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Toledot: Like Father, Like… Daughter-in-Law

In Gen 25:22, Rebekah is having a difficult pregnancy, and she exclaims, למה זה אנוכי lama zeh anokhi – a difficult phrase that can literally be translated as “why is this I?”  It seems to mean something like, “What’s the point of me living if I must suffer like this?”  As she is about to find out, she’s pregnant with twins, and they are struggling in her womb.

In the context of the story lama zeh anokhi – what’s the point? – is just a complaint about how difficult the pregnancy is for her physically.  But I’m going to come back and answer that question from a completely different direction, starting from our comparison last week of Abraham to King David because they are both described as “old, getting along in years.”  Jewish tradition itself makes that comparison, since the haftarah that goes with last week’s Torah reading is from the book of Kings, starting with the very verse that talks about David aging.

This week, however, I want to make a different comparison, not Abraham and David, but Abraham and Rebekah.  If not precisely the hero of this week’s reading, she is certainly one of the main characters.

Remember that when Abraham’s servant shows up and asks for Rebekah as Isaac’s wife, her brother Laban says, “Take her and go!” (Gen 24:51).  (Interestingly, this is just how Pharaoh dismissed Abram in Gen 12:19 when he discovered that Sarai was Abram’s wife.)  It’s true that the family subsequently balks at sending her off to the wild, wild west.  But when they ask Rebekah herself, she too essentially says “Take me and go!”

That is the first comparison between Abraham and Rebekah.  Out of the blue, a stranger shows up and invites her to go west to a new land, just as YHWH did to Abram at the beginning of Genesis 12, and she immediately agrees.  Like Abraham again, she not only leaves for Canaan but she leaves her family and her father’s house behind.

Another comparison with Abraham comes at the end of Genesis 27.  After the twins grow up, Rebekah says to Isaac, “I’m fed up with my life on account of these Hittite women” (Gen 27:46) that your son Esau has married (see Gen 26:34).  “I don’t want Jacob marrying one of them.”

Abraham. too, did not want his son Isaac to marry a local girl.  That is why he sent his servant back to Aram, to fetch a woman who turned out to be Rebekah.  Now she and Isaac agree to send Jacob back to the old homestead in Aram.  Just as Isaac got a wife from back home, so too will Jacob.  What Rebekah says when she fears (or at least pretends to fear) that Jacob too will marry a Hittite woman is essentially the same thing she said when the twins were struggling in her womb:  למה לי חיים lama li ḥayyim ‘why do I have life’?  What’s the point?

The bulk of Genesis 27 is another comparison with Abraham – Rebekah abandons her son.  I’m not talking this time about Jacob, but about Esau, who was Rebekah’s son just as much as Jacob.  Yet she cheats him out of the blessing his father (her husband) Isaac intended for him, which goes to Jacob instead.  In the big picture, the continuation of the Abraham story will go through Jacob (as we know it “must”).  In the moment, she leaves her other son, Esau, high and dry.

Just as Abraham was willing to abandon his older son Ishmael by making sure that his line would continue through his younger son Isaac, Rebekah abandons her older son Esau by having him cheated of the birthright.  Just as Abraham will essentially end his relationship with his younger son – he and Isaac never interact once Abraham has raised the knife to slaughter him – so Rebekah will essentially end her relationship with her younger son by sending him back to Mesopotamia.

When he returns 20 years later, he will have not merely one wife but two pairs of wives.  That will enable the story to continue its tale of rivalry between two women and bring it to a new level.  Zilpah and Bilhah do not seem to feel the same antagonism that Leah and Rachel do, but Leah and Rachel are simultaneously rival wives and – like Isaac and Ishmael, like Jacob and Esau – rival siblings.

That unites the two themes that have powered our story since Genesis 16.  Isaac’s failure to recognize Jacob (see Gen 27:23) will be the literary theme of the rest of the book.  Jacob’s failure to recognize Leah will be the point from which the plot snowballs until the rival sons of Jacob are brought down to Egypt, where their descendants, the Israelites, will eventually be enslaved.

In Genesis 15, during the covenant between the pieces, Abram was warned by God that his descendants would be enslaved in a land that is not their own.  So the answer to Rebekah’s question lama zeh anokhi … lama li ḥayyim what’s the point of my life? is that the dysfunction in our ancestral Jewish family must continue in a way that will lead the family down to Egypt.

There’s no evident psychological or emotional motivation for Rebekah to betray her son Esau as she does.  It seems that the writer who is telling the story of this family (capitalize the W if you prefer) has designed an engine to power his plot that will continue the story to its inevitable sequel: first the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, then the exodus from Egypt, and then the meeting with God at Mount Sinai.

We’ll take another look at that storyline and the engine that drives it next week.

About the Author
Michael Carasik has a Ph.D. in Bible and the Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the creator of the Commentators’ Bible and has been a congregational Torah reader, blogger, and podcaster about the Bible. You can read a longer version of this essay at torahtalk.substack.com and follow Michael's close reading of Genesis 1 at michaelcarasik.substack.com.
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