Article - ( Festivals 5738 ( 1977
THE FOUR MATRIARCHS
Sarah, wife of Abraham, who lived around 1800 BCE, was the first of the four matriarchs. Ten years younger than her husband, she was also his half-sister, for Genesis 20:12 quotes Abraham as saying, "She is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother." They married in Ur of the Chaldees, when they were still called Sarai and Abram, and immediately after the chronicling of the wedding in Genesis 11:29, comes the statement, "Sarai was barren; she had no child."
Abraham loved Sarah deeply. Her intellect and beauty were renowned, for the Bible sings her praises, while the Genesis Apocrypha, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, describes her as being "fairer than all the other women ... yet together with all this grace she possesses abundant wisdom." Her looks remained unfaded, for she was already 65 when Abraham, fulfilling the prophecy, "I will make of thee a great nation," journeyed south to Egypt. So lovely was she that Pharaoh, after being told she was Abraham's sister, took her into his household.
At the age of 75, despairing of ever bearing a child, Sarah offered her Egyptian handmaid, Hagar, to her husband, to become a proxy mother. Hagar soon conceived, and the relationship between mistress and servant became tense and bitter, particularly after the birth of Hagar's son, lshmael.
When lshmael was a youth, God bade the couple to take the names of Abraham (father of a great nation) and Sarah (a princess), and promised them the birth of a son. Sarah laughed at the notion, for "it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women," but a reproving voice was heard, "is anything too hard for the Lord?" (Genesis 18:14). In due course Isaac (Hebrew: Yizhak - he will laugh) was born; at eight days he was circumcised according to the Covenant, and later weaned amid much rejoicing.
Jealousy of Hagar, and fear that lshrnael might take preference over Isaac, led Sarah, contrary to Abraham's wishes, to banish the maid and her child, However, Abraham was comforted when God told him, "Let it not be grievous in thy sight, for in Isaac shall thy seed be called and also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation." (Genesis 21:12-13).
When Sarah was 127 years old, she died in "Kirjath-Arba; the same is Hebron." Here she was buried in the Cave of Machpelah, bought by Abraham from Ephron the Hittite for 400 shekels of silver, to be a family burial place for generations to come.
The drawing on the stamp shows Sarah being visited by the three angels who have come to inform her she is to a bear a son.
Rebekah, second of the matriarchs, was Isaac's wife. After Sarah's death, when Isaac was 40 and still unmarried, Abraham began to seek a suitable match for his son. Not wanting him to marry "a daughter of the Canaanites," Abraham instructed his oldest servant to "go unto my country, to my kindred, and take a wife unto my son Isaac" (Genesis 24:4).
Bearing gifts fit for a prospective bride, the servant traveled north to the city of Haran in Mesopotamia. Here, at the well, he encountered a charming young girl who offered him water, and filled the drinking-trough for his camels. Hoping he had found the right mate for Isaac, the servant asked whether he could lodge in her home. She readily agreed, and it transpired that she was Rebekah, granddaughter of Nahor, Abraham's brother.
Abraham's envoy brought out jewels and fine raiment for Rebekah and for her mother and brother Laban, then asked permission for the girl to return with him. Their answer was, "We will call the damsel and enquire at her mouth . . . and she said, I will go." They set off accompanied by Rebekah's nurse, Deborah, and Isaac "brought her into his mother's tent ... and he loved her" (Genesis 24:67).
For 20 years they had no children, but Isaac refused to take another woman. Then Rebekah conceived, and after a difficult pregnancy, she bore twins - Esau and Jacob - who fought even in the womb. Esau, Isaac's favorite, became a hunter, while Jacob, whom Rebekah loved better, was a farmer. Neither married until they turned 40, when Esau, against his parents' wishes, took two wives of Hittite stock.
When Rebekah died, she was buried in the Cave of Machpelah
Rebekah is seen on the stamp under the gaze of Abraham's servant Eliezer who has come to find Isaac a wife.
Leah, senior wife of Jacob, was the third of the matriarchs who "did build the house of Israel." (Ruth 4:11). First-born of Laban, Abraham's kinsman and Rebekah's brother, she had weak eyes and was far plainer than her sister Rachel, with whom Jacob had fallen in love and to whom he was betrothed.
