will also give angels for thine honor, and they shall stand before thee holding
lights and lamps until I shall come and dissolve the heaven and the earth, and shall
give bliss to the righteous and torment and darkness to the wicked…

Such traditions may have also encouraged the people at Ephesus to celebrate Mary’s coronation
as Theotokos as they did with the “lighting of lights” in addition to the torchlight procession.
However, even if these texts did not directly influence the nature of this spontaneous Marian
celebration, they nevertheless clearly help establish a connection between Mary and light in
Christian thought and worship.

Returning to the Repose, this connection is also given a more symbolic dimension. Not
only does it refer to Mary as the mother of the Great Cherub of Light, but it quotes Peter as
eulogizing her as follows (LR 55):

Thus the light of our sister Mary’s lamp fills the world and will not be extinguished
until the end of days, so that those who have decided to be saved will receive
assurance from her. And if they receive the image of light, they will receive her rest
and her blessing.

The Repose does not merely continue the thematic link between Mary and light, but it speaks of
her everlasting and universal influence metaphorically as “Mary’s lamp.” The same idea appears
to be found in the homilies of the Jerusalem priest Hesychius. As discussed, homilies five and six
extol the Virgin Mother’s role in the Nativity and were delivered as part of the annual Marian
celebration in Jerusalem each August 15th (9th of Av). Unlike the sixth homily which is starkly
polemic, Hagith Sivan observes that fifth homily is “largely dominated by the theme of light.”35

34
The quotation of this passage is taken from Stephen Shoemaker, Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition
and Assumption, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 197. Elsewhere I have cited
sections from the Six Books according to William Wright’s edition. However, this passage does not appear in Wright’s
version, but is preserved in an extensive palimpsest codex edited by Agnes Smith Lewis which Shoemaker cites.
35
Hagith Sivan, “Contesting Calendars: The 9th of Av and the Feast of the Theotokos,” in Pèlerinage et Lieux Saints
Dans l‘antiquite et Le Moyen Âge, ed. Beatrice Caseau, Jean-Claude Cheynet, and Vincent Deroche (Paris: Centre
de recherche d’Histoire et Civilisation de Byzance, 2006), 445.

238
According to Hesychius, Mary is the ‘Mother of Light,’ ‘a lamp burning of its own accord,’ and a
‘burning bush emitting eternal light.’36

Perhaps the above references to Mary and light can add to our understanding of the
midrash’s own reference to the “great light” that shone forth from Sarah and lit up all of Egypt. In
Christian texts, light is seen as a sign of the honor shown to Mary by those around her and those
who later worship her. In addition to its connection to Sarah’s beauty, the use of light in GenR
may be intended to grant Sarah the same honor that Christians give Mary. Moreover, in the Repose
and Hesychius’ homily Mary herself is spoken of as light to symbolize her universal importance
and religious significance. Since the rabbis often refer to Sarah’ own universal importance and
religious significance, the midrash’s use of similar light imagery might be meant to achieve this
as well.37

In addition to these written sources, light was connected to Mary in a more tangible way
hrough the popular eulogiai lamps. As detailed at length in chapter six, these lamps allowed the
faithful to bring the light of the Theotokos and its blessing into their home. As with the torch-light
parade at Ephesus which may have drawn upon earlier written traditions, so too the use of these
eulogiai may have been influenced by the passages just quoted. It could very well be that the
description of “Mary’s lamp” in the Repose, along with the other early references to lamps which
were lit in honor of Mary, inspired the later use of slipper lamp eulogiai dedicated to the Virgin
Mother.38 As Peter is credited saying in the Repose: “If they receive the image of light, they will
receive her rest and her blessing” (LR 55). On the other hand, by the time Hesychius gave his

