Camels are the key to Isaac’s marriage in this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah (“the life of Sarah”), so called because it opens with the death of Isaac’s mother, Sarah.
Isaac does not pick out his own wife. When he turns 40—a good time for a man to marry, by Torah standards—his father, Abraham, orders his steward to find Isaac a wife. Isaac is not present, and as far as we know, the father and son are not on speaking terms. In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, Isaac let his father bind him on an altar as a sacrifice for God. An angelic voice stopped Abraham when his knife touched his son’s throat. After sacrificing a ram instead, Abraham left the hilltop alone. Isaac is missing from the story for a while; he does not even appear at his mother’s funeral. Only in this week’s portion do we learn that he is living in a remote and isolated spot south of Beer-sheva, near Beer-lachai-Roi, “Well of the Living One Who Sees Me”. (See my earlier post, Chayyei Sarah: A Holy Place.)
Nevertheless, Abraham sends off his steward to make a match for his missing son, stipulating only that the woman must come from his own extended family in Charan (the Aramaean town Abraham left 65 years before), and that she must be willing to move to Canaan.
The steward selects ten of Abraham’s riding camels, some treasures for his own pack, and some servants to lead the camels. (In the world of the Hebrew Bible, the only people who ride camels or donkeys are women, children, and disabled men.) The camels and men walk all the way to Charan.
And he made the gemalim kneel outside the city, toward the well of water, at evening time, the time when the women drawing water go out. (Genesis 24:11)
gemalim (גְמַלִּים) = dromedary (one-hump) camels. (The singular is gamal (גָּמָל). The verb from the same root, gamal (גָּמַל) = wean a child or ripen a fruit; repay someone in kind for good or evil actions.)
In the late 20th century, many scholars thought camels were not domesticated in the Middle East until after 1200 B.C.E. Since the Abraham stories are set in circa 2000 B.C.E., they considered the camels an anachronism. This opinion is now contested. For example, a rock carving in Upper Egypt dated to circa 2200 B.C.E. shows someone leading a camel on a rope.
In the Torah, Abraham first acquires camels in Egypt, as a gift from the pharaoh. Presumably the ten riding camels his steward takes are their descendants.
One reason the steward brings camels, as well as jewelry and fine clothing, is that camels are more impressive and expensive mounts than donkeys. A display of wealth would help to persuade the prospective bride’s family to let her emigrate to Canaan. But the steward has another reason. After the ten camels are kneeling by the well outside Charan, the steward prays to the god of Abraham:
Let it be the young woman to whom I say: Tilt, please, your jug so I may drink; and she says: Drink, and I will even give a drink to your gemalim—you have marked her out for your servant for Isaac… (Genesis 24:14)
By asking for this particular divine sign, Abraham’s servant is asking for more than his master did. The steward wants Isaac’s wife to be generous and hospitable, even to servants and animals, and even when it involves labor on her part.
And it happened before he finished speaking: hey! Rebecca, who was born to Betueil son of Milkah wife of Nachor brother of Abraham, went out, and her jug was on her shoulder. …and she went down to the spring and she filled her jug and she went up. (Genesis 24:15-16)
Wells in Mesopotamia and Canaan at that time were dug not only deep enough to reach a natural spring or underground river, but also wide enough to accommodate stairs. Water-drawers climbed down to the bottom to fill their jugs.
When Rebecca, Abraham’s great-niece, climbs back up, Eliezer calls to her: Let me sip, please, a little water from your jug. (Genesis 24:17)
And she said: Drink, my lord; and she hurried over she lowered her jug onto her hand and she gave him a drink. She let him drink his fill, and she said: Also I will draw for your gemalim until they have drunk their fill. And she hurried over and she poured out her jug to give them a drink, and she ran again to the well to draw for all his gemalim. (Genesis 24:18-20)
A camel drinks at least 25 gallons of water after a long journey. To water ten camels, Rebecca runs up and down the steps of the well with her jug more than 100 times! This is the first feat of heroic strength recorded in the Torah.
The wedding negotiations are successful, and Rebecca declares she will go to Canaan. She and her female attendants mount the camels and follow Eliezer.
They travel not to Abraham, but directly to Isaac in the desert. He is walking alone across a field in the early evening, returning from the holy well.
And he raised his eyes and he saw, and hey! Gemalim were coming! (Genesis 24:63)
The travelers are not close enough for Isaac to identify anyone, but if he can see that the animals are camels, he can also see that they carry riders, not packs. I can imagine Isaac’s dismay, realizing he will have to step out of his solitude and greet these visitors.
And Rebecca raised her eyes, and she saw Isaac, vatipol the gamal. And she said to the servant: Who is that man walking in the field to meet us? (Genesis 24:64-65)
vatipol (וַתִּפֹּל) = and she fell off.
What does Rebecca see in Isaac’s face and walk that makes her fall off the camel?
Maybe she sees darkness in his soul, from having been bound on the altar by his own father. Or maybe she sees light in his soul, from volunteering to be the sacrifice and hearing God’s voice. Maybe she sees his innocence and preoccupation with the unworldly—something she had never seen in Charan.
Whatever she sees, this moment reveals two more of Rebecca’s qualities: her sensitive perception of people’s characters, and her awareness of the divine. All of Rebecca’s characteristics—assertiveness, generosity, strength, adventurousness, perceptiveness, and orientation toward the divine—will shape the story in next week’s portion, Toledot.
The Torah story uses camels, gemalim, both to make the match and to reveal Rebecca’s character. I suspect the text is hinting that this wedding is about the verb gamal = wean, ripen, or repay.
And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother, and he took Rivkah as his wife, and he loved her, and Isaac had a change of heart after his mother. (Genesis 24:67)
Here the Torah indicates that Rebecca weans Isaac from his attachment to his mother. Maybe he is stuck in life because of the trauma of his binding and near-sacrifice, and Rebecca completes his ripening into a mature adult. In next week’s Torah portion, Isaac emerges from his solitude and assumes the leadership of his tribe after Abraham’s death.
Rebecca might also be Isaac’s reward or repayment for his faith in Abraham and God when he let himself be bound. She is an exceptional woman (as well as young, beautiful, and a virgin), and Isaac loves her. This is the first time the Torah says a man loves his wife.
May everyone who is stuck and unable to ripen meet a “camel” to help them ride into a fuller life. And may everyone who draws water for others, and carries them from an old home to a new one, be repaid with a good life.