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David Frankel





Abraham Sends His Servant to Find a Wife for Isaac, then Disappears



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David Frankel





Abraham Sends His Servant to Find a Wife for Isaac, then Disappears






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Abraham Sends His Servant to Find a Wife for Isaac, then Disappears

Abraham tells his servant to go to his hometown to find a wife for Isaac. When the servant returns, he never reports back to him or introduces Rebecca to him. Why does Abraham disappear from the narrative? And, as Rebecca is his great-niece, why not send the servant to her father’s home directly?


Abraham Sends His Servant to Find a Wife for Isaac, then Disappears

Rebekah, Ernani Costantini, 1988. Wikimedia

What Happened to Abraham

Following the burial of Sarah (Gen 23), the wealthy but elderly Abraham sends his servant off to his ancestral homeland to find a bride for his son, Isaac:

בראשית כד:ב וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל עַבְדּוֹ זְקַן בֵּיתוֹ הַמֹּשֵׁל בְּכָל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ שִׂים נָא יָדְךָ תַּחַת יְרֵכִי. כד:ג וְאַשְׁבִּיעֲךָ בַּי־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם וֵאלֹהֵי הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר לֹא תִקַּח אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי מִבְּנוֹת הַכְּנַעֲנִי אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי יוֹשֵׁב בְּקִרְבּוֹ. כד:ד כִּי אֶל אַרְצִי וְאֶל מוֹלַדְתִּי תֵּלֵךְ וְלָקַחְתָּ אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי לְיִצְחָק.
Gen 24:2 And Abraham said to his servant, the senior of his household, who had charge of all that he owned, “Put your hand under my thigh 24:3 and I will make you swear by YHWH, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell, 24:4 but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac.”

After a back and forth discussion between Abraham and his servant about what should happen if he fails to find such a wife, the servant goes. He arrives at a well in Haran and stipulates that the woman who gives him and his camels water will be the selected bride for Isaac (vv. 12–14). Rebecca appears and does just this (vv. 17–22).

Providentially, Rebecca turns out to be the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, Nahor (vv. 23–27), and after travelling to her home (vv. 28–33), the servant applies himself vigorously to arranging the marriage, retelling the events at the well (vv. 34–49).[1] Rebecca’s family agrees to the marriage, and after a brief back-and-forth about when to leave, the servant heads home the next day with Rebecca (vv. 50–60).

The final verses of the story describe how, upon arriving home, the servant and Rebecca meet Isaac:

בראשית כד:סא וַתָּקָם רִבְקָה וְנַעֲרֹתֶיהָ וַתִּרְכַּבְנָה עַל הַגְּמַלִּים וַתֵּלַכְנָה אַחֲרֵי הָאִישׁ וַיִּקַּח הָעֶבֶד אֶת רִבְקָה וַיֵּלַךְ. כד:סב וְיִצְחָק בָּא מִבּוֹא בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי וְהוּא יוֹשֵׁב בְּאֶרֶץ הַנֶּגֶב. כד:סג וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה לִפְנוֹת עָרֶב וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה גְמַלִּים בָּאִים.
Gen 24:61 Then Rebecca and her attendants got ready and mounted the camels and went back with the man. So the servant took Rebecca and left. 24:62 Now Isaac had come from Beer Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev. 24:63 He went out to the field one evening to meditate, and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching.

When Rebecca sees Isaac coming towards them, she inquires about the man approaching them, and the servant responds:

בראשית כד:סד וַתִּשָּׂא רִבְקָה אֶת עֵינֶיהָ וַתֵּרֶא אֶת יִצְחָק וַתִּפֹּל מֵעַל הַגָּמָל. כד:סה וַתֹּאמֶר אֶל הָעֶבֶד מִי הָאִישׁ הַלָּזֶה הַהֹלֵךְ בַּשָּׂדֶה לִקְרָאתֵנוּ וַיֹּאמֶר הָעֶבֶד הוּא אֲדֹנִי וַתִּקַּח הַצָּעִיף וַתִּתְכָּס.
Gen 24:64 Rebecca also looked up and saw Isaac. She got down from her camel 24:65 and asked the servant, “Who is that man in the field coming to meet us?” “He is my master,” the servant answered. So she took her veil and covered herself.

