Rebekah's story has two parts we are familiar with. In one, she is a beautiful, kind, and courteous young woman, willingly accepting gold jewelry and a marriage proposal that is clearly God's will. In the other, she is a bold and deceptive wife and mother, playing favorites with her sons, and crafting a disguise out of animal skins to take advantage of her aging husband's ailments and thwart his wishes for his children's futures at the end of his life. How can we make sense of Rebekah, and what can we learn from her story?
Reading these chapters, it's obvious that Rebekah is no wallflower, but rather a confident and decisive woman. Abraham's servant's prayers to find a wife for Isaac are answered by her actions. Though given in marriage by her father, she herself is the one who decides when she will depart to marry Isaac. Later in life, her initiative puts in place the reversal of blessing order for her sons, surely her most important legacy.
Watering the camels, and wedding without waiting
Rebekah is from Abraham's family: the sister of Laban (who will later give her son Jacob so much trouble), and the daughter of Nahor and Milcah, Abraham's brother and niece. When Abraham hopes for a wife from his family for Isaac, he could not do better than Rebekah in terms of family lineage.
She is first presented in the story as an answer to prayer. Her first contribution to the action, watering the servant's camels, is not intended to advance an agenda. But her simple courtesy results in a huge development in her life. God clearly uses it to give Abraham's servant, Rebekah, and her whole family, confidence that God is directing Isaac to marry Rebekah. There is an air of excitement, "we got what we asked for!" to the servant's story, and it's full repetition. Laban is fully convinced, as are Rebekah and her family.
That Rebekah is an independent woman becomes obvious when the question of when she should leave comes up. Her family knows Rebekah will have an opinion, "we'll . . . ask her what she thinks." Rebekah is decisive that she will depart right away. and her family follows her wishes. When she goes, they give her a blessing, which I think is a little unusual for Biblical women? Normally sons receive blessings from their fathers, but Rebekah does too here on her departure.
The scene where Isaac and Rebekah meet is sweet. He sees the camels coming. She sees him "walking in the fields and meditating." She puts on her veil. The servant repeats to Isaac the confirmatory story of how he found Rebekah. Then Isaac takes her into his mother's tent. He loves her deeply and she is a special comfort to him after his mother's death. These details are heart-fluttery, even across thousands of years and distant language translation.
Next in the text, is an interlude in Rebekah's story that relates back to her mother-in-law, Sarah. Ishmael and Isaac are together burying Abraham with Sarah. That they are both there says that Ishmael still feels attachment to his father even after being sent away. After Abraham's death, Isaac is blessed, while Ishmael and his family live "in open hostility toward all their relatives." Sarah's plan to bring about God's plan by her own means has now brought about a whole nation of people who feel rejected and have become hostile.
What Rebekah learns from God about her unborn sons
Next, we have a formal introduction to the story of the next generation in God's chosen family, "This is the account of the family of Isaac, the son of Abraham." It opens with the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. The first thing that happens to them as a couple is the now familiar struggle with infertility. But Jacob, who loves his wife dearly, prays for her (the first move toward God we see him taking). God answers him and gives Rebekah twins, who she can feel struggling with one another. At this, Rebekah makes her first move toward God, which is actually the only interaction between Rebekah and the Lord recorded in Genesis. "Why is this happening to me?" she asks. And the Lord answers her. He tells Rebekah that her sons will always be at odds, but that the older will serve the younger.
It is really important, considering Rebekah's future actions to steal Esau's blessing for Jacob, that she has heard this message from God. Is she trying to "help" God's plan along later on, like Sarah did? Perhaps her favoritism of Jacob is not random or due to her own preference, but in response to what God has told her. It seems doubtful that God meant to instruct Rebekah to show favoritism to Jacob in order that he would rise up over his older brother, but in the mystery of human will and God's purposes, this is sort of what happens.
We are told quite a bit about the two boys, and that Isaac and Rebekah each have their favorites. But the first stealing of birthright over a bowl of stew is completely between the brothers.
When there is a famine, Isaac moves to Gerar, the land of Abimelech and the Philistines. He has the same trouble there that Abraham had, and follows Abraham's playbook of pretending his wife is his sister. I would guess that this wife/sister lie combined with their division over their sons could mean that their marriage was strained, but evidence to the contrary is that Abimelech discovers what is going on when he sees them embracing.
