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Dinah – the fate of one girl among many brothers

So far all the women we have looked at have been at the centre of a nuclear or thereabout family, Sarah, who waited a long time for Isaac, Rebekah who left her home to marry Isaac and bore him twins, the workings out of the lives of those children, with Leah and Rachel, Rebekah’s nieces both marrying Jacob.  The original family tree and revelation of God’s promise to the people of Israel.

Dinah is the only recorded daughter of Jacob and Leah.  Genesis 34v1-31 is where she is recorded “The rape of Dinah and its consequences.  Her voice is not heard – this is all “done to her”.  A novel written in 1997 by Anita Diamant – The Red Tent is an imagining of her story, told in her voice.

The perspective of Genesis is different.  Jacob and his wives and his concubines and their assorted offspring have finally left Laban and fled (secretly) – pursued by Laban who catches up with them, makes his peace with them (probably) and departs, kissing his daughters and grandchildren goodbye.  Jacob is then reconciled to Esau (the brother whose birthright he acquired many years earlier). 

“And Jacob came to Salem, a city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan when he came from Syrian Mesopotamia and he pitched his tent before the city.”

Dinah “went out to observe the daughters of the locals”.  There is of course much debate about this statement – somewhat odd in the context of a society where women did not tend to go out on their own.  Perhaps in that male-dominated world of her brothers she longed for some “refined” society or some company of her own age?  We hear of her as the only daughter of Jacob. 

She was seen by Shechem, the son of the ruler of the land, who took her, slept with her and humiliated her. So far, so bad followed by “he was attracted to her” and “spoke to her according to the heart of a maiden” He asked his father to let him have this “slave-girl” as a wife.  We do not hear  Dinah’s opinions or reactions.  I am reminded of those episodes where Sarah and Rebekah are told by their husbands to pretend to be sisters of their respective spouses when forced by famine into a foreign country to avoid the attentions of the locals.  In this case perhaps she went willingly into the neighbouring land – curiosity has been suggested as a reason.  He calls her a “slave-girl” which suggests that she is a captive and that this is no meeting of equals.

The proposal is put to Jacob, who has heard how his daughter has been treated, but he does not act whilst his own family are away from him. The father of Shechem, Hamor speaks to Jacob: “My son has chosen your daughter in his heart.  So give her to him as a wife.  Intermarry with us; give us your daughters, and take our daughters for your son and live among us.”  Shechem said “Increase the bridal price as high as you like, and I’ll give you just what you tell me and give me this child as my wife.”

Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi are not impressed with how their sister has been treated.  They don’t, however, give a flat refusal.  Instead they demand that to show good faith Shechem and all the others who wish to marry Dinah’s compatriots should be circumcised.  They agreed – the “young man wasted no time, for he was very keen on Jacob’s daughter.”  He put it to the other men of the city and they two were circumcised.  It was not however the plan of the sons’ of to intermarry and live with the people of Shechem peace and harmony.  They were not impressed that their sister had been humiliated.  Three days after the circumcision, when “they were in pain; the two sons of Jacob; Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each took their sword, entered the city unopposed; and they slew every male.” They killed Shechem and his father and “liberated” their sister Dinah from his house.  The brothers’ plundered the city.  Jacob was not impressed and worried that this would provoke a fight with their neighbours.  His sons replied “Are they going to treat our sister like a prostitute?”

Suffice to say that the tribe of Jacob does not settle there, but goes on to Bethel where Jacob (now renamed Israel) builds an altar to God. “And Israel departed from Shechem and the fear of God was on the cities around them and they did not chase after the children of Israel.”

Not an edifying episode – we don’t hear anything of Dinah’s reaction or indeed any of her female relatives.  Even her father is fairly quiet in his response relying on his sons to take their devastating action. This story can be read in different ways – Dinah was attracted to a powerful man outside her own tribe (who still lived in tents) where he lived in a city, the son of a king.  Alternatively, she was led astray to the bright lights of the city, captured, enslaved and then a bargaining chip to be argued over.  Perhaps the only difference from what she might have expected is that she was not found a husband from amongst her own tribe.  The difficulty of this separate tribe of Israel settling and intermarrying with their neighbours who do not worship the same one true God is evident in this story.  The actions of her brothers are however less than admirable.  Who knows what Dinah thought – gratitude to be rescued from slavery and humiliation – tinged with resentment at being called a “prostitute”?  She had broken the rules, stepped outside her community and many had suffered as a result?  Was that all her brothers remembered about her for evermore?  We don’t really know what happened to her.  There are no lists of her descendants, when the family are enumerated and go to Egypt to visit the long-lost Joseph, so we presume that there was no “happy” ending.

