Serah bat Asher is the keeper of the secret of redemption.
Yes, it seems like we should be more likely to have heard of her if that is so. That is because, though she is mentioned three times in the Bible, it is the rabbinic midrash, later stories about biblical characters that attempt to flesh out the many unexplained gaps in the text, that puts her in the forefront of enabling the Jews to leave Egypt. And later, to save lives and unify the kingdom.
But first, who she is: Serah bat Asher is the daughter of Asher named in the genealogy of Genesis 46:17, one of the few women named. Because she is then mentioned in Numbers 26:46 as having been alive at the time of the census of those readying to enter the Promised Land, the rabbis are able to “Transform Serah into the longest-lived individual in Midrashic literature” in the words of midrash scholar Judith Baskin in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. The same character, named in two different eras, enables the rabbinic imagination to create stories to fill in the blanks.
One of the stories is that because of her long life, she is the only one who heard from her grandfather Jacob what the secret words of redemption are.
In Exodus Rabbah 5:13, the sages teach that the secret she knows, are the words “I will surely visit you”( the root word p-k-d) that Joseph told the people in Genesis(50: 24-25).
Now, in Exodus when Moses says those same words, “I will surely visit”(Exodus 3: 16), the continuity from that long ago promise is assured; this is the secret sign that the Redeemer will display assuring the people redemption is nigh.
The notion that though the Israelites are enslaved, there is a God who cares about them and will help them enables the Israelites to make the almost imperceptible change, to slide from an enslaved people to a free one, by the process of crying out. ( Exodus 2:23). The Israelites had been too exhausted from their hard labor to even have that ability to protest; once the dissent begins, they are helped by the Divine.
Recent research on the science of hope explains it similarly. A research scientist on positive psychology, Jacqueline Mattis, notes that hopeful people “believe in their agency – that is, their capacity to achieve the outcomes.”
The sense that God is with them gives them hope. The next time the verb “to visit” is used it is to say that the “people had faith when they saw that the Lord had taken note (p-k-d) of the Israelites.”(Exodus 4:31)
Beyond being able to ascertain that the words Moses was uttering were the correct ones to lead the people out of Egypt, Serah was the one to inform Jacob that his son Joseph, missing and presumed dead for 20 years, still lives ( Midrash HaGadol and Sefer Hayashar to Genesis 46:8). She is also the one to find the casket of Joseph by instructing Moses that it was placed in the Nile to give it a blessing, according to the Talmud(Sotah 13a).
But the story that packs the most potent meaning for our moment is the one in which Serah is the wise woman who saves the city of Avel Bet-Maacah from being utterly destroyed in a siege after a man with an illegitimate and unfounded claim to the throne of David flees after a coup attempt.
The story unfolds in 2 Samuel 20 as there are threats of insurrection and division between the men of Israel and the men of Judah. The leader of the Israelites, Sheba the son of Bichri, takes his Israelite troops and flees. David realizes that this threat will be worse than when his own son Absalom attempted to proclaim himself king and tells his advisers this (2 Samuel 20:6).
David’s advisors chase after Sheba and his troops. They stab the man who had been in charge of Absalom’s army (2 Samuel 20: 10) and walk past the corpse once it has been moved from the road – no one ever said David was a pacifist. The troops of David arrive at the town Avel house of Maacah whose name means “mourning of the house of Maacah” (who is the mother of Absalom in 2 Samuel 3: 3) to make things as clear as possible about the cause of this rebellion, that Sheba was continuing what Absalom had started, establishing himself as a king without a mandate.
How is the siege solved and the destruction that the army is readying to visit on the entire town deflected? By the intervention of a wise woman, identified by the rabbis as none other than Serah, the daughter of Asher, our long-lived heroine. This woman ( II Sam 20:16) asked to bargain with Yoav, the general appointed by David to deal with the rebels. She asks whether he would save the city rather than destroy it if she handed over the insurrectionist, Sheva ben Bichri.
Yoav assents, the head is handed over, and the entire city saved. In an account of this in Genesis Rabbah 94:9, the wise woman is identified as none other than Serah herself, still living from the time of the Exodus.
The secret of redemption is on the one hand to have hope, to know that a visitation will come from the Divine. On the other hand, a woman exemplifying wisdom agrees to hand over a traitor to save an entire city.
Jeffrey Goldberg, reporting on the events of January 6, the march from the Ellipse where Trump spoke for over an hour to the marchers who stormed the Capitol, described a scene of “mass delusion” writing, “this gathering was not merely an attempted coup but also a mass-delusion event, not something that can be explained adequately through the prism of politics.”
The secret of redemption, of ridding ourselves of the one purveying the delusion is not to literally hand over his head, but to rid a man capable of fomenting destructive riots of any power of any kind. The wise woman, the one who knew the secret of redemption, saved an entire city by handing over the head of one man. Shouldn’t Americans follow her lead?
Beth Kissileff is the co-editor of the anthology Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy, author of the novel Questioning Return and the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Michigan Quarterly Review, New York Times, Tablet, the Forward, 929English and Haaretz, among others. Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.