Who was the servant that Abraham sent away to find a bride for Isaac? The bible itself does not say, but out of habit I referred to him as Eliezer when I posted about the text on Facebook. Both Jewish and Christian sources agree that Eliezer, a man otherwise mentioned only once in Genesis 15, was the servant that Abraham entrusted the future of his line to.
This post is brought to you thanks to the generous help of Jeremy from Study With Jeremy. I’ve misplaced my copy of Genesis Rabbah and he was kind enough to delve into the original Hebrew to help bring this mystery to a satisfactory conclusion.
So, who was this Eliezer fellow anyway? Sounds like a great mystery! Read on for more.
To find Eliezer of Damascus, we have to rewind the biblical story around fifty years to a time when Abraham did not yet have children with Sarah or Hagar. Abram, not yet called Abraham, begins to fear that God’s promise will be lost because he has no children. Without a son, Abraham can never be the patriarch of a nation. And if he dies without children, Eliezer of Damascus would be the one to inherit his lands:
After these things the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am thy shield, thy reward shall be exceeding great.’ And Abram said: ‘O Lord GOD, what wilt Thou give me, seeing I go hence childless, and he that shall be possessor of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’
Translations differ, but Eliezer is variously described as Abraham’s steward or chief servant, effectively Abraham’s right hand man. I like to imagine him as something of Abraham’s executive officer, responsible for the day to day running of the extended household while Abraham had his mind on the big picture. He must have been very close to be so trusted and yet nothing more is said of him in the Torah. This is the only time that Eliezer is named.
Eliezer in the Rescue of Lot
In Jewish tradition, remarked on by Rashi and others, the true beginning to Eliezer’s story is in Genesis 14. In that chapter, Abraham’s nephew Lot was kidnapped and Abraham was forced to travel far, to war against kings, to return him. On that expedition, Abraham chased them nearly to Damascus (around 135 miles away) before succeeding:
And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued as far as Dan. And he divided himself against them by night, he and his servants, and smote them, and pursued them unto Hobah, which is on the left hand of Damascus. And he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his brother Lot, and his goods, and the women also, and the people.
Although several legends suggest that Eliezer’s story began with this trip north, they do not agree on how he came to be in Abraham’s service. Rashi and others speculate on whether “of Damascus” refers to where he was born or where he did a great deed. Could he have been a servant that Abraham brought north with him? In that case, his great victory near Damascus would have been how he would be remembered forever more. Alternatively, he could have been a native of the land that would eventually become Syria who joined Abraham when he saw that his quest was noble. Still others suggest that he was a servant given to Abraham as spoils of war. The bible spells out none of these, yet the fact that Abraham nearly visited Damascus one chapter earlier suggests that there may have been a connection.
Eliezer and the Search for Isaac’s Wife
Fast forward back to where we are in the narrative, when Abraham needs someone to find a wife for Isaac, he turns to “his servant, the elder of his house”. He trusts him to do it, and yet he still requires him to swear a powerful oath that he will complete the task. This is described at the beginning of Genesis 24:
And Abraham said unto his servant, the elder of his house, that ruled over all that he had: ‘Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh[…]”
On the face of it, it makes sense that this anonymous servant would have been Eliezer of Damascus. He had once been in his line of succession, so must have been the elder of the house. And yet, the bible doesn’t tell us that. It leaves the servant– who otherwise is a major character with his own voice– nameless. Why?
Where Does the Eliezer Identification Come From?
With Jeremy’s help, we were able to confirm that Eliezer is assumed to be the servant way back in Genesis Rabbah, one of the oldest sources of Jewish midrash, compiled around 400 CE. Since he was working from the Hebrew, I can’t illuminate this with quotes, but the passage assumes that it is well-known that they are the same and does not offer an explanation.
While there are not many older sources, one that I enjoy reading is the Book of Jubilees, an apocryphal book of the Hebrew Bible written around 150 BCE. This book was cherished by the Dead Sea Scrolls community at Qumran and was probably considered part of their “bible”, so it had a place among Jewish folklore prior to the advent of Christianity. The book is mostly a retelling of Genesis with a specific theological bent, but it omits the role of Abraham’s servant entirely, stating only that Abraham found Isaac a wife.
While this is by no means an exhaustive search, it confirms that the identification of Genesis 24 with Eliezer is nearly two thousand years old. No wonder every study bible I checked (save the Robert Alter translation of the Torah) made a note either explicitly identifying Eliezer as the servant or saying that many people believed he was.
Arguments Against Eliezer
For me, the question about Eliezer comes down to simple arithmetic. By the time he would be sent away to find Isaac a bride, he must have been in his 70s. At this point in the bible, most characters are depicted as having an unusually long lifespan, though it is unclear if this extends beyond the patriarchal line. God may have blessed Eliezer with the same longevity as his master. Even so, is it unreasonable to suspect that Abraham could have found another chief servant in all of those years? No. Perhaps the reason the servant is anonymous is precisely because he was not Eliezer.
For me, it comes down to how comfortable we are reading between the lines. Does making Eliezer the servant in Genesis 24 add to our understanding of the story? It may, if we applaud his loyalty or admire his humility. To be anonymous is perhaps his greatest deed, ensuring Abraham’s family line, is a beautiful thought. And yet, the focus of the story must be on Abraham and Isaac and Abraham’s intense desire to comfort his son while ensuring the longevity of his line. Ironically, the ambiguity of this text makes us want to read it deeper and gain a more full understanding and that is never a bad thing!
Up next: Continuing the story of Isaac and Rebekah