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Serah and the Exodus: A Midrashic Miracle

By Leila Bronner

As the reward for the righteous women who lived in that generation [Exodus] were the Israelites delivered from Egypt.
-Babylonian Talmud, Sota 11b

The period of the Exodus was a time of crisis in Israelite history and also a time of impressive women. In the Scriptures, many women play crucial roles in saving the Israelites from extinction under the cruel edicts of Pharaoh, and the Midrash (the rabbinic retellings and lore on the Hebrew Scriptures) embellishes the deeds of the women of the time of the bondage in Egypt and the Departure. If we read only the Scriptures, we would not count Serah bat Asher among these women, but the Midrash invents a number of stories that credit Serah with a role in facilitating the Exodus. Indeed, by her assistance to Moses, the Exodus is made possible.

Serah appears three times in the Scriptures, each time as a name on a genealogical list.
  1. Asher's sons: Imnah, Ishvah, Ishvi, and Beriah, and their sister Serah" (Gen. 46:17).

  2. The name of Asher's daughter was Serah.-These are the clans of Asher's descendants" (Num. 26:46).

  3. These are the sons of Asher, Imnah, Ishvah, Ishvi, and Beriah, and their sister Serah" (1 Chron. 7:30).

To the modern reader, genealogical lists of names appear unimportant and tedious, but genealogical lists are of great importance in Jewish tradition. They affirm that the history of Israel was no human accident but was instead the result of divine purpose and plan in history. They provide an unbroken link with the remote past, and hence a firm basis on which to build the future. In the Bible, lineage is usually traced through the male, and females are mentioned only in rare instances. The fact that Serah is mentioned no less than three times by name in genealogical lists is remarkable in itself. Her triple appearance may be what made her seem to the sages extraordinary enough for them to want to embroider marvelous, even myth-like stories about her. The company Serah keeps may also have something to do with it: not only does Serah live during a time of exemplary women, but her closest male relations are among the giants of Israelite history-Jacob (her grandfather), Joseph (her uncle), and Asher (her father).

The Bible is a laconic, elliptical, and at times ambiguous text, and the filling in of the biblical account is a basic procedure in the midrashic mode of interpretation. Midrashic narratives often involve magnificent flights of imagination and spectacular feats of conjuring stories from the slightest of clues. In the Midrash, there are several imaginative stories describing Serah's life.

The shortest of the midrashic references to Serah is a gloss on Genesis 46:17 found in the highly discursive seventh- or eighth-century C.E. Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch known as Targum Pseudo-Jonathan.

And Serah their sister, who spoke and was therefore worthy of entering Gan Eden [Paradise], because she brought good tidings to Jacob, saying: -Joseph lives."

The Sefer Ha-Yashar, which is from thirteenth-century C.E. Europe, has a lengthier story.

And . . . [the sons of Jacob] went along until they came nigh unto their houses, and they found Serah, the daughter of Asher, going forth to meet them, and the damsel was very good and subtle, and knew how to play upon the harp. . . . And they took her and gave unto her a harp, saying, go now before our father [Jacob] and sit before him, and strike upon the harp, and speak these words. . . . She took the harp, and . . . she came and sat near Jacob. And she played well and said, and uttered in the sweetness of her words, -Joseph my uncle is living, and he ruleth throughout the land of Egypt, and is not dead." And she continued to repeat and utter these words, and Jacob heard her words and they were very agreeable to him. And Jacob blessed Serah . . . and he said unto her, -My daughter, may death never prevail over thee, for thou has revived my spirit" (Noah, the Book of Yashar, 1840).

For reasons that are unclear, Sefer Ha-Yashar finds it necessary to have Serah, Jacob"s granddaughter, rather than Jacob"s sons, tell him the news that Joseph lives and to have him respond to the news by blessing her. We see here the beginning of the construction of Serah's spiritual powers, her power to guiding people in distress.

The midrashic literature also invests Serah with the secret knowledge of how to identify the redeemer of Israel from captivity in Egypt. This knowledge had been transmitted through the males of the family, but in the eleventh or twelfth-century C.E. commentary known as Exodus Rabbah, Serah is suddenly given this knowledge.

The sign of [God's] visitation which He communicated to them, for they had this as a tradition from Jacob, Jacob having handed down the secret to Joseph, and Joseph to his brothers, while Asher, the son of Jacob, had handed down the secret to his daughter Serah, who was still alive. This is what he told her: -Any redeemer that will come and say to my children: -I will surely visit you' shall be regarded as a true deliverer." When, therefore, Moses came and said these words, the people believed him at once (All quotations of the Midrash Rabbah are from Soncino Press, 1983).

