Kathy Lin (Graduate Category)
The Portrayal of Rebekah in Genesis 24
Genesis 24 is the account of how Rebekah becomes betrothed and married to Isaac. Although her character is often subject to severe criticism in modern commentaries, in this story, Rebekah is the perfect bride who shows up as an answer to prayer. What, then, is the purpose of such a positive portrayal of Rebekah at her entrance into the covenantal family of Abraham? This paper will argue that the author’s intention is to present Rebekah as the God-sent intermediary of the divine blessing from the first generation of the chosen family to the third generation. Three topics will be considered as evidence: the literary context of Genesis 24, literary structure and literary devices, and the significance of Rebekah’s name.
2. Genesis 24 set in the wider narrative
The first clue to the authorial intention of this story is found in the literary context. Although Genesis 24 is the formal introduction of Rebekah, her name was first mentioned in Genesis 22:23. Following the story of Isaac’s binding (Gen 22:1-19), Abraham receives news of his brother Nahor’s line (Gen 22:20-24), which notably includes the birth of Rebekah as the only member of her generation. The account of Sarah’s death (Gen 23) follows, then the account of Rebekah’s marriage (Gen 24), which is then followed by the account of Abraham’s death (Gen 25:1-11). This sequence reveals a cross-chapter narrative of the transition from the first generation to the second generation of the ancestors of faith. The entrance of a new matriarch is set in a cycle of life and death, highlighting her essential role in carrying the grand narrative forward. This section will discuss how literary connections to Abraham and Sarah, the first patriarch and matriarch, depict Rebekah as a follower of Abraham and a successor of Sarah.
2.1. Connections to Abraham
Genesis 24 contains multiple allusions to Abraham’s narrative in Genesis.In particular, Rebekah’s terse agreement to follow the servant, “I will go” (v 58), matches Abraham’s obedience to YHWH’s call to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household (12:1), “so Abraham left” (12:4). Subsequently, Rebekah’s receives the blessing “may you become thousands of ten thousands” and “may your descendants possess the gates of their enemies” (v 60), which is almost a word-for-word repetition of the blessing God pronounces upon Abraham (see 22:17). Remarkably, these references are both from critical points in Abraham’s narrative—Genesis 12 records the call of Abraham and Genesis 22 contains the promise of a multitude of descendants for Abraham, which only begins to be realized through Rebekah. these intertextual links suggest that Rebekah is portrayed as “the female counterpart of Abraham,” an imitator of Abraham’s faith and blessedness.
2.2. Connections to Sarah
At the end of the story, Isaac brings Rebekah into his mother’s tent, and readers are told he is comforted after Sarah’s death (v 67). The odd Hebrew construction and sudden reference to Sarah have caused some to alter the end of v 67 to “after Abraham.” However, the text is evidently signalling the transition of matriarchy as well as patriarchy. Not only does the union of Isaac and Rebekah happen in Sarah’s tent, it appears Isaac’s affections for Rebekah replace his affections for his late mother. Rebekah is not just taking over the role of a patriarch’s wife but that of a patriarch’s mother as well, as subsequent narratives on Jacob would affirm. The sandwiching of the account of Sarah’s death between Rebekah’s birth announcement and her marriage to Isaac further suggests that before the first matriarch died, the second was already born to take her place. This is in line with rabbinic interpretations: “Rebekah is to be the successor and the substitute for Sarah after her death.”
3. Choices made by the storyteller
Secondly, the narrative is carefully crafted to reveal theological ideas and to give Rebekah a dynamic characterization that emphasizes her capacity to be matriarch of the covenantal family. This section focuses on the literary structure and narrative devices found in Genesis 24, demonstrating how parallelism, movement expressions, and a biblical type-scene are used to compose a narrative centered around Rebekah.
