We will start this portrait in Genesis 24, witnessing Abraham’s servant being sent to find a wife for his young master. The story of Isaac and Rebecca’s love is one of the most beautiful love stories in Torah. The truly wonderful thing about this story is the amazing fact that, before it became a story of love, it was a story of faith. It took the faith of several people for this story to become a story of true love.
First of all, of course, we are amazed (again!) by the faith of Abraham, who had no doubt that God Himself would take care of choosing a wife for Isaac:
7 The Lord God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my family, and who spoke to me and swore to me, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land,’ He will send His angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there.
This story certainly demanded great faith from Abraham’s senior servant (probably Eliezer, though his name is not mentioned in this chapter). Although by this time, he must have already witnessed many miracles that the Lord had performed in his master’s life, it would still have taken a good deal of faith to even undertake this journey, and to trust that the Lord would send him to the right girl. When he arrives and stands by the well outside the city, he prays for success (“good speed” or “good fortune”, depending on translation) — if translated literally, he is asking God to “make this day happen before me” (הַקְרֵה-נָא לְפָנַי הַיּוֹם ). It’s important to note that this is the very first prayer for divine guidance that we find in the Bible.
12 O Lord God of my master Abraham, please give me success this day, and show kindness to my master Abraham.
Then he prays for a kind and humble girl. Pay close attention: he is not praying for her looks or wealth: It is her kind and serving attitude and behavior that he is putting as a sign before God. We all know that his terms were met immediately and precisely, and we also know that he was absolutely overwhelmed by this immediate answer.
21And the man, wondering at her, remained silent so as to know whether the Lord had made his journey prosperous or not.
The word translated here as “remained silent”, might also mean: “to be speechless”. I think that was exactly what was happening to Eliezer: not only was he silent, he was absolutely speechless as he saw God’s handwriting in this story!
It is even more amazing to see this invisible reality of God’s presence and guidance, becoming visible and obvious to everyone – even to those who don’t know God. Rebecca’s father and brother, after they hear the servant’s testimony, say some surprising words (one imagines even the servant was absolutely shocked to hear these words from non-believing people):
50 Then Laban and Bethuel answered and said, “The thing comes from the Lord; we cannot speak to you either bad or good.”
Mi-Adonai Yatza Ha-Davar – “this thing came from the Lord!” How obvious the Lord’s presence must have been for people who didn’t know Him to speak these words!
However, the most incredible character here is undoubtedly Rebecca herself; the most amazing part of this story is the faith of this young woman, and quite honestly, I can think of no faith stronger than that which Rebecca portrays here. When the servant appears from nowhere, and presents before her the choice of her life—whether she will go with him to be a wife for Abraham’s son—she says: “Yes”, and this is another ‘Yes’ to God, as we see many times throughout this book— another story of entering God’s plan and God’s blessings by surrendering one’s life to Him.
58Then they called Rebekah and said to her, “Will you go with this man?”
And she said, “I will go.”
The character and faith of Abraham is constantly admired, and rightly so—at the age of 75 he willingly left his home to go the Land that God promised to show him. However, we rarely hear similar praise for Rebecca, who made the same choice, and even more decisively and drastically. We don’t know for sure the length of time between Abraham first hearing God’s command, and him actually leaving his home: it could have been days, weeks, months, or maybe even years. We only know that he did go, and we praise him for that. But we do know for sure that Rebecca made this crucial choice and left her home, in one day. Imagine: they didn’t have phones or internet; they didn’t have cars or planes; and for her to leave her home like this meant to leave it for good and probably never see her family again. The fact that she was able to make such a definitive decision to leave behind everything and everyone she knew and loved, bears witness to an absolutely outstanding character! Not only did she make the decision that changed her life forever within one day (and, by the way, it changed the life of the whole of humanity as well), but the very next morning, instead of begging for a merciful delay, she was ready to go.
