Book review: “Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis” by Savina J. Tuebal Previous item Book review: "The... Next item Book review: "Alas...

Book review: “Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis” by Savina J. Tuebal

The book of Genesis in the Bible has a lot of odd stuff, like incest: 

  • Abraham and Sarah aren’t just married, but they’re also brother and sister. 
  • Abraham lets Sarah become a member of the harems of not just one, but two kings. 
  • Jacob is married to two sisters, Rachel and Leah. 
  • Lot’s daughters — whose mother was turned into a pillar of salt outside of Sodom and Gommorrah — get him drunk on two consecutive nights and have sex with him in order to have children. 
  • Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel were each described in the Bible as “barren” for decades, but their husbands did not divorce them as was the practice of that era. 
  • During those decades, Sarah and Rachel told their husbands to have sex with a handmaid to conceive an heir.

Also, Abraham is the patriarch, the one who made the initial covenant with God in which, later, the Jewish people saw themselves as God’s chosen.  Yet, Sarah seems to make a lot of decisions that he goes along with, such as banishing her former handmaid Hagar and the teenage boy Ishmael whom Hagar conceived with Abraham, in Genesis 21:

The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his.  But God said to Abraham; “Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you to do, do as she says…”

“Enigmatic”

In her 1984 book Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis, Savina J. Tuebal writes that much of the Genesis stories appear “confusing, contradictory, or simply difficult to follow” because of their “often enigmatic nature.”  This, she contends, is because they “have been interpreted and commented on by scholars almost exclusively from a patriarchal point of view.”

Tuebal suggests that it’s possible to start to clear up much of the confusion if the text is examined from a matriarchal perspective, employing for context the religious practices of other sects in the Middle East in the centuries prior to Genesis being put in writing.

Before being put in written form, the stories in Genesis were transmitted orally in many voices and in many places.  Scholars are agreed, for instance, that the version of Genesis that we have today was stitched together by editors from at least three earlier versions.

Although Tuebal doesn’t say this very clearly, she argues that, during the editing process, a major thread of the stories was toned down greatly.  That thread had to do with the linking of Abraham’s patriarchal tradition with a matriarchal tradition embodied in Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah.

Priestesses

Her argument is that, if you think of those women being priestesses in a matriarchal-focused religion, then a lot of the odd stuff in Genesis starts to make some sense.

For instance, in a matriarchal society, Abraham and Sarah can marry because they aren’t considered siblings since they had different mothers.  (In a patriarchal society, they are because they had the same father.)  Also, Sarah and the others wouldn’t be “barren” but simply “childless” out of religiously based choice.

Essentially, what Tuebal contends is that the matriarchal part of the stories was so important that it couldn’t be edited out, but the editors whittled it down to such an extent that readers no longer knew that it was coming out of this other tradition.

Many of the issues she raises seem worthy of further debate while, in some cases, she goes out on a limb, unnecessarily.  She doesn’t help her case by presenting her speculations in an often awkward fashion, to the point that her book itself can seem “confusing, contradictory, or simply difficult to follow.”

“Sarah’s puzzling, highly energetic role”

Tuebal’s mentor, the respected Jewish anthropologist-ethnographer Raphael Patai, writes in a forward to her book:

Some critics will argue that, for all her erudition and skillful marshalling of evidence, the case remains circumstantial. The fact cannot be changed that nowhere in Genesis, or in all Jewish tradition for that matter, is there a clear statement as to Sarah’s priesthood…

On the other hand, her theory sheds new light on the puzzling, highly energetic role Sarah and the other matriarchs play in the Genesis narratives — a role so active that it repeatedly overshadows that of their husbands.

I’m with Patai in thinking that Tuebal’s theories provide some strategies for trying to better understand these earliest stories of the Judeo-Christian position.  Alas, as far as I’m able to determine, it doesn’t appear that, over the past 35 years, scholars have given these theories much thought or employed them in their own work.

That’s too bad.  But perhaps at some point down the road, when theologians and Bible experts are working to see the Bible stories from a more balanced perspective, her work will eventually bear fruit. 

I hope so.

Patrick T. Reardon

6.5.19

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