This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah (“Life of Sarah”), opens with Sarah’s burial, then tells the story of the arranged marriage of Sarah and Abraham’s son, Isaac. The following essay comes from the first version of my book on moral psychology in Genesis, which I am now rewriting.
When is an arranged marriage ethical? The story in Chayei Sarah offers some clues.
When Isaac turns 40 years old he is still unmarried. So his father, Abraham, commissions his steward1 to get Isaac a wife. Abraham asks him to swear a formal oath:
“… that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I am living. Instead, you must go to my land and my homeland, and [there] you will take a wife for my son, for Isaac.” (Genesis/Bereishit 24:3-4)
Abraham’s homeland is the town of Charan in northern Mesopotamia,2 where the family of Abraham’s nephew Betueil still lives.
Isaac is not present when Abraham gives these orders to his steward. He has lived apart from his father for the past fourteen years, ever since Abraham put a knife to his throat to sacrifice him to God. 3 During that time Abraham has stayed at Beir-sheva, and Isaac has settled at Beir-Lachai-Roi.4 There is no indication in the book of Genesis of any communication between father and son after the near-sacrifice.
But since God promised that Isaac’s descendants would inherit the land of Canaan and his father’s covenant with God,5 Abraham decides it is high time for his son to marry.
And the servant said to him: “What if she does not consent to follow me to this land? Shall I bring your son back to the land that you left?” (Genesis 24:5)
Abraham rejects this option.
“And if the woman will not follow you, then you are free from this oath of mine. Only you must not take my son there!” (Genesis 24:8)
Abraham’s requirements are 1) that Isaac’s wife must come from Charan, and 2) that she must be willing to move to Canaan.
1) Why must the bride come from Charan?
I suspect that Abraham does not trust Isaac to continue worshiping his father’s god. Since Isaac rejected his father after the attempted sacrifice, he might also reject God. A Canaanite wife would probably persuade him to worship her own gods. But Abraham’s extended family in Charan recognizes the God of Abraham as at least one of their gods.
When Abraham’s steward arrives at the well in Charan he prays to Abraham’s God for a particular sign.6
“May it be the young woman to whom I say: “Please lower your water jar so I may drink,” and she says: “Drink, and also I will water your camels”—may she be the one you assigned for your servant, for Isaac.” (Genesis 24: 14)
At once Rebecca, the daughter of Abraham’s nephew Betueil, comes and does so. After she has watered all ten camels, he asks for lodging for the night, follows her home, and tells his story to her brother and parents, including the four-letter name of Abraham’s God. Their initial response defers to the same god.
And Lavan and Betueil answered, and they said: “From God [Y-H-V-H] the matter went out; we are not able to speak to you bad or good. Here is Rebecca in front of you. Take [her] and go, and she will be a wife to the son of your master, as God [Y-H-V-H] has spoken.” (Genesis 24:50-51)
2) Why must the bride be willing to move to Canaan?
One possible marriage arrangement in the Ancient Near East was for the husband to leave his parents and live with his wife’s family.7
But Abraham does not want to give Isaac any pretext to move out of Canaan, because God promised to give the land of Canaan to his descendants through Isaac.
Abraham’s steward journeys to Charan and arranges the marriage without the knowledge of the groom. We can deduce that no one informs Isaac that a marriage is being arranged for him, because Isaac is walking home from the well of Beir-Lachai-Roi one evening when he is surprised to see a string of camels.
… and he raised his eyes and he saw—hey!—camels coming! (Genesis 24:63)
Recent archaeological evidence shows that domesticated camels were not introduced to Canaan until 930-900 B.C.E., when the pharaoh called Shishak conquered the kingdoms of Judah and Israel and used camels to transport copper. The Abraham stories are set perhaps a thousand years earlier, when domesticated camels were only seen in Egypt and Arabia. But Isaac would know that his father kept camels descended from the camels Pharaoh gives him in Genesis 12:16.
After fourteen years, the sight of Abraham’s camels surprises him.
Before Abraham’s steward asks Rebecca if he can stay in her father’s house for the night, he gives her a gold nose-ring and two gold bracelets. Rebecca would know that these gifts are preliminaries for a marriage arrangement. The steward is kindly giving her an opportunity to speak up privately before he approaches her family.
She merely invites him, his camel drivers, and the camels home for the night. Rebecca’s family agrees to the match, and the steward distributes gifts (the bride-price) to them. Now all the needs to determine is whether she is willing to move to Canaan. He asks Rebecca’s brother and mother to let him leave without delay.