Let us try to understand what Rebecca went through: She didn’t grow up in a family of true believers, as Isaac did; she didn’t know God, as Isaac did; but when Eliezer appeared before her that day, out of nowhere, somehow she knew that it was not just this servant, but Somebody in him and beyond him— Somebody much more than him—who stepped into her life and claimed this life. I suppose, like all young girls, she was interested in her future husband, but she knew almost nothing about him and had never seen him, so he was still not very real to her. However, that ‘Somebody’ who touched her heart through Eliezer, was so real that she decided at once that she wanted Him in her life. She surrendered her life to Him in that one amazing life-changing decision of faith, a decision made so simply and so quickly, trusting Him with her husband and with her whole life—and I believe she never looked back from that time forward.
And so, this amazing young girl was able to make so quickly and so boldly the incredible life-changing decision of faith: to leave her home and her family for good, and to follow Abraham’s servant to Canaan. All of this happens in Genesis 24 – and at the very end of this long and eventful chapter we witness a fascinating scene. When Rebekah sees Isaac for the first time, coming up out of the desert, just at that moment, she literally falls off her camel. In English, it is usually translated as “alighted” or “dismounted” – however, the English expression, she dismounted from her camel, does not correctly portray the original Hebrew, ותפל מעל הגמל –and she fell down, fell off the camel. Although we don’t see this particular verb, “to fall down,” in this verse in English, the Jewish commentaries discuss here precisely this verb, ליפול juxtaposing it, for example, with the words of Psalm 37:24: “Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down; For the Lord upholds him with His hand.”
Why did Rebekah fall? In order to understand that, let us recall the events of Genesis 22, Aqedat Itzhaq. Some of my readers might know that Aqedat Yitzhaq, the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, contains – among its many other enigmas – one more mystery that our sages have long pointed out. After everything that happened on Mount Moriah—after the raised knife was stopped by the voice from heaven—Genesis 22:19 states: So Abraham returned to his young men, and they rose and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba. Isaac is not mentioned there at all. Where did he disappear to? What happened to him after the Aqedah? Historically, this circumstance has triggered numerous discourses and speculations, which are laid out in a wide variety of works by our sages and rabbis. Where did Isaac go? Wouldn’t it be right for us to expect, after the trauma the son had experienced, for Abraham to have remained obsessively close to him, showing him even greater love and concern? Especially since ultimately, Abraham himself (though not by his own will, but by God’s) had caused his son such trauma? Wouldn’t it be right for us to expect a story about how the father and son, after undergoing their joint testing, would have returned home together to the worried sick Sarah? (Remember: back in those days, there were no phones, and Sarah would not have had the slightest idea what had transpired on Mount Moriah.) But we find nothing of the sort here: no expressions of the family’s emotions on the occasion; no description of a cheery unity between the jointly tested father and son. The Scriptures inform us only about Abraham’s return. In the next chapter, Sarah dies (out of worry for Isaac, Jewish tradition says). However, Isaac is nowhere to be seen, he has vanished, and he next appears in God’s Word only at the end of Genesis 24, in the scene that we are witnessing now, right before the first meeting with Rebekah, his future wife. Where had Isaac been?
This is a wonderful example of the things that can only be understood in Hebrew. Genesis 24:62 tells us that Isaac came from the way of Beer Lahai Roi. If we don’t know Hebrew, this name means nothing, but one who understands Hebrew will be astounded by its profound meaning: The Well of The One Who Sees Me Lives – that is how I would translate it. This profound name occurs for the first time in Genesis 16: Hagar gives this name to the well where the Angel of the Lord met her. Since the name is connected to Hagar, Midrash Genesis Rabbah suggests that Isaac had gone there to bring Hagar to Abraham his father, that he should marry her. However, I think this name means much more than that in Isaac’s story: it tells us that, even after the Aqedah, after what he had experienced on Mount Moriah, when Isaac disappears from both his family, as well as our field of vision – when no one could see Isaac or knew where he was – the Lord still saw him; that while Isaac disappeared from everyone else’s sight, he did not disappear from God’s sight. God had His Own reason and plan for Isaac’s temporary absence: this was surely a time of very close relationship between Isaac and the Lord—a time when not his earthly father, but his Heavenly Father Himself, restored him after the terrible shock he had gone through—The One Who Sees Me Lives.
