Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Isaac & Rebekah: Opposites Attract

Which woman won a rich husband by offering to water a stranger’s camels? Rebekah (Genesis 24:20).

Abraham sent an unnamed servant, presumably Eliezer of Damascus (Genesis 15:2), on a mission to acquire a wife for his son, Isaac, with the explicit caveat that the woman not be a Canaanite (Genesis 24:1-9). The servant left with ten camels and when he arrived at his destination prayed that the woman who agreed to give him water would also agree to water the camels as a sign that she was the woman he was to select (Genesis 24:10-14). Before his prayer is even completed ,it was answered as Rebekah appeared and watered the camels (Genesis 24:15-20). Rebekah would return with the servant and marry Isaac (Genesis 24:67). Whether or not Isaac was a prize to be “won” is up to the reader.

When have you prayed for a sign? Have you ever prayed for a very specific sign and received it?

This story is a prominent example of what Robert Alter labels a Biblical “type scene”, a story that recurs in the Biblical text. In the Bible, men often travel to a foreign land to procure a wife at a well. This is not surprising as many people today go to “watering holes” in hopes of attracting the opposite sex. This is the first time the motif appears. Isaac, (Genesis 24:10-20), Jacob (Genesis 29:9-10), and Moses (Exodus 2:16-17) all meet their wives at wells in strange lands. Alter suggests that Saul’s excursion for his father’s camels is an aborted version of this type scene (I Samuel 9:11-12). This paradigm also illuminates the story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well (John 4) as like an Old Testament betrothal scene, Jesus, as the divine Bridegroom (Matthew 9:15; Mark 2:19-20; Luke 5:34-35), encounters a woman (John 4:7) at a well (John 4:6) in an alien land (John 4:5), and discusses her marital status (John 4:16-17).1

In type stories, since the essential plot points are the same, the devil is in the details. The differences are accentuated and therefore significant. In Isaac’s case, Isaac is the only character who does not go to the well himself. Not only is a surrogate sent, but Isaac does not even commission the intermediary. This illustrates Isaac’s character as he is consistently depicted as passive. Isaac is typically the character acted upon, not the one performing the actions.

In contrast, Rebekah is a worker. She offers to go the extra mile and water the stranger’s camels. In just three short verses, 12 verbs are used of Rebekah (Genesis 24:16, 18-20). Some have found great humor in this text, as camels were not domesticated at the time this story occurred. This would mean that Rebekah was running around like a chicken with her head cut off. Whether or not the camels were domesticated, Rebekah works at a frenetic pace. She worked. Isaac did not.

In the case of Isaac and Rebekah, opposites attracted and the match was a good one. When Isaac saw Rebekah, he loved her (Genesis 24:67). This is the first time the word “love” is used in the Bible of a couple.

When discussing marriage, Jesus says, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate (Matthew 19:6 NASB; Mark 10:9 NASB ).”

If you have one, where did you meet your significant other? Was God involved in the meeting? Are all marriages ordained by God? What experiences have influenced your beliefs on the subject?

1Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative. (New York: Basic Books, 1981) 51-60.

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