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Miryam Brand

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2023

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Rebecca: A Woman of Agency

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https://thetorah.com/article/rebecca-a-woman-of-agency

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Miryam Brand

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Rebecca: A Woman of Agency

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TheTorah.com

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2023

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https://thetorah.com/article/rebecca-a-woman-of-agency

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Rebecca: A Woman of Agency

Rebecca’s confidence and assertiveness are an example of the difference between the dictates of common law, which rendered women entirely subject to the decisions of their fathers and/or husbands, and the multifaceted realities of women’s lived experiences in ancient Israel.

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Rebecca: A Woman of Agency

Study of Rebecca, Ivan Tišov, 1894 (adapted). Wikimedia

In the tapestry of biblical and ancient Near Eastern legal collections, women are often depicted as having restricted agency.[1] Within this world, women are predominantly cast as individuals whose destinies are tightly tethered, first to their fathers and then to their husbands. The exchange of a bride-price, a financial transaction sealing marital bonds, unfolded without much regard for the desires or wishes of the brides themselves.

Yet some biblical narratives paint a different picture, illustrating women who possess the power to shape their destinies, whether for better or worse, despite the constraints of their circumstances. A compelling example of such a woman is the matriarch, Rebecca.[2]

A Confident and King Young Woman

We first meet Rebecca when Abraham’s servant appears at the well near Haran. Hoping to find an appropriate wife for Isaac, the servant makes an unusual stipulation about how he will decide what woman is worthy:

בראשית כד:יג הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי נִצָּב עַל עֵין הַמָּיִם וּבְנוֹת אַנְשֵׁי הָעִיר יֹצְאֹת לִשְׁאֹב מָיִם. כד:יד וְהָיָה הַנַּעֲרָ אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיהָ הַטִּי נָא כַדֵּךְ וְאֶשְׁתֶּה וְאָמְרָה שְׁתֵה וְגַם גְּמַלֶּיךָ אַשְׁקֶה אֹתָהּ הֹכַחְתָּ לְעַבְדְּךָ לְיִצְחָק...
Gen 24:13 “Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; 24:14 let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’—let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac…”

Immediately after this, Rebecca appears, and fulfills this stipulation quickly and to the letter; Abraham’s servant takes this as a sign that she is the right girl for Isaac. He then asks who she is and whether her house has accommodations for him, and she answers confidently and affirmatively, even adding that they have fodder to spare:

בראשית כד:כה וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו גַּם תֶּבֶן גַּם מִסְפּוֹא רַב עִמָּנוּ גַּם מָקוֹם לָלוּן.
Gen 24:25 And she went on, “There is plenty of straw and feed at home, and also room to spend the night.”

She then runs ahead to get things prepared, and her brother Laban comes to escort Abraham’s servant to their home.

Rebecca’s Marriage “Negotiation”

Marriage negotiations for Rebecca are led not by the girl herself but by her guardians, in this case her father, mother, and brother(s). In the initial negotiations, she has little input – after Avraham’s servant describes the serendipity of all that has led to him finding her and recognizing her as the destined bride of Isaac, her father and brother, Laban, decide for her:

בראשית כד:נ וַיַּעַן לָבָן וּבְתוּאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ מֵיְ־הֹוָה יָצָא הַדָּבָר לֹא נוּכַל דַּבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ רַע אוֹ־טוֹב׃ כד:נא הִנֵּה־רִבְקָה לְפָנֶיךָ קַח וָלֵךְ וּתְהִי אִשָּׁה לְבֶן־אֲדֹנֶיךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ־הֹוָה׃
Gen 24:50 Then Laban and Betuel answered, “The matter was decreed by YHWH; we cannot speak to you bad or good. 24:51 Here is Rebecca before you; take her and go, and let her be a wife to your master’s son, as YHWH has spoken.”[3]

The first indication that Rebecca has an unusual amount of agency appears in the next scene when, come morning, as Abraham’s servant[4] naturally expects to leave with the new bride, the family requests a delay of ten days, perhaps in an attempt to negotiate further concessions from the affluent suitor. When the servant balks, the family strikingly decides to ask Rebecca directly if she desires this union:[5]

בראשית כד:נז וַיֹּאמְרוּ נִקְרָא לַנַּעֲרָ וְנִשְׁאֲלָה אֶת־פִּיהָ׃ כד:נח וַיִּקְרְאוּ לְרִבְקָה וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלֶיהָ הֲתֵלְכִי עִם־הָאִישׁ הַזֶּה וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלֵךְ׃
Gen 24:57 They said, “Let us call the girl and ask for her reply.” 24:58 They called Rebecca and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” And she said, “I will.”