Now, back to our original question: Why did Rebekah fall? I believe that, after the experience of Mount Moriah, and after the time he had spent with God, when God was the only One who saw him, Isaac must have been resplendent with God’s light and shining with God’s glory. Rashi writes about Rebecca and this initial meeting: “She saw his majestic appearance, and she was astounded by him.” When the heart humbles itself before God in the fire of testing, it is cleansed and filled with God’s glory. Isaac is coming up out of the desert, radiating God’s light.
And maybe this is an additional reason why, in Genesis 24:65, we read: “So she took her veil and covered herself.” Of course, we all know that she covered herself both out of modesty, and as a token of subjection to her future husband: according to Oriental custom, the bride has to be brought veiled into the presence of the bridegroom. However, the very fact that she fell down from the camel hints that there was even more to it than that. Isaac was dazzling Rebekah as she laid eyes on him for the first time – and both her falling down from the camel, and covering herself begin to make more sense as we think of Isaac radiating God’s glory as he approached her.
The Story of Faith becomes the Story of Love
We already know that this story, before it became a story of love, was first a story of faith, and now we can really witness this amazing transformation: the story of faith becomes the story of love. The whole of Genesis 24 expressed the faith of different people—Abraham, his servant, Rebecca—but at the end of this long and eventful chapter, after everything that has transpired so far, we read:
Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent; and he took Rebekah and she became his wife, and he loved her (יֶּאֱהָבֶ֑הָ). So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
ֱIt is very important to note that in a romantic sense, as referring to a relationship between a man and a woman, the verb “love” (in Hebrew ahav) occurs here for the first time in the Torah (and for the second time overall: the first time we find this root is in Genesis 22, where God says to Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love”). Isaac’s feelings for Rebecca must have been very strong if the Torah finds it necessary to use this verb here. It’s also interesting to note that on both occasions, the verb “to love” is attached to Isaac: he was the one who was loved in Genesis 22, and he is the one who loves in Genesis 24.
There is something else we can learn from this verse: Isaac was not only an affectionate husband, he was also a tender and loving son. He was 40 when he married Rebecca, and he was 37 when his mother died (Sarah died at the age of 127). It’s worth mentioning, by the way, that Jewish tradition connects the death of Sarah in chapter 23 with Aqedat Itzhak, with the events of Genesis 22, which means that Isaac was 37 when he was led to Mount Moriah, and not a teenager as is often depicted in Christianity. But even if Sarah’s death was not connected to Aqedah, the math is still the same: Isaac was 37 when his mother died, and he was 40 when he married Rebecca – and Scripture tells us that it was only after he married her, was he comforted – so for three years he had been grieving his mother’s death.
Before we say anything about this marriage, it’s important to point out that Isaac was the only patriarch who remained monogamous (unlike Abraham or Jacob): Rebecca was his only wife for his whole life! I think this fact by itself speaks volumes. However, there is more:
There is a verse in Genesis 25 that invariably touches my heart: Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The LORD answered his prayer … This verse provides us an insight into this marriage, into the very close and intimate relationship of this couple, because there are several things, especially in Hebrew, that make this verse special.
First of all, the very fact that Isaac prayed for his wife is very significant. Both Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and Rachel, Jacob’s wife, were also barren for a time, yet we don’t hear a single word in Scripture telling of Abraham praying for Sarah. It was even worse with Jacob: when Rachel complained about her barrenness, Jacob became angry and said, “Am I in the place of God”? Maybe they also prayed, but the Scripture tells us explicitly only about Isaac “praying to the LORD” on behalf of his barren wife.
Second, the choice of words in Hebrew in this verse is very remarkable. The word “prayed” here (in many translations it’s “pleaded”) renders the Hebrew word יֶעְתַּר (ye’etar), which has the connotation of a passionate commitment to continue until the desired result is achieved. Even more remarkable is the fact that both phrases: “Isaac prayed to the LORD” and “The LORD answered his prayer”, use the same Hebrew root: when Isaac pleaded (וַיֶּעְתַּ֙ר יִצְחָ֤ק) with the LORD, the LORD pleaded back and answered his plea (וַיֵּעָ֤תֶר לוֹ֙ יְהוָ֔ה).
This whole dynamic between Isaac’s plea and the Lord’s answer is completely lost in translation, because both phrases are translated with absolutely different verbs. And yet we understand that it is this dynamic, this commitment to continue and press in, that brought the desired result: the LORD answered him and Rebecca his wife conceived. Rashi writes: He (God) allowed Himself to be entreated and placated and swayed by him.”
