Chayei Sarah: Seizing the Moment, Part 2

A beautiful young woman named Rebecca goes to extraordinary lengths to marry a man in Canaan whom she has never met.

Abraham decides to arrange a marriage for Isaac, his son and heir, in last week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. He sends his senior servant, or steward, to find a bride in Charan, his old hometown in northern Mesopotamia. And he makes the steward (possibly Eliezer of Damascus, who was Abraham’s steward before Isaac was born)1 swear that he will not let Isaac leave Canaan; the bride must consent to moving where Isaac lives.

The steward arrives at the well outside the city, and asks God for a specific sign so he will know who is destined to be Isaac’s wife.

Rebecca and Eliezer, by Alexandre Cabanel, 1883

I explained in my post Chayei Sarah: Seizing the Moment, Part 1 why Rebecca must have overheard his prayer: he spoke out loud; she came out with her water jar before he finished; and she did everything he prayed for, saying the right words and even hauling water for ten camels. Yes, she was kind and had extraordinary strength and endurance, but she was also determined to be the bride the stranger was praying for.

And it was as the camels finished drinking, that the man took a gold nose-ring gold weighing half a shekel, and two bracelets for her wrists, ten gold shekels. (Genesis/Bereishit Genesis 24:22)

The only reason for a stranger to hand over such largesse would be as a down-payment on a bride-price. The steward asks Rebecca who her father is and whether there is room for him his men, and his camels to spend the night. She gives her lineage, so he knows she is a granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nachor, and says they have plenty of room. Then she runs into the city to tell her family. Soon her brother Lavan runs out to well with an invitation.

The steward and Lavan negotiate a marriage contract that evening.

In the Ancient Near East, marriage arrangements were made between families, with contracts specifying the bride-price provided by the groom’s family and the dowry provided by the bride’s family. Usually the negotiations were conducted by the fathers of the future couple. Abraham delegates this job to his steward.

But who negotiates for Rebecca? Her father, Betueil, speaks only once during the story:

And Lavan answered, and Betueil, and they said: “This thing went out from God; we cannot 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 has spoken.” (Genesis 24:50-51)

In Biblical Hebrew, “Lavan answered, and Betueil” means that Lavan spoke first, and his father, Betueil, chimed in. Apparently Lavan was acting as the man of the house.2 This is supported by two other details: that Lavan is the one who comes out to meet the steward and serves as the host, and that the next morning only Lavan and his mother speak.

Why does Rebecca want to marry Isaac?

She overhears that the stranger at the well is looking for a wife for someone named Isaac. She might suspect it is her cousin Isaac, whom she has never met. We know caravans brought news between Beir-sheva in Canaan and Charan in northern Mesopotamia; the Torah reports that after Abraham almost slaughtered Isaac as an offering to God, he received the news that his brother Nachor had eight children with his wife Milkah, and that the youngest one, Betueil, had a daughter named Rebecca.3

Similarly, travelers would have told Nachor’s family that Abraham and Sarah lived in Beir-sheva in Canaan, and had a son named Isaac. The news of Sarah’s death might not yet have reached Charan, but Rebecca would at least know she had a cousin Isaac who lived in Canaan.

However, the stranger at the well might be referring to a different Isaac. Then all Rebecca could deduce was that the prospective groom came from a wealthy family—so wealthy that it even owned camels—and that he lived far away, since the camels were thirsty.

Rebecca seems eager to marry someone who lives far away from her own home.

As a beautiful (and physically strong) adolescent from a wealthy family, she would have attracted many marriage proposals already. Yet she has not married anyone in the vicinity. Probably some of the prospective husbands were not wealthy enough to satisfy Lavan, who actually runs to the well to meet the stranger as soon as Rebecca reports back to her family wearing gold jewelry and talking about camels.

And Lavan ran outside to the man, to the spring.  And it was because he was seeing the nose-ring and the bracelets on his sister’s wrists, and because he heard the words of his sister Rebecca, saying: “Thus the man said to me.”  And he came up to the man, and hey! He was standing beside the camels at the spring. (Genesis 24:28-30)

Perhaps Lavan had previously tried to arrange marriages for Rebecca with a few especially wealthy neighbors, but she had found the prospective husbands so undesirable that she had refused to consent. (For example, the book of Ruth illustrates that most young women did not want to marry old men; Ruth was an exception.)4

By the time Rebecca overhears the steward at the well, she is eager to get out from under her brother’s thumb. And like many adolescents today who are fed up with their families, she longs to escape, and feels sure that a new life in a distant place would be an improvement.

The match between Rebecca and Isaac suits everyone. Abraham wants his son to marry someone from his old home town.5 His steward wants Isaac to marry someone who is kind, hospitable, and physically strong. Rebecca wants to marry someone who lives far away. And Lavan wants Rebecca to marry someone who is rich.

Abraham’s steward and Rebecca’s brother complete the marriage agreement that night. Rebecca’s dowry includes “girls” (female slaves) and her old wet-nurse (retained as a companion).6 And Abraham’s steward adds to his down-payment on the bride-price.

