Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Hayye Sarah

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Hayye Sarah 5761/ 25 November 2000

Gender and Inheritance

Prof. Ora (Rodrigues) Schwarzwald
Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages

This week we read Hayye Sarah, and a passage from I Kings 1:1-31 for the haftara. First I shall discuss several matters having to do with gender in the parasha and the haftara, then I shall deal with other comparisons and contrasts between the Torah portion and the selection from the Prophets.

In comparison to the general level of involvement of women in Scriptures, in this week's readings women play quite considerable roles. A sampling of biblical names in Mandelkern's Concordance shows that only about seven percent of names in the Bible are those of women. In our parasha, situation is quite different: the names of many men are mentioned in the Torah portion due to the lists of the descendants of Keturah and Ishmael, but if we look at the figures who actually play an active in this week's reading, we find one-third women and two-thirds men: Sarah, Rebecca, her mother, and Keturah, in comparison with Abraham, Efron, Abraham's servant, Laban, Bethuel, Isaac and Ishmael. In the haftara as well several men's names are mentioned in connection with the coronation of Adonijah son of Haggith, but when one compares the number of active women with men the ratio is about the same as we saw: Abishag and Bathsheba in comparison with David, Adonijah and Nathan. This is not the usual ratio found in Scriptures.

This is also the only parasha whose name mentions a woman: Hayye Sarah. The names of all the other weekly readings are either common nouns or verbs, except for another five proper nouns denoting men after whom the reading is named: Noah, Jethro, Korah, Balak and Phinehas.

There are entire readings in which women play no role at all, nor are they mentioned. When the children born to a certain father are listed, only his sons are named. One wonders how it could be, statistically, that all these men had only male children?! Of course this has to do with the biblical notion of inheritance, but that is not our concern at the moment.

When are a person's daughters mentioned in the genealogy? When something will happen to them later on in the biblical narrative (e.g., Rebekah, Dinah, the daughters of Zelophehad). Nor are the names of the mothers of major figures important in the biblical narrative. Important people's fathers are generally mentioned, but not the names of their mothers. When is a mother's name given? When a father has several sons by different women, as in our reading: Rebekah daughter of Bethuel, who was also the granddaughter of Milcah, wife of Abraham's brother Nahor (since Nahor also had a concubine named Reumah, who bore him other sons); Abraham's son Ishmael, who was the son of Sarah's maidservant Haggar. Likewise in the haftara: Adonijah son of David, born to him by Haggith.

Scriptures also mention women who played specific roles (Tamar in Genesis, Deborah and Jael in Judges, etc.), although not always by name. For example, we do not know the names of the women whom Elisha helped (according to the narrative told in the haftara which we read last week): one was the wife of one of the disciples of the prophets and the other, the famous woman from Shunam, called the Shunammite, although that was not her name.

The women explicitly mentioned in this week's reading are figures around whom the story line revolves: Sarah, who passed away and was buried; Rebekah, who was found to be a kind-hearted, well-bred maiden, modest but with a mind of her own; Rebekah's mother, whose name is unknown and whose voice is heard only in conjunction with Laban's -- "But her brother and her mother said, 'Let the maiden remain with us some ten days; then you may go'" (24:55); and Keturah, whom Abraham married after Sarah's death and after his son had married Rebekah. It is interesting to speculate whether Keturah was indeed the same as Haggar, as the Midrashim believe. The woman mentioned here goes by another name, and there is no indication in the parasha itself that she is the same as Haggar the Egyptian, mother of Ishmael. Haggar and Milcah are mentioned in the reading only as the mothers of Ishmael and Bethuel, and the nursemaid who accompanies Rebekah is mentioned only by her function and not by any other attribute.

The haftara, as we said, mentions Abishag the Shunammite, who was taken to wait on David and warm his bed, and Bathsheba who takes action to assure that Solomon will inherit the throne as promised. Haggith is mentioned only as the mother of Adonijah.

Thus we see that this week's readings from the Torah and the Prophets are special both in that they mention a relatively greater number of women relative to men in comparison with the usual ratio in Scriptures, and in that the women appearing in these readings are mentioned by virtue of their actions.

And now to a look at the parasha and haftara: several subjects are brought up in this week's reading: Sarah passes from the world at the age of 127 and is buried in the Cave of Machpelah, after negotiations to purchase the cave from the Hittites; Abraham, in his old age, sees to the continuation of the family and sends his servant to Aram-Naharaim to find a fitting wife for his son Isaac; the servant succeeds in his mission and brings Rebekah back to be Isaac's wife; Abraham marries Keturah and has more sons by her, who do not inherit from him; Abraham passes away at age 175 and is buried in the Cave of Machpelah by Isaac and Ishmael; at the end of the portion also the death of Ishmael, at age 137, is reported.

The haftara tells about David's old age. He is advanced in years, and Abishag the Shunammite is brought to him to serve him and keep him warm; Adonijah son of Haggith crowns himself king, but Nathan the prophet intervenes and brings in Bathsheba, Solomon's mother, so that David can settle the issue of who will inherit the throne. David promises the throne to Solomon, and indeed the kingship passes to him while David is yet alive.

The stories in this week's readings from the Torah and the Prophets deal with heroes in their old age: Abraham and David, two dominant and important figures in their times, had grown old. Each is said to be "advanced in years": "Abraham was now old, advanced in years" (Gen. 24:1), and "King David was now old, advanced in years" (I Kings 1:1). Since it is clear to all that neither one will live forever, in both stories there is concern about the future and the continuation of the line. This, however, is where the similarity ends.

Abraham, in his old age, saw to finding a worthy wife for Isaac in his lifetime, and therefore sent his servant to Aram-Naharaim so that his son would not marry a local Canaanite woman. His son Ishmael, son of Haggar, he had already sent off together with his mother, at the behest of his wife Sarah, while she was yet alive. He gave all that he had to Isaac, as it is said, "Abraham willed all that he owned to Isaac" (Gen. 25:5), but also cared for the sons of Keturah: "but to Abraham's sons by concubines Abraham gave gifts while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the East" (v. 6). Thus by his own initiative Abraham put all matters of inheritance in order before his death.

David, in contrast, is seen in all his weakness. Scripture hints at his shortcomings as a father in mentioning of Adonijah son of Haggith that "his father had never scolded him: 'Why did you do that?'" (I Kings 1:6). He remained secluded in his home because of his old age, cut off from events in his kingdom and even unaware of the intrigues taking place outside his house. Only the joint stand of Nathan the prophet and Bathsheba, arranged at the prophet's initiative, caused him to see to orderly designation of an heir. Bathsheba, mother of Solomon, came to David, with the prophet Nathan following on her heels and reinforcing her words. Both told David about the plot to steal the crown from Solomon, for Adonijah had coronated himself. Consequently David indeed decided to take action to assure the line of succession: he swore to Bathsheba that her son would be king, and later on in the chapter he gave explicit instructions for crowning Solomon in his lifetime.

Thus, Abraham himself took the initiative to arrange all the details of inheritance, whereas David saw to his inheritance only in response to outside initiative.

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