In the beginning, we spoke of this young girl who came to the well when the servant was standing and praying there. Even then, Rebecca demonstrated a very kind, humble and serving heart – offering to draw water for ten camels, a huge and exhausting job for a young woman – even though she didn’t grow up in a believing family, as Isaac did, and didn’t know God, as Isaac did. However, God’s touch and God’s call through Eleazer that day were so real that she decided at once that she wanted Him in her life and surrendered her life to him. She didn’t yet know God—nevertheless, she wanted Him in her life.
Twenty years have passed, and now we see Rebecca knowing God and being steady and mature in her faith. When she doesn’t know what going on with her and her pregnancy, she inquires of the Lord:
And the children struggled together within her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to enquire of the LORD.
By the way, ” to enquire of the LORD” translates here the same Hebrew expression (אֶת־יְהוָֽה׃ לִדְרֹ֥שׁ ) that is sometimes translated as to “seek the Lord”. For example, we read in Deuteronomy: “But from there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul, תִדְרְשֶׁ֔נּוּ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃. This expression doesn’t often occur in the Bible, and when it does, it never refers to a woman—except here. Once again, Rebecca is a very unique character: she is the only woman in the Bible of whom it is said explicitly that she went “to seek the Lord”. It’s no wonder then that she really heard from the Lord—because she went to seek Him. I think we would all be familiar with the Lord’s answer—the prophecy that defined the lives of Jacob and Esau. We will analyze this prophecy next time as we will be speaking about Rebecca’s motherhood and Rebecca’s sons.
The Lord’s Answer
You have probably noticed that of all the four matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel), Rebecca’s personality is the most fully defined and described in Scripture – and I think this fact by itself bears witness to her outstanding character. We saw Rebecca as a young girl; we saw her as a pregnant woman; and in this post, we will see her entering motherhood—the ultimate test of faith for every mother.
So, Rebekah conceived – and we know already that it was God’s response to the emotional and faithful intercession of her husband. We also remember that as her pregnancy progressed, Rebecca felt vigorous movements within her womb: But the children struggled together within her… The wordּ “struggled” here renders the Hebrew words וַיִּתְרֹצְצו, but it does not really express the gravity of Rebecca’s situation: the root רצץ communicates the idea of “breaking”, “crushing” and “oppressing”—the movements she felt were extremely strong and extremely unusual.
Rebecca was truly concerned, probably first of all because of possible miscarriage—remember she had been barren for twenty years. A modern woman would have an ultrasound; of course Rebecca did not have this option, and as we already know, she went to inquire of the LORD.
23 And the Lord said to her:
“Two nations are in your womb,
Two peoples shall be separated from your body;
One people shall be stronger than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.”
While we see the long-term consequences of this famous verse, of course Rebecca was first of all preoccupied with knowledge that was relevant to her pregnancy. She realized, for the first time, that there were two babies in her womb. The Rabbinic commentaries say that she was very relieved and comforted by this news: she thought something was wrong with her baby and her pregnancy so was comforted to learn that it was “just” a struggle between two babies. I believe she was also quite astonished: Jacob and Esau were the first twins mentioned in the Bible, and at that point Rebecca may not have even known about this possibility. In this sense, it’s only when she gave birth to the twins that it became clear that she was not imagining things and that the answer did indeed come from the Lord.
Two Nations in Your Womb
The second, long-term layer of God’s response was even more significant: The babies’ movements in Rebecca’s womb were but a sign foretelling the relationship they would have as siblings and symbolizing the struggle between two nations. “Two nations are in your womb”: not only does each baby pull in his own direction even now, and that’s why you feel these strong movements in your womb, but they will split up and go completely different ways once they are issued from your body.
However, there is something more that we should know about this verse. While traditional translations always render the last sentence as “the older will serve the younger”, in Hebrew this last portion of the verse is much less clear and presents considerable ambiguity: וְרַ֖ב יַעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר. Since the Hebrew words here don’t have the definite article, the word את (et) – direct definite object marker – is missing. However, withoutאת (et), it is not clear which word is the object and which is the subject. Without the marker, the text can work both ways, and therefore there is no way to determine who will serve whom.
