Va-eira: Hail That Failed

Is it ethical to harm or even kill innocent people? The liberal answer is no. Someone with more traditional morality might answer: no … unless you need to do it for the sake of your own people, whose welfare comes first.

In terms of either answer, the God of Israel and the pharaoh of Egypt are unethical in this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35).

The God character wants the Israelites to walk out of Egypt and serve God as the new rulers of the land of Canaan. The pharaoh character wants the Israelites to stay in Egypt as forced labor making bricks and building cities for him. The God character also wants to be acknowledged as the most powerful force in the world, while the pharaoh wants to keep every iota of power he already has.1

Following God’s instructions, Moses repeatedly offers Pharaoh what sounds like a compromise: that Pharaoh give the Israelites a three-day vacation to hold a festival for their God in the wilderness.2 (Meanwhile Moses informs the Israelites that the real goal is a new life in a different country.) Pharaoh refuses, and the God character responds by devastating Egypt with a series of “plagues”: miraculous disasters. The plagues devastate the country and harm or kill human beings, including both the Israelite immigrants God has adopted, and Pharaoh’s native Egyptians.

The Ten Plagues, Erlangen Haggadah, by Judah Pinchas, 1747

Before the seventh plague, hail, God tells Moses to pass on this information to Pharaoh:

“For by now shalachti my hand, and you, you and your people, would be wiped off the earth by bubonic plague. However, on account of this I have let you stand: to show you my power, so that my name will be made known over all the earth.” (Exodus 9:15-16)

shalachti (שָׁלַחְתִּי) = I could have sent forth, I could have released. (A kal form of the verb shalach, שָׁלַח = sent, let go. Throughout this week’s Torah portion, forms of the verb shalach are used both when God releases a plague, and when Moses and Pharaoh talk about releasing, or not releasing, the Israelites.)

In other words, God is refraining from simply killing every native Egyptian. The purpose of sending one plague after another is to spread the word about God’s awesome power, and to eventually make Pharaoh so terrified that he gives in and lets the Israelites go out into the wilderness.

Pharaoh’s strategy is to keep refusing to give the Israelites permission to go. He assumes they would never leave Egypt without his permission, probably because then his army would kill them.3

Plague of Death of the Firstborn, Erlangen Haggadah, by Judah Pinchas, 1747

So much is at stake that neither of the God character nor the pharaoh is willing to stop them. Only after the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, does Pharaoh concede defeat.

Yet these entrenched enemies soften their positions briefly in this week’s Torah portion, in the story of the seventh plague: hail.

Ethics of a god

The first three plagues in the book of Exodus/Shemot afflict everyone in Egypt indiscriminately. When God turns the Nile into blood, the Israelites as well as the native Egyptians are affected by the shortage of both drinking water and fish.4 The second plague, frogs, and the third, lice, also affect everyone in Egypt without exception.

Then the God-character seems to notice that his demonstrations of power are causing suffering to the people he plans to rescue. Before the fourth plague, swarms of mixed vermin, God declares that all the Egyptians will be affected, but the region occupied by Israelites, Goshen, will be vermin-free.5

The Israelites also get a divine exemption from the fifth plague, cattle disease; the ninth plague, darkness; and the tenth, death of the firstborn. (Through the oversight of either the narrator or the God character, no exception is mentioned for the sixth plague, boils, nor for the eighth plague, locusts.)

The seventh plague, hail, is a unique case. No hail falls on Goshen, where the Israelites live. But this time God gives some of the Egyptians a chance to reduce their losses ahead of time. God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh and his court:

“Here I will be, about this time tomorrow, raining down a very heavy hail, the like of which has never been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. So now, shelach your livestock and everything in the field that is yours! Every human and beast that is found in the field and has not been gathered into [its] house, the hail will descend upon them and they will die.” (Exodus 9:18-19)

shelach (שְׁלַח) = Send! Send in! (Another kal form of shalach.)

Perhaps God is testing Pharaoh to see whether he rejects everything God says, not just the demand to give the Israelites a three-day leave of absence. Pharaoh is stubborn and does not issue any orders about his own livestock or field slaves.

Plague of Hail, Erlangen Haggadah, by Judah Pinchas, 1747

But everyone in the audience hall hears God’s advice regarding the coming hailstorm, and some of Pharaoh’s courtiers act on it.

Whoever feared the word of God among the servants of Pharaoh had his slaves and his beasts flee into the houses. But whoever did not pay attention to the word of God left his slaves and his beasts in the field. (Exodus 9:20-21)

The hail still destroys the barley and flax crops and shatters trees throughout all of Egypt—except Goshen, where the Israelites live.6 This means a loss for even the God-fearing landowners, since all Egyptians now face a future shortage of food (barley and fruit) and clothing (linen from flax). The hail also kills or injures the slaves of the Egyptian landowners who ignored God’s warning and left them out in their fields along with the livestock.

The God character must notice that some of Pharaoh’s courtiers now believe in the power of the God of Israel. This is progress on God’s agenda of becoming known as the supreme deity. An ethical and intelligent deity would now devise a way to exempt every Egyptian who fears the God of Israel from the suffering and death that will be caused by the last three plagues.

But God’s lenience preceding the seventh plague does not last. The three plagues in next week’s Torah portion, Bo, affect all Egyptians without exception. The tenth and final plague kills the firstborn son of everyone in Egypt who does not paint blood on the doorframe of their house—and God does not tell anyone but the Israelites about this sign.

And it was the middle of the night, and God struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, to all the first-born of the livestock. (Exodus 12:29)

For the plague of hail, God experimented with mitigating the damage to Egyptians who feared God. But the final and most horrible plague punishes all Egyptians, even those who are eager to let the Israelites leave.

Ethics of a king

During the first six plagues, Pharaoh makes two false promises to let the Israelites go, but breaks them as soon as the plagues are removed.7 He does not express any guilt over the devastation to his country and its people.

But he appears to have a change of heart during the seventh plague, hail.

Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said to them: “I am guilty this time. God is the righteous one and I and my people are the wicked ones. Plead to God that there will be no more of God’s thunder and hail, va-ashalchah you, and you will not continue to stay.” (Exodus 9:27-28)

va-ashalchah (וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה) = and I will send away, let go, set free. (A piel form of the verb shalach.)

Plague of Hail, Golden Haggadah, Spanish, ca. 1320

Only here and during the eighth plague, locusts, does Pharaoh say he is guilty. When the hail is pummeling the land, he qualifies his confession in two telling ways. He classifies his people as well as himself as “wicked” even though so far, only Pharaoh and his taskmasters have harmed the Israelites. And he says he is guilty “this time”, ignoring the previous six times he refused to release the Israelites.

Does Pharaoh really believe he acted unethically? Or is he just saying so in the hope that a little groveling will help to get the plague of hail removed?

After all, Moses has not been frank with Pharaoh. So far he has kept repeating God’s request that the pharaoh give the Israelites three days off to worship their God in the wilderness. Pharaoh, by adding “and you will not continue to stay”, hints for the first time that he suspects the truth: if the Israelites got a three-day head start, they would not return to Egypt. Both Moses and Pharaoh hide their true agendas.

This week’s Torah portion ends:

And Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ended. Then he added to his guilt, and his heart was unmoved,8 his and his courtiers’. And Pharaoh’s heart hardened, and he did not shilach the Israelites, as Hashem had spoken through Moses. (Exodus 9:34-35)

shilach (שִׁלַּח) = let loose, let go, sent away. (Another piel form of the verb shalach.)

It is the narrator who says Pharaoh “added to his guilt” by being hard-hearted and refusing to let the Israelites go. Pharaoh himself is no longer talking about guilt. He has returned to his stubborn refusal to recognize that he cannot win against God. And Pharaoh’s courtiers stand with him this time.

By now Pharaoh knows that every time he refuses to release the Israelites another plague strikes Egypt. Perhaps during the hail he realizes that he, too, bears some responsibility and guilt for the damage the plagues have done. But then he returns to making  his own status as Egypt’s absolute ruler his top priority. He does not free the Israelites until the plague of the firstborn kills his own son and heir.

Both God and Pharaoh soften briefly during the story of the plague of hail. The God character enables the Egyptian landowners who take God seriously to protect some of their property. Pharaoh entertains the idea that he is wrong to prioritize his pride and his free labor over the health and safety of his own Egyptian citizens. Yet this softening quickly vanishes without leading to a moral improvement in either character.