The Midrash narrates that the people accepted Moses as their redeemer once he says the words that Serah received from her father. Thus, Moses" recognition as the Redeemer is dependent on Serah and, even more crucially, on the people"s willingness to trust her assertion that his words identify him as the Redeemer.

In midrashic lore, Serah"s most significant act is locating the elusive bones of Joseph. The Bible records that Joseph asked his brothers to promise him that on departing from Egypt, they would take his bones back to the land of Canaan.

So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, -When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here." Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt (Gen. 50:2426).

Further it is written: -And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him; for Joseph had solemnly sworn the people of Israel, saying, "God will visit you; then you must carry my bones with you from here" (Exod. 13:19). Why did the rabbis feel the need to create the story of Joseph"s inaccessible bones? It grows out of the Jewish concern for burial of the dead. Genesis mentions only the embalming of Joseph and the placement of his body in a casket, but not the location of burial. This left a gap that rabbinic Midrash moved in to fill.

Various rabbinic sources inform us that Moses could not redeem the people and leave Egypt because he could not find the place of Joseph"s grave. Three versions tell the tale of Moses" recovery of Joseph"s bones. They are found in the Mekhilta of R. Ishmael, an exegetical Midrash compiled and redacted in Palestine before the end of the fourth century C.E.; the Tosefta, a collection of additions to the Mishnah from after the end of the fourth century C.E.; and Sota, a tractate in the Talmud dating from the fourth to the sixth century C.E. That of Mekhilta, which may be the most elaborate, describes the Israelites" preparations to leave Egypt, depicting them taking booty from the Egyptians, while Moses was occupied with finding the bones of Joseph. How did Moses eventually discover where Joseph was buried? In all three sources the sages tell us that Serah, daughter of Asher, survived from the time when Joseph died and was buried, and that she showed Moses where Joseph"s casket was to be found. She told him that the Egyptians had fashioned a metal casket and dropped it into the middle of the Nile. The version in the Mekhilta reads:

And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. This proclaims the wisdom and the piety of Moses. For all Israel were busy with the booty while Moses busied himself with the duty of looking after the bones of Joseph. Of him Scripture says: -The wise in heart takes on duties" (Prov. 10:8). But how did Moses know where Joseph was buried? It is told that Serah, the daughter of Asher, survived from that generation and she showed Moses the grave of Joseph. She said to him: -The Egyptians put him into a metal coffin which they sunk in the Nile" So Moses went and stood by the Nile. He took a table[t] of gold on which he engraved the Tetragrammaton, and throwing it into the Nile, he cried out and said: -Joseph son of Jacob! The oath to redeem his children, which God swore to our father Abraham has reached it fulfillment. If you come up, well and good. But if not, we shall be guiltless of your oath." Immediately Joseph"s coffin came to the surface (Mekilta de Rabbi Ishmael).

The Tosefta provides another version of these events.

How did Moses know where Joseph had been buried? They tell: Serah daughter of Asher was [a survivor] of the generation [of Joseph], and she went and said to Moses, -In the River Nile Joseph is buried. And the Egyptians made for him metal spits and affixed them with pitch (to keep him down)." Moses went and stood at the Nile River and said, -Joseph, the time has come for the Holy One, blessed be He, to redeem Israel. Lo, the Presence is held up for you, and the Israelites are held up for you, and the clouds of glory are held up for you. If you show yourself, well and good, and if not, we are free of the oath which you have imposed upon our father." Then the coffin of Joseph floated to the surface and Moses took it and went his way (Tosephta 4:7).

The talmudic version reads:

It is related that Serah, daughter of Asher, was a survivor of that generation. Moses went to her and asked, -Dost thou know where Joseph is buried?" She answered him, -The Egyptians made a metal coffin for him which they fixed in the river Nile so that its waters should be blessed." Moses went and stood on the bank of the Nile and exclaimed, -Joseph, Joseph! The time has arrived which the Holy One, blessed be He swore, -I will deliver you, and the oath which thou didst impose upon the Israelite has reached [the time of fulfillment]." Immediately Joseph's coffin floated [on the surface of the water] (Sota 13a).
Only in the talmudic version is Moses said to go to Serah for help with his problem. In both of the earlier sources, she is mentioned without any introduction at all. She simply appears suddenly and instructs Moses where to look. In all versions, he follows her directions with no hesitation and immediately locates Joseph"s river-bottom tomb. Although Moses still faces the problem of raising the casket, Serah plays no role in this part of the recovery operation-perhaps because the raising of the casket has magical and miraculous elements which are usually associated with prophets rather than prophetesses, or perhaps because midrashic tradition places succeeding prophets like Elijah and Elisha in the line of Moses and they perform similar miracles, such as causing an iron ax head to float upon the water (2 Kings 6:5).