Then the servant brought out silver ornaments and gold ornaments and garments, and he gave them to Rebecca. And he gave precious gifts to her brother and her mother. (Genesis 24:53)

In the morning the steward politely asks permission to leave with Rebecca. Lavan and his mother demur.

And her brother said, and her mother [chimed in]: “Let the girl stay with us yamim or ten; afterward you may go.” (Genesis 24:55)

yamim (יָמִים) = days (literally); a long time, a year or more (idiomatically). (Plural of yom, יוֹם = day.)

According to the Talmud, Lavan and his mother requested a long engagement because it was the custom to give a bride who was going to leave home a year to prepare.7 However, the vagueness of their request implies a hidden motive. Alshich wrote that they were disappointed in their share of the bride-price, and suggested a long delay in order to irritate the steward. Perhaps they hoped he would either cancel the marriage contract, or give them more valuables.7

But the steward only insists that he and the young woman must leave immediately.

And they summoned Rebecca and they said to her: “Will you go with this man?” And she said: “I will.” (Genesis 24:58)

They depart that day. The story in Chayei Sarah ends:

And 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 found consolation after [the death of] his mother. (Genesis 24:67)

Rebecca’s determination paid off. She has a new life in a new place, with a man who loves her.

I admire the young Rebecca. I remember noticing several unexpected opportunities when I was young, and toying with the idea of seizing the moment and changing my life. But I was always too cautious to do it.

I wonder what would have happened if I has been as bold as Rebecca.

  1. Genesis 15:2.
  2. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), following Genesis Rabbah 60:12, wrote that Betueil wanted to prevent the marriage, so an angel from God killed him. 12th-century rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra suggested that Lavan was respected for his wisdom, so Betueil remained silent and let his son speak. Some modern commentators suggest that Betueil was ill or feeble. Others attribute the possible inconsistency to redaction from two different sources, one in which Betueil is still alive, and another in which he is already dead.
  3. Genesis 22:20-23.
  4. Ruth 3:10.
  5. Abraham might want Isaac to marry someone who worships the same God; see my post:
    Chayei Sarah: Arranged Marriage.
  6. Genesis 24:61 and 24:59.
  7. Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 57b.
  8. 16th-century rabbi Moshe Alshich, quoted in

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.

Book of Genesis: Inbreeding

Why is there so much inbreeding in the book of Genesis/Bereishit? After the first two Torah portions, most of the major characters are descended from Abraham’s father, Terach, through multiple lines. The branches of their family tree keep growing together again.


The Torah does not say how many wives Terach has, but it does name four of his children at the end of the Torah portion Noach. He has three sons: Avram (whom God renames Abraham), Nachor, and Haran.1 He also has a daughter named Sarai (whom God renames Sarah).2 While they are all living in the southern Mesopotamian city of Ur, Avram and Nachor marry their own relatives.

Avram and Nachor took wives for themselves. The name of Avram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nachor’s wife was Milkah, the daughter of Haran … (Genesis 11:29)

In other words, Avram marries his half-sister, Terach’s daughter, and Nachor marries his niece, Terach’s granddaughter.

Terach leaves Ur and heads toward Canaan with some of his family members. Halfway there they stop and settle in the town of Charan, where Terach dies.3

Thanks to archeology, we know that Charan was an actual city where the main road north from Ur met the main road that went southwest to Canaan. Both Charan and Ur were dedicated to the moon-god Nannar. The residents of those two cities worshiped many other gods as well, in temples stocked with idols. They also kept terafim, figurines of lesser gods, to protect their households.

Terach would probably acknowledge Nannar, but his primary god might be a different deity. In last week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, both Betueil (son of Nachor and Milkah) and Betueil’s son Lavan use the same four-letter name of God that Avram uses (commonly represented in Roman letters as Y-H-W-H).4 Later in Genesis, Lavan says “Y-H-W-H” has blessed him, and he makes a vow in the name of “the god of Nachor”.5 But he is not a monotheist; he also owns terafim.6

Lekh-Lekha and Vayeira

Does Terach hear the voice of God, Y-H-W-H? The Torah is silent.7 But it is conceivable that he starts traveling toward Canaan because he hears the same voice in Ur that his son Avram hears  in Charan:

“Go for yourself, away from your land and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)

For Avram, that land turns out to be Canaan.

Avram hears God’s voice many more times in the portions Lekh-Lekha and Vayeira. On five occasions God promises him that his descendants will inherit the land of Canaan.8 God informs him that first those descendants will be enslaved in another land for 400 years.9 God demands circumcision for every male in his household and all of his future descendants, alters the names of Avram and Sarai, and promises that Sarai (now Sarah) will have a son at age 90.10 Avram (now Abraham) talks God into agreeing not to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah if there are even ten innocent people living there.11 When Sarah demands that Abraham cast out his first son, Ishmael, along with Ishmael’s mother, God tells him to do what Sarah says.12

Sarah Hears and Laughs, by James J.J. Tissot

Terach’s daughter Sarah also hears God’s voice. When three men who turn out to be angels visit in the Torah portion Vayeira, she overhears one of them say that she will have a child the following year. Sarah, who is 89, laughs silently. Then she hears God asking Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh?”

