Genesis

Finding Rebekah–Let’s Ask the Women

The story of Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 24 goes like this: good old father Abraham asked a humble servant to find a wife for his son, and when she came back, it was love at first sight!

We all know the moment at the well, when God answers (some would say miraculously) the servant’s prayer with uncanny timing, and Rebekah is revealed, through giving water to the camels, as the divinely ordained bride for Abraham’s only son Isaac, both of whom are now totally peachy even though dad almost killed him all those years back. And when Rebekah rides into Abraham’s land and sees Isaac, she gets off her camel, puts on a veil, and Isaac takes her into his mom’s tent and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” 

It’s all well and good for Isaac, but I want to know what Rebekah feels. Especially when she’s asked to suddenly give up her old life (and her old loves) to go find a husband in a man she has never met.

That kind of situation is so foreign to us that I think we should hold off on the hand-waving dismissal of “that’s just how they did things back then, spouses didn’t know each other.” While that’s true, we as North American Christians in the 21st century should not be so quick to dismiss that as a given. What must that feel like, as a woman, as a new bride, as someone with hopes and dreams and likes and dislikes, and most of all, family, to put all those things aside for the sake of continuing your life with a well-off stranger?

And then there’s this part of the story, right before the iconic “love at first sight” verses. I can’t recall ever hearing this part of the passage read aloud in any church setting:

model-2346258_192054 Then he and the men who were with him ate and drank, and they spent the night there. When they rose in the morning, he said, “Send me back to my master.” 55 Her brother and her mother said, “Let the girl remain with us a while, at least ten days; after that she may go.” 56 But he said to them, “Do not delay me, since the Lord has made my journey successful; let me go that I may go to my master.” 57 They said, “We will call the girl, and ask her.” 58 And they called Rebekah, and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will.” 59 So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. 60 And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,

“May you, our sister, become
    thousands of myriads;
may your offspring gain possession
    of the gates of their foes.”

 

61 Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.”

To be fair, I don’t think we send our relatives off with blessings like “may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes” anymore either. There’s a lot that’s inaccessible about this whole thing to contemporary readers.

But what bothered me is that the servant didn’t even let Rebekah say goodbye to her family. Her mom and brother asked for at least ten days, and instead the servant asks to leave immediately. I doesn’t escape my notice that Rebekah is given the ability to choose whether to go with him or stay, but all things considered, she had few real options. And the servant’s reason for not delaying is that he wanted to return to his master as quickly as possible. He didn’t seem too concerned with what this decision meant to Rebekah.

Family defined a woman’s identity. Rebekah introduced herself as “the daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor,” because the servant didn’t ask “who are you?” he said “Tell me whose daughter you are.” The gravity of leaving your family (permanently, no postal service) and joining a new one, in which you will know and be known intimately, can hardly be overstated. Have any of us had to leave behind our living loved ones permanently? 

I’m not saying it’s wrong, but it’s romanticized. Rebekah’s incredible sacrifice and strength of resolve is at least as dramatic an act of faith as Abraham leaving his own family behind when God first called him to go to an unknown land, and I think that should be the focus of what we teach our youth, rather than perpetuating fruitless romantic ideals. 

Let’s return to the last verse, the bow that ties it all together: and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” 

So we know that Isaac loved Rebekah, and that might have been from first sight. But we aren’t told how Rebekah feels towards Isaac. Cue sexist trope of women having no active sex drive or romantic affections, just passively receiving attention from men. Insert proper marriage ceremonial things here, I’m sure, but it sounds like Isaac got to baby-making pretty quick. It’s nice that the guy felt better after mourning his mom, but is that a healthy model for sexuality today? That’s not even healthy self-care, we already know that using a new relationship to replace or rebound from the trauma of a painful one is inherently damaging. If our significant others got with us right after their mom’s passing, and specifically said we comforted them for that reason, would we have no problems? 

Sure, I can see the theological niceties of saying “look how God provides,” and I do think it was on purpose, that God orchestrated a beautiful and loving and redemptive marriage between Isaac and Rebecca. I just want us to hail Rebecca as the heroine of the story. And to stop pretending her story is an easy or painless one.

The servant also deserves a closer look. Swipe back a few chapters, and we see the motivation for finding a wife who would have to uproot and travel back to Isaac: you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but will go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.”

In order for the promise to continue, intermarriage with local women was not an option. Abraham made the servant swear an oath, placing his hand under Abraham’s thigh (apparently that was a thing back in the day), and was adamant that Isaac remain with Abraham while the wife was to come to him. Any mention of mutual feelings or compatibility? Nah, marriage for love hadn’t been invented yet. Marriage for family purity though, that was super in style. Tribalism in peak season. 

