Every son who loves his mother wants to find a bride like dear old mom. Isaac has hit that age. The boy must have a wife, but no Canaanite woman for their son. Abraham sends his trusted servant on a journey to find just the right girl for Isaac. It isn’t an easy task. The girl must be from the old country; she must also be willing to leave everything that is familiar and make a new life with her new husband in the land of Canaan. In short, she must be a little like her mother-in-law Sarah.
When I was a little girl, the version I heard went something like this. Abraham’s servant sets out for the old country. When he arrives, the first thing he does is petition God for a little help in finding the right girl. He asks for a sign. He tells God, I will ask each girl at the well for a drink, and the right girl must answer very sweetly, “Certainly sir, and I will get water for your camels as well.”
I couldn’t imagine such a thing. What girl is so selfless that she would offer to get water for a complete stranger and for every last one of his thirsty camels! Didn’t she know the animals had just crossed a desert? Watering that man’s camels could take all day. Was she insane?
My Sunday School teachers all said she was perfectly sane. She was just wonderfully selfless. That’s the kind of girl God blesses, they said. And because she was willing to be so generous, she gets to be the bride. The servant throws open his bags and showers Rebekah with bracelets and rings and every kind of costly gift. It almost sounded like a Disney movie.
I only knew one thing. I could never be as good as Rebekah. It was simply too much to expect. I have to admit that I don’t see this story in the same light as my childhood teachers. I don’t consider Rebekah’s main virtue to be selflessness, and I’m not convinced that we should focus on her extraordinary display of generosity to a perfect stranger and his camels.
It isn’t about finding a woman (or being a woman) who always goes the extra mile for every Tom, Dick, or Harry that shows up at the watering hole (pardon the mixed metaphors please). It’s about fitting into God’s plan. Being at the right place at the right time and saying the words God inspires one to say and doing what God inspires one to do.
Besides, Rebekah isn’t altogether selfless, but God inspired her to be selfless precisely when He needed her to be selfless.
The servant asked for an unlikely sign (offer water for the camels) because a “likely” response (yes, I will give you a drink but don’t expect any more from me) would signify nothing. Most women of that time period would agree to that much. He wanted a girl that would stand out from the crowd. There might also be something in the fact that a woman who talked easily with a stranger from an exotic land might be more likely to leave mother and father, brother and sister, and make a new life somewhere else. She might be ready for a little adventure. Isaac’s bride needed to have a slight case of wanderlust. That was the main stipulation Abraham had put on the girl. She had to be willing to leave home.
Now, we’re talking. I can do this. I can be adventuresome. I can leave family and follow wherever God leads.
The family’s servant used exactly the right bait to get the right girl.
When Rebekah’s brother, Laban, tries to delay the inevitable, Rebekah boldly announces that she is more than ready to leave. [And he sends her off with a blessing. May your descendants gain possession of the gates of their enemies (24:60). One can almost hear the whispers of a coming Messiah, from this very lineage, a Messiah who will do precisely what Laban announces and fulfill the prophecy regarding Isaac’s offspring, that all the nations of the earth shall find blessing (26:4).]
Rebekah follows the servant across the same terrain that Abraham had crossed years earlier, to be with her husband in a foreign land. Not everything goes smoothly. Like her mother-in-law before her, pregnancy doesn’t just happen once the two are married.
The promised offspring once again seems elusive. What about God’s promises? Would the line end with Isaac?
Like before, God makes a point of showing that He has a special plan for the family at the core of Salvation History. Something unusual. The development of this lineage will not follow the typical ebb and flow of procreation. It won’t be ordinary.
Nobody will be able to boast that man’s efforts pulled off the promise. It will require a special touch by the Hand of God. The barren one will be transformed into the blessed one. We saw it with Sarah, and now we see it with Rebekah. The desolation of humanity (a type of barrenness) will be wiped away by the rebirth of humanity. It is an interesting and little-known fact that Isaac, like his father before him, worried that he would be killed by King Abimelech on account of his wife’s beauty. In a moment of panic, Isaac persuades Rebekah to say that she is Isaac’s sister rather than his wife. Once again, God intervenes to protect the wife from defilement. Once again, the woman reaps the benefit of being under the protection of a divine covenant. The king realizes he has been duped, sends Rebekah back to her husband, and scolds Isaac for the deception. It seems that history is repeating itself. Sarah and Rebekah have many things in common.
