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Genesis: Isaac and Rebekah

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Genesis by Robert Garland

Abraham returns home with Isaac. We don't know what they talk about nor what they say to Sarah when they're back. After four verses of genealogy, at the beginning of Chapter 23, we're told that Sarah died at the age of 127. It's now that Abraham buys a field and a cave called Machpelah from a Hittite called Ephron. The Hittites are frequently mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Their homeland was in modern-day Turkey. Ephron offers the cave and the field for free but Abraham insists on paying full price – 400 shekels. He buries Sarah in the cave and will be buried there himself in due course. As I mentioned in a previous lesson, this is Abraham's way of saying that he will have a legal entitlement to this place for ever. And this too is how the Hebrews first acquire land in Canaan, not by conquest but by purchase.

Abraham is now very old and he tells his most trusted servant to put his hand next to his private parts and swear an oath that he will find a suitable bride for his son Isaac, not among the Canaanites but among his own people. This was a very solemn way of taking an oath in the ancient world, and it's the origin of our word "testament", which derives from the Latin word testes, which means the private parts. If you took an oath by approaching someone's private parts, it meant it was a very solemn oath. The servant departs and eventually arrives at Nahor, which is very close to Haran, the place from which Abraham originally set out when the Lord bade him leave his country..

The servant prayed to the Lord to help him discover which of the local girls would make a suitable bride for Isaac. He suggested that it be the one who gives him a drink of water. By an incredible stroke of Fortune, a girl called Rebekah, who happened to be a close relative of Abraham, offers the servant a drink. He gives her some pieces of jewelry, asks her who she is, and asks if he can stay the night. Rebekah runs we're told – she's obviously excited – to her mother's house and tells her brother Laban about the stranger. Laban invites the servant to his house, has his camels fed, and places a slap-up dinner before him. But before he eats the servant insists on giving a full account of why he's come. When Laban discovers he's looking for a husband for his master's son, he comments, "This is the Lord's doing." Then after various formalities, including gift giving, Laban and his mother ask Rebekah if she's prepared to go with Abraham's servant. She agrees, they set off, and when they're close to Isaac, who happens to be strolling in a field at sunset, they both see each other. Rebekah gets down from her camel and covers her face with a veil. Without further ado, so to speak, Isaac takes her into his mother's tent, she becomes his wife. The account ends with the words, "Isaac loved her and was comforted after his mother's death."

I've told the story in some detail because I find the details fascinating, beginning with the reference to Ephron the Hittite. We learn nothing about the man except his name, but somehow his name grounds the story in reality. As does the fact that Rebekah "ran" back to her home after meeting Abraham's servant and got down from the camel when she sees Isaac. It's also instructive that Abraham wants Isaac to marry a Hebrew. Endogamy, to give it the technical term, is what is practised by the Hebrews. It's an arranged marriage but there's something more that passes between Isaac and Rebekah.

Abraham's reaction to Rebekah isn't mentioned but he marries again and has six children and dies at the age of 175. He gets buried in the same cave as Sarah by Isaac and Ishmael. That's a nice detail, the two half-brothers showing love equally for their father. Initially Rebecca is barren, so Isaac prays to the Lord and as a result she becomes pregnant and gives birth to twins, Esau and Jacob. Childlessness, as we have seen, is at the heart of the Abraham story and it now continues through the next generation. As I've said, the theme is historically apt, given the high incidence of childlessness in the ancient world. Esau becomes a hunter, whereas Jacob is a quiet man, living in tents, a curious description. They are also distinguished from each other physically by the fact that Esau is covered in hair whereas Jacob is smooth-skinned.

Rebekah and Isaac now manifest one of the worst characteristics of parents. Favouritism. Rebecca favours Jacob, whereas Isaac favours Esau. One day Esau comes in from the fields famished and asks his brother to give him some food. Jacob agrees, but on condition that he sells him his birthright, that is to say their father's inheritance. Esau agrees and sells his birthright for bread and lentil stew. Time passes, a famine occurs, there's a repeat of the story of a husband pretending his wife is his sister in order to prevent himself from being killed, there's another struggle over ownership of a well, throughout all of which the Lord tells Jacob that he'll look after him and multiply his seed.

In Chapter 27 Isaac goes blind and calls Esau, his favourite. "Here I am," says Esau. "I'm old," he tells him and want to give you my blessing so will you please go and kill an animal and prepare a savoury meal for me. Rebekah overhears him and urges Jacob to disguise himself as Esau by covering himself in the skin of young goats so that when his father feels him he will be deceived into believing that he is Esau. Jacob initially resists, Rebekah says the curse will be on her, and he finally agrees. Isaac gives Jacob his blessing, then Esau turns up and Isaac discovers he's been deceived, but there's nothing he can do about it now. Esau says he's going to kill his brother, Rebekah again overhears and tells Jacob to go away.

Nobody comes out of this story well – not Esau for stupidly giving away his birthright, not the parents, not Jacob. It's a story of parental inadequacy and fraternal rivalry. God is nowhere and punishes no-one. And as Genesis continues, Jacob, thanks to his deceitfulness, will become the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, and it's his upwardly mobile career that we'll follow in the next lesson.

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Written by

Robert Garland