Sepphoris Mosaic

Sarah, mother of the Jews

Inventing one tale inside another

The Hebrew Bible features tales about the Jewish patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land. Archaeological evidence does not support these stories. The Hebrew Bible offers an account of history. You might find these stories hard to believe, but you usually do not think of how the Hebrew Bible gradually emerged in a process that took over a thousand years. In other words, they didn’t write the Book of Genesis first. They wrote Genesis a thousand years after it supposedly transpired. But that is how historians look at the Hebrew Bible.

And so, we can be nearly sure Genesis never happened like that. The same goes for the other books that account for the early history of the Jewish people. The historical account begins with the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. These kingdoms did exist. It does not mean the Bible accurately describes what happened, but many of the names and events mentioned relate to history. It also does not mean that the account in the Bible from before that time is entirely fictional. There only is little or no evidence to substantiate it.

The kingdom of David is in the twilight zone between myth and history. David probably was king, perhaps of Judah alone, so there may be some truth to the account of his reign. Before that, there was tribal leadership. The Book of Judges is about this era. So can possible avatars of God appear in stories that never happened? Why not? You can write a story about someone making up a story you make up yourself. And indeed, strong women, who might be avatars of God, appear in the Hebrew Bible.

Hiding it behind human motivations

So how can these strong women enter these stories? After all, many of these stories might be fiction. The explanation does not require God. Professor Jacob Wright argues that the Jews were too weak to hold on to territory. They had to survive as a minority in the lands of others. Military adventurism could have been fatal. The biblical authors, therefore, may have reinvented the hero. Rather than warriors, biblical heroes were often virtuous people like Boaz1 and people with weaknesses like David. That makes some of these stories appear so realistic that they might have happened.

The biblical authors also refashioned the role of men and women. Men played a significant role in family life. By depicting the contributions of women to military victory, they undermined male authority in war. In several cases, women achieved triumph on the battlefield and decided the fate of men.1

For instance, Jacob defrauded Esau of his birthright by deceiving his father, Isaac. Only it was his mother, Rebecca, who planned it. Esther saved the Jewish people from a plot in the Persian court. The Hebrew Bible does not depict events indicating that Rebecca or Esther might be God. In the Hebrew Bible, Jewish history begins with Sarah and Abraham. There was something special about Sarah.

Sarah and Abraham

The Hebrew Bible claims that Sarah became pregnant at the age of ninety. God wanted Her to become the mother of the Jews. There is no historical evidence that Sarah and Abraham have lived, but Sarah is the mythical mother of the Jews. You are born a Jew when your mother is one. And for that reason, the Jews are not primarily children of Abraham but children of Sarah in the way Christians are children of God.

Abraham was not a hero and feared for his life. So when the Egyptians asked if Sarah was his wife, he said Sarah was his sister (Genesis 12:11-18). Egypt faced plagues after the Pharaoh made Sarah his wife (Genesis 12:17). Then Abraham did the same in Abimelech’s kingdom (Genesis 20:2). King Abimelech then received threats from God when he planned to marry Sarah (Genesis 20:3).

Abraham’s actions fit the supposed aim of the authors of the Hebrew Bible, which was to undermine male authority. God’s will coincided with the wishes of Sarah in important family matters. God summoned Hagar to return to her mistress Sarah (Genesis 16:9). God told Abraham to send Hagar away when Sarah wanted this (Genesis 21:12). Sarah’s will thus was God’s will. Sarah might have been God if it had happened.

Joseph and Asenath

Joseph was a handsome man. When he was the Viceroy of Egypt, he married Asenath, the daughter of an Egyptian high priest. The Hebrew Bible tells us very little about Her, but there is a story about their marriage dating from the first century BC. Perhaps it is written to explain how Joseph came to marry a pagan priestess. According to this tale, Asenath was proud and despised men, but She became impressed by Joseph’s looks.

Joseph first did not want to marry Her because She bowed before idols and did not worship the God of the Jews. Asenath showed repentance, and an angel from heaven came to Her chamber to bless the marriage. When She told Joseph of the angel, he changed his mind and decided to marry Her. Asenath’s repentance and change of faith appear insincere and the result of Her desire to marry Joseph. Nevertheless, God approved the marriage.

The Quran dedicates an entire chapter of 111 verses to Joseph. It expands on his good looks. The Qural also tells about the desire women had for him. Hence, his appearance was worth mentioning. The highly desired prize ended up in the arms of Asenath. She might have been God if it had happened. The story of Asenath and Joseph likely is fiction.

Zipporah and Moses

Moses’ wife, Tzipora, saved his life by circumcising her son and touching Moses’ feet with the foreskin, saying he was her bridegroom of blood (Exodus 4:24-26). Tzipora saving Moses’ life in this way fits the agenda of the authors of the Hebrew Bible, which was to undermine male authority. Tzipora knew what God was about to do. And so, Tzipora might have been God if this had happened.

Bathsheba and David

Bathsheba broke David and his kingdom. She was bathing on a rooftop near the royal palace, where he could see her naked. She may have planned to seduce him. David then ordered Bathsheba to come to his place. She became pregnant after sleeping with him. David then commanded Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, to go home, hoping he would sleep with his wife so the scandal would go unnoticed. Uriah did not comply. David then asked his general to place Uriah on the frontline of the battle so that he would die. After Uriah died, David married Bathsheba.

Bathsheba turned out to be a fate changer. The prophet Natan foretold David that his act cursed his house. David’s eldest son Amnon was murdered by his half-brother Absalom after he had raped Absalom’s sister Tamar. Later Absalom was killed after he had declared himself king and raised a revolt against David. That eliminated two potential heirs to the throne. In David’s old age, Bathsheba secured the succession to the throne of Her son Solomon. The marriage was a grave sin, but God nevertheless loved Bathsheba’s son Solomon who was to become king. Bathsheba could have been God.

David probably is a historical figure, so there could be some truth to the story, and Bathsheba may have lived. The story fits the agenda of the authors of the Hebrew Bible. Israel’s greatest king, David, was not so great, and a woman determined his destiny. The name Bathsheba consists of two parts, Bath and Sheba. Bathsheba seduced David by bathing naked on a rooftop near the palace. The Queen of Sheba later visited Solomon. That is a bit odd. Hence, the Queen of Sheba may also have been God. And so, the pun may be intended.

Deborah, the founder of the Jewish nation

So where did the Hebrew Bible begin? The Jewish nation began to form after Egypt retreated from Canaan around 1150 BC and left a power vacuum. It corresponds with the tribal era of the judges in the Bible. The oldest part of the Hebrew Bible probably is the Song of Deborah (Judges 5). It may date from that time. Deborah was a tribal leader during this age. She took part in a battle (Judges 4:8-9). It further tells us that Deborah was the fourth judge, but that may not be correct. After all, the Song of Deborah probably is the oldest part of the Hebrew Bible. The early Jewish tribespeople could have composed the song to celebrate victory and their heroine, Deborah.

It is here where the history of the Jews as Yahweh’s people might have started. The remainder of the Book of Judges and the Hebrew Bible are from a later date. Deborah may well have been a historical figure and the founder of the Jewish nation. She sent for Barak, the commander of the troops, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.'” (Judges 4:6-7) It was Deborah who commanded Barak. And so Deborah might have been the God of Israel.

Latest revision: 11 March 2023

Featured image: Sepphoris Mosaic. [copyright info]

1. Wright, Jacob L. (2014). The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future. Coursera.

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