36
As cited in: ibid.
37
An additional connection between Sarah and the theme of light can be found in GR 53:8 (Albeck 563):
‫ אלא בשעה ש פקדה שרה אמי ו נ פקדו כל העקרות עימה הרבה חרשים‬.‫שרה פקדה אחרות מה איכפת להם‬
‫ אמ' כן עשייה ו אמ' להלן "וה חה למדי ות עשה" (אסתר‬.‫נתפקחו הרבה סומים נתפתחו הרבה שוטים נשתפו‬
.‫ הוסיפו על המאורות‬:'‫ ר' לוי אמ‬.‫ מה להלן נתן דרורייה בעול' אף עשייה ש [אמר] כן תן דרוריה בעולם‬.)‫יח‬:‫ב‬
.)‫טז‬:‫אמ' כן עשייה ו אמ' להלן "ויעש אלים את ש י המאורות" (בראשית א‬
In addition to the connection to the sources of light, the cosmic effects of Sarah’s conception is also reminiscent of
the star which rises upon Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2). Though, if there is indeed a connection between the two it may
be that the author of Matthew is using a Jewish tradition regarding Sarah to aggrandize Mary and not the other way
around.
38
Based on the earlier discussions of the probable date of the Repose and the eulogiai, it is most likely that the
Repose pre-dates the earliest Marian slipper lamps. As discussed, the latest possible date for the Repose is early
fifth-century and Shoemaker argues that it should be dated to no later than the third. The earliest known slipper
lamp eulogiai, however, are from the late fourth-century. Thus, the book could be the inspiration for these lamps
(barring any new discoveries), but not reflective of an already existing practice. However, if the actual date of the
Repose is from the late fourth-century onwards then it would be contemporaneous with the Marian lamps and could
in fact be a reference to their use.

239
homilies, eulogiai were a well-known aspect of Marian veneration. In fact, they were probably
purchased by the very same worshipers and pilgrims who came to hear his homilies at the annual
celebration of the Theotokos. The Jerusalem priest no doubt was keen to this when he himself
spoke of Mary as a ‘lamp’ and the ‘Mother of Light.’

Beyond the description of Sarah’s light which illuminated Egypt, the prominence of Marian
lamps, both figurative and literal, in Christian sources has an interesting parallel in GenR. The
midrash lists various signs of divine favor which disappeared from Sarah’s tent upon her death and
only returned when “Isaac brought [Rebecca] into the tent of his mother” (Gen 24:67). The last of
these is described as such (GR 60:16, Vat. 30, Albeck 657):

‫ וכיון שמיתה פסק אותו‬.‫…וכל ימים שהיתה שרה קיימת היה נר דולק מלילי שבת ללילי שבת‬
.‫ וכיון שבאת רבקה חזר אותו ה ר‬.‫ה ר‬

As long as Sarah was alive a lamp was lit from Sabbath evening to Sabbath evening.
Since she died, this lamp ceased. And since Rebecca arrived, this lamp returned.

Sarah’s importance in the house of Abraham, which the rabbis develop so starkly throughout
GenR, is signified by this light. Though it is extinguished upon Sarah’s death, it does not disappear
for long, returning when Rebecca takes her place. In other words, Sarah’s lamp, symbolic of her
influence, continues to accompany the children of Abraham even after she is gone. The parallel to
the Christian lamp of Mary which likewise symbolized her influence and lit up the homes of the
faithful is palpable. The fact that Sarah’s lamp appears to be subtly associated with the Sabbath
lamp here is also suggestive. Perhaps, this was meant to encourage Jews to view their own Sabbath
lamps as eulogiai capable of bring Sarah’s blessing into their homes.39

Sarah and Eve


Returning to the midrash’s description of Abraham and Sarah’s journey to Egypt, immediately
after it mentions how Sarah illuminated the entire land, the midrash continues:

39
Some rabbinic sources from the land of Israel imply that lighting the Sabbath lamp was a custom associated with
the woman of the house in particular, which may strengthen this conclusion. For example, mShabbat states (2:6, MS
Kaufmann):
.‫ על שאי ן זהירות ב ידה ובחלה ובהדלקת ה ר‬:‫על שלוש עבירות ה שים מיתות בשעת לידתן‬
GenR also remarks in its etiological discussion of Eve as model for womankind (GR 17:8, Albeck 160):
.‫ על ידי שכיבת נרו שלאדם הראשון לפיכך נתן לה מצות נר שבת‬:‫ אמ' להם‬.‫ומפ י מה ניתן לה מצות נר שבת‬

