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The Women at the Well of Water: The Transformation of the Secondary Feminine Figures in the Palestinian Targums

Mod.: Prof. R.P. Craig MORRISON

     The five women who appear at a ‘well of water’: Hagar, Rebecca, Rachel, Miriam, and Zipporah are presented in the Bible as secondary figures. Recently they have become the focus of some discussion among scholars of the Pentateuch. Since the biblical text does not give them much attention, ambiguities in their roles in salvation history leave them rather as debatable characters.
   The Palestinian Targums rewrote their characterizations presenting them in a more positive light. This thesis examines some of the exegetical traditions about these feminine characters that were circulating in early Judaism and shows how these ambiguous characters were handled by the meturgemanim in the Palestinian Targums.
   The material in this dissertation is organized in seven chapters. The first chapter provides the methodological basis for further analysis. The chapters that follow deal with the differences in the presentation of the five women: how they are characterized in the Hebrew Text and then in the Palestinian Targums.
   The second chapter is dedicated for the study of the characterization of Hagar, the first woman in the Bible to appear at a ‘well of water.’ By filling the gaps, the meturgemanim transformed her ambiguous biblical portrayal, giving her a new identity and fuller characterization. She becomes a recipient of revelation, a woman of prayer, rehabilitated as Abraham’s wife and as a caring mother. The Targums report her conversion from idolatry.
   Rebecca is the focus of the third chapter. Her complicated characterization in the Bible was modified by the meturgemanim in order to depict her as the new Sarah, a self-restrained, selfless, and chaste woman, an example of moral purity and virginity. The targumic Rebecca is no longer perceived as a deceitful mother but a devoted cooperator with God’s design to ensure the continuation of the Abrahamic dynasty.
   The third feminine figure who appears at a ‘well of water’ is Rachel, whose role in the scheme of her father who switched the brides before the wedding night is unclear in the Hebrew Text. Also morally questionable is Rachel’s theft of her father’s teraphim. Through the targumists’ hand, the third matriarch develops from a passive character into a compassionate woman more concerned with Laban’s, Jacob’s and Leah’s good than her own.
   In the fifth chapter Miriam’s characterization is addressed. The Targums enhanced Miriam’s participation in the story of Israel’s liberation from Egypt by identifying her with one of the midwives and expanding her song of praise after the sea-crossing. The meturgemanim drew out her concern for the marital unity between Moses and his wife. Like the prominent figures of Israel, she acquires ‘merit’ for herself and for Israel.
   Zipporah, the last feminine character to appear at a ‘well of water,’ is the protagonist of the sixth chapter. Her fragmentary depiction does not seem to have been satisfactory for the meturgemanim who modified her portrait. The targumic Zipporah courageously saved Moses’ life twice and gave the name to their firstborn son, Gershom. She also remained Moses’ only wife.
   In the seventh chapter the interpretative techniques employed by the meturgemanim that allowed the positive depiction of the feminine figures to emerge are reviewed and categorized. They include: gap-filling; creating allusions; employing a ‘foil;’ introducing particular theological terms; rewriting the episodes of morally questionable acts; adding or omitting some words; changing grammatical forms; and changing a character’s opening words.

   The close examination of each of the women presented in this thesis allow for a deeper appreciation of how early Jewish interpreters enriched the characterizations of these feminine figures and enhanced their roles in salvation history.