Unlike Isaac, who sent rich gifts to his future bride, Jacob had little to offer but his skill as a husbandman, and he agreed to work seven years for Rachel's hand. On the wedding night, under cover of darkness, Leah was substituted for her sister. Jacob was incensed at this trick, and tradition has it that, in the morning, Leah reminded him of his impersonation of Esau while Laban stressed the unwritten law that the older daughter must be married before the younger.
Laban also gave him Rachel as a wife in return for another seven years of labor, but throughout her lifetime, Leah felt herself unwanted and unloved. She drew comfort, however, from the six sons she bore Jacob, and even the two - Gad and Asher - born from Jacob's union with her handmaid, Zilpah. Leah later gave birth to a girl, the ill-starred Dinah, who as a young girl sparked off a blood feud between Jacob's sons and the Hivites of Shechem.
Despite the unfair treatment often meted out to her, Leah rarely expressed bitterness. Only when Rachel asked for her mandrakes - a plant said to induce pregnancy - did she reply sharply, "Is it a small matter that thou hast taken my husband? Wouldst thou take away my son's mandrakes also?" Still, Leah agreed to give them to her and Jacob slept with her that night.
Apart from this incident, Leah seems well content. She says, in Genesis 30:13, "Happy I am, for the daughters will call me blessed," and in verse 20, "God hath endowed me with a good dowry," while at the birth of her son, Judah, she declares, "Now will I praise the Lord."
After living in Laban's home for 20 years, Jacob's caravan, with his two wives, two concubines, twelve children, and his flocks and herds, set out to return to Canaan. They left in secret, for he had come into conflict with his father-in-law. Leah, as well as Rachel, took the part of their husband, and after a long and eventful journey, Jacob led his company back to his father Isaac, who was still living in Mamre, "the city of Arba, which is Hebron." Here, in the fullness of time, Leah died and was buried in the family vault at Machpelah.
Leah's six sons are shown with her on the stamp.
Lovely Rachel, Laban's younger daughter, Rebekah's niece and Jacob's beloved wife, was the fourth matriarch. Courted by Jacob, her handsome kinsman from the south, she was cheated by her father's duplicity of what should have been her wedding night, for her sister Leah took her place in the bridal bed. "It must not be so done in our country," said Laban, "to give the younger before the firstborn" (Genesis 29:26).
After fulfilling the nuptial week with Leah, Jacob married Rachel, too, but she was barren. She envied her sister who presented Jacob with six boys and a girl in quick succession, and used every means to become pregnant. To be a proxy mother she gave her husband her maid, Bilhah, who added two sons to the family, and she even experimented with the mandrake, a plant thought to have magical properties.
Eventually Rachel conceived, and Joseph, from whom stemmed the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, was born. Then Jacob asked permission of his father-in-law to return to his own land, having been in Haran 20 years, but Laban was unwilling to let him go for, he said, "I have learned by experience that the Lord bath blessed me for thy sake" (Genesis 30:27).
Jacob and his wives, children, servants and cattle left Laban's homestead secretly, while Rachel, without her husband's knowledge, took her father's household gods. Noticing his loss, Laban set out after them and searched everywhere, but did not find theni, for Rachel had hidden them upon her person.
While progressing southward, Jacob sighted his brother Esau, and fearful of attack, sent him gifts of goats and camels, at the same time arranging his caravan in such a way that much-loved Rachel and her infant rode far back, giving them the best chance of escape if need be. The meeting passed peacefully, and Jacob and his companions went on their way until they reached the outskirts of Bethlehem, or Ephrath.
Here Rachel went into labor with her second child, Benjamin. She died in childbirth, "and was buried on the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave" (Genesis 35:19 20). The traditional Tomb of Rachel, now a small domed structure covering a huge stone cenotaph, can still be seen. Until this day it is a place of pilgrimage for Jews the world over, particularly for barren wives who come to pray and light memorial candles at the sepulcher of the beautiful young mother who met a tragic end.
Rachel is shown on the stamp holding a lamb, with other lambs in background.