In Genesis, the patriarch Isaac prays for his barren wife Rebecca to have children, and God heeds his prayer (Gen 25:21). Nevertheless, Rebecca is the person to whom God confides the future of her offspring, not Isaac.
בראשית כה:כב …וַתֵּלֶךְ לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת יְ־הוָה. כה:כג וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה לָהּ שְׁנֵי (גיים) [גוֹיִם] בְּבִטְנֵךְ וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר.
Gen 25:22 …She went to inquire of YHWH, 25:23 and YHWH answered her, “Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”
Moreover, as already noted by Ramban (1194-1270), it seems clear Rebecca never told Isaac of this prophecy, since he plans to give Esau the blessing (Gen 27:4):
ונראה שלא הגידה לו רבקה מעולם הנבואה אשר אמר ה’ לה ורב יעבוד צעיר כי איך היה יצחק עובר את פי ה’ והיא לא תצלח
It would seem that Rebecca never told him of this prophecy that God revealed to her “the older shall serve the younger” for how could Isaac then ignore the word of God – “such an attempt cannot succeed” (Num 14:41).
Instead, Rebecca takes matters into her own hands and manipulates Isaac, who is old and blind, in order to ensure Jacob, whom she favors, receives the blessing.
Interpreters of these stories living in the late Second Temple and early rabbinic period were faced with a great difficulty. If they remained loyal to the biblical account, they had to acknowledge Rebecca as a manipulative and controlling woman who lies to her husband and yet seems to garner God’s approval, while the patriarch Isaac appears clueless about God’s intentions and loves the wrong son.
If, on the other hand, these interpreters chose to present Rebecca using traditional virtues associated with femininity, and/or to place Isaac in a more favorable, not to mention powerful and masculine light, they would directly contradict the scriptural account.
Jubilees: Building Up Rebecca
Rather than building up Isaac as a forefather in the same manner as his father Abraham and his son Jacob, Jubilees (early 2nd century BCE) builds upon the biblical depiction of Rebecca and even extends it by connecting her directly with Abraham, and his preference for Jacob over Esau (Vanderkam trans.):
19:14 When the boys grew up, Jacob learned (the art of) writing but Esau did not learn (it) because he was a rustic man and a hunter. He learned (the art of) warfare, and everything he did was harsh. 19:15 Abraham loved Jacob but Isaac (loved) Esau. 19:16 As Abraham observed Esau’s behavior, he realized that through Jacob he would have a reputation and descendants. He summoned Rebecca and gave her orders about Jacob because he saw that she loved Jacob much more than Esau.
Noting Isaac’s weakness for Esau, Abraham proceeds to command Rebecca to ensure that Jacob be the son who receives Abraham’s blessing and takes his rightful place as heir. Abraham seems to know better than to try to convince Isaac to change his mind. In fact, in Jubilees ch. 22, Abraham actually blesses Jacob directly. Not only does Abraham validate Rebecca’s choice of Jacob, but he is responsible for Rebecca’s future command to Jacob to trick Isaac. Since Isaac’s blessing is really Abraham’s, in Jubilees it isn’t really stolen.
Rebecca Blesses Jacob
In Jubilees, Jacob is 63 years old when Rebecca comes to him to tell him not to marry a local woman (Jub 25). Jacob responds with a long speech saying that he has been celibate this entire time since he would not marry a Canaanite woman, despite his brother’s cajoling. Rebecca is moved by this soliloquy and blesses him. This blessing is one of the most extensive and sophisticated of all the twenty-four prayers and blessings in the book. Jubilees explicitly says that the blessing came through “the spirit of righteousness” that descended upon Rebecca (25:14). In other words, Jubilees presents Rebecca as a prophetess—despite the (strange) fact that it does not include the story of God speaking to her about her future children.
The theme of Rebecca as a prophetess continues when she is informed in a dream that Esau plans on killing Jacob (27:1), prompting her to send him away. Although this is the last time she is mentioned as alive in the biblical text, in Jubilees, she is alive and well when Jacob returns two decades later, and even accompanies him to Beth-el when he fulfills his vow to God (ch. 31-32). Jubilees thus turns her into a more significant character.
Following the Torah’s Lead?
The author of Jubilees may have been motivated to present Rebecca in such a positive light because, unlike Isaac, she favors the correct son, and so her insight is therefore superior to Isaac’s. This likelihood is supported by the fact that Jubilees presents Esau in a totally negative fashion, in contrast to Genesis:
- In Jubilees, Esau is disloyal to his parents, whereas in Genesis, Esau is respectful of Isaac, and Isaac loves Esau dearly (Gen 27:31–34; Jub. 24:6, 29:14–20).
- In Jubilees, Rebecca considers Esau’s thoughts and deeds to be entirely evil (Jub. 35:9).
- His descendants are condemned as the enemies of Israel (Jub. 38:8–14).
- Esau isn’t even literate (although Jacob is) (Jub. 19:14).
