I started this afternoon, looking at the Biblical narrative surrounding Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel, sister of Laban, wife of Isaac, and mother of Jacob and Esau. Her history can be found in the Book of Genesis, specifically chapters 24 through 27.
I focused on the question: Is Rebekah a “wife of noble character” (Proverbs 31:10)?
When Abraham’s servant Eliezer finds Rebekah at the well in the town of Nahor (Genesis 24), she immediately offers the weary traveler a drink of water from her jar. Not only that, but she offers to draw water from the well for his camels, too—TEN camels, who can drink as much as 25 gallons of water at a time to rehydrate! She makes this offer without hesitation, and carries out the task without any recorded grumbling, which suggests a noble character indeed!
But once she becomes a wife and mother, the tone of her story changes.
Rebekah should have seen that God had a great plan to work out in her life. After all, she conceives after twenty years of barrenness, in response to Isaac’s prayer to God on her behalf (Genesis 25:21). And when Rebekah inquires of God why there is so much jostling in her womb, He tells her very clearly that two separate nations will come from the children she will bear, that the older will serve the younger, and that the people of one would be stronger than the people of the other (Genesis 25:22-23). God clearly has plans for her twins!
From the beginning she favors the younger twin, Jacob, over the older twin, Esau. Esau only makes matters worse by taking two non-Hebrew women as wives (Genesis 26:34-35). He seemed to be snubbing his cultural and spiritual heritage by marrying among the Hittites, and bringing these outsiders into his Hebrew mother’s home. Rebekah even says of her other son, Jacob: “If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living” (Genesis 27:46). From my 21st century American perspective, it is hard to condone such a narrow-minded view of intercultural marriage, but Rebekah’s understanding of the special status of the Hebrew people in the sight of God gives her an entirely different point of view.
But rather than trusting God’s plan to bring about Jacob’s ascendance over Esau, foretold by the Lord when they were still in the womb, Rebekah takes matters into her own hands by following a path of deceit. Here is what happened:
When Isaac was very, very old, he asked Esau to hunt some wild game and prepare him a tasty meal, and then Isaac would give his son the awaited blessing. When Rebekah heard Isaac’s request, she went to Jacob and told him that while Esau is out hunting, Jacob should bring her two young goats, so SHE could fix the tasty food for Isaac. To further the deceit, she dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothing and covers his exposed skin with goatskins so he would feel hairy like Esau. Her deception is well-conceived and complete! “Just do what I say,” she tells her son Jacob, when he worries that her plan will fail and result in a curse rather than a blessing (Genesis 27:12-13).
Proverbs 31 tells us that when it comes to the wife of noble character, “Her husband has full confidence in her” (Proverbs 31:11). Not only that, but “she brings him good, not harm” (Proverbs 31:12), and “her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land” (Proverbs 31:23).
Now, Isaac is too old and blind and sick to take his seat at the city gate, but what kind of reception do you think he would receive once the elders knew that his wife had tricked him into giving the birthright blessing to his second son Jacob in place of the first-born Esau?
How much confidence could Isaac possibly have in a woman who schemed to give her “favorite son” this honor that amounted to legal privilege in the Middle East at this time?
How much good could possibly come to Isaac and his family by dividing the brothers against one another, making one of them (Esau) murderous, and the other (Jacob) frightened for his life?
Further, the Proverbs 31 woman “is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come” (Proverbs 31:25). Where does a woman get the confidence to laugh at the days to come? It comes, Proverbs tells us, from a fear of the Lord (31:30). When we have confidence in God’s plan, we have no need to worry about the future; Rebekah, on the other hand, manipulates her circumstances to turn the future in the direction she desires, to see her favored son honored. But to make sure the unfavored son Esau is passed over and denied his birthright blessing is to thwart God entirely. If His intention is to see Esau favored with the birthright blessing of the firstborn, then Rebekah has denied His Will. If His intention is to see Esau serving under his brother, as the Lord’s prophecy during Rebekah’s pregnancy suggests, then she is thwarting His will by manipulating her circumstances to suit her own will. Either way, Rebekah does not display the fear of the Lord that is to be praised (Proverbs 31:30).
And what is she teaching her sons about honesty, about respect for their father, about honoring their Hebrew heritage? The woman described in Proverbs 31 “speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue” (v. 26). Rebekah does not embody this ideal with her duplicitous behavior. “She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness” (Proverbs 31:27). Rebekah stays busy around her house—busy furthering her own agenda for her favored son! She knows how to fix her husband’s food just the way he likes it (Genesis 27:15), but she puts that knowledge to a deceptive use.
“Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: ‘Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all’” (Proverbs 31: 28-29). Upon discovering the deception, Isaac “trembled violently” (Genesis 27:33) and Esau “burst out with a loud and bitter cry” (Genesis 27:34)—not exactly the look and sound of blessing, by far! No direct accusation against Rebekah appears in the Scriptures I have found, and Esau’s grudge is specifically against his brother Jacob (Genesis 27:41), but the damage of Rebekah’s conniving plan and deception are done, and it will take God’s graceful handling of the situation to undo the harm she causes.
Rebekah serves as a kind of counter-example to the Wife of Noble Character described in Proverbs 31. If she could have balanced a concern for all members of her household, rather than protecting the interests of one favored son, then the example she presents for women, wives, and mothers throughout history would look quite different. If she could have trusted in the Lord’s plan, and His means and timing for enacting that plan, then her story would look quite different as well.
Can you see the elements of a modern novel or movie in this bit of Old Testament history? I sure can! Favoritism, sibling rivalry, betrayal, deception. Where have you seen current-day motivations and actions that mirror what happened in Rebekah’s life story? In what ways is this narrative still relevant for us today? I hope you will read the original text of the story in the Book of Genesis, and consider these questions.
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