Rebecca’s approval ends the discussion, and she leaves immediately after her father and brother send her off with a blessing that she will produce mighty and numerous progeny. The verse vividly illustrates Rebecca’s agency through a sequence teeming with dynamic verbs, all articulated in feminine singular and plural forms:

בראשית כד:סא וַתָּקׇם רִבְקָה וְנַעֲרֹתֶיהָ וַתִּרְכַּבְנָה עַל הַגְּמַלִּים וַתֵּלַכְנָה אַחֲרֵי הָאִישׁ וַיִּקַּח הָעֶבֶד אֶת רִבְקָה וַיֵּלַךְ:
Gen 24:61 Then Rebecca and her maids arose, mounted the camels, and followed the man. So the servant took Rebekah and went his way.

This description might initially appear superfluous, occurring immediately after the act of “sending” detailed in the previous verse and just before the servant’s “taking” of Rebecca at the verse’s end, but it serves to accentuate Rebecca’s proactive choice to follow Abraham's servant into an uncertain future. No external compulsion is at play; rather, it reflects her genuine desire. This profusion of active verbs harks back to the earlier passage (Gen 24:18–20) in which Rebecca hastens to provide water for both the servant and his camels, underscoring her proactive nature and her active role in shaping her own destiny.

Veiling and a Choice of Status

This decisiveness and Rebecca’s agency, i.e., her ability to choose her own fate, are central to the narrative that follows:

בראשית כד:סג וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה לִפְנוֹת עָרֶב וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה גְמַלִּים בָּאִים׃ 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 24:63 And Isaac went out meditating in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching. 24:64 Raising her eyes, Rebecca saw Isaac. She alighted (lit., “fell”) from the camel 24:65 and said to the servant, “Who is that man walking in the field toward us?” And the servant said, “That is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself.

Rebecca’s choice to veil herself upon meeting her future husband could signify her desire to maintain modesty before her soon-to-be spouse. Thus R. Naftali Herz (Hartwig) Wessely (1725–1805) writes in his Imre Shefer commentary on Genesis:

ותקח הצעיף ותחכס—הצעיף הוא על הראש, ולקחתה מראשה לכסות בו פניה, מפני בושה וצניעות.
“So she took her veil and covered herself”—the cloth was on the head, and she extended it from her head to cover her face, out of reserve and modesty.

Modesty as the motivation seems unlikely, however, given that she has allowed herself to be seen unveiled by Abraham’s servant. A more plausible explanation is that this veiling is a declaration of her married status.

Veiling in the Middle Assyrian Laws

Ancient law collections were comprised of laws rooted in previously adjudicated legal cases, and thus serve as a form of common law. According to a Middle Assyrian collection of laws and regulations dated circa 1100 B.C.E.,[6] veiling indicates that a woman is neither a concubine nor a prostitute but is rather a wife or a “pure” single woman.[7] Conversely, to walk outside unveiled indicates that she is, indeed, either concubine or prostitute. In fact, a husband is able to “upgrade” his concubine to wife status through a witnessed act of veiling:

MAL §41 If a man would veil his concubine, he shall assemble five or six of his comrades, he shall veil her in their presence, he shall declare, “She is my wife”: she is his wife.

A concubine who is not veiled in the presence of the people, whose husband did not declare, “She is my wife”: she is not a wife, she is indeed a concubine.[8]

Thus, in Middle Assyrian practice, veiling indicated a woman was married. Given the considerable geographical and temporal distance and the requirement in Assyrian society for even certain unmarried women to be veiled in Assyrian law (MAL §40), this legal excerpt does not offer a precise precedent for Rebecca’s situation.[9] Nevertheless, it provides valuable insight into ancient common law that illuminates Rebecca’s actions here.