And Sarah lied, saying: “I did not laugh,” because she was afraid. But [God] said: “No, for you did laugh.” (Genesis 18:15)

Abraham and Sarah do have a son. Isaac is probably 26 when his father hears God order him to sacrifice that son on an altar.  God calls him off at the last minute, and Abraham goes home alone.13 Then he gets news from Charan: Nachor and Milkah (Abraham’s brother and niece) had a son named Betueil, and Betueil now has a daughter named Rebecca.14

Chayei Sarah

Abraham arranges a marriage for Isaac fourteen years later, in the Torah portion Chayei Sarah. He insists that Isaac must marry one of his relatives back in the Aramaean town of Charan. He adds the condition that the bride must be willing to move to Canaan, because he wants Isaac to stay in Canaan.

Why does he reject the idea of simply getting Isaac a Canaanite wife?

In last week’s post I proposed that Abraham worries Isaac might stray in his religion, after the trauma of being bound as a sacrifice to his father’s god. (See Chayei Sarah: Arranged Marriage.) Since his extended family in Charan worships Y-H-W-H (among others)15, a wife from that branch of the family would not tempt Isaac away from serving the God of Abraham.

But there is another possible reason for marrying Isaac to one of his relatives. Perhaps Abraham believes his covenant with God can be best continued through the generations if as many of his descendants as possible can hear God’s voice. For that, more inbreeding might help.

Rebecca may be exactly the young woman Abraham has in mind as a bride for Isaac. After all, she is descended from Terach through both Nachor and Milkah. She agrees to go to Canaan, and marries Isaac.


In Toledot, this week’s Torah portion, Rebecca is alarmed by her pregnancy; it feels as though a wrestling match is taking place in her womb.

And she went to inquire of God. And God said to her: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will branch off from your belly. One people will be mightier than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:22-23)

The text does not say where Rebecca goes to inquire of God; some commentary suggests that she consults an oracle.  But the text does say that God speaks directly to her, and it uses the name Y-H-W-H. The voice of God is correct; Rebecca has twins, Esau and Jacob, who eventually found two peoples in the Torah: the Edomites and the Israelites.

Rebecca’s husband Isaac, who is descended from Terach through both Abraham and Sarah, also hears God’s voice.

And God appeared to him that night and said: “I am the god of Abraham, your father. Don’t be afraid, because I am with you, and I will bless you and increase your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.” (Genesis 26:24)

Jacob proves more intelligent and more patient than his twin brother Esau.17 The Torah does not say whether his parents realize that Jacob is the better candidate to carry on the covenant with God. Isaac fumbles his delivery of the blessing of Abraham, Esau is enraged at the result, and Rebecca tells Jacob to flee to her brother Lavan’s house in Charan. Then she tells Isaac that she is disgusted with the Hittite women Esau married, and she could not bear it if Jacob also married one of the local women.

Isaac calls in Jacob. Rebecca has not told him where to send Jacob for a bride, but Isaac decides to continue Abraham’s family breeding program.

And he said to him: “Do not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan! Rise, go to Padan Aram, to the house of Betueil, your mother’s father, and take yourself a wife from there, from the daughters of Lavan, your mother’s brother.” (Genesis 28:1-2)

Thus he orders Jacob to marry one of his first cousins, who also carries more than the usual share of Terach’s blood (or genes).


Jacob’s ladder, German 14th century

As soon as Jacob leaves home he, too, hears the voice of God. In next week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, he dreams of God’s angelic messengers ascending and descending between heaven and earth, and then sees God standing over him. God confirms that the blessing of descendants who will inherit Canaan has gone from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob.

And [God] said: “I am God [Y-H-W-H], the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. The land which you are lying on I will give to you and to your descendants.” (Genesis 28:13).

Jacob marries both of Lavan’s daughters, and their eight sons (plus Jacob’s four sons with Lavan’s daughters’ servants) become the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Being able to hear God is not a unique trait of Terach’s descendants. Before the Flood, God converses with Adam and Eve, Cain, and Noah. After the flood, God speaks twice to Hagar the Egyptian and once to Avimelekh of Gerar.18 But most of God’s words in the Genesis are addressed to Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and Jacob, all inbred descendants of Terach.19

There is no record in the Torah of God speaking to any of Jacob’s children. Perhaps a few of them would be able to hear God’s voice, but God chooses to be “with” them without words. It may be enough for God that all the inbreeding among Terach’s descendants results in the genesis of the Israelite people. The next time God speaks in the Torah is in the book of Exodus when God needs a prophet to bring the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan, and chooses Moses.20


In the Torah, God is one of the characters, and converses with some of the human characters. Is this only a literary device to make the stories juicier? Or does it also reflect some deeper truth?

When individuals today claim to have heard God’s voice, how can we tell whether they have heard an external power of the universe, or a hidden part of their own minds?

Is there a difference?

