Isaac, the traumatized almost blind, 2 almost
autistic patriarch is invisible in many ways. What desperate thoughts
can we imagine racing through Isaac’s mind and heart as his father led
him to the mountain, with dry wood, a flint, a knife, a rope, and a
whetstone, but no lamb for the burnt offering? 3 When he finally posed
the excruciating question to his father he received the non-committal,
non-reassuring response that God would provide. How did Isaac react to
this non-response? Did this allay his fears, reassure him? If not ‘can
you imagine their climb up the mountain?’ 4 Which of the instruments of
death did Isaac carry? ‘Why did Isaac not seize his father’s hands and
cry out for his life? Because he was blessed in obedience.’ or
was ‘he too frightened’? 5 Did he scream as his father took the knife
against his neck? Isaac will forever be known as the `rescued
sacrifice’. 6 He will always be the son of Abraham and the father of
Jacob and Esau. As the son of Abraham he can only be the successor, the
only successor to the man destined to become a great nation. His
brother, and his two sons each have twelve children to follow on after
them. He even attempted to bless the wrong son. And he never explicitly
receives Abraham’s blessing.
Rebekah, perhaps the least recognized of all the Matriarchs is in fact the most powerful and significant of the matriarchs. She is the recipient of Abraham’s blessing rather than her husband and she is told by God that the promised blessing from Abraham will go to her younger child Jacob. In Biblical terms it is virtually unheard of for a woman to be granted the blessing to carry forward and the mission to choose the next recipient. While Abraham is given the blessing several times by God, Isaac is never explicitly given his father’s blessing. Rebekah receives the explicit blessing. She also has an encounter with God about the choice of the successor child. That mission conflicts with her role as a mother and as a wife. Her mission is her destiny but as a result she must deceive her husband the Patriarch Isaac and her son Esau. She is forced into this conflictual role by God.
Isaac does not independently seek a wife (like his father or his sons), he accepts the wife who comes with his father’s servant. Abraham arranged this marriage for his son via having Eliezer, his servant, (the same servant who went with Isaac to the akeda) dispatched to find a wife for Isaac in Abraham’s homeland and with his family. Eliezer is bound by an oath from Abraham to bring Isaac a wife and not to let Isaac marry a Canaanite. Isaac is no longer a child, why the need for an intermediary - why Eliezer? Or was Eliezer Isaac’s protector? It is heavily implied that the akeda left its traumatic imprint so deeply on Isaac, that he is severely disabled. He is unable to initiate the mission of finding a wife even under the supervision of Eliezer. His judgment is impaired, he does not have the ability to actively and decisively act in a campaign as critical as choosing a mate. As we shall see he lives in a twilight of uncertainty, an inability to be assertive - all byproducts of his trauma. Eliezer is fully aware of Isaac’s limited functioning and accepted the responsibility of taking care of his master’s son. When Eliezer responds what if the woman chooses not to follow me and marry Isaac, shall I take Isaac there to find someone else? No, do not take Isaac there. This is repeated twice (Gen. 24:6,8). Why is Abraham so fearful of sending Isaac to Abraham’s kindred at Aram-naharaim? 7 In the first verse the word Abraham uses is ‘hishamer’, a word meaning it is a danger to my son. 8 In the second verse ‘only bring not my son there again’. 9 It is clear, Abraham did not trust Isaac to choose or even being involved in the process. Eliezer succeeded and Isaac married Abraham’s niece Rebekah, chosen by his father’s servant.
What is known of Rebekah prior to her meeting with Isaac? When Eliezer first sees her, we are told by the narrator that she, Rebekah, is the daughter of ‘Betuel, son of Milkah, wife of Nahor, brother of Abraham’ (24:15). She is a very pretty young girl and a virgin (24:16). The word young girl in Hebrew in this text is spelt “na’ar’”. The word “na’ar” translates as young man. Tradition reads it as “na’ar’ah” (as if the ‘ah’ were in the text) which means young girl, but the last ‘h’ is not included in the text. The ‘a’ is a vowel and vowels are not included in the Torah text. Eliezer asks her if he can drink, she gives him her pitcher. She then draws water from the well (‘down’ the hill (24:16)) to fill her pitcher for all ten camels until they had done drinking (24:22). Camels coming from a long trip drink an enormous amount of water. The woman shows significant energy and aggressiveness.
He asks her who are you? She responds, ‘I am the daughter of Betuel, son of Milkah, wife of Nahor’. She does not mention her own name nor her mother’s name (24:24). The young girl, “na’ar” (24:28), (again without the ‘ah’ at the end), goes home to tell her family whom she has met. She tells her brother Laban, and he goes out to meet Eliezer. Laban then becomes the spokesman for the family. When Eliezer repeats how he met Rebekah he repeats that she said she was the daughter of Betuel, son of Milkah, wife of Nahor’. In verses 55 they ask for a few days for the “na’ar” (again no ‘ah’) Rebekah before she will go. In verse 57 they call the “na’ar” Rebekah to ask her view of the impending marriage. Both “na’ar”’s are without the ‘ah’.
Thus Rebekah is referred to four times, by a word which in Hebrew means young man. (Despite the Jewish tradition to read it as young woman.) The calling of Rebekah four times “na’ar”, is not a scribal error. It may be argued that we are being told that Rebekah has a tendency towards a male aggressive personality. 10
This overlap of a female with an aggressive personality may have been required in this marriage, given her husband’s trauma and passiveness. Rebekah is then referred to as the daughter of Betuel, son of Milkah, wife of Nahor’ three times, which is a correct definition of her ancestry, her father, her grandmother and grandfather are mentioned. However her mother’s name is never mentioned. Her mother is not of Abraham’s family, but both of her grandparents are. Her grandfather is Abraham’s brother Nahor and her grandmother is Abraham’s brother Haran’s daughter (as well as the wife of Nahor). Her father Betuel is thus the son of Abraham’s brother and the son of Abraham’s niece. Most impressive and extraordinary is the fact that Rebekah was consulted not ordered if she wished to marry Isaac. Historically and sociologically women in that society were rarely asked their opinion, especially about betrothal. It is most extraordinary to be told that her wishes were asked and respected.
Rebekah consents to the marriage and returns with Eliezer. She is a powerful independent woman. She had evidently already shared the business responsibility with her brother Laban, taking care of the sheep at the well.
When Isaac sees Rebekah he is ‘out walking in the field towards evening’ (Gen. 24:63) in the gray twilight caught between day and night. He lives in a twilight zone of uncertainty; an inability to be assertive.
Darkness and blindness represent his life. How can one not be blinded after having witnessed near death when seeing one’s father approaching his neck with a knife. He is the son whose father, Abraham -our father- agreed to sacrifice him. He is the survived sacrifice. As a result of his trauma, his father receives the highest blessing. “I will shower blessings on you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore.” (22:17). Isaac is the descendant referred to who moments before was bound as if he were a ram with his father holding a knife over his throat. Isaac suffers yet Abraham receives the blessing for agreeing to sacrifice Isaac. Recovery from such a monumental trauma is in fact beyond human comprehension. Does Abraham, though the prince of faith, not also suffers immeasurably from this akeda of his son whom he had prayed for decades?
Isaac ‘brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her and thus found comfort after his mother’s death’ (24:67). His mother protected him against his older brother Ishmael (whether he needed it or not); his mother who undoubtedly would have protected him against his father and prevented the akeda had she had the foreknowledge; the mother who died upon hearing of the attempted akeda.
Why does Isaac the rich heir, not have his own tent? He marries a mother surrogate, one to take care of him. It is indicative that we heard of Rebekah’s birth immediately after the akeda and immediately before Sarah’s death (Gen. 22:23). Once Isaac’s blessing is confirmed after the akeda his mother’s job is done; his protection now will be at the hands of his wife. Can Rebekah ever compete successfully with Sarah for Isaac’s affection? He was doubly traumatized, by the akeda and his mother’s sudden death. Isaac needed his mother’s loving protection more than ever before and she died.
