A Wife for Isaac: From Abraham’s Hometown or Family?
Repeated stories are common in the Bible. The narrator describes an event and then one of the characters in the story retells it.
The most elaborate twice-told tale of the Hebrew Bible is the story of the finding of Rebekah in Parashat Chaye Sarah. In this story, Abraham sends his servant back to Mesopotamia to find a wife for his son, Isaac. The biblical narrator tells the story, and later we hear the story again from the servant’s point of view once he sits down with the potential bride’s family.
The general outline of the story does not change between the telling and the retelling. Nevertheless, Nechama Leibowitz (1905-1997), the masterful Israeli Bible teacher, succeeded in identifying twenty significant differences between the original narration and the retelling.
Changing “My Home Town” to “My Family’s Home”
Arguably, the most significant is that in the original narration, Abraham instructs his servant to go to ארצי ומולדתי, generally understood as “my land, my native land.” But when the servant retells the story, he says that Abraham had told him to go אל בית אבי ולמשפחתי, to “my father’s house, to my family.”
- The Story
בראשית כד:ג …לֹֽא־תִקַּ֤ח אִשָּׁה֙ לִבְנִ֔י מִבְּנוֹת֙ הַֽכְּנַעֲנִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י יוֹשֵׁ֥ב בְּקִרְבּֽוֹ:
Gen 24:3 …[Y]ou shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell,
כד:ד כִּ֧י אֶל־אַרְצִ֛י וְאֶל־מוֹלַדְתִּ֖י תֵּלֵ֑ךְ וְלָקַחְתָּ֥ אִשָּׁ֖ה לִבְנִ֥י לְיִצְחָֽק:
24:4 but shall go to my land, my native land and get a wife for my son Isaac.”
- The Servant's Rendition
כד:לז …לֹא־תִקַּ֤ח אִשָּׁה֙ לִבְנִ֔י מִבְּנוֹת֙ הַֽכְּנַעֲנִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י יֹשֵׁ֥ב בְּאַרְצֽוֹ:
24:37 …You shall not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites in whose land I dwell;
כד:לח אִם־לֹ֧א אֶל־בֵּית־אָבִ֛י תֵּלֵ֖ךְ וְאֶל־מִשְׁפַּחְתִּ֑י וְלָקַחְתָּ֥ אִשָּׁ֖ה לִבְנִֽי:
24:38 unless you go to my father’s house, to my family, and get a wife for my son.’
The Servant Lied to be Persuasive
Why the difference? Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, 1800-1865, Italy) expanding upon Abarbanel’s interpretation, suggests that the servant consciously adjusted the facts to make his proposed shiddukh more persuasive.
וכאן שינה אליעזר, ואף על פי שאברהם התיר לו לקחת מכל בנות העיר, אמר להם שרצונו שלא יקח רק ממשפחתו, כדי שיחשבו שהיה אברהם חפץ בקרבתם (דון יצחק).
Here Eliezer [the servant’s name, according to Jewish tradition] changed [the story line; i.e. misrepresented the instructions that he had been given]. Even though Abraham had told him to take a bride from anyone in that town, he told [the family] that Abraham wanted a bride [specifically] from his own family, so that they would think that Abraham thought highly of them. (Don Isaac [Abarbanel])
והנה אברהם היה יודע כי בני משפחתו אינם כשרים הרבה יותר משאר אנשי העיר, לפיכך אמר לאליעזר שיקח מבית אביו או מבנות המקום ההוא. אך אליעזר שראה שנתקיים נחש שלו והאמין כי אותה הוכיח ה’, השתדל שייתנוה בנפש חפצה ובשמחה, כי ישישו בשמעם שאין אברהם חפץ אלא בהם.