Finally, we have to know that שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ – Two nations are in your womb – has been a very important phrase in Jewish history. Many times, it has been used to define the relationship of the people of Israel to the nations around them. For instance, just as Jacob was seen as representing his descendants, the Jewish people, so Esau was said to represent Rome—the power that destroyed the Temple and scattered the remnants of Israel. The phrase has also been used by Jewish commentators in their perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity.
Finally the twins were born. I wonder what was going through Rebecca’s mind as she watched her little sons. She knew that her boys would go different ways – did she see it from the very beginning? Just a few days ago I was listening to my friend telling me how badly her children fight and quarrel and how desperate she feels because of that. Did Rebecca feel desperate? Did she try to reconcile them when they were fighting, or did she just think: they are destined to be this way anyway, so why to bother? Indeed, motherhood becomes an ultimate test of faith for almost every mother – and I have no doubt that it was like this for Rebecca: her whole situation, prophesized and defined by God, was extremely complicated and challenging.
We all know the story about the blessing ‘stolen’ by Jacob thanks to Rebecca’s plot. However, before this story, there had been years and years (next time, we will calculate together how many years exactly) of difficult, painful and torn motherhood. Did she share this prophecy with her family? With her husband? With her sons? How did this terrible split between the brothers begin? Did they not get along from the very beginning, even when they were small children? Was this split inevitable because of God’s prophecy, or was it just an imperfect human understanding of this prophecy that caused the enmity between the brothers?
Is it important for us to understand that? I believe it is, because it seems to be very important for God. We see in the Scripture that the whole life of Jacob/Israel, in a sense, has been shaped and determined by his conflict with his brother: it is because of this conflict that he went into exile, where he stayed at Laban’s service for 20 years, married and fathered 11 sons (Benjamin was born later); and it is because of and before his meeting with Esau (the night before this meeting), that he had his amazing and unique encounter with God at Penuel that changed his name and changed his heart—and also definitely changed the course of the upcoming meeting of the brothers. And if the story of Jacob and Esau is important in God’s eyes (not to mention their mother who is our primary object here), it should also be important in ours. So, how did this conflict begin? Maybe, the terrible split that will tear the brothers apart has its origin in the parents’ story?
We already know that, even among the patriarchs, Isaac’s and Rebecca’s family seems to stand out: Isaac was the only monogamous patriarch, we are told that he loved his wife and prayed for her; moreover, this is the only case from all the three barren wives where Scripture informs us that Rebecca conceived because the Lord answered Isaac’s prayer, so they seemed to be a very tender and loving couple, especially during the first part of their marriage.
However, we all know the story about Jacob’s conflict with his brother Esau – and we also know that the whole story of Jacob’s life was greatly affected, maybe even defined and determined by this conflict. Moreover, even though the two brother’s pattern runs throughout the whole book of Genesis, Jacob and Esau—unlike Isaac and Ishmael, for instance, or Joseph and his brothers—had the same parents (and loving parents, as we have seen). So, how did this terrible split between the brothers happen?
The Torah doesn’t provide any judgment or explanation of this conflict. It doesn’t justify, doesn’t excuse, doesn’t provide any comments at all; it just states the facts: Isaac loved Esau … but Rebecca loved Jacob – and we are left to wonder whether this parental favoritism was the original source of the conflict or whether the brothers had not been getting along well even before it became obvious. It is clear, however, that parental favoritism played a very significant role in the conflict of the brothers – otherwise the Scripture would not tell us about it. Let us try to answer the ques
tion then: why did this favoritism happen, and how did it start? Why did Isaac love Esau? Why did Rebecca love Jacob?
The Different Backgrounds
There is a wonderful book by Professor Israel Yuval called Two nations in your womb. Among the other things, his answers to these questions and his analysis of Isaac and Rebecca’s personalities are very non-traditional and for me personally, have become really eye-opening. I will use some of his analysis here in this article.
