Chayei Sarah: Seizing the Moment, Part 1

How far would you go to make a good marriage? Rebecca goes a long way in terms of physical exertion as well as geography in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah.

Isaac and Rebecca, by Simeon Solomon, 1863

When the story of the arranged marriage between Isaac and Rebecca begins, Isaac is 40 years old, has never married, and lives with his flocks in the Negev desert near a spring called Beir Lachai Roi.1 His mother, Sarah, is dead, and his father, Abraham, lives at an oasis farther north in the Negev called Beir-sheva.2 Father and son parted ways on a hilltop a three-day journey from Beir-sheva, after Abraham held a knife to Isaac’s throat and nearly slaughtered him as a sacrificial offering.3 The Torah reports no communication between father and son since that time (nor any further communication between Abraham and God). Isaac does not even come to his mother’s funeral at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion,4 so presumably he received no message about it.

Sometime after Sarah’s death, Abraham decides to arrange a marriage for Isaac. After all, God had promised him descendants through Isaac who would one day rule the land of Canaan. Abraham does not consult with his estranged son. He puts the arrangements in the hands of his “senior servant” or steward—after making him swear an oath that he will fetch a wife for Isaac from his old home, the Aramaean city where Abraham left his brother Nachor when God called him 65 years before. Abraham also makes his steward swear that he will not let Isaac leave Canaan to join his new wife in Aram.

Rebecca’s age is between puberty and 20 years old. She is a “beautiful virgin”5 living with her parents and her brother in the northern Mesopotamian city of Charan, called the “city of Nachor” in this week’s Torah portion6. She is the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nachor.

“And if the woman will not come to follow you, then you will be cleared from this oath to me. Only do not bring my son back there!” (Genesis/Bereishit 24:8)

Domesticated camel in an Egyptian petroglyph circa 2200 BCE

The steward leaves with ten camels and some expensive gifts. The sight of ten camels would be impressive; this story is set in the period between 2000 and 1500 B.C.E., when camels were domesticated in Egypt, but were rare in Canaan and Mesopotamia.

After the steward has selected the prospective bride, we learn that he also brought along a few men under his command, men who would be necessary to handle the camels, serve as guards on the road, and support the general impression of a delegation from a wealthy and important chieftain.

When they arrive at Charan, the city of Nachor, the steward heads for the well outside the city wall.

And he made the camels kneel outside the city at the well of water, at evening time, the time when the women are drawing water. Vayomar: “God, God of my master Abraham, please make it happen for me today. Hey, I have stationed myself at the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are going out to draw water. Let it be the young woman to whom I say, “Please lower your jar and I will drink,” and she says, “Drink, and also I will water your camels”—let her be the one you have marked for your servant Isaac. And by that means I will know that you have done loyal-kindness to my master.” (Genesis 24:11-14)

vayomar (וַיֺּאמַר) or vayomer (וַיֺּאמֶר) = and he said, then he said. (Other forms of the verb amar (אָמַר) = “say” also appear in the above passage, since the sign that the steward asks God for is a specific conversation.)

A well outside a city’s walls was customarily used by both residents and travelers in the Ancient Near East. Women and older girls fetched water for their households. Shepherds filled adjacent water troughs for their flocks. And travelers stopped to fill their waterskins and water their riding and pack animals.

Mesopotamian Water Jar, circa 2200 BCE

And it happened he had not yet finished speaking, and hey! Rebecca went out … and her jar was on her shoulder. (Genesis 24:15)

A water jar was a large pottery vessel with stopper at the top.

And the servant ran to meet her, vayomer: “Let me sip, please, a little water from your jar.” Vatomer: “Drink, my lord,” and she quickly lowered her jar on her hand and let him drink. When she had finished letting him drink, vatomer: “Also for your camels I will draw water, until they finish drinking.” And she hurried and she emptied the jar into the trough, and she ran again to the well to draw water. And she drew water for all his camels. (Genesis 24:1ְ-20)

vatomer (וַתֹּאמֶר) = and she said, then she said. (Also a form of the verb amar.)

