Miri­am’s Song, paint­ing, Cen­ter for Jew­ish His­to­ry, Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty Museum

1. Grow­ing up in the reli­gious world, I was raised on the sto­ries of the Bible as if they were part and par­cel of my soul — my emo­tion­al DNA. As a child, I was exposed to the world of the Broth­ers Grimm, with its princess­es, fairies, and the black for­est, togeth­er with that of Moses, God, and the Israelites in the great desert. But the ones who tru­ly cap­ti­vat­ed my imag­i­na­tion were the women of the Bible, whom I felt I didn’t know as inti­mate­ly as I want­ed to. We live in excit­ing times, a true turn­ing point in his­to­ry; after a two-thou­sand-year wait, final­ly we women are writ­ing and inter­pret­ing the sto­ries of these female characters.

In third grade, my teacher at the reli­gious school I attend­ed taught us the fol­low­ing exe­ge­sis: Do you know why so many of our bib­li­cal moth­ers were bar­ren?” An entire class­room of Jew­ish girls blinked in igno­rance. Not one of us knew the answer: It’s because God want­ed to receive all the right­eous women’s prayers.” She was smil­ing when she said this. Believ­ing she was telling us some­thing beautiful.

2. Today I know that the author of that exe­ge­sis was a man. No woman could have penned it. By which I mean, no woman would want to write some­thing like that. And that’s the true achieve­ment of mod­ern female bib­li­cal inter­pre­ta­tion — view­ing the sto­ry from a female per­spec­tive; to see the female char­ac­ters as round and mul­ti­di­men­sion­al, to turn the spot­light on them, and above all, dis­play curios­i­ty and love towards them.

When I wrote The Oth­ers, a psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller that grap­ples with the sub­ject of child­free women, I was aware that this wasn’t new, that child­free women exist­ed even in bib­li­cal times. Read­ing about these women, I also real­ized how the whole con­cept of fam­i­ly in the Bible — the rela­tion­ships between hus­band and wife, par­ents and chil­dren — is both very dif­fer­ent from the way we expe­ri­ence it today, and in some ways indis­tin­guish­able from two thou­sand years ago.

3. I’m named after my grandfather’s moth­er. After the Holo­caust, only a sin­gle pho­to of her sur­vived — a beau­ti­ful woman with a solemn expres­sion and earnest, bright eyes. Thanks to my name, I have always felt a spe­cial kin­ship with the bib­li­cal Sarah. Some­times it seems that I’m the only one who likes her, that she’s the least pop­u­lar among the four matri­archs, and no one is will­ing to look past her bul­ly­ing of Hagar and her forc­ing Abra­ham to dri­ve her out into the wilderness.

But she had her rea­sons. Imag­ine Sarah stuck in the desert, get­ting old­er, yearn­ing for a child. She pinned all her hopes and dreams on a child born to Hagar and Abra­ham, but those dreams didn’t quite pan out. Accord­ing to bib­li­cal com­men­ta­tors, a new fam­i­ly unit com­prised of Hagar, Abra­ham, and Ish­mael was formed, leav­ing Sarah out in the cold, still yearning.

Author’s grand­fa­ther’s moth­er, image cour­tesy of the author

Unable to watch her suf­fer any longer, God told Abra­ham that he and Sarah would have a son. Instead of thank­ing God, he imme­di­ate­ly asked him to favor Ish­mael by mak­ing him the heir). Abra­ham didn’t stop to con­sid­er Sarah’s life­long dreams of a family.

Then comes Sarah’s laugh­ter in the tent. Some com­men­ta­tors argue that it was at that pre­cise moment, she laughed, that her womb opened” and she became fer­tile. One year lat­er, Isaac is born. At last, Sarah’s mater­nal instinct is brought to bear. Sarah is a real mama bear; the moment she has the slight­est inkling that Ish­mael pos­es a threat to Isaac, she casts him and his moth­er out into the desert with­out bat­ting an eyelid.

