Behind the Name: Symbolic Roots of the Matriarchs in the Old Testament

by james christensen

Article by Sarah Burnt-Stone ~

Emotions and egos run high when it comes to meanings attributed to the text of the Old Testament. Due to religious beliefs, many refuse to delve deeper into the meaning of the words beyond the Old Testament’s  translation to english during the production of the King James Bible. While there has been a long tradition of scholars who have dedicated their lives to shedding light on this text, an incredibly small portion of these are female. This has been the case throughout the Old Testament’s 5000-plus year history.

As with any field that retains a history of single-gender domination, blindspots in the dissemination of information are slowly being revealed as women are given a chance to communicate their interpretations and findings. Many female scholars have become dedicated to unearthing the stories of women in the Old Testament and have worked very hard to begin to share the silenced lives of the women who existed in these times.

As we begin to have greater knowledge of the manner in which written language evolved from symbolism (which was the way of the Goddess Cultures prior to the creation of the Old Testament) it becomes especially necessary to re-interpret this text and what we understand as its statements.

One such example is the how the names of the Matriarchs found in the Old testament are in fact rooted in symbolism which describe how the tribal roles of women shifted when the Abrahamic Religions took power.

We must take into account that the text of the Old Testament was written during the change from symbolism to linear language. Thus it is appropriate to view the documentation of these women’s “names” as symbolic indicators of generational changes which occurred within the Jewish tribe’s attitudes towards gender, power structure and value.

Here is a list of the “names” of the Matriarchs found in the Old Testament and their translations:

Eve – Referred to in the text as Ḥawwāh. This is often translated as “living one” or “source of life” and is connected with the cultural ideal of the “Living Goddess” that was central to pre-patriarchal culture.

Sarah – “a woman with high rank or authority”.

Rebecca – “to secure”, “to snare” or “to bind”.

Leah – from the Akkadian term for “cow”.

Zilpah – “Drooping”

Bilah – “Faltering, Bashful”

Rachel – From a root meaning “to journey as a female sheep that is a good traveler.”

So if we were to list the meaning of these Female Characters in generational order they would be:

Living Goddess
Woman with Authority
Snare, Bind, Secure
Cow
Drooping
Faltering, Bashful
A Good Traveling sheep

This naming process directly correlates with the generational changes that happened as the shift from Goddess-based culture to Patriarchy occurred. Although women became demoted from the role of the Living Goddess they, for a time, still retained a measure of power and authority amongst the tribe and this can be seen in the title of “Sarah”.

As Monotheistic ideals spread, women began to rapidly lose this power and we see further demotion in the generation of “Rebecca”. The mention of binding, tying, or securing is one of the last remaining references to women as spiritual authority. This was a term which can be closely linked with the archetypes and mythos of the Spiritual Huntress and Soul Weaver which were prevalent in Goddess Cultures. Here we see that while the females of the tribe are still allowed to play the role of Medicine Woman, they no longer hold tribal authority.

What follows this period is indicative of the time in which the Patriarchy began gaining cultural strength. The next generation of women are referred to as “Cow” or “Leah” and thus we can see the shift of the role of women as they come to be regarded for mainly domestic, mothering, and breeding purposes. It can also be surmised that this cultural shift took an intensely physical and emotional toll on these women as the character that accompanies “Leah” in the Old Testament is “Zilpah” who is solely described by her “drooping”.

As the stories in the Old testament shifts to the next series of symbolic “names” we can see the the introduction of Child-bride practices (which began to occur in the early era of the Patriarchy) once the value of women for breeding-only was made culturally normative. One of major indicators of this can be found in the description of “Bilah” as “faltering and bashful” (an apt description of a pre-pubescent girl) which distinctively carries no reference to fertility or any cultural symbol of motherhood.

The child-bride connection can be further traced to “Rachel” or the “good traveling ewe” and is indicative that Child-Bride practices had become common. These practices heavily shifted tribal attitude towards desired female characteristics and this can be seen through cultural value being placed on young women who were characteristically docile, easily directed and could survive traveling.

As we begin to regain the pieces of the lost history of women, I am certain more of these insights will be unearthed. It is my hope that this will result in a more balanced, healthy view of documents such as the Old Testament and will aid in the shift towards the healing of the feminine, which has long been abused.

Artwork by James Christensen

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