Another narrative account of Serah"s involvement in the Joseph incident is external to rabbinic sources, appearing in the Tibat Markeh, a collection of Samaritan writings dating from the fourth century C.E. This account describes the Israelites in Egypt, sacrificing at Raamses and moving on to Sukkot. When they want to leave Sukkot, however, a pillar of fire blocks their way. Frightened, Moses and the elders wonder what wrong they might have done. The elders go out to speak to all the tribes in an attempt to ascertain that no sin had been committed. When they came to the tribe of Asher, Asher"s daughter Serah comes to meet them. Gifted with special insight, she is able to inform them that no evil had been committed-the problem is simply that Joseph"s bones had been forgotten.

Serah the daughter of Asher went hurrying out to them. -There is nothing evil in your midst. Behold, I will reveal to you what this secret is." At once they surrounded her and brought her to the great prophet Moses and she stood before him . . . [saying] -Hear from me this thing that you seek: Praise to those who remembered my bed [Joseph], though you have forgotten him. For had not the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire stood still, you would have departed and he would have been left in Egypt. I remember the day that he died and he caused the whole people to swear that they would bring his bones up from here with them." The great prophet Moses said to her, -Worthy are you Serah, wisest of women. From this day on will your greatness be told". . . . Serah went with all the tribe of Ephraim around her, and Moses and Aaron went after them, until she came to the place where he was hidden (Ben-Hayyim, Tibat Markeh).

The final association of Serah with the events of the Exodus is a story told in an important later rabbinic source. Serah is described as looking down from heaven and listening to the discussions of important religious matters by the rabbis in the house of study.

Then, from the teacher"s seat R. Johanan sought to explain just how the waters of the Red Sea became a wall for Israel. Even as R. Johanan was explaining that the wall of the water looked like a lattice, Serah, daughter of Asher, looked down and said: -I was there. The waters rising up like a wall for Israel were shining because the radiance [of such personages as Moses and Aaron who had drunk deep of Torah"s waters] made the waters shine" (Braude and Kapstein, Pesikta de Rav Kahana [translation from Hebrew]).

In all of rabbinic literature, Serah is the only woman who interrupts a discussion in a house of study and corrects a sage. Beruriah, the female scholar of the Talmud par excellence, is often depicted as discussing and differing on legal matters with male scholars, but she always seems to be outside the house of study.

Serah does, however, show up once more in the rabbinic literature. A midrashic gloss on the biblical verse, -Wisdom is better" (Eccles. 9:18), says that this refers to the wisdom of Serah the daughter of Asher (Gen.Rab. 94:9; Eccles.Rab. 9:18). This Midrash identifies Serah with a wise woman from the Bible who lived hundreds of years after the Exodus: the wise woman of Abel who saved that city from slaughter at the hand of Joab, King David"s commander-in-chief (2 Sam. 20). How does the Midrash justify Serah"s reappearance at a much later time? This story stems from the Midrashic interpretation of the genealogical information about Serah given in the Scriptures. That she entered Egypt is evident from the list in Genesis, and that she was still alive during the census taken prior to the Israelites" entry into the land of Canaan is evident from the list in Numbers. This led the rabbis to declare that she lived for hundreds of years.

The extraordinary longevity of Serah implied in the Scriptures was eventually turned by the rabbis into the statement that Serah -did not taste death" and was -one who entered paradise." We recall that Targum Pseudo-Jonathan describes her as -one who entered paradise," and the Sefer Ha-Yashar elaborates how Serah came to merit entry into Paradise. She is movingly described as singing good tidings to Jacob about the fate of his son Joseph. Jacob is so comforted that he blesses her, saying, -My daughter, may death never prevail over thee, for thou hast revived my spirit" (The Book of Yashar, p. 54). By suggesting that she never tasted death and that she entered Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden, a term often equated with Paradise), giving her quasi-immortal status, the rabbis place her in an exalted category nearly on par with Elijah, the eternal prophet (Targum on Gen.46:17). As a result, Serah sometimes appears in midrashic and talmudic discussions of the seven biblical figures whose successive lifetimes span the whole history of humankind: Adam, Methuselah, Shem, Jacob, Serah (or sometimes Amram, the father of Moses), Ahijah, and Elijah (ARN 38:103; B.Bat.121b).