Actually, Abraham knew that his own family was hardly any more worthy than anyone else from that town, which is why Abraham told Eliezer that he could take from his family or anyone else in the town. But when Eliezer saw that the test that he had created worked, and believed that God must have approved of this specific match, he made efforts to convince them to agree to the match freely and happily. He knew that they would be happy to hear that Abraham was interested only in them. (Gen 24:38)
Shadal supports this point:
ועוד סיוע לזה מהנחש שעשה אליעזר, שהרי אם היה מושבע ועומד שלא לקחת אלא ממשפחת אברהם, היה לו לשאול מיד: איה בית נחור? ולא להמתין שתזדמן לו אשה מן השואבות אשר בלא ספק רבות היו, ואשר ממשפחת נחור היו בטלות במיעוטן בין כל בנות העיר.
Further proof [that the servant changed the story when he reported to the young woman’s family] can be adduced from the test that Eliezer created. Had he been sworn to find someone from Abraham’s family, he should have asked right away: “Where does Nahor’s clan live?” He should not have been waiting for just any woman to come and draw water. Certainly, there were many women in that town and only a minority of them would have been from Nahor’s family. (Gen 24:4)
Note also that while the servant, in general, abridged his retelling of the story, he kept belaboring in his retelling the point that Abraham had allegedly sent him specifically to his family.
כד:לח אִם־לֹ֧א אֶל־בֵּית־אָבִ֛י תֵּלֵ֖ךְ וְאֶל־מִשְׁפַּחְתִּ֑י וְלָקַחְתָּ֥ אִשָּׁ֖ה לִבְנִֽי:
24:38 But you shall go to my father’s house, to my family, and get a wife for my son.’
כד:מ …וְלָקַחְתָּ֤ אִשָּׁה֙ לִבְנִ֔י מִמִּשְׁפַּחְתִּ֖י וּמִבֵּ֥ית אָבִֽי:
24:40 …and you will get a wife for my son from my family, from my father’s house.
כד:מא אָ֤ז תִּנָּקֶה֙ מֵאָ֣לָתִ֔י כִּ֥י תָב֖וֹא אֶל־מִשְׁפַּחְתִּ֑י…
24:41 Thus only shall you be freed from my adjuration: if, you come to my family…
Perhaps the servant doth repeat himself too much!
According to the narrator, however, the servant actually sounds surprised at the miraculous coincidence that, with God’s help, he happened upon Isaac’s cousin.
כד:כז וַיֹּ֗אמֶר בָּר֤וּךְ יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵי֙ אֲדֹנִ֣י אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲ֠שֶׁר לֹֽא־עָזַ֥ב חַסְדּ֛וֹ וַאֲמִתּ֖וֹ מֵעִ֣ם אֲדֹנִ֑י אָנֹכִ֗י בַּדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ נָחַ֣נִי יְ-הֹוָ֔ה בֵּ֖ית אֲחֵ֥י אֲדֹנִֽי:
24:27 And he said: “Blessed be Yhwh, the God of my master Abraham, who has not withheld His steadfast faithfulness from my master. For I have been guided on my errand by Yhwh, to the house of my master’s kinsmen.”
This declaration sounds like that of a man who was not planning to find a girl that was his master’s relative, and is in awe of divine providence.
Contemporary Support of This Reading
In an essay on the importance of viewpoint in understanding biblical narratives, the contemporary Israeli literary scholar Meir Sternberg, like Shadal, concludes that,
[Abraham] does not… direct his servant to his family. 
Sternberg’s explanation for the servant’s misrepresentation is also like Shadal’s:
Rebekah’s guardians would obviously find it much harder to reject a proposal of marriage addressed to them as kinsmen than as Mesopotamians.
When and Why Does the Servant Give Rebekah the Presents?
Another support for this reading comes from the order of events, when the servant gives Rebekah the gifts intended for Isaac’s future bride.
- The Narration of the Story
The servant gives presents to the young woman before he knows who she is.
