Cylindrical seal of King Ur-Nammu. Seated figure is probably the king. The god Sin is represented by a crescent moon.

God as Matchmaker: Isaac and Rebekah

In the last post, Abraham returned to Kiriath-arba to bury Sarah (Genesis 23). It is one of the most poignant scenes in the entire Bible, not just in how it shows his grief but also for how the “Sons of Heth” in Kiriath-arba show friendship and kindness to him. I also started talking about the search for a wife for Isaac (Genesis 24). It is a long chapter. I wanted to break it up, so this post would not be quite as long.

So far, we saw Abraham was too old to make the journey, and he wanted Isaac to marry a woman from his own kindred in Haran. However, he did not want Isaac to go there himself. Apparently, he was afraid if Isaac went to Haran, he would stay there, like his father Terah had done. So he sent his oldest and most trusted servant to the city of his brother Nahor to find a wife for his son Isaac.

The servant swore to do as he asked, but with one caveat. If the woman was not willing to come back with him, he would be released from the oath. Abraham agreed (Genesis 24:1-9). That’s where we pick up the story.

Will Ten Camels Be Enough?

Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, taking all kinds of choice gifts from his master; and he set out and went to Aram-naharaim, to the city of Nahor.

He made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water; it was toward evening, the time when women go out to draw water.

 (Gen 24:10-11 NRS)
Map of Aram-naharaim, a.k.a., Haran
Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, taking all kinds of choice gifts from his master; and he set out and went to Aram-naharaim, to the city of Nahor. (Gen 24:10 NRS)

The servant, most likely Eliezer of Damascus, the servant who at one time was made an heir, because Abraham had no children at the time (Gen 15:2-3). He’s taking ten camels and all kinds of choice gifts, no doubt to entice the woman to agree to marry his master’s son, sight unseen. The ten camels, it turns out will be necessary to bring not only the girl but the maids she will take with her.

Aram-naharaim, appears to be another name for Haran (Gen 11:31). He made the camels kneel down, because you have to do that to dismount from a camel. I remember that from my past trip to Israel.

Outside the city by the well of water, usually the first stop for a traveler. They would naturally be thirsty. It was toward evening, the time when women go out to draw water, you would want to go when the sun was not so brutal during the day. But I thought the time for drawing water was in the morning. Anyway, it was the ideal time for the servant to see some of the women of Haran. But how will he know who he should ask to be the wife of his master’s son?

WWAD?

What would Abraham do? Ask the LORD.

And he said, “O LORD, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’– let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”

(Gen 24:12-14 NRS)

I’ve heard of “putting fleece before the LORD.” It refers to Gideon’s call. God told Gideon to attack the Midianites, because they were oppressing the people of his tribe. He wanted a sign to be sure it was really God, so he said,

“I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing floor; if there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said.”

And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water.

(Jdg 6:37-38 NRS)

How will Gideon know this is really God speaking to him? He will lay fleece on the threshing floor. In the morning, if the ground around it is dry, but the fleece is wet, he will know it’s the LORD. And it was so.

The servant appears to be doing something similar. He will ask a girl for a drink of water, which almost any girl in that society would have given. If she offers water for his camels as well without him asking, he will know that you have shown steadfast love to my master. In other words, she is the one God has chosen for Isaac.

There Was Rebekah

Before he had finished speaking, there was Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, coming out with her water jar on her shoulder.

(Gen 24:15 NRS)

We were introduced to this part of Abraham’s family tree in Genesis 22:20-24. Nahor (Abraham’s brother) and his wife (and niece) Milcah had eight children, Bethuel being one of them. Bethuel was the father of Rebekah, ergo Abraham was her great uncle. She was then Isaac’s cousin, either second cousin first removed, or first cousin second removed. I have a hard time keeping that straight. She fits the criteria Abraham gave the servant.

Of course, incestuous marriages like this would later be forbidden in the Law of Moses. But for Abraham’s family, marrying in the family seems to have been preferred.

Princess Leia: "I kissed my brother once." Cersei Lannister: "That's cute."
What does Cersei have in common with Sarah?

The girl was very fair to look upon, a virgin, whom no man had known. She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up.

Then the servant ran to meet her and said, “Please let me sip a little water from your jar.”

“Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink.

(Gen 24:16-18 NRS)

She was very fair to look upon, always a bonus. It may seem sexist to think in those terms, but isn’t the princess in every fairy tale beautiful? And, to be fair, the prince who wants to marry her is always rich.

A virgin, whom no man had known. Okay, this is sexist. Women were expected to be virgins when they married. For most men, this was very important. But did the man himself have to be a virgin? No. It was a patriarchal society, so there were some double standards.

My lord, not literally. It was a polite way to address someone. Here, I picture him receiving the cup from her and hesitating. He waits for her to offer water to his camels. He looks expectantly at her. She smiles at first but then raises one eyebrow as if she’s thinking, “Why are you looking at me like that?” He sighs, drinks the water and hands the cup back to her.