Likewise, the barrenness of the wife finally gives way to the fulfillment of the promise. Rebekah conceives and gives birth to twin sons, boys who are rivals even within the womb and opposites in every way.
While Sunday School and Bible School lessons seemed to press the point that Rebekah was the epitome of “femininity”, they did not spend much time describing the matronly Rebekah. There probably has never been a deception more calculated and clever than the deception Rebekah proposes to her favored son Jacob. Is there a husband who would tolerate such manipulation? Moreover, has there ever been a son more wounded as Esau was by his own mother?
First, Jacob convinces his brother to swap his birthright for a bowl of stew and a piece of bread. The famished hunter cares little for his birthright and takes the offer.
Esau still has one thing, and it matters far more to him than possessions. As the first born, he is destined to receive his father’s blessing. A special blessing on the son, so that God’s favor may pass on to the next generation through him. Scripture doesn’t whitewash Rebekah and Jacob’s deception. It is what it is.
Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “Listen! I overheard your father tell your brother Esau, ‘Bring me some game and with it prepare an appetizing dish for me to eat, that I may give you my blessing with the Lord’s approval before I die.’ Now, son, listen carefully to what I tell you. Go to the flock and get me two choice kids. With these I will prepare an appetizing dish for your father, such as he likes. Then bring it to your father to eat, that he may bless you before he dies.” “But my brother Esau is a hairy man,” said Jacob to his mother Rebekah, “and I am smooth-skinned! Suppose my father feels me? He will think I am making sport of him, and I shall bring on myself a curse instead of a blessing.” His mother, however, replied: “Let any curse against you, son fall on me! Just do as I say. . . .” (Genesis 27:5-13).
And Jacob listens, and disguises himself before going in to his nearly blind father to swindle the blessing from him. Everything works just as Rebekah plans.
Isaac passes the blessing on to Jacob. “May God give to you of the dew of heavens and of the fertility of the earth abundance of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations pay you homage; Be master of your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be those who curse you, and blessed be those who bless you” (27:28-29).
Esau was right. The blessing far outweighed the birthright, but he has lost both.
It is difficult to know the mind of God. Why would He permit something like this? Once again, a woman is playing the God game. And God seems to permit it.
Perhaps it is to show us that it isn’t about our agenda. It proves meaningless who Isaac believes he is blessing. It doesn’t restrict or negate the blessing one little bit.
The accent mark is always on God’s work. God’s blessing is just as efficacious and real.
In all likelihood, things would have turned out the same if Rebekah hadn’t forced the outcome through deception. God’s perfect will cannot be thwarted. In all likelihood, God planned for the same net result, but in a way that didn’t end with brothers hating each other – or begetting generations of offspring who carry a grudge – time out of mind.
Ishmael and Isaac. Now Jacob and Esau.
It is amazing how tremendous an impact women have on familial peace and harmony. And I think it hints at the unique role the Blessed Mother will play in the New Covenant. (But that is a lesson for another day.)
The deception understandably caused a great division in the family. Jacob was forced to flee. He went back to Abraham and Sarah’s homeland, and like his father, he would find a bride (or two) back home. Jacob would return one day, but it would be after his mother’s death. Rebekah would never see her favorite son again. She would live out her days with a husband who knew she had deceived him and a son who knew she had cheated him out of the most important gift his father had to give.
Isaac had not married a passive little bird after all. But God chose her anyway. He put the right words in her mouth at the right time, and Abraham’s servant recognized God’s divine will. God protected her from defilement by another man just as He had Sarah. God lifted her out of barrenness and blessed her with two sons. And He blessed their children and their children’s children as He had promised.
Rebekah had a few weaknesses, and God’s permissive will permitted it. It helps to understand that God was still revealing Himself to this family. Rebekah did not have the ballast of the “Our Father”. When she doubted her husband’s choice for the divine blessing, she did not have the words Thy will be done. She did not have female role models who had petitioned for divine help and received it. She and Sarah stood at the beginning of the greatest adventure or all time. And certainly, they must have felt the weight of that burden.
And so, Rebekah has my sympathy. She has my respect. Too often, I have acted in a similar fashion, and I am without excuse.
Rebekah was part of Salvation History, and God found a way to use her human flaws for His greater good.
When have I seen God working despite human flaws? Do I have family members with whom I should reconcile? Does someone need my forgiveness? Is there a decision I’m facing right now that requires discernment? Lord, help me to know your will and not merely be content with doing things my way. Teach me to pray, Our Father . . .