One often hears it said, and not only by outsiders, that Judaism is a male-dominated religion that does not properly appreciate its women. The blame for this attitude, say many critics, lies with the Bible itself, which, they allege, is written prejudicially from the male point of view. They point the finger especially at the book of Genesis, which teaches, for example, that the loss of Eden through willful disobedience was the fault of the primal woman, and which attributes the founding of God’s new way to the deeds of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—all of them men, all of them looked after directly by God.
One cannot deny that the text centers mainly on the adventures of the males—though this alone proves nothing—but it is simply wrong to say that the Bible does not esteem, appreciate, and honor its women. On the contrary, one could argue that the main burden of the Jewish way, beginning with the stories of the patriarchs, is to elevate—in the eyes of male readers especially—the dignity of family life. To this end, it seeks to redirect male attitudes and ambitions away from wealth and glory and toward the proper rearing of the young for the noble work of transmission and sanctification. Indispensable for this transformation of the natural ways of mankind is an elevation in the status and dignity of woman. A careful reading of Genesis shows this to be a major purpose of the text, and nowhere more clearly than in the second generation, the generation of Isaac, the hero of which is the marvelous figure, Rebekah.
To understand the issues of this story—indeed, to understand the meaning of the entire patriarchal narrative—we need to start further back.1 The new way, God’s chosen way begun with Abraham, is set against the background, presented in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, of human beings living largely on their own and uninstructed, following their own notions of good and evil. These pre-Abrahamic tales reveal many of the basic elements of human life in all their moral ambiguity, and show the reader the sorts of enduring difficulties with which the new way will have to contend and which it will try to control. Especially relevant for understanding the issues in the family of Isaac and Rebekah is the story of Cain and Abel, itself the final episode in the story of Adam and Eve.
Following expulsion from the Garden, “the man knew Eve his wife and she conceived and bore Cain; and she said, ‘I have gotten (kaniti) a man with the Lord.’ And she continued to bear his brother Abel.” The world’s first—or, perhaps, prototypical—birth, not said to be painful, is an occasion of joy and a source of pride, especially here for the mother. Boasting of her own creative powers, Eve compares herself as creator to God: though the conventional translation of kaniti ish eth adonai, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord,” makes Eve seem grateful and even pious, “with the help of” is an interpretive interpolation; in my view, the context favors “I have gotten a man [equally] with God”—or, in plain speech, “God created a man, and now so have I.” Cain, the pride of his mother’s bearing, bears the name of his mother’s pride: kayin, related to kaniti, from a root kanah, meaning to possess, also perhaps related to koneh, meaning to form or shape or make or create. Cain, a being created and possessed by his mother, becomes a proud farmer, the sort of man who lays possessive claim to the earth and who is proud of his ability to bring forth fruit from the earth. In contrast, the birth of Abel, the younger, is uncelebrated by his mother; he is, prophetically, given a name that means “breath-that-vanishes.” Abel, introduced only as “his brother Abel,” seems an afterthought, important only as Cain’s brother.
The pride and preference of the mother and the correlative pride of Cain, the first-born, herald the problem of “brotherhood,” which in this case issues in fratricide, when Cain’s anger swells from jealousy and wounded vanity in the rejection of his sacrifice. This first and, in my view, therefore prototypical family shows us the threats to peace and justice that lurk in the most fundamental and natural human associations, threats that the new way begun with Abraham will straightaway seek to address and moderate: (1) the natural pride in parental generative powers; (2) the special pride in the first-born, because he opens the womb, gives proof of our generative powers, and assures us the comfort of descendants against the sting of our mortality; and (3) the rivalry, jealousy, and even murderous hatred between siblings, complicating especially the peaceful transmission of birthright and way of life from one generation to the next—a problem made worse by the fact that the first in birth may not be the first in merit, and may even be defective by reason of his first-born pride.
