Sarah, Rebecca and Bathsheba Ensure Their Sons’ Successions
The motif of a mother advocating on behalf of her son to ensure that he receives his father’s legacy and inheritance is found in three biblical stories.
Sarah—After Isaac is weaned, Sarah urges Abraham to dismiss the son of his slave-woman (or concubine) Hagar, so only her son would inherit:
בראשׁית כא:י וַתֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָהָם גָּרֵשׁ הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת בְּנָהּ כִּי לֹא יִירַשׁ בֶּן הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת עִם בְּנִי עִם יִצְחָק.
Gen 21:10 She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
Rebecca—When Rebecca overhears Isaac’s plan to bless their elder son, Esau, as his heir (Gen 27:5–7), she outlines a plan for Jacob, whom she prefers, to disguise himself as Esau (vv. 14–16) and take the blessing for himself:
בראשׁית כז:ט לֶךְ נָא אֶל הַצֹּאן וְקַח לִי מִשָּׁם שְׁנֵי גְּדָיֵי עִזִּים טֹבִים וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אֹתָם מַטְעַמִּים לְאָבִיךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר אָהֵב. כז:י וְהֵבֵאתָ לְאָבִיךָ וְאָכָל בַּעֲבֻר אֲשֶׁר יְבָרֶכְךָ לִפְנֵי מוֹתוֹ.
Gen 27:9 “Go to the flock and fetch me two choice kids, and I will make of them a dish for your father, such as he likes. 27:10 Then take it to your father to eat, in order that he may bless you before he dies.”
Bathsheba—When David is on his deathbed, Adonijah, the son of Haggith, calls together important officials and princes, and proclaims himself to be David’s heir (1 Kgs 1:5–10). At the urging of the prophet, Nathan (vv. 11–13), Bathsheba approaches David to advocate for her son:
מלכים א א:יז וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ אֲדֹנִי אַתָּה נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ בַּי־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לַאֲמָתֶךָ כִּי שְׁלֹמֹה בְנֵךְ יִמְלֹךְ אַחֲרָי וְהוּא יֵשֵׁב עַל כִּסְאִי.
1 Kgs 1:17 She said to him, “My lord, you yourself swore to your maidservant by YHWH your God: ‘Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit upon my throne.’”
Thus, these stories not only share a motif, but display what David Carr calls “a loud echo,” i.e., a likely marker of intertextual dependence. Whether one of these stories is earliest, and others are copying it, or whether the authors are from the same scribal school (or even whether any share the same author) is less clear.
Shared Literary Markers
Several thematic markers and literary features serve as further connective tissue, binding the stories together.
1. Husband’s Old Age
Each of these narratives opens with a description of the advanced age of the husband, foreshadowing the need to move quickly to determine the heir. This theme is explicit in the story of Rebecca’s intervention for Jacob, which opens with וַיְהִי כִּי זָקֵן יִצְחָק “and when Isaac became old.”
Indeed, Isaac tells Esau explicitly that he fears he will soon die:
בראשית כז:ב וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה נָא זָקַנְתִּי לֹא יָדַעְתִּי יוֹם מוֹתִי.
Gen 27:2 And he said, “I am old now, and I do not know how soon I may die.
Isaac then tells him to prepare a meal and bring it to him, so he can get into the proper mood:
כז:ד ...בַּעֲבוּר תְּבָרֶכְךָ נַפְשִׁי בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת.
27:4 …so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die.”
The theme is equally clear in the David story, which opens with
מלכים א א:א וְהַמֶּלֶךְ דָּוִד זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַיְכַסֻּהוּ בַּבְּגָדִים וְלֹא יִחַם לוֹ.
1 Kgs 1:1 King David was now old, advanced in years; and though they covered him with bedclothes, he never felt warm.
His officials even find him a young, beautiful virgin to warm him up in his bed, but David is apparently too old to consummate with her (vv. 2–4). This leads naturally to the attempt of Adonijah to make himself king, and the consequent need of Bathsheba to get involved on behalf of Solomon. This scene also opens by emphasizing David’s age:
מלכים א א:טו וַתָּבֹא בַת־שֶׁבֶע אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ הַחַדְרָה וְהַמֶּלֶךְ זָקֵן מְאֹד...