It is interesting to note that Abraham never explicitly gives Isaac’s his blessing, Isaac is never commanded to ‘go’ (lech) and he never leaves the land. He never sees clearly, never laughs (despite his name) does not find a wife and does not find the ‘right’ son to bless. Isaac’s role is to be Abraham’s son. He is the weak son of a strong father and the weak father of two strong twin sons. To be a strong father or strong husband is too demanding for his passive status. He receives the blessing from God not for himself but ‘for the sake of Abraham’ (Gen. 26:24). When Rebekah arrives Isaac, coming from Be’er Lahai Ro’i - the well of seeing - sees the camel but not Rebekah. Rebekah, however sees Isaac (Gen. 24:63-64) 11 How does Rebekah react? She came to marry her rich uncle, she was far removed from her family of origin, where she was considered an independent woman. However immediately upon seeing her husband she realizes he is damaged. But even so she could not have understood the complex family relations she had entered. The text tells us of no ceremony and gives us no exchange of words that they spoke to each other. Rebekah and Isaac do not appear to engage in communication. And this is a prelude to the tragic lack of communication between her, Isaac and their twin children.
Isaac is the least well defined of the three Patriarchs. His difficulty in defining himself is clearly the result of the akeda. Both of his parents had strong personalities as we have seen. His wife, Rebekah, has a strong personality as has been intimated and as we shall see. He is certainly not modeled after his father who was able to love both Ishmael Isaac. Isaac as we shall see loves Esau who embodies what he cannot be.
Was the akeda a closely guarded family secret - to be safeguarded but never disclosed? Did Rebekah ever hear of the traumatic event of the akeda from Isaac or anyone else? Was she required to deal with the painful results without knowledge? Perhaps the inarticulate Isaac tells her in a dream.
“I never did remember much about the journey to Mount Moriah. Whenever Rebekah, my beloved wife, asked me about it I told her, truly I do not remember much. I love Rebekah very much because she continues to comfort me. For almost twenty years she has spread her branches over me, fulfilling my thirst for love. But we want a child to fulfill the blessing. I pray to God for my beloved barren wife but God withheld her bloom yet another year.
One such night, while Rebekah and I were sleeping side by side I dreamed for the first time of the sacrifice that had taken place almost thirty years before. But this dream was even more real than the actual incident, perhaps because confusion had saved me from the fear. And now all the terror I did not notice was with me. A faceless man chained me to a great rock and held a knife against my neck. I saw a long hairy arm, strong and taut. I felt the blade poised to strike me down when the sun emerged from behind a cloud blinding me and we heard the voice of an angel saying `Avraham, Avraham.
At the same time we heard the frantic sounds of a white ram with pure white skin and deep purple horns, the color of blood. The horns had become entangled in the thorns of a nearby gnarled bush. It was then that I recognized the fierce silent man. It was my father Abraham. Abraham put down the blade and pulled the ram free from the thorns. And as my father brought it back I saw how it struggled in his hands. Then when the ram was pressed to the rock, I watched as my father pulled back the white throat, white as snow and drew the blade. I saw especially how thin and white was the neck and how cleanly the blade cut through. At last my father put down the blade and unbound me and we embraced.
I woke up and told my dream to Rebekah.
She then told me of her dream.
In desperation I set out to Mount Moriah I ascended on the path that my father-in-law Abraham had trod with my beloved Yitzchak. As I strained to climb higher I began tiring holding on to the gnarled and twisted mountain bush Then I arrived at the very rock where, years before Yitzchak had been bound and a ram sacrificed in his place. The rock was enormous in size and it radiated a timeless God-imbued quality. I reached to touch it and lost my balance entirely, falling until I lay stretched out, breathless, upon it. I felt myself tied and bound, one knot upon another, and suddenly I saw Abraham’s blade. I screamed in fear. I looked up and saw a rainbow and over the rainbow the likeness of a man clothed in white linen, girded with gold and Tarshish and legs like burnished copper. I heard his voice called `Rivka, Rivka’ and I became calm.
And then I conceived.
Nine months later Rebekah’s face illuminated the sky and Yitzchak rushed up the mountain. Rebekah was on the sacrificial rock. Rebekah went into labor. The full moon came out from a cloud. Rebekah gave birth to two sons. The first was hairy and red. Then the second came forth with his hand on his brother’s heel. The first, whom we would call Esau was born with an umbilical cord that was dark purple, the color of blood. The second son whom we would call Jacob had a cord that was soft and white as snow. It was this perfectly white cord that Isaac found most intriguing for reasons he could not comprehend. And he sensed a strange relief as he unsheathed a knife and drew the blade to sever this cord which was the last link between what might have been and what will be. 12
ESAU AND JACOB (‘Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive’. 13 )
For the first twenty years of her marriage Rebekah was barren. Her childbearing years were coming to a close. Did she discuss the issue with her husband? Isaac prays for her although she never complained nor ever asked him to intervene. Did Isaac expect that his wife could wait, like his mother who was ninety years of age before she conceived or like his father who was one hundred years of age. 14 Does Isaac perceive Rebekah to be like his mother Sarah? They lie in Sarah’s tent. Would Rebekah choose to be like Sarah who suffered and died as a result of the attempted sacrifice. Was Rebekah aware of Isaac praying? Would it be surprising that the traumatized Isaac would be impotent? Is he not impotent in many ways as a result of the dramatic akeda? 15 Did Rebekah know of Isaac’s trauma, of his near death at the hands of his father and if so when? What we do know is that Rebekah did not follow Sarah’s model of Hagar’s surrogacy. What does she know of Hagar and Ishmael? Did she meet them? Is that another family secret? Perhaps she knew of Sarah’s disappointment, perhaps Rebekah personality (Majestic - Type A) would preclude the idea of sharing parenting and of surrogacy.
Suddenly Rebekah becomes pregnant. It was a difficult pregnancy. She seeks after God for an explanation of her excessive suffering. Does she consult her husband Isaac? We are not told of any communication between them. She asks in Hebrew ‘lamah zeh anochi’ ‘Why me?’ or ‘Who am I?’ or ‘perhaps ‘Why am I?’ 16 This is a surprising question in view of the assumed happiness of finally conceiving after twenty years of barrenness. This question emanates from an Adam One personality - one who needs control of her life. It is not the query of one who accepts the world, its opportunities and its problems.
Rebekah is informed by God that ‘two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body. One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger (Gen. 25:23). The younger (Jacob or the younger nation) will subdue the older twin (Esau or the older nation). This is a prediction of two forms of nations and personalities; the majestic-materialistic type and the faith-spiritual type. As noted by Rabbi Soloveitchik both are needed in the world to ensure survival and progress. It is not surprising that one - the man of faith - is considered superior in the Bible. They are comparable to Abraham’s two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, the Majestic son being the elder and the younger, the Man of Faith.
It is not explicitly stated whether Rebekah shared this revelation with her husband Isaac, however from the remainder of the story it is apparent that she did not.
Rebekah’s position as a matriarch is different than all the other matriarchs. She was singled out first to receive the blessing and second given the mission, to choose the successor. Her husband was the traumatized patriarch who in fact never received the blessing himself. Rebekah is informed that the promised blessing from Abraham will be transmitted to the younger child Jacob. While Abraham is given the blessing several times by God, Isaac is never explicitly given his father’s blessing. He has no inner personality. Rebekah receives the explicit blessing (by her own family) to have descendants by the ‘thousands and tens of thousands . . . to gain possession of the gates of their enemies’ (24:60). That is a repetition of the blessing given by God to Abraham at the end of the akeda. ‘Your descendants will gain possession of the gates of their enemies’ (22:17). Thus Rebekah the “na’ar” gets the blessing and the mission to carry it on, not Isaac.
