Rebekah part 1
by John Thomas Lowe
Rebecca appears in the Hebrew Bible1 as Isaac’s wife and the mother of Jacob and Esau. According to biblical tradition, Rebecca's father was Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram, also called Aram-Naharaim. Rebecca's brother was Laban the Aramean, and she was the granddaughter of Milcah and Nahor, the brother of Abraham. Rebecca and Isaac were one of the four couples that some believe are buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs, the other three being Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, and Jacob and Leah.
When a famine strikes Canaan, Rebekah follows Isaac to the land of Gerar. Fearing he will be killed on Rebekah's account, Isaac tells the Philistines who live there that his beautiful Rebekah is his sister. Much like her predecessor, Sarah, the wife of Abraham, Rebekah acts the part of a single woman "for a long time."
Despite Isaac's affection, like several other important biblical women, Rebekah remains infertile for many years. However, her pregnancy is exceedingly difficult due to the child(ren) struggling in her womb. Finally, after 20 years of marriage, Isaac's prayers are answered when she conceives.
After the Binding (marriage) of Isaac, Sarah died. After taking care of her burial, Abraham went about finding a wife for his son Isaac, who was already 37 years old. He commanded his servant (whom the Torah commentators identify as Eliezer of Damascus) to journey to his birthplace of Aram Naharaim to select a bride from his own family rather than engage Isaac with a local Canaanite girl. If the girl had refused to follow him, Abraham stated that Eliezer would be released from his responsibility. Abraham sent along with expensive jewelry, clothing, and dainties as gifts to the bride and her family.
The servant devised a test to find the right wife for Isaac. As he stood at the central well in Abraham's birthplace with his men and ten camels laden with goods, he prayed to God:
Moreover, let it come to pass that the damsel to whom I shall say, Let down thy pitcher, I pray thee, that I may drink; and she shall say, Drink, and I will give thy camels also drink: let the same be she that thou hast appointed for thy servant Isaac; and thereby shall I know that thou hast showed kindness unto my master.— Genesis 24:14
Rebecca Meets Isaac by the Way
To his surprise, a young girl immediately came out and offered to draw water for him to drink and fill the troughs for all his camels. Rebecca continued to draw water until all the camels were satisfied, proving her kind and generous nature and her suitability for entering Abraham's household.
The servant immediately gave her a golden nose ring and two golden bracelets (Genesis 24:22), which Rebecca hurried to show her mother. Seeing the jewelry, Rebecca's brother Laban ran out to greet the guest and bring him inside. The servant related the oath he made to Abraham and all the details of his trip to and meeting with Rebecca in fine detail, after which her brother Laban and her father Bethuel agreed that she could return with him. After hosting the party overnight, however, the family tried to keep Rebecca with them longer. The servant insisted that they ask the girl herself, and she agreed to go immediately. Her family sent her off with her nurse, Deborah (according to Rashi), and blessed her, "Our sister, may you come to be thousands of multitudes, and may your offspring inherit the gate of its foes."
Rebecca at the Well
As Rebecca and her entourage approached Abraham's home, they spied Isaac from a distance in the fields of Beer-lahai-roi. The Talmud and the Midrash explain that Isaac was praying as he instituted Mincha, the afternoon prayer. Seeing such a spiritually exalted man, Rebecca immediately dismounted from her camel and asked the accompanying servant who he was. When she heard that this was her future husband, she modestly covered herself with a veil. Isaac brought her into the tent of his deceased mother Sarah, married her, and loved her.
According to Rashi, the three miracles that characterized Sarah's tent while alive and disappeared after her death reappeared when Rebecca entered the tent. These were: A lamp burned in her tent from Shabbat eve to Shabbat eve, a blessing in her dough, and a cloud hovered over her tent (symbolizing the Divine Presence).
Some of the events leading up to the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca have been institutionalized in the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony. Before the bride and bridegroom stand under the chuppah, they participate in a special ceremony called badeken (veiling). The bridegroom is led to the bride by two escorts and, seeing her, covers her face with a veil, like Rebecca covered her face before marrying Isaac. Then the bridegroom (or the father of the bride, or the officiating rabbi) recites the same blessing over the bride that Rebecca's family recited over her, "Our sister, may you come to be thousands of multitudes, and may your offspring inherit the gate of its foes."