In order to understand the background for the twins, let us speak for a moment about the background of the parents—of Isaac and Rebecca. First of all, Isaac is “sabra”, as we would say today: he was born in the Land, and he is the only one of the patriarchs who has never been outside of the land (has never been bahul, as we would say in Hebrew today). He wanders little, and following God’s commandment doesn’t even leave the land in time of famine. He belongs to this Land – and in that, he differs a lot from his mother and his father: as we know, they both came to the Land in obedience to God’s call, which means they both were immigrants.
Not only was Isaac born in the Land and is completely connected to the Land, he also works the land! He tries something that his father hadn’t tried, and becomes the first farmer in his family: he sows and reaps and is extremely blessed in that. “Then Isaac sowed in that land, and reaped in the same year a hundredfold; and the LORD blessed him.” Isaac has been always “the man of the Land” – but after that, he actually becomes “the man of the field”.
Rebecca, on the other hand, is an immigrant in this Land, coming from a completely different culture and background. Moreover, the very same verse that informs us of Isaac’s love for Rebecca, also says that “Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent”. From that time on, Rebecca’s place has been in the tent of her late mother-in-law.
As Israel Yuval writes, this tension between Isaac, the man of the field, and Rebecca, hidden in the tent, is a metaphor for the dualism between two characters and two symbols. “The field is arena of one who lives and acts in nature, in the open, while the tent is a symbol of quietness and enclosure. Thus, “the difference between the parents sets the scene for the difference between the children, the twins who struggle with one another.”
In order to proceed, we will need some Hebrew here. While most English translations call Esau “a man of the outdoors,” the Hebrew text calls him “a man of the field”: “Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field.” That’s why Isaac loved Esau: even though they probably did not have very similar characters, they were both “men of the field”: they both loved being in nature, in open, and it’s very likely that they spent a lot of time together outdoors. “Oh, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which the LORD has blessed.”
On the other hand, the mother, who was sitting in the tent, probably spent a lot of time with Jacob who was “a mild man, dwelling in tents” Thus, Isaac had this special bond with Esau, while Rebecca was much more connected with Jacob. “Isaac loved Esau … but Rebecca loved Jacob.” And now, the time has come to discuss the famous story of Rebecca’s plot and “the stolen blessing” – in order to understand better this outstanding woman of faith.
The Disturbing Story
Finally, we are coming to the story of the “stolen blessing”, in order to see Rebecca’s part in this story. We really need to thoroughly understand what is going on in this fascinating narrative —being undoubtedly one of the masterpieces of biblical narrative, Genesis 27 also presents one of the most difficult stories of this book.
There is no doubt that this narrative raises a lot of disturbing moral questions and that each person is presented in a somewhat negative light here. First of all, of course, Jacob doesn’t come off very well: not only does he act behind his brother’s back, but worse yet, he actively deceives his innocent and unsuspecting father. The father, Isaac, on the other hand, is often called blind not only physically, but also spiritually, not able to recognize the will of God. As for Rebecca—our primary object here—at this point, almost everybody remembers that she is a sister of Laban, who is a cunning and greedy deceiver and liar: like brother like sister, say some, or ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’. We all also understand that God’s way can never be paved by the human cunning and devices.
But having said all that, let us enter this story remembering that, after all, God is still calling himself the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob; that after all, Rebecca is one of the Matriarchs of Israel; and if God saw their hearts – and we know He did, of course,- and even with all their weaknesses and mistakes, and even sins, He has still found them worthy to be called by their names—so let us try to see it as a story of people who meant well, who tried to do God’s will in their lives. Let us try to see the best in each one of them, beginning with Rebecca – as God always sees the best in each one of us.
How Old Were the Brothers?
When we think of this story, we always imagine young men contending for the father’s blessing. Scripture doesn’t provide their age at the time of blessing, nor does it say how old Isaac was when he felt he was about to die (by the way, he lived for many years afterwards). However, we do have a way to calculate the brothers’ age, and even though it is Rebecca we are concerned with here, it’s still important for us to understand how long she had been holding this promise in her heart, waiting for it to be fulfilled. We need to know that in order to understand what was going on within Rebecca when she was making her quick and crucial decision.