The difficulty of transmission from one generation to the next is the explicit theme of the story of Noah and his sons, another important reference for understanding the generation of Isaac. Noah, an exemplary man, “righteous and simple in his generations,” and begetter of three sons, is fit to be a new founder, a saving remnant out of the corrupt age. After the Flood, God establishes the new beginning through a covenant with Noah, and law is instituted for the first time. But transmitting the law involves more than begetting heirs; generation is not yet perpetuation. Genesis shows immediately the impossibility of relying on merely natural means for perpetuating traditions of restraint and reverence. Ham, Noah’s youngest son, looks upon the uncovered nakedness of his father, and traffics in his discovery. He thereby metaphorically destroys his father as a father, without laying a hand on him, by looking upon him only as source of life and overturning his authority as teacher of a way of life. Perpetuation of a way of life requires children who, in order to receive, must have respect and even filial piety, and fathers who, in order to transmit, must remain worthy of the respect of their offspring. Noah’s drunkenness reveals that parental authority and respectability are precarious; Ham’s shamelessness shows that at least some children rebel against parental authority and tradition. The way of life begun with Noah could not be universally transmitted through natural generation alone, not even for one generation.
Genesis does not tell us exactly why there was this disaster of transmission in the household of Noah, but close reading provides a possible clue: the absence of a proper wife and mother, or, better, the absence of proper regard for the wife and mother of Noah’s sons. We know the name of Noah and his three sons, Shem, Japheth, and Ham, but we do not know the name of Noah’s wife, and she does not figure in the story with the sons. This neglect of the importance of the wife seems to be the uninstructed way of the human race—and this crucial defect is perhaps the first object of God’s instruction of the patriarchs, and, through them, of us.2 God, in fact, had subtly tried to instruct Noah, but Noah—whether from simple-mindedness or instinctive male chauvinism—missed the point: when the earth dried after the Flood, God told Noah to leave the ark, “thou and thy wife, and thy sons, and thy sons’ wives with thee” (8:16), but Noah, changing the instructions, went out, and after him, first his sons, and only then his wife and then his sons’ wives with him (8:18). Could Noah’s demotion of his wife be related to his inability properly to transmit?
The question of transmission—and the overcoming of the natural obstacles to its success—is the theme of the story of the generation of Isaac and Rebekah. Readers of Genesis are eager to see whether and how the new way, begun with Abraham, will be handed down. For much of the story of Abraham was, in fact, devoted to making things right for the task of perpetuation—the right son, Isaac, miraculously born to the right woman, Sarah, and received by Abraham in a God-fearing-and-revering spirit. We wonder whether these measures were sufficient. Can the new way be perpetuated, especially without succumbing to the evils that afflicted human life in the absence of the new way?
Abraham is educated by his adventures to the task of transmission. After passing God’s test in the binding of Isaac, he purchases the cave at Machpelah for a burying ground, which fixes for generations to come a venerable place where the ancestors lie buried. And, in his final deed, he takes the last step toward securing perpetuation: finding a proper wife for Isaac. Making his servant Eliezer swear not to take for Isaac one of the daughters of the Canaanites (descendants of Ham), he sends him away to his own country and to his kindred; but his instructions hint at a possible problem. When Eliezer asks whether, if the woman will not come back with him, he should bring Isaac to the woman, Abraham insists that Isaac not be taken away from home—presumably for fear that he will become lost to the new way, physically and spiritually. A possible weakness in the male chain emphasizes all the more the importance of the woman, who, happily, turns out to be more than equal to the required work. Indeed, I must confess, each time I read these stories, I fall in love with Rebekah—and who doesn’t? She is good-looking, pure, and generous; she is kind to strangers and dumb animals, well beyond the necessary minimum. Energetic, lively, and eager, she courageously and willingly leaves her father’s house in Haran, exactly as Abraham had done a generation before, to go to Canaan. She has a mind of her own and knows her own mind, consenting without hesitation to the proposed marriage. When she comes upon her future husband, we see him uncared for, languishing, in the place where Hagar wept; the narrator reports that “he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, camels were coming.” But Rebekah too “lifted up her eyes and she saw Isaac, and she alighted from the camel,” saying, “who is that man?” On receiving the answer, her energy and perspicacity (both still powerful) hide behind her modesty, as she veils herself to announce in the language of visibility that she willingly “belongs” to him. The text subtly compares her energy and far-sightedness to his immobility and limited vision, her modesty to his need to be comforted for the loss of his mother. From then on, Rebekah exercises her leadership indirectly and from behind the scenes. Just as God led Abraham’s servant to the right woman, Rebekah, so Rebekah will lead Isaac to Jacob, the right son.