3.1. Parallelism and movement expressions
The author employs parallelism to situate Genesis 24 in its literary context as well as to draw attention to God’s hand in the betrothal of Rebekah. The first and last verses of Genesis 24 form an inclusio that “affirm its position in the surrounding narratives by referring to the situation of two important figures known from the foregoing narratives”—v 1 mentions Abraham’s old age and blessedness, and v 67 provides a reminder of the recent death of Sarah. As shown in §2 above, both characters are significant to Rebekah’s status and role. Moreover, the servant’s meeting with Rebekah in verses 15-25 is bookended by his prayers. At Rebekah’s appearance in v 15, “a more perfect answer to his prayer could not have been envisaged.”
The examination of movement expressions reveals more of the authorial intention. The movement verbs “go” and “take” provide a motif for the story. Abraham’s command for the servant to “go and take a wife” (24:4) is answered by Laban and Bethuel, “Here is Rebekah, take her and go” (24:51). The command also reaches its fulfillment when “the servant took her and went” (24:61), and when “Isaac took and married her” (24:67). The whole narrative is unmistakeably centered around Rebekah. She is the bride who is sought-after, the daughter who is promised in marriage, the evidence of the servant’s success, and the assurance of Abraham’s posterity. Furthermore, the verb “to go” occurs seventeen times in the narrative, seven of which are with reference to Rebekah (24:5, 8, 39, 51, 55, 58), which Sarna supposes is “a sure sign of its seminal importance.”
3.2. Use of a type-scene
Genesis 24 is ordered according to the betrothal type-scene characterized by Robert Alter, a narrative framework also observed in Genesis 29:1-20 with Jacob and Rachel and Exodus 2:15-22 with Moses and Zipporah. Type-scenes consist of a repeated pattern of events, and violations of the expected pattern typically bring about special meaning.
When comparing Genesis 24 to the other betrothal type-scenes, a few differences can be found. Firstly, it is the servant, rather than the prospective groom, who makes the journey to a foreign land, entreats the maiden at the well, and converses with the prospective bride’s family. In fact, Isaac’s name is not even mentioned in the negotiations. Isaac’s passivity here gives space for the prospective bride to shine. Secondly, the description of Rebekah, the girl who arrives at the well, is much more detailed than in other betrothal type-scenes. Furthermore, in contrast to the heroic acts of Jacob and Moses at the well, it is Rebekah who gives the servant water to drink, then, as if by supernatural strength, draws water for ten camels by means of one jar. While the bride is conventionally ‘given’ by the father (Gen. 29: 17, 27, 28, Exodus 2:21), Rebekah gets to decide whether she will leave with the stranger, even if her family wanted her remain for some time (24:55-57). Clearly Rebekah is an energetic and capable woman who will make a compelling matriarch for YHWH’s chosen family. In Wenham’s words, “her character inspires confidence that the next stage in the fulfillment of the divine purpose is in good hands.”
4. The significance of Rebekah’s name
Lastly, Rebekah’s role in the ancestral narratives of Genesis is further revealed by her name. The author of Genesis tends to give special attention to the etymology of names. However, no explanation of Rebekah’s name is given in Genesis, and there has been no consensus on the meaning of ‘Rebekah’ (רבקה). This section will explain how Rebekah’s name recalls the covenantal blessing to Abraham and connects to key themes in Genesis.
4.1. Wordplay using ב and ר
Wenham proposes the significance of Rebekah’s name lies in the fact that it shares the consonants ב and ר with Abraham’s name (אברהם avraham) and the key word “blessing” (ברכה berakah). The above discussion of the literary links between Rebekah and Abraham supports this proposition. The connection of their faith seems further reinforced by the connection between their names. Moreover, the verb “to bless” appears six times in Genesis 24 (vv 1, 27, 31, 35, 48, 60) and in v 60 it is explicitly connected to Rebekah. After declaring her intention to leave, Rebekah receives the following blessing from her family, “May you become thousands of ten thousands.” The word for ten thousand (רבבה rebabah) is also phonetically similar to Rebekah’s name. When v 60 is read aloud, the three words וַיְבָרֲכ֤וּ ‘and they blessed,’ רִבְקָה֙ ‘Rebekah,’ and רְבָבָ֑ה ‘ten thousand’ are in close succession and create a refrain on the ideas of blessing and multiplication. Rebekah’s name not only bears semblance to divine blessing (ברך brk), but it also recalls the repeated command to multiply (רבה rbh) throughout Genesis (1:28, 9:1 7; 17:2, 22:17). This makes Rebekah’s first introduction in Genesis 22:23 as a part of Abraham’s extended family even more significant. Her arrival anticipates the fate of Abraham’s line, a sign of hope for the fulfillment of YHWH’s promise. In Genesis 24, at her betrothal and marriage to Isaac, she embodies her name, a compliment to the promise of numerous and triumphant descendants for Abraham.