This is a strange answer since when the servant introduces himself and his quest to Rebecca’s family, he consistently refers to Abraham as his master, and Isaac as his master’s son:

בראשית כד:לד וַיֹּאמַר עֶבֶד אַבְרָהָם אָנֹכִי. כד:לה וַי־הוָה בֵּרַךְ אֶת אֲדֹנִי מְאֹד וַיִּגְדָּל... כד:לו וַתֵּלֶד שָׂרָה אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנִי בֵן לַאדֹנִי אַחֲרֵי זִקְנָתָהּ וַיִּתֶּן לּוֹ אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ. כד:לז וַיַּשְׁבִּעֵנִי אֲדֹנִי לֵאמֹר לֹא תִקַּח אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי מִבְּנוֹת הַכְּנַעֲנִי אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי יֹשֵׁב בְּאַרְצוֹ. כד:לח אִם לֹא אֶל בֵּית אָבִי תֵּלֵךְ וְאֶל מִשְׁפַּחְתִּי וְלָקַחְתָּ אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי.
Gen 24:34 “I am Abraham’s servant,” he began. 24:35 “YHWH has greatly blessed my master, and he has become rich… 24:36 And Sarah, my master’s wife, bore my master a son in her old age, and he has assigned to him everything he owns. 24:37 Now my master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites in whose land I dwell; 24:38 but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’

The servant is very clear: His master is Abraham and his master’s wife is Sarah. The servant’s mission is to find a wife for his master’s son, who is unnamed here, but must be Isaac. Thus, when Rebecca asks about Isaac, the servant should have responded “that is my master’s son.” And yet, even though the servant answers with the confusing “it is my master,” Rebecca seems to understand that this is her betrothed and acts accordingly.

The servant then goes on to report to Isaac about all that happened.

בראשית כד:סו וַיְסַפֵּר הָעֶבֶד לְיִצְחָק אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה.
Gen 24:66 Then the servant told Isaac all he had done.

Again, shouldn’t the servant be reporting to Abraham?[2] It was Abraham who sent off his servant to find a wife for Isaac; Isaac, as far as we are told, was not involved. One would, therefore, have expected to hear of the servant returning to Abraham and reporting the outcome of his mission. Indeed, we might have expected the servant to present Rebecca to Abraham before bringing her to Isaac. Not only doesn’t this happen, but Isaac doesn’t bring her to meet Abraham either. He simply proceeds directly to the tent with Rebecca, without so much as notifying his father of her arrival!

בראשית כד:סז וַיְבִאֶהָ יִצְחָק הָאֹהֱלָה שָׂרָה אִמּוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת רִבְקָה וַתְּהִי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וַיֶּאֱהָבֶהָ וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק אַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ.
Gen 24:67 Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebecca. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

This is where the story ends. The servant never tells Abraham about the journey, nor do Abraham and Rebecca ever interact, though, according to the biblical chronology, he lives well into the teenage years of Isaac and Rebecca’s twin sons, Esau and Jacob.[3] How should we understand the total disappearance of Abraham in the story?

Traditional Explanations

The Italian rabbi and commentator Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, 1800–1865) quotes a suggestion from his student, Rabbi Leon (Yehudah Aryeh) Osimo (d. 1869) of Padua, that the servant speaking with Isaac was happenstance, simply because he met Isaac first:

ויספר העבד ליצחק – שם על הדרך סיפר הדברים ליצחק, ואחר שבאו הביתה הגיד לאברהם (יא"א {יהודה אריה אוסימו}).
“The servant told Isaac”—There on the road he told the matters to Isaac, and after they came home, he told Abraham (Leon Osimo).

