Bible scholars have many different views on the
same subject. We've used a collection of sources,
cited at the end of Teaching the Bible. Enjoy
using these and other resources to discover new
and sometimes differing views of Sarah, Isaac,
Rebekah, Esau, and Jacob. Most of what we know
about this family is found in Gen.
24 - 27.
Bible time-lines typically show the patriarchs
who stand out in Bible history, but what about
the matriarchs? In this edition of BibleWise we
will look at two of the women who made a difference
in the fulfillment of God's promises. Last month,
for instance, we spent more time looking at Abraham
than Sarah. Yet, Sarah deserves her place in history.
Rebekah is often referred to as the woman who
should appear in the patriarch listing of Abraham,
Rebekah, Jacob and Joseph. Rebekah is a remarkable
woman. Let's start Bible Characters with ladies
Bible instructor and author of That Ye May
Teach the Children, Joan Koelle Snipes, was
asked to share some thoughts about Sarah and Rebekah.
The description of Sarah is by Ms. Snipes. The
article that follows Sarah is about Rebekah from
the book Women in Scripture.
Who was Sarah? What do we know of her?
- Sarah was the wife of Abraham, ten years his
junior. They were married in Ur of the Chaldees.
Genesis 11:29-31; 17:17
- Sarah was "a fair woman to look upon."
- God's promise to Abraham was, in part, "I
will make of thee a great nation." Sarah
was keenly aware of this promise but was barren.
This prompted her to give her handmaiden Hagar
to Abraham as a secondary wife. Hagar bore a
son whom Abraham named Ishmael. This son, however,
was not the child of the promise.
- At the age of 90, Sarah gave birth to a son
named Isaac. After years of being childless,
Sarah "laughed within herself" at
the thought of having a child so late in life.
- When Sarah sees Ishmael, the son of Hagar,
"sporting" with Isaac, she urges Abraham
to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Although Abraham
is reluctant to do this, Sarah's wish prevails.1
- Sarah was the first of a number of biblical
women healed of barrenness. Compare her story,
for example, with that of Elisabeth, mother
of John the Baptist. Genesis 18:2, 9-14; Luke
1:5-8, 11-13, 18-22, 24, 25, 57-80
- Sarah dies in Hebron at the age of 127. She
is remembered in the prophecies of Isaiah as
the ancestress of her people. Isaiah 51:2
- Sarah is also mentioned in the honor roll
of the faithful in Hebrews 11. "Through
faith also Sarah herself received strength to
conceive seed, and was delivered of a child
when she was past age, because she judged him
faithful who had promised."
- "Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the
cave of the field of
Machpelah." This was in the land of Canaan.
Over the cave of Machpelah today, there is a
Moslem mosque. Genesis 23:192
Joan Koelle Snipes
Ms. Snipes recommended we use the entry about
"Rebekah" in Women in Scripture
by Carol Meyer.
"Rebekah in the Hebrew Bible
(Gen 24-27;28:5; 29:12; 35:8;49:31)
The second (after Sarah) of the matriarchal
figures in the ancestral stories of Genesis, Rebekah
is one of the most prominent women-in terms of
her active role and her control of events-in the
Hebrew Bible. The beautifully constructed narratives
in Genesis 24-27 describe how she becomes Isaac's
wife, gives birth to twin sons after initial barrenness,
and finally obtains the primary place in the lineage
for her younger son, Jacob, who is destined to
become ancestor of all Israel.
The story of the wooing of Rebekah unfolds in
Genesis 24, the longest chapter in the Book of
Genesis. A spouse of Isaac is to be obtained from
his Uncle Nahor's family; the ensuing cousin marriage,
with Rebekah and Isaac both members of the same
kinship group, serves to emphasize the importance
of their lineage. Abraham dispatches a trusted
but unnamed servant to Mesopotamia, the land of
his birth and where some of his family still resides,
to find a wife for his son. Rebekah secures her
role as wife-elect for Isaac by befriending the
servant and his ten camels in the famous well
scene, which has been called a type-scene-a narrative
episode with certain expected motifs that appear
at the critical juncture in the life of a hero.
Indeed, the account of Rebekah at the well is
the premier biblical example of such a scene.
It ostensibly draws attention to Isaac, but, in
his absence, reveals the beauty and especially
the virtues of his wife-to-be.
After the well incident, Rebekah brings the servant
home, enters into the marriage arrangement, and
sets off to meet her future husband. She seems
to have some input into the marriage negotiations,
or at least into the decision about her departure
from her homeland and birth family. Once she arrives
in the promised land, she enters Isaac's home
(called "his mother Sarah's tent," 24:67).
There she is "loved" (24:67) by her
husband, the first woman in the Hebrew Bible for
whom marital love is proclaimed.