5. Contemporary application
Genesis 24 goes to great length to demonstrate the role God plays in bringing Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage to fruition. At the second generation, Abraham has not yet become a great nation, and the covenantal line must be kept in capable hands. God’s provision is “astounding and undeniable,” as Rebekah appears to “surpass even the most optimistic expectations” in her lineage, age, appearance, reputation, and character (vv 15-16, 18-20, 24-25). Even her name evokes the promise of blessing. As it is said in Proverbs, “a good wife comes from God” (19:14). Williams observes, “Rebekah is a ‘great find’ who is providentially found and brought to Isaac. She is a gift.”Additionally, Van Wolde proposes it is not only divine guidance that is highlighted in Genesis 24, but the characters’ faithful choices at each moment of tension. Active contribution is required both on the part of YHWH and God’s people. Christians reading this story are encouraged to not only be attentive to the sovereignty and grace of God in their lives, but to “set out” in faith (v 10, cf. v 58) so that God may grant them success (v 21).
The author of Genesis intends to depict Rebekah as the divinely appointed successor of Abraham and Sarah, the first ancestors of faith. She is a key link in the ancestral narratives, and an exceptionally dynamic character in the generation between Abraham and Jacob. This is shown through study of the literary context, literary structure and narrative devices, and the significance of Rebekah’s name. Firstly, literary connections to Abraham and Sarah’s story show how Rebekah displays the resolve and faith of the first patriarch and is born to the replace the first matriarch. Secondly, the literary structure and narrative devices employed in Genesis 24 show how the story centers around Rebekah and presents her as a strong and capable ancestor of faith. Lastly, Rebekah’s name recalls YHWH’s blessing of a multitude of descendants for Abraham, and the presence of wordplay indicates that her marriage to Isaac is the beginning of the blessing becoming reality. For Christians reading Genesis 24 today, God’s provision inspires faith and trust, while the choices of the characters encourage us to actively seek out God’s blessing in our coming and going.
Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981.
Fox, Everett. The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; a New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes. Schocken Bible: V. 1. New York: Schocken Books, 1995.
Köhler, Ludwig, Walter Baumgartner, M. E. J. Richardson, and Johann Jakob Stamm. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. 1st English ed. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994.
Sarna, Nahum M. Genesis: The Traditional Hebrew Text with New JPS Translation. 1st ed. JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.
Sternberg, Meir. The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading. Indiana Studies in Biblical Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Strong, James. A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament and The Hebrew Bible. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009.
Strus, A. Nomen-Omen: La stylistique sonore des noms propres dans le Pentateuque. Rome: Biblical Institute, 1978.
Teugels, Lieve M. Bible and Midrash: The Story of “The Wooing of Rebekah” (Gen. 24). Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology: 35. Leuven: Peeters, 2004.
Tsymbalyuk, Oleg M, and Valery V Melnik. “Rediscovering the Ancient Hermeneutic of Rebekah’s Character.” Hervormde Teologiese Studies76, no. 1 (2020): 1–8.
Turner, Mary Donovan. “Rebekah: Ancestor of Faith.” Lexington Theological Quarterly 20, no. 2 (April 1985): 42–50.
Van Wolde, Ellen J., “Telling and Retelling: The Words of the Servant in Genesis 24.” In Synchronic or Diachronic? A Debate on Method in Old Testament Exegesis, edited by J.C. de Moor, 227-244. Leiden and New York: E. J. Brill, 1995.