Image © Sweet Publishing / FreeBibleimages.org

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Rachel – the Beloved, but Barren Wife

Rachel’s world – ten boys, one girl but none of them hers by birth (although the two borne by her maidservant are technically and culturally hers).

She, the beloved wife of Jacob, that he worked many long years for (twice over) has to stand by watching as the sister, who their father infiltrated into Jacob’s life, bears healthy children, but we have seen that Leah feels too the pain of being unloved.  Their maidservants also bear healthy sons by Jacob.

No doubt she was busy, with all the necessary household duties, the cooking, preparing of clothes, spinning, weaving.  Perhaps sometimes she remembered her pre-marriage occupation of shepherdess.  The situation does not bring out her best side. She is envious and jealous of her sister and she addresses Jacob directly “Give me children or I shall die”.

He is not impressed and is angry saying: “Am I in the place of God?  It is he who has deprived you of children.”

As an alternative solution, she gives him her maidservant, who bears him two boys.  Rachel has the right to name them.  Thus:

Dan – “God has done me justice!  He has heard my prayer and given me a son.”

Naphtali – “I have had a mighty struggle with my sister and I have won!”

Finally, perhaps after a period of fourteen years or so, during which Leah has borne six boys and one girl and their two maidservants have borne two sons each, the Lord kept Rachel in mind and a baby is expected.  She names her son:

Joseph – “The Lord has taken away my disgrace” but she can’t resist adding “May the Lord give me another son.”                                                                                                       

All this emotion, jealousy, envy, feeling of disgrace (inadequacy) – what a change from the beautiful young shepherdess.  We reflected last time on the fruitful, but unloved wife Leah.  We haven’t even reflected on the feelings of the maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah, given as presents to these two sisters, no doubt their constant companions, serving them, expected to obey the commands of their mistresses – even when that includes becoming a concubine to the master of the household.  The children they bear are on behalf of their mistresses – so Rachel would consider herself the mother of Dan and Naphtali.

Think about what this period of twenty years has seen – the jealous, competitive sisters, set at odds by the decision of their father, tricking Jacob (he, who obtained his father’s blessing through the dubious tactics of his mother, the sister of Laban).  A growing family living all together or nearabouts, with Jacob working for wages for Laban, who at the very least is quite a sharp operator.  Jacob and Laban reach an agreement, which ensures that that Jacob becomes rich with a “great number of sheep, maidservants and menservants, and camels and donkeys.”  If this was the story of Jacob, we could go into the details of how Jacob built up his flock, ensuring his animals were stronger and Laban’s were weaker.  Jacob hears the voice of God telling him to return to his ancestral homeland.

He calls for both his main wives to come out to him in the fields where he works explaining that the way he is treated by their father is not working well for him and that God has a plan for him.  Are they willing to leave their father and go with him to his homeland? Despite all the competitive jealousy (perhaps now that she had at least one child, it was fading a bit), they speak as one, voicing their disconnection from their father:

“Have we not been regarded by him as foreigners since he has sold us and well and truly used up our money?  Surely all the fortune that God has taken from our father belongs to us and to our children.  So do then all that God has told you.”

They are willing to co-operate and have their destiny firmly attached to Jacob and their children.  They pack up (secretly).  Jacob puts his children and wives on camels and they flee while Laban is away, taking also all the livestock that Jacob has accumulated. What a sight that must have been – children, animals, possessions, camels, packed up tents – leaving behind all that was familiar (for the women) to return to Canaan and Jacob’s father Isaac.