And they called Rebecca and they said to her: “Will you go with this man?” And she said: “I will”. So they sent off Rebecca, their kinswoman, and her nursemaid and the servant of Abraham and his men. (Genesis 24:58-59)
Rebecca is at least fourteen years old,8 so she is a legal adult, qualified to make vows—and ethically qualified to make her own decisions. Rebecca’s brother Lavan is not morally upright in his dealings with Jacob later in the book of Genesis, but here he and his mother do the right thing by asking for the bride’s consent. She willingly commits herself to a man she has never met and a land she has never seen.
And Rebecca raised her eyes, and she saw Isaac and she fell down from on top of the camel. And she said to the servant: “Who is that man, the one walking through the field to meet us?” And the servant said: “He is my master.” Then she took the tza-if and she covered herself. (Genesis 24:64-65)
tza-if (צָעִיף) = shawl, veil. (The story of Jacob’s first wedding in Genesis 29:21-25 depends on the assumption that brides cover their faces.)
A train of ten camels would be surprising enough. Isaac must have been even more surprised to see a young woman suddenly put on a wedding veil.
And the servant related to Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother. And he took Rebecca and she became his wife, and he loved her. And Isaac felt a change of heart after [the death of] his mother. (Genesis 24:66-67)
Isaac falls in love with Rebecca when he consummates the marriage with her. But why does he accept the marriage arrangement and bring her into his tent, which was once his mother’s tent?
One answer is that Isaac makes the ethical choice of considering Rebecca on her own merits, rather than rejecting her because his father arranged the marriage without his consent.
Another answer is that Isaac makes the ethical choice of refraining from doing harm to the young woman. After Rebecca leaves her home and travels with the steward for about 650 miles (1046 km) to consummate her already-contracted marriage, she can hardly go back to her family in Charan and ask them to return the bride-price; her family would be shamed, and her chance of marrying someone else would be small.
Fortunately Isaac does not face a choice between ruining her life or his own, since he finds Rebecca more than acceptable. But Abraham was morally wrong to impose a marriage that his son could not ethically refuse.
The arranged marriage could have been ethical, if Abraham had told his son what he was arranging, and Isaac had not objected. But when he arranges the marriage without the groom’s consent he is treating Isaac as his property, like a prize ram whom he can unilaterally choose to slaughter or breed.
Abraham makes an unethical choice because he believes that Isaac is weak and easily influenced. He does not trust his son to pick out the right wife, and he thinks that if Isaac visited the family in Charan before the wedding they might persuade him to stay there. No wonder he sends his steward to arrange the marriage and bring back the bride! But even if his assessment of Isaac’s character were true, an adult should have the right of consent to his own marriage.
An arranged marriage can be as ethical as one initiated by the couple themselves, but only if there are exit strategies for both balking brides and grudging grooms.
- The Torah calls him “the senior servant in his household who ruled in all that was his” (Genesis 24:2). He is not named in the Torah portion Chayei Sarah, but many commentators have identified him as Eliezer of Damascus from Genesis 15:2-3.
- Genesis 12:1-4.
- Sifrei Devarim 357:33 and Bereishit Rabbah 81:5 make a convincing argument that Isaac is 26 at the Akeidah, when Abraham almost slaughters him (Genesis 22:1-13). (See my post Lekh-Lekha & Vayeira: Going with the Voice.) Isaac is 40 when he marries Rebecca (Genesis 25:20).
- Abraham is in Beir-sheva in Genesis 22:19. Isaac lives near Beir-Lachai-Roi in Genesis 24:62 and 25:11.
- Genesis 17:7-8, 17:19-21, 22:15-18.
- In other words, the steward specifies a young woman who is hospitable, generous, and strong. She must be strong to water ten camels; after a long journey, one camel can drink 25 gallons (95 liters) of water.
- 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 three laws about when a married couple lives with the wife’s parents (Laws 159-161 listed in https://avalon.law.yale.edu/ancient/hamframe.asp). Genesis 31:41 confirms that Jacob and his two wives live with their father for 20 years.
- In Genesis 22:20-23 Abraham receives news that his brother Nachor has a son called Betueil and a granddaughter called Rebecca (Rivkah) “after these things”, i.e. his near-sacrifice of Isaac. That makes Rebecca at least fourteen years old when Abraham’s steward comes to Charan. A girl attains her majority six months after the first sign of puberty according to Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 6:4.
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