The children were fraternal twins 17 and we quickly learn that Esau appears to have inherited his mother’s genes whereas Jacob tends to be like his father. Isaac, the passive traumatized Patriarch (who literally followed in his father’s footsteps) prefers his aggressive outgoing son Esau, the son he was unable to be. But Rebekah does not want a born aggressive son, but one she can mold into her more specific personality. Hence she favors Jacob assuming she will be able to mold him tabula rasa into ‘HER’ image of a son. Jacob stays at home, in Sarah’s tent; he is his mother Rebekah’s favorite. He would be different than his father, blinded from his akeda. He learns from her to deal with the world by means of guile and manipulation. She over-protects her weaker child (as Sarah over protected Isaac).
Esau, the first of the twins was born impressively mature and fully developed with a red hairy body - hence they called him Esau (from se’ar -hairy). His body was so distinguished that ‘they’ - Rebekah and Isaac- called him Esau. The second born was called by him - presumably Isaac - ‘Ya’acov’ - Jacob because Isaac noticed that the younger child held onto his older brother’s heel (from akev - heel), struggling to be the first born. 18 Jacob, we are told is smooth skinned (27:11), less developed than his brother. He is the weaker of the two children and perhaps for that reason, among others, his mother protects and loves him. We are also told he was ‘Tam’, which means in Hebrew both ‘complete’ or ‘simple’ or perhaps ‘mild’. Jacob is actively attempting to supplant his brother. He is smooth skinned and perhaps slippery like one attempting to slip past his brother. Dr. Alfred Adler proposed that twins are often forced to form strikingly different personalities in order to differentiate and to establish different identities. 19
Did Rebekah believe that Esau was the cause of her difficult birth? Perhaps she believed that it was the stronger more robust and developed child who kicked in the womb causing her pain. Jacob was a more passive child, easier to handle and nurse. Both parents realized the stark contrast between the children at birth. Did Esau’s more developed body make it difficult for Rebekah to bond with him, while at the same time making it easier for Isaac to bond with him? Did Esau suffer a fate similar to Ishmael, the son rejected by Sarah but not by Abraham? Did Jacob appear to bear a resemblance to Isaac to her, the near sacrificed son? Did Esau remind Isaac of Ishmael, the non traumatized son, the older brother exiled for incomprehensible reasons (perhaps to both Ishmael and Isaac). Esau was rejected by his mother, while Ishmael was rejected by his step-mother. Rebekah also believed staunchly in her vision which gave her the mission to choose the son who was entitled to get the blessing.
As Esau grew into an outdoors man - a skilled hunter, not unlike his Uncle Ishmael, he was the embodiment of a masculine man - one who goes out to dominate nature, to be in control. Esau was born to be an Adam One. Jacob was a ‘mild man of the tents’, born with an Adam Two personality, however by grasping on to his brother’s heel he invested much of his life striving to be an Adam One like his brother. Esau, on the other hand, an Adam One personality - a Majestic Man - was content to be as he was created.
Isaac, the passive patriarch thus gravitates naturally toward Esau and openly displays his preference for him. He finds his aggressive masculine value system attractive and comforting. Isaac’s can be viewed as the embodiment of passivity, even at critical moments, when his Father Abraham was about to sacrifice him. He recognized that Esau’s masculine personality and preferred a value system different from his own. Esau is a man’s man. How can one imagine life for Esau, the outgoing aggressive personality growing up with a quasi-autistic father? Esau may have been a highly active, in all likelihood a ‘troublemaker’ as a child, but somehow restrained when with his father. How did Isaac’s demeanor affect both his children. Was he able to inspire them, to discipline them, to command their respect?
Jacob in temperament thrives on his mother’s active disposition. Did Rebekah favour Jacob for his passivity? Did Rebekah ‘adopt’ Jacob by choice and leave the ‘remainder’ for Isaac? Or conversely did Isaac ‘adopt’ Esau and leave Jacob for Rebekah? Did Esau seem like a ‘tikkun’ - to Isaac - an opportunity for a corrective experience to rewrite his own history of the passivity he had exhibited at the akeda?
We have no reason to believe that Isaac did not love Jacob, nor that Rebekah did not love Esau. Each simply preferred the one personality complementing their own. How did Esau react to his mother’s personality and her preference for Jacob? How did Jacob react to his father’s personality and his preference for Esau? The mother was shrewd, manipulative and convinced of her mission from God. Hence nothing could restrain her.
Esau, a classic parental child in a dysfunctional family protects his passive father, recognizes his father’s limitations and devotes his life to care-taking of both his physical and emotional needs. One can imagine Esau, an outdoorsman having to overcome his natural proclivities in order to tend for his father. Jacob lives in his mother’s tent; Isaac appears to no longer reside there. Esau being separated from his mother lives with his father and is more available to meet his needs. It seems plausible that Esau reminds his father of his own lost older uncle - Ishmael - of his youth.
Isaac loves fresh wild meat; Esau hunts and brings it home. Uncharacteristically he even cooks it for his father. His brother Jacob whose role is to cook for the family while Rebekah is taking care of business, prefers vegetarian dishes - not what his father needs. (One wonders what food Rebekah preferred?) One day Esau has a particularly frustrating day hunting - it is perhaps during a very hot khamsin (hot desert wind). He comes home famished and thirsty, nearly dehydrated, to the kitchen and sees Jacob cooking a red lentil dish 20 - hardly to Esau’s liking - but he is on the verge of expiration and asks - does not simply take despite his being of a physical nature- his brother for some food. Jacob, the articulate man of culture makes a trade with his more boorish brother who has called the lentil soup this red stuff. Jacob unabashedly formulates a deal. The text is clear; Jacob demanded an oath from his brother to sell him the birthright ‘First give me your birthright in exchange’ (25:31). Esau having laboured for the family sustenance in the field is taken totally surprised by this sudden negotiation. He comes home to get what is his due. Jacob takes advantage of his weakened brother. 21 Esau, oblivious to anything but his hunger and dehydration says ‘here I am at death’s door, what use is a birthright to me (25:32)? Esau ‘ate, drank, got up and went away’ (25:34), no doubt totally disgusted with his brother.
What is this birthright so coveted by Jacob? In ancient cultures and Jewish law, the eldest receives two privileges. One was a double portion of the inheritance (Deut. 21:17), primarily in property and livestock. The second had a spiritual dimension: the Priesthood. What were Jacob’s intent and motivation? Was it his brother’s material inheritance or his spiritual status or both? Esau is more physical by nature and gets his gratification more quickly. Jacob, more contemplative, had future dreams of grandeur. The narrator then tells us that ‘Esau despised his birthright’ or in another translation ‘simply did not care’ (25:34). If that were true why did not Jacob and/or Rebekah simply tell Isaac that Esau cared not for the birthright /blessing? Why did they go through the deceiving charade? Could this be a cover up by the narrator to denigrate Esau? The birthright has exactly the same value as the blessing as we shall see. When Esau realizes that Jacob has stolen the blessing he says he will kill him. Why would Esau desire the blessing but denigrate the birthright?
Jacob is presumably unaware of his mother’s divine mission, is fearful of his brother but wants to best him. Where has Jacob learned this competitive behavior? This issue will come up again when Jacob obtained his father’s blessing through stealth. Jacob had obviously been trained by his mother.
‘When Isaac had grown old’ (27:1) he called Esau and said to him ‘take your weapons, your quiver and bow; go out into the country and hunt me some game. Make me the kind of appetizing dish I like and bring it to me to eat and I shall bless you from my soul before I die’ (27:3-4). 22 Esau often hunted and cooked for his father. Isaac may have understood that Esau was in need of some spirituality and by eating together hopes he could imbue his favorite son with the spirituality he had received it from his father.
Rebekah overhears Isaac’s conversation. She convinces Jacob to deceive his father, her husband, the almost blind Patriarch, to steal the blessing from him. Jacob is fearful of engaging in deceit towards his father, but his mother allays his fears by assuming total responsibility for the theft and deception ‘On me be the curse, my son. Just listen to me’ (27:13). Does Jacob obeying his mother act similar to those who stated ‘I was just following orders’? Perhaps he pondered whether stealing a promise from God is valid. Does Isaac in his ‘spiritual blindness’ give the blessing to the ‘spiritual blind’ son?