When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.”

(Gen 24:19 NRS)

The Daughter of Bethuel Son of Milcah, Whom She Bore to Nahor

Good thing he had finished drinking, because he would have spit it out when she said this. God has not only been faithful but extremely prompt. He had seen her even before he had finished praying and run to meet her. And yes, she is the one.

So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels. The man gazed at her in silence to learn whether or not the LORD had made his journey successful. When the camels had finished drinking, the man took a gold nose-ring weighing a half shekel, and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekels, and said, “Tell me whose daughter you are. Is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?”

She said to him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor.”

(Gen 24:20-24 NRS)

She had already passed his “fleece” test, but he’s still watching her to learn whether or not the LORD had made his journey successful. He doesn’t make his move until the camels had finished drinking. This might indicate why Abraham entrusted this task to him. He knew this servant would be as diligent in examining the woman as Abraham himself.

Painting of Rebecca and Eliezer by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
Rebecca draws water for Abraham’s servant

She is beautiful and kind. That’s enough for him to offer a few of the gifts he had brought to win the girl’s favor. What did she think when she saw them? When women drew water for thirsty travelers, they did not expect gifts for it. It was just normal hospitality.

He asks to spend the night at her father’s house. Again, this was within the hospitality customs of the time. She didn’t need the gifts for that. He wants to know about her family. She introduces herself as the daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor. Instead of her own name, she gives the name of her father, grandmother, and grandfather. Ancestry was usually traced through the fathers, so I think it’s unusual that she includes her grandmother, Milcah. But the servant knows all of these names as relatives of his master. She has passed not only his “fleece” test but also met his master’s requirements.

A Place to Spend the Night

She added, “We have plenty of straw and fodder and a place to spend the night.”

(Gen 24:25 NRS)

So he can stay with her family tonight and tell them the purpose of his journey. I can only imagine his excitement.

The man bowed his head and worshiped the LORD and said, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the LORD has led me on the way to the house of my master’s kin.”

(Gen 24:26-27 NRS)

He wasted no time thanking Abraham’s God for his success. Rebekah knows something big is about to happen to her.

Then the girl ran and told her mother’s household about these things.

(Gen 24:28 NRS)

I’m not sure, but I think it is unusual to call it her mother’s household rather than her father’s. In her novel The Red Tent, Anita Diamant presents the women of Dinah’s family as more autonomous than one would expect in a patriarchal culture. In subtle ways, this story seems to be raising that as a real possibility.

And Let Me Introduce You to My Brother, Laban

Rebekah had a brother whose name was Laban; and Laban ran out to the man, to the spring. As soon as he had seen the nose-ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and when he heard the words of his sister Rebekah, “Thus the man spoke to me,” he went to the man; and there he was, standing by the camels at the spring.

(Gen 24:29-30 NRS)

As soon as he had seen the nose-ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms … he went to the man. This hints at Laban’s greed, which later will play into the story of Jacob.

Thus the man spoke to me.” He hasn’t told her much so far. He asked for water for himself. He asked who her family was and if he could spend the night. She heard him thank his god, called Yahweh, for steadfast love and faithfulness to his master. And she knows his master is of her kin (v. 27). What does all of that mean? He hasn’t told her yet. But Laban saw that gold jewelry, and suddenly he was eager to meet the man.

He said, “Come in, O blessed of the LORD. Why do you stand outside when I have prepared the house and a place for the camels?”

So the man came into the house; and Laban unloaded the camels, and gave him straw and fodder for the camels, and water to wash his feet and the feet of the men who were with him.

(Gen 24:30-32 NRS)

Blessed of the LORD. The patron deity of Haran was the moon god, Sin.

Cylindrical seal of King Ur-Nammu. Seated figure is probably the king. The god Sin is represented by a crescent moon.
Cylindrical seal of King Ur-Nammu, dating to about 2100 BC. The king is commissioning a governor. The god Sin is represented by a crescent moon.

How did they know about the LORD? Somehow, they must have been introduced to the god called Yahweh, either in Ur of the Chaldees or Haran. At the very least, Abraham would have told his brother, Nahor, that Yahweh had called him to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1 NRS). Laban doesn’t know yet who the servant belongs to, but he probably suspects it’s Uncle Abe.

He offers standard hospitality to the servant and the men who were with him. This is the first time the story mentions anyone accompanying the servant. Although, for a long journey like this and taking ten camels with him, you would expect him to have some men with him, preferably some of his master’s trained soldiers.

I Will Not Eat until I Have Told You My Errand

Then food was set before him to eat; but he said, “I will not eat until I have told my errand.”

He said, “Speak on.”

So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. The LORD has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has.

 (Gen 24:33-36 NRS)

Again, I can only imagine the servant’s excitement as he speaks. He can’t even eat “until I have told my errand.”

