and had not had children, but God kept telling her
husband that he would be the father of a nation. Sarai
took matters into her own hands and gave her maid
Hagar to her husband, believing that any child of
Abraham’s would become hers to raise. Hagar soon
disabused her of that idea and there was war between
the women from the moment Hagar conceived.
A similar story unfolds for the matriarch Rebekah,
who eventually gives birth to twin boys. She believes
the eldest, Esau, is not suited for becoming the tribal
patriarch after her husband Isaac dies. So she persuades
the second son, Jacob, to deceive his father into
believing he is Esau to get the all-important blessing.
The plan works, but Esau became so angry that Jacob
had to leave the country, so Rebekah lost him—and
Jacob in turn is deceived when he comes to marry
his cousin Rachel. Brides in those days were heavily
veiled and, after the ceremony, he discovered that
Rachel’s elder sister Leah was the woman he had
married. Jacob ended up marrying Rachel, too,
and the rivalry and hatred between the sisters ran
the same pattern as that between Sarai and Hagar,
souring both their lives. Leah “the unloved” became
the mother of many sons, but Rachel was barren for
many years and, like Sarai, gave her handmaiden to
her husband to have sons for her. Leah followed suit
with her own handmaiden. However, Rachel, still
desperate, resorted to the power of her father’s idols
and the fertility magic of mandrakes and finally did
conceive two sons, Joseph and Benjamin, but died in
childbirth with Benjamin. What a terrible ending to a
life where the only land she could see before her was
full of jealousy and resentment.
What can we learn from this? First, consider that
the matriarchs are all revered in the Jewish faith and
yet the biblical women who follow them—Miriam,
Ruth, Deborah, Jael, and Esther, whom I would call
the heroines—are not as widely respected. Esther does
have her own festival in Judaism (Purim), yet many
people are still not familiar with her story. All five of
these women physically or emotionally left the tribe.
They took clear decisions that went against everything
they were supposed to do and all five of them acted
in ways that changed the world for the better for their
Leaving the tribe doesn’t have to mean refusing to see
the family again; it means metanoia. This Greek word is
translated as “repent” and is one of the great themes of
the Gospels. To repent doesn’t mean to focus on guilt or
shame—it means “think again” or even “think anew.”
It is all about new perceptions: looking at yourself and
at the world in a way other than the way your tribal—or
family—ego consciousness has trained you to think.
Who out of these early biblical women would you
think was the one with the most contact with the Divine?
You probably didn’t answer Sarai, Rebekah, Leah, or
Rachel. They all took control of how their lives would run
themselves and ignored any message from God.
The answer is Hagar, the slave, the outsider, the
most despised, the one most put-upon, the one who
rebels, the one who is kicked out into the desert. She is
not considered one of the matriarchs because her son
Ishmael founded the Arab nation, yet she is pivotal to
the whole story of humanity. Twice she is lost in the
desert—once because she runs away when pregnant
and once when she is sent away with her young son.
Both times she is on her knees, out of pride, out of
resentment, out of blame, knowing there’s nothing
she can do. She surrenders to something greater
than herself, and both times she is saved by divine
intervention. The first time she is taught humility and
the second time she is taught how to build a new life in
the desert: “God opened her eyes and she saw a well of
water” (Genesis 21: 19).
So the great lesson of what I see as these five
matriarchs is that we have a choice: We can stay home
with our habitual thoughts and feelings and recreate
the same patterns of dis-ease for ourselves and for our
children, or we can follow the soft, yet strong assurance
that comes to us in prayer or meditation of how to see a
new land—a new earth—awaiting us if we will drop our
insistence on being in control and being right.
If we stay in the tribe, when we die, our gravestone
may say something like “Loving wife and mother.” That’s
lovely but it defines us as the matriarchs were defined—
purely by our role in relation to the family. It tells people
nothing about our souls.
Or we can set out into the undiscovered country,
holding tightly to the hand of the Divine. Maybe
then we will have a gravestone like the one that
inspired me 20 years ago when I came upon it in a
quiet English churchyard. It said simply, “Deborah