Marriage and motherhood
According to the traditional counting cited by Rashi, Isaac was 37 years old at the time of the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. The reasoning for that age is that Sarah, who gave birth to Isaac when she was ninety, died after the wedding when she was 127 years old, making Isaac around 37. Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebecca. Twenty years elapsed before they had children; throughout that time, both Isaac and Rebecca prayed fervently to God for offspring. God eventually answered Isaac's prayers, and Rebecca conceived.
Rebecca was extremely uncomfortable during her pregnancy and went to inquire about God because she was suffering. According to the Midrash, Jacob would struggle to come out whenever she would pass a house of Torah study; whenever she would pass a house of idolatry, Esau would agitate to come out. Thinking that she was carrying one baby displaying conflicting tendencies, Rebecca sought enlightenment at the yeshiva of Shem and Eber. There she received the prophecy that twins were fighting in her womb and would continue to fight all their lives. The prophecy also said that the older would serve the younger; its statement, "One people will be stronger than the other," has been taken to mean that the two nations will never gain power simultaneously; when one falls, the other will rise, and vice versa.
According to tradition, Rebecca did not share the prophecy with her husband.
When the time came for Rebecca to give birth, the first child to come out emerged red and hairy all over; with his heel grasped by the hand of the second to come out, onlookers named the first born Esau ('Esav or 'Esaw, meaning either "rough," "sensibly felt," "handled," from Hebrew:'asah, "do" or "make"; or "completely developed," from Hebrew 'assui, since Esau had as much hair as a child who was much older) The second was named, Jacob (Ya'aqob or Ya'aqov, meaning "heel-catcher," "supplanter," "leg-puller," "he who follows upon the heels of one," from Hebrew: 'aqab or 'aqav, "seize by the heel," "circumvent,” "restrain,” a wordplay upon Hebrew: 'iqqebah or 'iqqbah, "heel"). The Bible states that Isaac was sixty years old when the twins were born.
The Midrash says that as boys, people did not notice much difference between them. When they reached 13, Jacob busied himself in the house of study, while Esau busied himself with idolatry. The descriptions of the two young men hint at their opposing spiritual natures: "The lads grew up and Esau became one who knows hunting, a man of the field; but Jacob was a wholesome man, abiding in tents.” The description of Esau as a "hunter" hints at his skill of trapping his father with his mouth; for example, he would ask Isaac whether tithes should be taken from salt and straw, making his father think he was scrupulous in keeping the mitzvahs. Scripture notes that their parents' attitudes toward the boys differed: "Isaac loved Esau because he did eat of hunting, but Rebecca loved Jacob.”
According to the Talmud, Jacob prepared a lentil stew as a traditional mourner's meal for his father, Isaac. The Hebrew Bible states that Esau, returning famished from the fields, begged Jacob to give him some of the stew. (Esau referred to the dish as "that red, red stuff," giving rise to his nickname, Hebrew ('Edom, meaning "Red"). Jacob offered Esau a bowl of stew in exchange for his birthright (the right to be recognized as firstborn), and Esau agreed. The Talmudic dating indicates both men were 15 years old at the time.
Later, a famine struck the land of Israel, and Isaac moved his family, upon God's command, to Gerar, which was ruled by Abimelech, king of the Philistines. Like Abraham before him, who called Sarah his "sister" rather than his "wife" so that the Egyptians would not kill him and take his wife, Isaac told the people of Gerar that Rebecca was his sister. She was not molested, but one day Abimelech looked through the window and saw Isaac "sporting" (a euphemism for sexual play) with her. Abimelech called Isaac on his lie and warned others not to touch Rebecca. Eventually, Isaac parted from Abimelech in peace.
At 40 (the same age his father had been when he married), Esau took two Hittite wives, Judith, the daughter of Beeri, and Basemath, the daughter of Elon. She annoyed Isaac and Rebecca to no end, as these women were idol-worshippers. One reason Isaac became blind in his old age was the smoke of the incense these women offered to their idols.