1 Kgs 1:15 So Bathsheba went to the king in his chamber; the king was very old…
In the Abraham story, Sarah emphasizes Abraham’s age, when reflecting on the miraculous birth of Isaac:
בראשׁית כא:ז וַתֹּאמֶר מִי מִלֵּל לְאַבְרָהָם הֵינִיקָה בָנִים שָׂרָה כִּי יָלַדְתִּי בֵן לִזְקֻנָיו.
Gen 21:7 And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children! Yet I have borne a son in his old age.”
Although this story does not say anything about Abraham’s immanent death—marking a difference between it and the other two—inheritance is certainly on Sarah’s mind.
2. Seizing the Opportunity Offered by a Weakness
The Rebecca story begins with Isaac’s eyes becoming “too dim to see” (וַתִּכְהֶיןָ עֵינָיו מֵרְאֹת, v. 1). Rebecca seizes the opportunity offered her by Isaac’s disability to trick him into blessing Jacob instead of Esau:
בראשׁית כז:טו וַתִּקַּח רִבְקָה אֶת בִּגְדֵי עֵשָׂו בְּנָהּ הַגָּדֹל הַחֲמֻדֹת אֲשֶׁר אִתָּהּ בַּבָּיִת וַתַּלְבֵּשׁ אֶת יַעֲקֹב בְּנָהּ הַקָּטָן. כז:טז וְאֵת עֹרֹת גְּדָיֵי הָעִזִּים הִלְבִּישָׁה עַל יָדָיו וְעַל חֶלְקַת צַוָּארָיו.
Gen 27:15 Rebecca then took the best clothes of her older son Esau, which were there in the house, and had her younger son Jacob put them on; 27:16 and she covered his hands and the hairless part of his neck with the skins of the kids.
Isaac expresses suspicion about the identity of his son, but the hairy hands (v. 23) and the smell of Esau’s clothing (v. 27) reassure him, and he gives Jacob the blessing intended for Esau (vv. 28–29).
In 1 Kings 1, Bathsheba reminds David of a promise:
מלכים א א:יז וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ אֲדֹנִי אַתָּה נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ בַּיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לַאֲמָתֶךָ כִּי שְׁלֹמֹה בְנֵךְ יִמְלֹךְ אַחֲרָי וְהוּא יֵשֵׁב עַל כִּסְאִי.
1 Kgs 1:17 She said to him, “My lord, you yourself swore to your maidservant by YHWH your God: ‘Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit upon my throne.’…”
As Carl Ehrlich notes in his “Bathsheba the Kingmaker” (TheTorah 2020), it is uncertain David ever actually made such a promise, and this reminder may have simply been invented by Bathsheba who seizes the opportunity offered her by David’s senescence.
Here too the Sarah and Abraham story is an outlier: it does not refer to Abraham’s feebleness, other than, perhaps, alluding to the difficulty he has getting Sarah pregnant. However, Sarah does make use of the weak position of her son’s rival, referring to him only as בֶּן הָאָמָה “the son of the slavewoman.”
3. The Wife Knows Things the Husband Does Not
After the party for Isaac’s weaning, Sarah sees a problem with Abraham’s other son:
בראשׁית כא:ט וַתֵּרֶא שָׂרָה אֶת בֶּן הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לְאַבְרָהָם מְצַחֵק.
Gen 21:9 Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham metzacheq (laughing/playing/taunting).
It is not clear what Sarah saw that bothered her, but it is something only she notices.
In 1 Kings 1 Bathsheba knows about Adonijah making himself king, yet David does not:
מלכים א א:יח וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה אֲדֹנִיָּה מָלָךְ וְעַתָּה אֲדֹנִי הַמֶּלֶךְ לֹא יָדָעְתָּ.
