Rebekah Ran to her “Mother’s Household”: Where Was her Father?
Rebekah’s Mother’s Household
When Abraham is an old man, he sends his unnamed servant back to his hometown in Aram-Naharayim to find a wife for Isaac. The servant decides on a girl named Rebekah, who quickly runs home to tell her family:
בראשית כד:כח וַתָּרָץ הַנַּעֲרָ וַתַּגֵּד לְבֵית אִמָּהּ כַּדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה.
Gen 24:28 The maiden ran to tell her mother’s household all this.
The reference to her mother’s household, as opposed to her father’s household is unusual. In fact, in a similar story, when Jacob comes to Haran and introduces himself to Rachel (Gen 29:12), she “runs to tell her father” (וַתָּרָץ וַתַּגֵּד לְאָבִיהָ). Traditional commentators were already bothered by this problem.
Saadia Gaon (882-942), focusing on why Rebekah runs to her mother and not her father, offers two explanations:
ותגד לבית אמה – ולא לאביה, משני טעמים:
א. כי בושה להודיע כזאת לגברים.
ב. מפני שהנשים מבחינות תחילה בנזם ובצמידים ושואלות על כך.
“She told her mother’s household” – not her father, for two reasons:
A. It is embarrassing to tell this to men.
B. Women are more discerning at first with jewelry and will ask about it.
Saadia does not explain the odd phrase “mother’s household,” but Rashi (1040-1105), who has the same reading as Saadia, i.e., that a girl would be more comfortable speaking to her mother, adds:
לבית אמה – דרך הנשים היתה להיות להן בית לישב בו למלאכתן ואין הבת מגדת אלא לאמה.
“To her mother’s house” – it is the way of women to have a house in which they sit and do their work. And a daughter would really only tell this to her mother.
According to Rashi, the strange phrase בית אמה is a reference to a physical building—literally “the house of her mother”— the house in which her mother, and other women, would sit to do their work. Nevertheless, the meaning of the phrase is likely not “house” but “household.”
In fact, the continuation of the narrative makes it clear that “mother’s house” is not a building only for women and that Rebekah did not tell this privately to her mother, since her brother Laban is the one who runs out to the well to officially welcome Abraham’s emissary:
בראשית כד:כט וּלְרִבְקָה אָח וּשְׁמוֹ לָבָן וַיָּרָץ לָבָן אֶל הָאִישׁ הַחוּצָה אֶל הָעָיִן.
Gen 24:29 Now Rebekah had a brother whose name was Laban. Laban ran out to the man at the spring.
Moreover, the next verse makes clear that he heard it from Rebekah herself and saw her jewelry:
כד:ל וַיְהִי כִּרְאֹת אֶת הַנֶּזֶם וְאֶת הַצְּמִדִים עַל יְדֵי אֲחֹתוֹ וּכְשָׁמְעוֹ אֶת דִּבְרֵי רִבְקָה אֲחֹתוֹ לֵאמֹר כֹּה דִבֶּר אֵלַי הָאִישׁ וַיָּבֹא אֶל הָאִישׁ וְהִנֵּה עֹמֵד עַל הַגְּמַלִּים עַל הָעָיִן.
24:30 when he saw the nose-ring and the bands on his sister’s arms, and when he heard his sister Rebekah say, “Thus the man spoke to me.” He went up to the man, who was still standing beside the camels at the spring.
Thus, we see that Rebekah told the story to her mother and brother, and that “the mother’s household” is a general term for everyone in the family.
But where was her father? The simple explanation is that her father was no longer alive, leaving the house nominally in the charge of her mother. But in this patriarchal society, it would be her mother’s household only in name; a grown up son would be in actual charge of the household, or at least in joint charge, and, in fact, this is what we see in the story.
When he arrives at the spring, Laban speaks to the visitor on behalf of the family and refers to the house as if it were his:
כד:לא וַיֹּאמֶר בּוֹא בְּרוּךְ יְ־הוָה לָמָּה תַעֲמֹד בַּחוּץ וְאָנֹכִי פִּנִּיתִי הַבַּיִת וּמָקוֹם לַגְּמַלִּים.
