The mothers of Jesus’ family tree include the women Jewish tradition actually calls “the four matriarchs”: Sara, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah. These are remembered every Friday evening by devout Jews in the Sabbath Blessing of Daughters: “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.”
Lori Patainik, executive director of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project in Washington, D.C., explains that each of the matriarchs “played essential roles in the strength and future of the nation. … Each one lived in recognition that the ultimate in fulfillment is enabling others to realize their potentials as individuals and as members of the Jewish people. The Torah is filled with accounts of these women, recording their insights, their giving nature, and their sensitivity, leadership and special ability to inspire others.”
So how did the matriarchs help others reach their full potential and how do their examples live on today?
First called Sarai (meaning “princess”), Sara was the wife of Abraham. She must have been beautiful because, even at 65, she was desired by Pharaoh and by Abimelech, another local king. Not until she was 90 years old did Sara realize her life’s ambition: she gave birth to Isaac. However, Sara was not just a mother. In Jewish tradition, her tent was a place of miracles: her candles burned from one Sabbath to another, her dough never spoiled and a cloud overshadowed it, signifying God’s presence. So Sarah’s tent was a place of light and food and the peace of God.
When Sara died, Isaac was 37. Abraham sent a servant to find a wife for him “from his own people.” That servant, Eliezer (Gn 24:13), went to Abraham’s family town and decided to let God show him what to do. At the well of Nahor, Eliezer asked God to show his right choice by having Isaac’s intended offer Eliezer — and his camel — a drink. Sure enough, Rebecca not only offered Eliezer water but filled the trough for all the camels. According to Jewish tradition, this showed Rebecca’s innate kindness. When she married Isaac, he took her into Sara’s own tent to live. And the miracles, which had stopped when Sarah died, resumed with Rebecca’s presence. She continued Sara’s role.
Rebecca later gave birth to twins: Jacob and Esau. She helped Jacob, the younger twin, trick Esau out of his birthright. Forced to flee for his life, Jacob went to Rebecca’s brother, Laban.
Rachel and Leah
These were Laban’s daughters. Rachel, the younger, was the more beautiful and Jacob fell in love with her from the moment they met. However, Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah after seven years of service. For seven additional years of work, Jacob also married Rachel. While Rachel is called “the mother of the Jewish people,” Leah was the first “blessed by God” and bore Jacob four sons. (One of those was Judah, whom Matthew calls Jesus’ forefather.)
Rachel mourned over her barrenness. Eventually, though, she also had a son, Joseph. Seven years later, Rachel died in childbirth with Benjamin. The family is on the road at the time and near Ephratha (traditionally Bethlehem). Jacob buried Rachel there. Tradition says that Jacob buried Rachel where he knew the Hebrews would be led on their way into exile in Babylon more than 1,300 years later. Jews believe Rachel did indeed weep for her children (Jer 31:15) as they passed by in 587 B.C. Reference to this is in Matthew’s Gospel when the baby boys of Bethlehem were killed by Herod: “A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more” (Mt 2:18).
Today, on the road to Bethlehem, Rachel’s tomb still stands. Jews visit, especially at Passover, and the key to the tomb has traditionally been given to women suffering painful childbirth. Rachel is still a mother to her people.
While Rachel is buried near Bethlehem, the other matriarchs lie in Hebron, located in what is today the West Bank. Called Machpelah (translated as “the double cave”), or the Cave of the Patriarchs, their graves are in the land Abraham bought for Sara’s grave (Gn 23:9, 17). Seven people are said to be buried there — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sara, Rebecca and Leah and, according to ancient tradition, Adam and Eve.
Rabbi Naftali Silberberg, a Talmudic scholar, says the lives of these ancestors show us the divine attributes (patriarchs) and the royal attributes (matriarchs). “These seven spiritual giants are considered our nation’s patriarchs and matriarchs not so much because they are our shared biological antecedents, but primarily because they are our spiritual ancestors.”
As we look to Jesus, we see how the lives of these ancestors were fulfilled in him. Traditional interpretations of Jewish scriptures (midrashim) say that the matriarchs laid the foundations of the Jewish nation through a strong sense of family, by overcoming barrenness, jealousy and age and even marrying strangers and traveling to foreign lands for the sake of their families. We see this history echoed in both Jesus, and his own mother, Mary.
Next: The faithful ones
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; aish.com; holylandmoments.org; “Our Jewish Roots: The Matriarchs of the Faith” at catholicexchange.com; Jewish Women’s Archives at jwa.org; jewishencyclopedia.com; and chabad.org.