They are also united in the next tidbit we get about Rebekah, her shared reaction with her husband to Esau's two Hittite wives, who "make life miserable for Isaac and Rebekah." This is the first mention of in-law troubles in biblical history. There will be more to follow! Abraham and Isaac both left their families and didn't have to deal with that. Maybe this is part of the reason for the "leave and cleave" instruction in Genesis 2? However, it's interesting that God's people always being foreigners and leaving family is at odds with what I consider traditional morality about sticking with your family. We'll have to continue to consider what God actually wants when it comes to extended family as we go along.
Rebekah's bold deception: injustice, "helping", or both?
Now we come to the main story of this generation: Jacob and Esau and the blessing. Rebekah is the mastermind of this series of events, and she has always astonished me with her boldness, deception, and injustice to Esau here. I find the passage in this chapter where Esau pleads for his blessing to be one of the most painful passages in the entire Bible. But drawing the connection between the message Rebekah received about her sons before they were born and her actions later on has made me see her in a more forgiving light. But I'm still kind of mad at her, if I'm honest.
I think we can see Rebekah's action here as similar to Sarah's, "helping" God's plan move along by doing herself what God has told her he would do. She has faith that God's message will be true, so she tries to make it come true. How should we judge this kind of action? Incomplete faith, but still some sort of faith.
The line Rebekah delivers to Jacob, "then, may the curse fall on me!" is evidence of her bold determination to do this. Even Jacob seems taken aback by what she wants him to do. But she is certain.
After the horrible scene of blessing and lack of blessing plays out, Rebekah is still fully in Jacob's corner, protecting him by sending him to Laban under the guise of continued complaint about Esau's Hittite wives. Isaac responds by blessing Jacob further and sending him back to Rebekah's family to look for a wife.
Esau now pathetically makes the connection that his father would rather have him marry someone from the family, and takes another wife from Ishmael's family in addition to his other wives. It's a bit poetic that these rejected sons, where they are because of their mothers' blame-worthy actions to advance God's plan, unite their families here.
From here, Genesis transitions to the next generation and the story of Jacob and his family. Though later we have the record of the death of her nurse, We hear nothing more about Rebekah. We don't even know when she dies. What does this say about her legacy in the family? There is really little further biblical comment about her EXTREMELY historically significant grab of Isaac's blessing for Jacob, who will be Israel, the father of the twelve tribes and founder of the Jewish nation. Though Sarah is often discussed later in the Bible, Rebekah isn't mentioned again after Genesis. This absence of recommendation says something I think.
It's interesting that the main things that happen to Rebekah, her marriage and her children, are clearly provided to Rebekah without her bringing them about. These all important circumstances are given to her, but within them she works hard to exert her own power.
This is another example of God's plan playing out through the actions of women who enforce what they believe to be his will, even when they are acting questionably. We know his will is accomplished even as sin is happening. But the fate of these sinful movers and shakers depends on their ultimate trust in his goodness. You could see Rebekah either as a flawed but faithful actor, or a plain old sinner throwing fairness to the winds to advance her agenda. I'm not sure how God sees her.
- Rebekah is a mover and shaker.
- Rebekah's only recorded interaction with God is over her pregnancy with her twins, and his response to her question directs her main contribution to the story and the formation of the nation of Israel.
- Isaac and Rebekah seem to have a truly affectionate relationship even in the midst of conflict over their boys.
- God used Rebekah's unfair action, to bring about a plan he told her about, which directed her unfair action.
- Is Rebekah's blessing from her family, and the way they consult her, unusual?
- What does Rebekah mean when she says, "then let the curse fall on me!"? Do we think she deserves a curse? Do we think she gets one?
- Compared with Sarah, who is held up as "holy woman of the past" in 1 Peter, is Rebekah less worthy of this? Does Sarah just get the title because she came first or is she to be judged more holy that Rebekah, and why?
- In God's judgment, is it ok for women to be assertive with what they understand his will to be, even in gray areas, or is it better for us to wait for him to act? I think I know the answer . . .
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