24:31 “Come, O blessed of YHWH,” he said, “why do you remain outside, when I have made ready the house and a place for the camels?”
Laban is effectively presenting himself as the head of the household, which would make sense if his father were deceased and it was his mother’s household, but would be problematic if his father were still alive.
The servant brings the camels in and Laban feeds and waters them. But when the man enters the house and they give him food, he refuses to eat before he tells his story:
בראשית כד:לג (ויישם) [וַיּוּשַׂם] לְפָנָיו לֶאֱכֹל וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֹכַל עַד אִם דִּבַּרְתִּי דְּבָרָי וַיֹּאמֶר דַּבֵּר.
Gen 24:33 But when food was set before him, he (Abraham’s servant) said, “I will not eat until I have told my tale.” He (Laban) said, “Speak, then.”
Again, the servant is addressing Laban here as the person with whom negotiations will be conducted, and Laban—not Rebekah’s father—gives the servant leave to speak. It is difficult to imagine such behavior if his father was still alive.
The Sudden Appearance of Betuel
And yet, after the servant explains the circumstances of his coming to Haran, and the fortuitous encounter with Rebekah, whom he has chosen to be Isaac’s wife, Betuel appears suddenly:
בראשית כד:נ וַיַּעַן לָבָן וּבְתוּאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ מֵיְ־הוָה יָצָא הַדָּבָר לֹא נוּכַל דַּבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ רַע אוֹ טוֹב.
Gen 24:50 Then Laban and Betuel answered and said, “The matter was decreed by YHWH; we cannot speak to you bad or good.
כד:נא הִנֵּה רִבְקָה לְפָנֶיךָ קַח וָלֵךְ וּתְהִי אִשָּׁה לְבֶן אֲדֹנֶיךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה.
24:51 Here is Rebekah before you; take her and go, and let her be a wife to your master’s son, as YHWH has spoken.”
Betuel appears out of nowhere. The text makes no effort to explain where he was when the servant arrived or why Laban acted as if he were in charge up until this point or why the household is referred to as her mother’s and not her father’s, if he is alive. Moreover, why would Laban be listed before his father?
Betuel Disappears Again
The story continues with Abraham’s servant being very happy with Laban and Betuel’s answer. He prostrates himself to YHWH in thanksgiving and then gives out gifts:
בראשית כד:נג וַיּוֹצֵא הָעֶבֶד כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב וּבְגָדִים וַיִּתֵּן לְרִבְקָה וּמִגְדָּנֹת נָתַן לְאָחִיהָ וּלְאִמָּהּ.
Gen 24:53 The servant brought out objects of silver and gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah; and he gave presents to her brother and her mother.
Why do the family gifts go only to Rebekah’s brother and mother? What about her father? Abraham’s servant could not possibly have intended to snub the father of the bride he was acquiring for Isaac in the middle of a delicate negotiation! The story again seems to be assuming that the father is absent.
His absence from the story continues in the final scene before Rebekah leaves with the servant. The next morning, the servant awakens and asks to leave with Rebekah that day:
בראשית כד:נה וַיֹּאמֶר אָחִיהָ וְאִמָּהּ תֵּשֵׁב הַנַּעֲרָ אִתָּנוּ יָמִים אוֹ עָשׂוֹר אַחַר תֵּלֵךְ.
Gen 24:55 But her brother and her mother said, “Let the maiden remain with us some ten days; then you may go.”
Again, it is Rebekah’s brother and mother doing the negotiation with Abraham’s servant, and they are the ones who give the final go ahead for Rebekah to leave with him and offer her a blessing (vv. 56-60). The father plays no role, and is not really part of this story. If so, what is Betuel doing in v. 50?