240
‫ להלן‬.‫ איקו ין שלחוה היתה מסורה לראש דורות‬.‫ר' עזריה ור' יוח ן בר' חגיי משם ר' יצחק‬
‫ "כי יפה היא‬:‫ ברם הכא‬.‫ מגעת עד איקו ין שלחוה‬.)‫ד‬:‫ "וה ערה יפה עד מאד" (מלכים א א‬:'‫כת‬
.‫ מאיקו ין שלחוה‬."‫ "מאד‬.)‫יד‬:‫מאד" (בראשית יב‬

R. Azariah and R. Yoḥanan bar Hagai [said] in the name of R. Yitzḥak: The image
[lit. icon] of Eve was transmitted to the head of each generation. Elsewhere it is
written: “The girl [Avishag the Shunamite] was very beautiful” [ad me'od] (1 Kings
1:4). She reached [ad] the icon of Eve. Yet, here: “[the Egyptians saw] how very
[me’od] beautiful [Sarah] was” (Gen 12:14). “Very” even more than the icon of
Eve.

Having just backed up the Bible’s statement that all of Egypt recognized Sarah’s beauty, the
midrash now wishes to establish objective parameters for it. As Tamar Kadari notes in a discussion
of Sarah’s beauty in rabbinic literature, the ‘icon of Eve’ appears to refer to “a statue of Eve, a
coin, or a picture that could be handed down” to the leader of each generation as yardstick by
which to measure female beauty.40 As the authors of the midrash no longer have this icon they
must instead rely on “exegetical techniques to interpret the verses” and determine the relative
beauty of these biblical women.

This drasha in GenR is not the only source in early Jewish literature which, based on the
Bible’s own comments, lauds Sarah’s beauty. In her abovementioned article, Kadari has gathered
the various statements. The earliest of these is found in the Genesis Apocryphon. As I noted in
chapter two, the Apocryphon dedicates several lines of an ode to Sarah’s beauty and a description
of her physical features.41 More tersely, a Tannaic source quoted in the Babylonian Talmud (but
without parallel in the extant Tannaic corpus) singles out Sarah, Raḥab, Avigail, and Esther for
their “surpassing beauty,” while a dissenting opinion replaces Esther with Vashti.42 Elsewhere, the
Bavli states that Avishag’s beauty “did not reach even half” of Sarah’s, based on the contrast of
me’od (Avishag) and ad me’od (Sarah).43 While this does parallel GenR in the manner by which

40
Kadari, “The Beauty of Sarah.”
41
GA 20:2-7 (cited by Kedari).
42
bMeggilah 15a (MS New York; cited by Kedari):
‫ אסתר ירקרוקית‬:'‫ ולמאן דאמ‬.‫ שרה רחב אביגיל ואסתר‬:‫ ואלו הן‬.‫ ארבע שים יפיפיות היו בעולם‬:‫ת ו רב ן‬
‫ מפיק אסתר ומעייל ושתי‬.‫היתה‬
43
bSanhedrin 39b (MS Jersulaem; cited by Kedari):
"‫ "עד מאד" ולא "מאד‬:'‫ דכתי‬,‫ עדיין לא הגיעה לחצי יפיה שלשרה‬:‫ א'ר ח א בר פפא‬."‫"וה ערה יפה עד מאד‬
.‫בכלל‬

241
it shows that Sarah was more beautiful than Avishag, the Bavli does not mention Eve as the
midrash does. A final source, also from the Bavli, does mention the relative beauties of Eve and
Sarah.44 However, it actually concludes that Eve was more attractive. It states that while Sarah
makes all other women look “like a monkey,” Eve is so beautiful that she makes Sarah herself
look “like a monkey.” While most of these statements come from the Babylonian Talmud whose
relevance to this study of GenR is limited, as a group they are still helpful for highlighting the
unique aspects of the midrashic praise of Sarah’s beauty. Though GenR is not the only text in the
Jewish exegetical tradition to highlight Sarah’s beauty, it is unique in that it both compares her to
Eve and states that Sarah was the far more beautiful of the two.

