THERE, BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD, GO I
The phrase “There, but for the Grace of God, Go I” was supposedly uttered by John Bradford in the sixteenth century, when he saw some prisoners on the way to being executed. It is a recognition that someone else’s problems could easily be our own if not for God’s intervention, or just fate. In uttering it we acknowledge that such things as family, environment etc. play a great part in our success. This awareness should make us more considerate of others and a recognition that we all could easily be in the other person’s place, if not for…..you name it!!!!
Almost every sermon on this week’s parsha begins by noting that Hayei Sarah is not about Sarah’s life, but her death. And of course, it is not clear when and how she died. The midrash hints that perhaps her death was connected with knowledge of the binding of her son Isaac. Perhaps she was heartbroken at what Abraham had done, or perhaps that Satan told her that Abraham had actually killed Isaac. But none of this is in the biblical text; it is the conjecture of midrash which I don’t wish to address in this blog. The parsha goes into great detail about Abraham’s securing a burial plot for his dead wife, and then his instructions to his servant about getting a wife for Isaac and then, the description of Rebekah and her family and finally about Rebekah meeting up with Isaac. This parsha is one of the longest in Genesis and is very repetitive. The only detail, not related in this parsha, which in reality was the longest part of the story, is the long road trip back to Canaan with Rebecca and her entourage. It seems as if she is teleported. One day she is in Haran and the next day she is falling off her camel when she sees Isaac.
Then Rebekah and her maids arose, mounted the camels, and followed the man. So the servant took Rebekah and went his way. Isaac had just come back from the vicinity of Beer-lahai-roi, for he was settled in the region of the Negeb. And Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching… Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. (Genesis 24: 61-67).
There is absolutely nothing about the long trip. One wonders why the narrator does not continue with the lengthy details. Before I make some suggestions, let’s look at the haftarah and introduce some new persona.
Both the haftarah and the parsha start out by comparing the old Abraham with the old David. The phrases which address concerns for the future of both dynasties are identical: “Abraham was now old, advanced in years” corresponds to “King David was now old, advanced in years”. This no doubt is the reason why the haftarah from the first chapter of the book of 1 Kings was chosen. But there is a persona who is usually ignored when we compare the haftarah and the parsha. It is Abishag the Shunamite, the human heating pad. This is how the non-sexual relationship is described between them:
King David was now old, advanced in years; and though they covered him with bedclothes, he never felt warm. His courtiers said to him, “Let a young virgin [na-arah betulah] be sought for my lord the king, to wait upon Your Majesty and be his attendant (sochenet); and let her lie in your bosom, and my lord the king will be warm.” So they looked for a beautiful girl throughout the territory of Israel. They found Abishag the Shunammite and brought her to the king. The girl was exceedingly beautiful [ve-ha-naarah yafah ad meod]. She became the king’s attendant and waited upon him; but the king was not intimate with her [lo yeda-ah]. (1 Kings 1: 1-4)
It is worthwhile comparing the text above with the verses in the parsha which describe Rebekah:
…Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel, the son of Milcah the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor, came out with her jar on her shoulder. The maiden was very beautiful [ve-ha-naarah tovat mar-eh meod], a virgin [betulah] whom no man had known [lo yeda-ah]. (Genesis 24: 15-16)
If we juxtapose these two texts, we can ask what do these two very, exceedingly beautiful virgins, who did not know men, have in common? Avishag is taken and brought to the kings room. Rebekah is taken and brought to Isaac’s tent. Both are trafficked women, but with very different fates. Rebekah was very lucky; Avishag less so.
Further on in the haftarah we meet up with Bathsheba who aggressively pursues the rights of her son, Solomon. He is David’s youngest son, and she wants him to become the heir. With the prophet Nathan’s backing she connives to convince David to designate Solomon as his heir. Surely, this should remind us of how Rebekah aggressively protects the rights of her younger son, Jacob to see that he will get the blessing from Isaac, even if it means duping her husband.
There are many connections with this week’s parsha because in both cases we are talking about an Abraham who is old and looking for continuity. He sends his agent, his servant to find a bride for his son. David has to trust his servants and wife (Nathan the prophet and Bathsheba) to choose the next king.