Ten days later Laban catches up with them where they are encamped at Mount Gilead.  A confrontation ensues – why did you run away, tricking me, carry my daughters off like prisoners of war.  I could have sent you off with music and singing, not to mention kissing my grandchildren and daughters goodbye.  He doesn’t seem impressed really, however God has told him not to do any harm to Jacob  However there is one thing – why has Jacob stolen Laban’s idols.

Unbeknown to Jacob and Laban – Rachel stole her father’s family idols before they left.  No explanation is forthcoming for her action – did she feel that she needed a connection with her father even as she agreed to throw her lot in definitively with Jacob?  Did the God of Jacob not quite resonate with Rachel and she wanted the “comfort” of the old, familiar, idols or did she want to wound and hurt her father completely, depriving him of something he really valued, aside from the his daughters whom he casually sold and used as bargaining chips twenty years previously.  We are not told and can only speculate.  However Jacob is (for once) wholly innocent and promises that whoever stole the idols will not live.

Laban searches the camp, first Jacob’s tent, then Leah’s and then the tent of the two maidservants.  Finally Rachel’s.  She has a bit of a female moment – seating herself on a handy camel (the idols stashed in the saddlebag) she excuses herself from rising in the presence of her father.  He hunts high and low but fails to find the idols.

The two men reach an agreement

Laban:  “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, these sheep are my sheep and all that you see are mine.  What can I do today about these daughters of mine or their children?…May the Lord watch between me and you when we are no longer in sight of each other.  If you harm my daughters or take other wives besides my daughters, even though no man is with us, remember that God is witness between you and me.”

He departs next day, kissing his children and grandchildren and blessing them, returning to his home.  Leah and Rachel, like their relatives Sarah and Rebekah have left their homeland and all the familiar for the land and God of their husband.

We leave Rachel and her sister Leah, and Jacob and his other two wives and their assorted children – building up a tribe,  encamped in the Gilead Hill Country.  Next time we will look at the story of Dinah, the only daughter in this family.

Both images © Sweet Publishing / FreeBibleimages.org

Tamar

Named in Matthew’s Gospel in the Geneaology of Jesus

With Tamar, we reach the story of the first of the five ancestors of Jesus named in the Genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew.

Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of the sons of Jacob and Leah.  Her story is recorded in Genesis 38v6-30.  There is a suggestion that perhaps this story is written from a woman’s point of view.

Tamar was married first to the eldest son of Judah – Er.  Unfortunately, he died leaving her childless. As was the custom, Judah’s second son Onan was married to her with the plan that any children they had would be as if the offspring of Tamar and Er.  Onan was not keen on this plan, so ensured that he would not have children with Tamar.  God took a dim view of this and soon poor Tamar was left a widow again

So far so standard, but widowed Tamar was left with no husband, no children and no settled life of her own.  Judah had a third son – Shelah, but he was not grown up yet so Judah sent Tamar home to her father’s house, with the promise of Shelah as a husband when he was grown.  Tamar returned to her father’s house to await a husband who was some years away and would therefore be younger than her.  It doesn’t seem as if Tamar remained in the same place as Judah and his family.  However she would have known how many years she was expected to wait for her husband-to-be to reach maturity.  That time came and went and her husband did not arrive.

She took matters into her own hands and her methods might seem extraordinary to our modern sensibilities.  She was told that Judah, her father-in-law was now widowed and an interval had passed and that he would be coming to Tinnah, near to where she lived, for the annual sheep-shearing.  It is interesting that she was “told”.   That would seem to imply that she was regarded a someone who had not been treated in the right way and aroused sympathy where she lived.

“She took off her widow’s clothes and put on a veil and made herself beautiful and she sat by the gates of Enaim.”

She observed that Shelah was full-grown but he had not been given to her as husband.

“And when he saw her, Judah thought that she was a prostitute, for she had hidden her face, and he did not recognise her.”

It is very obvious that he did not recognise her for he then said:

“Let me come in to you?”

Tamar, who obviously had her wits about her and perhaps this was how she had wanted her plan to work asked:

“What will you give me if you come into me?”

