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

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

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.

Führich, Joseph, Ritter von, 1800-1876. Jacob Encountering Rachel with her Father’s Herds, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54267 [retrieved February 1, 2021]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:JvFuhrichJosephRachel.jpg.

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”

Rebecca Begins her Journey to Canaan Date: 1170-1179 Building: Duomo di Monreale Monreale, Sicily Italy
from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55095

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.  


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)


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.


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.