  1. Genesis 11:26-27.
  2. Genesis 20:12 (unless Abraham is lying).
  3. Genesis 11:31.
  4. Genesis 24:50-51.
  5. Genesis 30:27 and 31:51-53.
  6. Genesis 31:19.
  7. In a 5th century C.E. story attributed to Rabbi Chiya, Terach made idols for a living, and Abraham mocks them (Bereishit Rabbah, 38:13). This fable enhanced Abraham’s reputation with a Jewish audience, but the Hebrew Bible itself never mentions idols in connection with Terach.
  8. Genesis 12:7, 13:14-17, 15:1-7, 15:17-21, 17:1-8.
  9. Genesis 15:13-16.
  10. Genesis 17:9-22.
  11. Genesis 18:20-33.
  12. Genesis 21:9-13.
  13. Genesis 22:1-2, 22:11-19.
  14. Genesis 22:20-23.
  15. Joshua 24:2.
  16. Genesis 25:27-28.
  17. See Genesis 25:29-34, in which Esau can only think about eating, but Jacob cooks stew ahead of time and is prepared to bargain for Esau’s birthright.
  18. Hagar hears God in Genesis 16:7-13 and 21:17-18. Avimelekh hears God in a dream in Genesis 20:3-7.
  19. Lavan, Rebecca’s brother, also hears God in a dream (Genesis 31:24).
  20. Exodus 3:1-4:23.


Chayei Sarah: Arranged Marriage

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.

Wedding, Minhagim, 1707 Amsterdam

When is an arranged marriage ethical?  The story in Chayei Sarah offers some clues.

Ignorant Groom

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

Rebekah Meets Abraham’s Servant, New World Encyclopedia

“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.

Consenting Bride

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.

Consenting Groom

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.

Isaac and Rebekah, by Simeon Solomon, 1863

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Genesis 12:1-4.
  3. 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).
  4. Abraham is in Beir-sheva in Genesis 22:19. Isaac lives near Beir-Lachai-Roi in Genesis 24:62 and 25:11.
  5. Genesis 17:7-8, 17:19-21, 22:15-18.
  6. 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.
  7. 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  Genesis 31:41 confirms that Jacob and his two wives live with their father for 20 years.
  8. 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.



Emor, Chayei Sarah, & Toledot: Intermarriage

The geir who resides among you shall be like the native-born among you, and you must love him like yourself, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:34)

geir (גֵר) = immigrant, resident alien.  (Plural = geirim, גֵרִים.)

Boaz and Ruth (a geir), by E.C.F. Holbein, 1830

We must love our neighbors like ourselves not only when they are from our own people, but also when they are immigrants, strangers from another land; God says so in last week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim.1

Native-born citizens are sometimes prejudiced against immigrants, in the Torah as well as in the world today.  This week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”), ends with the case of a blasphemer.  The writer of this section mentions that the blasphemer is an outsider, the child of an intermarriage.

The son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man went out among the Israelites, and the son of the Israelite woman and an Israelite man quarreled in the camp. (Leviticus 24:10)2

For the rest of the story multiethnic man is called “the son of the Israelite woman”, reminding the reader that his father is not an Israelite and implying that he therefore has a lower status.  The other man is called simply “the Israelite”.

And the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed, and he treated the name of God with contempt.  And they brought him to Moses …  (Leviticus 24:11)

Moses waits for God to tell him the penalty, and God says the blasphemer should be stoned:

The Blasphemer Stoned, from Figures de la Bible, 1728

“And speak to the Israelites, saying: Anyone who treats his God with contempt must carry his guilt.  And whoever blasphemes against the name of God must certainly be put to death.  The whole assembly must definitely stone him, whether geir or native-born; for his blaspheming the name, he must be put to death.  (Leviticus 24:15-16)

Despite the writer’s bias against the blasphemer’s mixed parentage, God clarifies that the death penalty applies to anyone who desecrates God’s name, immigrant or native.  God generalizes:

“One law must be for all of you, whether geir or native-born, because I, God, am your God.”  (Leviticus 24:22)


As I draft the conclusion of my book on moral psychology in Genesis, I am noticing how the book of Genesis addresses intermarriage.  Abraham makes his steward swear:

“… 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 24:3-4)

He is probably discriminating against the Canaanites because of their religion.  The Arameans in Abraham’s hometown of Charan may well worship more than one god, but at least they recognize a god with the same four-letter personal name as Abraham’s God.3

Isaac and Rebekah, by Simeon Solomon, 1863

Abraham’s steward brings a bride back from Charan: Rebecca, Abraham’s grandniece; and Abraham’s son Isaac marries her.

Isaac and Rebecca want brides from Charan for their sons, too, but their firstborn son, Esau, disappoints them.

And Esau was forty years old, and he took as a wife Yehudit, daughter of Beiri the Hittite, and Basmat, daughter of Eylon the Hittite.  And they made the spirits of Isaac and Rebecca bitter.  (Genesis 26:34)

After the tension between Esau and his brother Jacob has escalated until Esau is contemplating fratricide, Rebecca tells Isaac:

“I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women.  If Jacob takes a wife from the Hittite women like these, why should I go on living?”  (Genesis 27.46)

Isaac gets the hint.  He summons Jacob and says:

“You must not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan.  Get up, go to Padan of Aram4 to the house of Betu-eil, your mother’s father, and take yourself a wife from there, from the daughters of Lavan, your mother’s brother.”  (Genesis 28:1-2)

Jacob leaves at once for Charan, fleeing from his angry brother Esau.  He marries both of Lavan’s daughters, and he takes their maidservants (who presumably share the family’s religion) as concubines.  Yet he shows no concern over the religious affiliations of the women that his own twelve sons marry.

Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, by Rembrandt

On his deathbed Jacob adopts two of his many grandsons so they will inherit equal shares with his sons.  These two are Menasheh and Efrayim, the children of Jacob’s son Joseph and Joseph’s Egyptian wife, Asnat.  Menasheh and Efrayim, like the blasphemer in the Torah portion Emor, are half Israelite and half Egyptian.  But like God, Jacob does not discriminate against them.  He is not even concerned that their mother will alienate them from his and Joseph’s religion, though Asnat is the daughter of an Egyptian priest of On! 5

In fact, Jacob concludes the adoption ritual by declaring:

“Through you Israel will give blessings, saying: My God place you like Efrayim and Menasheh.”  (Genesis 48:20)

This sentence is commonly interpreted as referring to the amity between the two brothers, and later their eponymous tribes, despite the placement of Efrayim (the younger brother) as the dominant one—both in Jacob’s adoption ritual and in the politics of the tribes of the Kingdom of Israel.  But it could also mean that both sons and both tribes were a blessing for the Israelites, despite their mixed Israelite and Egyptian heritage.

May we all judge people by their deeds rather than their origins.  And may we all recognize the blessings that come to us from immigrants and from the children of multiethnic couples.

  1. You must not take vengeance nor bear a grudge against the children of your people; you must love your neighbor like yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)
  2. For more on the possible cause of the quarrel, see my post Emor: Blasphemy.
  3. Genesis 24:50-51.
  4. “Paddan of Aram” is a name for the region of Mesopotamia that includes Charan.
  5. Genesis 41:45.

What Do You Seek?

And [Joseph] came to Shekhem.  And a man found him, and hey!  He was going astray in the field.  And the man asked him: “What do you seek?” (Genesis/Bereishit 37:14-15)

That is the opening of the first post I ever wrote on this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev.  I dusted if off and polished it up today, and you can find it at this link: Vayeishev: The Question.

I plan to expand on  two of the points in that post when I write Chapter 9 of my book on moral psychology in Genesis.  This week I’ve been writing Chapter 5, on the Torah portion Chayyei Sarah, which includes the story of how Abraham and his steward acquire a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac.  “What do you seek?” is a good question for that story as well.

When Abraham gives instructions to his steward for picking out the bride, he is seeking a woman who will keep Isaac on the path to provide descendants who will someday rule Canaan under God’s law.  Since Abraham believes his son is  weak and easily influenced, he wants Isaac to have a wife who is not a Canaanite but who will move to Canaan for the marriage.

Abraham’s steward has another agenda besides fulfilling his oath to his master.  He seeks a bride who is generous and strong–perhaps because Isaac is withdrawn and passive, and the steward hopes a wife like that will draw him out.

Isaac himself seeks solace after his mother’s death, but it does not occur to him to look for it in a wife.  He is surprised when his father’s steward arrives with a bride for him.

And the bride herself?  Rebecca, Isaac’s first cousin once removed, is the one all three men have been seeking.  But what does she seek, and does she find it in her marriage to Isaac?  The Torah is silent on that subject, so I am making it the theme of my Torah monologue for Chapter 5.


I like the word “seeking” because it means actively searching, not passively hoping that what you want will happen.  I have been seeking a life of writing books for most of my 66 years, but real life is complicated, and I have only achieved my goal a few times, during years that were never long enough.  This time, even though I am retired, I still have to keep saying no to all kinds of things in order to guard my writing time.  That’s the hard part.  The easy, delightful part is spending so many hours a day writing, and going to bed every night looking forward to writing again in the morning.

I have found what I was seeking.  What do you seek?

Chayei Sarah: Exposure

“Florence,” I said when Will and I first began thinking about a long trip abroad.  “I want to see the two Davids.  And there’s enough other great art and architecture there to last us for a month.”

David by Donatello
(photo by M.C.)

I remember comparing the two Davids, two nude sculptures of young David at the time of his fight with Goliath,1 in an art history class almost 45 years ago.  Donatello cast one in bronze in the 1440’s; Michelangelo chipped one out of marble in 1502-04.  Now I have seen them!

Donatello’s nude David was the first freestanding nude male sculpture since the Roman era.  (Earlier he had made a fully clothed David in marble, now standing in the same room in the Bargello Museum.)  His bronze David wears only boots and a hat with a laurel wreath.  He stands on Goliath’s helmeted head, and he holds the sword he took from Goliath to cut off his head after he had killed him with a stone from his slingshot.  The sword looks too heavy for Donatello’s David, and his expression is calm and bemused.  In 1494 the statue was moved from a Medici palace to the public square in front of the city hall, where Michelangelo’s larger David already stood.

About 50 years later, Michelangelo carved his marble David, completely nude with his slingshot on one shoulder, preparing for the fight with Goliath.  Michelangelo gave him a tense, muscular body and a nervous but determined expression.

David by Michelangelo
(photo by M.C.)

