Categories: Women in the Old Testament
"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.
- Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac.
- "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?
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 the Bible. 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.