Serah emerges in these texts as a usual woman. Women of her historical era were not often depicted either as leaders or as advisors to men, but Serah in the Midrash is an adviser to Moses, the great teacher, leader, and prophet. She is also unique her longevity, bestowed on her in midrashic tradition by an interpretation of the blessing bestowed on her by her grandfather, Jacob. Even more curious, however, is that the Midrash describes Serah as a helper of her people and as a daughter or sister or granddaughter, but not as mother or wife. In both scriptural and rabbinic literature, the marital status of women is usually given, and if the Scriptures do not describe a woman as married, the Midrash often invent a marriage for her in some narrative expansion. The most prominent female leaders in the Bible, such as Deborah and Huldah, are identified in the Scriptures as being married and the names of their husbands are given. Miriam, for example, is described as unmarried in the Bible but is given a husband in the Talmud. Yet Serah"s marital status is not even discussed by the rabbis. It may be that in the evolution of the Serah legend, the sages accepted the extraordinary figure they had fashioned on her own merit, and then were so awed by the wisdom of their own creation that they did not feel the need to marry her off. Of course, Serah"s legend was probably influenced by the fact that her lineage is righteous. Two of the three genealogical references to Serah in the Bible describe her as -sister" while the third reference speaks of her as -daughter" (Num. 26:46), but in rabbinic literature she is always referred to as Serah, daughter of Asher, thus emphasizing her good lineage.

In the ancient world, family bloodlines and traditions were believed to determine to a great extent a person"s character. For women, subject as they were to male authority, this was even more true, as a brief detour to look at the midrashic lore on Naamah illustrates. Just like Serah, Naamah is only a name on a list in the Bible-although Naamah appears only once, in Genesis 4:22, as the daughter of Lamech and Zillah, sister of Tubal-Cain-yet the rabbis create a number of stories about her. They explain that the name of Naamah means -pleasantness" but that her charms were used to serve idolatrous ends. She is described by the rabbis as the mistress of dirges and songs, playing to the idols in the temple which were made by her brother (Gen.Rab. 23:3). Later rabbinic literature about her is even more negative: she is said to have led the angels astray with her beauty and to have been the mother of the devil Asmodeus, and, like Lilith, she slays little children and appears to men at night. Just as Serah"s good lineage results in stories of exemplary actions, Naamah"s nefarious forebears prompt stories of wickedness. Consciously or not, the sages may have created a binary opposition between Serah, the saint, and Naamah, the sinner. Because they had fashioned from the merest mention of a name in Scripture an exceptional woman, perhaps they felt compelled to create, from similarly scant materials, an odious one.

But it also seems to me that the rabbis would have been hard pressed to create stories of a wicked woman given the bravery and redemptive actions attributed to the women of the Exodus in the Bible. If, for instance, we look only at the women directly associated with Moses, we find that, as Eileen Schuller notes, -Moses is surrounded by six women and, in fact, owes his very life to them (Schuller, Women of the Exodus in Biblical Retellings in Second Tellings)." The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah (Exod. 1:15), not only defy Pharaoh"s command to kill every male child born to the Israelites but also supply the newborns with food and water. Jochebed, the mother of Moses, hides the newborn child from the Pharaoh (Exod. 2:3). Miriam, Jochebed"s daughter, watches from afar until the daughter of Pharaoh rescues Moses from the river (Exod. 2:4). The daughter of Pharaoh rescues Moses from the bulrushes and brings him up as her son (Exod. 2:4). Zipporah, the wife of Moses, circumcises their son so that her husband"s death is prevented (Exod. 4:24 27).