Our story proper begins by announcing our theme: “These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son; Abraham begat Isaac” (25:19). From this unique and strange formulation—where we expect the names of Isaac’s children, we are instead told (twice) that Isaac was Abraham’s son—we learn two things: the most salient fact for the generations of Isaac is that he was begotten by Abraham; and the crucial question is, does Isaac transmit and not only sire? For a while, it looked as though he might not even sire, for Rebekah was barren through the first twenty years of their marriage. Only after Isaac entreats God on behalf of his wife does Rebekah become pregnant; unlike Eve, Rebekah, though eager for children, will not regard her progeny as her own handiwork. Indeed, her pregnancy is so difficult that she seeks divine counsel and guidance. God tells her that the path to the future is not yet set; though only one son was expected, an ambiguous challenger and rival is also present in the womb. Rebekah hears the prophecy of struggle between the two future nations and of the eventual preeminence of the younger. Whether with more anticipation or more foreboding, Rebekah—unlike Isaac—comes to parenthood with her eyes on the long-range view, with a concern for the future and not only for the here and now.
The existence of twins in this first generation of perpetuation requires that the new way face the age-old dangers of divided parental loves and sibling rivalry. As the Bible shows us repeatedly, nature is not a reliable ally in the work of transmission: more than one son guarantees rivalry; also, the first-born may not be the right one for the birthright—indeed, as we saw with Cain and Abel, the natural prejudice in favor of the firstborn often works, through parental pride and favoritism, to ensure that the first-born will turn out to be the wrong one; furthermore, superior natural prowess may not be the superiority needed for handing down the way of the God of Abraham. In the present case, the existence of the twins—Esau, the cunning hunter, a man of the field, and Jacob, a simple man, dwelling in tents—reveals also the problem of weakness in the father, who prefers the wrong son and takes little pains to secure the future. “For Isaac loved Esau because he did eat of his hunting, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” Isaac’s reason for preferring Esau is low, tied to food and self-interest, here and now; Rebekah’s love of Jacob is unexplained—but from this silence we can assume it is neither low nor self-interested, and it is perhaps related to the prophecy with a concern for the future. But Rebekah’s preference almost certainly rests also on the differences in character between her sons, for she surely sees and knows her boys. The story of the sale of the birthright that follows immediately shows these differences clearly, and, given the context, serves to explain the differences in the parents’ loves. Esau, a slave to present appetites, proves his unfitness by the contempt he shows for the birthright; Jacob (unlike that first younger brother, Abel) has the natural gifts to survive and carry on—ambition and striving, cleverness and forethought, and, above all, the recognition of the importance of the birthright, the preeminent place of responsibility in the household.
The problems for this household can be simply put: first, how to replace the order of birth and strength with the order of merit, without fratricide. Second, how to do this with the support and blessing of a less-than-right father who, to begin with, foolishly prefers the wrong son. From the point of view of transmitting Abraham’s new way, a reversal is needed, but how can it be arranged?
Clever Jacob thinks he knows how to do it all by himself. He devises what is, in a way, a perfect “test.” In this test, Esau shows himself perfectly willing to change places, thereby confessing to the unfitness that makes such an exchange absolutely necessary. And by devising the test, Jacob shows his greater desire for the birthright and, to this extent, his worthiness of it. But there is something wrong. Jacob believes, mistakenly, that he can resolve the birthright issue without involving his father and that he can do so by his cleverness alone. In both these respects, he is at this point unfit; for how can one be suited to take one’s father’s place as perpetuator if one ignores the place of one’s father? And how can one be a true heir of the way of Abraham if one relies solely on one’s own cleverness and strength? In order to become truly ready and fit, Jacob will have to be brought into right relation both to his father and to his father’s God. And, regarding his brother, he must avoid the problem of killing or being killed by Esau, who—notwithstanding his unforced willingness to swap the birthright—now has reason to feel injured and resentful.
