Chayyei Sarah: Consenting Bride

Two people never “marry” in the Torah; biblical Hebrew has no separate word for “marry”.  Instead, a man “takes a wife”, or someone else takes a wife for him.  In a culture dominated by men, a woman never “takes” a husband for herself.

The book of Genesis/Bereishit uses the verb “take” 138 times, and fully 40 of those times refer to taking a wife or concubine.  Some individual men take wives for themselves: Lamekh, Abraham, Nachor, Pharaoh, Avimelekh, Esau, and Judah.  But Sarah “takes” her slave-woman Hagar and gives her to Abraham as a second wife. Hagar takes a wife for her son Ishmael from the land of Egypt (Genesis 21:21).  Lavan takes his daughter Leah to be a wife for Jacob.  Both of Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel, take their slave-women and give them to Jacob as wives.  Judah takes a wife for his son Eir.  And in this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah (Life of Sarah), Abraham’s steward takes a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac.

Abraham does not even tell Isaac he is arranging a marriage for him. (They may not be on speaking terms, since Abraham put a knife to his son’s throat in last week’s Torah portion.) Instead, Abraham has his steward arrange the marriage, and he makes the man swear, in a formal ceremony, that he will not take a Canaanite wife for Isaac. (See my earlier blog posting, “Chayyei Sarah: A Peculiar Oath“.) The steward, who is called Abraham’s “senior servant”, must go to his master’s relatives back in Aram to find the wife.

The servant said to him: Perhaps the isha will not consent to go after me to this land; then, surely, won’t I bring your son back to the land which you left? (Genesis/Bereishit 24:5)

isha = wife; woman

This is the only marriage arrangement in the Torah in which the woman’s consent is mentioned. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that her consent is not necessary for the marriage, only for moving to the land where her bridegroom lives. If the bride refuses to move, then Isaac could only fulfill his duties as a husband by moving to the bride’s city.

But Abraham tells his steward that he must not bring Isaac to the land of Aram under any circumstances. If the wife he finds in Aram refuses to follow him to Canaan, then the marriage is off, and the steward is absolved of his oath. As many commentators have pointed out, Abraham seems to fear that if Isaac ever leaves Canaan, he will never return. He knows Isaac is a  peacemaker who lacks initiative. But God has promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants through Isaac. So he insists that Isaac must stay in Canaan.

Why does he also insist that Isaac must not marry a Canaanite, and send his steward off to take a wife for Isaac from his relatives in Aram? For one theory on why Abraham’s family does so much intermarriage, see my post Book of Genesis: Inbreeding. Traditional commentary also points out that Isaac’s ideal wife must resemble Abraham; Abraham stipulates that she must come from the same family, and she, too, must be willing to to to a strange land, while Abraham’s steward stipulates that she must be as generously hospitable as Abraham.

When the steward reaches the city of Nachor in Aram, the first teenage girl he encounters is Rebecca, who proves to be extraordinarily generous, watering all ten of his camels and offering his whole caravan food and lodging for the night. She is also a close relative: the granddaughter of Nachor (Abraham’s brother) and Milkah (Abraham’s niece by another brother). The only requirement left is that she will agree to go to Canaan.

But first Rebecca’s parents must agree to the marriage. The steward has loaded the ten camels with gifts, and before he even asks her about her lineage, he gives Rebecca a gold nose ring and two gold bracelets. The Torah does not describe her reaction to this gift, but she would recognize it as first installment of the bride-price for a marriage arrangement.

The teenage girl ran, and she told her mother’s household about these events. (Genesis 24:28)

Why does the male-oriented Torah refer to her mother’s household, when both her father Betu-el and her brother Lavan are living there? Perhaps when Rebecca’s parents married, her father Betu-el went to live with his wife’s family–just as later in the book of Genesis, Jacob lives with his father-in-law and uncle, Lavan. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein has suggested that it was the custom in Rebecca’s family of origin for the groom to join the bride’s household, rather than the groom’s household.

The stories about Abraham’s family are probably set sometime between 1800 and 1500 BCE, when Aram was a region of Assyria in northern Mesopotamia, and would have followed the Babylonian customs during the reign of Hammurabi.  The Code of Hammurabi includes both a law relating to when a young married couple is living with the groom’s parents, and a law relating to when they are living with the bride’s parents. So it is plausible that an Aramean family might have a tradition that the groom always moves in with bride’s family.

Presumably both Abraham and his steward know about this family tradition, and therefore know that the bride’s willingness to leave her mother’s house and travel to Canaan will be critical.

Rebecca’s father, mother, and brother agree to the proposed marriage on the same day the steward arrives in their house–perhaps because of the large bride-price, or perhaps because the steward’s story proves that the marriage is the will of the god that they, as well as Abraham, worship. But accepting the bride-price is only the first step in an arranged marriage.

Ancient Mesopotamian texts match the sequence in this week’s Torah portion:

1) The prospective husband, or his representative, gives the prospective bride’s parents the bride-price (her purchase price) as a “gift”. The parents (but not the bride) decide whether to accept the bride-price.

2) The two families draw up a marriage contract, which lists the bride-price and any stipulations. Now the bride and groom are betrothed, but the bride remains in her parents’ house.

3) The bride’s family gives the bride all or most of the bride-price, and adds some of their own wealth as a dowry for their daughter. This combined wealth will be controlled by the husband until he dies or divorces his wife; then the property (land, slaves, furniture, jewelry, gold, or silver) reverts to the wife.

4) The bride and groom themselves join hands (sometimes meeting for the first time) and the groom utters a wedding formula in front of a qualified witness.

5) The marriage is consummated in private.

Abraham’s steward gives Rebecca’s family a handsome bride-price, and they accept it. Presumably they write a marriage contract. The next morning, the steward asks permission to return to his master.

Her brother said, and her mother: The (teenage) girl will stay with us, yamim or ten; afterward, she will go. (Genesis 24:55)

yamim = days (literally); some while, about a year (figuratively)

And he said to them: Don’t hold back on me, when God made my journey successful; send me, and I will go to my lord. And they said: We will call the girl, and we will ask her [for a decision from] her mouth. And they called to Rebecca and they said to her: Will you go with this man? And she said: I will go. (Genesis 24:56-58)

Rebecca has a choice. She could insist on staying with her family in Aram, betrothed but not yet married, until Isaac himself shows up. Instead, she decides to go with the steward she met only the day before, and live with her new husband in Canaan. She willingly commits herself not only to a man she has never met, but also to a land she has never seen.

I admire Rebecca’s courage–all the more so because  she must have grown up expecting that her parents would marry her to a man who would come and live with them. Her husband would be new, but the rest of her household would remain the same. And she would have no say in the arrangement.

With the arrival of Abraham’s steward, Rebecca suddenly gets a choice. And she makes her choice instantly and decisively, just as she decides to water all ten camels despite the great effort required.

I am fortunate enough to live in a society in which women can make many choices about their lives. But if someday I am given a totally unexpected choice, I pray that I may see the opportunity, and choose as boldly as Rebecca.

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