Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Hayyei Sarah 5766/ November 26, 2005

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

 

Eliezer – Servant or Man?

 

 Dr. Itamar Warhaftig

 

Faculty of Law

 

 

And Abraham said to the senior servant of his household, who had charge of all that he owned, ‘Put your hand under my thigh’” (Gen. 24:2).

Who was this servant?  Throughout the entire long story he is not named, but in Parashat Lekh Lekha (Gen. 15:2), Abraham tells the Lord, “and the one in charge of my household is Dammesek Eliezer.” Thus the servant was Eliezer. [1]

In the course of the story Eliezer is sometimes referred to as a servant and sometimes as a man: 

And Abraham said to the senior servant of his household (Gen. 24:2, as well as 24:5, 9, 10, 17).

“I am Abraham’s servant,” he began (Gen. 24:34, as well as 54:54).

“Will you go with this man?” (Gen. 24:58).

So they sent off their sister Rebekah … with Abraham’s servant (Gen. 24:59).

Then Rebekah and her maids arose, … and followed the man.   So the servant took Rebekah and went his way (Gen. 24:61).

She … said to the servant, ‘Who is that man …?’  And the servant said, ‘That is my master’ (Gen. 24:65).

What does this alternation between appellations of Eliezer signify?   To begin with, we suggest two general principles:

1)       There is an essential difference between the words servant and man.  Servant denotes someone who is not free, who is indentured to another, who carries out orders and does not initiate; whereas “man” denotes someone of importance, [2] a free person who thinks for himself and takes the initiative.

2)       Sometimes Scripture calls a person by one or another name from an objective point of view, but at other times the appellation expresses the subjective point of view of the central character in that passage.   Thus, Scripture might refer to a person as “man” or “servant” depending on the way the person is perceived by the figure around whom the story revolves in that particular verse.

In the light of these principles, we suggest that Eliezer himself is both servant, serving Abraham and carrying out his master’s command, as well as man, a person who thinks for himself and takes the initiative.  Initially he appears as a servant; he performs his mission and nothing more.   Although he is free to choose how he will go about finding what he seeks, he is restricted to seeking a wife for Isaac specifically from among Abraham’s family (“but ... go to the land of my birth,” 24:3), and he must make his appearance there as Abraham’s servant.  Therefore the narrative begins by calling him Abraham’s servant, even though he is the senior servant and is in charge of all that Abraham owned (24:2).   The Torah continues to refer to him as a servant (verses 8, 9, 10, 17), even when he takes himself devises the test to see if he has met the right woman, because his initiative is secondary to the mission itself.

A turning point comes in verse 21, “The man, [3] meanwhile, stood gazing at her, silently wondering...”   Here one needs a man who knows how to look closely and be impressed, and also to act on the basis of his impressions.   This is not characteristic of servants, therefore the aspect of the man in him finds expression here.   It is as if Eliezer has moved to another plane.   Only a “man” could stand “silently wondering whether the Lord had made his errand successful or not.”  This is the spirit in which he gives the young maiden the bracelets, even before asking who she is, [4] since he senses that he is under G-d’s wing and feels self-assurance in the test that he has devised to indicate the success of his mission.   Further on, clearly it would only be said of a “man” that he “bowed low in homage to the Lord”; only a free and independent person is cognizant of the Lord in this way, not a servant, who has a different lord.

In verses 29 and 30 – “Laban ran out to the man ... ‘Thus the man spoke to me’,   He went up to the man” – there is another reason for Eliezer being referred to as a man.  In line with rule 2 above, Eliezer is described as he appeared in the eyes of Laban and Rebekah.  They see him as an important guest, perhaps a relative, who has come from afar.

Actually Scripture wishes to emphasize that Laban treated him as a man, and therefore it would be difficult for him later on to refuse his request.  Moreover, this might be the reason Eliezer had not told Rebekah who he was, so that he would be treated with respect, as a free man and not a servant.  Indeed, that is how he appeared to them:  “So the man entered the house” (24:32).

But when he begins to speak, there is another turning point:  “I am Abraham’s servant.” [5]   As if to say, I must tell you the truth:   I am a servant, but the servant of Abraham, and I have come as Abraham’s emissary, as if Abraham himself were here.   After the story comes to a successful conclusion – “Here is Rebekah before you; take her and go” (24:51) – the closing words, “When Abraham’s servant heard their words” (24:52), actually introduce the next development.   Henceforth Eliezer reverts to his primary role as Abraham’s servant and therefore “the servant brought out objects of silver and gold” (24:53).  Moreover, at this point he lends expression to the fact that Rebekah too is his mistress and therefore he humbles himself as a servant.   Laban, however, still relates to his guest as a man, be it because of the gifts that he brought, be it because of the powerful impression he has made upon them, and asks Rebekah, “Will you go with this man?” even though he knows that he is Abraham’s servant.

Indeed in verse 59 – “So they sent off their sister Rebekah ... along with Abraham’s servant” – we must examine why he was called a servant, for he was already an [important] man in their eyes.  Here, once again, as we said on v. 24:53 in the previous paragraph, we must explain Eliezer’s position as relative to the other characters: looking at the assemblage of people, the heroine of the story is Rebekah, going off with her nurse, and with Abraham’s servant, who will also become her servant. [6] In Rebekah’s own eyes, however, he is still a man:   she and her maids “followed the man” (24:61).  Yet in his own eyes he is a servant, both to Abraham and to Isaac and Rebekah, as noted, and therefore it says, “So the servant took Rebekah” (loc. sit.).

When Rebekah sees Isaac, then for her as well, Isaac is the master and Eliezer the servant:  “She ... said to the servant, ... And the servant said, ...   The servant told Isaac...” (24:65-66); in the presence of Isaac, Eliezer reverts to being a servant.

The narrative began calling him a servant and concluded calling him a servant, and in the middle sometimes referred to him as a man, all according to the circumstances.

 



[1] See Yoma 28b:  “Abraham’s servant Eliezer was on in years and was studying in a yeshivah, as it is written:   ‘And Abraham said to the senior servant of his household, who had charge of all that he owned.’   Rabbi Eleazar said that he had charge of [i.e., had mastered ] his master’s Teaching.”   Also cf. Targum Jonathan ben Uzziel on this verse, as well as Rashi on verse 39.

[2] See Exodus 1:11, and the interpretation given by Da’at Mikra on that verse.  On Eliezer’s importance, see the previous note.

[3] This has been noted by the Tosafists on the Torah (Tosefot ha-Shalem, Makhon Ariel, ed. Rabbi Y. Gelles, Jerusalem, 1983), as follows:   “Thus far he was called a servant, and now a man.  From this we learn that as soon as he was successful, he gathered strength as a fighter.   But when he entered Laban’s house, he made himself a servant to show respect to Abraham.”

[4] See Rashi, loc. sit.:  “He asked her [who she was] after giving her [the bracelets], since he trusted in Abraham’s merits that the Lord had made his mission successful.”

[5] The gemara in Bava Kama 92b presents a general lesson: “From whence do we learn that when talking to a stranger, tell him first of all the position you are in"? From Eliezer, who said, ‘I am Abraham’s servant’.”

[6] I have also heard an interpretation based on Jewish law, that from the moment that a father hands his daughter over to the emissaries of the husband she is considered as if already married; cf. Ketubbot 48b.   If so, Eliezer would have become Rebekah’s servant as well.