As with the link drawn between Sarah and light, the midrash’s singular approach to Sarah’s
connection with Eve may also be related to Christian conceptions of Mary. Indeed, the notion that
Mary is a ‘second Eve,’ perhaps a natural extension of Paul’s presentation of Jesus as the “last
Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45), is common in early Christian writing. Justin Martyr (d. 165) is
usually considered the earliest author using this motif:45

For Eve, an undefiled virgin, conceived the word of the serpent, and brought forth
disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary, filled with faith and Joy, when the angel
Gabriel announced to her the good tidings and that the Spirit of the Lord would come
upon her, and therefore, the holy one born of her would be the Son of God, answered,
'be it done unto me in accordance with your word' (cf. Lk 1:35, 38).

Justin juxtaposes Eve and Mary in order to highlight how the Virgin Mother parallels the first
woman, yet demonstrates perfection where her predecessor sinned. Variations of this idea can

44
bBava Batra 58a (MS Hamburg; cited Kedari):
‫ אדם בפ י שכי ה‬.‫ חוה בפ י אדם כקוף בפ י אדם‬.‫ שרה בפ י חוה כקוף בפ י אדם‬.‫הכל בפ י שרה כקוף בפ י אדם‬
.‫כקוף בפ י אדם‬
Compare to Tanḥumah, Lech Lecha 5 (MS Cambridge; cited Kedari):
.‫כיון שהגיעו לפיילי של מצרים ועמדו על היאור ראה אברהם אבי ו בבואה של שרה באותו הר כחמה זורחת‬
.‫מיכן ש ו חכמים שכל ה שים בפ י שרה כקוף בפ י אדם‬
As in GenR, Sarah’s beauty is signified by light, however there is no reference to Eve.
45
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 100:5 (trans. Thomas B Falls, Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho, ed. Michael
Slusser (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003). In addition, the implication of sexual congress
between the snake and Eve recalls a similar tradition in rabbinic midrash (GR 20:5, Albeck 187; compare tSotah 4:17):
.‫ מה שביקש לא נתן לו‬.‫ הוי‬.)‫טו‬:‫ "ואיבה אשית" (בראשית ג‬.‫ חייך‬.‫אתה בקשתה להרוג את אדם ולישא את חוה‬
.‫מה שבידו נטל ממ ו‬
Or, in a later and more explicit version (Bavli, Yevamot 103b and parallels; MS Munich):
‫ גוים שלא עמדו‬.‫ ישראל שעמדו על הר סי י פסקה זוהמתן‬.‫ שעה שבא נחש על חוה הטיל בה זוהמא‬:‫אמ'ר יוח ן‬
.‫על הר סי י לא פסקה זוהמתן‬

242
likewise be found in the works of several other important early Christian authors, such as Irenaeus,
Tertullian, and John Chrysostom.46 According to this motif, if Eve contaminated man through her
sin, it is Mary who allows for atonement.

This theme is also present in some of the influential Marian texts which have been
discussed previously. For example, in his aforementioned homily in honor of Mary, Hesychinus
refers to her as the one who atones for Eve’s sin. As he puts it, Mary is “the woman who liberated
Eve.”47 Striking a similar chord, in the Repose the Christ-angel describes the prayer he teaches
Mary as such (LR 16):48

…the prayer, Mary, transcends your mother’s [Eve’s] nature, which prevails in
every creature, on account of which there is death. And it will raise the dead and
give life to all, and they will behold the steadfastness of God.

According to the Repose, Eve’s sin signified a rejection of God’s word and brought death into the
world. However, the prayer which Mary is given and told to pass on to the apostles can overcome
this. It has the power to give life to all and allow them to recognize the power of God.