Let’s get engaged in some calculations based on the Scripture. We are told that Jacob was 130 years old when he came to Egypt. How old was Joseph at this time? The Torah says that Joseph was 30 years old “when he stood before Pharaoh“ and that there were 5 years of famine left (7 years of abundance had passed) when Joseph called Jacob into Egypt. So, Joseph was about 30+7+(7-5) = 39 years old when Jacob came to Egypt at 130. That means Jacob was about 91 years old when Joseph was born—a “son of his old age” indeed.
In Padan Aram, after Joseph was born, Jacob asked Laban to allow him to leave. However, Laban did not let him go, and Jacob ended up spending 20 years with Laban: 14 years for his wives and 6 for his sheep and cattle. The time when Jacob asked Laban to let him go, had to be after the first 14 years. This would imply that Jacob came to Padan Aram when he was 91-14 = 77 years old. This means that “the boys” were 77 years old at the time of this story, and even though their 77 years probably felt very differently from how it feels now, still, they were not exactly young men. It also means that Isaac was 137 at that time and that he would live 43 more years – he died when he was 180 (at some point, when we have a series about Isaac, I’ll share with you why he thought about death at that particular time). This also means that for a very long time—for 77 years—Rebecca had been faithfully waiting for the fulfillment of the prophecy that she received during her pregnancy.
We read that Rebecca overheard the conversation between her husband and her son Esau. In English translations, it’s usually translated as “Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to Esau his son.” However, in Hebrew it’s clear that she was not a part of this conversation and just happened to hear it – she overheard it.
We don’t know whether Rebecca shared God’s message with her husband – but even if she did, it was probably a long time ago, maybe 77 years ago. On the other hand, she is the one who knows for sure that Jacob is destined to be the spiritual heir of Isaac, and it looks like their relationship with Isaac, and their communication are not at their best at this point—something has definitely changed in their relationship over these long years. We spoke previously about Isaac and Rebecca being a very loving and tender couple, and indeed they were. But it seems to be very different now: this one small detail about Rebecca overhearing their conversation, speaks volumes. Isaac was planning to bless their firstborn son and he “forgot” to tell Rebecca about it! She just “happened to hear it”— or did she overhear it on purpose? It’s a very big deal, this blessing, and it should be a family event; the fact that he didn’t tell her, unfortunately, means a lot. This couple, who used to have such a tender and close relationship, now seem to barely communicate at all. Is it because of their parental favoritism, because each one of them prefers a different son? Or because of chapter 26 – another sister/wife story? We are not told, but the fact is, they don’t seem to talk anymore and Rebecca is on her own in her decision-making. She had probably long been apprehensive of some such event, maybe even on the lookout for it. And here it comes: in a few hours, the blessing might be lost for Jacob forever—or so she thought. What will she decide?
What Most People Don’t Realize
The story that we are dealing with – the story of the “stolen blessing” – as with every other narrative, can be looked at from the different perspectives. We can try to see it through Jacob’s eyes, Isaac’s eyes or Esau’s eyes – and each additional angle would certainly deepen our understanding. Here, however, we will try to see it through Rebecca’s eyes, as we are putting the finishing strokes on our biblical portrait of this beautiful godly woman.
I would like to remind you of two things we have already learned about Rebecca —two things that most people don’t realize when thinking of this story. First, she is a very old woman by now. If her sons are 77 years old, she is more than one hundred. Think of it: Many, many years ago, when she was a young woman, when she was pregnant, she received a prophecy from God and all these years she has been patiently waiting for this prophecy to be fulfilled. However, the years went by and nothing happened. By now, not only is she tired of waiting, but she has probably – because such is our human nature – been having haunting thoughts, such as: What if it’s my fault? Did God want me to do something, and I just missed it?
And she has no-one to share these thoughts with. Because the second thing we learned, was about her changed, or even damaged relationship with Isaac. Could it be a tragic aftermath of their sister/wife story in Gerar, when Isaac was unwilling to name Rebekah as his wife? It certainly seems like this. In Genesis 25, we still find them being very close: Isaac is faithfully interceding for his wife in this chapter, while in Genesis 27 we see a completely different picture already: Isaac is planning to bless Esau, and he is not sharing this with Rebecca. Something changed dramatically between chapters 25 and 27, and it would be a safe guess to suggest that it happened in chapter 26, after the sister/wife story. As my dear friend Henrietta Wisbey wrote, responding to my thoughts about Isaac and Rebecca in the class: “Maybe there has been a wounding, a betrayal of trust, especially with one who has been entrusted with the guardianship of that relationship—perhaps some damage has occurred which reveals itself over a period of time and there is a gradual erosion, a wearing away of the desire to share the secrets of one’s heart. Consequently, there is a closing up, a withdrawal and consequent loss.”