I am Abraham’s servant. Last time they saw Uncle Abe, he was named Abram. Did they know God had changed his name to Abraham? It’s possible. There was a line of communication with him somehow (Gen 22:20-24).

Just like fairy tales have the beautiful princess, they also have the rich prince who wants to marry her. We don’t like to think of marriage being about such superficial things, but it still doesn’t hurt, does it?

“Tale as old as time/ Song as old as rhyme/ Beauty and the Rich Prince.”

The servant says his master has become wealthy … and he has given [Isaac] all that he has. I’m sure Laban is happy to hear that, especially when he hears that Uncle Abe sent him to find a wife of “his father’s house,” and “of his kindred” (vv. 3-4, 37-38). Sister Rebekah fits that description. The servant goes on to tell the details of what Abraham told him, what he had prayed, and how Rebekah checked all the boxes (vv. 39-49). Except there is one more box that needs to be checked. Two actually.

Telephoning

“I said to my master, ‘Perhaps the woman will not follow me.’

“But he said to me, ‘The LORD, before whom I walk, will send his angel with you and make your way successful. You shall get a wife for my son from my kindred, from my father’s house. Then you will be free from my oath, when you come to my kindred; even if they will not give her to you, you will be free from my oath.’

(Gen 24:39-41 NRS)

Originally, Abraham told the servant he would be free from the oath “if the woman is not willing to follow you” (24:8).

Even if they will not give her to you, you will be free from my oath. This is the one detail the servant added (cf. vv. 3-27; 34-49). In recounting his oath to Abraham and the journey that led him to Rebekah, the servant told the story just as it happened, except they never discussed the possibility that her family will not give her to you.

This is an example of how and why telephoning occurs as stories are repeated. He is speaking to the male leaders of the household, Bethuel (her father) and Laban (her brother). It probably occurs to him then, “Oops! I didn’t ask my master what happens if her family will not let her go.”

But like Rebekah, they also have veto power over this. Adding this detail is his recognition that he needs their approval in order for his mission to be a success. Is it technically an exact literal retelling? Mostly, but not quite. Is it consistent with the spirit of the agreement, that if the party (or parties) concerned do not agree to the proposal, he is released from the vow? Yes. He cannot control their choice any more than he can control Rebekah’s.

The Thing Comes from the LORD

Then Laban and Bethuel answered, “The thing comes from the LORD; we cannot speak to you anything bad or good. Look, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the LORD has spoken.”

(Gen 24:50-51 NRS)

The thing comes from the LORD. That was obvious to everyone, considering how the LORD brought Rebekah to him as he was praying. They tell him he can take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son. Is this them saying, “We are the men of the house, and you, Rebekah, must do whatever we say”? Or is it them saying, “You have our blessing in this matter,” because they recognize that the LORD has spoken? I think it’s the latter, mainly because of what happens next.

When Abraham’s servant heard their words, he bowed himself to the ground before the LORD. And the servant brought out jewelry of silver and of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah; he also gave to her brother and to her mother costly ornaments.

(Gen 24:52-53 NRS)

My NRSV Study Bible note says these gifts are not a bride-price (v. 53 note). It is proper for him to give more gifts to Rebekah, and also to her brother and her mother, even though he still can’t be sure if Rebekah will come with him. The first necessary step has happened. An agreement has been made with her family, so it is time to celebrate. The gifts are extravagant, but his master can afford it.

We Will Call the Girl and Ask Her

Then he and the men who were with him ate and drank, and they spent the night there. When they rose in the morning, he said, “Send me back to my master.”

Her brother and her mother said, “Let the girl remain with us a while, at least ten days; after that she may go.”

But he said to them, “Do not delay me, since the LORD has made my journey successful; let me go that I may go to my master.”

They said, “We will call the girl, and ask her.”

(Gen 24:54-57 NRS)

Her brother and her mother. Again, even though the father was the final authority in the previous night’s negotiations, the mother still has a say in what happens to her daughter. And though the text does not mention her until now, this indicates she was probably there at the negotiations and nodded her agreement before her father spoke.

The servant anticipated having to get the girl’s agreement. It might seem a little late now to ask her. But in Biblical times, negotiations for the terms of a wedding always took place with the families first. We have seen the result of that. After the families of the boy and girl reached an agreement, the girl had to give her approval. So the possibility the servant raised with Abraham was still there. She could still say no.

And they called Rebekah, and said to her, “Will you go with this man?”

She said, “I will.”

(Gen 24:58 NRS)

Yes! The servant must have been ecstatic when he heard that. Imagine if she had said no. After all the signs that the LORD had blessed his mission and given him success, she could still have derailed the whole thing. But she said yes. Now there is nothing to stop him from delivering a bride to his master’s son. Not just any bride, but one that the LORD and his master together chose for him.

What Made Rebekah Agree to This?

