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:
54 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, 4 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?