The text we’re studying for Sunday, October 28 is Genesis 24 – specifically, Genesis 21:12-24 & 61-67. This is one way to zero in on a part of the long narrative that brings Rebecca (Rivkah) into the family story.
It feels a little wrong to ignore the fact that Genesis 24 is a single, integrated narrative. On the other hand, chapter 24 is also the longest single chapter in the book of Genesis, so that integrated narrative is, well, long. Way too long for the usual notes.
The intent of the lesson planners seems to be to focus on portions of the narrative that feature Rebekah. With that in mind, it might make some sense to take a closer look at verses 15-28 (from Rebekah’s first entrance through her speaking to her mother about the emissary), and then verses 57-67 (Rebekah’s decision to leave her family through to the end of the narrative), while keeping in mind the context of the whole chapter.
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Clearly, we are working our way through the “Bible stories” of Genesis, starting with creation, touching on Noah’s ark, and then checking the boxes on the patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah and Rachel. From this perspective, we’re on the “middle couple” in that series. We noted last week we were going to skip over sad and scary parts: Sodom and Gomorrah and the undoing of Lot’s family; the binding of Isaac; the death of Sarah (traditionally, not unconnected to that binding of Isaac), and the fascinating episode of Abraham’s negotiation with the local sheikhs for the land and cave for her burial in chapter 23.
Now, then, Abraham sets the plot in motion at the beginning of chapter 24 by being old (which we already knew) and sending his “servant” off on a mission to bring back a wife for Isaac from “my country and my kindred” (v4). Traditionally, interpreters have thought this servant is Eliezer of Damascus, mentioned by Abraham much earlier in the story (Genesis 15:2), so let’s go with that.
This exchange between Abraham and Eliezer establishes four things: that the matter is of the gravest seriousness; that the Canaanites are out as marriage partners; that the willingness of “the woman” to follow … to this land is the critical factor (vv 5, 8) in the success of the mission; but that Isaac himself mustn’t “go back,” as if there is some danger associated with being in Haran. Now there is an element of suspense. We know that God is on the job (v7); so the decisive question of the narrative has become what “the woman” is going to do.
It’s not just any woman. It’s “the” woman. (Midrash tells us she was born the day Abraham took Isaac up to Mt. Moriah, which Abraham knows, from God.)
If this story were a play or a movie, however, whoever plays Eliezer would have to get top billing. He’s in almost every scene, with the exception of the one-sentence scene of v28. He takes the most actions, he says the most words, and his decisions are indispensable to the success of the story, in particular his choice of the test at the well, and his insistence on leaving Haran immediately in v56. He could be a model of what it means to go on a mission and fulfill it.
CLOSER READING: There is a lot of midrash concerning Rebekah, who is a prophet, a model of righteousness, and the mother of the nation of Israel.
Rebecca shows up immediately when Eliezer prays – the Hebrew word hineh (think of Samuel or Isaiah “here I am!”).
The narrator has to tell us she has the right family, the right appearance, and the right sexual history. That is, we know she has the right visible and invisible characteristics.
Rebekah herself, however reveals her essential character by her actions and words: she goes out to draw water, she is kind to Eliezer, she is modest (in setting down her water pitcher), she generously offers to water the camels, and then she follows through and doesn’t ask for help with that enormous task. (However, we are told that the spring miraculously rises up to make her task easier.) And she extends the hospitality of the household – more than Eliezer has asked for, in fact, because he asks for one night, and she responds with an offer of more than one night.
The gifts Eliezer gives in v22 are lavish. They are taken as symbols of Torah (“two” being the two tablets and “ten” being the commandments).
We don’t hear Rebekah’s description of the encounter, but we do hear Eliezer’s – at length. (Cf. v28 with vv42-48.)
We realize from vv23 & 32 that this whole episode has taken place in front of a group of people from Abraham’s household, though this is the first we’ve been told about it. Does this mean that Rebekah is un-self-conscious?
V29-30 Laban’s first entrance, which reveals the central character trait he will continue to reveal in every other story in which he appears: blatantly mercenary. Rebekah doesn’t get her good qualities from her family or her environment, which makes her even more exceptional.
If we skip ahead to vv56-57: this is the critical scene. Does it seem like Mom and Brother Laban are leaning on Rebekah a little bit here? Maybe. We know they are trying to keep her here for awhile longer … why? Family feeling? Or some nefarious purpose? (I go with nefarious purpose, as does the midrash.) But, after all the negotiations that seem to have gone on without her, here she gets a say in the matter.
Drama. Rebekah says “I will go.”
Faith? Maybe. Determination to take the first opportunity that presents itself to get away from her [horrible] family? Would that be incompatible with faith?
Whatever human or supernatural explanation, in leaving Haran, her family, “her mother’s house,” and following the servant to the unspecified land, she becomes a female analog to Abraham.
The similarity to Abraham is reinforced in v60 when her family refers to the gates of their foes, which the angel said to Abraham in chapter 22.
Rebekah and her maids, evidently a whole entourage, rose up, rode off, and went (v61), which is the way the servant took and went – that is, again, it’s Rebekah’s action that constitutes the hinge of this story. No looking back in this story.
And then, if we go with the midrash, which would be our most pleasant option, there is a happy ending to this story, because when Rebekah sees Isaac in v64 she’s so overwhelmed that she falls off her camel. And Isaac loves her, too, and there are blessings all around.
By this time, I want this for Rebekah. Because someone this exceptional, and determined, and brave (or faithful or perhaps desperate or all of those) in the face of uncertainty I want to see rewarded for all of that. And that’s how this story goes.