Osimo takes it for granted that the servant must have told Abraham at some point even though the text makes no mention of this.

In dealing with the other problem, namely why the servant refers to Isaac as “his master” (v. 65), Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann (1843–1921) suggests:[4]

הוא אדני – מכיוון שאברהם כבר הוריש את כל אשר לו ליצחק, כמו שאמר אליעזר בבית בתואל, הוא קורא לו ליצחק בשם אדני.
“He is my master”—Since Abraham already gave everything he had to Isaac as his inheritance, as Eliezer said in Betuel’s house (v. 36), he calls Isaac by the name of master.

This answer is not satisfactory because throughout the narrative, the servant has only referred to Abraham as his master, and Isaac as his master’s son. Moreover, even accepting that the servant has two masters, it is odd that he fails to clarify to Rebecca that it was specifically her groom rather than Abraham who was approaching. Why would he be so ambiguous?

Documentary Approach: Abraham Was Already Dead

Another approach, first suggested by the great German Bible scholar, Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932), follows the documentary hypothesis. He notes that it is only the Priestly text (P) that describes Abraham living to the age of 175, and thus if we read this story, which is a J text independently of P, we might adduce that:

At the beginning of the account, Abraham is still alive. At the end, when the servant returns to Isaac, he must be dead. The account must, then, have reported Abraham’s death. A redactor who wanted to recount Abraham’s death in a subsequent passage removed this report from Gen 24.[5]

In Gunkel’s reconstruction, the compiler omitted J’s death notice in favor of the Priestly notice which comes later, in Gen 25:7–11. Gunkel emended the text of verse 67 to suggest that it originally stated that Isaac found comfort after the death of his father.[6] Claus Westermann (1909–2000) follows Gunkel in this particular:

… Sarah does not appear in ch. 24. Looking back over the story, the reference could be only to the father who, at the beginning of the chapter, felt that he was near to death. It is probable therefore that the concluding sentence ran: ‘So Isaac was comforted after the death of his father.’…[7]

Gunkel’s solution is not adequate, however. His argument that “when the servant comes to Isaac, Isaac tells him that his father has died in the interim,”[8] ignores the fact that the servant identifies Isaac as “his master” before the two had a chance to speak (v. 65), at which point, the servant would not have known that Abraham had died. Moreover, the notice about Isaac finding comfort for his mother’s death connects naturally to Sarah death (ch. 23), and thus there is no good reason to emend the verse to “father.”

A Fragment of Tradition

I suggest that originally it was Isaac, presumably on his own initiative, who sends off his servant to find him a wife. Thus, when the servant returns with Rebecca, he presents her straight away to Isaac.

An editor revised the bulk of the narrative (vv. 1–52), that originally focused on Isaac only,[9] to present Abraham as the one who cared for his son and arranged for his marriage before his death. Thus, the man refers to “his master Abraham” (vv. 12, 27, 42, 48) and is called “Abraham’s servant” (vv. 34, 52), and much of the dialogue is about the servant finding a wife for the master’s son.

A fragment of the earliest form of the narrative is preserved from v. 53, which describes the servant’s gift to Rebecca’s brother and mother,  until the end of the narrative, with only a handful of editorial glosses (vv. 59, and 67a).

Here, the servant is referred to simply as “the servant” or “the man” (vv. 53, 58, 61, 65 [twice], 66),[10] which could just as easily be a reference to Isaac’s servant. More significantly, beginning with verse 54, we find “the servant” speaking to Rebecca’s mother and brother about “my master” (vv. 54, 56) rather than “my master Abraham” (as in vv. 12, 27, 35–37, 39, 42, 48):