He replied that he would send a kid from her flock.  She was happy to accept a future gift, but as well wanted something tangible from the present and suggested that he give her his ring, necklace and the staff he carried.  These were very personal items that would be recognisable as belonging to Judah.  Tamar very sensibly didn’t trust a mere future promise of a baby goat, without keeping hold of some very real evidence.

He went on his way; Tamar became pregnant as a result of their encounter and Tamar resumed her widow’s apparel.  Judah made good on his promise and sent his friend back to Enaim (quite soon afterwards) with the promised baby goat, but there was no sign of the prostitute by the road and no-one knew anything of her. Does this signify that her local community tacitly “approved” of what she had done or that the actions of one woman were so insignificant that no-one had noticed?

Three months later, though her situation became a matter for comment and news reached Jacob that his daughter-in-law was pregnant.  He was duly outraged by her perceived immorality and ordered “Bring her out, and let her be burnt.”

Tamar of course had very cleverly ensured an insurance against this happening and she sends word to her father-in-law:

“It is by the man to whom these things belong that I am pregnant.”

Judah recognised his personal items and furthermore that Tamar had been forced to take control of her situation because he had not provided her with a husband as by the custom of the time he should have done.  He says:

“‘Tamar is more righteous than I am because I failed to give her my son Shelah.’  And he did not have intercourse with her again.”

She gave birth to twins – Perez and Zerah and these two are listed as the sons of Judah, when the family of Jacob is enumerated and go to Egypt to visit long-lost Joseph.  Although Tamar is not named in this list, I think it is significant that her children were acknowledged as Judah’s offspring.   Tamar has played a very important part in the story of God’s people and her importance is clearer still when we realise that King David descends from Perez.  Tamar, is one of only five women, named in the Genealogy of Jesus by Matthew. A recognition of the consequence of Tamar looking after her own interests when those who should have provided for her did not do so.  Interestingly, Shelah grows up to become the father of a whole tribe who descendants are mentioned in Numbers 26v20:

“The other sons of Judah became clans: for Shelah, the Shelanite clan; for Perez, the Perezzite clan; for Zerah, the Zerahite clan.”

Tamar is not named as his wife, which probably indicates that, she was content that with the birth of her twins, she had resolved the problem of the lack of offspring caused by the deaths of her first two husbands.  Although her actions seem somewhat unorthodox to us, there seems to be an acceptance that she had to take this action to make up for the failure of her father-in-law to act as he should have done – later codified in Deutronomy Ch 25v5:

“So two brothers live together and one of them dies without any child, the wife of the dead man shall not marry anyone other than the brother of her husband.  He shall take her as his wife and shall raise offspring for his brother.”

Tamar has played a very important part in the story of God’s people and her importance is clearer still when we realise that King David descends from Perez and thus she is one of only five women, named in the Genealogy of Jesus by Matthew.

Picture acknowledgement: Vernet, Emile-Jean-Horace, 1789-1863. Judah and Tamar, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48067

Sarah – a woman who waited

During Advent 2020 I have been thinking about the theme of waiting and of the women who waited on God. Three of them – Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth were childless, which was a great sorrow to each of them. They faithfully lived out their lives in obedience to God and each week in Advent I have focused on them turn by turn as God’s promise to each was made good.

The medium that my reflections have been expressed through are a series of Advent Liturgies from which I have made a video as part of an ongoing series with the Under-5s in mind.

The first video is below and features Sarah.

Leah – the Unloved, but Fruitful Wife

Leah, the oldest daughter, was given to Jacob as his wife by her father Laban:

“It is not our custom for the younger to be married before the older”

Her life for the next few years is marked by the birth of her children.

First Reuben – “Yahweh has seen my misery” (now my husband will love me)

Next Simeon – “Yahweh heard that I was unloved and so he has given me this one too”

Third Levi – “This time my husband will become attached to me because I have borne him three sons”

Fourth Judah – “Now  I shall praise Yahweh”

Our earlier featured matriarchs were barren and miserable, now we have a fertile, but miserable wife.  The misery of this unloved wife is expressed echoing through the centuries – happening at the same time as Jacob was working the seven years to earn the lovely, but barren Rachel. Leah, who is never mentioned as beautiful, is bearing the sons who become the ancestors of the tribes of Israel. She is pivotal in building up the family of the fugitive who fled his own family.

