The story of Rebecca contains
three different episodes:
2 the birth and youth of Esau and Jacob (Genesis 25:19-34). Rebecca gave birth to two sons with very different temperaments. The conflict between them would be the basis for conflict between later generations and nations.
3 Rebecca and the blessing of
Isaac (Genesis 27). Rebecca manipulated the situation so that the tribe
would be led by an intelligent man rather than a popular but shallow man,
so that decisions for the tribe would be based on wisdom rather than impulse or
was the young woman who became the wife of Isaac, Sarah's son. She came
from a well-to-do family in upper Mesopotamia, now northeastern Syria. She
was a relative of Abraham; her family background is given in Genesis
Rebecca was beautiful, shrewd, energetic, physically robust and strong-willed. We first meet her at the well of Aram-naharaim, where she showed that she was willing to work, and confident enough to speak without fear to the strangers who had been sent by Abraham to find a wife for Isaac.
This moment, with its symbolism of the well and
water, has been popular with artists.
he had finished speaking, there was Rebecca, coming out with her water
jar on her shoulder. The girl was very fair to look upon, a young girl,
whom no man had known. She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and
Rebecca impressed Abraham's men who had stopped to rest at the well. They offered her valuable gifts, including a gold nose-ring and two gold bracelets, which she accepted.
See Bible Archaeology: Jewelry for pictures of the stunning jewelry worn by all ranks of women in ancient times.
There are two types of gifts mentioned in this story, both related to marriage customs of the time:
Rebecca led the men to her home, to introduce them to her family. Her brother Laban spoke as head of the house, inviting them to stay in his household. This suggests that their father Bethuel was alive, but for some reason was incapable of acting as head of the household. A proposal of marriage, on behalf of Isaac, was made. It was accepted by Rebecca and by her family.
'And they called Rebecca
and said to her "Will you go with this man?" She said "I will". So
they sent away their sister Rebecca and her nurse along with Abraham's
servant and his man, and they blessed Rebecca.'
The description of Rebecca's betrothal and marriage gives a fair picture of marriage practices among the early Hebrew people:
Rebecca had more say in whom she married than did Isaac, her future husband. Genesis 24:8 suggests that the marriage would not have gone ahead without her consent, but Isaac is expected to marry the woman brought home to him by his father's agents.
As she faced the journey to her
new home, she seemed sure of her own judgment, and ready for this daunting
new experience. Her journey took her from upper Mesopotamia, in what is
now northeastern Syria, to Beer-lahai-roi in the Negev, a distance of
about eight or nine hundred kilometers.
For maps of this area, go to MAPS
For maps of this area, go to MAPS
When Rebecca and Isaac met, it seems to have been love at first sight. He took her to the tent that had once belonged to his mother Sarah - this tent was to be Rebecca's now.
'Isaac loved her' is used,
something most unusual for the biblical text. Rebecca
comforted Isaac after his mother's death; the deep bond that Isaac had
with Sarah was replaced by his love for Rebecca. This biblical story has an
'and they lived happy ever after' feel about it.
conceive for quite some years, and this was
considered both a personal misfortune and a sign that she was not favored
by God. Eventually however she became pregnant, but even then it was not
plain sailing. She had a difficult pregnancy, since the two babies inside
her were constantly moving, so that she had no peace. Even before they
were born, they were struggling with each other. Like many women
before and since, she wondered what she had got herself into.
she 'went to enquire of the Lord'. Rebecca was the first woman we hear
of who sought God out and asked him for some explanation of her condition.
This shows her initiative and self-confidence. The method she used to
speak with God is not explained, but a common practice in the ancient
world was to consult a prophet or oracle. Rebecca may have followed this
practice or, as in Numbers 12:6, the message may have come to her in a
God told her that
nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the
Rebecca had twin sons, Esau and Jacob.
