Rebekah and the Patriarchal Narrative

[Note all verses in this post are in the English Standard Version.]

I recently posted here my lesson on Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, famous for generally two things: (1) following a strange man back to a strange land to marry a stranger and (2) devising the plan for her favored son, Jacob, to steal his father Isaac’s blessing from her least favored son, Esau.

I feel like most Christians have agreed on the first famous act: that Rebekah was an incredibly faithful woman--a woman willing to follow God's call to leave her family behind, move halfway across the world (okay, an over-exaggeration but without mail or anything it would certainly feel that way), and marry a complete stranger. I'm pretty sure my faith isn't that strong, so Rebekah puts me to shame.

When I was being taught this story as a kid, this first act was viewed as faithful...with possible underpinnings of "of course a woman doing as she's told and being willing to follow God makes her great!" But this characterization of Rebekah being faithful was always altered dramatically when I was presented of the story of Rebekah devising the plan for Jacob, not Esau, to get the blessing.

Honestly this story was presented to me as thus: Rebekah was a devious woman who deceived her poor old blind husband so her favored son could be chosen. And poor Esau didn't even do anything wrong. Poor Esau. Poor Isaac. Even a little bit, poor Jacob because his mom made him do it. Evil manipulative Rebekah. And it’s not just my teachers who served up this interpretation. For better preparing my lessons on the women of the Bible, I often turn to resources, and in this one I turned to Liz Curtis Higgin’s Slightly Bad Girls of the Bible. In the book, she presents Rebekah as not just a deceiver, but a great betrayer. She betrayed her poor feeble husband. And Jacob’s taking of the blessing is likened to Judas betraying Jesus [1]. Strong words. This was a book I studied in college Bible study, which simply reiterated what I had been taught in my grade school Sunday School classes.

So when I was preparing this story for my Middle Schoolers I was prepared to have to do a lot of...explaining...and reminding the girls that just because the woman so far that we've studied have been characterized by basically being mean to each other and laughing in the face of God, women aren't actually inherently bad. I was prepared to have to deal with this fact that all the women of Genesis from Eve on are basically petty and bad.

This was what I thought. From what I'd been taught.

In my study of Sarah a few weeks ago, I discovered that Sarah's act of laughter at learning about Isaac wasn't actually an act of disbelief. That there was no evidence to support she knew of God's promise or that these men were angels. To her they were just random men predicting a post-menopausal woman would have a child--which would make me laugh too. I was also easily able to balance Sarah's faults of her meanness to Hagar with her faithfulness to Abraham, and how she honestly thought she was doing the best for her family. Sarah, I hope, came across as a three-dimensional woman with flaws and good points.

But with Rebekah I thought the only balance would be her early faithfulness in marrying Isaac. That everything after would just be bad.

So I prepared my lesson, easily handlings the act of faithfulness, and not struggling until I got to the idea of a baby holding another baby's heel. I pulled out my commentary to see what it said about the matter and learned something--that heels could symbolize betrayal and deception. And since I already had my commentary out I decided to read ahead and see what it thought about this business of Jacob stealing Esau's birthright.

I discovered something startling.

That Rabbinic tradition holds that Isaac was blind in more than one way. Not just physically blind, but blind to his favored son's shortcomings [2]. That Esau was not perhaps the best man, and Jacob was the more righteous of the two.


Is there support for this? For Esau being not as righteous as Jacob? Well, let’s look at who Esau is. He’s a man willing to sell his birthright for a bowl of soup. This is Genesis 25:29-34.

29 Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.)31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

This can possibly indicate a couple of things, but what it doesn’t indicate is that Esau didn’t think Jacob was serious. Jacob makes him swear it—a serious business in the ancient world. Esau would know Jacob was deadly serious. So we’re left with the idea that either Esau is not very bright or he just doesn’t care about his birthright. Lack of brightness is not a sin; however, lack of caring about your inheritance from your father, the son of Abraham, through whom God has established his covenant, well that’s a little more problematic.

The other thing we know about Esau is when Jacob stole the blessing, he wanted to murder him (Genesis 27:41):

41 Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”

Now I don’t know about you but this doesn’t come across to me as a metaphorical “I’m going to kill my brother” like we might say now, when really we mean we’re going to yell at them and nurse a grudge until it wears off. I get the feeling Esau was actually going to murder him. And this is supported by the fact that Rebekah immediately sends Jacob away. She sends him away—back to her brother Laban, half a world away—because she is afraid Esau might murder him (Genesis 27:42). And let’s not forget that murder of a brother is a serious issue in Genesis. There’s this whole story in Genesis 4 colloquially referred to as “Cain and Abel” in which an older brother killed a younger brother. Cain killed Abel, and God had this to say about it:

10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 

To say God was displeased with the murdering of a brother seems an understatement. He gave Cain a curse so great that Cain said it’s too great to bear.