Looking back to the above drasha regarding Sarah and her beauty in relation to Eve’s,
perhaps a similar pattern may be seen. As early Christian authors did with Mary, the rabbis present
Sarah as a more perfect inheritor of Eve. Again, it should be emphasized that while discussions of
Sarah’s beauty appear elsewhere in second Temple and rabbinic literature, the idea that Sarah’s
beauty is both comparable to that of Eve and yet goes beyond her is unique to GenR. It is quite
possible that this speaks to the midrash’s unique historical and social circumstances and its overall
attempt to frame Sarah as a response to Mary. Indeed, when taken as a whole, the discussion of

46
For a brief discussion of the theme in early Christian thought and a fuller list of authors who utilize it, see: Michael
O’Carroll, “Eve and Mary,” in Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary, by Michael O’Carroll
(Wilmington: M. Glazier, 1983), 139–41. In addition to the sources cited by O’Carroll, a possible allusion to this idea
can be found in the Protevangelium (which is probably contemporaneous to Justin Martyr). Believing Mary to be
pregnant from another man, Joseph cries out (1:13):
Who has preyed upon me? Who has done this wicked deed in my home and defiled the virgin? Has
not the entire history of Adam been summed up in me? For just as Adam was singing praise to
God, the serpent came and found Eve alone, and led her astray. This too has now happened to me.
(Trans. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures, 68.)
47
As cited by Sivan, “Contesting Calendars: The 9th of Av and the Feast of the Theotokos,” 445.
48
Shoemaker, “Appendix A: The Ethiopic Liber Requiei,” 299–300. The inserting of Eve in brackets is part of
Shoemaker’s rendering.

243
how Sarah was discovered by the Egyptians in GenR takes two motifs, light and Eve, which were
commonly associated with Mary in Christian circles and applies them to Sarah. Likewise, the
midrash’s reference to an “icon of Eve” as a point of comparison to Sarah is also suggestive. While
it will become far more pronounced in the middle ages, Marian iconography is not unheard of in
late antiquity. Among the physical material already discussed were wall paintings in Egypt and
even a coin with Mary’s figure upon it from Beit She’an. Such icons depicting the Virgin Mother
could have sparked the imagination of the rabbis and lead them to speak of Eve’s own icon. More
speculatively, they may have also wished to imply that Sarah, in surpassing the “icon of Eve,” also
surpassed the ‘second Eve’ whose icon the Christians kept.

In this context of Sarah’s beauty, it is also interesting to note a brief comment by the
Piacenza Pilgrim. After mentioning the Marian church and relics in Nazareth, he writes:49

The Jewesses of that city are better-looking than any other Jewesses in the whole
country. They declare that it is Saint Mary’s gift to them, for they also say that she
was a relation of theirs.

This is a sixth-century text and as such post-dates GenR. Likewise, it is hard to know how much
credence should be given to the Pilgrim’s account of Jewish praise of Mary. 50 However, the
Pilgrim’s terse observation might give some additional historical context to the midrash’s
discussion of Sarah’s beauty. If there is indeed a connection between the midrash’s discussion of
Sarah’s beauty vis-à-vis the icon of Eve and Christian conceptions of Mary, this may also imply
an inter-religious dialogue regarding the standard for feminine beauty. Perhaps this remark by the
Italian traveler is part of a Marian rebuttal to earlier Jewish claims, as found in the midrash,
regarding Sarah’s own comeliness or, even more speculatively, a later example of the type of

49
Translation: John Wilkinson, ed., “The Piacenza Pilgrim,” in Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades (Warminster:
Aris & Phillips, 2011), 80–81.
50
Nevertheless, the possibility that the Pilgrim’s report is accurate should not be written-off prima facie. As I have
noted, the borders between different religions were far more porous in late antiquity than in later periods. For
example, scholars often point to Sozomen’s (d. ca. 450) description of a yearly festival held at the ‘oak of Mamre’ to
celebrate the appearance of the angels to Abraham as an example of such religious fluidity, at least among the laity
(Historia Ecclesiastica II:4). Sozomen states that the celebration was frequented by pagans, Christians, and Jews
alike, all of whom found meaning in it, until Constantine had it stopped. Therefore, it is not inconceivable that Jews
in Nazareth believed they benefited from their connection to Mary.