The struggle in her womb had been a sign that there was to be
'When her time to give
birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red,
all his body like a hairy mantle, so they named him Esau. Afterward his
brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau's heel, so he was named
From the start, Esau was a
'man's man', good at hunting and outdoors activities, confident,
careless, unconcerned. He had a good relationship with his father. He
married two Hittite (non-Hebrew) women who did not get on well with
Rebecca and Isaac (see Genesis 26:34-35). Jacob was quiet, more
thoughtful, more interested in learning. He did not particularly enjoy
outdoors activities. He depended on his intelligence and his wits rather
than on brute strength. The clash between these two young men echoes the
continuing struggle between the nomadic hunter and the settled
agriculturalist, as related in the story of Cain and Abel - see 'Eve:
One day, Esau carelessly gave up
his birthright, half of his inheritance, to his younger twin Jacob.
On the death of the father, property was divided in equal shares
between the sons, but the eldest son got a double portion. This was called
the 'birthright' of the eldest. Thus in a family of two sons, the
elder would get two-thirds, the younger would get one-third. Daughters had
already received their inheritance in the form of a dowry. In the story of
the stew, Esau gave up his right to a double portion and transferred this
right to Jacob.
In Genesis 26 there is a story
involving Rebecca and King Abimelech in Gerar. It is similar to one
involving Sarah, in Genesis 20. The episode is really about water rights
in the area, essential to a nomadic people. In the section involving
Rebecca (26:1-11), all Rebecca's actions suggest that she was active,
not passive, a planner and doer, not a victim. So the episode with
Abimelech is likely to have resulted from co-operation between her and
Isaac. Indeed, judging from other events in her life, the plan may have
originated with her.
After this, we learn of Judith and Basemath, Esau's Hittite wives who made life bitter for Rebecca and Isaac (Genesis 26:34-35).
The resentment of Judith and Basemath was understandable. In their eyes, their husband should have been in line to inherit a double portion of Jacob's possessions, which he would not now receive. They overlooked the fact that it was their husband's fault that this was so, and took out their anger on their in-laws.
But the story suggests that the
real reason for
this grubby behavior lay in their origins. They were foreigners, with
foreign gods and customs. To the writers of the biblical text, this meant
they could never be suitable wives for Hebrew men.
(But this idea is contradicted later, in the story of Ruth - see Bible
Men and Women: Ruth
for her story.)
(But this idea is contradicted later, in the story of Ruth - see Bible Men and Women: Ruth for her story.)
When Isaac was very old, he
realized that it was nearly time for him to die. This meant that he should
give his formal Blessing to the son he wanted to succeed him. In ancient
Hebrew tribes, the Blessing meant the handing over of legal power to a
successor - a more valuable gift than any amount of property. The person
who received the Blessing had authority over the whole clan, even over
people who were older than himself. If Jacob had the Blessing, he would
govern the tribe after Isaac's death.
But Esau was Isaac's favorite
son. He had many of the qualities that Isaac lacked: he was
hearty, carefree, a good hunter, and physically strong. The question was:
would he be the best person to govern the tribe after Jacob's death?
Rebecca did not think so. She believed that the quiet, intelligent Jacob
would do a better job.
She therefore colluded with her younger son, and under her direction, Jacob tricked his dying father into giving the Blessing to him.
'Then Rebecca took the best
garments of her elder son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put
them on her younger son Jacob; and she put the skins of the kids on his
hands and on the smooth part of his neck'
In the modern world, we admire honesty and integrity. The actions of Rebecca and Jacob seem underhand to us. In ancient times, however, this duo of schemers would have been admired. Trickery and cunning were valued, because the world was dangerous and unpredictable, and people needed every advantage they could get, to survive. Rebecca may have hated what she had to do - but it was necessary, given Esau's impetuous foolishness and the long term effect it would have on the tribe.
Rebecca had developed from a beautiful, confident young girl into a far-sighted and shrewd woman. She chose the son she believed was more capable of governing the clan. But some questions must be asked:
'Now Esau hated Jacob because of the Blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself "The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob". But the words of her elder son Esau were told to Rebecca.'
Esau was enraged, as well he
might be. He had been betrayed by his mother and his brother and lost the
inheritance that was due to him, his birthright and the Blessing. He
planned to kill Jacob as soon as his father died - for a short version of
Isaac's life, see Bible
Study Resource for Women in the Bible: Rebecca - Women of the Old
Rebekah, her husband Isaac and her sons Jacob and Esau