The Abrahamic epic largely complete, our attention now passes to the central figure of the next generation. Rebecca also hails from the family of Nahor, in Harran. Rebecca also receives the call, and in accordance with the will of Yahweh, follows her destiny to the wild and free lands of Canaan. There, she lays the final groundwork for the ascendance of Israel himself: Jacob, father of the twelve tribes.
Mission to Nahor
The story of Rebecca begins in the household of Abraham. Abraham sends his steward Eliezer on a mission to find a wife for his son Isaac. Isaac is not to marry one of the local women; rather, she is to be selected from Abraham’s kin, back in Aram of the Twin Rivers, the region of Mesopotamia where his brother Nahor lives. Abraham then instructs Eliezer to place his hand beneath Abraham’s thigh and swear a solemn oath on his master’s genitals to faithfully execute his mission.
Eliezer objects that the right woman for Isaac might decline to travel to Canaan to marry Isaac sight unseen. He suggests that he bring Isaac along, but Abraham forbids it; he regards a return to Mesopotamia as a temptation to be resisted at all costs, even the failure of the mission. Why this is, will be made clear to us once Eliezer arrives at his destination; for now, he is simply told that Isaac is to remain at home.
Abraham tells Eliezer that an angel of Yahweh is to go with him, but that if the woman nonetheless refuses, Eliezer will be released from his oath. Satisfied, Eliezer takes the oath, and sets out for the city of Nahor, in Aram of the Twin Rivers, with ten camels* and much of his master’s wealth.
When Eliezer arrives at the city well, he immediately – with the single-mindedness of an angel – asks Yahweh to give him the following sign: when women come to draw water from the well, he will ask them for water to drink. Whoever is intended for Isaac, will give him water, and then go and fetch water for his camels as well.
This is not the sort of test that requires interference by an omnipotent being, to manipulate the situation. Rather, his inspired criterion is testing for a sort of extreme hospitality, of the sort that he has seen his own master show to travelers. And it would take extreme hospitality indeed, to not only offer water to a stranger in passing, but to go and fetch enough water to quench ten camels.
The attentive reader will recall that Eliezer would have been Abraham’s heir, had no natural heir been produced. Perhaps Abraham’s steward, frustrated by the emergence of Ishmael and then Isaac, is less reluctant than he otherwise might be to impose an implausibly stringent test, that might deny his master’s heir a wife.
But whatever Eliezer’s personal motives, once he names the test, he abides by it. He sees a young woman going to the well to draw water, balancing the jug on her shoulder. He asks for a sip of her water, and she not only gives him water to drink, but insists on fetching water for his camels until they have finished drinking.
At this point, Eliezer gives her gifts – a gold nose ring and two bracelets – and he inquires as to her family, and asks if they have a place for him to spend the night. She is Rebecca, daughter of Bethuel, son of Milcah and of Nahor! And she offers a place for his camels as well.
Rebecca returns to her mother’s household, where her brother Laban, seeing the valuable jewelry the stranger gave her, rushes out to greet him himself, bring him into the house, feed his camels, bathe his feet and the feet of his men, and set out food for the guest. But Eliezer, again single-minded, refuses to be diverted from his mission, and will not eat until he has spoken. He recounts his entire story, from the birth of Isaac as Abraham’s sole heir, all the way to the divine test that showed him that Rebecca is the woman Yahweh has chosen as Isaac’s heir.
Next, Laban pulls of a sort of bait and switch. Laban and Bethuel (his father) tell Eliezer that if Yahweh has decided the matter, he should take Rebecca back with him. Eliezer then gives more valuable gifts to Rebecca and her household – silver and gold jewelry and garments to Rebecca, and fruits to her brother and mother.
The next morning, Eliezer asks them to send him off, but Laban – now with his mother – asks him to let Rebecca stay with them another year or ten months. Having gotten the benefit of immediate gifts from immediate acquiescence, Laban now reneges, using his mother as plausible-deniability cover – perhaps his father did not have the authority to make the decision on his own. Perhaps he hopes that by drawing out Eliezer’s stay, he can extract more concessions. Eliezer insists on an immediate departure, to fulfill the will of Yahweh – so Laban and his mother demur, asking Rebecca what she will do.
