Co-opting the Secondary Matriarchs

Bilhah, Zilpah, Tamar, and Aseneth

in Biblical Interpretation
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Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel are termed the “Matriarchs.” In contrast to these women, Bilhah, Zilpah, Tamar, and Aseneth/Asenath are the “Secondary Matriarchs.” They are “foreign wives.” Bilhah and Zilpah are Arameans and the mothers of the eponymous ancestors of the tribes of Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. Canaanite Tamar bears Judah’s son Perez, who becomes the link to the Judah tribal line. The Egyptian Aseneth, Joseph’s wife, bears the eponymous ancestors of the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim. The “foreignness” of these Secondary Matriarchs is not noteworthy in Genesis. Years later, however, Ezra/Nehemiah promote endogamy and reject foreign wives/exogamy. A similar pro-endogamy/anti-exogamy view is found in the Maccabean and Herodian times, although sometimes conversion – voluntary or forced – is another strategy. It is difficult to understand the growth of the Jewish people however defined or calculated – from the period of Ezra/Nehemiah to the destruction of the Second Temple – without these conversions.

In the pseudepigraphic writings of the late and then postbiblical Second Temple period, as well as in rabbinic literature, the ethnic origins of the Secondary Matriarchs becomes an issue; consequently they become co-opted into the “Abrahamic” family – they are shown to be Jews. This article begins with a wide variety of examples in the Pseudepigrapha and rabbinic writings (Talmud, midrash) to address how the Secondary Matriarchs are understood to be ethnically “family” and not “foreigners.” It then analyzes the issue of endogamy/exogamy in Ezra/Nehemiah, as well as in the Maccabean-Herodian and rabbinic periods, as an explanation for the creation of the “additional biographies” of Bilhah, Zilpah, Tamar, and Aseneth.

Co-opting the Secondary Matriarchs

Bilhah, Zilpah, Tamar, and Aseneth

in Biblical Interpretation




Susan AckermanWarrior Dancer Seductress Queen: Women in Judges and Biblical Israel (New York: Doubleday1998) p. 221.


Burchard“Joseph and Aseneth” pp. 189–90.


Shaye J.D. CohenThe Beginnings of Jewishness (Berkeley: University of California Press1999) p. 260.


CohenBeginnings p. 261.


Michael FishbaneBiblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon Press1985) p. 114.


Julie GalambushJerusalem in the Book of Ezekiel: The City as Yahweh’s Wife (Atlanta: Scholars Press1992) pp. 61–88.


Stuart Krauss“The Word ‘Ger’ in the Bible and its Implications,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 34.4 (2006) 264–70.


(OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster 1969) pp. 305 316. See also John L. McKenzie Second Isaiah (AB 20; Garden City: Doubleday 1967) pp. 150–51.


Hamilton“Marriage,” The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionaryvol. 4 p. 565.


CohenBeginnings pp. 109–110. Also Shaye J.D. Cohen “Religion Ethnicity and ‘Hellenism’ in the Emergence of Jewish Identity in Maccabean Palestine” in Per Bilde et al. (eds.) Religion and Religious Practice in the Seleucid Kingdom (Denmark: Aarhus University Press 1990) p. 204.


Aryeh KasherJews Idumaeans and Ancient Arabs (Tubingen: JCB Mohr1988) pp. 59–60. See also Josephus Antiquities 13:397.


CohenBeginnings pp. 137 155 160.


Cohen“Religion Ethnicity” pp. 219–21.


CohenBeginnings p. 136.


KasherJews Idumaeans p. 206.


HayesGentile Impurities pp. 74–76.


Bernard J. BambergerProselytism in the Talmudic Period (New York: Ktav1968) p. 274. See also Cohen “Religion Ethnicity” pp. 212–18.


Solomon ZeitlinThe Rise and Fall of the Judaean State: A Political Social and Religious History of the Second Commonwealth (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society1968) vol. 3 p. 323.


Salo W. Baron“Population,” Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter 1971) vol. 13 p. 869. From Baron’s discussion it appears that he includes self-defined Jews such as “God-fearers” or what the Talmud called “fearers of heaven.” Baron estimates that the world Jewish population in the year 70 ce is about eight million with perhaps seventy percent living outside of the area of Judea (p. 871). For a different view see Brian McGing “Population and Proselytism: How Many Jews Were There in the Ancient World” in John R. Bartlett (ed.) Jews in The Hellenistic And Roman Cities (London: Routledge 2002) p. 106.


Sacha SternJewish Identity in Early Rabbinic Writings (Leiden: Brill1994) pp. 139–98.

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