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SBL e-journal

Zev Farber





Who Was Rebekah's Father?





APA e-journal

Zev Farber





Who Was Rebekah's Father?








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Who Was Rebekah's Father?

“I am the daughter of Betuel the son of Milkah, whom she bore to Nahor” (Gen 24:24) – Why the unusual and cumbersome genealogical description?[1]


Who Was Rebekah's Father?

Eliezer and Rebekah. Gustave Doré 1866

Abraham, advanced in years and blessed with wealth, charges his servant with finding a wife from outside the local Canaanite families, for Isaac:

בראשית כד:ד כִּי אֶל אַרְצִי וְאֶל מוֹלַדְתִּי תֵּלֵךְ וְלָקַחְתָּ אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי לְיִצְחָק.
Gen 24:4 but you will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac.

After the servant asks what to do if the woman prefers that Isaac move to her land instead, Abraham warns the servant never to bring Isaac out of Canaan, but reassures him that the plan will work:

בראשית כד:ז יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם אֲשֶׁר לְקָחַנִי מִבֵּית אָבִי וּמֵאֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתִּי וַאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לִי וַאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לִי לֵאמֹר לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת הוּא יִשְׁלַח מַלְאָכוֹ לְפָנֶיךָ וְלָקַחְתָּ אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי מִשָּׁם.
Gen 24:7 YHWH, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from my native land, who promised me on oath, saying, ‘I will assign this land to your offspring’ — He will send His angel before you, and you will get a wife for my son from there.

Abraham’s reference to YHWH taking him out of his homeland, his birth place, and his father’s house harkens back to the first command Abraham received from YHWH in the opening of the Abraham narrative:

בראשית יב:א וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל אַבְרָם לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.
Gen 12:1 YHWH said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.[2]

Abraham does not name this homeland when speaking with the servant, but the text tells us soon after that the land is called Aram-naharayim:

בראשית כד:י …וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלֶךְ אֶל אֲרַם נַהֲרַיִם אֶל עִיר נָחוֹר.
Gen 24:10 and he set out and went to Aram-naharayim, to the city of Nahor.

The city is here referred to incidentally, as the city of Nahor, who is Abraham’s brother. At no time does Abraham say that his servant should specifically look for a member of his family,[3]but fortuitously Rebekah, the woman Abraham’s servant chooses, is from this clan:

בראשית כד:כג וַיֹּאמֶר בַּת מִי אַתְּ…
Gen 24:23 And he said, “whose daughter are you?…
כד:כד וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו בַּת בְּתוּאֵל אָנֹכִי בֶּן מִלְכָּה אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לְנָחוֹר.
24:24 She said, “I am the daughter of Betuel the son of Milkah, whom she bore to Nahor.”

This is a very strange answer. Where else in the Bible do we hear such a cumbersome lineage? Not only does she mention her father (Betuel), and her grandfather (Nahor), but even her grandmother (Milkah)! This same lineage was also mentioned earlier when the text introduces the reader to Rebekah (v. 15), and is repeated by the servant when he retells this story (v. 47). Why this unusual and cumbersome introduction?

Betuel the Aramean from Paddan-aram (P)

This very detailed lineage in Genesis 24 contrasts starkly with the description of Rebekah’s family in Genesis 25:

בראשית כה:כ וַיְהִי יִצְחָק בֶּן אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה בְּקַחְתּוֹ אֶת רִבְקָה בַּת בְּתוּאֵל הָאֲרַמִּי מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם אֲחוֹת לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה.
Gen 25:20 Isaac was forty years old when he took to wife Rebekah, daughter of Betuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean.

In this text, Rebekah is merely the daughter Betuel the Aramean and the sister of Laban. No mention is made of Betuel’s father or mother.

