We don't usually refer to nannies, housekeepers, and homecare attendants as “servants” these days. But whatever they are called, most domestic employees are still excluded from basic federal labor law protections.
What if our domestic workers were also our mothers?
Twenty-five years ago, I was living in Jerusalem and reading the Jewish Bible in its original Hebrew for the first time in my life. As I studied the Genesis narratives, I began to notice the silent, ongoing presence of Bilhah and Zilpah — tribal ancestors who were somehow absent from “Who knows four?” of my childhood. When I asked why no one was talking about them, I was told that Bilhah and Zilpah didn’t count as mothers of our people because their children belonged to Rachel and Leah. Yet the ancient texts themselves told a very different story.
" 'Six covered wagons' [Numbers 7:3] correspond to six days of creation; six correspond to six sets of Mishnah; six correspond to the six matriarchs. And these are they: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, Bilhah, Zilpah."
— Ancient rabbinic teachings between 300-1200 CE
I discovered that modern Jewish translations of Genesis replace the Hebrew word for “wife” with the English word “concubine” when labeling these servant-class women. Even well-meaning feminists anachronize Bilhah and Zilpah as “surrogates.” A few scholars had taken up their cause in the 1990's, and I thought that the necessary tikkun (repair) was imminent. Yet here we are in 2018, and the same unexamined assumptions have persisted in otherwise egalitarian communities.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” and the #MeToo movement have reinspired a search for archetypes of women’s empowerment. This is a crucial time to lift up the legacies of ancient mothers long hidden from popular consciousness, and their lessons for today’s female leadership.
WAYS OF PEACE is finalizing the publication of “Who Knows Four? I Know Six! — Our Servant-Class Matriarchs and Social Justice Today.” This unique sourcebook will renew ancient legacies to inspire progress beyond protest — and foster a deeper listening to the silences we often take for granted.
“Who Knows Four? I Know Six!” reclaims our forgotten foremothers through biblical passages (from Genesis to Chronicles), classical and medieval commentaries, folklore, findings of contemporary scholars (including archaeological discoveries), popular commentaries and contemporary fiction. Presented for both personal learning and partner study, each section of “Who Knows Four? I Know Six!” features a summarizing essay that integrates key issues raised by the various sources, as well as guiding questions for discussion.