Bible Commentator

Articles

Rabbi Moshe Reiss

moshereiss@moshereiss.org

THE GOD OF ABRAHAM, OF REBEKAH AND OF JACOB


The Talmud teaches us that "Just as we now say the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, so we should add and the God of Job if he had not later [after his suffering] hurled charges against God.".1 The Talmud rules that way despite God's proclamation that 'My servant Job spoke correctly' (Job 42:7).


The Hebrew Bible and the Siddur (Jewish Book of Liturgy) repeatedly invoke the blessing "the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." Careful review of the text makes one wonder whether, were it  not for patriarchal bias, the phrase "the God of Abraham, Rebekah and Jacob" might not be more appropriate. 2 The key to the importance of a Patriarch or Matriarch is his/her relationship with God. Of the personalities in the Pentateuch only Abraham (Gen. 26:24), Jacob (Isa. 41:8) and Moses (Num. 12:7) are called God's servants. We will discuss God's relationship with Abraham and Jacob and then review whether it is Isaac or Rebekah who has the more active relationship with God in their generation.


GOD’S RELATIONSHIP WITH ABRAHAM

Abraham  is the father of the Jewish people. In his first encounter with God, Abraham is told that he himself will be a blessing (Gen. 12:3). This is the first of many encounters between  God and Abraham. In the second and third encounters, Abraham is promised the land of Canaan and multiple descendants (13:14-17; 15:5,18). The covenant of circumcision follows and then the prediction of the birth of Isaac (17:1-22). Three men/angels come, apparently to inform Sarah that, despite her being 90 years old, childless and post-menopausal, she will miraculously give birth to a child. She is not told this directly, but overhears the momentous annunciation the second time it is delivered to Abraham. In an interior monologue, she scoffs at the absurd idea. God (not the men/angels) intervenes and says to Abraham, not to Sarah, 'Why did Sarah laugh?' Sarah responds, 'I did not laugh.' Then, in their only direct interchange, God accuses Sarah of lying. (18:9-15). Sarah thus never is the recipient of a prophetic message from God.


God then confides in Abraham in a friendly way, and shares with him His plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham pleads on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah asking God 'Shall the Judge of the world not act justly?' (18:25). After the birth of Isaac, Sarah overcome by jealousy and anxiety for the future, orders Abraham to banish both his son Ishmael and Hagar, Ishmael's mother and Abraham’s wife. Abraham is bewildered and distressed by his senior wife who had orchestrated the marriage with Hagar that led to the birth of Ishmael. God reassures him, saying 'I will bless Ishmael' (21:13). God indeed saves Ishmael and Hagar in the desert, and speaks directly to Hagar for the second time (16:7; 21:17-19).


Abraham's final two conversations with God focus on the akeda. Abraham's faith in God is tested when he is asked to make the ultimate sacrifice, his covenantal son Isaac (22:2). Abraham unflinchingly is prepared to obey and execute the command when God at the crucial moment stops  the sacrifice. God responds to Abraham's total faith and gives him the blessing: ‘All nations on the earth shall be blessed by your descendants because you obeyed  My command’ (22:18).


GOD’S RELATIONSHIP WITH JACOB

   Jacob is the third of the Patriarchs, one of Abraham's twin grandsons from his son Isaac. His independent life begins when he flees his parents' home after having stolen his father's blessing from his older twin brother. When, on his journey, he reaches Beth-el, Jacob has a dream in which angels go from earth to heaven and God reiterates the message He gave to Abraham about multiple descendants and the promised land (28:14-15). Jacob, over a number of years, marries Leah and Rachel and fathers 13 children. To the dismay of his uncle/father-in-law, he is about to leave Laban's home. Laban agrees that Jacob's wages for his years of work would be all the sheep and goats that were striped, spotted and speckled; then he hid them, leaving Jacob poverty stricken. God then gives Jacob the ability to breed sturdy, striped, spotted and speckled sheep and goats, thus making him rich and independent of his father-in-law (30:37-43). Jacob then leaves and God appears to Laban telling him that Jacob is under His protection (31:24).


Prior to Jacob's meeting and reconciliation with his brother Esau, he meets and struggles with a man/angel. As God had changed the name of Jacob's grandfather from Abram to Abraham and blessed him the man/angel gives Jacob the new name of Israel and blessed him (32:27-30). Jacob fought against God (32:29) and saw Him face to face (32:30) . God then speaks directly to Jacob, and confirms his name is to be Israel (35:9-10). The final interchange between God and Jacob occurs in his old age, prior to his going down to Egypt to meet his long-lost son Joseph. God confirms that He will continue to protect Jacob (46:2-4). Throughout Jacob's life, God repeatedly intervenes on his behalf, confirming His commitment and ongoing relationship to him. At each event, when Jacob departs on a journey in which he risks his future, God appears to him to empower and protect him. God, however, never speaks to either of Jacob's wives, Leah or Rachel.