It is easy to keep on angling to get what you want, regardless of the consequences for anyone else. I have acted that way myself, until I realized the damage I was doing and repented.

But some individuals are too narcissistic to feel compassion and repent. Occasionally a narcissist says or does something that appears to be kind and compassionate but, as I know from personal experience, this temporary kindness may be only a ploy to win favor. When push comes to shove, narcissists will harden again, because nothing is more important than their own agendas.

The book of Exodus paints the characters of both God and Pharaoh as narcissistic. Nevertheless, people still enjoy a story about a battle between two superpowers, regardless of the collateral damage in human lives.

But in our own lives, may we remember to look and see whether we are harming others as we pursue our own agendas. And may we protect ourselves, and others, from narcissists who cannot see the harm they do.

And may we not confuse God with the narcissistic God character in the book of Exodus.

  1. See my post Bo: Pride and Ethics.
  2. Exodus 5:1-3, 7:16, 8:21-24, 10:9-11, 10:24-26.
  3. Pharaoh and his charioteers do pursue the Israelites in Exodus 14:6-10 after Pharaoh changes his mind about letting them go.
  4. Exodus 7:20-24.
  5. Exodus 8:17-8:18.
  6. Exodus 9:16, 9:25, 9:31.
  7. Pharaoh promises to let the Israelites go during the plague of frogs in Exodus 8:4 and backs out in Exodus 8:11. He promises during the plague of vermin in Exodus 8:21 and 8:24 and backs out in Exodus 8:28.
  8. The Hebrew reads: vayakhebeid libo (וַיַּכְבֵּד לִבּוֹ) = and his heart was heavy. In English, the idiom “heavy heart” means sadness. But in Biblical Hebrew, a “heavy heart” is unmoved or immovable.

Shemot: Demagogue

Demagogue (noun): a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Egypt has too many immigrants! says the pharaoh says at the beginning of the book of Exodus/Shemot. If they increase we’re in trouble!

Here are the pharaoh’s words in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1):

“Hey, the Israelite people are countless, more numerous than we are! Come, let us use our wits, or else they will increase. Then it will happen that war will be proclaimed against us, and [these people] will actually join our enemies and make war against us, then go up from the land!” (Exodus/Shemot 1:9-10)

Semites visiting Egypt, Tomb of Knumhotep II, c. 1900 BCE

A few centuries before, in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, a pharaoh appreciated Joseph’s service so much he invited Jacob’s clan of 70 people to migrate from Canaan to Egypt. Now they have so many descendants that some of the native Egyptians are nervous. The pharaoh escalates their fears by predicting both that the Israelites will rise against the Egyptians, and that they will leave Egypt and, presumably, stop contributing to its economy.

Today demagogues in many western nations spread the notion that immigrants and their descendants will take away jobs, use up public resources, and change the culture of the country. Why did the pharaoh at the beginning of the book of Exodus raise the specter of civil war instead?

The scenario the pharaoh describes in this week’s Torah portion may have actually happened when a Semitic people called the Hyksos conquered northern Egypt and ruled it from 1638 to 1530 B.C.E.. A recent analysis of teeth found in skeletons in the remains of Aravis, their capital in the Nile delta, indicates that the Hyksos came from an established immigrant community within Egypt.1

Ramesses II capturing enemies, c. 1250 BCE

None of the pharaohs in the book of Exodus are named, but the first one to speak is sometimes identified with Ramesses II, who ruled in 1279–1213 B.C.E. and built a new capital city, Pi-Ramesses, near the old site of Avaris. During his reign Canaan was a colony of the Egyptian Empire, populated by Semites but controlled by Egyptian administrators and soldiers. Nevertheless, historical memory of the Hyksos might have haunted Egyptians.

After fomenting fear and loathing of the Semitic Israelites living in Egypt, the first pharaoh in Exodus takes two actions. First he takes advantage of the anti-Semitism he has revived to get free labor for his own projects.

Then they set over them [the Israelite men] overseers for corvée labor in order to oppress them with their forced labor, and they built cities of warehouses for Pharaoh: Pitom and Rameseis. (Exodus 1:11)

Native Egyptians are probably glad their pharaoh is conscripting resident aliens instead of them. However, this corvée labordoes not address the pharaoh’s original claim that the Israelites are dangerous because they might fight on the enemy’s side in a war. Even though the Israelite men are supervised by Egyptian overseers, they might revolt if an army from another country promised them liberation.

(The first book of Kings provides an example of rebellion due to forced labor. King Solomon imposes corvée labor on his own people, sending Israelite men in shifts to quarry stone in Lebanon for building Jerusalem’s new temple. Unlike the Israelites in Egypt, Solomon’s laborers work in the quarries one month, then get two months off at home.2 The levy continues for further building projects in the northern part of Solomon’s kingdom.3 When Solomon’s son and successor, Rechavam, announces he will work the northern Israelites harder, they revolt and set up their own kingdom.4)  

The first pharaoh in Exodus, besides taking advantage of the anti-Semitism he has revived in order to levy forced labor, attempts to commit gradual genocide. He orders the midwives for the Israelites to kill the male infants of Israelite women, but let the females live.5 Perhaps his rationale is that the boys would grow up to become soldiers fighting against the native Egyptians. A more efficient way to commit genocide would be to kill the girls as well, since they will give birth to future generations. But the cultural assumption was that girls could be trained as servants and concubines and safely absorbed into the Egyptian population. Why deprive the native Egyptians of a class of docile domestic servants?

But the midwives disobey the pharaoh.

Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them: “Why have you done this thing and let the boys live?” And the midwives said to Pharaoh: “Because the Ivriot are not like the women of Egypt, because [they are] chayot. Hey! Before you come to them to serve as a midwife, they have given birth.” (Exodus 1:18-19) 

Ivriot (עִבְרִיֺּת) = female Hebrews.  (Plural female of Ivri, עִבְרִי. The term Ivri may be related to the term habiru in letters sent from Canaan to Egypt in the 14th century B.C.E.. The habiru were a marginal social class of outsiders, often outlaws or mercenaries. In Hebrew, Ivri is related to the verb avar, עָוַר = pass through, cross over; an ivri is a boundary-crosser or a nomad. Today the Hebrew language is called Ivrit, עִבְרִית.)

chayot (חָיוֹת) = wild animals.

The midwives probably refer to the Israelite women as Ivriot and chayot in order to sound as if they are as anti-Semitic as the pharaoh.6 They get away with their excuse; the pharaoh refrains from punishing them.

Although classic commentary says the two spokeswomen for the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, and actually Moses’ mother and sister, Pharaoh would hardly respond positively to their excuse if they were Semites! But why would the Israelite women use Egyptian midwives? The Torah offers no explanation. Why complicate a juicy story?

Even though the pharaoh lets the midwives off the hook, he still needs to pander to the masses he has inflamed. So he incites the native Egyptians to take violent action.

Then Pharaoh commanded his entire people, saying: “Every son that is born, you shall throw him into the Nile. But every daughter you shall keep alive.” (Exodus 1:22)

Vigilante groups of Egyptian men must have responded by searching Israelite houses, seizing infant boys, and drowning them. The next two sentences in the Torah portion are:

And a man from the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived, and she gave birth to a son. And she saw him, that he was good, and she hid him for three months. (Exodus 2:1-2:2)

This baby boy is Moses, who is later adopted by a daughter of the pharaoh who does not share her father’s anti-Semitism.

I believe the pharaoh in this story acts unethically by inciting murder, by imposing corvée labor on residents of his country in a time of peace, and by encouraging prejudicial acts against native-born children of an immigrant population. But not everyone today would agree with me. Demagogues have risen in more than one modern Western nation in the 21st century, and a few have even been elected as heads of state.

Since the pharaoh in this week’s Torah portion is an absolute ruler, he can issue inflammatory orders without fear of reprise. I pray that all demagogues who incite violence in our time will be brought to justice.

  2. 1 Kings 5:27-31.
  3. 1 Kings 11:26-28.
  4. 1 Kings 12:1-20.
  5. Exodus 1:16.
  6. Exodus 1:17-19. See my post Shemot: Disobedient Midwives.