After twenty years of marriage, when Rebekah
fails to become pregnant, Isaac prays to God,
who grants the prayer that she may conceive. Another
type-scene, that of the barren wife, thus enters
the Rebekah story, calling attention to the special
role of the children ultimately born to her. A
divine oracle is addressed to her when she is
pregnant, making her the only matriarch to receive
a direct message from God (although Abraham's
slave wife Hagar also receives an oracle). YHWH
proclaims that "two nations" are in
her womb and will contend with each other (25:23).
This oracle foreshadows the tensions that will
characterize the relationship between her sons,
Jacob and Esau, as figures in the Genesis narrative
and as eponymous ancestors of Israel and Edom.
In the next episode in the Rebekah story, Isaac
passes her off as his sister. This narrative,
similar in many ways to two such accounts about
Sarah, at first seems to contribute little to
the role or character of Rebekah. However, it
does differentiate her in a significant way from
Sarah; in one of the two wife-sister episodes
in which she figures, Sarah seems to have had
sexual relations with Pharaoh (Gen 12:13-14,19)
to ensure the safety of her husband and their
household. Rebekah's marital fidelity, in contrast,
is never compromised (Gen 26:7-11). Her relationship
with her husband is consistently monogamous, unlike
that of Sarah, who not only has extramarital sex,
but also provides her husband with the slave wife
Hagar, and of Rachel and Leah, who are co-wives
and also provide slave wives to Jacob.
The final scene in which Rebekah appears is another
well-known biblical episode: Isaac blesses Jacob
rather than Esau, the first to emerge from the
womb and thus the expected recipient of the paternal
blessing. This designation of Jacob as heir to
the ancestral lineage, which will mean his becoming
progenitor of all Israel, is orchestrated by Rebekah.
Through clever manipulation, whereby Isaac is
deceived, she achieves her purpose and controls
the family destiny."
"For one thing, Rebekah is far more dynamic
and proactive than Isaac, for whom no independent
episode is reported. The very fact that the verb
to go is used of Rebekah seven times (a number
used in the Bible for emphasis) in the courtship
narrative of chap. 24 highlights her active character.
In addition, Rebekah's behavior in Genesis 24
is depicted by a series of action verbs-she runs,
draws water, fills jars, and rides a camel-that
contribute to a sense of her individuality and
vitality, in contrast to Isaac's passivity. Also
noteworthy is the way the language used in reference
to Rebekah's journey from Mesopotamia to Canaan,
and in anticipation of her role as progenitor
of countless offspring, echoes that found in the
Abraham narratives (compare Gen 24:4, 38, 60 with
Gen 12:1 and 22:17). Furthermore, Rebekah is said
to have had a nurse (Gen 35:8), a highly unusual
circumstance in the Hebrew Bible and one that
thus signifies her unusual stature.
Finally, the long courtship account of Genesis
24, which is considered by many to be a self-contained
novella, can perhaps be called a woman's story.
Rebekah's dynamic presence in that episode may
indicate its origin in women's storytelling, as
do certain other features. The term "mother's
household," for example, appears in 24:28.
That phrase is found only four times in the Hebrew
Bible, all in texts that reveal women's lives
and agency. It signifies the important role of
the senior woman in a family household, at least
when considered from a female perspective, as
does the use of the phrase "his mother Sarah's
tent" for Isaac's home.
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. This incident may signify
a reality of maternal dominance, at least in the
case of Rebekah, that is too powerful for the
andocentric interests of biblical narrative to
"Rebekah", from WOMEN IN SCRIPTURE,
edited by Carol Meyers. Copyright © 2000
by Houghton Mifflin Company. Reproduced by permission
of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
- Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for
- "Put your hand under my thigh" (Gen
24:2,9) was significant in that it sealed the
oath. The servant is swearing an oath by "placing
his hand under the genitals, a vehicle of life."3
[makes you grateful for a handshake today!]
The pledge was a solemn one, for it carried
with it a curse or ban if not followed. "Since
sons are said to issue from their father's thigh,
an oath that involved touching this vital part
might entail the threat of sterility for the
offender or the extinction of his offspring."
This is Abraham's last request.4 Some
scholars say he died before the servant returned
- The servant prayed for a sign to distinguish
the bride for Isaac. (Gen 24:12-14) What a good
example Abraham had set for his family and servants:
we pray to solve problems!
- Rebekah is given the freedom to choose whether
to marry Isaac.
- Rebekah's general character is modest, kindly,
generous, and pious.6
- Laban displays traits we see in his later
life. He isn't convinced by the demand of kinship
nor the will of God, but rather by the sight
of the costly jewels on his sister's arm.7
- Isaac lived a semi-nomadic life in Canaan.8
- Isaac relied on his father to select a bride
for him when he was 40 years old.