On the face of it, it sounds crazy. We learn later that she is sixteen, significantly younger than Isaac. At the time, that was not unusual. Still, she is leaving her country, her kindred, and her father’s house to go to a foreign land (does that sound familiar?) and marry a man she has never met. What convinced her? Was it the extravagant gifts the servant showed? She knew that was just the tip of the iceberg. Clearly, his master had wealth to spare. I’m sure the servant talked up his master’s son. Maybe he said he is not only heir to his father’s wealth but his mother’s good looks as well.

I think more than anything, it was the uniqueness of this situation. She was exactly what his master told him to look for. He prayed for her to appear, and there she was. I admit sometimes it is hard to believe in God. But if this happened to you, it would be hard not to believe in God. The people of her home city worshipped the moon god Sin. But what had Sin done for her? Nothing like this, I’m sure. The LORD sent this servant to call her to be the wife of this man, who clearly had the LORD’s favor.

Who Are All These Camels For?

So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men.

(Gen 24:59 NRS)

Most rich young women at the time had a nurse, a female slave to tend to their needs. Rebekah needed a camel for her to ride as well. They don’t tell us how many men accompanied the servant, but it had to be less than eight, to be sure the woman could ride back, along with whatever she needed.

And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, “May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.”

(Gen 24:60 NRS)

That is the same blessing God pronounced over Isaac and his offspring (22:17). She will become thousands of myriads. God already promised that to Isaac and all of Abraham’s descendants. May your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes. Their wish for her, in other words, is that her enemies will have no power over her offspring. Again, this is what God promised through the angel who stopped Abraham from sacrificing him.

Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.

(Gen 24:61 NRS)

So it’s not just her nurse, but her maids. How many? Going back to the number of men, I’m guessing there was the servant and four men, each one riding a camel and leading another. That would leave five camels for Rebekah, her nurse, her maids, and her belongings.

Isaac Meets His Bride

Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming.

(Gen 24:62-63 NRS)

Beer-lahai-roi, see Gen 16:6-16. If he had come from here and was settled in the Negeb, that indicates he was not with his father, whom we last saw at Kiriath-arba (cf. 23:2ff). The text does not say where Abraham was when he sent the servant on this mission, so we can only assume he was still there.

The servant has returned, and it looks like his journey was a success. All the camels are either mounted or loaded with baggage.

And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?”

The servant said, “It is my master.”

So she took her veil and covered herself.

(Gen 24:64-65 NRS)

“Oh, he’s my husband.” She can’t let him see her before the wedding, so she took her veil and covered herself. Cf. Gen 29:20-25.

And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done.

(Gen 24:66 NRS)

And that was quite a story. If Isaac had any doubt she was the one for him, it was gone after the servant told him everything that happened. He was forty, and she was sixteen, which for us today would be a problem. But again, it was not uncommon for this time.

He Brought Her into His Mother’s Tent

Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

(Gen 24:67 NRS)

Isaac brought her into his mother’s tent. Rebekah brought the servant to her mother’s household. It was there she learned about Isaac, so this is a nice full-circle moment.

This is another one of those humanizing moments, like I talked about in the last post. Writers, you should pay attention to this. We learned in Genesis 23 that Isaac was thirty-six when his mother died. We learn in the next chapter he was forty when he married Rebekah (25:20). It’s been four years, and he still lives in his mother’s tent. He still needs to be comforted. I haven’t lost my either of my parents, but if you have, you probably understand why he still mourns.

He took Rebekah. “Wait, we can’t talk about sex.” I always find it ironic that Christian literature often avoids talking about sex, but the Bible has no problem talking about it. In this particular case, it is not long or detailed, but it is one of the most beautiful “love scenes” in the Bible. He brought her into his mother’s tent. He took her. She became his wife. He loved her. She comforted him.

This is an example of how sex becomes making love. And in the right circumstances, with the right person, it can be a source of comfort for the wounds we carry in our hearts. It is also the perfect closure for an episode that began with Sarah’s death (23:1-2). We see her presence still looms large in Isaac’s life. And in a subtle way, it gives us a sense that she would be happy with how this worked out for her son.

And for this story’s original audience, this was the moment when both their ancestry and the bloodline of the Messiah was secured for one more generation. They didn’t have a child yet, but Isaac and Rebekah would become the parents of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau.

For Writers: Self-Editing

You can (and should) get someone to edit your work. But before that, do as much self-editing as you can. One thing to look for is whether you gave the details the reader needs when they need them. At first, we are told the man goes with ten camels and all kinds of choice gifts. Later, we are told there are men with him, though not how many. The reader has one picture in their head. I wondered at first how one man could lead ten camels. Then they have to erase that picture to account for more men on the camels.

How many men? If we know that, we can guess how many camels are carrying men, since each man can only ride one camel. It was probably less than ten men, because some of the camels carried gifts. But the image would have been clearer if he had said how many men were riding. Instead, we have these men magically appear beside him in Bethuel’s tent.

