Rabekah, The Bible, and Politics
I had to get a new Bible for seminary. I wasn’t happy — I love my beautiful, leather bound parallel Bible, with the NIV on one side of every page, The Message on the other. It’s an ongoing conversation with God, that book, and its margins are filled with the occasional argument, question, exclamation point. This new Bible, called The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, felt hard, cold, heavy when I first got it — certainly not something the Holy Spirit might embody. But the truth is, I’m loving the new dimension that both this new Bible, and seminary, are bringing to my reading.
This week’s essay is supposed to be about Rebekah, but I think it will be about more. Like many women portrayed in the biblical narratives, we never really hear her point of view — we have to guess at it, through the lenses of patriarchy and culture, politics and family dynamics. Out of all the women we’ve studied thus far, Rebekah seems the most two-dimensional, like the female figures in video games — there for the sake of the story, pretty to look at, but not really pivotal to the narrative and certainly without agency (Rebekah made a “choice”, true, but it was within the confines of the patriarchy).
As much as I’m loving my new Bible and seminary, I do notice that even in Biblical critique, any interesting exploration of women’s stories is frustratingly absent — or downright insulting. For the few lines of history Rebekah gets in the Bible, there is no doubt she is a matriarch in both the salvation story and the political story that the scriptures tell. Yet even my new, interesting Bible only has a few words about her in its comments. A quick review of Biblical commentary (granted, this is a surface review on BibleHub.com) includes for example, the story of how Rebekah’s servant, Deborah, “died in her service, a beautiful trait of ancient manners” (call me crazy, and I know things were different back then, but I’m not about glorifying slavery by calling it “etiquette”. Then again, that commentary is from the 1800s). Rebekah receives a blessing that mirrors that of Abraham, but another commentary (see the BibleHub link) states, “The second portion of the blessing (Genesis 24:60) is almost verbatim the same as Genesis 22:17, but is hardly borrowed thence, as the thought does not contain anything specifically connected with the history of salvation.” Of course, this looks like an old time commentary, too. Modern commentaries (although again, a quick sweep) are not much better, discussing Rebekah as a good, submissive wife.
But the truth is, Rebekah rebelled against the cultural norms of the “good, submissive wife” when she chose to deceive her husband in order to steal her first born’s blessing for her favorite son, Jacob — the one God favored.
So wait — God wants women to be subservient to their husbands, but here is a narrative in which a woman is not subservient, but rather subversive, in order to help orchestrate God’s will on earth. Interesting.
The narrative of Jacob and Esau is a disturbing and complex one, and not one for this essay to explore. Right now, we’re more interested in Rebekah’s story, and to fully understand it (which also might be beyond the scope of this essay) we’ll need to also understand how the biblical narrative actually operates — then, and now.
First, it’s important to understand that the Bible, as a piece of literature (don’t freak out — it’s ok to call it that, it does not diminish its value) is the work of the survivor and of the powerful. Oppressed peoples didn’t get their stories canonized. That’s not to say the Israelites back then or the more modern Jewish people haven’t suffered. Obviously they have. But it’s important to remember that there were other stories written down way back when, but only these few made it into this book we call the Bible. Why? Who made that decision? What was it about these stories that mattered?
In some ways, it’s about identity. This narrative — which bears many literary marks that would have been familiar to the people hearing them back then (for example, finding your extremely beautiful wife at a well seemed to be the thing to do. Wells were the match.com of ancient times, apparently, and it’s a regular theme in biblical stories, like our princess and prince tales.) — serves to maintain the biography of a people. Everyone could point back to this story and say, “Look, this is where we come from.”
It’s also important to understand that the Bible is very much a political document, and what many of its narratives serve to display is Israel’s (or at least what would become Israel’s) victory over others. Sometimes, it was resistance literature — written while exiled, it served to maintain hope for a better future. Going back to the commentaries on Bible Hub, the Cambridge commentary says it most succinctly when it speaks of the blessing that Rebekah received: “The farewell blessing and good wishes of the family referred in Oriental fashion to the two objects of desire, (1) that she should be the mother of many descendants; and (2) that they should be victorious over their enemies.” These would be two things most important to a nation: a large population and to be victorious in war.
Therefore, it’s important to consider who wrote the story of Rebekah, and what are they attempting to accomplish with this story. Who is served by representing Rebekah as a stunningly beautiful, willing young maiden who offers to water both men and camels, willingly leaves her family of origin to go marry a man she’s never met, and then subvert the very solid social more of the paternal blessing through absolute and utter deceit? I’m not saying I can answer that question — I’m saying it’s an important question to ask.
The Bible is also a story of layered family dynamics. There is the family of God, first and foremost. This is a story that has its beginnings in the first family of creation and moves toward the adoption of all us misanthropes in the end. And in between, lawdy are there some hot messes. All of these stories, including Rebekah’s, demonstrate a sub-standard to God’s original plan, and the need for humans to subvert the status quo in one way or another in favor of God’s better plan. Questions to ponder here might include inquiries about how the story and its characters operate in God’s plan for the world? Does the story move us toward redemption? How does the story operate within the Hebrew canon, and then within the Christian one?
Then there is the national family. Here’s where the politics come in — how does this story relate to the larger story of Israel’s relationship with the nations around it? How does it represent the interactions of tribes and clans, and their politics? How does this national political platform factor into God’s plans for the chosen people (and later, for the entire world)?
Finally, there is the actual family in the story — with all their dysfunction. Here’s where we see cultural norms played out, such as marriage contracts, the effects of polygamy, and sibling rivalry (another popular theme in the biblical narrative). Knowing as we now do that whomever wrote this story down probably had both an agenda and a distinct point of view does not mitigate the fact that there is something we can learn here about God and how we fall short of the ideal holy plan. Important questions to ask here might include: Are these family dynamics very different from my own? Is there something I can relate to here? How might this be different from what God originally wanted?
When we think about Rebekah in light of these questions, her story in Genesis takes on a new, deeper meaning. As the mother of Jacob, she is most definitely a part of the salvation story and God’s redemptive work; if Jesus’ lineage were unimportant, why would there be not one, but two genealogies in the Gospels? Something about her story is important in light of Jesus, even beyond, perhaps, what the ancient biblical writers thought when they were writing it. As a writer myself, I often go back and discover new meanings to my own writing — things I didn’t see when I wrote the original piece but which, later on, I realize as Spirit’s hand upon the work (please note — I’m NOT saying I am writing scripture, simply that writing is spiritual in nature). I wonder if Rebekah’s writer even noticed her subversion when he wrote it, or did he think he was simply reporting the truth or developing an intriguing character?
What does Rabekah’s story mean to the Israelites? She manipulated a blessing for her son, whose name was changed to Israel — my guess is she was key. And what does Rebekah teach us about our own stories, our own family histories, our dysfunctions, favoritisms, manipulations? Are they what God originally planned for our lives?
Or are they a part of a new thing God is doing — a redemptive work of Spirit, started across the millennia, and continuing with each of us?