Betuel is mentioned again in a similar way when Isaac sends Jacob off to marry one of Laban’s daughters:

בראשית כח:א וַיִּקְרָא יִצְחָק אֶל יַעֲקֹב וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ וַיְצַוֵּהוּ וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ לֹא תִקַּח אִשָּׁה מִבְּנוֹת כְּנָעַן.
Gen 28:1 So Isaac sent for Jacob and blessed him. He instructed him, saying, “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women.
כח:ב קוּם לֵךְ פַּדֶּנָה אֲרָם בֵּיתָה בְתוּאֵל אֲבִי אִמֶּךָ וְקַח לְךָ מִשָּׁם אִשָּׁה מִבְּנוֹת לָבָן אֲחִי אִמֶּךָ.
28:2 Up, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Betuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother….”
בראשית כח:ה וַיִּשְׁלַח יִצְחָק אֶת יַעֲקֹב וַיֵּלֶךְ פַּדֶּנָה אֲרָם אֶל לָבָן בֶּן בְּתוּאֵל הָאֲרַמִּי אֲחִי רִבְקָה אֵם יַעֲקֹב וְעֵשָׂו.
Gen 28:5 Then Isaac sent Jacob off, and he went to Paddan-aram, to Laban the son of Betuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, mother of Jacob and Esau.

Again, we hear that Betuel is Rebekah’s father, but nothing about his being the son of Nahor or Milkah or related in any way to Isaac and Abraham.

Laban son of Nahor?

All of these texts agree that Betuel is the father of Rebekah and Laban. Later in Genesis, however, Nahor is presented as Laban’s father. This is narrated when Jacob runs away to Laban’s city to escape Esau and goes to the well and speaks the local shepherds:

בראשית כט:ד וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם יַעֲקֹב אַחַי מֵאַיִן אַתֶּם וַיֹּאמְרוּ מֵחָרָן אֲנָחְנוּ.
Gen 29:4 Jacob said to them, “My friends, where are you from?” And they said, “We are from Haran.”
כט:ה וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם הַיְדַעְתֶּם אֶת לָבָן בֶּן נָחוֹר וַיֹּאמְרוּ יָדָעְנוּ.
29:5 He said to them, “Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?” And they said, “Yes, we do.”

In this text, not only is Laban’s father Nahor rather than Betuel,[4] but the name of the city is Haran, not Padan-aram.

Some other verses in this story also suggest that Nahor is the father of Laban and Rebekah. For example, when the servant heads to Abraham’s home town, the text states that he was headed to “the city of Nahor” (v. 10), not the city of Betuel.

More telling, is the servant’s reaction when he finds out who Rebekah is, and refers to her as the daughter of his master’s brother:

בראשית כד:כז וַיֹּאמֶר בָּרוּךְ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָזַב חַסְדּוֹ וַאֲמִתּוֹ מֵעִם אֲדֹנִי אָנֹכִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ נָחַנִי יְ־הוָה בֵּית אֲחֵי [תה”ש ונה”ש אֲחִי] אֲדֹנִי.
Gen 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 brothers [LXX and SP: brother].”

In the LXX and SP, the word “brother” is in singular (אֲחִי); this fits a story where Rebekah is Nahor’s daughter, since Nahor is Abraham’s brother. In the MT, the word is plural “brothers” (אֲחֵי) and is likely meant to convey the vaguer concept “kinsmen,” since Rebekah is clearly not the daughter of Abraham’s “brothers” (in plural). Thus, it seems likely that the MT’s pointing is an attempt to avoid the implication that Rebekah is Nahor’s daughter.

Finally, when Jacob and Laban meet for the last time in Gilad, Laban sets up a pillar of stones and declares that neither of them should ever cross this pillar with evil intentions, because the gods will be watching:

בראשית לא:נג אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם וֵאלֹהֵי נָחוֹר יִשְׁפְּטוּ בֵינֵינוּ…
Gen 31:53 May the god(s) of Abraham and the god(s) of Nahor judge between us…

Laban makes no mention of Betuel here.

Two Traditions about Rebekah and Laban’s Parentage

Many critical scholars explain this confusion about whether Nahor or Betuel was the father of Rebekah and Laban with a source-critical solution, that J and P have different traditions about Rebekah and Laban’s parentage.[5] More specifically, the text which refers to Rebekah as the daughter of Betuel the Aramean from Paddan-aram is the Priestly text (P). In this text, Betuel is not the son of Nahor or Isaac’s cousin.[6]

In the J stories, however, Rebekah is the daughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor, who lives in the city of Haran in the land of Aram-naharayim. This genealogical disparity did not go unnoticed by the Torah’s redactors, who tried to solve the problem by both adding genealogies and revising already existent ones.