With her fourth son Judah, she forgets her misery for a while perhaps and turns to praise God – the God that Jacob too worships.

Meanwhile Rachel, has become increasingly desperate, so she takes the solution that Sarah tried – she gives her maidservant to Jacob, that children born of Bilhah might be considered hers.  It sort of works – two children are born Dan and Naphtali.  However that jealousy and competition has taken root between the sisters so Leah gives her slave Zilpah to Jacob resulting in Gad and Ashchar.

There are now eight growing boys running around, presumably out helping their father with his work of shepherding and looking after the flocks of his father-in-law, two wives and their two slave-girls (given as “presents” by their father Laban on their marriages), all building up the family of Jacob – what we have come to see as the basis of the tribes of Israel.  By now probably the second batch of seven years has passed, years have gone by in a flash of competitive child-bearing and husband-attention seeking.

The hurt does not seem lessened.  One day Leah’s oldest son Reuben finds some mandrakes, believed in ancient times to aid fertility.  Rachel bargains for them paying the price of allowing Leah a night with Jacob in exchange.   The fruit of that night is Issachar.

Fifth son – Issachar – “God has given me my wages for giving my maidservant to my husband.”

Sixth son – Zebulum – “God has brought me a precious gift.  This time my husband will honour me, because I have borne him six sons.”

Finally (perhaps bringing a bit of relief into her boy-dominated world) a daughter Dinah.

It is perhaps heart-breaking to hear how she names her sixth son – still searching for her husband’s recognition – she has borne him six healthy children, without access to the modern healthcare we take so much for granted. Maybe it is heart-warming too, that she sees her sixth son as a “precious gift” from God, she does not grumble about having “another” child. The birth of her children and that of the maidservants serve to establish a growing tribe – who will be able to work together and build up the family enterprise. As Jacob’s family grows, so his flocks will and tending them will be the family business.

The birth of Leah’s children has marked the passing of the years – there is no indication of how many years have passed, but perhaps the birth of  seven children equates to the passage of 14 years – probably by the time Dinah was born that second seven years had now been worked twice over.  We leave the story of Leah here and next time will try and bring Rachel into focus before looking at how the next chapter of their life with Jacob unfolds.

Rachel – the Beautiful Shepherdess

Chronologically our next significant “Woman of the Bible” is Rachel.  Her story is much entwined with that of her sister Leah.  Rachel is noted for her beauty and she wins the heart of Jacob, Leah, the other sister, unloved, married by a trick to the trickster Jacob, she however is the ancestor of Joseph the husband of Mary, mother of the Messiah.  It is not easy to pick out each one’s story separately, but we start with Rachel.

We finished the tale of Rebekah with her beloved son fleeing his parental land, due to the trickery in obtaining the blessing for the elder son.  However, his mother ensures that he flees to relations.

Nicholas King Bible – Genesis 29 v1 sets the scene for the next generation:

“And Jacob lifted up his feet and went to the land of the East, to Laban the son of Bethuel the Syrian, the brother of Rebecca, mother of Jacob and Esau.”

He arrives at the Well, perhaps/probably the well where his mother encountered Abraham’s servant.   The entrance to the well is blocked by a large stone, which would be rolled away by the shepherds (as a joint effort) when it was time for watering the flocks. He speaks to the shepherds gathered there asking if they know Laban.  They do and moreover, his daughter is coming now with the sheep.  Jacob steps forward, and no doubt, in an effort to impress Rachel he rolls the stone away and draws water for her flock of sheep. He then steps forward and kisses her and bursts into tears. Explanations follow and she runs home to impart the news of long-lost relatives turning up again.  The parallels to Rebekah’s story are interesting – arrival at a well – a gathering place, so not surprising, but this time Jacob draws water to impress the girl.  He does not arrive with a string of ten camels, but as a fugitive with nothing except himself and the promise of the covenant with God.