Vayechi: When Jacob Bows

The prophecy

Joseph has two prophetic dreams when is seventeen, according to the Torah portion Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23). After the second dream, he tells his brothers:

“Hey, I dreamed a dream again! And hey! The sun and the moon and eleven stars mishtachavim to me!” And he reported [it] to his father and to his brothers, and his father rebuked him and said to him: “What is this dream that you dreamed? Will we actually come, I and your mother and your brothers, lehishtachot to the ground to you?” And his brothers were jealous of him, and his father observed the matter.  (Genesis/Bereishit 37:9-11)

mishtachavim (מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים) = were bowing down, were prostrating themselves. (From the root verb shchh, שׁחה = bow down deeply in humility, do homage.)

lehishtachot (לְהִשְׁתַּחֲוֺת) = to bow down. (Also from the root sh-ch-h.)

Joseph’s Second Dream, by Owen Jones, 1865

Joseph’s father, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel), is over 100 years old at this time, and so far the Torah has not mentioned him bowing down to anyone except his brother, Esau.

The previous prostration

That happened in the Torah portion Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43), when the two brothers met again after a twenty-year estrangement. Esau had vowed to kill his brother after Jacob had cheated him out of both his birthright and the blessing he expected from their father. Jacob had fled to his uncle’s house in Charan. When he finally headed home again, after acquiring a large family and his own fortune, he learned that Esau was coming down the road with 400 men to intercept him. Jacob did everything he could think of to prevent disaster: sending his brother generous gifts ahead of time, praying to God, and finally, as Esau came into view with his troop,

He himself went across to face him, vayishtachu to the ground seven times, until he came up to his brother. (Genesis 33:3)

vayishtachu (וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ) = and he bowed down, and he prostrated himself. (Also from the root sh-ch-h.)

In the Hebrew Bible, prostrations are a way to demonstrate humility and deference to a superior—usually to a king or to God. By bowing down to Esau seven times, Jacob is symbolically renouncing any advantage he tried to get over Esau in his youth, and demonstrating as graphically as possible that he considers Esau his superior. His prostrations are the equivalent of a puppy rolling over and exposing its throat to an older dog.

Inferior to nobody

After Jacob and his family and servants depart from Esau in peace, he does not bow to anyone for over forty years. Why should he? Jacob, jealous of his twin brother’s extra rights as the firstborn, has always been self-conscious about his position in life. After he failed to secure the rights of a firstborn son by fraud, he labored in Charan for twenty years until he had earned them. Now Jacob is a chieftain with twelve sons, many slaves and employees, and a great  wealth of livestock. The chieftain of the town of Shekhem treats Jacob as an equal, and when he makes an offer to Jacob he goes out to his camp instead of summoning him to his own residence in town.1

Jacob does not bow down to God, either. He first encounters God in the dream with angels on a stairway, and when he wakes up he treats God as someone to bargain with, vowing to give God a tithe of his wealth if God protects him and brings him safely back home.2 When Jacob worships God, he does so by pouring oil on a stone or burning animal offerings on an altar.3

Jacob and his people settle somewhere near Hebron/Chevron in Canaan.4 After Jacob’s older sons come home from the field without their younger brother and show their father Joseph’s bloody tunic, Jacob thinks his favorite son is dead. He mourns Joseph for 22 years. During that time Joseph is actually living in Egypt, where he rises from slave to viceroy. Finally Joseph sends for his father and his whole extended family in last week’s Torah portion, Vayigash (Genesis 4:18-47:27).

And Joseph harnessed his chariot and went up to Goshen to meet Israel [a.k.a. Jacob], his father. And he appeared to him, and he fell on his neck and he wept on his neck a long time. Then Israel said to Joseph: “I can die now, after seeing your face, that you are still alive.” (Genesis 46:29-30)

But the prophetic dream Joseph had when he was seventeen is not fulfilled. Jacob’s brothers have already bowed down to him many times, but his father has not.

Jacob does not bow down to Pharaoh, either, when Joseph presents him at court. He greets the king of Egypt with a blessing, and answers Pharaoh’s inquiry about how old he is by saying he is 130, and his life has been hard and short.5 Then Jacob blesses the king again, and leaves.

The prophecy fulfilled

Jacob finally bows down for the second time of his life on his deathbed, in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26).

Then the time approached for Israel [a.k.a. Jacob] to die, and he called for his son, for Joseph, and said to him: “If, na, I find favor in your eyes, place, na, your hand under my thigh and do a loyal and faithful deed for me: don’t, na, bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my forefathers, then bring me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial place!” (Genesis 47:29-30)

na (נָא) = please, pray, I beg you. 

Joseph gives his word, but Jacob wants the formal hand gesture of an oath as well.6

And he [Israel/Jacob] said: “Swear to me!” And he swore to him. Vayishtachu, Israel, upon head of the bed. (Genesis 47:31)

vayishtachu (וַיֱִשְׁתַּחוּ) = and he bowed. (Also from the root sh-ch-h.)

Many classic commentators wrote that Jacob bowed toward the head of his bed, because the presence of God is at the head of the bed of a sick person (and prepositions are ambiguous). But that interpretation implies he was standing up. The Torah has already told us that Jacob is 147, and his death is approaching. I have been at the beside of four people near death, and I believe even Jacob would be too feeble to stand up during his final days.7 Perhaps he is seated on his bed, resting against a cushion, and he manages to bow at the waist.

In that case, he is not bowing toward the head of his bed; he is probably bowing to Joseph. This was the opinion of 12th-century rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, known as Rashbam, who wrote: “ ‘And Israel bowed low’: To Joseph, from the place where he was at [the top of] the bed.”8

Rabbi Bachya ben Asher (1255-1340 C.E.), known as Rabbeinu Bachya, added: “Seeing that Joseph had agreed to honour his father by undertaking to fulfill his wishes, Yaakov in turn prostrated himself before him to show that he respected the position Joseph occupied as effective ruler of the country.”8

Jacob spent the first hundred years of his life struggling to be the one on top, the one in charge. But during his final years in Egypt, he accepts that his son Joseph is his superior. He knows he is dependent on Joseph to carry out his final request, so he uses the language of an inferior, using the subservient phrase “if I find favor in your eyes” and repeating he word na. Then he uses the gesture of a humble inferior, coming as close as he can to a prostration.

This is the moment when Jacob fulfills the prophecy of the dream his son Joseph had when he was seventeen.

Jacob on his Deathbed, woodcut, 1539

After that, Jacob lives long enough to do the equivalent of rewriting his will, adopting Joseph’s two sons as his own so they will receive shares of the inheritance equal to those of Joseph’s brothers. Jacob also delivers his own prophecies to all his sons, predicting what will happen to the tribes that descend from them. Finally he orders all twelve of his sons to bury him with his deceased family members in the cave of Machpelah in Canaan.

And Jacob completed commanding his sons, and he drew back his feet in the bed, and he expired, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 49:33)

One prostration to Joseph before he died was enough for Jacob.

“Honor your father and your mother,” says the fifth of the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus. In my post Yitro, Mishpatim, & Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1, I suggest that parents should also honor their children. But should they show humble submission to them, as Jacob did by bowing to Joseph on his deathbed?

Nobody would advise submission to a callow seventeen-year-old. But what about when the child is middle-aged, and the parent’s ability to deal with the world is declining in old age? If the adult child is competent and kind, then it would be better to humbly submit to that child’s arrangements than to insist on complete autonomy. I hope that is what I will do when I am considerably older—though I do not expect to live to age 147!

  1. Genesis 34:6-24.
  2. Genesis 28:20-22.
  3. Jacob’s journey south from Shekhem ends at the home of his father, Isaac, in Hebron/Chevron (Genesis 35:27). After that, the Torah only says Jacob lives “in the land of Canaan”, without specifying the location. His first stop on the way to Egypt is Beir-sheva, which is south of Chevron.
  4. Genesis 28:16-19, 33:19-20, 35:6, 35:13-14, 46:1.
  5. Genesis 47:7-10.
  6. Biblical Hebrew sometimes uses the word for “thigh”, yareich (יָרֵךְ) as a euphemism for the genitals. According to Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, midrash written between 630 and 1030 C.E., Jacob said: “O my son! Swear to me by the covenant of circumcision that thou wilt take me up to the burial-place of my fathers in the land of Canaan to the Cave of Machpelah.” (translation of Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 39:13 by
  7. This is the first of Jacob’s three deathbed scenes. In the second, he has to summon his strength (vayitchaek, וַיִּתחַזֵּק) to sit up in bed.
  8. Both quotations are from

Vayeishev & Vayigash: Is Joseph Ethical?