THE TRAUMA OF ISAAC AND THE POWER OF REBEKAH

Now, let us turn back to the generation of Isaac and Rebekah. Undoubtedly the most traumatic event in Isaac's life was his father Abraham binding him and laying him on a rock, taking a knife to his neck, on the verge of sacrificing him. Abraham shows an incredible act of faith by his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, who God had told him was his covenantal son. We cannot know the agony of Abraham, or how he reconciled this act with God's promise. But we can surmise the affect on Isaac by the later events in his life. It seems that as a consequence of the akeda, Isaac suffers a severe emotional trauma, and develops a passive dependent personality. He is thus unable to function and assume the massive responsibilities of being the second-generation chosen one.  

   

Isaac does not independently seek a wife (like his father or his sons), he accepts the wife who comes with his father’s servant. Abraham arranged this marriage for his son via having Eliezer, his servant, (the same servant who tradition tells went with Isaac to the akeda) dispatched to find a wife for Isaac in Abraham’s homeland and from his family. Eliezer is bound by an oath from Abraham to bring Isaac a wife and not to let Isaac marry a Canaanite. Isaac is no longer a child, why the need for an intermediary - why Eliezer? Was Eliezer Isaac’s protector? It is heavily implied that the akeda left its traumatic imprint so deeply on Isaac, that he is severely disabled. He is unable to initiate the mission of finding a wife even under the supervision of Eliezer. His judgment is impaired, he does not have the ability to decisively act in a campaign as critical as choosing a mate. As we shall see he lives in a twilight of uncertainty, an inability to be assertive - all byproducts of his trauma. Eliezer is fully aware of Isaac’s limited functioning and accepted the responsibility of taking care of his master’s son. When Eliezer responds what if the woman chooses not to follow me and marry Isaac, shall I take Isaac there to find someone else? No, do not take Isaac there. This is repeated twice (Gen. 24:6,8). Why is Abraham so fearful of sending Isaac to his kindred at Aram-naharaim? In the first verse the word Abraham uses is ‘hishamer’, a word meaning it is a danger to my son. 3 In the second verse ‘only bring not my son there again’. 4 It is clear, Abraham did not trust Isaac to choose or even being involved in the process.

What is known of Rebekah prior to her meeting with Isaac? When Eliezer first sees her at the well, we are told by the narrator that she, Rebekah, is the daughter of ‘Betuel, son of Milkah, wife of Nahor, brother of Abraham’ (24:15). ‘She is a very pretty young girl and a virgin’ (24:16). The word young girl in Hebrew in this text is spelt “na’ar’”. The word “na’ar”  translates as young man.  Tradition reads it as “na’ar’ah” (as if the ‘ah’ were in the text) which means young girl, but the last ‘h’ is not included in the text. The ‘a’ is a vowel and vowels are not included in the Torah text. Eliezer asks her if he can drink, she gives him her pitcher. She then draws water from the well (‘down’ the hill (24:16)) to fill her pitcher for all ten camels until they had done drinking (24:22). Camels coming from a long trip drink an enormous amount of water. The woman shows significant energy and aggressiveness.

He asks her who are you? She responds, ‘I am the daughter of Betuel, son of Milkah, wife of Nahor’. She does not mention her own name nor her mother’s name (24:24). The young girl, “na’ar” (24:28), (again without the ‘ah’ at the end), goes home to tell her family whom she has met. She tells her brother Laban, and he goes out to meet Eliezer. Laban then becomes the spokesman for the family. When Eliezer repeats how he met Rebekah he repeats that she said she was the daughter of Betuel, son of Milkah, wife of Nahor’. In verses 55 they ask for a few days for the “na’ar” (again no ‘ah’) Rebekah before she will go. In verse 57 they call the “na’ar” Rebekah to ask her view of the impending marriage. Both “na’ar”’s are without the ‘ah’.

