For those of you who have heard all or most of my Old Testament Women of the Bible sermon series so far, you know that I have been rescuing some women in the Old Testament from their bad reputations. True, there are some women who do terrible things in the Bible, yet even those who ought to be praised are often ridiculed for some reason or another. In my first sermon, Eve was often spoken of being inferior to Adam even though she was the same status as a partner, and for having caused sin and humanity’s separation from God even though Adam ate the fruit of the forbidden tree right along with her.
Second sermon, I told how Sarah was criticized for not trusting God when she laughed at hearing she would have a child in her old age. Abraham did the exact same thing even though he was rarely criticized for it. Sarah became the matriarch of the future nation of Israel and yet she is remembered for laughing at an understandably ludicrous situation. Hagar was Sarah’s slave and she gave birth to Abraham’s first son, Ishmael. Ishmael became the patriarch of another powerful nation, differentiated from Isaac’s Israel, which God also blessed. Hagar was criticized for running away. She had legitimate reason to as she was greatly mistreated by Sarah while Abraham basically stood by.
In my third sermon, Tamar, the wife of the eldest son of Judah, great grandson of Isaac, openly and cleverly sought what she was promised, a promise that was not being fulfilled by Judah. She sought for the fulfillment of that promise and therefore her future, and for this she was labeled a prostitute.
And finally, Esther, who was said to be weak and faithless because at first she refused her cousin Mordecai’s request that she go to her husband, the powerful Persian King Ahasuerus, to plead for her people to remove the warrant for their deaths. Her people were the Israelis living in Persia. She had reason to be concerned because she could have been put to death for going before her husband without an invitation. Ultimately, she very thoughtfully and cleverly brings justice for her people. All these women were heroes in their own right and yet what is brought out about them most by many commentators and Sunday School teachers and pastors, down through the ages, was what they did wrong. Our biblical woman of the Old Testament for today, Rebekah, it is no different.
I will remind you that I am using Rev. Dr. Lynn Japinga’s book “Preaching the Women of the Old Testament” as my major source while also incorporating many other sources too. Rev. Japinga starts Rebekah’s chapter this way: Rebekah was an intensely focused woman who put a great deal of energy into her role as the mother of Jacob and Esau. She might be described in contemporary terms as a (mama bear.) She is both admired and criticized for her maternal devotion and preference for one son over the other.
You heard some of her story in the various verses Rodger and I read from chapters 24 and 25. Her story is in chapters 24-27, a rather long story about a woman in the Hebrew Bible, we know as our Old Testament. Abraham’s second and Sarah’s only son was Isaac. Isaac remained a bachelor until 40 years of age and he lived with his parents. Abraham wants him to marry and produce an heir so God’s promise of a great nation through Abraham and Sarah will be fulfilled. He sends a servant far away, hundreds of miles, to relatives in Haran to find a bride for Isaac.
We know that when the servant comes to Haran, he prays to God for guidance as to what woman he should approach. He receives divine instructions. The man asks the first woman he sees, Rebekah, for water. She is said to be a beauty and a virgin, evidently an important characteristic in scripture for a patriarch in marriage. She graciously offers him some well water and even goes on to offer him water for his camels. The servant then knows she is God’s chosen. That is the beginning of her story and she is frequently in the story through the end of chapter 27. Usually, the characters best known in these chapters are Isaac, Jacob and Esau.
It’s noteworthy that Rebekah’s father, Bethuel, and brother, Laban, ask Rebekah if she is ready to go to Isaac’s land with the servant. Rarely is a question like that asked of a woman. Usually there is a waiting period when an offer of marriage is given before the woman would have to leave her family so she could prepare herself and say goodbye to them. Rebekah boldly agrees to go with the man right then and there.
She eventually arrives where Isaac lives. Interestingly, it is said to be Sarah’s tent; that is quite unusual to mention the matriarch instead of the patriarch. Isaac takes her into the tent where he “loved her.” It is the first time in the Hebrew Bible up to this point that a woman is said to be loved by her husband. As her story goes on, Rebekah, like Sarah, has a great deal of trouble getting pregnant. After twenty years of not doing so, Isaac prays to God for help and Rebekah becomes pregnant. This is a biblical theme, barren woman becoming pregnant after God is called upon for help. It becomes a type of modus operandi for some women in scripture, particularly to bring attention to God being part of the whole equation. The Lord actually says to Rebekah that the twins she is to have will struggle mightily with one another and that the younger son will have dominion over the elder son, a reversal of roles.