244
laudatory statements about Mary which would have motivated rabbinic authors to re-emphasize
Sarah’s attractiveness.

Conclusion
In addition to the parallels between Christian conceptions of Mary and the portrayal of Sarah in
GenR which have been analyzed in previous chapters, several other sections of the midrash belie
the rabbis’ use of Marian themes to develop Sarah’s character. The clearest of these is the
evocative description of Sarah nursing the children of the Roman nobility which draws upon the
common image of Mary nursing Jesus. In addition, other aspects of Sarah’s character in GenR may
also be based upon Christian motifs: her prayers, angelic visitor, association with light, and
comparison to Eve. It should be cautioned that while the use of a Christian theme is quite clear
regarding the virgin birth of Isaac and Sarra lactans, the evidence for these other parallels is
somewhat thinner. Light, for example, is a rather universal symbol and there may not be a direct
connection between its use by Christians and Jews in regards to their respective matriarchs. So
too, the rabbis may have seen a natural connection between the first woman and the first Jewish
matriarch without necessarily drawing upon the Christian connection between Eve and Mary. Yet,
the possibility that at least a portion of these themes are part of a greater attempt by the rabbis to
offer Sarah as a counter to Mary cannot be discounted. In regard to other Sarah-related material in
the midrash, it has been demonstrated that the rabbis went beyond a more general counter-
narrative, wherein Sarah is granted added importance as a model of Jewish faith and action, and
actually applied Marian themes to the matriarch. This trend appear to continue in the sections of
the midrash discussed above.

245
Works Cited
Beaulieu, Marie-Claire. The Sea in the Greek Imagination. Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 2016.
Bolman, Elizabeth S. “The Enigmatic Coptic Galaktotrophousa and the Cult of the Virgin Mary
in Egypt.” In Images of the Mother of God: Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium,
edited by Maria Vassilaki, 13–22. Burlington: Ashgate, 2005.
Brown, Peter. The World of Late Antiquity: From Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad. London:
Thames and Hudson, 1971.
Budge, Ernest Alfred Wallis. Miscellaneous Coptic Texts in the Dialect of Upper Egypt. London:
British Museum, 1915.
Corrington, Gail Paterson. “The Milk of Salvation: Redemption by the Mother in Late Antiquity
and Early Christianity.” Harvard Theological Review 82, no. 4 (1989): 393–420.
Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It into the New Testament. New
York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
———. “The Proto-Gospel of James.” In Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It into the
New Testament, 63–72. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Falls, Thomas B. Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho. Edited by Michael Slusser. Washington,
D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003.
Friedheim, Emmanuel. “Who Are the Deities Concealed behind the Rabbinic Expression ‘A
Nursing Female Image’?” Harvard Theological Review 96, no. 2 (2003): 239–50.
Frishman, Judith. “‘And Abraham Had Faith’: But In What? Ephrem and the Rabbis on Abraham
and God’s Blessings.” In The Exegetical Encounter between Jews and Christians in Late
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2009.
Higgins, Sabrina. “Divine Mothers: The Influence of Isis on the Virgin Mary in Egyptian
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71–90.
Himmelfarb, Martha. “The Mother of the Seven Sons in Lamentations Rabbah and the Virgin
Mary.” Jewish Studies Quarterly 22 (2015): 325–51.
Lieberman, Saul. Greek in Jewish Palestine. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of
America, 1962.
———. Hellenism in Jewish Palestine. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America,
1962.
Lissarrague, Francois. “Women, Boxes, Containers: Some Signs and Metaphores.” In Pandora:
Women in Classical Greece, edited by Ellen D. Reeder, 91–110. Princeton: Princeton
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McEnerney, John I., trans. St. Cyril of Alexandria: Letters 1-50. Washington, D.C.: Catholic
University of America Press, 1987.