Laban, who perhaps remembers the wealth that accompanied Rebekah’s suitor, welcomes him warmly “Truly you are my bone and flesh!”  After a month of working for free, Laban thinks he had better formalise the situation so asks Jacob what wages he would like.  Jacob says he will work seven years in return for the younger daughter Rachel, with whom he has fallen in love.


Image copyright – Sweet Publishing / FreeBibleimages.org. http://www.freebibleimages.org/illustrations/jacob-wedding/

Rachel is like an image that comes forward in the picture and then recedes.  We have her as a shepherd, working independently, bringing the flocks to the well, able to interact with others, probably male.  A shepherd is a demanding job, looking after the flock, ensuring none are lost, keeping count, watering them.  Whether Rachel did all or some of this, she is demonstrating that independence that we saw in her Aunty Rebekah.  Perhaps necessity made it so – her brothers weren’t willing or able or the family economics meant that all had to assist.  Probably she was in her early teens or in an otherwise not yet needing to be married category, which explains the idea of waiting seven years until she is old enough to marry, but our modern sensibilities get a bit fidgety when we think of the relative ages of male and female.

She has an older sister Leah, who is not mentioned as working, but that she has “delicate eyes”.  Much ink has been spilt wondering about the meaning of that phrase.  In this context we read it as the counterpoint to the beautiful Rachel. Seven years pass; seven years in which no effort seems to be made for a husband to be found for Leah.  I think there is an indication that Laban is not wealthy or not very skilled at maintaining wealth – remember in an earlier encounter with him he had quite a large house (with stabling for 10 camels).  He seems to take advantage of Jacob’s willingness to work for him and then plays a devastating trick on Jacob.  Sometimes this is seen as a retribution for Jacob’s deception when receiving the blessing from his father.

When the seven years are up, Jacob goes to Laban and reminds him of his promise to give him his daughter Rachel as his wife.  Laban organises the customary festivities, but when morning comes it transpires that the bride was Leah not Rachel.   We don’t hear what was said between the sisters or between Jacob and the two sisters.  Reflections can be made about the ruining of a relationship between the sisters, perhaps one much older than the other pretty baby sister.  Perhaps Rachel was the beautiful baby of the family, but we should forget sentimentality, she had also worked as a shepherdess, a tough, outdoors job.

Jacob is not impressed and asks Laban what he’s playing at to which Laban says it is not the custom for the younger to marry before the elder, but never mind let this marriage week go by and then Jacob can marry Rachel (for the payment of another seven years labour). This is what happens, but we are told that he loved Rachel more than Leah.

Whatever the reason, the devastation and hurt that Laban’s swop of Leah for Rachel on the wedding night caused, becomes the focus of the next part of the story and so, next time we will put Leah centre-stage.

Rebekah – Domestic Disharmony (part 3)

Domestic life comes to the front again and once again family life is not harmonious.  Esau, now forty, has two wives Judith, the daughter of Beeri the Hittite and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite.  His parents are united in their unhappiness.  Their older son’s choice of wives from among the local non-One God fearing people causes much quarrelling.  Perhaps this helps to set up the next part of the story – the popular shorthand for which is Rebekah’s trickery wins Jacob the blessing which should go to the older son.

So let us turn to consider that episode, with that background hint that Esau is not pleasing his parents with his choice of wives.  Isaac is now old and blind and knowing that his end is coming he wishes to give him his blessing before he dies.  He calls Esau and asks him to go out and hunt for the game which he loves and Esau has endeared himself to his father by his delight and skill in hunting.   During his favourite meal which will follow, he will give Esau his blessing before he dies.  Fortuitously Rebekah overhears – this is her chance to ensure that the prophecy made before her children were born is enacted.  Again, we see that glimpse of a woman of firm decision.   She calls Jacob, her favoured son, and explains her plan he is to go and get two kids from the flock and she will prepare the meal in the way his father likes and Jacob will take the food into his blind father and pretend to be Esau, thus obtaining the blessing.  Jacob objects what if his father touches him, his brother is hairy and he is not.  Rebekah has thought about that – she’ll take the blame for unpleasantness afterwards.   When he returns, she cooks the food just in the way his father likes.  She then gives Jacob, Esau’s fine garment which she happens to have handy (despite him having two wives and presumably a tent of his own).  Genesis 27v16-18 (Nicholas King translation):

“And she put on his arms the skins of the kids and on the uncovered bits of his neck.  And she gave the delicacies and the loaves of bread which she had made into the hands of her son Jacob.  And he brought them to his father.”