Noting the sudden disappearance of Betuel after v. 50, a number of traditional commentaries suggest that he died in the middle of negotiations. For example, Genesis Rabbah (Theodor-Albeck, 60), the earliest source with this view (which is also quoted by Rashi), states:
[ויאמר אחיה ואמה] וגו’ ובתואל היכן הוא, ביקש לעכב וניגף בלילה…
“[Her brother and mother said] etc.” – Where was Betuel? He wanted to detain her so he was struck down that night… 
A number of medieval commentaries offer variations on this approach. The Da’at Zekenim MiBaalei HaTosafot (ca. 12th-13th cent.) suggest that Betuel poisoned Abraham’s servant’s food, but the angel Gabriel tricked him and he ended up eating from the poisoned dish himself:
ד”א שבקשו להאכיל לאליעזר סם המות כדי שישאר להם הממון ובא גבריאל והחליף הקערה אשר בה סם המות ליתנה לאליעזר ונתנה לבתואל ומת:
Another interpretation: They wished to feed Eliezer (=Abraham’s servant) poison so that they could keep the money, but (the angel) Gabriel came and switched the plate in which they had put the poison to give to Eliezer, and put it before Betuel, and he died.
Most creatively, Yalkut Shimoni (ca. 13th cent.; Chayei Sarah 109) suggests that the townspeople were going to force Betuel to rape Rebekah as part of his prima nocta (“first night”) practice and that he died (God struck him down?) to protect her:
ומפני מה מת בתואל שהוא היה מלך בארם נהרים וכל בתולה שתנשא בועל אותה לילה ראשונה ואח”כ חוזרת לבעלה נתקבצו כל השרים ואמרו אם הוא עושה לבתו כשם שעשה לבנותינו מוטב ואם לאו אנו הורגים אותו ואת בתו לפיכך מת כדי שינצל אליעזר ורבקה.
Why did Betuel die? He was king of Aram-naharayim and every virgin who would get married, he would lie with on the first night, and afterwards she would return to her husband. [During the negotiations with Abraham’s servant], all of the ministers gathered and said: “If he does it to his own daughter the same way he did it to ours, then fine. Otherwise, we will kill him and his daughter.” Therefore, he died, in order to save Eliezer and Rebekah.
Nothing in the text supports these highly creative scenarios. Betuel just slips away without the text taking any notice. Moreover, such a reading might work if Betuel had been part of the story from the beginning, but as noted above, the opening of the story also assumes no father was present. But if the story takes it for granted that Rebekah's father is deceased, why does Betuel appear in v. 50?
1. A Redactor’s Mistake (Speiser)
One possibility, suggested by Ephraim Speiser (1902-1965) in his Anchor Bible commentary (ad loc.), is that a later editor didn’t realize that “the father had no place in this narrative” and “thus inserted Betuel awkwardly at this juncture, since the father was supposed to have this role.” In other words, the editor did not realize that Rebekah’s father was supposed to be deceased, and was bothered by the fact that Laban and his mother were acting without his involvement so added him in at the point in the story in which the family agrees to Rebekah’s betrothal.
Originally, after Abraham’s servant asks whether they—Laban and Rebekah’s mother—will agree to the betrothal, the verse simply continued with “and they said” (וַיֹּאמְרוּ). The redactor then added “Laban and Betuel answered” (וַיַּעַן לָבָן וּבְתוּאֵל) before this phrase to give Betuel at least one speaking part and a place in the negotiations.
But why would the editor make this mistake when nothing in the story implied that her father was alive?
2. Part of the Compiler’s “Betuel Redaction” (Farber)
Another possibility is that the mistake was part of the programmatic work of the compiler in this chapter. In the original J narrative, Nahor is Rebekah’s father and not Betuel. Thus, every mention of Betuel as Rebekah’s father in this chapter (vv. 15, 24, and 47) is a redactional supplement.
This redactor also added Betuel into verse 50 as a part of his general attempt to add Betuel into the narrative as Rebekah’s father, to make the J text align with the P text, which lists Betuel as Rebekah’s father (Gen 25:20, 28:2, 5). In this case, however, the redactor unwittingly caused a narrative problem, since the original story imagines Rebekah’s father (originally Nahor, now Betuel) to be deceased by the time of this story; by adding him into the narrative at this point, he brought Rebekah’s father back from the dead.