These deviations from the biblical text show that Jubilees does not always feel the need to conform to the Torah’s outline. Instead, the author is interested in setting forth in as clear a way as possible who is righteous and who is wicked. In order to establish Jacob as the ideal forefather, Rebecca must be a heroine and, in line with Abraham’s views, Esau must be a villain, and poor Isaac must be deluded by his misguided love for his wicked son.
Josephus: Building Up Isaac at Rebecca’s Expense
In the Torah, Rebecca’s preference for Jacob over Esau corresponds to God’s own message about the boys. This casts Rebecca in a positive light. In contrast, Isaac is portrayed poorly; his naiveté compares unfavorably with the prescience of Rebecca. Moreover, the image of Isaac as an old blind man manipulated by his wife and younger son makes him look weak.
One interpreter who was clearly bothered by all this was Josephus, who sought to build up Isaac’s character by suppressing Rebecca’s even at the expense of contradicting the details of the biblical story. For example, in Josephus, Isaac rather than Rebecca communes with God about her difficult pregnancy, overtly contradicting the biblical account:
After the death of Abraham, Isaac’s young wife conceived, and, since her belly was swollen to a rather considerable degree, he, becoming anxious, inquired of God. And He indicated to him that Rebecca would give birth to twins for him and that nations would bear the same names as the children and that the one who seemed to be the lesser would be superior to the greater (Antiquities of the Jews, 1.257, Feldman trans.).
Josephus follows the biblical text in reporting that Isaac favored Esau while Rebecca favored Jacob, but Isaac’s reaction to being tricked by Jacob is much more dignified in Josephus’ account than in the biblical account, in keeping with Hellenistic values of “manliness.” Whereas the biblical text (Gen 27:33) describes Isaac being seized with very violent trembling (וַיֶּחֱרַד יִצְחָק חֲרָדָה גְּדֹלָה עַד מְאֹד), and breaking into a rambling confused speech, Josephus simply writes:
Perceiving his error, Isaac held his peace.
Josephus further builds up Isaac by reinterpreting the reason for his request of Esau to provide him with meat. In Genesis, the reason is that Isaac enjoys meat, and such a meal will put him in the right state of mind to give Esau an effective blessing:
בראשית כז:ג וְעַתָּה שָׂא נָא כֵלֶיךָ תֶּלְיְךָ וְקַשְׁתֶּךָ וְצֵא הַשָּׂדֶה וְצוּדָה לִּי (צידה) [צָיִד]. כז:ד וַעֲשֵׂה לִי מַטְעַמִּים כַּאֲשֶׁר אָהַבְתִּי וְהָבִיאָה לִּי וְאֹכֵלָה בַּעֲבוּר תְּבָרֶכְךָ נַפְשִׁי בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת.
Gen 27:3 Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game. 27:4 Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die.
In Josephus, however, Isaac is instead asking Esau to help facilitate a sacrifice to God (Ant. 1.267-268):
But when he was old and lost his eyesight completely, after summoning Esau and speaking of his old age, how even apart from the infirmity and his suffering in his eyesight, he was hindered from ministering to God, he bade him to go out to the hunt and catch whatever it was possible for him to prepare for a meal, in order that after it he might beseech God to be present to him as his ally and co-worker throughout all his life…
Josephus also seems concerned about protecting the integrity of Jacob, and perhaps for this reason, reiterates more than once that the trickery was all Rebecca’s idea. Josephus introduces the ruse by saying:
But Rebecca, deeming it worthy to call upon God to cast His favor upon Iakobos and acting contrary to the intention of Isaac, bade him to slaughter young goats and to prepare a meal. And Jacob obeyed his mother, after ascertaining everything from her (Ant. 1.269).
Later, after Jacob has escaped to Haran, Josephus describes his telling the story of his escape to his uncle, Laban:
And Jacob related to him the entire reason, saying that twin children had been born to Isaac, himself and Esau, who, since he had been cheated by the cleverness of his mother of his father’s blessings, which had been bestowed upon him, sought to kill him, since he had deprived him of the kingdom bestowed by God and of the benefits for which his father had prayed. (Ant. 1.295)
In his gloss on this passage, Louis Feldman points out that,
The Greek word which Josephus uses here, σοφία, usually means wisdom and hence might be a compliment to Rebekah.
Compliment or not, Jacob puts all the responsibility on her, as Feldman himself notes (ad loc.):
Josephus transfers the blame for the deception of Isaac completely to Rebekah, even though, in general, he drastically reduces the role of Rebekah.
Genesis Rabbah: Preserving the Tension Surrounding Rebecca
The midrashic compilation Genesis Rabbah (ca. mid 1st millenium C.E.) contains the most negative assessments of Rebecca. One midrash, for instance, denies that God actually spoke to Rebecca (Gen. Rab. 63:7):
ויאמר י”י לה שני גוים וגו’ – ר’ יהודה בר’ סימון ור’ יוחנן בשם ר’ אלעזר בר’ שמעון: לעולם לא נזקק הקב”ה להשיח עם אשה אלא עם אותה הצדקת, ואף היא על ידי עילא…
And God said to her: ‘Two nations [are in your womb]’” – R. Judah son of R. Simon and R. Yohanan in the name of R. Elazar son of R. Shimon: “The Holy One never directly spoke with a woman except that one righteous woman (=Sarah, Gen 18:15), and even this by way of a circumvention…”
ר’ יהושע בר’ נחמיה בשם ר’ אידי על ידי מלאך… ר’ לעזר בשם ר’ יוסי בן זמרא על ידי שם.
