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.
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.
- Genesis 15:2.
- 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.
- Genesis 22:20-23.
- Ruth 3:10.
- Abraham might want Isaac to marry someone who worships the same God; see my post:
Chayei Sarah: Arranged Marriage.
- Genesis 24:61 and 24:59.
- Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 57b.
- 16th-century rabbi Moshe Alshich, quoted in www.sefaria.org.