Thus Rebekah is referred to four times, by a word which in Hebrew means young man, (despite the Jewish tradition to read it as young woman.) The calling of Rebekah four times “na’ar”, is not a scribal error. It may be argued that we are being told that Rebekah has a tendency towards a male aggressive personality. 5

 This overlap of a female with an aggressive personality may have been required in this marriage, given her husband’s trauma and passiveness. Rebekah is then referred to as the daughter of Betuel, son of Milkah, wife of Nahor’ three times, which is a correct definition of her ancestry, her father, her grandmother and grandfather are mentioned. However her mother’s name is never mentioned. Her mother is not of Abraham’s family, but both of her grandparents are. Her grandfather is Abraham’s brother Nahor and her grandmother is Abraham’s brother Haran’s daughter (as well as the wife of Nahor). Her father Betuel is thus the son of Abraham’s brother and the son of Abraham’s niece. Most impressive and extraordinary is the fact that Rebekah was consulted not ordered if she wished to marry Isaac. Historically and sociologically women in that society were rarely asked their opinion, especially about betrothal. It is most extraordinary to be told that her wishes were asked and respected.

Rebekah consents to the marriage and returns with Eliezer.  She is a powerful independent woman. She had evidently already shared the business responsibility with her brother Laban, taking care of the sheep at the well.


   When Isaac first beholds her, he is returning from Be'er Lahai Ro'i [the Well of the Seeing Life] and is out walking in the field towards evening (24:63). Despite coming from "the well of seeing life," he appears to lead his life under a cloud of dimness, in the gray twilight between day and night, an effect of the akeda. According to tradition, he sees the camel but not Rebekah. She clearly sees him (24:63-64). He brought her into his mother Sarah's tent, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her and thus found comfort after his mother’s death (24:67). Why does Isaac, the rich heir, insist on remaining in his mother's tent, instead of setting up a tent of his own? After the akeda, Abraham went back to Beersheba with his servants where he then dwelt (22:19) but Isaac apparently went to Hebron where  Sarah dwelt, and where she died (23:2).


   This suggests that he remained in his traumatized state, dependent on his mother who overprotected him; the mother who protected him against his older brother Ishmael (whether he needed it or not), and who undoubtedly would have protected him against his father and prevented the akeda had she known about it. After her death, her son marries a mother surrogate, one to take care of him. It is not coincidental that we hear of Rebekah's birth immediately after the akeda and immediately before Sarah’s death (22:23). Can Rebekah ever compete successfully with Sarah for Isaac’s affection? He was doubly traumatized, by the akeda and his mother’s sudden death.  Isaac needed his mother’s loving protection more than ever before and she died.


   How does Rebekah react to discovering that Isaac, her husband, is damaged? She came from a home where she was considered an independent woman, in order to marry her rich cousin. Is she shocked, when she learns the truth too late? As an independent woman, far removed from her family, she realizes that Isaac's future now will be in her hands.


   We are told that Isaac prayed to God on behalf of his wife, for she was barren. God heard his prayer and his wife Rebekah conceived (25:21). One generation before Rebekah, Sarah's barrenness was noted five times (11:30; 15:2; 16:1; 18:11; 21:1). She anguished over it, until she finally gave her maidservant Hagar to Abraham to have children through her (16:2). One generation after Rebekah, Rachel was barren for many years, and said to Jacob 'Give me children or I shall die.’. She gave her maidservant Bilhah to her husband, so that ‘through her, then I too shall have children’ (30:3). After Leah had four sons she was for a time barren and gave her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob to produce more heirs. Thus three of the four Matriarchs anguished over their barrenness. With Rebekah, there is simply a single verse that states she was barren, with nothing on any anguish she may have suffered because of it. She did not resort to using a maidservant as a surrogate. Neither, it seems, did she speak to Isaac about the problem. She had faith and chose to wait for God. Isaac’s prayer (which she apparently was unaware of) was effective and she conceived.


   Her pregnancy was difficult and she inquired of God for an explanation of her excessive suffering.  Does she consult her husband Isaac? We are not told of any communication between them. She asks in Hebrew ‘lamah zeh anochi’  ‘Why me?’ or ‘Who am I?’ or ‘perhaps ‘Why am I?’ This is a surprising question in view of the assumed happiness of finally conceiving after twenty years of barrenness. This question emanates from an aggressive personality - one who needs control of her life.


In response, she was told that she would bare twin sons, and the promised blessing of Abraham was to be bestowed on the younger of them. She is not told how to arrange this; she is simply informed that this is to be the end result of God's command. However, Rebekah never shares this information with her husband Isaac. Is it because he is so traumatized that this communication seems to her pointless?  The far-reaching consequences of Isaac’s dysfunctionality will be seen.


