Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, matriarchs of the faith, provide a remarkable insight into God’s commitment to women and His interest in how women play an integral part in His plan for mankind. These women are often called the “women of the tent” and they embodied what we as Catholics might call “feminine genius.”
These incredible women teach us both about the roots of our faith but also how our faith has unfolded so that we, as Christian women today, can live more fully for Christ. For a Christian man, understanding the roles of the matriarchs is no less important because it is through this understanding that the male/female relationships are revealed.
Sarah was a woman whose life’s goal was to have a child. The Talmud teaches that Sarah, along with Abraham, was a great converter of people to the monotheistic religion of Judaism. She is credited with saving many souls as she converted innumerable people from their pagan beliefs to monotheism.
Additionally, Sarah’s own faith was such that she accompanied Abraham as he answered God’s call to leave Ur and journey to the Promised Land. Abraham heard directly from God but Sarah relied on faith alone to make the journey and thus won great favor from God. Her faith was an admirable and necessary quality as she was to be the woman to whom countless generations would be born.
Throughout her life, Sarah was said to have been a beautiful woman whose generous spirit welcomed neighbors and thus witnessed in such a way that many were converted. Sarah’s spirit teaches us how to extend that same generosity towards others today as we live as daughters of the King. She was the first woman to light Sabbath candles which are meant to bring light to the home—something uniquely inherent in a Jewish woman’s role as wife and mother. Today, as Jewish households light their Sabbath candles, parents often confer the following blessing on their daughters: May God make you like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. This blessing shows that Jewish homes understand how powerful a woman can be and remind daughters that when they live their lives serving God, they are always able to bring peace, harmony and “light” to their families and friends. Similarly, John Paul II wrote, in Mulieris Dignitatem:
The hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at his moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women imbued with a spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid humanity in not falling.
Sarah’s beloved son Isaac grows into a young man who marries Rebekah. We see, quite pointedly in Scripture, that Isaac’s marriage to Rebekah occurs very near to the time of Sarah’s death. Rebekah is meant to carry Sarah’s mantle and continue the line of the Matriarchs. Rebekah is a devoted wife and hers is a marriage filled with loving-kindness, often called chesed. Through Sarah’s marriage to Abraham and Rebekah’s marriage to Isaac we are shown the great value God puts upon the union of a man and a woman and how they are meant to work, as partners, towards God’s goals for mankind.
Rebekah teaches us the value of devotion. She has great faith and courage to leave her family home and journey to Isaac’s land. Rebekah encourages us to embrace our roles as mothers, wives, sisters, and friends. Rebekah’s intuitive nature allows her to understand her own role as a daughter of the King and how to live it most fully.
Rebekah gives birth to twins, Esau and Jacob. While some see her as “stealing” the blessings from oldest son Esau in favor of youngest son Jacob, it is probably more accurate to state that Rebekah “knew” and responded to God’s call upon Jacob — as revealed to her during her pregnancy. “Knowing” such things are, once again, inherently female as witnessed by the matriarchs who, in their “knowing,” were strong and competent women.
Jacob falls in love with Rachel but is tricked into marrying her older sister, Leah. Although Jacob eventually marries Rachel as well, it is Leah to whom God continually blesses as Leah gives birth to more than half of the men to whom the tribes of Israel will issue. The Talmud teaches that each sister, Rachel and Leah, brings a particular aspect of the divine feminine into the lineage of God’s people. Rachel is by all accounts very strong-willed and strong-minded. It is Rachel who cries out from the heavens, generations later, as Pharaoh slaughters infant Hebrew baby boys in Egypt while it is Leah who steadfastly becomes the mother of many of the tribes of Israel.
Leah is a woman whose own interests all came second to God’s. She is sometimes referred to as “teary-eyed” or with “weepy” eyes but mystics point to this more as her being a recipient of the Holy Spirit than her being sad; although some combination of each interpretation is probably most accurate. Leah’s willingness to follow God’s plan allowed her to become the mother of more than half the tribes of Israel and give birth to Judah. It is from the lineage of Judah that the King of Kings would be born!
The Matriarchs, each in her own way, shed light on what it means to live as a woman of God. The Matriarchs were powerful women who were responsive to God and were committed to their families and friends. They were resilient women given their different and unique circumstances and noble in both their joy and in their suffering. They diligently worked with God and were wise in understanding God’s call upon their lives. Ultimately they were loving, self-giving women. When a man honors and respects a woman’s role as matriarch in her own family, he is honoring God’s call upon that woman. Likewise, when a woman honors the man’s role as husband and father; brother and son, she is also bringing the necessary peace, truth and light into her domestic church.
Being a matriarch of a family is a badge of honor and one to be worn with pride and dignity. John Paul II often wrote of a woman’s feminine genius and the ways in which her “gift of self” could be one of the truest way in which mankind could come to know, love, and serve God. During his papacy John Paul II wrote many documents in which he wished to share the divine plan that was placed upon women. When we look to the Matriarchs we that divine plan in action; we see how serving God brings true joy to our lives because we become who God meant us to be: conduits between heaven and earth.