The Main Question
So, there is a closing up, a withdrawal and consequent loss, and as a result Rebecca is completely alone with her thoughts. I believe she thinks a lot about those crucial moments of her life: when, as a young girl she said “yes” to the servant and to God so unreservedly and so boldly, and when, 20 years later she finally became pregnant and heard God speak to her about her sons. Perhaps she compares these stories: as a young girl she was very decisive, not afraid to take very bold actions, and maybe now God is again waiting for her decision, for her decisive action? She had been waiting upon the Lord for so long, and perhaps she thinks that God is waiting for her response – as He waited then, almost a hundred years ago. Isn’t it a question we all struggle with at times: should I just wait upon the Lord – or is there something He wants me to do?
We might remember here that the first audience of the book of Genesis was the generation of the Exodus. The stories of Genesis, first of all, were meant to speak deeply and convincingly to the Israelites who had just left Egypt and sought to survive as a people. The question that Rebecca is struggling with was also very relevant for the generation of the Exodus: Does God remember what He said? So many years have passed – does he remember His own promise? Is He going to fulfill His word?
Perhaps these were the thoughts running through Rebecca’s head when our story began and she overheard the conversation between Isaac and Esau. It might have seemed to her that finally the moment had come for her quick decision and actions; once again, like in Genesis 24, she needed to make a very quick decision; once again, it was a matter of just a few hours before something irreparable and irreversible happened. Had not God distinctly pointed out Jacob as heir to His promises and to Abraham’s blessing? She will only be fulfilling the will of God; she will be doing the right thing, trying to prevent her husband from a terrible mistake—from blessing the wrong son. There is no doubt that she loves both sons: Genesis 27:45 shows that very clearly—she is a mother who loves both her children, but loves them differently. She knows God’s will, and once again, as in Genesis 24, she is able to make a very quick decision—saying “yes” to God’s will. She is saying “yes” to God. She is choosing very questionable means, of course, but probably her heart was all about pleasing God and fulfilling His will.
That is why we also need to look for the deeper, prophetic layers of this story, because there is certainly more to this narrative than just moral question marks: this story is one of the deepest and most prophetic stories found in the book of Genesis. There are many deep connections and hints to be found here. For example, two goats, as Rashi pointed out: why did Isaac’s menu consist of two goats? Or the special garment of Esau that Rebecca gave to Jacob: this double set – the special clothes and the slaughtered animal – occurs several times in the book of Genesis, and each time it covers up some serious sin, starting from the Fall in Genesis 3: “According to Midrash, Esau’s treasured garments which were kept with Rebekah, were the same garments that God had made for Adam. This Midrash is supported by the fact that the first two times that we find the words skin and clothed in the Torah are in the stories of Adam and Eve, and Rebekah and her sons, respectively. It is said that Rebekah dressed Jacob in these vestments from Eden, as if to say, ‘In the very same skins that Adam wore, when he was expelled from the Garden, shall you wear, when you bring your father the savory food that I have prepared’. The garments that marked man’s expulsion from the Garden shall mark the beginning of his return.’”.
-  Gen. 24:64
-  Gen. Rabbah, 60:14
-  Gen.24:67
-  Gen.25:21
-  Gen. 30:2
-  Gen.25:22
-  Deut.4:29
-  Gen.25:23
-  Gen.25:28
-  Gen.26:12
-  Gen.24:67
-  Israel Yuval, Two nations in your womb, p. 32
-  Gen.25:27
-  Gen.27:27
-  Gen.25:27
-  Gen.47:9
-  Gen.41:46
-  Gen.45:6,11
-  Gen.37:3
-  Gen.30:25
-  Gen.31:38,41
-  Gen.35:28,29
-  Gen.27:5
-  Bread of Life Torah studies, Dorothy Healy