Rebekah – Her Story/Our Story
“What a degenerate age do we live in, in which appear all the instances of pride, luxury, and laziness, the reverse of Rebekah’s character, whose daughters are few!”
So wrote Matthew Henry, a Seventeenth Century Nonconformist minister and writer, about the woman who dominates the 24th chapter of Genesis who becomes Isaac’s wife and upon whom rests the future of God’s promise to humankind. Henry calls attention to her humble, courteous, industrious and charitable disposition. She remains to this day the epitome of how the God of the Bible wants us to welcome and care for strangers, following in the tradition established by her soon to be father-in-law, Abraham. Sadly, Henry’s conclusion is just as apt today as it was when he first wrote his Bible Commentary. But we get ahead of the story.
Genesis 24 is considered by some as a self-contained novella, a woman’s story in the middle of the Abrahamic saga of Israel’s patriarchy. It is surprising that from this moment on, Isaac nearly disappears from the story arc and Rebekah takes over: First, passing the test set by Abraham’s servant to become the chosen wife for his son; Secondly, choreographing the deception that results in the younger of her twin sons, Jacob, to receive his father’s blessing and thus be the one to carry on the hope for God’s promises and blessings for all humankind. Indeed, it is Jacob who wrestles with the God of Abraham and Rebekah and is renamed Israel.
Rebekah is far more dynamic and proactive than Isaac, for whom there is no independent episode from here on. The verbs used for her are action verbs. The verb “to go” is used seven times in this courtship narrative, a number used for emphasis in Hebrew literature, indicating her active nature. She runs, she draws water, she pours water, she rides a camel, and she veils her face. Furthermore, the text’s high regard for women lets her choose to go! And recognizes her great value in the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. “Because of the centrality of Rebekah, in contrast to Isaac, the ancestral sequence might more accurately be called Abraham, Rebekah, and Jacob. Indeed, when Rebekah’s favored son, Jacob, is sent to Mesopotamia to secure a spouse, he identifies himself to his future bride (and cousin) Rachel not as the son of Isaac, but rather as “Rebekah’s son” (Gen 29:12); his paternal ancestry is eclipsed by Rebekah’s lineage,” writes Carol Meyers on the Jewish Women’s Archive.
It begins with Abraham calling one of his servants and sending him back to the homeland around Ur to find a wife for his son Isaac. He does not want him marrying one of the idol worshipping Canaanite women. Abraham has the servant swear an oath with his hand on Abraham’s thigh - swearing on the “loins” inside the “thigh” represents reproductive power. In other words, this story is about the fulfillment of God’s promise through the continuance of Abe’s family!
The servant in turn prays to the God of Abraham to show him the right woman, devising a test: the woman who comes to the well and gives him a drink of water AND also waters his camels is to be the chosen one. Rebekah comes, draws water, gives the servant a drink, and without being asked continues to water his camels. He immediately gives her a gold nose-ring and bracelets – thus securing a wife for Isaac, and at the same time insuring her future: should Isaac pre-decease her she can sell the gold ring and bracelets if necessary to care for herself. The sheer beauty of the story and Rebecca, and her extended hospitality makes the reader want her to be the one God provides for Isaac.
This action of extreme hospitality is what sets her apart, and continues the same spirit of hospitality toward strangers first exemplified by her soon to be father-in-law Abraham. Herein lies the lessons for our time – according to the rabbis Rebekah teaches us to adopt this character of boundless lovingkindness, what the Hebrew Bible calls chesed, Rebekah teaches us to challenge ourselves with real, selfless commitment. Rebekah teaches us to be initiators, to look for times and places where we can be of service, to be proactive and useful, without calculating whether there are others around who could, or should, do the same.
We live in a time with more displaced persons throughout the world than in any other period of human history. Millions are fleeing warfare, draught, starvation and poverty looking for a place to simply live and start over. Abraham and Rebekah are just the first two of many examples all the way through the Bible to Jesus and St. Paul who call us to remember – we and/or our ancestors were also strangers in a new land. All of us are guests and appointed stewards of God’s creation. To this point in the Biblical narrative, it is this woman, Rebekah, who most embodies the character of God’s commands to welcome and care for the stranger – a command later to be enshrined in the story of the Good Samaritan.
We live in a time when hard lines are being drawn between “natives” and “foreigners,” or “resident aliens.” Stephen Greenblatt in a recent New Yorker (“Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia,” July 10&17) recalls that William Shakespeare penned some lines in a play about Sir Thomas More, a play that was probably never performed, but is preserved in the British Library. The lines speak to one of our most pressing modern dilemmas. More is confronting an angry mob demanding the expulsion of “strangers,” – “foreigners”:
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires…
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you: whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? [ Act 2 – Scene 4]
As Greenblatt concludes, “Such language isn’t a substitute for a coherent, secure and humane international refugee policy; for that we need constitutional lawyers and adroit diplomats and wise, decent leaders. Yet these words do what they can to keep before our eyes the sight of “the wretched strangers, /Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage, /Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation.” For a long moment in dramatic time, the distance between natives and strangers collapses; walls wobble and fall…” [p.39]
How much more are we, the sons and daughters of Rebekah, called to spontaneously, like her, extend hospitality to those in need, whoever they are, most especially those we do not know, but with whom we share the same plight – we all thirst, like Abraham’s servant, and all those who come to us are thirsty too. We are all strangers of one sort or another. Rebekah teaches us to be initiators, to look for times and places where we can be of service, to be proactive and useful. As Jesus once said, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”