It is one thing to take an ethical stand when only you and a few other individuals are concerned. It can be harder to perceive and make the most ethical choice when a whole population is affected.

Joseph as ethical examplar

I have written before about Joseph’s iffy behavior as a troubled seventeen-year old and his older brothers’ inflated response: selling him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.1 I have also written about how twenty years later Joseph saves his brothers’ lives and declines to take revenge, though he could easily enslave them; he merely puts them through a nerve-wracking test.2

Joseph acts even more ethically when he is propositioned by the wife of his Egyptian owner, Potifar. God blesses Joseph with success in everything he does, and Potifar promotes him to steward over his household in the Torah portion Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23). Potifar’s wife notices how good-looking Joseph is, and asks him to lie down with her.3

And he refused, and he said to his master’s wife: “Hey, with me, my master is not concerned about what is in the house, because everything that is his, he placed in my hand. There are none greater in this house than I am, and he has not withheld anything at all from me except you, since you are his wife. So how could I do this great wickedness, and be guilty before God?” (Genesis/Bereishit 39:8-9)

Joseph Flees Potiphar’s Wife,
by Julius Schnorr von Carlsfeld, 19th century

Joseph feels intuitively that committing adultery with his owner’s wife would be wicked. Potifar did not enslave him, but merely purchased him as a slave. Since then his owner has treated him well and trusted him completely. Joseph believes it would be wrong to cheat him.

He also believes that adultery is wrong according to God. Although the God of Israel does not explicitly prohibit adultery until the Ten Commandments,4 God has already punished two kings who unknowingly attempted adultery with Joseph’s great-grandmother Sarah. Furthermore, adultery is a general taboo in the region; both kings were appalled when they discovered what they had almost done.5

So when Potifar’s wife approaches him again, Joseph flees.

Several years later, Pharaoh has two significant dreams, and Joseph is called upon to interpret them. He tells Pharaoh that the dreams are God’s warning that Egypt will have seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Then he advises Pharaoh to appoint someone make sure grain is stockpiled during the years of plenty. Pharaoh appoints Joseph viceroy in charge of all agriculture in Egypt.6

He spends the next seven years commandeering and storing Egypt’s excess grain. The Torah does not say how Joseph acquires the grain; it may be through eminent domain, for the public good. Or he may purchase the grain, as the United States purchases crude oil to stock its Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Either way, Joseph is earning his livelihood as Pharaoh’s agent in an ethical way.

We learn what Joseph does during the seven years of famine in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27).

Joseph, Overseer of the Pharaoh’s Granaries,
by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1874

Joseph as capitalist

During the first year of famine, Joseph sells grain from the government’s reserves for silver, the currency of that time and place, and brings the silver into Pharaoh’s palace. The second year of famine, there is no more silver left in either Egypt or Canaan.

Then all the Egyptians came to Joseph, saying: “Give us bread! Why should we die in front of you? For the silver is all gone.” (Genesis 47:15)

Rather than distributing grain for free, Joseph offers to trade grain for livestock. So that year Pharaoh acquires ownership of all the horses, donkeys, cows, and sheep in Egypt.

In the third year of famine, the Egyptians tell Joseph:

“We cannot hide from my lord that all the silver and the cattle [we] possessed have gone to my lord. Nothing remains before my lord except our bodies and our soil. Why should we die before your eyes, us and our soil? Keneih us and our soil for bread, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh. And give us seed, so we will live and not die, and the soil will not turn into desert.” (Genesis 47:18-29)

keneih (קְנֵה) = Acquire! Buy! (An imperative form of kana, קָנָה = acquired through purchase, ransom, or production.)

By the third year of the famine, the Egyptians are in the position of debt slaves who must sell both their land and themselves just so they can eat. Their poverty is entirely due to the weather, which is an act of God.

How does Joseph respond? First he acquires all the farmland in Egypt for Pharaoh—all except for the land Pharaoh had previously allotted to the priests,7 and the land of Goshen where Pharaoh invited Joseph’s extended family to settle.8

Vayiken, Joseph, all the soil of Egypt for Pharaoh, since all the Egyptian sold their fields because the famine was too strong for them. And the land became Pharaoh’s. (Genesis 47:20)

vayiken (וַיִּקֶן) = and he acquired. (Another form of kana.)

Since Pharaoh has a monopoly on all the grain remaining in the region, Joseph can sell the grain at any price he likes. If laissez-faire capitalism is ethical, then Joseph’s acquisition of all the farmland is ethical.

Next, in order to make sure that the Egyptian farmers know they no longer own the land they farm, Joseph moves whole communities to different areas. People have the same neighbors as before, but they live in a different place, and farm different plots than their parents and grandparents.

Is this ethical? It could be worse; at least Joseph deports existing communities together, so people have the same friends, neighbors, and social structure in their new location. But they do not have a choice about where to live. In that respect, they have indeed become slaves rather than citizens.

The Hebrew Bible accepts slavery as a necessary evil, but decrees that Israelites may only sell themselves as debt slaves for a term of six years. In the seventh year they must be freed, unless they choose to undergo a ritual committing them to their owner for life. And when owners free their slaves, they must supply them with goods that will give them a start in their new life.9

So if Joseph were ethical by later Israelite standards, he would buy the Egyptians as temporary slaves, and set them free after a reasonable number of years.

If he were ethical by modern standards, he would acquire their land, but not their bodies. No doubt they would choose to work for the government as tenant farmers for a while, since it was the only way they could get food. But when times improved, they would be free to choose another form of livelihood.

After Joseph acquires the farmland for Pharaoh and deports whole communities, he takes one more step.

Then Joseph said to the people: “Hey, kaniti you and your soil today for Pharaoh. See, there is seed for you, and you shall sow the soil. And when you harvest, you will give one-fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths will be yours to sow the field and to eat, you and everyone in your households and your little ones.” (Genesis 47:24)

kaniti (קָנִיתִי) = I have acquired. (Another form of kana.)

Thus Joseph institutes a system of serfdom, turning the people into permanent tenant farmers. Every year the farmers must give Pharaoh 20% of their harvest. It is not a tax on their income, but rather a split of the profits between the owner of the land and the workers who do the labor.

The farmers gratefully accept this arrangement simply in order to eat. They would rather be alive with no freedom and no belongings, than dead of starvation.

And they said: “He has kept us alive! We found mercy in the eyes of my lord, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh.” (Genesis 47:25)

Mandating a tenant farmer arrangement in perpetuity certainly benefits Pharaoh and his government, which will now receive a steady annual income of grain. Joseph is a successful administrator. But is his arrangement ethical?

Some classic commentators praised Joseph for his moderation. Since Egyptian farmers got to keep four-fifths of their harvest, they did not suffer hardship, according to Radak (13th-century rabbi David Kimchi) and 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno. Sforno also noted that all slave-owners were responsible for feeding their slaves, so in the event of another famine Pharaoh would have to provide his tenant farmers with food.

However, the bottom line is that few human beings want to be someone else’s property. We want to make our own decisions about where we live and how we earn a livelihood. Joseph did less harm to the farmers of Egypt than he might have, but his actions were still unethical.

Is he motivated by a desire for revenge due to his own enslavement? Joseph threatens his brothers with slavery, but does not impose it. He knows them, and he overhears them admit to each other that they were guilty of enslaving him.10 He feels empathy for them, and turns away to weep.

He also feels warmhearted toward Potifar, who promoted him and trusted him. But he does not have any feelings about the farmers of Egypt.

I believe Joseph’s ethics are imperfect because he is human. It is hard to imagine the viewpoint of thousands of people you have never met. Yet someone with power in government must do just that in order to make ethical decisions. Saving lives is good, but it is not the only good.