Accord­ing to bib­li­cal com­men­tary, once Sarah catch­es wind of the whole bind­ing busi­ness and learns that her son is being pre­pared for sac­ri­fice, her heart stops beat­ing — she dies on the spot. Up until this moment, Isaac is a clas­sic mama’s boy,” lov­ing Sarah with all his heart and com­plete­ly depen­dent on her; he doesn’t mar­ry until she pass­es away. I love the verse that describes the moment Isaac brings Rebec­ca into his mother’s tent — and only then falls in love with her. He has final­ly found some­one to take his mother’s place.

4. Rebec­ca: a dom­i­nant wife and a dom­i­nant moth­er. The Bible doesn’t sug­ar­coat her sto­ry; Rebec­ca clear­ly played favorites with her chil­dren, as did her hus­band. Today this would have been unac­cept­able, but these were bib­li­cal times, and they were all about phys­i­cal sur­vival, not emotional.

Rebec­ca loved Jacob with every fiber of her being, but despite that love she didn’t hes­i­tate to hurt Esau, their oth­er son. I can under­stand why she favored Jacob, the two shared cer­tain qual­i­ties: both were bright and manip­u­la­tive. (His­to­ry has been repeat­ing itself since the begin­ning of time.) Rebec­ca might not have been a mod­el moth­er to Esau, but her love for Jacob is pal­pa­ble and bleeds off the page.

5. We’ve final­ly made it to Rachel and Leah. Leah is the fer­tile wife, and Rachel the bar­ren one. Accord­ing to one inter­pre­ta­tion, it was because Leah felt guilty for her role in trick­ing Jacob into mar­riage that she didn’t get preg­nant right away. Only after Jacob and Rachel mar­ried, and she saw the love and inti­ma­cy between them, did envy replace her guilt. And so she was final­ly able to get pregnant.

Leah’s sons were an embod­i­ment of her hope that Jacob would grow to love her; the names she gives her sons man­i­fest not a mother’s love for her chil­dren, but rather her desire for her husband’s love.

Rachel, on the oth­er hand, is pin­ing for chil­dren, not as a means to win over Jacob’s heart (since it already belongs to her) but for the sake of becom­ing a moth­er. Dur­ing an argu­ment with Jacob, she cries out to him: Give me sons, or I shall die.”

While she indeed gets the two sons she wished for, she dies giv­ing birth to the sec­ond one — Binyamin. And again his­to­ry repeats itself, with Jacob favor­ing Joseph over his broth­ers, in part because of his phys­i­cal resem­blance to Rachel.

In the Bible, just like today, a parent’s love for their child is a fierce emo­tion, but some­times, it belies oth­er, equal­ly fierce emotions.

6. I myself don’t have children.

I always assumed I would, but then the years went by, and life” hap­pened— rela­tion­ships, art, writ­ing — and here I am, forty-sev­en years old, liv­ing a life sans chil­dren. A life that suits me.

In my writ­ing I always try to gaze into the past, to reflect on ancient Jew­ish myths and famous bib­li­cal fig­ures, and see to what degree they res­onate today. I’ve come to believe that the key dif­fer­ence between then and now is a woman’s abil­i­ty to choose. Even now, read­ing about the bib­li­cal moth­ers again, I think to myself: it’s true that there are many par­al­lels that apply to the present, most­ly psy­cho­log­i­cal, but how for­tu­nate are we to live in a time when we have the abil­i­ty to choose?

So I thank the bib­li­cal moth­ers, I reflect on their lives and write about them with admi­ra­tion, all the while walk­ing my own path.

Sarah Blau is an author and play­wright, recip­i­ent of the 2015 Prime Min­is­ter’s Prize for Hebrew Lit­er­a­ture, and the 2017 Bar-Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Alum­ni Achieve­ment Award in recog­ni­tion of her con­tri­bu­tion to enrich­ing cul­ture in Israel and her activ­i­ty in the fields of lit­er­a­ture and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Con­sid­ered a promi­nent voice in reli­gious Israeli lit­er­a­ture, she iden­ti­fies her­self as reli­gious-lite.”