3. Betuel Was Originally the Name of Rebekah’s Mother (Zucker)
It is not so simple, however, to label the phrase “Laban and Betuel answered” as redactional and to remove it from the text and simply have unnamed persons respond. At this point in the narrative, Abraham’s servant has been speaking straight for 16 verses (vv. 34-49). To refer to the other party responding without mentioning their names (“and they said”) after such a long interval makes the text hard to follow.
In addition, the last time the servant’s interlocutor spoke, it was one person, Laban (v. 33), so how did the unnamed and understood interlocutor suddenly become a plural? If someone else had entered the scene, the author would have introduced him.
In theory, v. 50 originally could have had only Laban talking, but this would require very aggressive redaction, since the speech itself is in plural form:
בראשית כד:נ וַיַּעַן לָבָן וּבְתוּאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ מֵיְ-הוָה יָצָא הַדָּבָר לֹא נוּכַל דַּבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ רַע אוֹ טוֹב…
Gen 24:50 Then Laban and Betuel answered and said (pl), “The matter was decreed by YHWH; we cannot speak to you bad or good…”
כד:נב וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע עֶבֶד אַבְרָהָם אֶת דִּבְרֵיהֶם וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ אַרְצָה לַי-הוָה.
24:52 When Abraham’s servant heard their words, he bowed low to the ground before YHWH.
Perhaps the original had “Laban and her mother answered,” (ויען לבן ואמה ויאמרו) but given that the editor did not make this replacement in v. 55, why would he make it here?
An entirely different approach is to suggest that the verse in its entirety is original but that we are misunderstanding who Betuel is in J.
When Laban speaks in this story with some else, it is with his and Rebekah’s mother (v. 55). When Abraham’s servant wants to express gratitude for agreeing to the match by giving gifts, it is to Rebekah’s brother and mother (v. 53). It only seems logical that the people who agree to the match in vv. 50-51 are Laban and Rebekah’s mother. Thus, I suggest that in J, Betuel is the name of Rebekah and Laban’s mother.
A Woman’s Name
This suggestion allows us to offer a translation of an otherwise untranslatable name. The Bible has many names with the same grammatical form as Betuel, including:
- Reuel (“Friend of El”),
- Kemuel (“Risen of El”),
- Shemuel (“Named of El” or “Great One of El”).
The problem is that no root with the letters bet and tav make sense here in a man’s name. In fact, scholars are so befuddled at the name Betuel that they suggest it may be a corruption for the name Metuel, “Man of El.” But once we realize it is originally a woman’s name, then the translation is straightforward, “Daughter of El.” It is thus an ancient version of the popular Israeli girl’s name, Bat-El.
Turning Betuel into a Man: The Genealogical Divide in Context
It is admittedly difficult to contemplate the possibility that Betuel is Rebekah’s mother in J but her father in P, but confusion of names in lineages is hardly a unique phenomenon. Robert Wilson, a biblical scholar at Yale University, showed long ago that such variations in genealogies are found in texts from Israel’s ancient Near Eastern neighbors, and in many oral genealogies from different parts of the world that were recorded by anthropologists in the course of their fieldwork.
The Bible offers clear examples of names changing places between J and P. For example, a careful look at the genealogy of Cain in Genesis 4:17-25 (J) and Genesis 5 (P) shows how the “same person” is given slightly variant names, and may appear in different places in the genealogy. It should thus come as no surprise that different sources should preserve traditions attributing different lineages to Rebekah.
Granted, we do not find the gender switch elsewhere, but it should be noted that gender neutral names were not unheard of even in biblical times. For example Ma'achah is the name of Nahor’s youngest son in Gen 22:24 and the name of Abshalom’s mother in 2 Sam 3:3.