R. Joshua son of R. Nehemiah in the name of R. Iddi: “[God spoke to her] through an angel.” R. Lazer in the name of R. Yossi son of Zimra: “[God spoke to her] through Shem [son of Noah].”
Here the motivation for rereading the verse has nothing to do specifically with Rebecca, but reflects a general aversion to imagining God speaking to women. Nevertheless, a later passage, describing Isaac and Rebecca’s adverse reaction to Esau’s marriage to local Canaanite or Hittite women, offers some very negative portrayals of Rebecca. Gen 26:35 states that these foreign women, “made life bitter for Isaac and Rebecca.” According to Genesis Rabbah (Gen. Rab. 65; Neusner trans.),
ותהיין מרת רוח ליצחק ולרבקה – למה ליצחק תחילה אלא על ידי שרבקה היתה בת כומרים לא היתה מקפדת על טנופת עבודה זרה וזה היה בן קדושים והיה מקפיד לפיכך ליצחק תחילה.
“They made life bitter for Isaac and Rebecca” – Why is Isaac mentioned first? Because since Rebecca was the daughter of priests of idolatry, she paid no attention to the pollution of idolatry. But because he was the son of holy parents, therefore he paid attention to it. Therefore, Isaac is mentioned first.
This midrash states that Rebecca was not really all that bothered by her Canaanite daughters-in-law since, as a daughter of idolaters, she was not bothered by idolatry. This view is the exact opposite of that presented in Jubilees 25 (above), where Rebecca herself goes to Jacob to ask him not to marry local women, and blesses him for his compliance.
The next midrash goes further, blaming Esau’s wickedness on Rebecca; since she was from a wicked family, his wickedness was just par for the course:
ד[בר] א[חר]: למה ליצחק תחילה (שהיתה יודעת מקודם לכן) שהדבר תלוי בה שנ’ ויאמר י”י לה שני גוים בבטנך וגו’, לפיכך יצחק תחילה.
Another matter: Why was Isaac mentioned first? Because she was responsible for Esau’s character. For it is said, And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb.”
The midrashic hook for both of these midrashim is noteworthy: why shouldn’t Isaac be mentioned before Rebecca? There is nothing unusual per se in the Bible mentioning a husband before his wife. Rather, the midrash is picking up on other biblical stories regarding Isaac and Rebecca, in which Rebecca is at the foreground, and not Isaac.
Each of the explanations in the Genesis Rabbah midrash provides cover for Isaac—despite his noted preference for Esau—and lays the blame for Esau’s actions directly at his mother’s feet.
Reception of Rebecca
Rebecca’s portrayal in early Jewish interpretation suggests that some commentators were more concerned with preserving the integrity of the narrative’s male heroes than with being faithful to the narrative. Josephus favors Isaac and expands his role by granting him the prophecy in place of Rebecca. He also favors Jacob, and emphasizes Rebecca’s role in the tricking of Isaac thereby deemphasizing Jacob’s. Certain midrashim in Genesis Rabbah take a similar approach. Although the midrash does not replace Rebecca with Isaac in the account of the prophecy, it lowers the level of the prophecy from direct contact with God to contact with an angel or another (male) prophet. Even more starkly, the midrash asks the readers to recall Rebecca’s family of origin and to explain what went wrong with Esau as a result of her idolatrous taint.
Unlike these later sources, Jubilees seems to be concerned with raising the integrity of all members of the Abrahamic family, regardless of their gender. Scholars such as Betsy Halpern Amaru have shown that Jubilees intentionally expands the roles of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel, and adds positive dimensions to their marriages which include their husbands informing them of their family’s covenantal destiny. By inserting these conversations, Jubilees converts the matriarchs from being vehicles that move the family forward, to being active participants in the Abrahamic legacy.
While Jubilees distinguishes between the righteous who will be saved and the wicked who will perish, it makes little distinction between genders. Instead, Jubilees portrays the patriarchs and matriarchs as companions who are actualizing the divine promise of covenantal continuity (and who sometimes disagree as to how to achieve this continuity).
Although Rebecca’s behavior in Genesis seemed problematic to some interpreters who found her to be too domineering, Jubilees maintains—and even expands—Rebecca’s position as the dominant wife and mother whose feelings about her sons are in line with God’s plan, making her a confidant of Abraham and a prophetess who directly blesses her favored son, Jacob, even before Isaac does.
Rebecca’s legacy in early Jewish interpretation, it seems, depended largely on the degree to which interpreters believed that her womanhood made her unavoidably secondary in leadership to her husband Isaac.
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November 15, 2017
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Dr. Malka Zeiger Simkovich is a the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and the director of their Catholic-Jewish Studies program. She holds a Ph.D. in Second Temple Judaism from Brandeis University, an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Bible Studies and Music Theory from Yeshiva University’s Stern College. In addition to her many articles, Malka is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016) and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism (2018).
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