Rebecca chooses to leave immediately.
When Rebecca arrives at Abraham’s territory on camelback, she falls off her camel at the sight of the sad young man wandering the fields. She asks Eliezer who that young man is, and is told that he is Isaac, her intended. She dons a bridal veil immediately, and goes to meet him.
Of Isaac, we learn that he was finally comforted, for he was still mourning the death of his mother.
Eliezer’s single-mindedness resembles the tradition that an angel exists to perform exactly one task. Abraham also tells Eliezer that an angel of Yahweh will go with him.
This may be a sort of angelic cognition, part of the Yahweh suite of social technologies. Until Eliezer has completed his mission, he is in a sort of flow state where information relevant to the mission becomes more salient, and everything else fades into background. He is in the zone. He is undistractable.
Civilization, generosity, and greed
Laban’s strategy is extractive. A representative of his own kin comes to visit, and his first thought is to use their social transactions to manipulate the guest into disgorging as much wealth as possible.
Perhaps this is why the more traditionally generous-spirited Rebecca was so willing to leave town to marry a man she’d never met. She sees in Eliezer the mark of a culture friendly towards characters like hers; he displays the unguarded norms of a culture where one can rely on the honor of known parties. He is also clearly worthy of trust, eager to carry out the mission his master entrusted to him, even though he thereby cuts himself off from a rich inheritance. A household in which a person like Eliezer prospers is one that will be amenable to a person of Rebecca’s character. On the other hand, a city in which Laban’s strategy is appropriate is one that gradually sucks dry people like Rebecca and Eliezer. She does not allow Laban to continue to extract his cousin’s wealth; she leaves with Eliezer the day after he arrives.
This is another in a series of Eberite Semitic departures – Abraham left Harran in the prior generation, completing the journey Terah had begun when he left Ur of the Chaldees. Civilized but never fully locked into urban cognition, something felt not quite right about the cities of Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers. Rebecca’s case is similar.
And yet, Rebecca has been chosen for more than mere ingenuous generosity. From the same parents as Laban, she knows how to engage in subterfuge to bring about her desired ends. So will her favored son, Jacob.
The voice of Jacob and the hands of Esau
Rebecca conceives, and feels more than the expected motion in her womb. She consults Yahweh directly, who tells her that her womb contains twins struggling with each other, and the elder will ultimately serve the younger. The first one to come out – Esau – is red all over, like a hairy cloak. But before the first baby has fully emerged, the second one – Jacob – begins to come out, his hand grasping the hand of his elder-by-a-moment brother. Yahweh has already chosen which type will prevail, and Rebecca will ratify this choice.
Neoteny and strategy
One of the obvious ways humans are different from the other great apes is our extreme neoteny. This is reflected not only in our much longer period of cognitive openness and curiosity, but physiologically in our near-hairlessness.
The elder brother, hairy, is something of an atavistic type. He grows up to be a hunter. He is red all over – (admoni, אדמוני, related to the אדם root of Adam, the first man, adamah, the earth, and Edom, the name of the nation descended from him). He is named after his hairiness (seʿar, שער), as ʿEsau (עשו). But his younger, hairless, neotenous brother Jacob (Yaʿaqov, יעקב) is already beginning to overtake him, grasping his heel (ʿeqev, עקב).**
The lads grew. Esau was a man who knew hunting, a man of the field; Jacob a pure (tam, תם, which can also mean perfect, simple, or whole) man, dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because his game was in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob.
Esau’s strategy can win great prizes, and takes credit for them, but is fundamentally extractive. Jacob participates in the more civilized, productive activities of his seminomadic environment. Jacob’s more neotenous, citified outlook is able to win primacy of place from Esau twice – once using honest but exploitative tactics, and again with outright deception, under the guidance of his mother.