What are Jacob and Rebekah seeking? Rebekah desperately wants to transform Jacob, the Adam Two, into an Adam One aggressive personality. Ironically she wanted him to be what Isaac admired in his son Esau and what Abraham loved in his son Ishmael. She wanted him to replicate herself. And she wants him to attain the ‘mastery’ of [his brother] as her vision implied. Rebekah may have understood that blessing would give Jacob the power of Abraham, the power of God’s chosen. But why if he is spiritual does he need a special blessing and how does one gets spirituality by stealing? Further as we will see the blessing is not exclusively one of spirituality. Did she ever pause to consider whether receiving the spiritual blessing by stealth was appropriate or even valid?
Did she feel she had been deceived forty years earlier and manipulated into this marriage. Did she ever feel rage at Abraham and Eliezer for not having been informed of Isaac’s infirmity? Did she feel she had the right to determine who would get the blessing, not her damaged husband? Did she believe that the end justifies the means? Did she indeed understand the blessing more deeply than her damaged husband? Can she therefore be seen as the spiritual protector of the family? Did she believe the firstborn blessing bestowed on Jacob would imbue him with the aggressiveness he so sorely lacked? Could she have wanted for Jacob what Isaac admired in Esau: an Adam One personality? She unquestionably manipulated her emotionally ill husband. Would Isaac realize that she misused his power? Did she realize that she risked a cut-off from her husband and from Esau? How would Isaac and Esau react to her deception? Undoubtedly a major conflict exists between her spiritual mission, her role as wife and her role as mother.
Rebekah devised a plan to ensure Jacob’s receipt of the blessing. She dressed Jacob in Esau’s clothing and in the skin of a lamb; Isaac caught the scent and uttered ‘come closer, my son, so I might feel you’ (27:22), which is precisely what Jacob feared (27:12). Did Isaac suspect his wife and younger son might attempt to deceive him? 23 When the blind Isaac asked Jacob to identify himself, Jacob responded deceitfully ‘I am Esau your first born . . . [Isaac responds] are you really Esau?’ (27:19) Did Isaac (or Rebekah) know that Jacob had already stolen the birthrite? Jacob arrived too quickly for hunting and cooking and Isaac asked ‘how did you succeed so quickly? He said ‘YHVH made things go well for me’ (27:20). Jacob blatantly lied to his father using God’s name as a witness. His mother engineered the entire plan, slaughtered and cooked the goat. It was not God. Isaac senses something amiss and utters his suspicion ‘the voice is Jacob’s voice but the arms are the arms of Esau’ (27:23). Isaac did not trust his ears when he heard the voice of Jacob nor his intuition. He could never trust himself after the deception brought on him by his father.
The blind Isaac recognized that the true blessing is to the arms of Esau and the voice of Jacob, to Adam One and Adam Two; that is the synthesis of the `Majestic Man’ and the `Man of Faith’. Jacob had become – had reinvented himself as his brother. 24 But Isaac believed that Esau was more deserving of the synthesis than Jacob. He hoped he could teach Esau to be the synthesis of both personalities.
The deception is executed, the crime pays and the theft is successful. The blessing is not addressed by name to either son, yet it is clearly meant for Esau. But the blessing intended for Esau goes to Jacob. “[T]he smell of my son is like the smell of a fertile field’ (27:27). Who smells like a ‘fertile field’, Jacob or Esau? Jacob is concerned that his father will smell him and recognize Jacob’s smell. Esau clearly meets this description. ‘May God give you dew from heaven, and the richness of the earth, abundance of grain and wine’ (27:28). Who lives under the heaven and subdued the ‘richness of the earth’ - Jacob or Esau? ‘Let people serve you and the nations bow low before you’ (27:29). Who is the hunter who subdued the ‘richness of the earth’. And who subdued other people but a hunter. And who is the hunter - Esau. And who ‘will people serve ... and nations bow low’ to. It was Rome - Edom - Esau - that subdued the world - not the Jewish people. And later it was Islam that subdued the world and not the Jewish people. The crux of the blessing is ‘be master of your brothers; let your mother’s other sons bow low before you’ (27:29). 25 This blessing is almost precisely what Rebekah had been told ‘One nation will have the mastery over the other, and the elder will serve the younger (25:23). ‘Curse be those that curse you and blessed be those that bless you (27:29). Given the history of Jacob and his family and Esau and his family one can ask who in fact received the curse and who received the blessing?
But who gets Abraham’s blessing? The blessing Abraham achieved by dint his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac had several components. ‘I . . . make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants will gain possession of the gates of their enemies, all nations on earth will bless themselves by your descendants, because you [Abraham] have obeyed my command’ (22:17). This blessing can only be interpreted as having been fulfilled if we consider together Ishmael, Esau and Jacob. It was not achieved through the line of Jacob. “Your descendants will gain possession of the gates of their enemies”. Each of the three descendants achieved triumph at different times in history, but more so by Ishmael and Esau than by Jacob. Jacob serves his father-in-law Laban for many years and in the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau, it the former who is noted as serving his brother (32:17,19; 33:14). “All nations on earth will bless themselves by your descendants” (22:18). If this is to be understood as a spiritual blessing one can then conclude that by Judaism parenting Christianity and Islam, Abraham’s spiritual descendants are in all nations of the world and represent almost half of humanity.
Esau dutifully returns with the meal he prepared at his father request. Isaac realized that ‘your brother came with guile, and has taken away your blessing’ (27:35). ‘Have you but one blessing, my father’. Esau wept. He instantaneously changed from the son who needed immediate gratification to one with a need for a future. But it was too late, his brother and his mother had stolen the blessing. It is hard not to sympathize with Esau and Isaac for the harm inflicted on them. Isaac nevertheless proceeds to bless Esau. The first part of the blessing is almost the same ‘Behold of the fatness of the earth shall you dwell and with the dew of heaven’ (27:39). Jacob received the ‘dew of heaven’ first and then the ‘fatness of the earth’, for Esau the order is reversed; Esau receives first the ‘fatness of earth’ and then ‘the dew of heaven’. Presumably Jacob is blessed first with the spirituality of heaven and then the materialism of the earth, for Esau it is the reverse. But both receive both blessings. Even the blessing Rebekah received that ‘One nation will have mastery of the other’ is only short term. Isaac blessed Esau ‘to live the life of the sword 26 but to serve his brother. But when you win your freedom, you will break his yoke from off your neck’ (27:40). Thus whatever the original plan envisioned in Rebekah’s vision, the blessing was divided; Jacob to get the spiritual blessing and Esau the material blessing. Jacob prefigured the conflict between the Jewish people and Rome, as the expulsion of Ishmael prefigured the conflict between the Jewish people and Islam..
Jacob has the dual longing to be both an Adam One and an Adam Two. He is undoubted the most complex of the three patriarchs. Abraham is clearly an Adam Two, but he still loves his Adam One son, Ishmael. He does not favor either over the other. Isaac is an Adam Two but less so than his father - he is less than his father in every aspect. Isaac is a pale imitation of his remarkable father. Isaac clearly favors Esau, his Adam One son over Jacob, his Adam Two son. Jacob not only admires his Adam One brother but needs to consolidate his personality. He strived to be the first-born, by grasping Esau’s heel as if to circumvent around him in the womb. When his brother is atypically weak, he steals his birthright. In collaboration with his mother they orchestrate the stealing of Esau’s blessing and as we have seen the blessing is an Adam One blessing. He finally if only fleetingly, achieves his life long dream - he becomes Esau while feeding his father wild game as if he had hunted and slaughtered the animal himself.
Jacob was rather easily convinced by his mother to participate in this scam. He accepts her response in advance of the deed; that she will assume responsibility for the deception. Jacob is an Adam Two, one who accepts the world, at least his mother’s world. At this point in his life he lacks the assertiveness, the ego strength of his mother, his brother or his grandfather. He does not rebel nor display any anger. Is he programmed by his mother to acquiesce? Does he also seek his father’s approbation? He feels like Esau and smells like Esau he is identifying himself as an Adam One. But he still is the voice of Jacob. He vacillates between being Adam One and Adam Two. He will need to leave home to grow into an independent human being.
