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)

Sarah

The wife who followed her husband who responded to his call from God.

We can perhaps recall know the story of Abraham living in Ur (somewhere around modern Iraq, Mesopotamia) in about 2000 BC; childless, but told by God that he would be the father of descendants as many as grains of sand etc.

Who was beside him for this promise to be fulfilled – Sarah (known initially as Sarai before she and Abram were renamed by God)?

As I have looked at this story more closely, as it is related in Genesis, I have noticed that Sarah had to embrace the nomadic way of life.  That meant living in tents and always packing up and moving on and never owning your own bit of land.  We notice the differences from our own times when men and women lived separated in their own tents.  The culture may be different, but universal themes shine through. Sarah leaves the home of her ancestors and a familiar, settled way of life to begin a new life following her husband, who is following the call of God.  A God she does not receive personal messages from at first and yet she follows.  Then there is the burden of always being labelled “childless”.  The stigma that must have brought still echoes on down the centuries.

Genesis 11v31 tells us that the journey began when his father Terah took Abram and his childless daughter-in-law and his orphan grandson Lot and travelled from Ur of the Chaldeans with the intention of arriving in the land of Canaan, but stopped in Haran.  Ur was a settled city probably with structures and houses, my nearest experience is Mohenjodaro, Pakistan one of the towns of the Indus Valley Civilisation which flourished between 3500 and 1700 BC. beside the River Indus. 

Picture of Mohenjodaro above from website Harappa.com

Sarah left this security for a journey to Haran.  But then when her father-in-law died her husband received a call from God to leave this land and go to the land “I will show you”.  They left accompanied again by his nephew Lot and their accumulated possessions, including slaves, arriving in Canaan.  Abram built an altar when he pitched his tent in Bethel and then he headed on to Negeb.

A famine though drove them down into Egypt where Abraham asks Sarah to pretend that she is his sister (for safety?) because she is so beautiful.   Later on, Genesis mentions that she was his half-sister, so it was perhaps a way of presenting the truth as it were.

Not sure I know why it was safer to be a sister than a wife unless it was because childlessness was so unknown that it was a way of explaining Sarah.  Whatever the answer it must have been a strange decision that Sarah had to go along with. Pharaoh was unimpressed when he found out and sent Sarah and Abraham on their way, having first put Sarah in his harem.  Abraham had built up flocks, camels and slaves both male and female.  Genesis recounts that Abraham and Lot continue to flourish but can’t live together so split with Abram settling in Canaan. 

Life goes on, but despite God’s promise there is no sign of a baby and Abram and Sarai grow older and older with Abram promoting Eliezar of Damascus, his slave as his heir. Ten years after settling in Canaan Sarai takes matters into her own hands. Thinking perhaps that a child of her own slave would be better as an heir rather than the children of a random slave, she tells Abram to sleep with Hagar, her Egyptian slave (perhaps given her by Pharaoh).  Hagar conceives and then looks down on Sarah who goes to Abraham who replies “She’s your slave – you sort her out” so Sarah mistreats her so badly that pregnant Hagar runs away to the desert.  How often do we think of a plan that seems to work from every angle, only to find that we have made a big miscalculation?

Hagar, is not abandoned by God, who sends her back to Sarah and Ishmael is born when Abraham is 86.  Thirteen years pass which would imply Ishmael is no longer a baby and God again promises that Abram will be the father of many via Sarah who is now, we are told, no longer able to bear children, past childbearing age.  God renames Abram and Sarai at this point.

There next follows an eventful year – first three Angelic visitors come and tell Abraham that next year when they visit – Sarah will have a child.  She, listening, stifles laughter.

Around them the political situation is in flux with fighting affecting Abraham’s nephew Lot (he and his wife and daughters are a separate story of their own).  Abraham then pulls the same stunt as previously with Pharaoh when he goes into the neighbouring land of King Abimelech – Sarah has to say she is his sister, the King makes her his wife, nearly sins, doesn’t, has the truth revealed and sends Sarah and Abraham on their way again, not without coins and animals. 

After these many tribulations, Sarah conceives and Isaac is born.  In Genesis 21v6 we hear Sarah’s voice:

“God has brought me laughter and everyone who hears of this will laugh with me…  Who would have ever told Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yes, I have given birth to a son for him in his old age.”

However, she still has that residual jealousy and despite her son and Ishmael playing together she asks Abraham to send Ishmael and by extension his mother, which this time Abraham does.

Isaac grows and then Abraham pulls another stunt which must have shaken Sarah when she found out about it.  He takes Isaac, as commanded by God to sacrifice him.  God sends a ram at the last moment, for the sacrifice.  We can see this episode as a pre-figuring of the sacrifice of Jesus and the mount where it took place later became Jerusalem, but for Sarah it must have been a moment which shook her and all her beliefs and relationships to the core. That the God of Abraham, her husband, who had promised and fulfilled his promise, should then ask for the ultimate sacrifice and that Abraham was prepared to carry through with it.  That her beloved only son was tied down and placed on the Altar ready to be a sacrifice was probably an image that did not leave her.  Of course, we can think of another mother Mary, who watched her son sacrificed for the redemption of mankind.