Adding Milkah to Turn Betuel into a Man
If Betuel was originally Rebekah’s mother in J, this would affect how we understand the redaction of the three verses in which Rebekah’s lineage is stated. In general, scholars who agree that J had Nahor as the father assume that everything other than “I am the daughter of Nahor” is redactional, but perhaps Betuel, as Rebekah’s mother, is original to these verses as well.
Here is how the verses would then be reconstructed:
- Narrator’s introduction (24:15)
וַיְהִי הוּא טֶרֶם כִּלָּה לְדַבֵּר וְהִנֵּה רִבְקָה יֹצֵאת אֲשֶׁר יֻלְּדָה לִבְתוּאֵל בֶּן מִלְכָּהאֵשֶׁת נָחוֹר אֲחִי אַבְרָהָם וְכַדָּהּ עַל שִׁכְמָהּ.
He had scarcely finished speaking, when Rebekah, who was born to Betuel the son of Milkah the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, came out with her jar on her shoulder.
- Rebekah’s introduction (24:24)
וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו בַּת בְּתוּאֵל אָנֹכִי בֶּן מִלְכָּה אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לְנָחוֹר.
She replied, “The daughter of Betuel is who I am, the son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor.”
- Servant’s retelling of Rebekah’s introduction (24:47)
וַתֹּאמֶר בַּת בְּתוּאֵל וְבֶּן נָחוֹר אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לּוֹ מִלְכָּה
And she said, “The daughter of Betuel and son of Nahor, whom Milkah bore to him.”
The redactor’s change fit the J genealogy with the P genealogy with minimal interference, simply by adding the words “son of Milkah” (בֶּן מִלְכָּה) after Nahor. That “son of Milkah” is a redactional addition is suggested by the cumbersome and strange nature of these words: mentioning a grandmother’s name in such contexts is unknown.
Noting this problem, Ramban (1194-1270) on Gen 24:15 suggests that she mentioned Milkah because Nahor also had a concubine (Gen 22:24) and the Torah wanted to make sure that the reader knew that her lineage was through a wife and not a concubine. This is a creative answer, but the reader was already informed of this in Gen 22:24, so it is hard to understand why it would need to be stated here, let alone repeated three times.
Thus, it seems more likely that Milkah was added by the redactor, to change Betuel from Nahor’s wife to Nahor’s son. Moreover, it seems likely that Milkah herself was conjured up by the redactor of the Pentateuch to add P’s Betuel into the patriarchal lineage and to quash any alternative traditions of a mother named Betuel.
Mentioning Her Mother’s Name
Undoubtedly, Rebekah’s mention of her mother, Betuel, is also unusual, but makes good sense in the context of the original J narrative. Rebekah’s father, Nahor, was dead in the original story and Rebekah lived in “her mother’s (Betuel’s!) household” (24:28), and it was her mother, Betuel, not her father, whom Abraham’s servant was to meet and negotiate with when he would immanently arrive at her home.
A Problem of Redaction
Whichever of the above solutions one prefers – or even if all seem unsatisfying – what seems clear is that in the original story, Rebekah’s father was no longer alive. Whether Betuel was added into v. 50 as Rebekah’s father (to fit J with P), or whether Milkah was added into vv. 15, 24, and 47 to turn Betuel from Rebekah’s mother into her father (to fit J with P), the redactor’s attempt to fix Rebekah’s lineage had the consequence of causing a major narrative confusion in chapter 24 by bringing her deceased father back from the dead.
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November 9, 2017
October 15, 2020
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
Rabbi Daniel M. Zucker, D.D. is the rabbi of Temple Hatikvah (Flanders, NJ) and President and CEO of Americans for Democracy in the Middle-East. He holds an M.A. in Hebrew Letters, a Doctor of Divinity (Honoris Causa) from JTS, and rabbinic ordination from HUC-JIR. A sampling of Zucker’s many articles on the Middle-East can be found on his blog, and he is the author of “He Said: ‘It’s an Event not Pure, for it’s not Pure!’ (I Sam. 20:26b) A Political Analysis,” published in JBQ (2016).
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