So is there nothing to be said of the servant at the end of the story? What did he get out of this situation? What was the conversation like when he went back to Abraham, not just Isaac, with the story of his success? Was he lauded, celebrated, given due praise? Or did Abraham, his worries assuaged, brush aside his excitement and send him off on some other errand, just like us readers are encouraged to forget him as soon as he relays his message to Isaac?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but just asking them, giving space for other voices to be heard, can energize our witness and our engagement with Scripture. And if we really believe that the word of God is living and active, we should expect a dynamic message that meets us right where we are, in this time and place.

Who’s ready for a Sunday school lesson about the courage and faith of the matriarchs?

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Binding Isaac–Let’s Ask the Children

The typical sermon constructed around the Binding of Isaac goes like this: Abraham had so much faith in God that he was willing to sacrifice anything, even his own son, for the sake of obeying God. That’s how much faith Abraham had.

It begs the question, faith in what exactly? Which attribute of God did Abraham have so much faith in that he was willing to bind his son to an altar and kill him? Certainly not faith in God’s view of all beings created equal, with equal worth, having an equally hopeful future and purpose. And apparently, not faith in God’s unchanging nature or unbreakable promises. Remember, his wife laughed out loud when God suggested she would get pregnant. And in fact, not more than four chapters prior, Abraham himself changed God’s mind when it came to the fate of Lot and the city of Sodom.

So why didn’t Abraham argue with God over his son the same way he did for his cousin Lot?

We need to remember that children were not seen as they are today. Now we lather our kids in legal and social protections, perhaps to a fault. Then, they functioned as a measure of a man’s material worth, alongside women and cattle.

But that’s far from an excuse. In fact, that should be an indictment. Isaac’s relationship with his father would have suffered irreparable damage after this moment, no matter that Abraham never actually sunk the knife in.

At this point, I should also point out that the idea of challenging the patriarchs is not a radical, revisionist reading of Scripture. One pastor I once heard give the typical “obedience and faith” sermon on the binding of Isaac turned right around and said we shouldn’t follow the example of patriarchs like Jonah (who ran away) or Adam (who caved to temptation). So it seems that even by evangelical standards, using the patriarchs as anti-examples is acceptable. It just depends on the message you’re trying to send.

And so, in search of a different message, I’ve been helped by articles like this towards a different understanding. What if we read this passage, and others like it, through the lens of child advocacy and development? What if instead of obedience to authority, conformity to external power structures, and blind faith in the benevolence of authority figures at the expense of reason and rationality, the lessons we learned from this part of Scripture had to do with preventing child abuse, and promoting emotional literacy and bodily autonomy for children? What if we asked how Isaac felt, and gave him a voice where Genesis gives him none?

If someone were to replicate Abraham’s act of “faith” today, they would be arrested. Maybe it wouldn’t directly involve child sacrifice, but would any scenario in which a parent disregarded the life of their child for the sake of principle be acceptable? Our current laws and social norms say absolutely not. And yet we continue to teach our youth to venerate Abraham for being ~faithful and obedient~ because it’s all a test; it’s about whether you’re willing to put God first above everything else. 

But what if God was testing Abraham to see if he understood what kind of God he was serving? In other words, what if the test was not whether Abraham would follow instructions to the letter, but whether he would have the guts, and the discernment, to say, “No, I’m not doing that, the God I serve would not ask something like that of me”? 

The line between Abraham’s mistake of actually intending to sacrifice Isaac (and causing all kinds of trauma), compared with his earlier successes of literally changing the mind of the Almighty by bargaining for the life of a few of his relatives in a nearby city, could serve as a nuanced and potent discussion of ethics today, especially when it comes to prayer and revelation. Just because we can talk to God, and trust that God is revealed to us, does not mean we always see or hear correctly. 

The ancient world was full of gods who demanded blood and unswerving loyalty. That was nothing new. To see God as Lord, to understand obedience and surrender as central to a pious life, was nothing new. But that this particular God, claiming to be absolutely sovereign over all other gods, was also good and gentle and humble? That was radical and revolutionary. Maybe the blessing at the end of the ordeal, where God reaffirmed Abraham as the future father of many nations, was only the least good outcome: maybe Abraham, and us as well, missed a valuable opportunity to understand God as loving above all else; to understand that we worship the God who does not require child sacrifice. 

My guess is that you won’t find this interpretation of Genesis 22 very often in evangelical circles. That’s not necessarily because all evangelicals are resistant towards alternative readings of Scripture (although that’s often the case). There’s just such a good opportunity in these verses to bulwark the institutional authority of the church, and tighten the unholy ties between church and state. The purpose behind the “obedience readings” of passages like Genesis 22 is to further the status quo in regards to power structures and authorities. If the test of good Christian faith is blind obedience to the point of sacrificing loved ones against all rationality and intuition, then it makes sense that slaves ought to obey their masters, or wives ought to submit to their husbands and not speak in church, or the poor should submit to the governing authorities.

The Religious Right has intentionally and explicitly used Scripture for political ends: it’s up to us to counter their harmful theologies and just as intentionally use Scripture to work towards the flourishing of all humankind.