What does it mean to be an Old Testament patriarch? Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are set apart by their covenants with God: Abraham seeks out inspiration and is granted a posterity greater in number than the stars of the sky. His son Isaac receives the same blessing; and Jacob, after supplanting the birthright of his older twin, becomes Israel, the founder of a nation.
Then what does it mean to be a matriarch? And how do the matriarchs differ from these men? Among the wives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Rebekah stands out as a particularly strong example of the vision and divine ambition of these founders of Israel. What points can be learned from her about women within the Abrahamic covenant?
1. Rebekah’s recorded lineage gives special attention to her female forebears. When Rebekah runs home, it is to “her mother’s house” (Gen. 24:28); her grandmother is named three times in this same chapter. This reminds us that the Abrahamic covenant is dependent on the wife’s divinely chosen status as well as the husband’s. The significance of Rebekah’s role is re-emphasized right before she leaves home, when her relatives give her a blessing that sounds like that given to Abraham: “be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them” (Gen. 24:60).
2. Rebekah’s marriage to Isaac is arranged by the servant of Abraham. But Rebekah herself plays a part in her own marriage negotiation. When the servant asks Rebekah’s family to let him travel immediately back to his master, her opinion matters. Abraham’s servant tells and re-tells his experience of being divinely guided to find her, but Rebekah is the one who has the final word, saying “I will go” (Gen. 24:58). This moment emphasizes Rebekah’s agency. Even in the midst of a destiny that seems inevitably charted by God, this free consent is important.
3. Isaac loves Rebekah and has no other wives (Gen. 24:67). Not much is said about their marriage, except that it lacks some of the contentiousness of other Old Testament marriages.
4. Once married, Rebekah waits twenty years before she is able to have children. When she finally conceives she is sick and uncomfortable. Her recourse? To pray and ask God, “why am I thus?” He responds with a prophecy of the future destiny of her twin sons. Rebekah does not stand passively by after this visionary experience, but goes to great lengths to bring the prophecy to fruition (Gen. 27), demonstrating not only women’s potential for spiritual gifts but their initiative and daring.
5. Finally, Rebekah is human, and the Genesis narrative is open-ended in its judgment of her morality or righteousness. For example, we aren’t told exactly why she was so willing to travel far from home to marry her cousin. Was it a desire for wealth? A dissatisfaction with her present life?…or did she instead show simple humility before the Lord and exercise faith in her own covenant destiny? We also aren’t told whether her deception of Isaac was justified in the Lord’s eyes or whether she felt penitent for this scheme. The unembellished narrative invites us in without offering judgment on its own human characters.
Rebekah provides a narrative model of the matriarchal role, but her story (like many in the Old Testament) can be approached from various different interpretive angles. When I read the stories of Genesis 24 – 28, I am reminded of two of these interpretative approaches:
1. The Old Testament is powerful in that it can be read as a series of simple, moral stories. That’s one way of reading them. In this way, Rebekah’s feeding the camels of Abraham’s servant tells a story of kindness rewarded with good fortune. And her simple answer to the servant’s proposal of marriage becomes a lesson in submissive faith. These stories offer worthy models of behavior.
2. But the Old Testament can also be read not as moral exempla but as stories in which humans keep on making mistake after mistake. They become a way for us to see how not to live. What would have happened, for example, if Jacob and Rebekah had not resorted to trickery? Would the eventual nations of Israel and Edom have been a strong, united covenant people, not plagued by wars and contentions? The patriarchs and matriarchs were human beings, and in many of these narratives, their actions can be seen as causing trouble for themselves and their descendants. As readers, we are allowed to evaluate their choices and decide that we should not follow their example but to instead recognize God as the most important character– an omnipotent being who can work around the faults and follies of his children for their own good.
The Old Testament doesn’t offer a definitive moral, typological, or any other interpretation. Instead, its stories invite us not to close the book on our interpretive process. We never master the scriptures as we might our multiplication tables, and the Old Testament never lets us forget that. It gives us characters that are problematic, stories full of moral quandaries, and scenarios that prove very different points depending on who is reading them and when and why. This is not a flaw in the text. The act of reading — the struggle for meaning — is akin to our struggle to know God. This process requires us to think, to choose, to exercise our human agency as we interpret and re-interpret holy scripture — a thorny but fruitful path.
So, to conclude — I love Rebekah. She reminds me of my humanity. She reminds me of our gift of agency. Sometimes we use this gift ethically, sometimes in faith, and other times out of pain or suffering or selfishness, but God honors that agency and still hears us and loves us. And what better book to teach us about agency than Genesis? It shies away from dogmatic and didactic moralism. It gives us human examples and invites us to read with both empowerment and humility, to seek God in these stories of humanity and divinity.