Isaac is at first suspicious because he recognises the voice of Jacob, but when he touches him, he feels hairy as Esau.  He gives him the blessing.  Esau then comes home and goes into his father and they realise that they have been tricked.  He can’t give the blessing for the first born now to Esau.  Somewhat understandably Esau is angry and makes threats to kill his brother once his father dies.

Rebekah hears about this and again takes action.  She goes to Isaac, who must have realised her part in the deception, and uses an argument with him that will work. They had both been unhappy with their elder son’s choice of wives and the situation has been getting her down and she can’t bear the thought of Jacob too choosing a wife from amongst the locals.  She suggests, that (as his father did) they send him back to their kin – that is Laban her brother, who they must have heard has daughters.

Isaac agreed to this request and he called Jacob to bless him and send him on his way.  Genesis 28 v1-4:

“Do not marry a Canaanite woman.  Go to Paddan-aran to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father and choose a wife for yourself from the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother.  May God Almighty bless you and make you increase to become a group of nations.  May he grant you and your descendants the blessing of Abraham so that you may take possession of the land where you live now as an alien, the land that the Lord gave to Abraham.”

Thus Jacob is sent off.  We don’t hear any more of Rebekah as the narrative now moves on to Jacob’s family.  Her trickery may have obtained the promised-blessing but the personal cost is great – she loses her son and we do not hear of her ever seeing him again.  Although she tells him she will send for him when his brother’s anger dies down, circumstances don’t work that way. 

We do hear though about her burial place – she is buried in the family cave at Hebron that Abraham negotiated when Sarah died.  In death these early Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried together.

Our next episodes of “Woman of the Bible” will take us to the entwined lives of the sisters Rachel and Leah, wives of Jacob. 

Rebekah – Mother of Twins

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.

An Interlude – Ten Camels

As the heading says – ten camels!

This is the collection of camels (10) and assorted wise people travelling across my fireplace to see the newborn baby Jesus.

Think about Rebekah’s generous offer to stable 10 large noisy camels. Think about Laban’s welcome for this large calvacade.

Think about the Holy Family welcoming the wise, exotic, out-of-the-ordinary visitors from the East. We think of three kings, but they were no doubt accompanied by servants, so this would have been a large number of visitors and animals who turned up at Mary’s front door.

“Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews! For we saw his star in the east, and we came to worship him.”

Rebekah – a leap of faith

After Sarah died Abraham had to arrange the marriage of his son Isaac.  In Genesis 17 v19 God made a covenant with Abraham:

“It is Sarah your wife, who will give birth to a son and you will name him Isaac.  I will establish my covenant with him, an everlasting covenant with his descendants after him.”

Genesis 24 provides the narrative.  Abraham calls his, unnamed, highly valued servant, possibly Eliezer of Damascus. He has heard that his brother Terah, has had eight children by his wife Milcah, herself the daughter of his brother Nahor and one of these is Rebekah.  Therefore his servant is to journey back to Nahor (a place in modern-day Syria) and from amongst his own kin, who worship the same God, find a girl prepared to leave her settled life to become the wife of the nomadic Isaac.  Their descendants will continue the covenant made between God and Abraham.

The servant sets off accompanied by a string of ten camels and such moveable objects as are likely to impress the putative bride’s family.  By accident or design this caravan arrives at the well outside Nahor at evening time, well known as the time when women go to draw water.  He prays to the God of Abraham that the first girl who offers him a drink and then to water the camels will be one chosen for Isaac.  Hardly has he uttered this prayer than Rebekah appears. She responds to his request for a drink and then offers, unprompted, to draw water for the ten camels.  No small feat this providing water for ten camels with one pitcher.  His considered response is to offer her gold jewellry and find out whose daughter she is.  Her answer is given in Genesis 24v24-25:

“I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son Milcah bore to Nahor.  We have plenty of straw and fodder and room for you to spend the night.”