And I’m not saying stealing of a blessing is not a serious issue, one worthy of anger, but murdering your brother seems like a reaction not in keeping with God’s idea of how one should behave.

At the very least Esau is a careless young man with anger issues. Is Jacob a perfect man? No. He has his own issues—his willingness to take advantage of his hungry brother clearly shows that. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Hosea 12:2-4, which does condemn Jacob’s struggle with his brother.

The Lord has an indictment against Judah
    and will punish Jacob according to his ways;
    he will repay him according to his deeds.
3 In the womb he took his brother by the heel,
    and in his manhood he strove with God.
4 He strove with the angel and prevailed;
    he wept and sought his favor.
He met God at Bethel,
    and there God spoke with us

I’m not a strong enough Biblical scholar to say too much on this, and I don’t have a commentary on Hosea. However, it seems clear to me Jacob’s struggle with his brother is condemned but his struggles with God—his wrestling of an angel and his seeking of favor—are lauded. But I also feel those things are connected in these verses. He strove with his brother and with God—it’s the same inquiring and unsatisfied mind that led to both. Jacob was a flawed man who sought God. (Which isn’t to say Esau couldn’t have been the same, but I don’t think Jacob is ever described as having murder in his heart.) And if I look back at those verses about Cain, it seems that is a sin God takes quite seriously.

Maybe the Rabbinic tradition of Esau’s lack of moral fiber isn’t entirely without merit.

This all leads me to so much thought. As I was taught this story, Isaac was right because he was the man, even though he was just as guilty of favoritism as Rebekah. Even though it didn’t seem he consulted his wife about who should get his blessing. The prior characterization of Rebekah in this story is that of faithfulness. Not deceit. So why suddenly would she become deceitful? Because she favored Jacob? Her love of her son was greater than her love of God? That seems unlikely. After all, this was a woman willing to leave her entire family behind for God. And sure, the love of a child is greater than the love of a sibling or parent (so I’m told), but…leaving your whole family behind to travel basically by yourself to a strange nation to marry a complete stranger because God told you so is a far greater act of faith than anything Isaac has done in Genesis.

Or is it more likely that it was Isaac whose love for his son blinded him to God’s will? That Isaac was blind to his favored son’s ways? After all, we’re talking about Isaac here, the man who didn’t learn from the stories of his father, and pulled the same “lie and say my wife is my sister” business (Genesis 26:7). Isaac who the Bible says favored Esau because Isaac “had a taste for game” not because Esau had a stellar character (Genesis 25:28). Isaac is far from a perfect man.  So maybe, Isaac wasn’t just blind literally but blind metaphorically. But Rebekah, the mother who raised them, saw all. And since she was merely a woman, Isaac wouldn’t listen to her.

Everything going forward in the Bible from here hinges on Jacob being Israel, that he is the father of the Jewish people. He had the blessing, not Esau. And is it really possible that a mere mortal woman could thwart the God Almighty’s plan? Or is it more likely that Rebekah was still as faithful as ever, not blind to the truth, and she did what she had to do to stay faithful to her God—to ensure God’s blessing and the divine inheritance from Abraham continued through the son worthy of that blessing.

Who chose Jacob as the father of Israel? God or Rebekah?

Or as an early Christian leader, (we’re talking 350-ish AD), John Chrystostem put it: was it “a mother’s affection, or rather God’s design?” [2]

The apostle Paul supports this reading, that it is God who chose Jacob and Rebekah’s actions were in accordance with God’s plan, in Romans 9:

10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” 14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means!

But it’s perhaps the book of Malachi, which Paul is referencing here in Romans 9:13, which is most condemning:

2 “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob's brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob 3 but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.” 4 If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says, “They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.’” 5 Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the Lord beyond the border of Israel!”

It seems pretty clear that God chose Jacob. That Rebekah could not have thwarted God’s plan. If God wanted Esau to be the progenitor of his chosen people, he would have chosen him.

It seems to me Rebekah made the right call, made the faithful call, and did what God wanted her to do. She did not deceive her husband for her own gain, but to save him from his own folly. She did not just secure a future for her favored son, but secured a righteous future for all her descendants to come. Rebekah is not the villain of this story; she is the hero.

I think my Sunday School teachers growing up taught me wrong. That they were deceived by the idea that a man who leads and makes a choice—like Isaac choosing Esau—is doing right, while a woman who makes a choice and uses the only means she has (deception in Rebekah’s case) to bring about God’s plan is doing what is wrong. But the text does not support this.

My eyes have been opened.

It’s amazing what you can learn teaching Middle School Sunday School.

References (other than the Bible):
[1] Higgs, Liz Curtis. "Chapter 5: Rebekah the Mother." Slightly Bad Girls of the Bible: Flawed Women Loved by a Flawless God. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook, 2007. N. pag. Print.

[2]Mathews, K. A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005. Print. The New American Commentary.