If we want to pursue the parallels, we can argue that the relationship between the senior servant of Abraham’s household, who had charge of all that he owned, and who will be spending a lot of time with Rebekah on the road trip back to Canaan, will have a non-sexual relationship with the lovely virgin. In fact, one of the midrashim has the trip back taking less than a day to avoid any impropriety. A midrash states that “the servant set out at the sixth hour of the day (after sunrise), and he took Rebekah and her nurse Deborah and sat them on the camels. So that he would not be alone with the maiden at night, the way was miraculously shortened for him, and he arrived at Hebron after three hours, at the time of the afternoon minhah prayer. Isaac went forth to recite this prayer, as it is said (v. 63): “And Isaac went out to meditate in the field,” and he saw the approaching camels (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, chap. 16).
On the one hand there is the official haftarah with the traditional connection between Abraham and David. We have seen that there is a less traditional connection between Rebekah and Avishag and Batsheva.
AN ALTERNATIVE HAFTARAH
But could there have been another story chosen by the rabbis, to highlight Rebekah’s good fortune by contrasting it with a passage where another woman is not so lucky? In Judges 19, there is a horrendous story of a woman who leaves her possibly abusive husband and then is brought back. On the road trip back, they are not offered hospitality and then in a story which sounds very much like the story of Lot’s daughters, she is offered to a crowd of men, raped through the night and left for dead.
I imagine one of the rabbis, after studying some linguistic parallels between the stories of Rebekah and Judges 19, saying, “I have a great idea for a haftarah, Judges 19. Look at all the connections with the story of Rebekah”. But another rabbi jumps up and says: “absolutely not! There is no way we can read such a disgusting story as a haftarah; it has to be banned; and while we’re at it, we should also ban the reading of Ezekiel 16 and Ezekiel 23. These texts are very demeaning to women.”
So, although there is some discussion about whether this text is suitable to be read aloud and translated, let’s assume that this is a text that CAN be read in tandem with our parsha. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the text read Judges 19: 1-29 with parental guidance!
The background of our parsha was the search for a suitable wife for Abraham’s son, following two horrific events: one the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the other, the aborted binding of Isaac. At the end of the reading about the Akedah we have the heralding of Rebekah, the flower from the ashes of destruction: “And Betuel gave birth to Rebekah. These eight Milcah bore to Nahor, Abraham’s brother. And his concubine, whose name was Reumah, also bore children….”. (Gen 22:23-24)
Rebekah is going to be the progenitor of the blessing; she will be the vehicle of God’s promises to Abraham. Without her there will be no dynasty! It is interesting that the rabbis describe her as a three-year-old who may have had incestual relations with her father. It is not clear to me why they do this, unless it is to demonize Laban and his family, something I’ve already written about. They want to contrast her with them, to show that she is the rose among the thorns.
THERE, BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD, GOES REBEKAH
But in our story, she has full agency, she is strong, she speaks up, she knows her mind and when asked if she wants to leave her home for an unknown place, she has no hesitations, she immediately says I’ll go אלך. Unlike Abraham, who is not given a choice, לך לך, she has agency, she chooses her fate. In order to get married she has to go with a stranger to a strange land. She chooses to meet the unknown and fate is kind to her; nothing happens on the way and she meets her loved one….and they live somewhat happily ever after.
In contrast, the concubine, the runaway wife, in Judges 19 shows agency at the beginning of the story, for she runs home to her father because presumably her marriage is an unhappy one. The Levite comes to get her, woos her in order to bring her home. But then instead of convincing her, there is an almost homo-erotic relationship between the Levite and the father of the concubine. They sit and drink and interact and the father doesn’t want them to leave. Throughout this rather long episode, the concubine is simply not there, unlike Rebekah who is running around, serving the servant and feeding the camels. The father convinces his son-in-law to stay for 3 more days. For some reason the Levite is anxious to get home and leaves towards the evening rather than early in the morning, which is when all trips begin in the bible. This anomalous choice to go on a road trip towards evening is not auspicious and puts them all in danger.