She then runs home to explain to her mother and brother that she is bringing a guest and his ten camels, a prosperous representative of long-lost family.  Everytime I write ten camels I stop to think about this.  Ten big noisy animals would be almost like offering space to park ten lorries today!  This branch of the family must have done well for themselves.  Noticeably Rebekah does not ask permission before offering hospitality.  A hint of that independence of thought which features in her story.

Remember it would seem that contact had been maintained between the two brothers despite the departure of Abraham and if Abraham had knowledge of his brother’s family, it would be reasonable to suppose that his brother’s son Bethuel and his son Laban would have had some knowledge of him.  They would probably know the whole tale of the only child Isaac that the barren Sarah had borne Abraham in her old age and even if they only knew some parts of it – they will soon hear the whole tale.

However, initially of course hospitality is the first thing offered – for humans and camels.  The purpose of the visit is then divulged – the whole tale of the miraculous Isaac, the important choice of wife, the presence of the Lord God of Abraham.

“Now let me know whether you intend to show kindness and faithfulness to my master; if not, tell me and I shall know which way to turn.”

The immediate response of Rebekah’s male relatives is to assent to the plan.

“This is the Lord’s doing.  It is not for us to decide either way. Here is Rebekah, take her and go.  Let her become the wife of your master’s son as the Lord has directed.” 

Thanks are given to God and gifts of gold and other items to Rebekah and her mother and brother. 

The next day arrives and the servant wishes to get on his way taking Rebekah with him.  After the excitement of the visitors from afar, bearing rich gifts, cold reality has seeped in.  Her suggest that perhaps there could be a delay of ten days before letting her go.  However as the servant is anxious to depart they call Rebekah.

“Do you want to leave with this man?”

 She said “I will go”.  She is let to depart with her nurse and a blessing.

Consider that amazing acceptance by Rebekah stepping out into the unknown without hesitation.  What went through her mind we don’t hear, perhaps she could never articulate what it was that made her agree to go with this servant to marry a cousin, both stranger and part of her family.  When Abraham is called to leave his family, we know that this is an explicit call by God.  Rebekah responds to a human request, but underpinning the narrative is the presence of the Lord, directing the servant’s steps towards Rebekah and allowing the family to let their daughter go many miles away with their blessing:

“May you our sister become the mother of thousands”

Rebekah arrives at the Negeb region where Isaac is living, he presumably has been waiting, with some trepidation, to see the bride his father’s, possibly elderly servant, will return with.  They see each other and Rebekah dismounts the  camel.  She is informed that this is Isaac and covers her face with her veil.  She might be independent and decisive, but she is also of her time and follows the social norms (mostly).  The servant reports to Isaac on the outcome of his trip.

Isaac brings Rebekah into the “tent of Sarah, his mother.  He made her his wife and he loved her and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”

Let us consider the husband that Rebekah has been presented with – a lonely 40 year old, still mourning his mother, a father who has married again and produced six children.  He marries her and loves her.  A very simple sentence but Rebekah’s leap has been rewarded with a loving, faithful husband.  This relationship will endure despite the strains that life will bring.  Rebekah has left the settled city life for a nomadic life with a family surrounded by unfriendly neighbours.  Her leap has taken her far from her home and we know that she went willingly. She would seem to be a girl who knows her own mind and will demonstrate that whatever life throws at her she will handle. 

We end with the death of Abraham who is buried with his wife Sarah and mourned by his older son Ishmael and Rebekah’s husband Isaac together.  The long lives of Sarah and Abraham had seen many troubles and separations, but in death there is a brief family unity.

We leave Rebekah who took a leap of faith and found a loving husband. Next time we will look at the continuation of Rebekah’s story.  

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Below is a map from the Bible History Online Website which notes that this map “includes some of the geographical locations within the ancient Biblical world. The British Museum describes the Ancient Near East as Mesopotamia, Iran, Anatolia, the Caucasus, the Levant, Egypt, and Arabia. In ancient times the Near East was never one huge homogeneous area but an assorted collection of changing cultures.”

Map copyright © Bible History Online (http://www.bible-history.com)