And then we have this.

And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?”

(Gen 24:64-65a NRS)

When she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel. It sounds like she hopped off the camel while it was still moving, and immediately started talking to the servant. That would be a neat trick. Most people would wait for the camels to stop and kneel down (like the servant did, v. 11). And that’s probably what happened. But the way it was written made it sound like something else. You don’t want to make the reader stop to try to figure out what you mean. Make it clear from the beginning how many men are coming with the servant. Make it clear that the camels have stopped and knelt down before she “slips quickly from the camel.” The reader can fill in the rest of the details.

Translation Notes

It’s Charan, not Haran.

I have to correct an earlier mistake. In the post “Abraham’s Field of Dreams,” I noted that the city Abraham’s family moved to had the same name as his brother who died. That’s not true. It looks the same in English. But in Hebrew, the name of the city is Charan (with a cheit). It probably means “parched” (Hebrew) or “road” (Assyro-Babylonian). The “ch” is not pronounced like “church.” There is no equivalent in the English alphabet. It’s like the sound you make when you’re hocking up phlegm, as in “Chanukah,” or “chutzpah.”

Haran, Abraham’s brother, is spelled with a hei, which sounds like an “h.” It probably means “mountaineer.” Har is Hebrew for mountain.

That you have shown steadfast love … (Gen 24:14 NRS).

כִּי־עָשִׂ֥יתָ חֶ֖סֶד  (Gen 24:14 WTT)

Whenever you see “steadfast love” in the NRSV, the Hebrew word is probably chesed. When it follows the verb `asah, Halladay’s lexicon renders it “show loyalty.” In this context, it would mean loyalty or faithfulness.

The servant is there on a crucial task for his master. He knows all the difficulties the LORD overcame in giving Abraham and Sarah a son. But it will all be for naught if Isaac does not have a wife, so he can continue the covenant and the bloodline to the next generation. He has seen the LORD show chesed to his master in many ways. Since so much depends on the success of this mission, he is asking the LORD to show “loyalty” (or “steadfast love” in the NRSV) to him now.

Hol2710  חֶסֶד  noun common masculine singular absolute homonym 2

‘asâ chesed show loyalty Gn 2123; [24:14].

Hol6607  עָשָׂה verb qal perfect 2nd person masculine singular homonym 1  

A Half-Shekel … Ten Shekels

A gold nose-ring weighing a half shekel, and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekels (24:22).

A shekel weighs about 0.4 oz., or 11.34 grams. The gold nose-ring would be about 0.2 ounces (5.67 grams). The bracelets would be 4 ounces, or a quarter-pound (113.4 grams).

Shekel. Measurements Converter.”

… His Steadfast Love and His Faithfulness (24:27 NRS)

חַסְדּ֛וֹ וַאֲמִתּ֖וֹ (Gen 24:27 WTT)

“Steadfast love,” in Hebrew, chesed. “Faithfulness,” in Hebrew ‘emet. Halladay’s lexicon notes when paired together, chesed and ‘emet means “lasting loyalty, faithfulness,” or “lasting kindness.” The idea is God’s faithfulness and loyalty [to his master] never wavers or ends.

Hol609  אֱמֶת  noun common feminine singular construct suffix 3rd person masculine singular

hesed we’emet lasting kindness Gn 2449; a) of God 2427, b) of men 2449.” See also “hesed we’emet Gn 2427•49 lasting loyalty, faithfulness;” (chesed, p. 111).

References

Seal of king Ur-Nammu museum page

Haran (Biblical place), Wikipedia

Haran and Family Tree of Terah, Abraham’s Father

Shekel. Measurements Converter.”

From Seinfeld, George explains "shiksappeal" to Elaine

Sarah Dies and Isaac Needs a Wife

In Genesis 23, Abraham moved away from Beer-sheba. While he was there, he passed off Sarah to king Abimelech as his sister, had a son with Sarah at an impossible age, sent Hagar and Ishmael away at Sarah’s insistence, made a covenant of friendship with Abimelech, and nearly sacrificed Isaac on Mount Moriah. Now, he has brought Sarah and his household to Kiriath-arba, also called Hebron.

Map of Hebron, a.k.a., Kiriath-arba, and surrounding area
Hebron, a.k.a., Kiriath-arba, located about 20 miles south of Jerusalem.

He and Sarah have some history there. After he and Lot separated, he settled there at the Oaks of Mamre nearby (Gen 13:18). They were living there when he had to rescue Lot from the kings of Goiim (Genesis 14:1-15).

Sarah lived one hundred twenty-seven years; this was the length of Sarah’s life. And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.

(Gen 23:1-2 NRS)

One hundred twenty-seven years, so Abraham is one hundred thirty-six, and Isaac is thirty-six.