   Shortly after the children are born, we are told that Rebekah preferred Jacob (perhaps because she knew God’s wishes) and refers to him as my son and to Esau as Jacob’s brother (27:5-6, 8,13). Isaac, who lived in his own world, preferred Esau who lived out in the wild, and referred to him as my son (27:1,21, 25). Esau is a "man's man," unlike his father. As the sons mature, Isaac prepares to give the blessing to Esau; the son who feeds his father wild game (27:7). Unbeknownst to him, Isaac –not informed by his wife of the message from God -- chooses the wrong son. God gave the message on the blessing to Rebekah, not to Isaac, and she takes this as a mission that she must carry out by deceiving her husband and her older son. In this, she is successful.


   God spoke to Sarah only in an aside, to tell her that she lied (18:15). He never spoke to Leah or Rachel. Rebekah is thus unique amongst the Matriarchs in being presented with a prophetic mission by God. This mission is the most important task of the second generation: to ensure the blessing of the third generation is bestowed on the right heir.


   Abraham is given the blessing several times by God. Isaac is never explicitly given the blessing. Rebekah receives, in the name of her family, the blessing to have descendants by the thousands and tens of thousands . . . to gain possession of the gates of their enemies (24:60). That is a repetition of a blessing God gave to Abraham at the end of the akeda: ‘Your descendants will gain possession of the gates of their enemies’ (22:17). Thus Rebekah, not Isaac, receives the blessing for posterity.


   Rebekah promised to protect Jacob, her son, from his father and any consequences of her plan of deception. Esau is enraged at Jacob for having stolen his blessing and thinks to kill him. Just as she discovered that Isaac was about to give the blessing to the wrong son, she discovers that Esau (despite the statement being in an interior monologue) intends to kill Jacob. To protect the younger son from his brother, she sends him away to her brother Laban. She pretends to Isaac that Jacob is going to seek a wife. She does not inform him of her own role in the deception on the blessing, or Esau’s anger. Isaac then gives Jacob a blessing beyond what the one  surreptitiously taken: ‘May God bless you . . . May He grant you the blessing of Abraham’ (28:4). Rebekah does not know that she will never see Jacob again.


   God speaks to Isaac twice. The first time, it is to tell him not to do down into Egypt as his father had done and as his son will do (26:2). This is a striking repetition of Abraham's instruction to his servant, that Isaac must not go out of the land. Isaac follows his father's footsteps when he meets King Abimelech of Gerar. Like Abraham, he pretends that his beautiful wife is his sister, lest the King slay the husband so he can marry the widow.


   When Isaac's servants open the wells his father Abraham had dug, God then appears to Isaac a second time and says to him 'I shall bless you . . . for My servant Abraham's sake' (26:24). Thus, he receives the blessing for his father's sake, not his own.


   Abraham's descendants are blessed as a result of his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, but Isaac himself is not specifically noted; he is simply one of the descendants. Abraham never explicitly gave him a blessing. Isaac never leaves the land. He never sees clearly, never laughs (despite his name) does not find himself a wife nor choose the right son. Isaac’s role is less to be a father or a husband than to be Abraham's son. He is the weak son of a powerful father and the weak father of two powerful sons. His passivity is in striking comparison to his aggressive wife.  Abraham, who had agreed to sacrifice his son, Isaac, survived with his promise intact and became the Prince of Faith. Jacob/Israel, while wounded in his conflict with God survived -- a rare experience.


   The only blessing Isaac receives is the weak blessing part of his being forbidden to go Egypt despite a famine (as opposed to his father and his son) and given because ‘Abraham obeyed my voice’ (24:5).


Rebekah is given the stronger blessing of Abraham. She is given the mission of ensuring bestowal of the blessing on the ‘right’ son, despite needing to deceive her husband and of favoring one son over the other and  then she saved Jacob’s life.


Should we not say ‘The God of Abraham, Rebekah and Jacob?


1 Stated by Rabbi Hanina bar Papa, BT Baba Batra 16a.

2 It is intriguing that despite having accomplished her God given task Rebekah is, in Jewish Tradition, less respected that the Matriarchs Sarah and Rachel.

3 Hirsch, S.R., The Pentateuch - Genesis, (The Judaica Press, NY,  !971) pg. 393.

4 Hirsch, Genesis, pg. 394.

5 There are several other times a woman is called ‘na’ar’ in the Torah. In the story of Dinah she is called “na’ar” three times (34:3,12,19). And in Deuteronomy chapter 22 there are several uses of “na’ar” referring to a woman (. 22:15,16,17,20, 21,23 24, 25,26,26,27,28,29). In each of these cases there is a discussion about adultery and virginhood. In every case, including Dinah women are transformed by an act of ‘unkosher’ sexual relations whether the act is performed voluntarily or not. Rebekah is also transformed, not by an act of ‘unkosher’ sexual relations  but by her ‘male’ aggressive  personality.