  1. See my post Vayeishev: Favoritism.
  2. See my posts Mikeitz: A Fair Test, Part 1 and Part 2.
  3. Genesis 39:6-7.
  4. Exodus 20:13.
  5. Genesis 15:11-20, 20:1-7 and 47:27.
  6. Genesis 41:1-46.
  7. Genesis 47:22.
  8. Genesis 47:1-6, 47:11-12.
  9. Exodus 21:2-6, Deuteronomy 15:12-18.
  10. Genesis 42:21-24.

Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Blame

When something bad happens that is neither an accident nor an act of God, who gets the blame?

Blame a beast

Joseph’s ten older brothers cannot stand him anymore in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40-23). Their father, Jacob, dotes on him, and he lords it over his brothers. When they are out with the flocks Joseph spies on them, and brings back bad reports to Jacob.

Jacob Weeps over Joseph’s Tunic,
by Marc Chagall

Once the brothers say they are taking the flocks to Shekhem, but they make an additional day’s journey to Dotan. There they look back down the road, and see their seventeen-year-old brother. Is there no escape?

Several of the older brothers decide to kill him then and there, throw his body into a pit, and tell Jacob a wild beast ate him. But Reuben tells them to throw him in alive, so his blood will not be on their hands. When Joseph prances up tot them, they grab him, strip off his fancy clothing, and heave him into the nearest dry cistern. Then while they are eating lunch, they see a caravan heading for Egypt, and Judah convinces his brothers to sell Joseph to the traders as a slave. That way they get rid of him and make some money, too. Before they go home, the brothers dip Joseph’s fancy clothing in goat’s blood. The ploy works; when they show the bloody garment to Jacob, he believes Joseph was killed by a wild animal. So far, they have escaped the blame.

Blame the victim

Meanwhile a high-ranking Egyptian named Potifar buys Joseph. Potifar notices that everything his new slave undertakes succeeds, so he advances Joseph to the position of steward of his household. Then Potifar’s wife tries to seduce the handsome young slave, but he refuses her on ethical grounds. When she grabs at his clothing he runs away, leaving his garment in her hand.1

When Potifar comes home, his wife shows him Joseph’s garment and says:

“He came to me, the Hebrew slave that you brought to us, to fool around with me! But it was like I cried out at the top of my voice, and he left his garment beside me and he fled outside.” (Genesis 39:17-18)

Blaming the victim works; Potifar sends Joseph to prison.

Blaming the guilty for a different crime

Joseph’s run of success continues in prison, and thanks to God he correctly interprets the dreams of two men in custody awaiting their sentences. One is executed and the other is exonerated, exactly as Joseph predicted. Two years later, in this week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), Pharaoh has two troubling dreams that none of his advisors can interpret. The exonerated man remembers Joseph, and he is brought up from prison.

Joseph tells Pharaoh that both of his dreams mean the same thing: seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. Then he gives Pharaoh some advice about stockpiling grain during the years of plenty. Pharaoh is so impressed with the young man that he elevates Joseph to his second-in-command. Joseph becomes a successful minister of agriculture.

After seven years, the famine comes not only to Egypt but to the whole known world. Jacob sends his ten older sons from Canaan down to Egypt to buy grain.

And Joseph saw his brothers, and he recognized them, but he acted like a stranger to them and he spoke to them harshly … (Genesis 42:7)

They do not recognize Joseph, who was seventeen when they sold him. Now he is thirty-seven, he has an Egyptian name, he shaves and dresses like an Egyptian, and he speaks through an interpreter.2 Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies. They blurt out the first reason that comes into their heads why they are innocent of this charge.

Joseph’s Brothers Bow to the Governor, by Owen Jones, 1865

And they said: “Your servants are twelve brothers! We are sons of one man in the land of Canaan. But hey, the youngest is with his father now, and the one is not.” (Genesis 42:13)

Joseph uses this scant information as a means to get the youngest of the twelve brothers down to Egypt—Benjamin, Joseph’s only full brother as well as the only innocent one. He puts his ten older brothers in the guardhouse for three days, then announces that one of them must stay behind under guard while the rest go home with the grain.

“But the youngest brother you must bring to me, so your words will be verified and you will not die.”And they said, one to another: “Ah! We are asheimim on account of our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he was pleading to us for pity, and we did not listen. Therefore this distress has come to us.”  (Genesis 42:20-21)

asheimim (אֲשֵׁמִים) = bearing the consequences of guilt. (A form of the verb asham, אָשָׁם = became guilty.)

The brothers finally blame themselves for doing something wrong. And they consider their punishment under a false charge their just deserts—although Reuben then tries to exonerate himself by saying:

“Didn’t I say to you: Don’t techetu about the boy? But you did not pay attention. And now here is the reckoning for his blood!” (Genesis 42:22)

techetu (תֶּחֶטְאוּ) = you be blameworthy, be at fault. (A form of the verb chata, חָטַא = was blameworthy, was at fault, missed the mark.)

Blame others for your own misery

Joseph keeps Simeon under guard while the others take grain home to their extended family. When they tell their father what happened, he complains:

“I am the one you bereave of children! Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and [now] you would take Benjamin! Everything happens to me!” (Genesis 42:36)

Now that Joseph is gone, Benjamin is the only remaining child of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. Jacob flatly refuses to let Benjamin go.

The famine continues. When Jacob’s family in Canaan has eaten all the Egyptian grain, he tells his sons to go back to Egypt for more. Judah points out that the Egyptian minister said they could not see him again unless they brought their youngest brother with them.

And Israel [a.k.a. Jacob] said: “Why did you treat me badly, telling the man you had another brother?” (Genesis 43:6)

Again, Jacob thinks only about himself, and blames his ten older sons for his own misery. They are, in fact, guilty of taking Joseph away from him, but they sold Joseph to relieve their own misery, not to afflict their father. But a narcissist does not think other people have their own independent motives.

Take the blame in advance

Then Judah steps up and promises to take responsibility for Benjamin. First he points out that if Benjamin does not go down to Egypt, he will die of starvation, along with the rest of the family.

Then Judah said to Israel, his father: “Send the young man with me, and we will go, and we will live and not die: me, you, and our little ones. I myself will be the pledge; from my hand you can seek him. If I do not bring him back to you and place him before you, then chatati for all time.” (Genesis 43:8-9)

chatiti (חָטָאתִי) = I am blameworthy, I have missed the mark. (Another form of the verb chata.)

Judah makes no extravagant promises, but he does accept blame ahead of time if anything goes wrong. That is enough. Jacob lets Benjamin go with his brothers to Egypt.

Accepting the blame when you are guilty is an ethical response. Yet humans instinctively shrink from being blamed. We do not want to look bad, and we do not want to be punished. On the other hand, humans find it all too easy to blame others without knowing the whole story.

Joseph’s ten older brothers are all responsible, in one way or another, for his disappearance from Canaan. But they deceive their father so that his blame will fall on a wild beast rather than on any of them. Jacob fails to investigate at the time, and years later he blames them for his misery over the loss of Joseph even though he has no evidence against them. He is not an ethical blamer.

Potifar’s wife takes pre-emptive action by delivering a false accusation before Joseph can tell Potifar what actually happened. Blaming the victim is still a common strategy of the guilty.

Joseph does not even try to defend himself against the woman’s accusation. But he makes a false accusation himself when his brothers come to him to buy grain. His accusation lets him manipulate circumstances so that his brothers finally blame themselves for their old crime, and so that in the long run he can transplant his whole family to Egypt, alive and well. The only punishment he afflicts on his guilty brothers is their anxiety about what he will do to them.

Judah turns out to be the best at handling blame. Although as a young man he is guilty of talking his brothers into selling Joseph as a slave, he changes over the years—most notably when he sentences his daughter-in-law to death for an illegal pregnancy, then learns the rest of the story. He publicly admits he was wrong and stops the execution.3

By the second year of famine, Judah is able to accept blame ahead of time for whatever happens to Benjamin, knowing that it is the only way he can get food for the whole family. And in next week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, Judah fulfills his pledge by volunteering to become a slave in order to save Benjamin from that fate.

Some of the characters in Genesis never change. But others learn how to accept blame when they deserve it. May more of us today learn how to overcome our natural tendencies to slap blame on others and dodge it ourselves. If Joseph and Judah can change, so can we.

  1. See my post Vayeishev: Stripped Naked.
  2. Genesis 41:14, 42:23.
  3. See my post Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Symbols of Authority.