This heroic sculpture was unveiled in front of Florence’s city hall in 1504.  It stood there until 1873, when the marble was beginning to crack, and the statue was brought indoors and replaced by an inferior copy.2

Souvenir shops all over Florence sell Michelangelo’s David memorabilia.  Many items feature close-ups of David’s crotch.  I noticed the decorative and symmetrical pubic hair when I saw the statue, but buying souvenirs of David’s genitals seems prurient to me.

Then I reread an essay I wrote nine years ago on this week’s Torah portion: Chayei Sarah: A Peculiar Oath.  (You can click on the title to read it yourself.)   Abraham asks his steward to swear an oath while placing his hand under Abraham’s genitals, the most sacred object available.

What is this peculiar oath doing in the Torah?  It appears twice, both times in the book of Genesis/Bereishit.  The book of Exodus first prohibits stairs for an altar, so no one would see the priests’ “nakedness” as they ascend, and then decrees that all priests must wear underpants.3  Leviticus/Vayikra refers to incest by prohibiting “uncovering the nakedness” of various family members.4  Seeing the genitals is a dangerous thing.

Maybe attitudes toward full exposure change back and forth with the times.  Indecent exposure becomes decent, and vice versa.

Where are we now?

  1. I Samuel 17:23-51.

Chayyei Sarah: A Satisfactory Old Age

What is a good old age?  What is a good time to die?

Sarah dies at age 127 at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah (“Life of Sarah”).

Sarah’s Burial,
by Gustave Dore

And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan. And Abraham came to lament for Sarah and to wail for her. (Genesis/Bereishit 23:2)

At the end of last week’s portion, Vayeira, Abraham and Sarah lived in Beersheba.  Now Sarah dies in Hebron, 26 miles (42 km) northeast of Beersheba, near the grove where they camped during their first sojourn in Canaan.  Abraham travels there to perform ritual mourning and purchase a burial site.  The couple appear to have separated, and Abraham’s ritual mourning is emphasized, as if he needs to make a show of grief.

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Abraham dies at age 175.

And Abraham breathed his last and he died at a good old age, old and savei-a, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 25:8)

savei-a (שָׂבֵעַ) = satisfied, sated, with plenty, contented.

Sarah’s death, despite her advanced age, is treated as tragic.  Abraham’s is good.  What makes their final years different?

Sarah’s Old Age

Sarah and Abimelech,
by Marc Chagall

Sarah was already old when she finally had a baby—at age 90, according to last week’s Torah portion. (See my post Vayeira: Laughter, Part 1.)  Right after God announced the miraculous pregnancy, Abraham took his 89-year-old wife to Gerar.  She was still so attractive that Abraham passed her off as his sister, and the king of Gerar “took” her.1  (In Biblical Hebrew, when a man “takes” a woman, it means he has sexual intercourse with her in order to make her his wife or concubine.)  In the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metziah 87a), Rav Chisda explained that after the annunciation, Sarah’s worn and wrinkled skin was rejuvenated, and her beauty returned.

Before the king of Gerar touched Sarah, God told him in a dream that she was married, and unless her husband Abraham interceded, the king would die.  King Avimelekh returned Sarah to Abraham, showered him with gifts, and invited him to live anywhere in the territory.  Abraham and his household settled in Beersheba, and Sarah gave birth to Isaac.

But at Isaac’s weaning feast three years later, Sarah was full of anxieties.  (See my post Vayeira & Toldot: Laughter, Part 2.)  She worried that people would mock her, and she was afraid that Isaac’s older half-brother, Ishmael, would inherit the firstborn’s double portion of Abraham’s wealth, even though Ishmael was the son of a slave.  So Sarah tried to secure her own son’s future by telling her husband to exile Ishmael and his mother.2  God backed up her request and Abraham obeyed.

Nevertheless, when Isaac was a young man God told Abraham to sacrifice him as a burnt offering.3

According to one strand of classic commentary, Sarah dies of shock when she learns that Abraham almost slaughtered her beloved Isaac.4  This explanation implies that she had moved back to Hebron earlier, leaving Isaac with his father, and that news of the Akedah reached her there.  But why would she separate from her husband and stop watching over her son when nothing else was happening?  It would make more psychological sense if Abraham sent her back to Hebron because he resented her for making him exile Ishmael and Hagar—or if Sarah left her husband only after he tried to slaughter Isaac.

Whenever Sarah moved away, she also lost contact with her son.  Isaac walked away alone from the altar where Abraham almost sacrificed him, and later in this week’s potion we learn that he settled farther south, in the Negev.

At the beginning of Chayyei Sarah, Sarah dies at 127, and Isaac is 37.  He is not present at his mother’s funeral.

What is a good old age, a good death?  When I asked some of my friends, we concluded that the best ending would be:

  • Having fulfilled your mission in life, whatever that turned out to be.
  • Doing something meaningful with your last years.
  • Having a loving connection with someone during your last years.
  • Leaving no unfinished business (such as making amends, arranging inheritance).
  • Dying in a calm state of mind.

Sarah raised a son in her old age, fulfilling the mission God gave her.  But the Torah does not say that she did anything after she moved back to Hebron.  She was alienated from her husband, and out of contact with her son.  She died among mere acquaintances, in a state of either shock or bitterness.