Jacob’s shortcomings at this stage are perhaps excusable, for his father had taken no interest in his proper rearing. True, Isaac, thanks to God’s help, gets rich and works the land (he is the only successful farmer in Genesis); also, he redigs his father’s wells—and some new ones—and reaffirms his father’s covenant with Abimelech. He keeps open the life-giving and life-preserving channels begun by his father. But as a transmitter of his father’s way of life, Isaac falls short; he has an unsatisfactory relation to his sons. He not only prefers the wrong son and for a wrong reason; unlike his own father, he makes no provision for the marriage even of his favorite son, Esau, who, quite on his own, takes two Canaanite wives, wives who “were a bitterness of spirit unto both Isaac and Rebekah.” Isaac, dim of sight, has apparently little awareness of what he and he alone can transmit.
Into the breach moves Rebekah. Thanks to her, Isaac is brought into a proper relation to his sons; thanks to her, Jacob is compelled to recognize the need for—and to obtain—the blessings of his father; thanks to her, fratricide is (for the time being) averted; and thanks to her, Jacob is sent off to find a proper wife, on a journey that will also tame his cleverness and bring him at last into a more proper relation to his brother and, even more important, to God.
How does Rebekah do this? In the only way possible, not by force and not by confrontation, but by guile. But not by guile alone. At the same time, she acts with tact, delicacy, and affection; though she arranges his deception, she does whatever she can to preserve and promote the dignity of her husband, whom she serves out of love. By the end, Rebekah’s Isaac rises to the work of transmission, and becomes truly the son of Abraham.
Rebekah overhears Isaac sending Esau out to hunt, “and make me savory meats, such as I love, and bring them to me, that I may eat, that my soul may bless thee before I die.” Isaac, old and dim of sight, is willing—not altogether unlike Esau in the birthright story—to give a blessing in exchange for a good meal; and he too, like Esau, greatly exaggerates the imminence of his death (Isaac lives for many more years). Rebekah, alert and attentive to everything around her, senses both the danger and the opportunity. As soon as Esau leaves to hunt, she summons Jacob and tells him what she has overheard. In her retelling, she tactfully alters Isaac’s words—“Bring me venison and make me savory meats that I may eat and bless thee before the Lord before my death.” Isaac, speaking to Esau, had forgotten to mention God; Rebekah, reporting her husband’s words to Jacob, improves them, placing God’s name, so to speak, onto Isaac’s tongue—and also into Jacob’s mind. (This is, I believe, the first time that the name of God is mentioned in Jacob’s presence.) Soon, thanks to Rebekah’s successful plotting, Isaac will bespeak his own and God’s blessing upon the proper son. But here, even as she embarks on deceiving him, Rebekah tries to enhance Isaac’s dignity and Jacob’s respect—both for his father and his father’s God—by improving upon Isaac’s piety, and by sparing him humiliation in the eyes of her son.
Rebekah has to reckon not only with Isaac’s weakness but also with Jacob’s cleverness and his penchant for self-reliance. Having gotten his attention with her report, she now pleads for his compliance: “Now you, my son, hearken to my voice [shema bekoli] according to that which I command thee” (27:8), and she outlines the plan to get Isaac’s blessing bestowed on Jacob. Jacob resists, not because he thinks such deception is wrong but because he fears that it will fail: his father will grope at him and discover that he is not hairy Esau but smooth Jacob; he, Jacob, will be an impostor in Isaac’s eyes; and he will earn Isaac’s curse and not his blessing. Jacob, shrewd and self-reliant, does not want trouble. More important, perhaps, Jacob knows that he already owns the birthright, and he seems not yet to understand why he needs his father’s—and God’s—blessings.
Rebekah persists: “Upon me be thy curse, my son, only hearken to my voice [shema bekoli] and go take [them] to me.” Moved by her earnestness and her self-sacrificing attitude (“upon me be thy curse”), Jacob respectfully submits and heeds his mother’s voice. Unlike Isaac, who is dim of sight and a partisan of taste and who will later rely on touch and smell when he should have trusted his hearing, Rebekah holds her son through speech and command, and Jacob, like the true son of the covenant, listens, hearkens to her voice, and obeys. Tradition, passed on through command and story, depends on hearing and hearkening—not on seeing and fending for youself (cf. Ham’s relation to Noah). Rebekah overcomes her son’s resistance, and brings him closer to the line of his fathers.
