I come from the Frantz clan. My grandmother, Irene, was a Frantz. Other than that I don’t really know much. I have a book on my shelves that traces the Frantz family back to Adam and Eve….well, not really, but back to Michael Frantz who came over with the original group of Brethren to Pennsylvania. I know that the Frantz clan has an annual reunion near Frystown, PA. And somehow, without my knowledge or consent, I ended up receiving a fairly regular email from a woman named Susan asking for volunteers to help clean up the Frantz family cemetery or with the latest obituary of a Frantz family member, a person I have never met but I now know they liked cats and Elvis.
Today you heard scriptures read that included parts of genealogies. They are not the exciting part of the Bible. All but biblical scholars usually skip over these lists. But we all know that genealogies can hold some interesting gems. In the scriptures today from Genesis and Numbers there is a daughter named. If you read a genealogy in the Bible and you see the name of a woman, pay attention. Women were named in these lists only in rare occasions. In both of the scriptures read today we learn that Asher had a daughter, named Serach. She is listed as being present at the time that Jacob and all his offspring moved from Canaan to Egypt. In this list of seventy people we see the names of Jacob’s twelve sons, one daughter, all his grandsons and then just one granddaughter, Serach. She is listed as the daughter of Asher, the eighth son born to Jacob by Leah’s handmaiden Zilpah.
The second time we hear Serach’s name is in another genealogical list. When the Israelites fled Egypt and wandered in the wilderness, Moses commanded a census be taken of all men 20 years and older. The reason for this census was that Moses needed a list of the men who could fight in the army. In that census, are listed the names of Asher’s sons but they are deceased. Their names are listed as clans. But Serach, is still there in the names of men 20 years and older who can fight in an army. It seems odd to list her name her and not as a clan but as a person.
That is all we know about Serach from the Hebrew Bible but luckily there is long tradition of non-biblical religious literature that serves as commentary on the written and oral Torah. It is called midrash. The fact that Serach, a female, is mentioned and named in the family genealogy was enough for the rabbis to take notice of her. There are several stories and conjectures written about the mysterious Serach in the long years of rabbinical commentary.
One story says that Serach was not actually a biological descendant of Jacob. Asher married twice. His second wife was a widow who happened to have a three-year-old daughter, named Serach. So in rabbinical literature Serach was a stepdaughter, not a daughter, of Asher, which makes is doubly odd to find her listed in the genealogy of Jacob’s family. But the legend is that when the sons of Jacob learn that their brother Joseph, who they sold into slavery, is alive and living in Egypt they know they need to break this news to their father. But it is a sticky situation. You see, they told Jacob, years earlier, that wild animals had killed Joseph. Jacob has been mourning the death of his favorite child ever since. Now he is a very old and frail man. How can they now confess their evil deed and tell their aged father that his son, Joseph, is alive and well? They conscript little, innocent Serach to break the news. She waits until he is praying and then repeats a rhyme over and over again softly until he hears it: “Joseph is in Mitzrayim (which is another word for Egypt)…Joseph is in Mitzrayim, and has fathered two sons, Menashe and Ephraim.” Jacob is so grateful to this little girl for bringing him this news that he blesses her, “My child, may death never rule you, for you brought my spirit back to life.”
In the biblical narrative, Jacob’s entire family is saved from famine by moving to Egypt and being cared for by Joseph, the one sold into slavery. The book of Genesis ends with Joseph’s death. He gathers his brothers around him and says to them, “God will surely take notice of you.” Just before he dies he reminds them of God’s covenant to give them the Promised Land. He tells them that he knows that one day their descendants will leave Egypt and he makes his brothers promise, on his deathbed, that they will take his bones with them back to Canaan.
Generations later in Egypt, a man named Moses has an experience at a burning bush. The voice of God speaks to him there and tells Moses that it is time for the Israelites to escape out of their slavery in Egypt. He tells Moses to gather the elders of Israel and tell them that the God of your ancestors has spoken to you and said that God has taken notice of you. So Moses does, but how do you convince a people who have forgotten their history that they are to revolt and leave.
The midrash on this text says that upon hearing this report from Moses the elders sent for Serach for she was the only one still alive, having been blessed with life by her step grandfather. Serach was the one who carried memory for the clan. She confirms that Moses is the rightful leader because he shared the secret code that had been passed down from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph to Joseph’s brothers, “God will surely take notice of you.”
But the Israelites feel like they cannot follow Moses and leave Egypt without the bones of Joseph…for they do remember that part. So Serach, still alive some 430 years after the Israelites came to Egypt, is the one who saves the day. After she learned that Moses has spent three days and three nights looking for Joseph’s bones, Serach found him and said, “Follow me. I know where they are buried.” She took him to the Nile and told him that the magicians and astrologers made him a metal coffin and threw it into the river at this exact spot. She said they did that because Pharaoh knew that the Israelites would never leave Egypt without the bones of Joseph so Pharaoh wanted the bones to never be found.
Moses stood by the side of the Nile and called out, “Joseph, Joseph, God will surely take notice of you. Give God the honor and do not hold us up any longer.” Just then, Joseph’s coffin slowly ascended from the depths of the Nile River. Moses picked up Joseph’s coffin put it on his shoulders and led the people out of Egypt and away from oppression.
That isn’t the final story of Serach outside of the Bible. There is one more. It is found in the Talmud, another collection of rabbinical writings. It comes years and years later when the rabbis are arguing over what form the Red Sea took when it parted. All of a sudden, Serach looked in and said, “I was there. The waters weren’t anything like any of you think. They were like lighted windows.”
Something about Serach seems to make her special enough that stories were told about her more than her name listed in a genealogy seems to warrant. How easy it would be to leave Serach unnoticed. She could just disappear like so many other women from her time. But the fact that she was listed, not as a wife or a mother, gave her a different status in the story. She became known as a wise woman. Some even conjecture that she is the wise woman of Abel Beth Ma’acah, a story in Hebrew Bible from hundreds of years after the Exodus.
Somehow Serach was entrusted and credited with keeping alive the institutional memory of the Jewish people. It is said that she was there when the seventy entered Egypt and she was there over 400 years later when they escaped Egypt. She holds the sacred memory. She carries God’s promises for them. She retains the code that unleashes their trust. She knows where the bones are buried.
Judaism understands the importance of memory. Serach is now gone and so Passover is now the holder of their sacred memory of that time in history. It is the telling and a re-telling, a commemoration and a re-enactment of God’s liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt.
Memory links us to the story of God’s faithfulness and reminds us who we have been as a people, who we are and who we are to be. We sing “O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.” We tell the Christmas and Easter stories every year…without fail. Many churches act them out. In the Church of the Brethren we re-enact the Last Supper and wash each other’s feet, not because our feet are dirty but because we are reminding ourselves who we are called to be at our core. In re-enacting the Last Supper, we are carrying on the sacred memory that links us to the truth of our past and calls us to enact that truth now. We are not washing each other’s feet just for this moment in time. We are the link between the past and the future. We are the sacred carries of the story of God’s love and God’s call. We are the Serachs of our time. May we be faithful to the memories we hold. Amen.