כד:כב וַיְהִ֗י כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר כִּלּ֤וּ הַגְּמַלִּים֙ לִשְׁתּ֔וֹת וַיִּקַּ֤ח הָאִישׁ֙ נֶ֣זֶם זָהָ֔ב בֶּ֖קַע מִשְׁקָל֑וֹ וּשְׁנֵ֤י צְמִידִים֙ עַל יָדֶ֔יהָ עֲשָׂרָ֥ה זָהָ֖ב מִשְׁקָלָֽם׃
24:22 When the camels had finished drinking, the man took a gold nose-ring weighing a half-shekel, and two gold bands for her arms, ten shekels in weight.
כד:כג וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ בַּת מִ֣י אַ֔תְּ הַגִּ֥ידִי נָ֖א לִ֑י הֲיֵ֧שׁ בֵּית אָבִ֛יךְ מָק֥וֹם לָ֖נוּ לָלִֽין׃
24:23 “Pray tell me,” he said, “whose daughter are you? Is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?”
כד:כד וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֔יו בַּת בְּתוּאֵ֖ל אָנֹ֑כִי בֶּן מִלְכָּ֕ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָלְדָ֖ה לְנָחֽוֹר׃
24:24 She replied, “I am the daughter of Bethuel the son of Milcah, who she bore to Nahor.”
Sternberg explains how the servant’s actions in the original narration, when he gave gifts to a woman whose identity he didn’t know, made sense:
Far from being looked down on [by readers] for his ignorance of the recipient’s identity, the ambassador further endears himself to us by covering Rebekah with gold, because it is exactly his unawareness of the fact that clinches his awareness of the principle: the young woman has earned the gifts, since nothing counts like personal merit.
But when the servant retells the story, he changes the order:
- The Servant’s Retelling
כד:מז וָאֶשְׁאַ֣ל אֹתָ֗הּ וָאֹמַר֮ בַּת מִ֣י אַתְּ֒ וַתֹּ֗אמֶר בַּת־בְּתוּאֵל֙ בֶּן־נָח֔וֹר אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָֽלְדָה לּ֖וֹ מִלְכָּ֑ה וָאָשִׂ֤ם הַנֶּ֙זֶם֙ עַל אַפָּ֔הּ וְהַצְּמִידִ֖ים עַל יָדֶֽיהָ׃
24:47 I inquired of her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ And she said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, son of Nahor, whom Milcah bore to him.’ And I put the ring on her nose and the bands on her arms.
Here he states that he knew she was family before he gave her the presents.
The Medieval Pashtanim Drop the Ball
The reading put forward by Abarbanel, Shadal, and Sternberg is convincing. In fact, the evidence is so strong that I would have expected that the traditional peshat exegetes of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, those who lived just after Rashi, with their fine ear for nuances in the text, would have been sensitive to or at least interested in this question of discrepancy in retelling. Surprisingly they were not. None of them addresses in a meaningful way the differences between the original story and the servant’s retelling. They dismiss or ignore many of them and they harmonize the most blatant contradictions, often clumsily.
Rashi’s Pragmatic Approach to the Contradiction in the Timeline of the Gift Giving
Rashi at least acknowledges the contradiction concerning the presents that the servant gave before he knew the young woman’s identity. He posits, though, that even though the servant has not heard confirmation that she was a member of the family, he knew on the basis of faith, before he gave the gifts, that she certainly was. Rashi admits that the servant changed the order when retelling the story, but attributes a pragmatic reason for the change—in order that he be believed. Though the servant “knew” through faith that the young woman was from the right family, he did not expect the Mesopotamians to understand certainty that was based on faith. So he changed the order of events when retelling so they would not doubt the credibility of his report.
Harmonizing the Two versions: First Rebekah Was Identified Then Presents
Rashbam, ibn Ezra, and Nahmanides find three different ways to create congruence between vss. 22-24 and vs. 47—that the servant really asked and ascertained her identity before giving the gifts despite the fact that vss. 22-24 seem to say that he asked her after giving the gifts.