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McGuckin, John. “The Early Cult of Mary and Inter-Religious Contexts in the Fifth-Century
Church.” In The Origins of the Cult of the Virgin Mary, edited by Chris Maunder, 1–22.
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McVey, Kathleen E., trans. Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns. New York: Paulist Press, 1989.
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Murray, Peter, and Linda Murray. The Oxford Companion to Christian Art and Architecture.
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247
Conclusion
In this thesis I analyzed the characterization of Sarah in the rabbinic midrash Genesis Rabbah. As
far as the Bible itself is concerned, Sarah plays an ancillary role. This passive and at times negative
presentation of the matriarch continues in several works from the second Temple era. While some
of these authors are more critical of Sarah than others, all agree that Sarah is secondary to her
husband and set clear limits upon the role she plays. GenR, however, breaks from this pattern. In
stark contrast to the biblical record and second Temple traditions, the rabbis of the midrash portray
Sarah as an unquestioned heroine. For them, the matriarch is a role model of Jewish faith and
practice. Despite no real anchor for this in the book of Genesis, she is credited with a close
connection to God and described as an active and equal partner in Abraham’s religious endeavors.
In addition, the midrash often adds otherwise unknown details to the biblical story which serve to
both expand upon her role and justify her actions. A close reading of the rabbinic material
contained in GenR shows that the laudatory descriptions of Sarah are most prominent in statements
attributed to Amoraim or the anonymous voice of GenR. For a source-critical standpoint it can
therefore be said that the rabbinic focus upon Sarah’s character is a development of the Amoraic
period. Likewise, from a synchronic standpoint, the praise of Sarah can be said to characterize
GenR as a whole. Indeed, the midrash can be shown at times to rework earlier traditions to fit its
approach to the matriarch.

In order to account for this dramatic development in Sarah’s characterization, I turned next
to early Christian literature. The authors of the New Testament grant Sarah new importance. In
some of the epistles, those of Paul in particular, Sarah is portrayed as the spiritual mother of all
who believe in Christ. In addition, in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, Sarah is presented as a
prefiguration of Mary, the mother of Jesus. When taken together, these twin themes serve to
subvert Sarah’s connection to Jews and Judaism and to appropriate her role as matriarch. In order
to show that Christian narratives regarding Sarah would have been known to the rabbis of the
midrash I demonstrated the use of these themes by Origen of Alexandria. Origen maintained a
close connection with rabbinic scholars in his adopted home of Caesarea and is an important
indicator of the Christian ideas to which they were exposed. In addition, Origen’s arrival in
Palestine coincided with the start of the Amoraic period, the very era in which rabbinic attention
begins to turn to Sarah. In fact, strong and direct parallels can be found between Origen’s
statements regarding Sarah and drashot in GenR. Based on this, I further argued that the portrayal

248
of Sarah in the midrash is an attempt to combat the subversion of the matriarch which starts in the
New Testament and is continued by Origen. As a response to the Christian apportion of Sarah, the
rabbis create a powerful counter-narrative in which she is in fact a paragon of Jewish faith and a
model of religious conduct.

Continuing this historical analysis I then highlighted the growing importance given to the
Virgin Mary in Christian thought and worship in the late fourth and early fifth-century. As this is
the very period in which GenR was redacted, such developments are an important part of the social
and historical realities which the later authorities and final editors of the midrash faced. The cult
of Mary was most prominent in Jerusalem, but the archeological and textual records show that it
was popular throughout Palestine. In addition, several other rabbinic texts from the period belie
awareness of Mary’s central role in Christian worship. Based on this, I argued that the rise of the
Marian cult was an additional factor which pressed the rabbis to develop their unique
characterization of Sarah. Not only would Mary’s newfound importance have highlighted her role
in supplanting Sarah, but the very appearance of a prominent female figure in the Christian world
would have motivated the rabbis to counter with one of their own. Finally, I concluded by pointing
to several more examples in which the midrash portrays Sarah in a manner which parallels Marian
themes common in late antiquity. In doing so, the rabbis present her as figure of universal
importance, on par and even greater than her Christian counterpart.

