That’s right. Matriarch, not patriarch.
Her story shows that Torah is not a patriarchal document. Or, at least, not extremely patriarchal. Not exclusively so.
We meet Rebecca at a well. Eliezer has just arrived in town. His mission? To find a wife for Isaac, his boss’s son. Preferably from Abraham’s clan. So, Eliezer parks his ten camels. Then he prays. “I’ll say to a young woman, ‘Please tilt your jug so I can have a drink.’ She’ll say, ‘Drink and I’ll water your camels, too.’ That’s how you’ll point out the one for Isaac. Okay?”
Before he even finishes speaking, Rebecca shows up. She is daughter of Bethuel. Granddaughter of Milcah and Nahor. Great niece of Abraham. Score!
She’s very beautiful. And she’s single. Score!
Rebecca fills her jug. Then, Eliezer asks for a drink. She hurries to help him. Next, she offers to draw water for his camels too. Score!
Next, Eliezer asks if her father could provide lodging. Rebecca says, “Of course we have room. Plenty of feed for your camels too.” Grand slam! It’s all working out. Beyond Eliezer’s wildest fantasies.
At Rebecca’s home, Eliezer states his proposal. Her father and brother say yes.
But her mother and brother add some terms. “Not right away. Let her stay here a little longer.”
So, Eliezer pleads. “I’d like to get back to Abraham right away.”
“Okay then,” Rebecca’s elders say, “Let Rebecca speak for herself. Do you want to go with this man?”
“Hell yeah!” Rebecca says. “Let’s go!” (Okay, so I paraphrased a bit here.)
So, readers, what do you see here? Man fantasizes; woman fulfills the fantasy? Man wants girl; he gets her? Can’t deny that’s part of the story!
But maybe you also see something else. Girl is strong and kind; she shows it. Girl speaks for herself and also for her family. She wants adventure. So she rides out!
And why not? In this family, men and woman have equal voice. Mother, father, sister and brother all take part in family negotiations.
In Torah, a matriarch is not simply wife of a patriarch. Each has her own story. Her own inner and outer life. And each is part of an independently unfolding line of women. Literally, the line of Sarah, the first matriarch.
Sarah herself does not appear in an early genealogy. Or so it seems. But midrashic commentators have found her. Torah speaks of Yiscah, sister of Milcah. But Yiscah never appears again. Sarah, however, is into changing her name. Perhaps she was once called Yiscah. Her family prefers marriage between cousins. She marries Yiscah’s cousin. So, it stands to reason! Sarah and Yiscah are the same person. Thus. Sarah is Milcah’s sister!
Sarah herself birthed a son. But no daughter. Who then, would be next in a matriarchal lineage? Her niece, of course. In this case, her sister Milcah’s granddaughter. Rebecca.
Torah repeats the pattern in the next generation, too. Rebecca births sons, but no daughters. Who is next in the family’s matriarchal line? Why, Rebecca’s nieces, Rachel and Leah.
No wonder some feminist readers imagine a matriarchal line of priestesses. In these early Torah stories, spiritual leadership clearly passes from father to son. But it also passes, more subtly, from aunt to niece.
And so, readers. Here’s a call to pay attention. Don’t buy the vision that the world was once perfectly patriarchal. There was no simpler time, when everyone was close to God, and fathers held absolute power.
At least: Torah certainly describes no such time.
Thanks again to students in my Midrash class at Vancouver School of Theology for helping to develop the ideas in this post.