בראשית כד:נג וַיּוֹצֵא הָעֶבֶד כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב וּבְגָדִים וַיִּתֵּן לְרִבְקָה וּמִגְדָּנֹת נָתַן לְאָחִיהָ וּלְאִמָּהּ. כד:נד וַיֹּאכְלוּ וַיִּשְׁתּוּ הוּא וְהָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר עִמּוֹ וַיָּלִינוּ וַיָּקוּמוּ בַבֹּקֶר וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֻנִי לַאדֹנִי... כד:נו וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם אַל תְּאַחֲרוּ אֹתִי וַי־הוָה הִצְלִיחַ דַּרְכִּי שַׁלְּחוּנִי וְאֵלְכָה לַאדֹנִי.
Gen 24:53 The servant brought out objects of silver and gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebecca; and he gave presents to her brother and her mother. 24:54 Then he and the men with him ate and drank, and they spent the night. When they arose next morning, he said, “Give me leave to go to my master.”… 24:56 He said to them, “Do not delay me, now that YHWH has made my errand successful. Give me leave that I may go to my master.”

From here until verse 65, the servant seems to be speaking about Isaac when he says “my master;” this is clear when he explains to Rebecca who the man approaching them was.[11]

Connecting Isaac and Jacob to the Family of Abraham

Why was the story reworked to make the initiative for the marriage Abraham’s and not Isaac’s? Originally, the Abraham and Isaac stories were separate traditions, and were not connected: Isaac was not Abraham’s son. As I argue in my “Isaac before He Was Abraham’s Son” (TheTorah 2020), Abraham was once an independent patriarch, who served alone as the “father” of the nation.[12] At the same time, Isaac and his son Jacob—the father of Israel—belonged to a parallel, independent, national tradition.[13]

Since both of these traditions were considered important, they had to be united into a single, family unit. This was accomplished by presenting Abraham as the father of Isaac here and throughout the Abraham cycle.[14]

The Genealogical Linkage Between Abraham and Rebecca

To further establish Abraham’s family as the progenitors of Israel, the editors present the future bride Rebecca as Abraham’s great niece. This theme is foreshadowed earlier, when Abraham learns that his brother, Nahor,[15] has had many children. The passage is introduced with a verse that has every sign of a late insertion:

בראשית כב:כ וַיְהִי אַחֲרֵי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וַיֻּגַּד לְאַבְרָהָם לֵאמֹר הִנֵּה יָלְדָה מִלְכָּה גַם הִוא בָּנִים לְנָחוֹר אָחִיךָ.
Gen 22:20 Some time later, Abraham was told, “Milcah too has borne children to your brother Nahor…”

After mentioning Betuel as Milkah’s eighth son, the text continues:

בראשית כב:כג וּבְתוּאֵל יָלַד אֶת רִבְקָה שְׁמֹנָה אֵלֶּה יָלְדָה מִלְכָּה לְנָחוֹר אֲחִי אַבְרָהָם.
Gen 22:23 Betuel fathered Rebecca. These eight Milcah bore to Nahor, Abraham’s brother.

The repetition of the statement that Nahor and Abraham were brothers, immediately after the notice of Rebecca’s birth, emphasizes her connection to Abraham’s family.

From a literary perspective, the integration of this temporally vague and anonymous report to Abraham, containing a full genealogy of his brother’s offspring, into the flow of the narrative is artificial. It was included here in order to prepare the reader for Isaac finding Rebecca.[16] Indeed, as Rashi notes (ad loc.):

ילד את רבקה – כל היוחסין לא נכתבו אלא בשביל פסוק זה.
“Fathered Rebecca”— this entire genealogy was included only for the sake of this verse.

The editor who placed it here likely means for the reader to understand that learning of the birth of Rebecca to his nephew, Betuel, is the impetus for Abraham sending his servant to Haran. This is ostensibly why he did not attend to Isaac’s marriage until that point – he did not have anyone within the family to whom to marry him off.