After giving birth to the twins, Esau, the eldest, and Jacob, the younger, we find out that Isaac comes to favor Esau becomes he is a hunter and brings him home game to eat, and Jacob is his mother’s favorite for reasons that aren’t given. We perhaps can presume that Jacob is a little more sophisticated than Esau who is the wild son in appearance and behavior. This story goes on to illustrate “the tensions that result when children are not equally valued and loved in a family.” Rebekah plots to have Jacob take Esau’s inheritance from him even though he is the younger son. Jacob dresses like his brother and wears animal skin to feel like his brother and takes Isaac two slaughtered goats prepared into a special meal by Rebekah. Isaac gives Esau’s blessing to Jacob. We can understand the prominence of this as we remember that Jacob is a very central figure in Israel’s history. He is often mentioned along with Abraham as the patriarchs of the nation.
Commentators have been quite disapproving of Rebekah with her supposed scheming and controlling of the situation but an important point to remember is that she knows God has said Jacob would rule over Esau. The fact of the matter is that Jacob has to receive Isaac’s blessing which leads to his inheritance for God’s word to be true. Isaac’s blessing cannot be provoked. That is not how blessings worked in ancient times. Isaac’s blessing to Jacob does lead to a great deal of bitterness on Esau’s part, naturally. He angrily wants to kill Jacob. Rebekah fears for Jacob. She sends him to stay with her brother far, far away. He is gone for 20 years and she thinks she will likely never sees her beloved son again. While the two brothers eventually reconcile, what comes before that is not pretty.
This story does bring up the issue of a parental blessing and parental favoritism even today. When a parent chooses an athletic daughter over a musical son, or a scientific son over an ADHD daughter, there can be irreparable damage as the under-loved child seeks attention, sometimes to their detriment or their future. “To bless is to affirm, to value, to love unconditionally, to pass on wisdom, and to delight in. To bless is to seek the best for another.” Rebekah seeks that for Jacob. Some parents seek that for one child over another.
John Calvin, called the father of Presbyterianism, “believed that (Rebekah’s) faith in God and love for Jacob were genuine, but her” manipulation of the event Calvin claims as a sin. At this point we can speculate whether that “scheming and controlling,” as Calvin calls it, by Rebekah, would have been called sinful if it been Isaac who favored Jacob and not her. Frankly, Calvin may not have called it a sin if it were Isaac who did the same.
Dr. Japinga also mentions Walter Brueggemann’s comments about Rebekah. Walter is a well-known and well-thought-of contemporary author and speaker, and Rodger and I have enjoyed hearing him speak a couple times. Yet, his commentary about Rebekah seems to belittle “her independence and personhood” when he notes that while Rebekah and Jacob’s manipulative behavior is unattractive, Rebekah “plays a role she does not know about and does not choose.” He states that there “are no hints in the entire narrative that she knows what she is doing.” By making that statement it seems that he is taking away Rebekah’s right to choose and turns her into a puppet of God. Instead, she is due credit for being an intelligent woman who received an oracle from God. It is she who made up her mind to follow this divine intervention to its natural conclusion. Jacob is to hold the place of special ancestor for the people of Israel. Esau becomes the ancestor of another nation much like Ishmael did in the Sarah’s story.
In conclusion, what Rebekah does what she has to do, even if we may not approve of how it is done. Rebekah is an important character in our faith ancestry. She knew her mind and she acted. She “was a strong, courageous woman who demonstrated a powerful love for” Jacob. She is trying to faithfully follow God according to the Lord’s plan. We can simply admire that about her and that she is as a of key important as a matriarch of the Hebrew people, without the need to criticize her basically because she is a woman. At the same time, we can recognize the inherent family problems that stem from parental favoritism and blessings. May we continue to learn from the still vital lessons of both the women and the men of scripture. Alleluia! Amen.