The Nahor Genealogy in Genesis 22

We are first introduced to Rebekah in a passage that comes immediately after the story of the Akedah:

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, “Milkah too has borne children to your brother Nahor:
כב:כא אֶת עוּץ בְּכֹרוֹ וְאֶת בּוּז אָחִיו וְאֶת קְמוּאֵל אֲבִי אֲרָם.
22:21 Uz the first-born, and Buz his brother, and Kemuel the father of Aram;
כב:כב וְאֶת כֶּשֶׂד וְאֶת חֲזוֹ וְאֶת פִּלְדָּשׁ וְאֶת יִדְלָף וְאֵת בְּתוּאֵל.
22:22and Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Betuel”
כב:כג וּבְתוּאֵל יָלַד אֶת רִבְקָה שְׁמֹנָה אֵלֶּה יָלְדָה מִלְכָּה לְנָחוֹר אֲחִי אַבְרָהָם.
22:23 —Betuel being the father of Rebekah. These eight Milcah bore to Nahor, Abraham’s brother.[7]

This genealogy makes Nahor the father of Betuel and the grandfather of Rebekah, thus connecting the father in P (Betuel) with the father in J (Nahor) and putting Rebekah squarely into Abraham’s family. The text was likely added by a redactor for exactly this purpose.[8]

The list was probably not created out of whole cloth by the editor, but borrowed from somewhere else and adapted to its current context. This is clear from the fact that it references Aram—the eponymous ancestor of the Arameans—as the son of Kemuel and thus Nahor’s grandson and Betuel’s nepew. But in both J and P, Rebekah’s father lives among the Arameans, or is himself an Aramean, implying they were already a people![9]

Redacting Rebekah’s Introduction

The other place where the redactor made adjustments is in the story of the finding of Rebekah, which is from J and would originally have featured Nahor and not Betuel as her father. When Rebekah is first introduced, the verse says (24:15):

בראשית כד:טו וַיְהִי הוּא טֶרֶם כִּלָּה לְדַבֵּר וְהִנֵּה רִבְקָה יֹצֵאת אֲשֶׁר יֻלְּדָה לִבְתוּאֵל בֶּן מִלְכָּה אֵשֶׁת נָחוֹר אֲחִי אַבְרָהָם וְכַדָּהּ עַל שִׁכְמָהּ.
Gen 24:15 He had scarcely finished speaking, when Rebekah came out, who was born to Betuel, the son of Milkah the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, with her jar on her shoulder.

As noted above, the introduction is long and cumbersome. The only important fact about Rebekah is that she is from Abraham’s family. Thus, it is understandable that the lineage would include her father and her grandfather, since the latter is Abraham’s brother. But why include her grandmother? Once we realize that in the original J story, her father was Nahor and not Betuel, the explanation for this cumbersome phrase becomes clear: a much shorter J genealogy was supplemented here to comport with P. The redactional supplement that accomplishes this is noted in italics:

…וְהִנֵּה רִבְקָה יֹצֵאת אֲשֶׁר יֻלְּדָה לִבְתוּאֵל בֶּן מִלְכָּה אֵשֶׁת נָחוֹר אֲחִי אַבְרָהָם וְכַדָּהּ עַל שִׁכְמָהּ.
…Rebekah came out, who was born to Betuel, the son of Milkah the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, with her jar on her shoulder.[10]

A similar redactional addition is found when Rebekah tells Abraham’s servant who she is (24:24), and when the servant repeats the story to Laban and Rebekah’s mother:

בראשית כד:כד וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו בַּת בְּתוּאֵל אָנֹכִי בֶּן מִלְכָּה אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לְנָחוֹר.
Gen 24:24 She replied, “The daughter of Betuel is who I am, the son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor.”
בראשית כד:מז וַתֹּאמֶר בַּת בְּתוּאֵל בֶּןנָחוֹר אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לּוֹ מִלְכָּה
Gen 24:47 And she said, “The daughter of Betuel, son of Nahor, whom Milkah bore to him.”

When these redactions are removed, we are left with a simple and consistent J text, in which Rebekah is the daughter of Nahor, and thus Isaac’s cousin.[11]

P is also consistent, she is the daughter of Betuel the Aramean and not related to Abraham at all. It is only in the combined and redacted Pentateuch text that we find both traditions combined into one extensive and cumbersome genealogy in which Rebekah is both the daughter of Betuel, the granddaughter of Nahor and Milkah, and a cousin of Isaac.


November 9, 2017


Last Updated

September 16, 2022


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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as 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).