Kiriath-arba, named for Arba, the greatest of the Anakim (Gen 14:15). The last time we saw Abraham and Sarah in this area, Abraham hosted three angels before they went to Sodom (Genesis 18). This was when Sarah heard the angel of the LORD promise she would have a son and name him Isaac. Abraham was ninety-nine, and Sarah was ninety. They had moved to Beer-sheba by the time Isaac was born (Gen 20:1; 21:1). So it’s been thirty-six or thirty-seven years since then.

Though they have not been here in a while, the place has some memories for them. Perhaps he came because he Sarah asked him to bury her here.

Find the Anachronism

Abraham rose up from beside his dead, and said to the Hittites, “I am a stranger and an alien residing among you; give me property among you for a burying place, so that I may bury my dead out of my sight.”

The Hittites answered Abraham, “Hear us, my lord; you are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold from you any burial ground for burying your dead.”

(Gen 23:3-6 NRS)

The Hittites, a bit of a misnomer. The Hittites, like the Philistines, did not show up here until several centuries later. The Hebrew is literally “sons of Heth,” meaning “pre-Israelite inhabitants of Palestine” (HC NRSV 23:3 note; see also 10:15). On the history of the Hittites in the region, see Eze 16:3, 45.

I am a stranger and an alien residing among you. Kindness to the stranger and alien was always important to Abraham and his sense of right and wrong. Even Lot, who seems to have been corrupted by living among the Sodomites, never forgot that. My HarperCollins NRSV study note says “Ownership of burial land is a crucial step in establishing legal residence” (23:1-20 note). We are starting to see the of fulfillment of God’s promise to give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants. Abraham has the well of Beer-sheba, and now the cave of Machpelah.

A Hero’s Welcome

Even though Abraham has not been there in decades, the sons of Heth have not forgotten him. They speak to him with the same respect he shows them. When Abraham rescued Lot from kidnappers, I wonder if some of their children were among the others he rescued. That seems the most likely explanation for calling him a mighty prince among us.

Bury my dead. He doesn’t say, “bury my wife.” The phrase suggests a legal formula.

Abraham rose and bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land. He said to them, “If you are willing that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me, and entreat for me Ephron son of Zohar, so that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns; it is at the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me in your presence as a possession for a burying place.”

Now Ephron was sitting among the Hittites; and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, of all who went in at the gate of his city, “No, my lord, hear me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it; in the presence of my people I give it to you; bury your dead.”

(Gen 23:7-11 NRS)

Even though Ephron seems to know him well, Abraham speaks almost as if he doesn’t recognize him. Entreat for me…, also suggests a legal formula or ritual.

Abraham wanted the cave of Machpelah to bury his dead. He knows Ephron son of Zohar owns this land. The names are Semitic, not Hittite. Cf. 26:34; 2 Sa 11:3.

All who went in at the gate of the city, where business transactions often took place. This is likely a formal description of the elders of the city, who judged or decided official matters. The way they speak, especially Abraham, sounds very formal, as if this were a familiar ceremony to the sons of Heth.

Abraham offers to buy it for the full price, because he needs a burying place. But instead, Ephron offers to give it to him. He’s being very generous.

Listen to Me! No, You Listen to Me!

Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. He said to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, “If you only will listen to me! I will give the price of the field; accept it from me, so that I may bury my dead there.”

Ephron answered Abraham, “My lord, listen to me; a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver—what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.”

(Gen 23:12-15 NRS)

Business in the Middle East almost always involves haggling. Usually the buyer tries to argue down the price, and the seller argues for more. But here Abraham wants to pay more, and Ephron is trying to give it away. Abraham wants to give the price of the field, so that I may bury my dead there. Ephron says he can bury his dead there. But he doesn’t want to take any money. “I give it to you,” he says. “Bury your dead.”

A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver…, Ephron must be fairly wealthy, because four hundred pieces of silver was nothing to sneeze at. It only took thirty pieces of silver for Judas to sell out Jesus.

What is that between you and me? This is something you say to someone who has been a friend for a long time. He’s saying, “Four hundred shekels of silver is nothing compared to our friendship. Just take it. It’s yours. Bury your dead.”

An Agreement Is Reached

Abraham agreed with Ephron; and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants.

(Gen 23:16 NRS)

Abraham agreed, lit. heard. Cf. vv. 6, 11, 13; Translation Notes. Ephron was willing to give him the land for free, but Abraham still insisted on paying. This reminds me of the time when King David wanted to secure the Ark of the Covenant on Mount Zion. A man named Araunah was keeping it on his threshing floor. David wanted to buy the land to build an altar to the LORD and make burnt offerings there, before taking the Ark to the place God had chosen. Araunah recognized how important this was not just to David but to the whole nation. He offered his threshing floor to David for free, like Ephron did for Abraham. But David said,

“No, but I will buy them from you for a price; I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing.”

