by Doug Ward

One day in the fall of 1994 I visited Crawfordsville, Indiana, to give a mathematics lecture at Wabash College. At the beginning of my lecture, I looked out at the audience and noticed something that initially struck me as unusual: Every student in the classroom was male. "Where are the female students?" I wondered.


Then it dawned on me: "That's right! Wabash is a men's college. All of its students are male." The mystery was solved.


You might experience your own "Wabash moment" when reading Gen 46:8-27, a listing of members of the patriarch Jacob's extended family at the time of that family's migration to Egypt. Of the nearly 70 children and grandchildren of Jacob named in these verses, only two-his daughter Dinah (v. 15) and granddaughter Serah (v. 17)-are female. Where are all the women?


Unlike the student body of Wabash College, the descendants of Jacob were not exclusively male, of course. Other daughters and granddaughters were part of the family (v. 7). However, the list in Gen 46 was not meant to be exhaustive. Instead, 70 names (v. 27) were given in order to make a symbolic statement. The number 70 in the Bible is associated with the totality of nations in the world (Gen 10), so a group of 70 Israelites reminds us of Israel's mission to convey God's blessing to all of the world's peoples (Gen 12:3). Relocating the family to Egypt was the next stage in that mission (Gen 15:12-16).


For all but one of the people in the selective list of Gen 46, it is easy to understand why their names were chosen. Overall, the list concentrates on Jacob's sons and grandsons because the future tribes and clans of Israel would be named after these male descendants. Dinah's name is familiar as the only daughter of Jacob mentioned in Scripture. Her inclusion in the list assures us that she was still alive after the tragic events recorded in Gen 34, and that she accompanied her family to Egypt. But the significance of the remaining name, Serah (or Serach, as it is sometimes transliterated), is unknown. The Bible reveals only that she was a daughter of Asher (Num 26:46; 1 Chron 7:30).


From this tiny bit of information, a rich body of legends has developed to explain Serah's possible contributions to Israel's history.1 The starting point for these legends seems to have been Numbers 26, which gives a tribe-by-tribe census of adult males conducted in the final year of Israel's wilderness wanderings. There are also a few parenthetical comments in the census report, including a reminder that Asher had a daughter named Serah (v. 46).


The mention of Serah in Num 26 led to the idea that Serah might have lived through the entire period of Israel's sojourn in Egypt and survived to participate in the Exodus. This idea, in turn, suggested that a person who enjoyed such great longevity could have played a valuable role in preserving key traditions from the days of Jacob to the time of Moses.


For example, when Jacob's son Joseph reached the end of his life, he asked that the children of Israel transport his bones to the Promised Land when God allowed them to return there (Gen 50:24-25). Later Moses made sure to honor this request (Exod 13:19). According to midrashic tradition2, he was able to find the burial place of Joseph by consulting Serah, who quickly provided this vital piece of information.


Joseph also told his brothers, "God will surely visit you." (Gen 50:25). The Hebrew for "surely visit" is pakod pakad'ti, an example of a "doubled verb" construction. In the Bible doubled verbs are sometimes used for emphasis. In this case, Joseph emphasized the certainty that God would fulfill his promise to Abraham and bring the Israelites back to Canaan. (Joseph's faith is extolled in Heb 11:22.)


Later, at the burning bush, God instructed Moses to tell the elders of Israel that "I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt" (Exod 3:16). The Hebrew for "have observed" is the same doubled verb phrase, pakod pakad'ti. With his brother Aaron's help, Moses brought this message to the elders of Israel, along with the special signs God had given him (Exod 4:30). In response, the Israelites believed Moses and Aaron "when they heard that the Lord had visited the people of Israel" (v. 31). Again, "had visited" is pakod pakad'ti.


Putting these verses together, ancient interpreters concluded that the distinctive phrase pakod pakad'ti was a special password indicating that the time for Israel's redemption had arrived. Joseph revealed the password to his brothers, and Serah memorized it. Later when Moses and Aaron repeated this phrase to the elders of Israel, Serah was able to identify Moses and Aaron as the ones through whom God would deliver them, based on their use of the password. As a result, the people believed Moses and Aaron.3


Further legends about Serah claim that Serah lived on as the Israelites became established in the Promised Land, and her wisdom continued to serve the nation. One tradition identifies Serah as the wise woman of Abel Beth Maacah who persuaded Joab to stop his siege of that city during the reign of David (2 Sam 20). Another story even asserts that Serah never saw death, but was instead transported alive to the Garden of Eden.


The Serah legends are fanciful, but they point to the importance of preserving truth and passing along wisdom across the generations. Israel's success did not depend upon the existence of a wise woman (or man) who would live for five hundred or a thousand years. But Israel did need people who would keep faith and hope alive. We know that many such people existed during Israel's time in Egypt, because the Israelite population continued to grow even as the nation suffered in slavery (Exod 1:12). Bringing a new generation into the world is in itself an act of faith.


In Heb 11:23 the parents of Moses are praised for defying Pharaoh's edict and refusing to drown their infant son. They were just two of the faithful who lived during Israel's years in Egypt. We know the names of some of them-the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, for instance, and Moses' sister Miriam. Others, like Jacob's unnamed daughters and granddaughters in Gen 46:7, are no less essential for the progress of God's plan. Let us celebrate these anonymous "sisters of Serah" along with other heroes and heroines of faith.


1One place to read about these legends is the book Moses' Women by Shera Aranoff Tuchman and Sandra E. Rapoport, KTAV Publishing House, 2008.


2See for example Sotah 13a in the Babylonian Talmud.


3Moses' Women, Chapter 25.

Issue 31


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On 25 Dec 2016, 15:06.