Esau plots to kill Jacob for this deception and said to himself after my father dies I will kill him. It is noteworthy that respecting his father precedes his acting out on his rage. Even in his rightful anger he will not disturb his father. But Rebekah understands (Esau’s comment was an interior monologue) what a Personality A will do. She sends Jacob away, to her brother from whom he will learn guile, manipulation and deceit. She tells Jacob to stay for awhile (27:44). How long did she expect this forced separation to last? Did she really think Jacob would be back in a few days? Can she foresee that she will never see him again? Does Jacob wonder about his mother’s claim to take responsibility for the consequences of the deceit? Does he really believe that in a few days Esau will relent his killing rage?
Rebekah then deceives her husband again. Intent on both preventing the potential of sibling fratricide she had created, and her role in deceiving her husband she manipulates Isaac to send Jacob away to find a wife. Isaac tells Jacob to go find a wife, not from among the Canaanites. Then Jacob receives ‘the blessing of Abraham’ from Isaac, a blessing Isaac himself had never explicitly received from his father. Isaac realized that Jacob had deceived him and Esau cried aloud Isaac ‘was seized with a violent trembling’ (27:33). Did he criticize his son Jacob? Did he talk to his wife about her role in his deception? Did he remember his father attempting to sacrifice him? The last word we hear from Isaac is ‘Abraham’ (28:4).
Jacob having received the Adam One blessing can no longer passively wait for a wife, but must go and subdue one. Meanwhile Esau hears his father telling Jacob ‘do not choose a wife from the Canaanite women’. Despite all of the pain his parents caused him, he goes to Uncle Ishmael and marries one of his daughters, a granddaughter of Abraham. What an extraordinary loving son to his father. Perhaps that is why Rabbi Simon bar Gamaliel (of the Hillelite family) says no one ever honored his father as did Esau. 27 Esau honored his father (Ex. 20:12) while Jacob feared his father (Lev. 19:3). Once again we see one as the shadow of the other.
It is worth noting that Esau married from his grandfather Abraham family, exactly as Abraham ordered his servant to find for his son Isaac (from my land and my birthplace Gen. 24:4) while Jacob married from his mother’s family. 28 Can Esau’s actions also be seen as retaliation against his mother? Did Esau understand that Jacob could not devise this deceptive plan himself and his mother was deeply involved?
Had Rebekah shared with Isaac, her vision from God, that the blessing was to go to Jacob their relationship might have been totally different. The vision did not require a single process to accomplish the end objective. Rebekah chose the process and it was a process of aggressive manipulation, of deceiving her husband and one of her sons at the expense of the other. Abraham was still alive during the twins early childhood and he was the origin of the blessing. It was he to whom God gave the promise. It was he who sent Eliezer to his family to find a wife for Isaac. Her vision had to do with his blessing. Why did she not go to Abraham and consult with him as to how to raise the twins? He had two children, only one of whom could get the covenental (spiritual) blessing, but both received a blessing. As noted above Abraham responded to both with love, rejecting neither.
Isaac and Rebekah could have developed a strategy to teach their children the different roles each was to play. One (Esau) was the Majestic Man of physical strength and one (Jacob) was destined to be the Man of Faith. Why not go to the original Man of Faith, Abraham and discuss how to develop a strategy for both children?
The family secret held by Rebecca and withheld from Isaac helped create the animosity that developed between the siblings. Even at the latest moment when Rebekah overhears Isaac speaking to Esau about the blessing she could have told Isaac that God told her the blessing belonged to Jacob. It is plausible to conjecture that had she done so, the later conflict between Esau and Jacob over the blessing might have been avoided.
Two nineteenth century commentators have recognized the deception of Rebekah. They suggest that Isaac and Rebekah did indeed discuss the situation but disagreed on the appropriate strategy. Rabbi Meir Lebush Malbim (1809-1880) 29 and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1800-1900) 30 both suggest that Isaac wanted to separate the blessing. He felt that Jacob had the ability to lead spiritually while Esau had the ability to lead the material/ warrior world and could have formed a partnership. Rebekah disagreed. She was convinced that the blessing had to be bestowed unilaterally and Jacob was the sole choice. Esau eventually forgave Jacob for his deception, yet the use of family rivalry and enmity that he learned from his mother continued with Jacob’s own children. He then adopted his father’s original plan and divided the blessing. Jacob later gave the spiritual blessing to Judah and the material/warrior blessing to Joseph and various parts of the blessing to his other children.
Jacob went off to his Uncle Laban, the master deceiver in order to complete his education as an aggressor and manipulator. His mother most certainly knew of her brother’s predilections. She had a similar manipulative personality as we have seen. Rebekah never sees Jacob again nor is she ever mentioned again. Her death is not noted perhaps because she deceived her husband and older son. 31
THE GOD OF ABRAHAM, THE GOD OF REBEKAH AND THE GOD OF JACOB
The Talmud tells us that ‘Just as we now say the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, so we should add and the God of Job if he had not later [after his suffering] hurled charges against God’ (B.T., Baba Batra, 16a). This is remarkable for at least two reasons: Jewish tradition holds that Job was not a Jew (B.T., Baba Batra, 15b) and God had proclaimed not that Job ‘hurled charges against God’ but that 'My servant Job spoke correctly' (Job 42:7). This kind of thinking, known as Midrashim, allows the ‘unconsciousness of the text’ 32 to include ‘within itself layers of interpretations’ 33 and can be seen as ‘a creative process through which the Rabbis arrived at a new perception about the world’. 34 In Midrashim thinking ‘there is always room for another interpretation, or for more dialogue . . . If the Torah is to have any force as a text, it must always be situated in a culture of argument’. 35
The Hebrew Bible and the Siddur (Jewish Book of Liturgy) repeatedly invoke the blessing ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ Careful review of the text, in Genesis makes one wonder whether, were it not for patriarchal bias, the phrase ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Rebekah and the God of Jacob’ might not be more appropriate. The key to the importance of a Patriarch or Matriarch is his/her relationship with God. Of the personalities in the Pentateuch only Abraham (Gen. 26:24), Jacob (Is. 41:8) and Moses (Num. 12:7) are called God's servants – not Isaac. We will discuss God's relationship first with Abraham and Jacob and then review whether it is Isaac or Rebekah who has the more active relationship with God in the second generation.
GOD’S RELATIONSHIP WITH ABRAHAM
Abraham is the father of the Jewish people. In his first encounter with God, Abraham is told that he himself will be a blessing (Gen. 12:3). This is the first of several encounters between God and Abraham. In the second and third encounters, Abraham is promised the land of Canaan and multiple descendants (13:14-17; 15:5,18). The covenant of circumcision followed and then the prediction of the birth of Isaac (17:1-22). Three men/angels come, apparently to inform Sarah that, despite her being 90 years old, childless and post-menopausal, she will miraculously give birth to a child. She is not told this directly, but overhears the momentous annunciation the second time it is delivered to Abraham. In an interior monologue, she scoffs at the absurd idea. God (not the men/angels) intervenes and says to Abraham, not to Sarah, 'Why did Sarah laugh?' Sarah responds, 'I did not laugh.' Then, in their only direct interchange, God accuses Sarah of lying ‘you did laugh’ (18:9-15). Sarah thus never is the recipient of a prophetic message from God.
God then confides with Abraham and shares with him His plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham pleads on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah asking God 'Shall the Judge of the world not act justly?' (18:25). After the birth of Isaac, Sarah overcome by jealousy and anxiety for the future, orders Abraham to banish both his son Ishmael and Hagar, Ishmael's mother and Abraham’s wife. Abraham is bewildered and distressed by his senior wife who had orchestrated the marriage with Hagar that led to the birth of Ishmael. God reassures him, saying 'I will bless Ishmael' (21:13). God indeed saves Ishmael and Hagar in the desert, and speaks directly to Hagar for the second time (16:7; 21:17-19).