A camel drinks at least 25 gallons of water after a long journey, and Abraham’s steward has ten of them. Rebecca runs down the steps of the well and back up with a heavy jug of water at least a hundred times—a  heroic feat requiring great fortitude and determination. And she does it as fast as she can.

First by her speech, and then by her action, Rebecca does everything the steward had prayed for. He gives her a gold nose-ring and two heavy gold bracelets—her share of the bride price he will offer in marriage negotiations. He is confident that the young woman is indeed the bride God wants for Isaac. But he still asks her about her family, since Isaac should only marry someone who is his social equal.

Vayomer: “Whose daughter are you? Tell me, please, is there a place in your father’s house for us to spend the night?” Vatomer to him: “I am the daughter of Betueil son of Milkah, that she bore to Nachor,” vatomer to him: “Also, we have plenty of straw and fodder. Also a place to spend the night.” (Genesis 24:23-25)

Now the steward knows that Rebecca comes from the same illustrious family as Abraham, and that her branch of the family lives in a compound large enough to comfortably accommodate ten camels and several men as guests. She is fully qualified to become Isaac’s bride.

Why does Rebecca water the camels?

Rebecca could simply invite the steward’s men to fill the watering trough for the camels. Why does she undergo the arduous labor of doing it herself?

The story has not yet mentioned that the steward brought men with him. Conceivably, they might be around the other side of the well, satisfying their own thirst before they get to the camels, so Rebecca sees only the camels and the elderly steward in front of her. If she were kind and generous, and acted without thinking, she would rush to help the old man.

But in next week’s Torah portion, Toledot, Rebecca is an independent thinker who takes initiative to find out what is going on7, and who figures out schemes with multiple steps to achieve her goals8. Her behavior in middle age indicates she is a planner. As an adolescent, she would have acted impulsively only if she were overwhelmed by lust—which an elderly man would not be likely to provoke.

My theory is that Rebecca the planner does not let the steward’s men water their own camels because she has overheard most of the steward’s prayer, and she wants to be the bride marked for Isaac.

A close reading shows that Rebecca could have overheard the steward as she approached the well. Before he begins his prayer, the text says vayomar, indicating that he speaks out loud. Later, when he tells Rebecca’s brother Lavan what has happened to him so far, he says:

“I had not yet finished ledabeir el libi, and hey! Rebecca went out and a jar was on her shoulder …” (Genesis 24:45)

ledabeir el libi (לְדַבֵּר אֶל־לִבִּי) = speakingto my heart. Speaking or saying something to one’s heart is a biblical Hebrew idiom for thinking silently. (libi, לִבִּי = my heart; the seat of my consciousness, including thoughts and emotions.) 

Here the steward claims that he was praying silently. However, in that same speech to Lavan he alters a few other details about what happened. For one thing, he reports that his rich master, Abraham, said he would be released from his oath only if the prospective bride’s family refused to give her; but actually Abraham said he would be cleared if the woman herself did not consent to follow him back to Canaan.7 For another, he reports that after Rebecca watered the camels, he asked her whose daughter she was, and then gave her the gold nose ring and bracelets; but actually he gave her the gold jewelry before he asked her who her family was.8

Thus it is quite plausible that the steward delivered his request to God out loud, and Rebecca, who was already on her way to the well, overheard him. Then she seized the moment, and did whatever it took to get the marriage that the stranger had come to arrange.

But why is Rebecca so eager to marry a man named Isaac whom she has never met? Next week’s post will explore her motivation.

  1. Genesis 24:62. In Genesis 16:7-14, Beir Lachai Roi is located on the desert road between Beir-sheva and Shur, a town just east of Egypt.
  2. Genesis 22:19.
  3. Genesis 22:1-19. At the end of the story, “Abraham returned to his servants” at the foot of the hill. The Torah uses a singular verb for “returned”, which leaves Isaac alone on the hilltop in the land of Moriyah.
  4. Genesis 23:1-4.
  5. Genesis 24:16.
  6. Genesis 24:10.
  7. Compare Genesis 24:37-41 and Genesis 24:5-8.
  8. Compare Genesis 24:46-48 and Genesis 24:22-27.

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