- Isaac and Rebekah maintained a monogamous
- Even when Rebekah was barren, Isaac stayed
with her and prayed for her. (Gen 25:21) She
then conceived twins.
- Rebekah talks with God about the conflict
in her body. (Gen. 25:22-24) God tells her the
younger son shall rule the elder son.
- Esau was born first, followed by Jacob.
- Esau was red and hairy.
- Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field.9
- Jacob followed in the footsteps of his father
and grandfather and was a semi-nomadic shepherd.
- Esau lacked spiritual depth. He was a man
of the moment.
- Esau impetuously bargained away his birthright
for a bowl of pottage.10
- Pottage was a soup or stew made with vegetables
and sometimes with meat.11
- The birthright included the primary headship
of the family, that is, rights as the eldest
son, a double portion of the inheritance, priestly
rights, and, in Abraham's family, heir to the
- Isaac chose to avoid conflict with the Canaanites
over the wells Abraham had dug. God told him
not to be afraid.13 (Gen 26:15-24)
This appears to be a turning point in Isaac's
life. Up to this point he passively accepted
what happened in his life; being used as the
potential object of sacrifice; waiting for the
selection of a bride; walking away from the
strife over the first two wells; being heartsick
over Esau's foreign wives. God tells him not
to be afraid. Not to be afraid to make decisions?
Not to be afraid of what others might think?
Not to be afraid to live?
- Isaac assumed a quiet role of maintaining
Abraham's work rather than pursuing heroic paths
of adventure, discovery, and leadership.14
- Isaac contributed to the growth of Hebrew
thought by maintaining a relationship with one
- Isaac was a man of peace, who praised God
when peace prevailed. (Gen 26:19-32)16
- Esau was indifferent to his parents' wishes
when he married not one but two Hittite women.
- Esau was 40 years old when he first married.
He later married four more foreign wives.
- Esau's offspring were called the Edomites.
- Jacob and Esau were approximately 60 years
old when Jacob stole Esau's blessing.
- Isaac was 120 years old and blind when he
asked Esau to prepare the meal of venison for
- Isaac thought he was ready to die, yet he
lived another sixty years after blessing Jacob.
- The blessing of Isaac certainly appears unalterable.
"Acts of blessing in the OT rest on accepted
conventions. If the blessing could not be revoked
by Isaac, it was because no convention was available
for its revocation. If there is such a convention,
Isaac chooses not to make use of it. Esau, in
asking for another blessing, appears to believe
that no such convention exists."18
- "One basic reason cited by Isaac for
not retracting the blessing involves the consumption
of a meal. (Gen 27:33) The meal was an integral
part of a conventional blessing ritual, without
which it would not have been valid."19
- It was unnecessary for Jacob and his mother
to conspire to steal the blessing. God had spoken
to Rebekah when she was pregnant, and predicted
that Esau would serve Jacob. (Gen. 25:23) Their
trickery and deceit obtained something God would
have provided freely had they behaved morally.20
A great lesson in yielding all to God!
- The great deception produces suffering: "Isaac
suffers for his preference for Esau, which was
not determined by the will of God but by his
weak affection: Esau suffers for despising the
blessing of the firstborn:" Rebekah suffers
in never seeing Jacob again: Jacob suffered
a strain of hardship and deception at the hand
1 Carol Meyers, ed.; Toni Craven; Ross Shepard
Kraemer. Women in
Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women
in the Hebrew Bible,
The Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the
New Testament. New
York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000., pp. 150-151.
2 Edith Deen. All of the Women of the Bible.
New York: Harper &
Row. 1955, p. 16.
3 The New Interpreter's Bible. Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 1994, Vol 1, pl 510.
4 E.A. Speiser. The Anchor Bible - Genesis.
Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964, p. 178.
5 The Abingdon Bible Commentary. Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 1929, p. 235.
6 Ibid. p. 235.
7 Ibid. p. 235.
8 Lawrence O. Richards. Richards Complete Bible
Dictionary. Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers,
2002, p. 522.
9 The Interpreter's Dictionary of theBible.
Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1963, p. 127.
10 Ibid. p. 127.
11 Richards, p. 806.
12 J.R. Dummelow, ed. A Commentary on the Holy
Bible. New York: Macmillan Co., 1908, p. 32.
13 Richards, p. 522.
14 Thomas L. Leishman. The Continuity of the
Bible - The Patriarchs. Boston: CSPS, 1968,
15 Ibid. p. 19.
16 Richards, p. 523.
17 Ibid, p. 345.
18 NIB, pp. 538-539.
19 Ibid, p. 539.
20 Richards, p. 538.
21 Dummelow, p. 33.