Waltke, Bruce K. Genesis: A Commentary. Grand Rapid, MI: Zondervan, 2001.
Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary Series. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2001.
Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16–50. Word Biblical Commentary vol 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000. Williams, James G. “The Beautiful and the Barren: Conventions in Biblical Type-Scenes.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 5, no. 17 (August 1980): 107–119.
Williams, James G. “The Beautiful and the Barren: Conventions in Biblical Type- Scenes.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 5, no. 17 (August 1980): 107–119.
- See Oleg M. Tsymbalyuk and Valery V Melnik, “Rediscovering the Ancient Hermeneutic of Rebekah’s Character,” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 76, no. 1 (2020): 1; Lieve M. Teugels, Bible and Midrash: The Story of “The Wooing of Rebekah” (Gen. 24) (Leuven: Peeters, 2004), 127-128, note 30; they mention Vawter, Brueggemann, Skinner, and Driver among others. ↵
- See Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapid, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 326. ↵
- Cf. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16–50 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 151. ↵
- Ibid., 120. ↵
- See Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 137; he mentions the BHS, Gunkel, Skinner, and Westermann as being proponents of this change. ↵
- Cf. Teugels, Bible and Midrash, 189. ↵
- Teugels, Bible and Midrash,189; cf. Ellen J. van Wolde, ‘Telling and Retelling: The Words of the Servant in Genesis 24,’ in Synchronic or Diachronic? A Debate on Method in Old Testament Exegesis, ed. J.C. de Moor (Leiden and New York: E. J. Brill, 1995), 238. ↵
- Teugels, Bible and Midrash, 47. ↵
- Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 145. ↵
- Cf. Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 138; Waltke, Genesis, 323. ↵
- Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis: The Traditional Hebrew Text with New JPS Translation, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 161. The significance of the verb “go” in the Abraham narratives is well attested, especially as it introduces both the story of Abraham as a whole (12:1) and the direction to sacrifice Isaac (22:2). It is notable that Genesis 24 contains multiple allusions to Genesis 12 and 22, as discussed in §2.1. ↵
- See Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 50. ↵
- Cf. Teugels, Bible and Midrash, 53-56; Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 51-58. ↵
- See John H. Walton, Genesis (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2001), 530: “A camel that has gone a few days without water can drink as much as twenty-five gallons. Ancient jars used for drawing water usually held no more than three gallons. In other words, this offer involves perhaps from eighty to a hundred drawings from the well.” ↵
- Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 155. ↵
- For example, see the renaming of Abram and Sarai as well as the naming of Isaac in Genesis 17. ↵
- Literature on the potential roots of ‘Rebekah’ include James Strong, A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament and The Hebrew Bible (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 107: probably meaning to clog by tying up the fetlock, fettering (by beauty); Ludwig Köhler, Walter Baumgartner, M. E. J. Richardson, and Johann Jakob Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994), 1182: a dialectal variation of the Arabic baqarat ‘cow’; Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 120: related to Akkadian rabaku ‘to be soft or springy.’ ↵
- Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 120, 138. ↵
- A. Strus, Nomen-Omen: La stylistique sonore des noms propres dans le Pentateuque (Rome: Biblical Institute, 1978), 165, (French). ↵
- Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 120, 151. ↵
- Teugels, Bible and Midrash, 126, in referencing Genesis Rabbah 57:1-3: Some rabbinic Sages interpret “it was told to Abraham” in 22:20 as a divine revelation. ↵
- Walton, Genesis, 534. ↵
- Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 138. ↵
- James G. Williams, “The Beautiful and the Barren: Conventions in Biblical Type-Scenes,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 5, no. 17 (August 1980): 113. ↵
- Van Wolde, “Telling and retelling,” 239. ↵
- Mary Donovan Turner, “Rebekah: Ancestor of Faith,” Lexington Theological Quarterly 20, no. 2 (April 1985): 49. Cf. Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; a New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), 111: “[Isaac] has no personality of his own, … the true dynamic figure of the second generation is Rebekah.” ↵