But this cannot be the original impetus for sending the servant. If Abraham specifically wished Isaac to marry Rebecca, he would have sent the servant to the house of Nahor or Betuel, just as Isaac sends Jacob to the house of Laban:

בראשית כח:ב קוּם לֵךְ פַּדֶּנָה אֲרָם בֵּיתָה בְתוּאֵל אֲבִי אִמֶּךָ וְקַח לְךָ מִשָּׁם אִשָּׁה מִבְּנוֹת לָבָן אֲחִי אִמֶּךָ.
Gen 28:2 Up, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother.

Thus, it is clear that the narrative element of Rebecca being related to Abraham is a later addition to the story.

The Awkward Genealogies of Genesis 24

The genealogical connection between Rebecca and Abraham’s family appears three times in the story, each time with awkward syntax. After the servant prays to find the right girl, the text continues (redaction in italics):

בראשית כד:טו וַיְהִי הוּא טֶרֶם כִּלָּה לְדַבֵּר וְהִנֵּה רִבְקָה יֹצֵאת אֲשֶׁר יֻלְּדָה לִבְתוּאֵל בֶּן מִלְכָּה אֵשֶׁת נָחוֹר אֲחִי אַבְרָהָם וְכַדָּהּ עַל שִׁכְמָהּ. כד:טז וְהַנַּעֲרָ טֹבַת מַרְאֶה מְאֹד בְּתוּלָה וְאִישׁ לֹא יְדָעָהּ וַתֵּרֶד הָעַיְנָה וַתְּמַלֵּא כַדָּהּ וַתָּעַל.
Gen 24:15 He had scarcely finished speaking, when Rebecca, who was born to Bethuel, the son of Milcah the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor, came out with her jar on her shoulder. 24:16 The maiden was very beautiful, a virgin whom no man had known. She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up.

The reference to Rebecca’s pedigree in verse 15 is disruptive.[17] In the original tradition, then, it was Rebecca’s beauty, chastity and, most important, kind generosity that made her a worthy wife for Isaac. For the editors, however, she had to descend from the family of Abraham.

The same awkwardness appears when Rebecca introduces herself:

בראשית כד:כג וַיֹּאמֶר בַּת מִי אַתְּ הַגִּידִי נָא לִי הֲיֵשׁ בֵּית אָבִיךְ מָקוֹם לָנוּ לָלִין. כד:כד וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו בַּת בְּתוּאֵל אָנֹכִי בֶּן מִלְכָּה אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לְנָחוֹר. כד:כה וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו גַּם תֶּבֶן גַּם מִסְפּוֹא רַב עִמָּנוּ גַּם מָקוֹם לָלוּן.
Gen 24:23 He said “Pray tell me, whose daughter are you? Is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?” 24:24 And she said, “I am the daughter of Bethuel the son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor.” 24:25 And she said, “There is plenty of straw and feed at our home, and also room to spend the night.”

Here, the editor not only added a genealogy into Rebecca’s words, but also a corresponding question. The editing is especially obvious here because of the doubling of the “and she said” introduction. Originally, the servant did not ask about her parentage—he did not know anybody in the town anyway—nor did Rebecca discuss her lineage.[18] The whole genealogy was added to connect Rebecca to Abraham’s family.

A “Jewish” Wife

Alexander Rofé assigns the present form of this story to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.[19] This proposal fits well with our suggestion that a major concern of the final editors of Genesis 24 was to emphasize that not only Isaac, but Rebecca, and Laban, father of Leah and Rachel, were all part of Abraham’s extended family.[20]

The expectation that Israelite men must marry only women of non-foreign extraction comes from this late period.[21] And it was in this period that the figure of Abraham came to the fore as a national symbol of paradigmatic import.[22] By presenting Rebecca as Abraham’s great niece, Isaac’s marriage is not to a foreign woman, and Jacob is “Jewish” on both sides.

In the original story, however, as preserved in the unedited fragment (vv. 53–65), the narrator presented Rebecca’s family members as simply “her brother(s) and her mother.”[23] To the author of the ancient tradition, the lineage of Rebecca and her parents was of no interest at all.[24]


November 17, 2022


Last Updated

March 23, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).