While the MAL describes the husband performing this veiling act, Rebecca boldly veils herself as soon as she sets eyes on Isaac, declaring herself his wife with a definitiveness much like her previous agreement to marry Isaac sight unseen.

Rebecca: Forger of Destiny

Rebecca’s willingness to act unconventionally, often taking actions typically expected of her husband, is a pattern that continues throughout her story. Indeed, her position as Isaac’s only wife is maintained even after she is found to be infertile. Unlike Sarah before her or Leah and Rachel afterwards, when faced with infertility, Rebecca does not offer her husband a maidservant as a potential mother of his children. Instead, the text specifies that Isaac prays on her behalf (Gen 25:21). Indeed, the phrase לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ can be translated literally “in her presence,” implying her involvement with this course of action.

When Rebecca subsequently experiences a challenging pregnancy, she immediately interprets it in terms of herself, understands that her experience of pregnancy is unusual, and that there must be a deeper explanation. She thus goes on her own—not through or with her husband—to receive an oracle:

בראשית כה:כב וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ וַתֹּאמֶר אִם־כֵּן לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי וַתֵּלֶךְ לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת יְ־הֹוָה׃ כה:כג וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הֹוָה לָהּ שְׁנֵי (גיים) [גוֹיִם] בְּבִטְנֵךְ וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר׃
Gen 25:22 But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why am I thus?” She went to inquire of YHWH, and YHWH answered her, 25:23 “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall issue separately from your bowels; and one people shall be mightier than the other; and the elder shall serve the younger (alternatively: and the elder, the younger shall serve).”

The result is that YHWH’s message is communicated only to Rebecca, even though it is one which will shape the future of the people of Israel as a whole. In the tradition of oracular declarations, the phrasing is vague enough that which son will rule the other is left to the judgment of the receiver.[10]

The Torah Trusts Rebecca

Up to this point, the biblical narrative presents a woman who is proactive and decisive, and whose actions and decisions have consistently proven to be correct. This sets the stage for her controversial choices after her twins grow into manhood:

בראשית כה:כח וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת־עֵשָׂו כִּי־צַיִד בְּפִיו וְרִבְקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת־יַעֲקֹב׃
Gen 25:28 Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game (lit., “game in his mouth”); but Rebecca favored Jacob.

The reason for Rebecca’s preference for Jacob is not explained in this passage, but can be understood as connected both to the divine message that she has received and to Jacob’s previous description as an אִישׁ תָּם “upright man” (Gen 25:27). It is already evident to the biblical reader that Rebecca’s judgment is accurate, both because of her track record as a woman who chooses wisely and because she has received the prophecy in which YHWH has ostensibly endorsed the younger son as the heir.

Rebecca’s choices lead to the eventual exclusion of Esau— the sole child born to both a patriarch and matriarch of Israel who will not carry on the Israelite lineage. Even though Esau is her own son, Rebecca is the driving force in Jacob’s ruse to secure Isaac’s blessing and displace Esau, despite Isaac’s preference for his older son (Gen 27:1–17). She then saves Jacob’s life by warning him of Esau’s plot to kill him, and by convincing Isaac to send Jacob off to her brother Laban’s house in Haran to find a wife (27:42–46).

Rebecca and Women’s Agency in the Ancient World

The portrayal of Rebecca as a woman of immense agency and choice in her marriage and destiny is pivotal to highlighting the legitimacy of the selection of Jacob over Esau. At the same time, Rebecca’s ability to make bold decisions and actively shape her own narrative challenges the apparent conventions of her time and sets her apart as a significant character in the biblical narrative.

Rebecca’s actions and decisions, especially in her choice of husband and her role in divine plans, are presented in a positive light, highlighting a more diverse range of acceptable behaviors for women in antiquity than the lack of agency suggested by ancient legal collections. Rebecca’s favorable portrayal serves as a compelling argument for a broader perspective on women’s lives in ancient times.

Published

November 6, 2023

|

Last Updated

February 1, 2024

Footnotes

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Dr. Miryam Brand is an Associate Fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. She is the author of Evil Within and Without: The Source of Sin and Its Nature as Portrayed in Second Temple Judaism and a commentary on 1 Enoch. She holds a Ph.D. in Bible and Second Temple Literature from New York University.