Abraham’s Old Age

Abraham suffered during what turned out to be his early old age in the Torah portion Vayeira.  At 103, he had to drive out his concubine Hagar and his beloved son Ishmael.  And the thing was very bad in his eyes. (Genesis 21:11)

Akedah in an Icelandic
14th cent manuscript

When his remaining son, Isaac, was a young man, he carried out God’s orders to sacrifice him.  Although God stayed his hand at the last minute, he never saw Isaac again, and his wife never forgave him.  In this week’s Torah portion Sarah dies when Abraham is 137, and he still feels guilty about her.5

Yet after that Abraham lives another 38 years in Beersheba.  His first order of business is to send his steward to Aram to arrange a suitable marriage for Isaac.  (He sees no need to consult his son about this; the important point is that Isaac’s descendants are supposed to inherit the land and God’s blessing.  Isaac has to marry a woman from his father’s clan and religious background, so that he can produce those descendants.)

After the steward is dispatched, Abraham takes a new concubine for himself.

And Abraham continued, and he took a woman, and her name was Keturah.  (Genesis/Bereshit 25:1)

Keturah (קְטוּרָה) = incense, smoke from incense.

The name Keturah is suggestive.  Biblical Hebrew, like English, associates heat and fire with passionate emotion.  Fragrant smoke is something to savor and enjoy; the smoke from a burnt offering or an incense pan is the part of an offering that gives God the most pleasure.  Abraham and Keturah have six sons—another indication that at long last, Abraham has a passionate relationship with a woman.

He has already fulfilled his mission in life by moving to Canaan, accumulating wealth to pass on to his heirs, making a covenant with God through circumcision, and producing the correct son to fulfill God’s prophecy that his numerous descendants will own Canaan and be a blessing to other peoples.  He has even furthered God’s plan by getting Isaac married to his cousin Rebecca.

Abraham also does something meaningful in his last years: raising six more children.  We can assume he has a loving connection with them; he certainly has one with Keturah.  And he leaves no unfinished business.  When his sons through Keturah have grown up, Abraham resolves his inheritance ahead of time.

Abraham gave everything that he had to Isaac.  And to the sons of the concubines he had, Abraham gave gifts, and while he was still alive he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the land of Kedem. (Genesis 5-6)

Abraham dies not only in a calm state of mind, but savei-a: satisfied, contented.

Our Own Old Age

When we are in the thick of life, we do not know whether we will die like Sarah or like Abraham.  But we can improve our chances of dying “at a good old age, old and satisfied” (Genesis 25:8).

During our most active years, may we keep asking ourselves what our true mission in life is, and how we can realign ourselves to carry it out.

May we still do things that are meaningful to us and give us satisfaction when that God-given work is completed (perhaps when we retire from a career, perhaps when a cause or a beloved individual no longer needs our efforts, perhaps when our bodies or circumstances change).

May we keep learning how to love, keep working on the relationships that are worth continuing, and keep making new friends as long as we live.

May we take care of our own business as we go along, so that whenever we leave this world we leave nothing important undone.

And may we cultivate awareness and gratitude, making a calm and contented state of mind a habit that we never lose, even at the end.

Then no matter when death comes, at that moment we can be satisfied with our lives.

  1. Genesis 20:1-3.
  2. Genesis 21:9-13.
  3. Genesis 22:1-12.
  4. Rashi (11th-century C.E. Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) cites the opinion of Rabbi Yose in Genesis Rabbah 58:5.)
  5. Moshe Anisfled, “Rashi’s Midrashic Comments Are Supported by a Broad Range of Biblical Texts”, Jewish Bible Quarterly, p. 144.

Chayyei Sarah: Loss of Trust

Abraham, in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, is the decisive ruler of his household of about a thousand people. He never consults or asks favors of anyone except his wife Sarah and God.

When Abraham is 137 years old, God tells him to sacrifice his son Isaac, then rescinds the order at the last second. (See my post Lekh-Lekha & Vayeira: Going with the Voice.)  Then his wife Sarah dies, and Abraham decides it is time for their son Isaac to marry.  He summons his head servant, Eliezer, and gives him instructions for procuring the appropriate wife—without consulting his 37-year-old son Isaac.

And I will have you swear by God, god of the heavens and god of the land, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites in whose midst I am dwelling. Because you must go to my land and to my moledet, and [there] you shall take a wife for my son, for Isaac. (Genesis/Bereishit 24:3-4)

moledet  (מוֹלֶדֶת) = kin, relatives, family of Abraham's journey

Where is Abraham’s land?  It might be the city of Ur Kasdim, where he was born and married Sarah; or the town of Charan in Aram, where he lived for decades before God called him. Or it might be the land of Canaan, where he has lived for the past 50 years or so, mostly in Hebron and Beersheba.

The word moledet clarifies that Abraham means Charan, because that is where his brother Nachor’s family still lives.

This raises a question for Eliezer. God has promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants, and since Abraham’s older son, Ishmael, has been exiled, that means Isaac’s descendants.  Yet the custom in that part of the world was for the husband to leave his parents and live near his wife’s family.