(2Sa 24:24 NRS)

I think Abraham felt the same way. He had been married to Sarah for a hundred years, maybe a little more, and he did not want to bury her in a place that cost him nothing.

So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area, passed to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, in the presence of all who went in at the gate of his city.

After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in it passed from the Hittites into Abraham’s possession as a burying place.

(Gen 23:17-20 NRS)

 Abraham has secured a burying place for his wife and himself. He will later be buried in the same cave (Gen 25:9-10; 49:29-32). And he got more than just the cave. He got the trees in the field too. In the last post, I talked about Abraham planting a tree. Here, he and Sarah wanted to claim a burial plot with trees around them. I bet they appreciated trees more than most people today, considering they spent a lot of time in the desert. Trees gave beauty, shade, and sign of life in the land.

For Writers: Humanizing Your Heroes

This scene is great for humanizing Abraham. We see him grieving the death of his wife. He knows exactly where he wants to bury her. The text doesn’t say Sarah requested this, but it’s not hard to imagine she did. We see his friendly relations with the people of Kiriath-arba. Though Abraham is a stranger and an alien among the Sons of Heth, they regard him as “a mighty prince among us.”

The text says, “He rose up from beside his dead” (23:3). He is still keeping her corpse. I see no indication how long this is, but he goes straight from a vigil beside her corpse to the sons of Heth. He says he wants this place to bury Sarah “so that I may bury my dead out of my sight” (23:4). Do you feel the pain in that? I sure do.

His negotiation with Ephron is the opposite of normal bartering. The seller tries to give it away, but the buyer insists on paying fair market value. But it is exactly the kind of negotiation that would happen between friends. Ephron recognizes Abraham’s loss. He is in a position to offer a special kindness to his friend. “You need to bury your wife, so go ahead. Take the field. It’s yours. Don’t worry about payment. Between you and me, this is nothing.” But Abraham can’t bring himself to accept it. He cannot bury his wife in a plot of land that costs him nothing. It’s a very touching moment.

A mighty prince like Abraham of course becomes known for doing great things. I think their favor and friendship to Abraham goes back to the incident where Abraham rescued Lot from the kings of Goiim. Abraham was actually living among the Oaks of Mamre nearby when this happened. I believe some of these Sons of Heth were among those taken captive. That is why they called him “a mighty prince.” And it’s possible that among them, his legend has grown greater in his absence.

But heroes need some humanity for the audience to connect with them. This is the kind of scene and humanization that will help your readers connect with your characters.

Finding a Wife for Isaac

In the next chapter, Abraham finally gets around to finding a wife for Isaac. It is a long chapter, so I’m going to start it in this post.

Isaac was thirty-six when Sarah died. Abraham still has not found a wife for him. He seems to be dragging his feet, considering how important it is to continue the bloodline of Isaac. I used to think the death of Sarah lit a fire under him to get moving—well, of course, give him time to mourn first—but it would be another four years before Abraham decided it was time to get his son hitched, so he could have a grandson (Gen 25:20). With the lifespans for Abraham and his family typically being in the mid- to late- hundreds, maybe this was not so unusual. And God gave Isaac to him and Sarah when they were in their nineties, so maybe he did not think about it much.

Now, don’t roll your eyes at me. I’ve explained in earlier posts this writer’s audience had heard stories of impossibly long lifespans in the ancient world, and how he used his audience’s expectations in Abraham’s saga.

For some reason, he decides now is the time.

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years; and the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.

(Gen 24:1 NRS)

Abraham was old, well advanced in years. This could be the reason. We are told later Isaac was forty, which would make Abraham one hundred forty (Gen 25:20). If he was close to dying, that would explain why he felt now was the time to find a wife for Isaac. He would want to be sure that was taken care of before he was dead and buried. But he went on to live to one hundred seventy-five (Gen 25:7). It doesn’t sound like he should be on his death bed yet.

Under His Thigh? Blessed Be.

Abraham calls in his most trusted servant and charges him with finding a wife for Isaac. He makes the servant swear in an unusual manner. This is another example of how different cultural practices can make us uncomfortable when we see them for the first time.

Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his house, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and earth,

(Gen 24:2-3a NRS)

Say what??? Put your hand under my thigh? That almost sounds like sexual harassment. But that is not what Abraham has in mind. My HarperCollins NRSV study note says “Near the organs of procreation, signifying the solemnity of the oath that follows.”

Okay. Apparently, this was a custom of the time, even though this is the only place in the Bible where two people make a vow in this manner. If I were the servant, though, I think I’d say, “Can’t I just split a sheep in half and vow to you while I walk through the blood?” (See Gen 15:9-21).

Abraham has some very specific ideas about the kind of woman he wants for Isaac, so here’s the vow.

“…that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but will go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.”