1 Kgs 1:18 “Yet now Adonijah has become king, and you, my lord the king, know nothing about it.”
In this case, David’s lack of knowledge is emphasized when Nathan the prophet comes in immediately after Bathsheba to ask if David made Adonijah king:
מלכים א א:כד וַיֹּאמֶר נָתָן אֲדֹנִי הַמֶּלֶךְ אַתָּה אָמַרְתָּ אֲדֹנִיָּהוּ יִמְלֹךְ אַחֲרָי וְהוּא יֵשֵׁב עַל כִּסְאִי.
1 Kgs 1:24 Nathan said, “O lord king, did you say, ‘Adonijah shall succeed me as king and he shall sit upon my throne.’…”
In the Rebecca story, we are not told at the beginning of the story about something that she sees in Esau that she doesn’t like; we are merely told that Isaac prefers Esau while Rebecca prefers Jacob. And yet, later in the story, it will be Rebecca, not Isaac, who learns that Esau wishes to murder Jacob:
בראשית כז:מא ... וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו בְּלִבּוֹ יִקְרְבוּ יְמֵי אֵבֶל אָבִי וְאַהַרְגָה אֶת יַעֲקֹב אָחִי. כז:מב וַיֻּגַּד לְרִבְקָה אֶת דִּבְרֵי עֵשָׂו בְּנָהּ הַגָּדֹל וַתִּשְׁלַח וַתִּקְרָא לְיַעֲקֹב בְּנָהּ הַקָּטָן וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו הִנֵּה עֵשָׂו אָחִיךָ מִתְנַחֵם לְךָ לְהָרְגֶךָ.
Gen 27:41 … Esau said to himself, “Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.” 27:42 The words of her older son Esau were reported to Rebecca, and she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you.”
Here too we find the theme of the wife knowing what the husband does not, but it comes in a different part of the story.
4. Woman Acts in Agreement with YHWH’s Will
After Sarah insists that Hagar and her son be expelled, Abraham is distraught, but God tells Abraham to respect her wishes:
בראשׁית כא:יב וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל אַבְרָהָם אַל יֵרַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ עַל הַנַּעַר וְעַל אֲמָתֶךָ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ כִּי בְיִצְחָק יִקָּרֵא לְךָ זָרַע.
Gen 21:12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you.”
The same phrase used by God here, שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ “listen to her [Sarah’s] voice,” appears three times in Genesis 27 (vv. 8, 13, 43) spoken by Rebecca, שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי “listen to my voice,” whenever she tells her son Jacob what to do. In the biblical text, where female characters remain largely silent, the favoring of the woman’s voice in these narratives stands out as a shared notable marker.
Rebecca too acts in line with YHWH’s will. When Rebecca is pregnant, YHWH tells her about the relative fate of her two sons:
בראשית כה:כג וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה לָהּ שְׁנֵי (גיים) [גוֹיִם] בְּבִטְנֵךְ וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר.
Gen 25:23 YHWH said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body. One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.”
The revelation of the divine plan to a matriarch instead of a patriarch is unique to this story, implying that from the beginning, Rebecca was the one trusted to ensure that the proper son, Jacob, inherits.
Although God does not explicitly say Solomon must inherit the throne, Bathsheba acts in concert with Nathan the prophet, whose preference for Solomon over Adonijah could be understood as a reflection of YHWH’s will. Moreover, the book of Samuel earlier tells of YHWH’s love of Solomon when he was born:
שמואל ב יב:כד וַיְנַחֵם דָּוִד אֵת בַּת שֶׁבַע אִשְׁתּוֹ וַיָּבֹא אֵלֶיהָ וַיִּשְׁכַּב עִמָּהּ וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן (ויקרא) [וַתִּקְרָא] אֶת שְׁמוֹ שְׁלֹמֹה וַי־הוָה אֲהֵבוֹ. יב:כה וַיִּשְׁלַח בְּיַד נָתָן הַנָּבִיא וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ יְדִידְיָהּ בַּעֲבוּר יְ־הוָה.