Even the Garden of Eden story alludes to this custom:

Therefore a man will leave his father and his mother, and he will cling to his wife, and they will become one flesh.  (Genesis 2:24)

Later in the book of Genesis, Isaac’s son Jacob marries two of his cousins in Charan, and remains there for 20 years.  This is the cultural norm.

Yet Eliezer suspects that Abraham does not want Isaac to move from Canaan to Charan.

And the servant said to him:  What if the woman will not consent to follow me to this land?  Should I really bring back your son to the land that you left? (Genesis 24:5)

Abraham’s reply is clear.

And Abraham said to him:  Guard yourself, lest you bring my son back there!  God, god of the heavens, Who took me from the house of my father and from the land of my moledet, and Who spoke to me and Who swore to me, saying “To your seed I will give this land”—May [God] Itself send Its angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there.  But if the woman does not consent to follow you, then you will be cleared from this oath of mine.  Only you must not bring my son back there! (Genesis 24:6-8)

Why is it so important for Isaac to marry a non-Canaanite, yet stay in the land of Canaan?  The commentary offers several suggestions, including:

1) God promised to give Canaan to Abraham’s descendants.  In order to be prepared for God’s gift, these descendants must be distinct from the Canaanites (rather than intermarried), and they must be living in Canaan, so they are attached to the land and willing to change from resident aliens to owners.

2) Even a short visit to Charan would seduce Isaac away from his father’s religion.  The early 20th-century rabbi Elie Munk cites Abraham’s “constant concern for sheltering his son from all influences able to jeopardize the purity of his religious ideas”.

Canaanite goddess, possibly from a set of terafim, 14-13th century BCE
Canaanite goddess, possibly from a set of terafim, 14-13th century BCE

Later in this week’s Torah portion, Abraham’s extended family in Charan refer to God by the same four-letter name as the God of Israel.  But in another portion, Vayeitzei, we learn that the household also keeps terafim, statues of household gods.

3) A Canaanite wife would corrupt Isaac, since Canaanites are morally degenerate.  19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch summarized this opinion by noting that although both the Canaanites and the Aramaeans of Charan worshipped the wrong gods, the Canaanites were also “morally degenerate”.

Although moral issues are not mentioned in Genesis, the book of Leviticus/Vayikra warns the Israelites about the morals of the Canaanites when God says:

…like the deeds of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you—you shall not do! (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:3)

Then God gives the Israelites a list of forbidden sexual partners, and concludes:

Do not become defiled through any of these [sexual practices], because through all of these they became defiled, the peoples that I will be driving away from before you. (Leviticus 18:24)

All three of the above explanations assume that Isaac cannot be trusted–either to pick out his own wife, or to commit himself to the land God promised.  Isaac is seen as weak and easily influenced, ready to abandon what he learned from his father.

Since Abraham does not trust Isaac, no wonder he sends Eliezer to arrange his son’s marriage and bring back the bride!

And why should Abraham trust Isaac, when he knows that Isaac has rejected him?

In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, the 37-year-old Isaac trusts his father so much that he follows him to the top of Mount Moriyah and lets the old man bind him on the altar as a sacrifice.  I can only conclude Isaac believes that Abraham heard God correctly, and that God really ordered the sacrifice.  Isaac is completely devoted to the god of Abraham and will do whatever this god requires.

14th century Icelandic manuscript, with angel and ram
14th century Icelandic manuscript, with angel and ram

Abraham lifts the blade, then hears God’s voice telling him to stop.  He stops and substitutes a ram for his son on the altar.  God talks to him some more, and then Abraham walks back down the mountain–alone. The Torah does not say where Isaac goes.

Sarah, Isaac’s mother, dies, but only Abraham shows up to bury her.  The Torah never reports father and son in the same place at the same time again.  Their mutual trust is broken. The next time we see Isaac, he is living at Beir-Lachai-Roi, some distance south of Abraham’s home at Beersheba.  Abraham’s servant brings Isaac’s bride directly to Beir-Lachai-Roi, probably because he knows Isaac would never return to his father’s home to meet her.

The Torah does not say why Isaac turns against the father he trusted.  My guess is that the interrupted sacrifice proves to Isaac that

1) Abraham does not always know what God wants, after all, and

2) his father is willing to kill him anyway.

So Isaac separates from his father.  For all Abraham knows, Isaac rejects God as well.  But Abraham still wants descendants—descendants who will be suitable to receive the gift of Canaan from God. So Abraham goes ahead and arranges his son’s marriage.

If this were a modern story, Abraham’s plot would backfire. Isaac would reject the bride Eliezer brings back from Charan, and find his own wife and his own religion.

But in the book of Genesis, Isaac falls in love with his cousin Rebecca from Charan.  He stays in Canaan, and he continues to worship the god of Abraham his whole life.  Isaac is wise enough not to let his mistrust of his father infect his relationships with other people or with God.

May we all be able, like Isaac, to distinguish between a person we cannot trust and the individuals and ideas connected with that person.

Chayei Sarah: Rebecca’s Camel

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.)

Egyptian petroglyph ca. 2200 B.C.E.
Egyptian petroglyph ca. 2200 B.C.E.

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.

Excavated well at Gibeon
Excavated well at Gibeon

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.