In addition to the contribution of this thesis to our understanding of Sarah’s characterization


in GenR, I believe that this work has much to add to the greater study of rabbinic midrash and late
antique Palestine. On the methodological level, I have made extensive use of both contemporary
biblical scholarship and archeological evidence, fields which are not always fully utilized in the
study of rabbinic midrash. Through this material I was able to present a more nuanced reading of
the biblical exegesis in GenR and provide a fuller picture of the midrash’s particular historical
setting. In addition, this thesis adds to a growing body of research which points to the close
connections between rabbinic midrash and patristic exegesis. As I have shown, often rabbinic
drashot regarding Sarah can only be fully understood through close comparison to the work of
Christian authors, Origen in particular. Moreover, I believe my conclusions here shed new light
on the relationship between Jews and Christians in the land of Israel. Throughout this thesis I have
demonstrated how Jewish and Christian texts engage in a protracted dialogue with each other.

249
What starts as the Christian appropriation of the Jewish matriarch eventually transforms into the
rabbinic adaptation of Marian themes in order to reclaim Sarah. Likewise, the establishment of a
vibrant Marian cult in Palestine caused the rabbis of the midrash to reexamine their own literary
heritage, and deeply influenced their unique characterization of Sarah. In uncovering these
developments, I have detailed an important chapter in the rabbinic response to the meteoric rise of
Christianity and documented a fascinating example of how the rabbis adapted to their changing
social and historical realities.

250
‫תקציר‬
‫תזה זו מבקשת לבחון את דמותה של שרה במדרש בראשית רבה‪ .‬מדרש אגדה זה נערך בארץ ישראל במאה‬
‫החמישית לספירה‪ .‬במקרא עצמו שרה מהווה דמות משנית אשר לעיתים קרובות מוצגת באור שלילי‪ .‬כמו כן‪,‬‬
‫המחברים היהודיים בתקופת בית שני אינם מעניקים לשרה מקום מרכזי בשכתוב המקראי שלהם‪ .‬לעומת מגמה‬
‫קדומה זו‪ ,‬דמותה של שרה בבראשית רבה שונה בתכלית‪ .‬לא רק שמוקדשות לשרה מספר רב של דרשות‪ ,‬אך‬
‫היא‪ ,‬פעם אחר פעם‪ ,‬מוצגת כדמות מופת הן בפן האישי והן בפן הדתי‪ .‬על מנת להסביר התפתחות דרמטית זו‬
‫אצביע על הקבלות תמטיות וטקסטואליות בעולם הנוצרי‪ .‬בברית החדשה שרה מוצגת כאם הנצרות וכהטרמה‬
‫של מריה אם ישו‪ .‬שני מוטיבים אלו מקבלים ביטוי גם כן בכתביו של אוריגנס‪ ,‬תיאולוג ופרשן נוצרי רב השפעה‪.‬‬
‫בנוסף‪ ,‬מריה צוברת חשיבות מיוחדת בארץ ישראל הנוצרית אשר מגיעה לשיאה עם היווסדותו של פולחן אשר‬
‫מוקדש לה‪ .‬על סמך קריאה מדוקדקת של החומר המדרשי אראה כי חכמי המדרש היו מודעים היטב‬
‫להתפתחויות אלה ואף ביקשו להשתמש בדמותה של שרה על מנת להילחם בניכוסה על ידי הנצרות ולהציב‬
‫אותה כאלטרנטיבה יהודית למריה‪.‬‬

‫א‬
‫האוניברסיטה העברית בירושלים‬
‫הפקולטה למדעי הרוח ‪ -‬החוג למחשבת ישראל‬
‫התכנית להתמחות בשלהי העת העתיקה‬

‫האם המבורכת שרה‪:‬‬


‫ֵ‬
‫דמותה של שרה במדרש בראשית רבה לאור הפרשנות הנוצרית ועלייתה של מריה הבתולה‬

‫עבודת תזה לשם מילוי חלקי של הדרישות לתואר מוסמך אוניברסיטה‬


‫מאת‬
‫רמי שוורץ‬

‫מנחה‪ :‬פרופ' מארן ניהוף‬

‫תשרי ‪,‬תשע"ח‬