Rashbam — The narrator wanted to separate narration from conversation and so created a text where chronology is not preserved.
ibn Ezra — When the text says in vs. 23 that the servant said (ויאמר) to her “Whose daughter are you,” the verb is really a pluperfect: he had said to her, before the events of vs. 22.
Nahmanides — All that vs. 22 says is that the servant took a gold nose-ring and two gold bands, but not that he handed them to Rebekkah. He didn’t hand them to her until after the events of vs. 23, when he found out her family background. Presumably Nahmanides imagines that the servant just held the gifts in his hands in front of her while he asked her the potentially deal-breaking question about her family background.
The Limits of the Harmonistic Approach
Another leading peshat-oriented commentator, David Kimhi (1160-1205), summarizes the harmonistic approach to Genesis 24:
והאמת כי הוא סדר להם הדברי’ כולם כאשר היו ולא נוכל לתת טעם לכל החסרי’ והמלאים כי רבו,… ובשנות הדברים האלו יש בהם שינוי מלות אבל הטעם אחד כי כן מנהג הכתוב בשנות הדברים שומר הטעמים אבל לא המלות…
The truth is that he [=Abraham’s servant] recounted all of the things that happened just as they occurred. We cannot explain all the omissions and additions [in his recounting]; there are so many of them. . . . When these things were retold, the words changed but not the meaning. That is what the biblical text does: it preserves the meaning but not the words.
In other words, all the variations between the two versions of the story lack significance.
How Was This Missed by so Many?
Why didn’t the medieval exegetes think these differences were important?
Sternberg believes that so many readers have missed the point that Abraham never actually tells his servant to go to his family, “due to the common fallacy of hindsight reading.” The Bible seems very happy that Isaac married a relative, and the servant himself says that God helped him fulfil his mission. Accordingly, we who know the end of the story are naturally inclined to read the beginning as saying that Abraham had intended and sought that result.
מולדתי – Birthplace or Family?
Another reason why this may have been missed by some is the ambiguity of the term מולדתי. Above I translated Abraham’s original instructions to his servant to go (Gen 24:4) “to my land, my native land (מולדתי).” The meaning of the word מולדתי, though, is debated. Some interpret it as “kindred.” Von Rad, for example, summarizes Abraham’s instructions as seeking “union with the Aramean relatives,” i.e., he sees Abraham as wanting a relative for this shiddukh. This is also the way Shadal understood the specific term, despite the fact that he did notice the overall contradiction.
I prefer the understanding of Speiser as well as the New Jewish Publication Society translation, who both view the instruction to go אל ארצי ואל מולדתי as a hendiadys,meaning simply “to my native land.” But even if Abraham had referred to his kinsmen in his original instructions, many other inconsistencies between the narrator’s version of the events and the servant’s retelling remain, as Shadal himself noticed. Thus, I believe that there is a deeper reason for the fact that the medieval pashtanim ignored the details.
Reaction Against Derash
The medieval pashtanim turned to peshat in the first place because they opposed what they saw as over-reading of the Bible in classical midrash. They consistently dismissed what has been labeled the midrashic principle of omnisignificance, the idea that everything in the Bible has to have significance. As Rashbam often wrote, “according to the peshat, there is no reason to analyze this further (אין לדקדק יותר).” By this, he meant that, on the peshat level, nothing more could be legitimately read into or out of the text than what he wrote in his commentary. Rashbam often knowingly offered prosaic interpretations of biblical texts in order to demonstrate that not everything was significant.
Thus, it seems that the Jewish creators and strongest proponents of peshat exegesis in the twelfth century were so opposed to midrashic over-reading of the Bible that they on occasion under-read the text, as happened in the case of Abraham’s servant, causing them to miss fine points that were then left for later exegetes to discover. This investigation suggests that while it is problematic to over-read a text, it is equally problematic to under-read it.
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November 3, 2015
January 15, 2020
Professor Rabbi Marty Lockshin is University Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
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