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Sing, O Barren One: A Study in Comparative Midrash
Mary Callaway
Publication Date
January 1997


“This 1979 Columbia University doctoral dissertation directed by J. A. Sanders and G. M. Landes investigates biblical stories of barren matriarchs from the perspective of comparative midrash…, i.e., an examination of how a given tradition was adapted in different communities that shared the conviction that the Scripture would teach them how to live as the people of God.
The major ideas in C.’s presentation can be summarized in the following eight points: (1) The motif of the barren matriarchs in Genesis (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel) is a literary device in the service of the Yahwist’s themes of obstacles to the promise and of Yahweh’s integrity in fulfilling the promise. (2) The story of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1–3 adds to the barren matriarch tradition two elements: The woman is a symbol of the whole people, and the child’s birth is a response to prayer and faithfulness. (3) The use of the barren matriarch as a symbol for the people reached its fullest expression in Second Isaiah (see Isa 49:19–21; 51:1–3; 54:1–3): What Yahweh did for Sarah and Rachel, he does now for the disgraced Jerusalem. (4) Third Isaiah, Baruch, and 4 Ezra portray Jerusalem as the mother of the Jews against the background of Jerusalem’s destruction, thus separating Jerusalem (the mother) from the inhabitants (her sons). (5) The idea of spiritual fruitfulness introduced in Wisdom was fully developed by Philo with his notions of barrenness and virginity. (6) Luke used the tradition of the barren woman (Elizabeth) as a midrashic clue with which to signify the meaning of Jesus’ virginal conception as a préfiguration of the resurrection. (7) According to Paul, what was prefigured in Sarah and Jerusalem our mother has been given in Jesus’ death and resurrection. (8) The rabbinic midrashim associated with the barren woman the future of Zion, prayer, the raising up of the lowly, and the world to come.
The most obvious contribution of this volume is that it is a competent examination of a neglected biblical tradition, with particular attention to its functions. It also provides another solid step toward a comprehensive understanding of women and feminine images in Scripture. Less obvious but nonetheless important are its values as an illustration of comparative midrash … and as a fresh way of raising questions about canonization and canon.”
— Daniel J. Harrington, Catholic Biblical Quarterly