Finally, we come to the death of Sarah, which is mentioned, although perhaps Abraham used it as a good way to achieve something he wanted – a piece of land in Hebron, Canaan. Genesis 23 records that:

“Sarah lived a hundred and twenty-seven years.  She died at Krlath-arba – that is Hebron – in the land of Canaan and Abraham went in to mourn and weep for Sarah.”  

So, in conclusion what does telling the story from Sarah’s point of view give us – we see that sense of following a dream/promise – however impossible it seems. We see that Sarah has to do as her husband says (not suprising perhaps for Sarah) so she has to act twice as his sister, instead of wife, a request of Abraham’s that acts to his advantage, but not to Sarah’s as it places her in a difficult situation twice. 

We see the human response of those who want to help the dream along, thus Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham and then regrets that action for the rest of her life. We hear Sarah’s voice when Isaac is born.  We hear too her incredulous reaction of laughter and we hear repeatedly that Sarah was beautiful.  Despite the tribulations of their long married life together we end the story with Abraham mourning and weeping for Sarah. Perhaps that is a hint of the separateness which had arisen between Sarah and Abraham, as they are not living in the same place at the time of her death.  This separateness was perhaps consequent following the near-sacrifice of Isaac. A reconciliation following death is perhaps a reminder to set things right before death.

The Journeys of Abraham and Sarah showing the geography of the area. They travelled through their long life from Ur in modern-day Iraq, through Syria, down into Canaan (modern-day Israel/Palestine) and across to Egypt and many more journeys within the area.

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

Our next episode will look at Rebekah whose family lived in Haran in modern-day Syria.

WOMEN OF THE BIBLE

Why now – why Women of the Bible?

Answer – the time is now!

As a mother whose children are grown up and living independent lives, it’s time to think about where and what next?  It is nearly thirty years since I graduated with a History degree and the answer to the often unspoken question “what did you do with your degree” seems to require an answer.  Life, children, work, living as a Catholic in 21st century Reading, UK, these are all what I did and do. 

In March 2019, I participated in the “Called and Gifted” process organised by the Diocese of Portsmouth.  Shortly afterwards I saw an opportunity to work with the Bible Society on a joint venture promoting the Catholic ethos of Scripture in readiness and alongside the Year of the God who Speaks.  As part of this I had to do a presentation about how to engage Catholics with the Word of God.  One thought that came to me was to focus on “Women of the Bible”.  Our Emmaus Group often has fruitful discussions about the experiences of the Women we encounter when discussing the Sunday readings.  My  application was unsuccessful but the idea of looking at “Women of the Bible” stuck.  Initially, I thought this would be an opportunity to gather those interested and together explore some Biblical women.  However, as I contemplated the idea further I realised that a focus to produce something that would provide a structure to my thoughts would be a good idea.  I therefore thought about compiling a “Blog” something I’ve never thought of venturing into before so this will be a Blog about the Women of the Bible launched in the Year of the God who Speaks. 

There are 150+ named women; there are probably about another 150+ unnamed but mentioned individually or as a small group eg the wife and daughters of Lot.  There are also others who are mentioned as a bigger group.  How then to chose where to focus. I have acquired quite a few books recently – anything that includes in the title a selection of the following words: women; Old Testament; New Testament; Sarah; Esther or Mary has generally attracted me.  I now have a couple of reference books such as “Women of the Bible – the life and times of Every Woman in the Bible” by Larry and Sue Richards which includes an alphabetical listing, as well as topic and scripture indices.  However a reference guide is not what I had in mind.

With my history background,I have to start at the beginning – I can’t just pick out women randomly in time.  Advent 2019 marks the start of Liturgical Year A in the Catholic Church and that is an invite to focus on the Gospel of Matthew. Our Parish recently invited Fr Denis McBride to talk about the Gospel of Matthew.  His introduction to Matthew’s Gospel was to explore those women named in Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus.  These five are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary.  I also looked at the “Women in Jesus’ Family Tree” in Women of the Bible by Jean E Syswerda; which shows the names of those female ancestors of Joseph.  I arrived at a plan to start with Sarah, continuing with Rebecca, Leah, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba (wife of David).  Looking at these women will take the story of God’s plan for his people from Abraham to David. There are others who aren’t named above such as Miriam and Deborah the Judge who I shall also include.  Of course there are still many generations from David until Jesus and there are many women, beginning with Mary, associated with the life of Jesus and the Early Church, so Bathsheba will not be the end, just a marker on the way through the Bible.

Just to conclude with one snippet which I discovered as I began my  research. When Rebekah agrees to leave her family home to marry Isaac, Genesis tells us she left with her nurse.  Many chapters later we learn that her name was Deborah (not to be confused with Deborah the Judge) and when she dies, Jacob, the son of Rebekah, mourns her.  This means that she was probably with Rebekah helping her look after first her own children and then a presence in the lives of Rebekah’s grandchildren.  To me, these seemingly-random comments, help to prove the truth of the narrative –  a detail like naming an insignificant person such as a nursemaid/servant suggests that what is remembered is true because there is not necessarily  value in remembering her name.  As they say this “blew my mind” because it helped to bring the Bible alive, to hear of Deborah who accompanies her mistress through all her tribulations and on into the next generation and who is mourned (and her name remembered) when she dies.

I hope that, through looking at the Women of the Bible, starting with Sarah, we see how God speaks to both men and women.