Toledot & Vayishlach: Face to Face

(This week’s Torah portion is Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), the beginning of Joseph’s story. But before I write about Jacob’s favorite son, I have more to say about Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, and who he wrestles with–face to face and alone in last week’s portion, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43).)

Jacob spends the first sixty years of his life wrestling—with his brother, with his uncle, with God, and with himself—always maneuvering to steal the privileges he feels unentitled to due to birth or guilt.

Wrestling over a birthright

Twins wrestle in Rebecca’s womb at the beginning of the Torah portion Toledot (Genesis 25:19-28:10). Esau is born first, so in the world of the ancient Israelites he is entitled to inherit twice as much of their father Isaac’s wealth as his brother. He is also slated to become the head of the extended family and to serve as its priest.

And after that his brother came out and his hand was hanging on to Esau’s akeiv, so they called his name Ya-akov. And Isaac was sixty years old when they were born. (Genesis 25:26)

akeiv (עָקֵב) = heel.

Ya-akov (יַעֲק‎ב) = “Jacob” in English. (From ya-ekov, יַעְקֺב  = he grasps by the heel, he cheats; from the same root as akeiv.)

The Birth of Esau and Jacob, by Master of Jean de Mandeville,
Bible Historiale, 1360’s

Even at birth, Jacob did not want to be left behind. Judging by his later attempts to cheat Esau out of his firstborn rights, this detail about his birth might even mean that Jacob was trying to pull Esau back so he could come out first.

Jacob gets his foolish brother to agree to swap his rights for a bowl of lentil stew.1 But there are no witnesses to that transaction, so he is still insecure. When their blind father, Isaac, summons Esau to receive a deathbed blessing, Jacob follows instructions from their mother, Rebecca, to impersonate Esau and appropriate the blessing.2 Then he flees to his uncle’s house in Charan so Esau will not murder him.

Wrestling with an uncle and a guilty conscience

Jacob spends twenty years in Charan in the Torah portion Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), wrestling verbally with his uncle Lavan, who also becomes his employer and father-in-law. Jacob’s first goal is to marry Lavan’s younger daughter, Rachel, but he arrives without any goods he can offer as a bride-price, and instead of bargaining with Lavan he generously offers to work for him as a shepherd for seven years. I believe Jacob handicaps himself because he feels guilty about impersonating Esau and lying to his father. (See my post Vayishlach: Message Failure.)

Lavan turns out to be no more honorable than Jacob was when he stole Esau’s blessing. In a surprise move, he switches brides on Jacob’s first wedding day, then gets him to agree to serve another seven years of unpaid labor so he can marry the daughter he wanted in the first place.3 Jacob’s guilt still prevents him from trying to make a better bargain.

But after fourteen years of service, Jacob wins the next round of bargaining by claiming the black sheep and spotted goats as his wages henceforth. Lavan agrees, then tries to cheat him by removing all the animals of that description from the flock ahead of time. But Jacob breeds more of them, and in six years he is richer than his uncle.4 Lavan and his kinsmen simmer with resentment.

Once again Jacob has to flee, this time heading back to Canaan with his large household and his flocks. His route skirts the land of Edom, where Esau has become the chieftain. In the Torah portion Vayishlach, he sends a propitiating message to his twin brother, and his messengers return with the news that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. Hastily Jacob assigns some of flocks to his servants to bring to Esau as gifts. Then he transports his whole family and the rest of his servants and flocks across the Yabok River, and returns to the other side alone.5

Wrestling the wrestler

Jacob Wrestling with an Angel, by James J.J. Tissot, ca. 1900

And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the dawn rose. (Genesis 32:25)

At night this “man” apparently looks and feels like a human being, and even injures Jacob’s hip.6 But at dawn it becomes apparent that the wrestler is not human.

Then he [the “man”]said: “Let me go, because the dawn is rising.” And he [Jacob] said: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Genesis 32:27)

Desperate to protect himself and his family from Esau, Jacob has already sent his brother lavish gifts, and reminded God of their deal twenty years before.7 Now he tries to extract a blessing from the mysterious wrestler. What he gets is a second name.

And he [the “man”] said: “It will no longer be said [that] Ya-akov is your name, but instead Yisrael, because sarita with gods and with men and you have hung on.” (Genesis 32:29)

Yisrael (יִשְׂרָאֵל) = “Israel” in English. (Possibly yisar, יִשַׂר = he will strive with (a form of the verb sarah, שׂרָה = strive; prevail) + Eil, אֵל = God, a god. On the other hand, a subject usually follows a verb in Biblical Hebrew, so Yisrael could mean “Godwill strive” or “God will prevail”.)

sarita (שָׂרִיתָ) = you have striven with, prevailed over. (Another form of the verb sarah.)

The wrestler knows that Jacob has already striven with humans; he was born hanging onto his brother’s heel, and he maneuvered against Esau in Canaan, and Lavan in Charan. Now he has striven with a being that might be God, or at least one of God’s messengers.

And Jacob inquired and said: “Please tell me your name.” But he [the “man”] said: “Why do you ask for my name?” And he blessed him there. (Genesis 32:30)

Perhaps the mysterious wrestler says “Why do you ask for my name?” because God’s angelic messengers have no names.8

Blessings are usually spelled out verbally in the book of Genesis,9 like prophecies and promises. But the statement that someone blessed someone else may follow or precede the actual blessing; the text does not bother about the exact chronological order. In this case, the unnamed messenger’s blessing is: “It will no longer be said [that] Ya-akov is your name, but instead Yisrael”.

So Jacob called the name of the place Peniyeil, “Because I have seen God panim to panim yet my life was saved.” (Genesis 32:31)

Peniyeil (פְּנִיאֵל) = Face of God (penei,פְּמֵי= face of + Eil).

panim (פָּנִים) = face, faces.

Jacob is now convinced that he wrestled until dawn with a manifestation of God.

But it also makes sense to say that Jacob wrestled with himself, as one aspect (or face, or camp10) of his psyche strove against another. Among the many commentators who have reached this conclusion are Shmuel Klitsner, who wrote that Jacob’s conscious mind wrestles with his unconscious;11 Jonathan Sacks, who wrote that the person he wants to be wrestles with the person he really is;12 and David Kasher, who wrote that his instinct to use guile in order to achieve control wrestles with his underdeveloped faith in God.13

Perhaps the question “Why do you ask for my name?” arises because one side of Jacob already knows he is wrestling with himself.

Ya-akov and Yisrael meet face to face at dawn. Neither side wins the wrestling match. The stalemate at dawn could be a triumphant integration. But it does not last. After Jacob/Israel settles at Shekhem in the land of Canaan, his sons begin taking control over the family away from him.

For the rest of his life, he alternates between complaining about being cheated by his sons, and calmly doing what he must while leaving outcome to God.

It is hard to walk your own path in life instead of trying to get what someone else has. And it is hard to find peace and clarity when you have a pair of camps facing one another inside you.

I spent the first sixty years of my own life wrestling with myself. On one side, I want to do all the right things for other people; on the other side, I want to succeed at my calling. Age has refined my ethics and softened my desire for public success. I am still a pair of camps confronting one another. But now when I face my other self, I smile in recognition.

  1. Genesis 25:29-34. See my 2011 post Bereishit & Toledot: Seeing Red.
  2. Genesis 27:1-30. See my 2012 post Toledot: Rebecca Gets It Wrong.
  3. Genesis 29:15-30. See my post Toledot: Unrequited Love.
  4. Genesis 30:25-43.
  5. Genesis 32:4-24. See last week’s post, Vayeitzei & Vayishlach: Pair of Camps, and my 2021 post, Vayishlach: Message Failure.
  6. Genesis 32:26 implies that the wrestler dislocates Jacob’s hip, but Genesis 32:33 implies an attack of sciatica.
  7. Genesis 32:10-13, in reference to Genesis 28:10-22.
  8. According to Judges 13:16-18 and Genesis Rabbah 78:4.
  9. See Genesis 9:1-7, 12:2-3, 14:19-20, 16:10-12, 22:15-18, 24:60, 26:2-4, 27:28-29, 27:39-40, 28:1-4, 35:9-12, 48:10-16, 48:20, and 49:1-28. Exceptions are Genesis 32:1 and 47:7.
  10. See last week’s post, Vayeitzei & Vayishlach: Pair of Camps.
  11. Shmuel Klitsner, Wrestling Jacob: Deception, Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis, Urim Publications, Jerusalem, 2006, pp. 126-127.
  12. Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation, “Be Thyself: Vayishlach 5781”.
  13. David Kasher, ParshaNut, “The Man in the Midrash”, Parshat Vayishlach.