(Gen 24:3b-4 NRS)

One requirement is he does not want Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman. The local girls aren’t right for his son. The servant has to go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.” He does not want a shiksa for a daughter-in-law. I have a feeling, if Sarah were alive, she would say the same thing. Remember how George explained “shiksappeal” to Elaine in this scene from Seinfeld, the “Serenity Now” episode?

Seinfeld Meme, George tells Elaine, "You've got 'shiksappeal.' Jewish men love the idea of meeting a woman that's not like their mother."
No shiksa for Isaac.

His country could be in Ur of the Chaldees or Mesopotamia in general. But when he says he wants the servant to go to his kindred and get a wife for Isaac, that means going to Haran, where his brother Nahor still lived. The Hebrew word for kindred (moledeth) refers specifically to a blood relative, so he wants a woman from his brother’s family. Remember, Abraham was married to his half-sister, Sarah. The woman the servant would bring back would most likely be Isaac’s cousin. This kind of incestuous marriage would later be forbidden in the Law of Moses. But to Abraham and his family, marrying within the family appeared to be not only accepted but preferred.

Princess Leia: "I kissed my brother once." Cersei Lannister: "That's cute."
Cersei: That’s cute.

The servant said to him, “Perhaps the woman may not be willing to follow me to this land; must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?”

Abraham said to him, “See to it that you do not take my son back there. The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.”

So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master and swore to him concerning this matter.

(Gen 24:5-9 NRS)

Abraham seems to have conflicting desires for his son. He does not want Isaac to take a wife among the people where he lives. However, he does not want Isaac going back to their country, where an acceptable wife could be found. So he sends his servant to go without Isaac and entrusts the choice to the LORD, the God of heaven.

He trusts God with this, because God was the one who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth and … swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ That explains why he does not want Isaac to go there himself. They were already in the land God promised them. There is no place in the kingdom of heaven for those who, after beginning to follow the LORD, turn back to where they were before.

[The LORD] will send his angel before you. The servant has been around his master long enough to know he is a prophet (Gen 20:7), so that should make him feel better about his prospects for success. However, the servant recognizes he could make the journey, find a woman suitable for Isaac, and she could still veto his choice. Abraham tells him if that happens, he is off the hook as far as this vow goes. Apparently, even in this patriarchal society, the woman did have some control over who she married. In that case, Abraham will have to come up with a plan B.

What will happen to the servant when he gets to Haran? Will he find a wife suitable for Isaac? Will she agree to leave her country and kindred and go back with the servant? Will she marry Isaac sight unseen and become part of the bloodline of the Messiah? Tune in next week and find out, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel. (Or, to state the obvious, you could read the rest of Genesis 24).

Further Study

-Location and references to Kiriath-arba (Hebron).

-Oaks of Mamre: “Do You Want a Long Life?” God as a Gardener (blog).

Wikipedia

The Hittites

Hittites of the Bible

Kiryat Arba

Translation Notes

Oak of Mamre (Quercus calliprinos), called a Palestinian Oak, the most common tree in the modern nation of Israel. Sometimes mistakenly translated “terebinth,” which is actually a different tree.

“In the Bible, oaks were associated with power, strength, or longevity in the sense of long life. The great oaks of Mamre symbolized Abraham’s long life. A Palestinian oak near Hebron, called Abraham’s Oak, is thought to be over 850 years old.”

-Carolyn Roth, “Do You Want a Long Life?

Kiryat Arba or Qiryat Arba (Hebrew: קִרְיַת־אַרְבַּע), lit. “Town of the Four.”

Arba in Hebrew is “four.” It is also the name of the father of Anak, founder of the Anakim. Anak, who was believed to have been a giant, had three sons, Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai, also believed to have been giants (Jos 15:13-14). If Arba here means “four,” then this could mean the town of the four giants. Or it could refer to the four patriarchs who are buried there: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Adam. Adam’s placement here does not come from the Bible but from a Rabbinic tradition called the Zohar.


“Abraham agreed with Ephron” (Gen 23:16 NRS). וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע (WTT). qal waw consecutive masculine singular. Halladay gives one possible translation as “heed,” which matches “agree with” in this translation.

8737  שָׁמַע  

1. hear: abs. Is 12; w. acc.: s.one speak Gn 276, voice 310, trumpet Je 419listen to s.one Ez 37; w. acc. of thing (content of message) Ps 1326; w. kî 2S 1126; w. indir. qn. Ju 711; w. dir. qn. w/o introduction Dt 92; — 2. listen to s.thg Am 523, abs. Gn 275; listen (& agree) 238; w. °el Is 463, … Pr 834; … gladly hear 2S 1936; — 3. heed (a request) Gn 1720; 306, … 1611; — 4. hear > obey Ex 247;… Gn 2218, … 287; abs. be obedient 2K 1411; — 5. hear = understand: obj. … Gn 117; … — 6. š¹ma± bên try, examine (as a judge) Dt 116; distinguish 2S 1417.

(Halladay, p. 377)