Sheerah by Sarah Beth Baca

Watercolour and ink portrait of Sheerah by Sarah Beth Baca.
Used with permission of the artist. All rights reserved.
Prints of this portrait can be purchased here.

This article is available in Spanish and Urdu.

Ever heard of Serah, Aksah or Sheerah? I hadn’t . . . not until I decided to read through the Old Testament slowly, keeping an eye out for every woman mentioned. Here’s a little something about these three influential women.

SERAH—Genesis 46:17; Numbers 26:46; 1 Chronicles 7:30

Serah–שָׂ֫רַח (or, more accurately, Serach) was the daughter of Asher, one of the twelve sons of Jacob. Serah is mentioned by name in three Old Testament genealogies but almost no information is given about her. The mere fact that she is mentioned three times in the Hebrew Bible, however, indicates her prominence in the Israelite community.

Perhaps because the biblical information on Serah is so limited, there are numerous midrashic traditions (ancient rabbinic commentaries and embellishments on Hebrew Scripture) around this otherwise unknown woman. According to one midrash, Serah was very beautiful and very wise, and she was asked to break the news to Jacob that his son Joseph was still alive and living in Egypt; she did this through a song while accompanying herself on a harp. Another midrash states that Serah lived to be very old and she made sure that Joseph’s bones were brought from Egypt to Canaan, the Promised Land. The biblical accounts, however, give no hint of these stories.

AKSAH—Joshua 15:16-19; Judges 1:12-15; 1 Chronicles 2:49

Aksah–עַכְסָה (or, less accurately, Achsah, as the name appears in some English Bibles) was Caleb’s daughter. Caleb was highly respected in the Israelite community. He and Joshua were the two good spies and the only people who survived the entire 40-year trek in the wilderness before entering the Promised land. (All the other Israelites who eventually entered the Promised Land had been born in the wilderness and not in Egypt.)

In Joshua 15:16-19 (NLT) we read that Caleb offered his unmarried daughter Aksah as a prize. In Old Testament times, marriages were seen as much more than an alliance between husband and wife. They were an alliance between two families and often made for political and economic reasons rather than for reasons of affection. Parents, especially fathers, played a major role in organising a match.

Othniel, Aksah’s cousin, was the man who won her hand. He later became the first judge of Israel.

In the Hebrew Bible, Aksah asks her husband Othniel to ask Caleb for a field. It seems she was given land from her father, but she was not satisfied with it. So Aksah got on a donkey and went to her father and asked him directly for more land with springs of water. Caleb agreed.

In the Septuagint (LXX), the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament, Aksah does not ask Othniel but organises the whole thing herself. Here is my literal (and wooden) translation of Joshua 15:18: “And it happened when she entered [into marriage?], she conferred with him [Othniel] saying, ‘I will ask my father for a field [i.e. arable land]; and she called out from her donkey and Caleb said to her, ‘What do you want?'” She then asks Caleb for more and better land.

Aksah obtained her own estates of good land and became involved in agriculture (as did the woman in Proverbs 31:16). Aksah’s story is repeated in Judges 1:12-15 NLT.

SHEERAH—1 Chronicles 7:24

Tucked away in the somewhat confusing genealogy in 1 Chronicles chapter 7 is a woman named Sheerah–שֶׁאֱרָה. It is not clear if this woman was the daughter of a man named Beriah who was the son of Ephraim, or whether she was the daughter of Ephraim himself. Ephraim and his brother Manasseh had been born in Egypt. Their father was Joseph and their mother was Asenath, the daughter of an Egyptian priest (Gen. 46:20). Sheerah was probably born in Egypt also, but her family didn’t stay there. We know this because 1 Chronicles 7:21-22 mentions that two sons of Ephraim were killed by men of Gath in Canaan.

Very few women are named in genealogies because, at that time, the family line was traced through fathers. So it is significant when a woman is mentioned and even named in one. Despite the grief and misfortune that her family had suffered, Sheerah was a wealthy woman. She may also have been a single woman. (Miriam, a prophet and leader, and Dinah are two other apparently single women named in genealogies. Perhaps Serah, who appears in verse 7:30 of the same genealogy as Sheerah, was also single.)

Sheerah built and established the towns of Upper Horon and Lower Horon. These towns are located about fifteen kilometres northwest of where Jerusalem would be sited. They were built in strategic hillside locations and went on to have a long history. She even built a town that bears her name, Uzzen Sheerah which may mean “listen (אזן) to Sheerah.” Sheerah was more than the bronze-age equivalent of a wealthy property developer; she must have been a leader of the towns she established. Was she a leader like the wise woman of Abel Beth Maacah who is clearly an influential woman in her city (2 Sam. 20:14-22)?

Sheerah is just one example of an Old Testament woman who had a prominent position of authority and influence and, as with other Bible women with authority, there is no hint that this was inappropriate or improper, or that anyone had a problem with it.

There are many women in the Bible who showed resourcefulness, initiative, and influence. Some of these women are obscure to us, but they well-known to the people of their time. These Bible women, which include Serah, Aksah and Sheerah, were prominent women with clout.

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Further Reading

Dr Wilda Gafney discusses Sheerah here.

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