Abraham's final two conversations with God focus on the akeda (the sacrifice of Isaac). Abraham's faith in God is tested when he is asked to make the ultimate sacrifice, his covenantal son Isaac (22:2). Abraham unflinchingly is prepared to obey and execute the command when God at the crucial moment stops the sacrifice. God responds to Abraham's total faith and gives him the blessing: ‘All nations on the earth shall be blessed by your descendants because you obeyed My command’ (22:18).
GOD’S RELATIONSHIP WITH JACOB
Jacob is the third of the Patriarchs, one of Abraham's twin grandsons from his son Isaac. His independent life begins when he flees his parents' home after having stolen his father's blessing ‘belonging’ to his older twin brother. When, on his journey, he reaches Beth-el, Jacob has a dream in which angels go from earth to heaven and God reiterates the message He gave to Abraham about multiple descendants and the promised land (28:14-15). Jacob, over a number of years, marries Leah and Rachel and fathers 13 children. To the dismay of his uncle/father-in-law, he is about to leave Laban's home. Laban agrees that Jacob's wages for his years of work would be all the sheep and goats that were striped, spotted and speckled; then he hid them, leaving Jacob poverty stricken. God then gives Jacob the ability to breed sturdy, striped, spotted and speckled sheep and goats, thus making him rich and independent of his father-in-law (30:37-43). Jacob then leaves and God appears to Laban telling him that Jacob is under His protection (31:24).
Prior to Jacob's meeting and reconciliation with his brother Esau, he meets and struggles with a man/angel. As God had changed the name of Jacob's grandfather from Abram to Abraham and blessed him the man/angel gives Jacob the new name of Israel and blessed him (32:27-30). Jacob fought against God and men (32:29) and saw Him face to face (32:31). God then speaks directly to Jacob, and confirms his name as Israel (35:9-10). The final interchange between God and Jacob occurs in his old age, prior to his going down to Egypt to meet his long-lost son Joseph. God confirms that He will continue to protect Jacob (46:2-4). Throughout Jacob's life, God repeatedly intervenes on his behalf, confirming His commitment and ongoing relationship to him. At each event, when Jacob departs on a journey in which he risks his future, God appears to him to empower and protect him. God, however, never speaks to either of Jacob's wives, Leah or Rachel.
THE TRAUMA OF ISAAC AND THE POWER OF REBEKAH
Now, let us turn back to the generation of Isaac and Rebekah. Undoubtedly the most traumatic event in Isaac's life was his father Abraham binding him and laying him on a rock, taking a knife to his neck, on the verge of sacrificing him. Abraham shows an incredible act of faith by his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, who God had told him was his covenantal son. We cannot know the agony of Abraham, or how he reconciled this act with God's promise. But we can surmise the affect on Isaac by the later events in his life. It seems that as a consequence of the akeda, Isaac suffers a severe emotional trauma, and develops a passive dependent personality. He is thus unable to function and assume the massive responsibilities of being the second-generation chosen one.
Isaac does not independently seek a wife (like his brother or his sons), he accepts the wife who comes with his father’s servant. Abraham arranged this marriage for his son by dispatching Eliezer, his servant, (the same servant who tradition tells went with Isaac to the akeda) to find a wife for Isaac in Abraham’s homeland and from his family. Eliezer is bound by an oath from Abraham to bring Isaac a wife and not to let Isaac marry a Canaanite. Isaac is no longer a child, why the need for an intermediary - why Eliezer? Was Eliezer Isaac’s protector? It is heavily implied that the akeda left its traumatic imprint so deeply on Isaac, that he is severely disabled. He is unable to initiate the mission of finding a wife even under the supervision of Eliezer. His judgment is impaired, he does not have the ability to decisively act in a campaign as critical as choosing a mate. As we shall see he lives in a twilight of uncertainty, an inability to be assertive - all byproducts of his trauma. Eliezer is fully aware of Isaac’s limited functioning and accepted the responsibility of taking care of his master’s son. When Eliezer responds what if the woman chooses not to follow me and marry Isaac, shall I take Isaac there to find someone else? No, do not take Isaac there. This is repeated twice (Gen. 24:6,8). Why is Abraham so fearful of sending Isaac to his kindred at Aram-naharaim? In the first verse the word Abraham uses is ‘hishamer’, a word meaning it is a danger to my son. In the second verse Abraham says ‘do not bring my son there’. 36 It is clear, Abraham did not trust Isaac to choose or even be involved in the process. Abraham may also be concerned that should Isaac be seen in Aram-naharaim the potential bride and family may realize the extent to which Isaac is damaged.
What is known of Rebekah prior to her meeting with Isaac? When Eliezer first sees her at the well, we are told by the narrator that she, Rebekah, is the daughter of ‘Betuel, son of Milkah, wife of Nahor, brother of Abraham’ (24:15). ‘She is a very pretty young girl and a virgin’ (24:16). The word young girl in Hebrew in this text is spelt “na’ar”. The word “na’ar” translates as young man. Tradition reads it as “na’ar’ah” (as if the ‘ah’ were in the text) translating it as young girl. The last ‘h’ is not included in the text. The ‘a’ is a vowel and vowels are not included in the parchment Torah text. Eliezer asks her if he can drink, she gives him her pitcher. She then draws water from the well (‘down’ the hill (24:16)) to fill her pitcher for all ten camels until they had done drinking (24:22). Camels coming from a long trip drink an enormous amount of water. The woman shows significant energy and aggressiveness.
He asks her who are you? She responds, ‘I am the daughter of Betuel, son of Milkah, wife of Nahor’. She does not mention her own name nor her mother’s name (24:24). The young girl, “na’ar” (24:28), (again without the ‘ah’ at the end), goes home to tell her family whom she has met. She tells her brother Laban, and he goes out to meet Eliezer. Laban then becomes the spokesman for the family. When Eliezer repeats how he met Rebekah he repeats that she said she was ‘the daughter of Betuel, son of Milkah, wife of Nahor’ (24:47). Eliezer tells Laban that he has come at the request of Abraham, brother of Nahor and Laban’s uncle, to take Rebekah to marry Isaac, his son. In verse 24:55 they ask for a few days for the “na’ar” (again no ‘ah’) Rebekah before she will go. In verse 24:57 they call the “na’ar” Rebekah to ask her view of the impending marriage.
Thus Rebekah is referred to four times, by a word in meaning in Hebrew young man, (despite the tradition to read it as young woman.) The calling of Rebekah four times “na’ar” is clearly not a scribal error. It may be argued that we are being told that Rebekah has a tendency towards a male aggressive personality. Rabbi Dr. J.B. Soloveitchik distinguishes between aggressive majestic personalities and existential internally motivated personalities without his making gender distinctions. 37 There are several other times a women is called “na’ar” in the Torah. In the story of Dinah she is called “na’ar” three times (34:3,12,19). And in Deuteronomy chapter 22 there are several uses of “na’ar” referring to women who are adulterous or lose their virginity in inappropriate ways (22:15,16,17,20,21,23,24, 25, 26, 26, 27,28,29). In every case, including Dinah women are transformed by an act of what can be called ‘unkosher’ sexual relations whether the act is performed voluntarily or by force. Rebekah is transformed, not by an act of ‘unkosher’ sexual relations but by her ‘male’ aggressive personality.
This overlap of a female with an aggressive personality may have been required in this marriage, given Isaac’s trauma and passiveness. Rebekah is then referred to as ‘the daughter of Betuel, son of Milkah, wife of Nahor’ three times, which is a correct definition of her ancestry, her father, her grandmother and grandfather are mentioned. However her mother’s name is never mentioned. Her mother is not of Abraham’s family, but both of her grandparents are. Her grandfather is Abraham’s brother Nahor and her grandmother is Abraham’s brother Haran’s daughter (as well as the wife of Nahor). Her father Betuel is thus the son of Abraham’s brother and the son of Abraham’s niece. It would appear that Abraham feels a need to protect his damaged son by marrying him as closely as possible into his direct family.