Vayeitzei & Vayishlach: Pair of Camps

A man’s firstborn son gets extra rights, according to the Torah. After his father dies, the firstborn inherits twice as much wealth as any of his brothers, becomes the head of his extended family, and (until the Israelites receive other instructions in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar) serves as the family’s priest1.

Jacob covets the rights of the firstborn so much that he tries to steal them from Esau twice: first by trading a bowl of lentil pottage for the rights,2 later by impersonating Esau to get their blind father’s blessing.3

The Mess of Pottage, by James Tissot, ca. 1900 (Esau is suitably hirsute, but why does Jacob have a full beard?)

The first time, Esau is so famished he hardly notices he has lost anything. But the second time, Esau is beside himself with rage, and Jacob flees to his uncle Lavan’s house in Charan, bringing nothing but what he can carry on foot.

Divine Camp

One night along the way, at the beginning of the Torah portion Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), he falls asleep outdoors with a stone for a pillow, and he sees God’s messengers—i.e. angels.

And he dreamed, and hey! A ramp was set on the ground, and its top was reaching to the heavens. And hey! God’s messengers went up and down on it. (Genesis/Bereishit 28:12)

Then God speaks to him in his dream and promises to guard him and return him to the land of Canaan, which his myriad descendants (not Esau’s) will eventually possess.

Jacob Pouring Oil on the Stone,
Cassell’s Illustrated Family Bible, ca. 1880

Is Jacob relieved and grateful when he wakes up? No. He does not trust God to keep a promise. So he sets his stone pillow upright and pours oil on it, then vows that if God really does protect him and return him safely, he will give God a tenth of whatever wealth he acquires.

Jacob acquires no wealth at all during first fourteen years in Charan, only wives and children. He works for his uncle Lavan for seven years in order to marry Lavan’s younger daughter Rachel. When Lavan switches daughters at the wedding, Jacob meekly agrees to work another seven years so he can have both Rachel and Leah. Only after he has served Lavan for fourteen years does he ask for a shepherd’s regular wages: a share of animals from the flock. During his final six years in Charan, Jacob gets rich through clever livestock breeding. When he finally leaves and sets off for Canaan, he is the owner of a great wealth of livestock, and the head and priest of a household.4 Through his own hard work and intelligence, he has attained everything a firstborn son would inherit.

One night along the way back to Canaan, at the end of the Torah portion Vayeitzei, Jacob sees God’s messengers again.

Jacob went on his way, and God’s messengers confronted him.  And Jacob said as he saw them: “This is a machaneh of God!” And he called the name of that place Machanayim. (Genesis 32:2-3)

machaneh (מַחֲנֶה) = camp, group of temporary shelters erected in a defensive circle.

machanayim (מַחֲנָיִם) = pair of camps, double camp. (Machaneh + dual suffix -ayim, ־ָיתם.)

This is the first time the word machaneh appears in the Torah. Repeating the word in the dual form is unusual; the Torah often refers to a pair of eyes, for example, but camps do not usually come in pairs. What Jacob observes is that the same place holds two camps: his earthly camp of people and animals, and God’s heavenly “camp” of angelic messengers.

Or does the heavenly camp also belong to Jacob?  He is the one who sees angels, whether they stay in the background going up and down between heaven and earth, or they confront him at a campsite. Perhaps the word machanayim also refers to a pair of camps, or roles, within the same person: Jacob as a clan leader focused on wealth and progeny, and Jacob as a priest who sees angels and carries his grandfather Abraham’s blessing and connection with God. Jacob’s two roles are not in conflict yet.  His return to Canaan liberates him from the man who took advantage of him for twenty years. At last he is an independent head of household! But his return is also a step toward fulfilling his promise to God.

Two human camps

With both sides of his life going well, Jacob feels confident enough to send his own, human messengers to his estranged brother Esau at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43).

Jacob, by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, ca. 1510

The messengers return with the news that Esau is coming to meet him, accompanied by 400 men—the right size for a fighting unit. Jacob’s new confidence collapses.

Jacob was very afraid, and shaped by distress; so he divided the people who were with him, and the flock and the herd and the camels, into two machanot.  And he said: “If Esau comes to the first machaneh and strikes it down, the remaining machaneh might survive.” (Genesis 32:8-9)

machanot (מַחֲנוֹת) = camps.  (The plural of machaneh, rather than the dual form.)

Why does he call his two camps simply “camps” (machanot), rather than “a pair of camps” (machanayim)? The two camps at the place he named Machanayim had two different owners: himself and God (or perhaps his materialistic side and his spiritual side). They faced one another like nonidentical twins, like impulsive Esau versus scheming Jacob.

But the two camps at the Yabok River are both Jacob’s property. One group consists of the animals he designates as gifts to Esau, along with the servants in charge of each drove. He sends them ahead to meet Esau and his 400 men on the road.5

The other group consists of the animals, servants, and other belongings he plans to keep for himself, along his own family: his two wives, two concubines, eleven sons, and one daughter. He leads this “camp” across the Yabok River, then returns to the other side to spend the rest of the night alone.6

But before sending his two camps in different directions, Jacob prays, begging God to rescue him and his family from Esau. He introduces his prayer by saying:

“I am too insignificant for all the loyal-kindnesses and all the fidelity that you have done for your servant; for I crossed this Jordan with [only] my staff, and now I have become two machanot.” (Genesis 32:11)

He uses the word machanot again because he is thinking about his two camps of people and animals. But at the beginning of the sentence, he uses the word for “insignificant”7 for two different purposes. On one level, Jacob is thanking God for his fertility and prosperity, enough for two camps of actual people and animals. Saying that he himself is insignificant gives more credit to God for his material success. On another level, Jacob still feels insignificant, not only because he was born second, but also because he knows he is guilty of tricking Esau twice, and his brother’s enmity is justified. Thus Jacob’s language is two-sided, coming from two internal camps.

And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the dawn rose. (Genesis 32:25)

If Jacob is alone, are Jacob and the “man” two psychological camps inside one person? If so, does the wrestling match make Jacob whole? See next week’s post: Toledot & Vayishlach: Face to Face.

We are all like Jacob in some way. I was the older child in my family, and one of my parents’ favorite stories was about when they brought home two treats and let my younger sister choose hers first. She said, “I want Melissa’s!”

Many years later, after my sister published a novel, I wanted the same success. Neither of us would have changed places with the other; we only wanted the same advantages—like Jacob, who wanted all the advantages of the firstborn without being rash and slow on the uptake like Esau.

It is hard to walk your own path in life instead of trying to get what someone else has. And if you try, you might find yourself face to face with a person you did not know was there.

  1. The Levites replace the firstborn sons of all other tribes in Numbers 3:5-13 and 3:44, when religious worship is professionalized.
  2. Genesis 25:29-34.
  3. Genesis 27:1-38.
  4. Jacob’s wealth and household are described in Genesis 31:17-18, 32:6, and 32:23. He acts as a priest by setting up an altar at Shekhem in Genesis 33:20 and at Beit-Eil in Genesis 35:7.
  5. Genesis 32:14-22.
  6. Genesis 32:23-25.
  7. The Hebrew word is katonti, קָטֺנתִּי = I am small, young, trifling, insignificant.

Vayeitzei: Unrequited Love

Falling in love can lead to years of unhappiness.

Sometimes an infatuation is gradually replaced by a mature love, one with sincere affection and respect. But sometimes infatuated lovers remain desperate to own the objects of their affection.

When Jacob arrives at his uncle’s house in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“and he went”), he falls in love at first sight with his cousin Rachel. Rachel’s sister, Leah, falls in love with him. And both Jacob and Leah suffer for years.


Jacob travels from his home in Beir-sheva to his uncle’s house in Charan on the orders of both of his parents. His mother, Rebecca, tells him to flee and stay in Charan until his brother, Esau, no longer wants to kill him. His father, Isaac, tells him to go and marry one of his cousins.1

He leaves without anything to give his uncle Lavan for a bride-price. Isaac would not have sent him off to find a wife without providing him with gold, silver, and pack animals. But Jacob, motivated by fear and guilt, rushes off on foot with nothing but his staff.2 (See my post Vayeitzei: Father Figures.)

