After coming down from Mount Sinai and the death of his mother, Sarah, Isaac was in a bit of a funk. He may not have been on speaking terms with his father and had gone off with his mother’s tent to live near Beer-lahai-roi, in the south of Israel. Abraham knew that the future of his line, of God’s promise, rested in the unsteady hands of his second son. But Abraham had a plan to set things right: he would find a bride for Isaac, someone that could take his mind away from his troubles. It was time for some matchmaking!
Although this is Isaac’s second story as an adult, this is really the story of Abraham’s final victory. This is the moment when he makes his inheritance secure and could go off and be happy on his own. In the process, we also get to meet one of the strong-willed wives of the patriarchs, Rebekah. What are you waiting for? Read on!
Why Can’t Isaac Just Marry a Canaanite?
One note before we begin, I’m using the NIV for quotes this time. Both the old JPS and KJV use some shockingly archaic language when translating this chapter and I find it more distracting than helpful.
This chapter begins with Abraham asking his servant, possibly Eliezer, to find a bride for his son. But not just any bride, it had to be a woman from his homeland, not Canaan.
“Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but will go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.”
Why would Abraham ask this of his servant? There’s really two parts to this question. First, why does he need to find a bride himself? And why not with the Canaanites. Actually, I think the two questions are closely related.
The hint actually comes from Genesis 26:2. There is a famine in the land– again– and Isaac wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and hoof it to Egypt. But God puts His foot down and says “live in the land where I tell you to live”. He orders Isaac to stay in Israel. And rabbinical authorities have wondered why. And while I don’t have a specific textual reference, this has been explained to me that because of Isaac’s experience on Mount Sinai, he was effectively barred from every leaving God’s land. Just being up there on the altar was enough to sanctify him in a way that his father and his descendants will not be. There’s a ton more midrash about Isaac, especially in much later Jewish thought, but this bit that God has commanded him to stay in Israel is the part that I think has the most textual foundation. Even then, it’s a bit weak, but it’s what I have.
So, Isaac can’t leave to find his own bride. What’s a man to do? Inter-marry with the locals. That is the traditional habit, after all. You can’t look at the history of any invasion in just about any time period and not see the strangers in the strange lands finding strange wives and settling down. But Abraham didn’t want Isaac to do this. Why?
We already say that Abraham was incestuously intent on the purity of his line. He married his sister, after all. Isaac didn’t have any sisters (thankfully Ishmael was a boy!) and so Abraham had to turn to Isaac’s cousins for that close kinship. It could also have been simply to prevent Isaac from worshipping idols (and women were consistently capable of convincing their men to do that in the bible) or to ensure that Canaanite leaders didn’t have any claim on Abraham’s substancial inheritance. Any of those could be it, or a combination.
Abraham’s Servant in Aram-naharaim
Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, taking all kinds of choice gifts from his master; and he set out and went to Aram-naharaim, to the city of Nahor. He made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water; it was toward evening, the time when women go out to draw water.
Abraham’s servant departed from Abraham with a fine set of gifts for Isaac’s future wife, including some camels. While I still find this inverse-dowry to be curious, I’m not sure of the customs in Canaan at the time and Isaac’s son Jacob will also pay for both of his wives. When the servant left, Abraham promised him that an angel of God would be coming along on this trip and would help find Isaac a bride, so when they arrived the servant called on that angel for assistance:
And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”
This was a surprisingly explicit request for God, I might have suggested he take it no farther than “grant me success today”, but it seems that God heard him since pretty much immediately, Rebekah arrived:
Before he had finished speaking, there was Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, coming out with her water jar on her shoulder. […] Then the servant ran to meet her and said, “Please let me sip a little water from your jar.” “Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.” […] The man gazed at her in silence to learn whether or not the Lord had made his journey successful.
Admittedly, God didn’t have her speak exactly according to the script, but the servant still wasn’t completely positive that this was the woman that he had been sent to find. It all went so easily! The next step was to make sure that she was of Abraham’s kin. They were far out of Canaan, but he needed to be sure that it wasn’t just a coincidence. So, he gave her a few trinkets of gold and asked her. As expected, she was the one that he was looking for:
She said to him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor.” […] The man bowed his head and worshiped the Lord and said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the Lord has led me on the way to the house of my master’s kin.”
If you find this genealogy confusing, it’s because it is. Thankfully, I made a chart. Isaac is Rebekah’s first cousin once removed through Nahor, but also her first cousin twice removed through Haran. Obviously close enough that they are kin, but far enough that the incest is limited– and not nearly as bad as Nahor marrying his niece, but that is another story.
The point is: God had provided! Of course, per Abraham’s wishes, she had to be able to turn down the request. And so the servant went off with Rebekah to her home where he proceeded to retell the whole story again, all the way up to meeting Rebekah at the well. Numerous commentaries point to the subtle differences between the way the servant and the narrator presents the events, though unlike when I looked at something similar with Deborah, I don’t see the changes as being anything more than just variations in the way people speak, but feel free to take a good look and decide for yourself.
Finally, the servant asked the final question: would she come with him to be Isaac’s bride? The answer isn’t surprising:
Then Laban and Bethuel answered, “The thing comes from the Lord; we cannot speak to you anything bad or good. Look, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.”
Incidentally, Laban is Rebekah’s brother and will be popping back into this story very shortly. The family requested that the servant remain with them for ten days– probably due to another custom which is not well-explained in the bible– but they refused and Rebekah agreed to go with him early. Together, they march off toward the Negev desert in the distant south of Israel where she can finally meet her husband to be:
And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, “It is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her.
- Rebekah and her family are wealthy, so wealthy that she even takes servants with her when she goes to live with Isaac. And yet Rebekah was at the well gathering water by herself when the servant approached. Why is that? Of course, it is all arranged by God so she could have been told to go, or simply inspired to go off to the well herself that day.
- Abraham’s servant gives many gifts to her family, but also to Rebekah herself. Were those gifts a sneaky way to help our Isaac without being obvious about it?
- I asked in a previous post why Abraham didn’t go himself. I’ve decided that the answer is less nefarious: it was a 500 mile trek to make it to Rebekah’s family and back to southern Israel where Isaac was living. Even if Abraham were strong enough to remarry and have six more kids, he wouldn’t necessarily have felt up to that kind of journey. He was 140 at the time.
With Abraham’s lineage secure, we’re just about to get into the birth of Jacob and Esau, but first we have some final caps on the story of Abraham.
Up next: Abraham remarries!
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