Most impressive and extraordinary is the fact that Rebekah was consulted - not ordered – whether she wished to marry Isaac. Historically and sociologically women in that society were rarely asked their opinion, especially about betrothal. It is most extraordinary to be told that her wishes were asked and respected. Rebekah consents to the marriage and returns with Eliezer. She is a powerful independent woman. She had evidently already shared the business responsibility with her brother Laban, taking care of the sheep at the well.
When Isaac first beholds Rebekah, he is returning from Be'er Lahai Ro'i [the Well of the Seeing Life] and is out praying in the field towards evening (24:63). Despite coming from "the well of seeing life," he appears to lead his life under a cloud of dimness, in the gray twilight between day and night, an affect of the akeda. Isaac sees the camel but not Rebekah. Rebekah sees a man and asks ‘who [or what] is that man’ (24:65)? One Midrash compares what she sees to a ‘dreamer’ or his angel. 38 How much dialogue is possible between this ‘dreamer/angel’ and his powerful aggressive bride? 39 He brought her into his mother Sarah's tent, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her and thus found comfort after his mother’s death (24:67). Why does Isaac, the rich heir, insist on remaining in his mother's tent, instead of setting up a tent of his own? After the akeda, Abraham went back to Beersheba with his servants where he then dwelt (22:19) but Isaac apparently went to Hebron where Sarah dwelt, and where she died (23:2). When did Sarah and Abraham decide to live separately? Was this the result of a conflict after the expulsion of Ishmael? (Abraham continued his relationship with Ishmael and in fact requested him to accompany them to the akeda. 40 Or did this have something to do with the akeda? A Midrash tells us that Abraham considering telling Sarah. ‘Shall I tell Sarah? Women tend to think lightly of God’s commandments. If I do not tell her and simply take off with him - afterward, when she does not see him, she would strangle herself’. 41 Jewish tradition tells that Satan told Sarah of Abraham’s intent and she consequently died. 42
This suggests that Isaac remained in his traumatized state, dependent on his mother who overprotected him against his older brother Ishmael (whether he needed it or not), and who undoubtedly would have protected him against his father and prevented the akeda had she known about it. After her death, Isaac marries a mother surrogate, one who will protect him. It is not coincidental that we hear of Rebekah's birth immediately after the akeda and immediately before Sarah’s death (22:23). Can Rebekah ever compete successfully with Sarah for Isaac’s love? He was doubly traumatized, by the akeda and his mother’s sudden death. Isaac needed his mother’s loving protection more than ever before and she died.
How does Rebekah react to discovering that Isaac, her husband, is damaged? She came from a home where she was considered an independent woman, in order to marry her rich cousin. Is she shocked, when she learns the truth too late? As an independent woman, far removed from her family, she realizes that Isaac's future now will be in her hands.
We are told that ‘Isaac prayed to God on behalf of his wife, for she was barren. God heard his prayer and his wife Rebekah conceived’ (25:21). One generation before Rebekah, Sarah's barrenness was noted five times (11:30; 15:2; 16:1; 18:11; 21:1). She anguished over it, until she finally gave her maidservant Hagar to Abraham to ‘have children through her’ (16:2). One generation after Rebekah, Rachel was barren for many years, and said to Jacob 'Give me children or I shall die’ (30:1). She gave her maidservant Bilhah to her husband, so that ‘through her, then I too shall have children’ (30:3). After Leah had four sons she was for a time barren and gave her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob to produce more heirs. Thus three of the four Matriarchs anguished over their barrenness. With Rebekah, there is simply a single verse that states she was barren, with nothing on any anguish she may have suffered because of it. She did not resort to using a maidservant as a surrogate. Neither, it seems, did she speak to Isaac about the problem. She had faith and chose to wait for God. Isaac’s prayer (which she apparently was unaware of) was effective and she conceived.
Her pregnancy was difficult and she inquired of God for an explanation of her excessive suffering. Does she consult her husband Isaac? We are not told of any communication between them. She asks in Hebrew ‘lamah zeh anochi’ ‘Why me?’ or ‘Who am I?’ or ‘perhaps ‘Why am I?’ This is a surprising question in view of the assumed happiness of finally conceiving after twenty years of barrenness. This question emanates from an aggressive personality - one who needs control of her life.
In response, she was told that she would bare twin sons, and the promised blessing of Abraham was to be bestowed on the younger of them. She is not told how to arrange this; she is simply informed that this is to be the end result of God's command. However, Rebekah never shares this information with her husband Isaac. Is it because he is so traumatized that this communication seems to her pointless? The far-reaching consequences of Isaac’s dysfunctionality will continue to be seen.
Shortly after the children are born, we are told that Rebekah preferred Jacob (perhaps because she knew God’s wishes) and refers to him as ‘my son’ and to Esau as ‘Jacob’s brother’ (27:5-6, 8,13). Isaac, who lived in his own world, preferred Esau who lived out in the wild, and referred to him as ‘my son’ (27:1,21, 25). Esau is a ‘man's man’, unlike his father. As the sons mature, Isaac prepares to give the blessing to Esau; the son who feeds his father wild game (25:28; 27:7). Jacob apparently cooks vegetarian food (25:29-30). Unbeknownst to him, Isaac - not informed by his wife of the message from God - chooses the wrong son. God gave the message on the blessing to Rebekah, not to Isaac, and she takes this as a mission that she must carry out by deceiving her husband and her older son. In this, she is successful. It is interesting that Abraham lived for fifteen years after the birth of his grandsons (according to one Jewish tradition living with his son Ishmael 43 and remarried Hagar called Ketura. 44 Rebekah never felt a need to ask Abraham, the original holder of the blessing, his thoughts about achieving God’s request. Several Jewish commentators suggest there were ways of dividing the blessing between Jacob and Esau. 45
God spoke to Sarah only in an aside, to tell her that she lied (18:15). He never spoke to Leah or Rachel. Rebekah is thus unique amongst the Matriarchs in being presented with a prophetic mission by God. This mission is the most important task of the second generation: to ensure the blessing of the third generation is bestowed on the right heir.
Abraham is given the blessing several times by God. Isaac is never explicitly given the blessing. Rebekah receives, in the name of her family, the blessing to have descendants by the ‘thousands and tens of thousands . . . to gain possession of the gates of their enemies’ (24:60). That is a repetition of a blessing God gave to Abraham at the end of the akeda: ‘Your descendants will gain possession of the gates of their enemies’ (22:17). Thus Rebekah, not Isaac, receives the blessing for posterity.
Rebekah promised to protect Jacob, her son, from his father and any consequences of her plan of deception. Esau is enraged at Jacob for having stolen his blessing and thinks to kill him. Just as she discovered that Isaac was about to give the blessing to the wrong son, she discovers that Esau (despite the statement being in an interior monologue) intends to kill Jacob. To protect the younger son from his brother, she sends him away to her brother Laban. She pretends to Isaac that Jacob is going to seek a wife. She does not inform him of her own role in the deception on the blessing, or Esau’s anger. Isaac then gives Jacob a blessing beyond what the one he had surreptitiously taken: ‘May God bless you . . . May He grant you the blessing of Abraham’ (28:4). Apparently Isaac never reprimands Jacob for stealing his brother’s blessing. Did he know that Rebekah had orchestrated the entire event? Rebekah does not know that she will never see Jacob again.
God speaks to Isaac twice. The first time, it is to tell him not to do down into Egypt as his father had done and as his son will do (26:2). This is a striking repetition of Abraham's instruction to his servant, that Isaac must not go out of the land. Isaac follows his father's footsteps when he meets King Abimelech of Gerar. Like Abraham, he pretends that his beautiful wife is his sister, lest the King slay the husband so he can marry the widow. When Isaac's servants open the wells his father Abraham had dug, God then appears to Isaac a second time and says to him 'I shall bless you . . . for My servant Abraham's sake' (26:24). Thus, he receives the blessing for his father's sake, not his own.