INTERTEXTUALITY BETWEEN THE STORY OF THE CONCUBINE AND REBEKAH
I believe there are enough intertextual allusions both in plot and language to see that there is a deliberate comparison being made. First of all, if Laban had succeeded in keeping Rebekah home, there is a chance she would not have gone later. There is a sense of urgency on the part of the servant to get her assent and to leave immediately. She understands this. In order to fulfil the blessing, Rebekah has to be in place to save Isaac and offer hope for the future. The Levite is also anxious to get home, but he succumbs to the entreaties of his father-in-law. In contrast, had the concubine’s father succeeded in keeping his daughter by his side, perhaps the terrible event at Gibeah would not have happened and the civil war that later broke out would have been prevented. (Although we could also argue conversely that it was the delaying tactics of the concubine’s father that lead to the Levite’s leaving so late in the day, that resulted in civil war and the almost total devastation of the tribe of Benjamin.)
There are other inner biblical allusions here, which are tantalizing: such as the ma-achelet, the cleaver, ֙ which the Levite uses to cut up the concubine into 12 pieces. This is the same instrument which Abraham planned to use at the Akedah, but was prevented from doing so in the nick of time. Had he succeeded there would be no Isaac and no marriage to Rebekah. I’ve created a chart to show some of the internal commentary between the two texts.
|1) No agency for the concubine, agency for Rebecca (I will go).
2) Anarchy in Judges vs. hope for future in Genesis.
3) Concubine runs away from husband vs. Rebecca runs toward husband and sees him.
4) Rebecca falls off her camel, Concubine is on the donkey.
5) Rebecca offers hospitality to the servant; the Levite says he has his own provisions.
6) No place to stay in Judges vs. hospitality in Genesis.
7) use of the verb “send”; Rebecca sent off with blessing va-ye-shalchu et rivka ahotam; vs. concubine who is sent off at dawn after the rape va-ye-shalchu-ha ka’a lot ha-shachar and then her body is sent to all the borders of Israel va-ye-shalche-ha be-kol gevul yisrael.
8) Rebecca is brought into Tent and is loved; Concubine is brought to house and chopped up
9) Rebecca is grandmother to the twelve tribes; the body of the concubine is chopped into 12 cuts of meat and her body parts of sent to the 12 tribes).
|1) Crossing borders to find a woman.
2) Both leave father’s home
3) Mention of virgin women
4) A father or brother who wants to delay the leaving of his daughter/sister to keep his daughter/sister at home.
5) hospitality –root word ln
6) (bruised) straw and feed for animals
7) The trip back home (with or without wife)
8) The repetition of the expression lifting up eyes and seeing
9) time of day (liminal)
10) They both fall (camel, threshold of house)
11) Both are married to “masters” adon
One of the major themes is the inverse of hospitality. There is hospitality (or lack of it) on about four levels. First, Rebekah with her non-stop running around and bringing water to the camels and then her brother Laban who invites a stranger into their home and gives him lavish hospitality (linah) including more water and straw and feed (teven ve-mispoh). This phrase, only appears in Judges 19 and our parsha. Second, hospitality is a family trait, one which was given first by Abraham and Sarah to the angels and later by Lot (and one which was unpopular in Sodom according to the midrashim). Third, a major social commentary is being made when the Levite finds himself on the street in an Israelite town with no one to give him a place to stay (linah). This society is corrupt. Fourth, only an old man (who perhaps represents an earlier kinder society) comes out to give them a place and shows them some kindness. However, this old man is corrupt in his willingness to give his virgin daughter and the guest’s concubine to the town to save the necks of his guest (an inversion of hospitality).
On a larger scale, the story of Rebekah is a story of beginnings. She is the light at the end of a terrible history, she will light the way into the future and bring hope to the dying family of Abraham and Sarah. She is full of confidence. In contrast, the Concubine story, is a descent into darkness, the lights will go out after this horrendous story and there will be civil war following it. It will take a long time until a new, light, that of David’s, will bring hope to the nation, before the final flickering of the galut.
I imagine that Rebekah might have a sense of appreciation that it is she who could have been taken advantage of, on a long road trip, with a stranger, who was impatient to carry her off to an unknown destiny. Fortunately, for her, it was in the cards that she would be the grandmother of the 12 tribes and not an unfortunate victim of a rape. She more than anyone else should count her blessings and say “there, but for the grace of God, go I!”