Theological Insights from a Modern Perspective

Isaac and Rebekah before Abraham

Isaac and Rebekah before Abraham

Abraham had buried his wife, Sarah, and was now aware of his own mortality. Before he passed away he wanted to see that his son, Isaac, was married so that the future promised to Abraham by God would continue on through Isaac. Here the first arranged marriage of the Jewish people takes place as Abraham instructs his most trusted servant to find a wife for Isaac.

His primary instruction is that he wanted the bride to be from his own family, not a Canaanite woman, so he gets his servant to vow that any bride he finds will be from Abraham’s family. The method of the vow seems strange to us, Abraham has the servant put his hand on his (Abraham’s) scrotum to make the promise. In ancient Israel there was nothing more important than family, including future generations, other than God. To make a vow in this way was to say that you were swearing on the lives of your future generations, your heritage. If you fail your promise then you risk all your future generations. This was powerful stuff.

Ancient Mesopotamian Well

The servant takes 10 camels, a fortune in gifts, and several servants on the trip to Nahor (best guess, near Harran, Turkey) where he stops at one of the city’s wells. There he waits for the woman who will be the bride of Isaac, and he devises a test to be sure he has the right woman, and what a test! He wants a woman who will provide water for him after his long journey, and not just him but for the other servants and the camels as well. Now, let’s picture a well in ancient Israel, they could be a hundred feet or more deep, with stones to support the walls of the well. No crank to raise and lower the urn, you had to do it by hand, and very carefully so as not to bump the clay urn against the wall, possibly cracking the urn. Also, consider that after she gave him and the other servants something to drink she had to pull enough water for his camels. After a desert crossing a camel can drink up to 52 gallons at a time, a typical water jug would hold about 5 gallons (41 lbs of water, plus the jug); even assuming the camels weren’t all that thirsty you can imagine her drawing about 250 gallons, which is 50 jugs at a minimum. That’s a lot of dedication, which is what he was looking for, someone who wouldn’t balk about a chore, but do so cheerfully.

At this point he gives her two gifts: a golden nose ring of a half shekel, and a pair of bracelets of ten shekels. In today’s USD that would be the equivalent of $368 and $6,359, respectively. This is a sizable gift for a first meeting consisting of watering the camels, as some have suggested. What these gifts are is an introduction of the servant’s master (and his wealth), and an implication that a wedding discussion is desired. Consider this similar to an engagement ring today, even though the two parties have never met. This is how Rebekah and her family would have understood a gift to an unwed woman. They would see this, understand that the servant’s master is quite wealthy, and that an appropriate dowry would have to be offered.

The servant then asks Rebekah about her lineage to make sure that she meets the requirements set forth by Abraham. She tells him that she is the daughter of Betheul, who is the son of Nahor (Abraham’s brother), so this was acceptable lineage, as Abraham wanted someone from his own family. While odd to us to marry someone so closely related it was not unusual for the people of the time, Sarah was the half-sister of Abraham, both having the same father though different mothers. Marriage taboos then were limited to direct relations – people who were from the same mother.

At this point Rebekah invites the servant to stay with her family, saying that they had enough food and accommodations for him, the other servants, and the animals. The servant accepts and offers thanks to God, then Rebekah runs off to tell her family and to make the preparations for hosting everyone.

Upon hearing the good news Rebekah and her mother begin preparing for their guests while Laban, her brother, runs out to greet the servant and welcome him into their home. From this we have to assume that Rebekah’s father is not living, so his duties would fall upon Laban. The usual hospitalities are mentioned as having occurred: the camels are fed and watered, water is given to all of the servants to wash their feet (sound like Jesus and the Apostles?), and food is provided for them to eat. Foot washing was a traditional hospitality because the feet (feet extended to the top of the legs) became dirty walking in the desert with only open sandals on your feet. So, offering water to wash the feet was a sign of caring for your guests, some even went to the extent of personally washing the feet of a very important guest. Here, with the guest being a servant, offering of a wash bowl was enough to meet the hospitality requirements. Food was also considered a requirement of a good host, no matter what time of day or night a guest arrived you were expected to offer them something to eat, even if you had to borrow from the neighbors.

The servant refuses the food until he explains his purpose there, something Laban and his family are anxious to hear about, this is the meat of the story. The servant explains who his master is (Abraham), how wealthy he is, and why he sent his servant to the house of Nahor. It seems strange that the entire tale is repeated, but this is the writing style back then, stories are repeated in exactly the same words. Finally he gets to the point – he wants Rebekah as the bride for his master’s son. Very quickly they give their permission, and the servant is elated. He pulls out costly gifts for Rebekah, as well as for Laban and their mother, then the celebration begins. Food and drink would be served, friends, neighbors, and relatives invited. Laban and his mother ask the servant to stay for at least 10 days, but he is adamant about getting started back and refuses, his desire is to get back with Isaac’s bride as quickly as possible.

Most people just skip over the 10 days, or put it as Laban and their mother being greedy and wanting to bargain for a higher price, knowing the limited selection to meet Abraham’s requirements, but I don’t think that is the reason. Now, this is pure conjecture as there is nothing to go on but a few verses, but I think that we are dealing with tradition and a mother’s love here. Traditionally there would be a 7-10 day celebration after a wedding, with the wedding occurring away from them I think they are looking for Rebekah to be able to have a full celebration with her family, friends, and neighbors before she leaves for her new life. As I said, there is little to go on other than tradition and one verse:

Gen 24:57-59 “They said, “We will call the maiden, and ask her.” And they called Rebekah, and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will go.” So they sent away Rebekah their sister and her nurse, and Abraham’s servant and his men.

We also know that the city was named after Nahor, so he was probably wealthy in his own right, as would be Laban who would have inherited everything. And, we have Rebekah’s testimony that the family has enough food to feed everyone, including the camels, during their stay, no minor expense. Finally, to bring an end to the dispute they call in Rebekah and ask her opinion, after all this is her wedding and celebration that would be cut short. When she says she is ready to go that ends it. No attempt at persuasion or further conditions, just a farewell and some people to accompany her on the trip. For a fuller description of the wedding rituals see my discussion in the Parables of The Marriage Feast and The Ten Virgins.

Just like in a modern movie, once all the action is done the story ends quickly. We are told that Rebekah sees Isaac in the distance, and he saw her caravan making its’ way south. Isaac runs to meet the caravan, the servant relates the tale of the entire trip, Isaac takes Rebekah into his tent and the two have marital relations. The strangest thing of all is that the usual one year waiting period has been ignored, and that is odd indeed. The best explanation is that Rebekah has been in the protection of the servant for the entire journey from Nahor to Negeb, a straight-line distance of over 550 miles (890 km). Now, a good speed for a caravan is 8 miles (13 km) per day, so at the very least this journey has taken 70 days (10 weeks). Considering the mountainous terrain around the western side Sea of Galilee and the Red Sea it probably a good deal longer (13-20 weeks), the implication being that if she were pregnant by someone else then the nurse would be able to answer by then if there were any questions about her condition. But, everything ends happily…for now.

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