2 Sam 12:24 David consoled his wife Bathsheba; he went to her and lay with her. She bore a son and (he) [she] named him Solomon. YHWH favored him, 12:25 and He sent a message through the prophet Nathan; and he was named Jedidiah (=“Friend of YHWH”) at the instance of YHWH.
This implies that even if Bathsheba did not know it, she was working in concert with the divine plan.
5. Husband Reiterates/Confirms His Wife’s Decision
After Bathsheba and then Nathan present their grievances, David calls Bathsheba into his chambers again, and in granting her request, swears that he will do it immediately:
מלכים א א:ל כִּי כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לָךְ בַּי־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר כִּי שְׁלֹמֹה בְנֵךְ יִמְלֹךְ אַחֲרַי וְהוּא יֵשֵׁב עַל כִּסְאִי תַּחְתָּי כִּי כֵּן אֶעֱשֶׂה הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
1 Kgs 1:30 “The oath I swore to you by YHWH, the God of Israel, that your son Solomon should succeed me as king and that he should sit upon my throne in my stead, I will fulfill this very day.”
Abraham also acquiesces, though silently:
בראשית כא:יד וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר וַיִּקַּח לֶחֶם וְחֵמַת מַיִם וַיִּתֵּן אֶל הָגָר שָׂם עַל שִׁכְמָהּ וְאֶת הַיֶּלֶד וַיְשַׁלְּחֶהָ...
Gen 21:14 Early next morning Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child, and sent her away…
In the Rebecca story, Isaac’s acquiescence is a fait accompli; he realizes too late that he was tricked, but he accepts that it is Jacob who is blessed.
בראשית כז:לג וַיֶּחֱרַד יִצְחָק חֲרָדָה גְּדֹלָה עַד מְאֹד וַיֹּאמֶר מִי אֵפוֹא הוּא הַצָּד צַיִד וַיָּבֵא לִי וָאֹכַל מִכֹּל בְּטֶרֶם תָּבוֹא וָאֲבָרֲכֵהוּ גַּם בָּרוּךְ יִהְיֶה.
Gen 27:33 Isaac was seized with very violent trembling. “Who was it then,” he demanded, “that hunted game and brought it to me? Moreover, I ate of it before you came, and I blessed him; now he must remain blessed!”
Moreover, later in the story, when Rebecca insists that Jacob go to her brother’s house, Isaac sends him off (28:1–5).
The Mother Heroine Motif
In Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis, Tammi J. Schneider discusses the trope of mothers in Genesis who helped determine the path of the covenant. The choice of Isaac and Jacob lead to the choice of Jacob’s sons as the people of Israel, YHWH’s covenantal people. The appearance of this trope in the Bathsheba story as well implies that the choice of Solomon was predestined by God, who later (1 Kgs 3:5–14) appears to Solomon in a dream, adjuring him to keep the divine commandments, and granting him wisdom greater than any person before or after him. In all these cases, it is the mother and not the father who ensures that the legacy get passed down to the proper son.
When these narratives are examined together, they present a common motif within the Hebrew Bible of the heroine playing a crucial role in each of these instances involving a succession narrative of covenant or royal line. The female character can hear, remember, or intuit God’s will in a way that advances the narrative of the Hebrew Bible. The male “heroes” of the story, in contrast, are blind—literally or figuratively—to what is going on around them as well as to YHWH’s ultimate intentions.
The heroines of these accounts make active decisions in the arc of each story, whose consequences reverberate throughout subsequent narratives. All three texts point to the crucial role of the female voices which must be heard and valued. These biblical accounts force the reader to see the world through the eyes of the female protagonist, who take resolute action, saving their husbands from error, and thereby exercise tremendous power to determine the future.
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Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz is the Rabbi of Adat Shalom, in Los Angeles, California. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television, received his rabbinical ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, and is now pursuing his Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate University in Religion with a concentration in Critical Comparative Scriptures. Merging his two passions of Torah and filmmaking, Lebovitz has produced two documentary films: "Roadmap Genesis" (2015) and “Roadmap Jerusalem” (2018).
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