Following the death of Abraham – the narrative now focuses on Isaac. He loved his wife at first sight and now it seems she too is barren, a dreadful echo of his mother’s long struggles. Twenty long years pass and perhaps Rebekah wondered about the wisdom of the path she had taken – but, no doubt, the presence of Isaac would have been a living reminder that God fulfilled his promises. Thus Isaac prayed to the God of his forefathers, the God who kept his promises. God heard the prayers offered and Rebekah conceived. However it was not an easy pregnancy – she had twins leaping about inside her – bringing extreme discomfort. Never one to be passive, Rebekah asked God why it was like this for her. Rebekah obviously felt she had a relationship with God that allowed her to question Him – whether her family back home in Nahor shared the faith of Abraham or whether after living with Isaac for twenty years she had grown in understanding of the God of Abraham.
Genesis 25v23 gives God’s answer which was to prove quite troublesome for the future harmony of Rebekah and Isaac:
“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will be born of you;
One nation will be stronger than the other
And the elder shall serve the younger.”
The implications of this prophecy shaped the rest of Rebekah’s life. Her firstborn was a hairy red baby, named Esau and the second, Jacob, was born with his hand grasping Esau’s heel.
Just take a minute to contemplate this birth scene. Giving birth can be difficult, even today in an environment with skilled doctors and midwives present. Think then about Rebekah who gave birth to two boys and lived to see them grow up. Probably her nurse Deborah was there to give her comfort and support. The presence of female support from her home must have helped her. We never hear that her family came to visit her so we must presume that when Rebekah left her home on that snap decision she never saw her birth family again, including her mother. Perhaps the lack of her mother’s guidance as she brought up her twins caused her to make a fundamental error which had ongoing repercussions. As the boys grew they developed their individual characteristics thus Esau liked hunting and this endeared him to Isaac who liked game and Jacob was “a quiet man living in tents” whom Rebekah loved. Clearly each parent favoured one son over the other.
Next we have an episode like the swopsies you might have played at school. Esau comes in one day to find Jacob making a stew (which seems extraordinary in itself) and asks for a portion, but Jacob asks that he sell his right as the firstborn. “So he swore to him and sold his firstborn right to Jacob”. The implications of that prophecy given to Rebekah are beginning to be seen.
Genesis 26 turns our attention away from the family drama to the bigger picture. There was a famine in the area, but God asks Isaac not to go to Egypt, but to remain nearby in the hostile environment of the Philistine King Abimelech. The promises made to his ancestor Abraham are repeated. The enormity of the promises made to Abraham and his descendants is made plain again. Rebekah is no longer hearing tales of her relatives doings, but an active, necessary part in the fulfilment of the prophecy to the family which she willingly left her own to join. For without mothers, there are no descendants. We hear sometimes about the Patriarchs of the Old Testament. Here we seek to discern the part of the Matriarchs. Both are equally important for the promise which is made by God once more in Genesis 26v3-5:
“Remain for the present here in this land and I will be with you and bless you. For it is to you and your descendants that I will give all these lands and I will fulfil the oath I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as many as the stars of heaven and I will give them all these lands and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants in return for Abraham’s obedience for he kept my charge, my commandments my laws.”
However, like father, like son and Isaac remembers that advice that Abraham gave Sarah and when asked about the beautiful Rebekah replies that she is his sister, worried they would kill him if he let them know she was his wife. Nicholas King’s translation relates the next part delicately:
“Abimelech the king of Gerar looked through the window and saw Isaac having some fun with Rebecca his wife.”
Aside from the issue of the deceit which arises, this phrase reminds us that this couple, married now for perhaps 40 years or so, were still able to spend time together. Isaac and Rebekah stand as an example of monogamy, sandwiched in between father and sons who acquire, by accident or design, multiple wives and concubines.
Abimelech however is upset by the deceit issue and asks Isaac to explain himself – he uses the self-preservation argument. After this Isaac and his family flourish and prosper, working for the Philistine king as shepherds. Conflict arises and they leave. Then “Isaac’s servants dug in the valley of Gerar, and they found there a spring of living water.” There they settle, pitching their tents and building an altar to God.
There we leave Rebekah for a while and will conclude her story next time.