The deception of Isaac, cruel though it may seem, turns out to be a blessing in disguise, and, not least, for Isaac himself. Isaac is, to begin with, presented pathetically. When Jacob comes to his father with the meal Rebekah prepared and calls to him, “Father,” Isaac answers, “Here am I; who art thou my son?” (hineni mi atah beni)—an exchange that echoes, to Isaac’s disfavor, the parallel exchange one generation earlier, when Isaac, walking up Mount Moriah, calls “Father,” and Abraham answers, “Here I am, my son” (hineni beni) (22:7). Unwittingly, Isaac confesses his weakness: he does not know one son from the other. True, he becomes suspicious, partly because of Jacob’s voice, partly, it seems, when, in answer to a question about how he found food so quickly, Jacob says, “Because the Lord your God caused it to happen for me” (27:20). Jacob’s mention of Adonai—but note well, as “your God,” not “my God” or “our God”—causes Isaac to doubt, for Esau would presumably not speak of God at all. At this critical moment, he calls Jacob near, and groping him, he prefers to trust his deceived sense of touch to his well-functioning sense of hearing. Those who do not hearken must, it seems, learn in other ways.
Indeed, by the end, Isaac is brought to his senses. Remarkably, when he discovers that he has been fooled, he is not angry. He “trembled with an exceedingly great trembling,” as if he sensed that the blessing had been given through him to the proper son, by powers beyond his control. As he said at the start, prophetically but unwittingly, he would eat but his soul would bless—and so it happened. Despite himself, something that was living in him and through him gave the divine blessing to the son for whom it was suited. Jacob now has the birthright with his father’s blessing, and Isaac now knows enough to know that it must be so. Rebekah’s plan has brought father and son into (partial) alignment, with each other and with the line and way of Abraham.
But all is not yet right. The alignment between Jacob and Isaac is incomplete. And, more urgently, danger still lurks, due to the wrath of Esau. Once again, Rebekah is on the scene and saves the day. She warns Jacob of Esau’s murderous intent (remarkably, she divines his purpose, for Esau spoke his plan only “in his heart” [27:41]). She pleads with Jacob to flee to safety with Laban, her brother. Why, she asks, “should I be bereft of you both in one day?,” indicating her intent to prevent not only Jacob’s death at Esau’s hands but also the reverse, and, especially, a double fratricide. (Though Rebekah preferred Jacob, she clearly cared for both sons; this is at least a partial answer to those who condemn her for parental favoritism, her only possible defect. A fuller answer would examine whether virtuous motherhood necessarily means loving all children equally, regardless of their lovability.) Yet when Rebekah speaks immediately thereafter with Isaac, she spares him the pain of knowing Esau’s plans for revenge. Instead, she expresses to him only her concern for another—and perhaps still greater—danger, namely, that Jacob, like Esau, will take to wife a Canaanite woman. (This danger she shrewdly did not mention to Jacob himself. To each, she speaks fittingly: she omits that portion of the truth that would not be well received and, thus, that would obstruct proper conduct.) Her expression only of concern—she does not offer Isaac her plan and does not suggest to Isaac that Jacob might return to Laban in Haran—moves Isaac to act. Thanks to the way Rebekah presents the matter, Isaac rises to the occasion—and, in so doing, attains his full stature as patriarch. Isaac, at long last, now plays the true father to Jacob, absolutely voluntarily and without the need for deception.