If the Midrash says anything about these women, the tales are primarily pleasant and wondrous. For Shiphrah and Puah, the midrashic sources decide to identify Shiphrah with Jochebed and Puah with Miriam and then spend a great deal of time discussing the meaning of the names -Shiphrah" and -Puah." They explain that -Shiphrah" refers to the fact that the Hebrews were fruitful and multiplied in her days or, alternately, that it indicates that she straightened Moses" limbs. -Puah" is interpreted to mean that she cried out to the child and brought it forth; the more spiritual version of this explanation has her crying out through the Holy Spirit, saying -My mother will bear a son, who will be the savior of Israel" (Sota 12b; Exo.Rab. 1:13ff). The Midrash praises Zipporah for her virtue and for her beauty, and around her name, which means -bird," they weave several stories illustrating her piety and power (Exo.Rab.1:32; Midrash Ps. 7:18). The rabbis twice describe Zipporah as saving her husband from death: She feeds him during the years that he was kept in a pit, and she circumcises her second son when Moses was swallowed by Satan in the guise of a serpent so that the serpent spits him out. Some sources credit Jochebed, the mother of Moses, rather than Serah, with the role of guiding Moses to Joseph"s bones: -She led him to the very spot where Joseph"s bones lay. As soon as he came near them, he knew them to be what he was seeking, by the fragrance they exhaled and spread around." Other stories give Jochebed renewed youth, a happy remarriage to her husband, and a painless birthing of Moses, and she is said to have entered the Promised Land with Joshua at the age of 250 (Gen.Rab.94:9; Sota 12b).

Of all these women, Miriam provokes the most elaborate midrashic stories. Miriam is said to have prophesied the birth of Moses and to have foretold his brilliant career as redeemer of Israel (Exo.Rab.1:13; Sota 12b). At the end of her life, Miriam is described as dying by the kiss of God, and her corpse is "not exposed to ravage, both signs of her favor with God (Mo"ed Katan 28a). The rabbis" identification of Miriam with Puah has several interesting consequences. They relate the name Puah to hof'ah, "lift up, and explain that this shows that on a number of occasions Miriam lifted her face in defiance. As a result of this etymology, the rabbis involve themselves in an extensive and quite feminist tale about Miriam and her father.

[She was called Puah] because she dared to reprove her father, Amram, who was at that time the head of the Sanhedrin, and when Pharaoh decreed that -if it be a son, then ye shall kill him," Amram said it was useless for the Israelites to have children. Further he ceased to have sexual relations with his wife Jochebed and even divorced his wife, though she was already three months pregnant. Whereupon all the Israelites arose and divorced their wives. Then said his daughter to him: -Your decree is more severe than that of Pharaoh; for Pharaoh decreed only concerning the male children, and you decree upon males and females alike. Besides, Pharaoh being wicked, there is some doubt whether his decree will be fulfilled or not, but you are righteous and your decree will be fulfilled." So he took his wife back and was followed by all the Israelites, who also took their wives back (Exo.Rab. 1:13-14).

Their identification of Miriam with Puah also leads the rabbis into another difficulty. God promised to give the midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh households of their own (Exod. 1:21), but the Bible does not mention that Miriam has a husband or children. Thus, although Miriam is introduced simply as the sister of Aaron and Moses, rabbinic sources identify her with Azubah (1 Chron. 2:18) and so supply her with a husband, Caleb, a son, Hur, and an illustrious great-grandson, Bezalael, who as the architect of the Sanctuary, is said to have inherited the wisdom of his great-grandmother (Exo.Rab.1:16-17).

Like Miriam, the daughter of Pharaoh is praised by the rabbis for her defiance. In explicating Exodus 2:5, the Midrash says that by rescuing Moses she challenged her father, even though he had absolute power over her. The rabbis go on to reward the daughter of Pharaoh for her saving of Moses by identifying Pharaoh"s daughter with the Bithiah who is mentioned in 1 Chronicles 4:18. They explain that the name Bithiah shows that she was a daughter of God: "The holy One, blessed be He, said to Bithiah the daughter of Pharaoh: -Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son; you, too, though you are not My daughter, yet I will call My daughter (Lev.Rab..1:3)."

Feminist analysis of the Midrash has taught us that under certain circumstances rabbis would construct narratives that recognize virtue and heroism in women. In commenting on the Exodus experience, the rabbis present us with a rich galaxy of exemplary woman, an entire generation of wise women. The midrashic stories about Serah bat Asher are the most astonishing, both in content and presentation. No other biblical woman sparks an equivalent interest in the rabbis. From three appearances of her name in the Scriptures, they fashion a multifaceted woman who is without parallel in Jewish literature. But Serah is not the only woman of the Exodus who is made exceptional in the Midrash. We have touched on the rabbinic legends about Miriam, Jochebed, Zipporah, the midwives, and Pharaoh"s daughter, but the Talmud also claims heroism for every woman in the days of Exodus, saying that -as the reward for the righteous women who lived in that generation [Exodus] were the Israelites delivered from Egypt (Sota 11b)." For women of our time, the legends of these women are a gift to reclaim.