The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Parashat Chaye Sarah 5756
Marital Customs as Reflected in the Account of the Marriage of
Isaac and Rebekah
The story of the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah (Gen. 24) is a rich Biblical source for studying marriage practices and customs in the ancient world. The story begins with Abraham's instructions to his servant to bring a wife for his son. We might have expected that Abraham himself, would journey to Aram Naharaim to bring a wife for Isaac, but the Torah opens with the statement: "And Abraham was old, advanced in age" (24:1). Abraham's advanced age is, on the one hand, a pressing reason for his concern about the marriage of his son in order to continue the family line; at the same time, his age prevents him from going abroad and he therefore sends his servant.
The servant is also aware that his mission is unusual and therefore he asks his master: "Perhaps the woman will not be willing to follow me to this land, should I then return your son to the land from which you did come?"(24:5). According to Abarbanel the question is to be understood as follows: perhaps the woman will want Isaac himself to go and fetch her from her father's house, and she will be unwilling to return with a servant of lowly state. In any case, a study of ancient Near-Eastern documents shows that sending a messenger of this kind was not unknown. We read of kings who sent messengers to foreign courts, where princesses were presented to them for the kings who had sent them. These messengers were also empowered "to close the deal" on the basis of their own judgement.
Abraham instructed his servant: "that you will not take a wife for my son from among the daughters of the Canaanite among whom I dwell. Rather shall you go to my country and my homeland and take a wife for my son"(24:3-4).Abarbanel asks why did Abraham rule out the daughters of the Canaanites and prefer the daughters of Aram Naharaim (Mesopotamia) over them? Did not the Mesopotamians engage in idolatry as well ? Abarbanel also questions the manner of the oath sworn by the servant. Abraham tells him, "Put, please, your hand under my thigh" (24:2). is this not a vulgar form of oath? Rashi comments that Abraham asked him to swear by the commandment of circumcision; but Abarbanel challenges this interpretation, saying: "but we do not swear by commandments, just as we do not swear by a sukkah or by mitzvah of railing (on the roof of a house - ma'akeh)". Therefore he explains that Abraham did not want to take a wife for his son from among the daughters of Canaan because the Canaanites practiced adultery as well as idolatry, whereas in Aram Naharaim they sinned only by idolatry. On the difference between these two, the Ran in his sermons commented that while it is possible to uproot false opinions it is much more difficult to fight the addiction to carnal appetites. Abraham asked his servant to swear by the circumcision to remind him what made the family of Abraham unique among all the other inhabitants of the land in which they lived. Abraham's command to his servant was also a testament to his descendants to hold fast to the land and not to leave it, while at the same time he enjoined them to keep apart from its inhabitants and not to intermarry with them.
The marriage of Isaac to a daughter of his father's family is a form of marriage within the family which was common in ancient times. Girls married members of their family or tribes in order to remain in the family framework and to maintain the tribal connection, which served to safeguard the rights of inheritance as described in the account of the daughters of Zelophchad (Numbers 36, 6-7).
Normally, parents arranged the marriage of their sons and daughters. In the case in question, Abraham was unable to go to Haran himself so he sent his servant. The servant arranged the marriage agreement with the brother of the bride-to-be. In the same way Judah took a wife for his son (Gen. 38,6) and Hagar took a wife for her son (ibid., 21:21). It is true that the Torah says, "let us call the girl and ask her opinion" (24: 57), but Rebekah was not asked if she agreed to the marriage itself but only "will you go with this man?" (24:53), which means - would she agree to go with the servant or prefer to wait for his master to come and get her. According to Alsheich, when Laban saw that Rebekah had been given jewels while her family were given only gifts of fruit (24:53-54) he began to regret the agreement and asked her "will you go with this man ?", "this man" implies contempt and disapproval; Laban hoped that she would refuse. He attempted to delay Rebekah's departure in order to receive additional gifts or perhaps to cheat the servant. Comparison to other ancient sources from Mesopotamia teaches that her consent was asked by Laban because her father was no longer living and her brother had authority over her.
The description of the meeting at the well reflects a stereotypical scene in the Bible to describe such occasions. The scene is built upon the following components: the groom (or the agent) travels to a foreign land, there he meets a girl (or girls) by a well and assists her in watering her sheep. Afterwards the girl runs to inform her mother of the news that a stranger has arrived. The parents of the girl invite the traveler to dinner and there the details of the engagement and the marriage are agreed upon with him. Similar patterns appear in the meeting of Jacob and Rachel (Gen. 29: 1-20) and Moses and the daughters of Jethro (Exodus 2:15-21). The account in Genesis 24 is atypical in several points: the groom, Isaac, is not present but represented by his father's agent. In the other accounts the stranger assists the girl in watering her sheep, whereas here, it is Rebekah who draws the water for the servant and his camels. In this way the Torah draws the dominant image of Rebekah in her relationship with her husband. Finally, only this account offers a detailed description of the negotiations between the parties leading up to to the marriage.
A distinction must be made between the gifts given by the servant to Rebekah and her family, and the dowry. A clear separation between the two is mentioned by Shechem ben Hamor to the family of Jacob: "Ask of me a large dowry and many gifts and I will provide it" (Gen. 34:12). The gifts, as opposed to the dowry, were given to the girl and her family for having accepted the marriage proposal. This custom was commonplace in Aram Naharaim. If the parents of the girl broke off the engagement, they were obliged to return double what they received, to the groom.
Rebekah was given her maidservants (24:61); they would be considered her private property after her marriage, as well. Laban also gave his own daughters their maidservants (Gen. 29: 24-29). This practice is hinted at in Psalms 45:15. We also know that Pharaoh gave the city of Gezer as a wedding gift to his daughter when she married Solomon ( I Kings 9:16), and Caleb gave his daughter a portion of land (Josh. 15:18-19), though the latter gift was given after the marriage. It is possible that these sources are proof that a dowry was provided by the family of the bride. Attention should be paid to the fact that in all except the last example the givers are gentiles and it is possible that this kind of dowry was not customary in ancient Israel. In Babylonian law, on the other hand, the father of the bride gave his young daughter certain properties which were hers by law and whose fruit her husband enjoyed during the duration of the marriage.
Rebekah covered her face with a veil when she first saw Isaac (65). According to the laws of Hammurabi, the use of a veil was symbolic of a free-born woman and its use by female slaves or prostitutes was forbidden. Rebekah fell from the camel upon seeing Isaac (64). This seems to have been a gesture of honor due to a man of importance. Similarly, Achsah fell before her father Caleb (Josh. 15:18), Abigail fell before David (I Samuel 25:23) and Na'aman before Gehazi, the servant of the prophet Elisha (II Kings 5:21). Our story concludes by saying that Isaac brought Rebekah to the tent of his mother (67). Aside from the evidence we derive from this about the fact that they did, indeed, live in tents, this teaches us something about patriarchal marriages in which the bride is brought into the house of her husband or that of her father-in-law. The woman will now belong to the family of her husband, and her children as well. There are few exceptions in the Bible to this broad rule.
Dr. David Elgavish
Department of Bible
 Examples may be found in several of the El Amarna letters; see: W.L.Moran, The Amarna Letters, (Baltimore and London, 1992), Nos. 11, 19, 31.
 For an example of the type-scene see: Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative.
 This practice seems to conflict with the verse, "and he thought her to be a prostitute for she covered her face" (Gen. 38:15), The subject requiers further discussion.
Translated by: Phil Lerman, Kibbutz Beerot Yitzchak