Isaac, on his own initiative, calls, blesses, and, for the first time, commands Jacob: “Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan. Arise, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel thy mother’s father; and take thee a wife from thence of the daughters of Laban thy mother’s brother” (28:1-2). Isaac’s speech to Jacob echoes Abraham’s speech to Eliezer; but whereas Abraham spoke of Paddan-aram (not by name) as the land of his kindred, Isaac speaks of it in terms of the house of Rebekah’s father (and brother). Isaac wishes for his son a wife like his own. Continuing (and these are the last words and the last deed of Isaac in the Bible), Isaac bestows—freely and fully—the proper blessing of the sons of the covenant:
And God Almighty will bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and muliply thee, that thou mayest be an assembly of peoples; And give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee; that thou mayest possess the land of thy sojournings, which God gave unto Abraham. (28:3-4)
Isaac sends Jacob away (28:5) to find a wife, filled with thoughts of God, thoughts of his grandfather Abraham, thoughts of his own descendants and of the divine blessing upon them, and thoughts of the land he will inherit because of the merit of Abraham, the first man who showed that he revered God more than he loved all promise of earthly rewards. Isaac at long last fulfills his mission as patriarch. Despite nature’s refusal to cooperate, the chain is unbroken, the birth order is reversed without fratricide, and Jacob, with his father’s uncoerced and abundant blessing, is on his way to becoming Israel.3
Who is responsible for all this? The courageous, tactful, and, above all, lovingly prudent Rebekah—who conducts affairs always with circumspection, often behind the scenes, but—thanks to the Bible—in full view of us, its readers. Thanks to Rebekah, the new way survives a most severe test; thanks to Rebekah and the generations of women who, inspired by her example, followed in her footsteps, it survives at least to the present day.
We of the present day, what are we to make of this story and this woman? Many of my students object to Rebekah’s use of deception. Believers in total frankness and empowerment through assertion, they would rather she had confronted her husband and forced him to face his failure to understand his sons and his failure as a father. Others, also believers in frankness and the therapeutic, recommend the equivalent of marriage counseling or family therapy. But are these alternatives really preferable, less cruel or less destructive? Is it really better for intimacy and dignity and love to, as they say, “let it all hang out”? Or does not the judicious yet loving use of guile prove more gentle and less destructive, enabling Isaac to learn for himself, to learn from his own contribution to this deception that he has long been self-deceived—without being lectured or nagged or confronted? Do we not see that Rebekah has not only not damaged his dignity and self-esteem, but has allowed him to find it truly only as a consequence of her deeds and speech?
We have come a long way from the days of Rebekah. And yet, we face her situation afresh in each generation—and today, more so than for many years: how to transmit the way of life directed and sanctified by the God of Abraham, Rebekah, and Jacob, amidst the natural dangers and cultural temptations that stand in the way? Today, the fatal attractions for Jewish fathers (and not for Jewish fathers only) are more prevalent and tempting than venison: money, power, and status; board rooms, country clubs, and ESPN; the Ivy League, the Chicago Bears, and the bottom line; and, alas, for a growing number, alcohol, promiscuity, and even cocaine. These fatal attractions, thanks to our newly found equality, are also open without discrimination to women. What will become of the children of Israel (and, again, of children generally) if women, too, live only for the here and now, if they opt only or mainly for personal self-fulfillment? Whatever might be the case for America or for the world, the way of the Jewish people, now and forever, depends absolutely on the right ordering of the household, devoted wholeheartedly to the noble and sacred task of rearing and perpetuation. For this task—and there is, for Jews, none higher—women, we learn from the Bible, have special access and special gifts, especially if they hearken to the call. As the exemplar of virtuous womanhood—eager for marriage and children; prudent, tactful, and energetically far-sighted; with an ear for the transcendent voice—Rebekah is a woman for all seasons.
1 I am indebted, for numerous insights, to the remarkable commentary by my friend, Robert Sacks, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Ancient Near Eastern Texts and Studies, Vol VI), Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.
2 See, for example, the story of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt, in which God intervenes to protect Sarah from Pharaoh's advances and to indicate that Abraham's promised seed must come from the proper woman and wife. Or, again, later, when Sarah demands the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, God tells the distraught Abraham “in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice” (shema bekolah) (21:12). Consider also the parallel stories of the hospitality of Abraham (18) and Lot (19): Sarah is at home and participates with her husband; Mrs. Lot is not present, and Lot seeks to protect his guests from the Sodomites by offering up his daughters.
3 Jacob still has a long way to go. His own wanderings, and especially his deceptions by Laban and the troubles that follow, prepare him for a reconciliation with Esau; and, in the famous wrestling match with the man-angel, without guile and through close encounters he loses the name of “supplanter” and wins the name that becomes the name of the nation.