Rebekah (fl. around 18th c. BCE)
Rebekah (fl. around 18th c. bce)
Jewish matriarch. Name variations: Rebecca; Rebecah. Born in Mesopotamia; buried in Hebron; daughter of Bethuel, Abraham's nephew; married Isaac, son of Abraham; children: two sons, Esau and Jacob.
Rebekah was born and raised in Mesopotamia around the 18th century bce. Her father was Bethuel, a nephew of the Jewish patriarch Abraham, and she had at least one brother, Laban (the father of Rachel and Leah ). Beyond that, much of her life is a mystery until her chance meeting with Abraham's servant at the well outside her city. Abraham's family dwelled in the land of Canaan, but he wanted his 40-year-old son Isaac to marry someone from his homeland in Mesopotamia, so he sent his servant to bring home a wife for Isaac. Accompanied by ten camels loaded with bridal gifts of gold, silver, and fine clothing, the servant stopped at a well outside the city of Nahor. There, he asked God for a sign of the future bride: that the chosen one would be she who not only agreed to give him a drink but also volunteered to water his camels.
According to the Bible, Rebekah, who was "very fair to look upon" (Gen. 24:16), approached the well with a pitcher on her shoulder to draw water. When the servant asked for a drink, she readily assented and offered to water his camels as well, thereby fulfilling the sign that she was the one. When she had finished watering the camels, the servant offered her a nose ring and two gold bracelets, and asked to stay with her family. At the house of Rebekah's father, the servant outlined his mission as well as God's revelation to him that Rebekah was the chosen bride. The match seemed particularly fortuitous given the fact that not only was Rebekah from Abraham's homeland, but she was also the powerful patriarch's great-niece. Her relatives agreed to the marriage, and Rebekah left with the servant the following day.
Upon their arrival in Canaan, Isaac and Rebekah were married. During a famine in the region, the couple temporarily moved to Philistine territory in Western Canaan, perhaps no more than 20 miles from the Mediterranean Sea. Rebekah's beauty was such that Isaac worried someone might kill him in order to marry her. To prevent this possibility, he lied about his relationship to her, telling people that he was her brother. The same situation had occurred years earlier with Isaac's parents, Abraham and Sarah , when they had moved to the region. As had been the case with his father, the deception came to light. The Philistine king, Abimelech, discovered their true relationship, but protected the couple from harm by ordering that no one should molest them on pain of death. They stayed in that land for some time, until Isaac's ever-increasing wealth posed a threat to the Philistines, and they forced him to move to the Valley of Gerar.
Though Isaac loved Rebekah very much, her infertility for 20 years prevented them from having children. This was a very grave situation, meaning as it did not only that Isaac had no heir to his vast wealth, but that God's promise to Abraham that he would establish a nation
through his family line could not be fulfilled. However, after 60-year-old Isaac pleaded with God for a child, his prayer was answered. Apparently experiencing a difficult pregnancy, Rebekah consulted an oracle which told her: "Two nations are in your womb, two peoples going their own way from birth. One will be stronger than the other; the elder will be servant to the younger" (Gen. 25:23). She delivered twin boys Esau and Jacob; Esau, the firstborn, was reddish and hairy, and Jacob was born clutching at his brother's heel. The rivalry between the boys increased with the favoritism shown by their parents. Isaac favored Esau, who loved hunting and outdoor life, while Rebekah favored Jacob, who was quiet and shrewd, much like she herself. In Isaac's old age, Rebekah successfully plotted to fool her blind husband into giving his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau, as he had intended. In Biblical times, this ceremony conveyed clan leadership, and could not be revoked. To save Jacob from Esau's revenge after this ruse, Rebekah convinced Isaac to send Jacob north to look for a wife from within the circle of her own family.
There is no record that Rebekah ever saw her son again, as he did not return to Canaan until after her death. She was buried in a tomb in the Cave at Machpelah, where Abraham and Sarah also were buried.
Hinnells, John R., ed. Who's Who of World Religions. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Who's Who in the Bible. Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest, 1994.
Woman: Her Position, Influence, and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Springfield, MA: King-Richardson, 1900.
Jacqueline Mitchell , freelance writer, Detroit, Michigan