Outside the city of Charan, Jacob meets some shepherds beside a well with a giant stone covering its mouth. When he asks why they do not water their flocks and move on, they reply that they are not able to move the stone by themselves, so they always wait until the other shepherds arrive. While they are talking, a girl approaches with a flock, and the men tell Jacob she is Rachel, one of Lavan’s daughters.

And it happened when Jacob saw Rachel, his uncle Lavan’s daughter, and his uncle Lavan’s flock: Jacob stepped forward and rolled the stone off the top of the mouth of the well, and he watered his uncle Lavan’s flock. (Genesis/Bereishit 29:10)

Jacob is so electrified by a close look at Rachel that he rolls off the stone by himself in a surge of superhuman energy.

The Meeting of Jacob and Rebecca, by William Dyce, 1853, detail

Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and he lifted his voice and wept. And Jacob told Rachel that was her father’s kinsman and Rebecca’s son. And she ran and told her father. (Genesis 29:11-12)

Lavan welcomes his nephew as a member of the family, and Jacob works for him like a son rather than a prospective son-in-law; after all, he has brought no bride-price. At the end of a month, Lavan asks Jacob:

“Is it because you are my kinsman that you serve me for nothing? Tell me what your wages shall be.” (Genesis 29:15)

Lavan sounds generous, but later he cheats his nephew twice in order to make him stay longer.3 I believe Lavan offers to pay Jacob wages only in order to make sure he does not find a job elsewhere. Jacob is unusually skilled at animal husbandry, and Lavan wants his flocks to continue increasing.4

And Lavan had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. And Leah’s eyes were soft, but Rachel—she had a beautiful shape and a beautiful appearance. Vaye-ehav, Jacob: Rachel. So he said: “I will serve you seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.” (Genesis 29:16-18)

vaye-ehav (וַיֶּאֳהַב) = and he loved, liked, was fond of, was charmed by. (A form of the verb ahav, אָהַב = loved.)

And Jacob served for Rachel seven years, and they were like a few days in his eyes, be-ahavato for her. (Genesis 29:20)

be-ahavato (בְּאַהֲבָתוֹ) = because of his love. (Another form of the verb ahav.)

Seven years is a long engagement, especially when the two people are living in the same house but are not allowed to share a bed. According to one line of commentary, Jacob had to wait seven years for Rachel to reach puberty.5 However, if Rachel were about eight years old, she would probably not be in charge of a whole flock. Furthermore, there are no indications in the book of Genesis that Jacob is a pedophile attracted to small children.

In see my post Vayeitzei: Father Figures I speculated that Jacob volunteers for such a long period of service because he feels guilty and unworthy. His choice of seven years of labor might also indicate that he sets an exaggerated value on the object of his infatuation.6

Then Jacob said to Lavan: “Bring my wife, because the time is completed, and I will come in to her.” And Lavan gathered all the people of the place, and he made a drinking-feast. And when it was evening, then he took his daughter Leah and brought her to him, and he came in to her. (Genesis 29:21-23)

Jacob was drunk; it was dark; Leah was wearing a veil.7

In the morning, Jacob protests that Lavan deceived him and gave him the wrong daughter. His uncle, and now his father-in-law, proposes:

“Complete this week [with Leah], and I will give you that one also for the service—if you serve with me another seven years.” (Genesis 29:27)

Jacob agrees, partly because he is guilty about deceiving his own father by pretending to be his brother Esau, and partly because he is still in love with Rachel.

And he came in to Rachel also, vaye-ehav Rachel even more than Leah. (Genesis 29:30)

He likes Leah, but he cannot be satisfied unless he also gets the woman he fell in love with. Therefore he spends fourteen years working for someone else without acquiring any wealth of his own.


Lavan masterminds Leah’s masquerade as Rachel on what was supposed to be the wedding night of Rachel and Jacob. But Leah does it, and Rachel either cooperates or is restrained from appearing at the critical moment.  It is possible that neither of them dares to disobey their father.  But Leah has another motive for her imposture: she is in love with Jacob.

We know this because when she names her first three sons, she explains each name in terms of her longing for Jacob to love her in return.

And Leah conceived and she bore a son, and she called his name Reuvein because “I said that God ra-ah my suffering, since now my husband will love me.” (Genesis 29:32)

ra-ah (רָאָה) = he saw.

Reuvein (רְאוּבֵן) = “Reuben” in English. Ra-u, רָאוּ = they saw (a form of the verb ra-ah) + bein, בֵּן = son.

Leah names her second son Shime-on,שִׁמְעוֹן (“Simeon” in English), claiming that God “heard” (shama,שָׁמַע) that she was hated. She names her third son Leivi, לֵוִי (“Levi” or “Levite” in English). Although the name Leivi is probably a loan-word for a religious functionary from the Minaeans in the southern Arabian peninsula, Leah assigns it a folk etymology as she hopes her husband “will become attached” (yilaveh, יִלָּוֶה) to her.

When her fourth son is born, Leah says “This time I will thank God,” and names him Yehudah, יְהוּדָה (“Judah” in English), referring to the verb yodeh, יוֹדֶה = “willthank, will praise”. Then she has to wait for another pregnancy, because Rachel decides to make Jacob stay away from Leah’s bed. We can deduce this from a scene in which Reuben brings his mother some mandrakes8 he found, and Rachel asks for them.

“But she [Leah] said to her: “Was it a trifle you took away my husband? And now to take also my son’s mandrakes!” And Rachel said: “All right, he can lie with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.” When Jacob came in from the field in the evening, then Leah went out to meet him, and she said to him: “To me you will come, because I paid your hire with my son’s mandrakes.” And he lay with her that night. (Genesis 30:15-16)

Leah wants her husband to fall in love with her, but she settles for sex. She has three more children, and retains her position as one of Jacob’s wives.


The book of Genesis never says that Rachel loves Jacob, only that she blames him for her childlessness,9 and is so jealous of her sister’s fertility that she orders him to stay away from Leah’s bed. The besotted man obeys her. At her command, he also lies with her female slave, Bilhah, so that Rachel can adopt Bilhah’s children. Leah then uses her own female slave, Zilpah, for the same purpose. The competition between the two sisters continues until Rachel bears a child of her own, her son Joseph.

The three of them make peace only after Jacob has worked for Lavan for another six years—this time in order to build up his own flocks. Then, after twenty years of unhappy marriage, he takes both his wives out into a field and tells them that God wants him to leave Lavan and return to Canaan.

And Rachel and Leah answered, and they said to him: “Do we still have a portion of inheritance from our father’s house? … Now do everything that God said to you!” (Genesis 31:14, 16)

The two sisters stop competing. They choose to spend the rest of their lives with each other and their now-rich husband, rather than with their friends and relatives in Charan. The book of Genesis reports no further conflict among Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. At last, twenty years after the three of them met, they achieve a peaceful partnership.

May everyone who falls in love find contentment sooner than Jacob and his wives.

  1. Genesis 27:41-28:2. In the previous Torah portion, Toledot, Jacob cheated Esau out of his inheritance as the firstborn and then out of their father’s blessing.
  2. Genesis 32:11.
  3. Lavan cheats Jacob by replacing his bride in Genesis 29:23-27, and by removing his spotted goats and dark sheep from the flock in Genesis 30:30:27-36.
  4. Lavan recognizes Jacob’s skill in Genesis 30:27.
  5. E.g. Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, Tur HaArokh, circa 1300 C.E., translated by Rabbi Eliyahu Munk in
  6. “Perhaps he wanted to demonstrate that he considered Rachel worth more than the maximum servitude that a Hebrew servant serves with his master (Exodus 21,2).” (18th-century Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, Or Hachayim, translation in
  7. In Genesis 24:65, Rebecca puts on a veil before her wedding night with Isaac.
  8. The Hebrew word translated as “mandrakes” is dudaim (דוּדָאִים). Mandrake roots are hallucinogenic and narcotic, and are often forked like human legs. The first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, translated dudaim as mandragoras.
  9. Genesis 30:1.

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.