Abraham's descendants are blessed as a result of his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, but Isaac himself is not specifically noted; he is simply one of Abraham’s descendants. Abraham never explicitly gave him a blessing. Isaac never leaves the land. He never sees clearly, never laughs (despite his name) does not find himself a wife nor choose the right son. Isaac’s role is less to be a father or a husband than to be Abraham's son. He is the weak son of a powerful father and the weak father of two powerful sons. His passivity is in striking comparison to his aggressive wife. Abraham, who had agreed to sacrifice his son, Isaac, survived with his promise intact and became the Prince of Faith. Jacob/Israel, while wounded in his conflict with God survived -- a rare experience.
The only blessing Isaac receives is the weak blessing part of his being forbidden to go Egypt despite a famine (as opposed to his father and his son) and given because ‘Abraham obeyed my voice’ (24:5).
Rebekah is given the stronger blessing of Abraham. She is given the mission of ensuring bestowal of the blessing on the ‘right’ son, despite needing to deceive her husband and of favoring one son over the other and she then she saved Jacob’s life.
Should we not say ‘The God of Abraham, The God of Rebekah and The God of Jacob’?
1 Lord Byron, Don Juan.
2 The Rabbis suggest that as Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac tears from his eyes fell onto Isaac’s eyes impairing his sight. Or in another version tears came from the angel’s eyes.
3 Steiner, George, A Conversation Piece, Granta, 15, (Granta Publications, Cambridge, 1985) Pg. 173.
4 Steiner, Pg. 173.
5 Steiner, Pg 173-174.
6 From Mann, Thomas, Joseph and his Brothers (Minerva, London, 1997).
7 We are later told that Laban lived in Kharon (27:43). Apparently Nahor, Abraham’s brother, also left Ur and went to where their father Terah died. Was this during Terah’s lifetime? If Abraham left his father during his lifetime, did he only do that because he knew his brother would come to take care of their old father?
8 Hirsch, S.R., The Pentateuch - Genesis, (The Judaica Press, NY, !971) pg. 393.
9 Hirsch, Genesis, pg. 394.
10 There are several other times a woman is called ‘na’ar’ in the Torah. In the story of Dinah she is called ‘na’ar’ (34:3,12,19). And in Deut. 22:15,16,17,20,21,23 24,25,26,26,27,28,29) where there is a discussion about adultery and virginhood. In every case, including Dinah an act of unkosher sexual relations takes place. These women are transformed by an act voluntarily or not into a ‘na’ar’. Rebekah is transformed by personality into a male figure.
11 Steinmetz, D., From Father To Son, (John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1991) pg. 88.
12 A Midrash written by the author adopted from two short stories Schwartz, Howard, Gates to the New City, (Jason Aronson Inc., Northvale, N.J., 1983), one by Howard Schwartz, The Dream of Isaac, pg. 149-150 and the second by Laya Firestone, Rivka on Mount Moria, pg. 152-153..
13 Sir Walter Scott, The Lay of The Last Minstrel, Canto VI, Stanza 17.
14 Buchmann, C. & Spiegel C., eds. Out of the Garden, (Fawcett Columbine, N.Y., 1994) pg. 17.
15 A Midrash tell us of an unspecified injury suffered by Isaac. Ginsberg, L., The Legends of the Jews, (Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1925) vol. 5, pg. 254.
16 Avivah Gottlieb Zorenberg, lecture on November 24, 1997.
17 This is a supposition since they are described as physically different. Rabbi S. R. Hirsch in his commentary suggests that they are in fact identical twins. (Hirsch, Genesis, pg. 423-424. He suggests that the sole difference lies in their ‘constitution, the one . . . was much more developed, stronger, than the other’. That they looked different can be seen by their naming ‘Esau’ and ‘Jacob’. They may have looked alike, but Isaac recognized the difference. Jacob would always seek his brother’s personality. Isaac took Esau into his house recognizing that he needed the love only a father can bring. Identical twins have a very close relationship, almost soul-like with each other. Can Esau and Jacob be seen as two halves of a whole whose bonding failed as a result of their parents inclinations? Did Isaac understood the necessary bonding needed with Esau; did Rebecca understand that as well? Rabbi Hirsch thinks both parents erred in their teaching of Esau (op. cit., Hirsch, pg 426). Hirsch sees Rebecca as mistakenly seeing Esau as like her brother, Laban. As we will see it is Jacob who is like Laban.
18 Hosea notes that ‘In the very womb [Jacob] took his brother by the heel and in his maturity he wrestled with God’ (12:2-3). He then compares Jacob to Ephraim his adopted son and a fraudulent merchant (12:7). Jeremiah notes that every brother aims to supplant (9:3), using the term ‘akov yaakov’ meaning ‘the heel Jacob’. Can one, in fact translate his name as ‘one who tried to take his brothers place’.
19 Adler, Alfred, Understanding human Nature, (Permabooks, N.Y., 1949) pg.
20 Both Esau and the soup are described with the same Hebrew word for red. What is the significant of this term ‘red’? King David, another complex Majestic Man is also described in the same term (1 Sam. 16:12).
21 The Talmud suggests that the boys are only 15 years and thus the sale is just a childish prank not valid as a sale (BT Baba Bathra 16b).
22 A comparison can be made between Isaac who seems to be willing to give the blessing to the one who brings him venison, and Esau who gave up the birthright for a lentil soup.
23 Isaac actually says to this son ‘Bring it to me and I will eat of my son’s game, that I may bless you (27:25). Why not your game? Did Isaac understand that he was being fooled by Jacob or more likely his wife?
24 This is an example of Jung’s ‘shadow’ concept - that Esau and Jacob represent both sides of the same personality – see Introduction.
25 Only Joseph becomes the master of his brother’s, Jacob’s other children.
26 It is worth noting that Ishmael is blessed by God to live aggressively (16:12) and Jacob blesses his favorite, Joseph similarly (49:24).
27 Midrash Rabbah, Deuteronomy, Translated by J. Abramowitz, (Soncino, London, 1961) I-15, pg. 16-18.
28 Steinmetz, D., From Father, pg. 101-102.
29 Shlomo Riskin, Jerusalem Post, December 1, 2000, pg. B9.
30 Hirsch, Genesis, pg. 441-446.
31 Leah death is also not noted in the text perhaps because she was unloved.
32 Paul, Robert, Moses and Civilization, (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1996) pg. 93
33 Wolfson, Elliot, Through A Speculum That Shines, (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994) pg. 328
34 Callaway, Mary, Sing, O Barren One, (Scholars Press, Atlanta, 1986) pg. 7
35 Schwartz, Regina, ed., The Book and the Text (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1990) article by Gerald Bruns, pg. 198,200.
36 Hirsch, S.R., The Pentateuch – Genesis, (The Judaica Press, N.Y., 1971) pg. 393-394.
37 Soloveitchik, J.B., The Lonely Man of Faith (Doubleday, N.Y., 1965) pg. 18-36.
38 Midrash Genesis Rabbah Vol. II, (The Soncino Press, London, 1938) 60:15,pg. 538.
39 Gottlieb-Zorenberg, Avivah, Genesis, (The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1995) pg. 143.
40 Ginzberg, Louis, Legends of the Bible, (The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1975) pg. 129.
41 Bialik, H.N., and Ravnitsky, Y.H. eds., The Book of Legends, Translated by William Braude, (Schocken Books, NY, 1992), pg. 40)
42 Ginzberg, pg. 135-136.
43 Cohen, N.J. Self Struggle & Change, (Jewish Lights Publishing, Vermont, 1995) pg. 74.
44 Genesis Rabbah, 61:4, 542-543.
45 Hirsch, pg. 441- 446 and Riskin, Shlomo, Jerusalem Post, December 1, 2000, referring to Rabbi Meir Lebush Malbim, pg. B9.