Chayei Sarah – conflicting accounts, magic, marriage, love

 

The following is a brief version of an excerpt from “what’s Beyond the Bible Text” by Rabbi Dr. Stanley Wagner and me that was published in September 2013. We usually put three articles for each biblical portion, generally discussing thought-provoking subjects that people will not find elsewhere. This week’s essay is from Chayei Sarah.

 

                                                               Abraham’s Servant Finding a Wife for Isaac (Genesis 24)

 

Two different biblical accounts of a single event

We can understand one of the Bible’s characteristics by comparing the two different accounts of Abraham’s servant’s mission to find a wife for Isaac, Abraham’s son. The first is the Torah’s objective version. The second is the servant’s view of the events as he relates them to Rebecca’s family.

Verse 1 in chapter 24 and verse 35 are different: in 35 the servant details many of Abraham’s holdings, while 1 only states “the Lord blessed Abraham in all things.” Verse 3 details the oath Abraham administered to the servant, but 37 has a shorter version. Verse 38 mentions “father’s house,” while 4 speaks only of “kindred.” Abraham tells his history in 7, which is omitted in the servant’s recital in 41. Verses 5 and 39 are different: the servant omits in his retelling his suggestion to Abraham. Similarly, there no parallel to the latter part of verse 8 when the servant told the story. Verses 16–19 are different than 45–46 where the servant seems to be underplaying the magnitude of Rebecca’s act of kindness by not emphasizing that she drew enough water to quench all of the camels’ thirst. When we compare 22–23 and 47 it seems that the servant is reversing the sequence of events in telling what happened. So too verse 12 is different than 42, and 26 from 48.

Do these two apparently different versions of a single event suggest that they are different accounts composed by different authors who were passing on unlike traditions they received of this ancient tale?

Abraham Ibn Ezra answers “no.”[1] Despite all of the apparent differences noted above, and there are others as well, he states this is one story. He explains that whenever the Bible repeats something—an episode or a law—it always does so with changes, additions, and deletions. This is simply the biblical style. A good example is the two versions of the Decalogue, in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. By reading the two versions of the servant’s adventure in tandem, we get a deeper understanding of the event as well as an insight into the servant’s hidden thinking.

 

Did Abraham’s servant choose a wife for Isaac with magic?

Some sages suggest that the servant’s method for determining who would be an appropriate wife for Isaac was divination, which is prohibited by the Torah.[2] The servant said that if she volunteered to water his animals when he asked for water for himself, her act would show that she was the woman for Isaac. The sages point out that when a person does something, it shouldn’t be considered a sign or proof of something else. This is superstition. A person should make life decisions based on facts, on reality, not fantasy.

But Rabbeinu Nissim, among others, argues that the servant didn’t perform divination. He explains that divination is a decision-making process that has no rational basis, one based solely on the unnatural. In this case Abraham’s servant was not looking for a sign. He was seeking a person who showed the virtue of loving-kindness.

The Bible teaches that people should be kind to animals. Maimonides explained that this is because animals have feelings. Nachmanides disagreed and said that humans should treat animals kindly to help them (the humans) develop kind habits with which they will later treat their fellow. See, for example, Exodus 20:10; Leviticus 25:7; Numbers 22:32, and Deuteronomy 22:6–7, 25:4.

 

No marriage ceremony in the Bible

Verse 7 is interesting and thought-provoking. It states that Isaac “took Rebecca, she became his wife, and he loved her.” He “took” her, but there is no indication of any other ceremony; no ring, no vows, no blessings.

What is the meaning of “took”? The Talmud and scholars recognize that “took” in this and other instances means sexual intercourse with the intention of living together as husband and wife, which was the ancient method of marriage. There was no ceremony like there is today. The rabbis thought this was indecent and discouraged couple from marrying in this fashion. They instituted two other means of marriage: the husband giving his bride something of value, such as a ring, or by he giving her a contract saying he is taking her as his wife.

While the rabbis made this advancement, they have still not allowed women to perform the marriage ceremony by giving the item or contract; not do they allow women to initiate a divorce.

 

Love and marriage

Is the sequence of the verse significant? Shouldn’t love come before marriage? Or, is it more important that love grows after marriage? Is the Bible providing us with an important lesson? What is the lesson?

Are we reading too much into this verse? Isaac was not expected to love Rebecca before his marriage. This was an arranged match. The servant brought Rebecca to Isaac and he had to marry her, whether he liked her or not. This is the plain meaning of the narrative, and questions such as “the sequence of the verses” are homiletical teachings unrelated to the plain meaning.

Isaac is the first biblical figure about whom the Bible states that he loved his wife. Yet, we discover later that there are problems between them. She loves their son Jacob more, and he Esau. She helps Jacob deceive his father and take a blessing from him that he intended to give to Esau. Should we read the statement “and he loved her” as irony?



[1] In his commentary on Exodus 20:2.

[2] As discussed in the Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 4a.

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