Israel Drazin

What we don’t know about Rebekah, Isaac’s wife

As with all of the prior men and women mentioned in the Bible, including Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, patriarchs whom we might expect that the Torah would give us plenty of information about them, there is nothing about Isaac’s wife Rebekah that is crystal clear. Every fact and every event is obscure. The obscurities prompt us to think about their lives and develop our own ideas about them. This is a good learning technique; it forces the reader to think about the subject. The following are some examples. 

  • Abraham told his servant to go to his country, to his kindred and take a wife from there for Isaac. He gave no instructions concerning her age, education, religion, looks, intelligence, or anything else. Was it reasonable for Abraham to rely on his servant’s choice of a wife for his son Isaac? Shouldn’t he have given his servant more instructions?
  • The servant came to the area and waited by a well. He developed a test. When the women come to water their flock, he will select a woman and say please give me water to drink. If she replies that she will do so and also give my camels water, I will know that she may be the wife for Isaac. He then confirmed the test by asking who her parents were and if there was room for him and his camels at her home. When she told her lineage and the servant realized she was related to Abraham, he knew she was fit to be Isaac’s wife. Was this act of generosity and her link to Abraham sufficient for the servant to know she was a proper wife for Isaac?
  • Why aren’t we told Rebekah’s age? We are given Isaac’s age.
  • Why is Sarah the only matriarch whose age is given?
  • The servant gave her gifts. She ran to her mother’s house to tell what happened. Why didn’t she go to her father’s house?
  • Why didn’t she go to her brother Laban who we see later was the lead figure in the negotiations about her leaving to go marry Isaac?
  • Why unlike Abraham’s wife Sarah and Jacob’s wife Rachael, but like Jacob’s wife Leah, Jacob’s mother Rebekah did not suffer from barrenness for many years? Her husband prayed to God and God immediately conceived. Was it because they suffered much from their husband’s treatment of them and God did not want to inflict more pain? Or was God not involved and this is only a coincidence?
  • Why didn’t Abraham entreat God for Sarah and Jacob for Rachael?
  • Why of the three patriarchs is the birth of Jacob (and his twin Esau) the only births foretold in a prophecy?
  • Genesis 25:22 states that Rebekah “went to inquire of the Lord” when the twins in her body struggled within her. Who did she make the inquiry of?
  • Verse 23 states that the Lord said to her there are two nations in your womb “and the elder shall serve the younger.” This prophecy did not occur. Why?
  • The failure of the prophecy to occur is especially strange because the Bible states that the Lord gave the prophetic reply. Maimonides explains in his Guide of the Perplexed book 2 chapter 48 that whenever the Torah states that God did or said something it should be understood that God did not do it. The speech (thinking) and act were natural occurrences. The Torah ascribes them to God because God was the ultimate cause because God created the laws of nature. Why does the Bible say that God did the act?
  • Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, and Gersonides were also convinced that prophecy is not a divine communication but the result of the use of a higher than average intelligence. Ibn Ezra stated this in his long commentary to Exodus 3:15 and 20:1. Maimonides wrote: [1] “if a person, perfect in his intellectual and moral faculties, and also perfect, as far as possible, in his imaginative faculty, prepares himself in the manner which will be described, he must become a prophet; for prophecy is a natural faculty of man.”[2] Joseph ibn Kaspi (1279-c.1340) states[3] that Ibn Ezra and Maimonides accepted this doctrine and did not believe that the prophets were speaking of anything other than events in the near future.  It is for this reason, ibn Kaspi wrote, although not only so, that Ibn Ezra and Maimonides agree that there is no rational basis for interpreting the Hebrew Bible to refer to the messiahship of Mohammed[4] or Jesus.[5] Gersonides states[6] that the cause of prophecy is the Active Intellect[7] which only has knowledge of earthly matters in a general manner. It is the recipients who are able, depending on their intellectual ability to translate and apply the general information to specific situations. If we accept their view, who did Rebekah speak to and who answered her?
  • Why does the Torah have Abraham’s servant tell Rebekah’s family the story of his mission in Genesis 24:34-48, 15 seemingly unnecessary verses, a story the Torah already described in detail? There are small differences in the two tellings. What are they? Are they significant? What do they teach us?
  • Why is Rebekah’s family’s immediate reaction to the servant’s story is “take her and go,” but tried to delay him from returning to Abraham the following day and only then asked Rebekah if she was willing to go?
  • Why did Rebekah agree to marry Isaac, a man she did not know, whom she did not see, who may have been ugly, much older than her, and not bright?
  • Rebekah rode on a camel toward her future husband Isaac. When she saw him approaching, although she did not know who he was, she alighted from the camel. Why?
  • When the servant told her that the man approaching was Isaac, she “took her veil and covered herself.” Why?
  • Why does Jewish tradition identify Abraham’s servant as Eliezer when the Torah does not identify him?
  • Scripture states in 24:67 that Isaac “took Rebekah and she became his wife.” Doesn’t “took her” mean sexual intercourse? Was the ancient practice that this was how marriages took place, no ceremony, no recital of words, and no witnesses?[8]
  • Verse 67 ends by saying “And Isaac was comforted for his mother.” What does this mean? Why did Isaac need comfort? How did Rebekah give him comfort?
  • Did Rebekah act improperly when she advised Jacob to steal her husband’s blessing that her husband wanted to give to Esau? Is it significant that she not only gave him advice but gave him clothing and cooked food to fool her husband?
  • Rebekah promised Jacob when he left home that she would notify him when there is no danger from Esau and he can return home. We see that when Jacob did return twenty years later, Esau greeted him in a friendly fashion. Why didn’t Rebekah notify Jacob to come home during the twenty years?
  • Why is there no indication in the Torah when Rebekah died and her burial as there is for Sarah and Rachel?

[1] In his Mishneh Torah, Yesodei Hatorah 7:1-5 and his Guide of the Perplexed 2:32.

[2] M. Friedlander translation, page 220.  See also Guide of the Perplexed 2:36-48, and A. J. Reines, Maimonides and Abrabanel on Prophecy, Hebrew Union College Press, 1970.

[3] In the Introduction to his Torah commentary.

[4] Maimonides Epistles, ed. M D. Rabinowitz, Jerusalem, Mossad HaRav Kook, 1959, p. 144.

[5] Ibn Ezra’s introduction to the Torah.

[6] See S. Feldman, Gersonides, The Wars of the Lord, book two, summarized on pages 267 and 268.

[7] The medieval notion of a force surrounding the earth.

[8] It may surprise readers to learn that this was the ancient practice. It was only more than a thousand years after Isaac’s death that the rabbis felt that obtaining a wife with intercourse was not proper and developed the now current marriage procedure that a husband acquires a wife by giving her money or something of value such as a ring or acquiring a wife with a contract.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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