Okay, I definitely have never heard about this female Biblical character before. I’m afraid my eyes went right over her name.
According to the Bible, Serah or Serach was a daughter of Asher who traveled to Egypt to live there under Joseph’s patronage (Gen. 46:17). And also according to the Bible, there was a Serah, daughter of Asher, who went out of Egypt during the Exodus. 210 years later. (Num. 26:46) (1 Chron. 7:30)
This of course was noticed by the ancient rabbis, and made her the subject of a lot of speculation and stories. (Hint: she was a good guy.) She was supposedly the one person who was able to identify Moses and Aaron as sent by God to save the Israelites, thanks to a prophecy passed to her by Asher. She was also the one who remembered where Joseph’s coffin was kept. Some legends even connect her to the “wise woman” in the Book of Samuel (2 Samuel 20:16) who negotiated with Joab and agreed to get the townspeople of Abel Beth-Maacah to execute Sheba son of Bikri, according to an interpretation that reads “I am peaceable and faithful in Israel” (2 Sam. 20:19) or “I seek the welfare of the faithful in Israel” [shelomei emunei Yisrael] as “I completed [the number of] the faithful of Israel.” [shelumai emunei Yisrael] Furthermore, it was said by some rabbis that because she was so good and wise, God allowed her to enter Paradise without dying first (just like Enoch).
The women of the tribe of Asher were traditionally supposed to have been very beautiful, refined, modest, devoted to their kids, and wise (and hence very popular as wives for priests, and for high status men of other tribes). The prophetess Anna daughter of Phanuel, whom Luke tells us never left the Temple and was waiting for the Messiah to be born, was from the tribe of Asher. Asher tribeswomen were all known as “daughters of Asher,” so obviously it might not have been the same Serah before and after the Exodus! But it is a cool story, and shows yet again that Mary’s Assumption is part of a long tradition about righteous Jews going to heaven body and soul.
The downside of the popularity of Asher tribe girls was that the tribe of Asher never got very big!
Here’s another article recounting legends about Serach, such as that her brothers and cousins looked to her to break the news that Joseph was still alive, without giving Jacob a heart attack. 🙂 Read the whole thing, including the footnotes, to find out about how Serach was supposedly a prophetess, and about how pious Jews invoked her name for a safe journey, and for protection against being harmed by wicked people.
More about Serah bat Asher. This article names her as the one who saw angels at the crossing of the Red Sea/Reed Sea, and elaborates further on the legend that she was able to tell later generations what it looked like to have the sea rise up on the right and left. It also elaborates on her fate: perhaps she still wanders the earth keeping an eye on the Jews (like some stories about Elijah); and perhaps she runs a women’s Torah school in Heaven, where all the saintly women who worked hard as caregivers can finally sit down and learn Torah instead.
This Jewish encyclopedia article has more about Serach’s legend, including the association of her name with the expression “serah ha-odef” [“something left over”, or “the remnant remaining”] in Ex. 26:12.
There’s also a rabbinical list of all the people who went to Paradise alive: “Enoch, Elijah, Pharaoh’s daughter Bithiah (1 Chron. 4:17-18), the three sons of Korah, King Hiram of Tyre, Jabez, Jonadab son of Rechab and his descendants, Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, Abraham’s servant Eliezer, the slave of Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, and Rabbi Joshua ben Levi.”
And that’s a very mixed bunch!
“Serah Bat Asher in Rabbinical Literature”: PDF. An academic article about Serah’s legend, which points out that unlike Dinah and Miriam, the other famous and named unmarried women of this part of the Bible, tradition never provides Serah with a husband or children. She’s a virgin all her life. This article goes into detail about the Persian tradition that she died in a horrible medieval synagogue fire in Isfahan, and that her mausoleum was a place of pilgrimage for Persian Jews. Only people of good character could get past the doorposts of the tomb, because the doorway shrinks to keep out the unrighteous. She also shows up as a character in Thomas Mann’s novel, Joseph and His Brothers.
This article says that during the Exodus, Serah was the only one able to look upon God and live. She showed David the Foundation Stone for the Temple, and she helped Jeremiah to hide the Ark and the sacred vessels. This article gives a different version of the Persian synagogue fire: it was caused by a fiery chariot coming to pick Serah up, the fire did not harm the Isfahan synagogue, and the grave is just a memorial cenotaph with no body in it.
This article talks about the connection between Joseph’s words in Gen. 50:24-25, and Moses’ words in Ex. 3:16, as well as Gen. 21:1 and the story of Sarah and Isaac. Traditionally it is Serah who points out the similarity of words.
An interesting analysis of the meaning of the Hebrew name “Serah.” It would seem that her name means something like “free” or “unrestrained” as well as something like “abundance” and “overlapping, excess.”