“What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”
The ancient rabbis asked this question about Serach, daughter of Asher (and granddaughter of the patriarch Jacob), who is the only woman mentioned by name in any of the Torah’s censuses. Serach is counted in Genesis among the Israelites who went down to Egypt, and then again in Numbersin the count of Israelites entering the Land of Israel. This gives her impressive longevity–living for hundreds of years.
Picking up on these peculiarities, the rabbis tell remarkable tales about Serach. In one legend, Serach is the one who tells her grandfather Jacob that Joseph is alive in Egypt, and Jacob blesses her with eternal life. In others, Serach identifies Moses as the bona fide redeemer of Israel, or identifies the location where Joseph’s bones were interred. A source from the Middle Ages even describes Serach showing up in a medieval house of study to correct the rabbis’ description of the splitting of the sea. She should know. She was there.
And so Serach becomes the archetypal “wise old woman” who carries insights and secrets from one generation to the next–and a powerful symbol for feminists reading the Torah and midrash today.