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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.


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