Sale of the birthright
Jacob cooked a stew. Esau came from the field, and he was faint. Esau said to Jacob, “Feed me, please, with that red, red (ha-adom ha-adom, האדם האדם) stuff, for I am faint”; therefore his name was called Edom (אדם).
Jacob said, “Sell me this day your birthright.”
Esau said, “Behold, I am going to die; what is this birthright to me?”
Jacob said, “Swear to me this day.”
He swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob.
Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew. He ate and drank, and rose up and went. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
Esau, the hunter, is the sort of person who can make promises and deals, but as an emergent property of his hunter-ness. He needs to coordinate with others in order to execute the hunt, and structure flows out of this. Jacob is able to related to this structure purely as a formalism, which allows him to perform arbitrage, trading a less valuable thing in one domain, for a more valuable thing in another.
In one sense this is fair. Tent-dwelling Jacob’s more reliable contributions were undervalued by his father Isaac, because they were not as conspicuously associated with him as the large, discrete game animals that his elder brother offered. But Esau’s strategy depended on a reliable home base, so Jacob was able to hold out for a better deal.
In another sense, this is deeply exploitative. Esau exhausted himself on the hunt, because he was counting on the support structure at home to do its part. Jacob caught him at his most vulnerable, and extracted far more than he might have gotten in a fair advance negotiation.
The dynamics of this situation are similar to the underlying dynamics in which lending at interest can make wealth equality a self-reinforcing process, due to diminishing marginal utility.
Suppose there are two farmers, each of which occasionally has a crop failure. One of the farmers has a lot of money, and the other can only just barely support his household. When the rich farmer’s crop fails, he simply spends some money to support himself until the next year. When the poor farmer’s crop fails, he has to borrow at interest to keep going. The money is worth more to him than to the rich farmer, so he pays for the privilege of borrowing it. But if he was already at or near subsistence, then he will not be able to fully repay the debt with interest. So he ends up having to roll over the debt, and the richer farmer’s claims against the poorer farmer’s assets increase. With enough iterations, eventually the income the richer farmer is owed annually as debt service will far exceed the output of either’s farm.
This is one of the ways in which urbanized, commercial modes of production, while more efficient in the short term can lead to perverse results such as debt slavery, which lock in existing inequalities regardless of productivity or merit. Interest payments provide an incentive to move capital wherever it is most productive, but there are almost always large unpriced externalities, and these can easily be large enough to lead to an obviously inefficient long-term outcome, even when they are the best available short-term solution.
Theft of the blessing
Isaac grows old and blind. There is a customary blessing for the preferred son, that he intends to give to his firstborn, Esau. (This seems to be distinct from the birthright, which as far as I can tell sets the default expectation for what share of the general inheritance one will receive.) Isaac, as family patriarch, is entitled to do this unilaterally, and instructs Esau to go out, hunt game, and bring it back for his father to eat, whereupon he will receive his father’s blessing.
Rebecca’s divinely sanctioned preference favors their younger son Jacob, so she contrives a plan for him to steal his father’s blessing. She instructs him to fetch two kids from the goats in the flock, which she will cook in the place of Esau’s game. Jacob points out that all his father has to do to tell that he is not Esau is to touch him; Esau is still hairy, and Jacob is smooth. Rebecca responds by clothing him in Esau’s garments and putting hairy goatskins on his arms and neck, to mimic Esau’s natural hairy mantle.
Jacob presents himself to his father as Esau. He gives his father the meat that has been prepared. As anticipated, Isaac reaches out to touch him, and feels the hairy goatskin. He remarks, “the voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau.” The state of affairs has been reversed. Before the sale of the birthright, Esau, who hunts with his strong, hairy hands, could count on the services of Jacob. Now, Jacob, the civilized dweller of tents, who works with his voice more than his hands, can wield the hands of Esau when needed.
Isaac proceeds to bless the son who stands before him with a blessing of prosperity, culminating in, “Peoples shall serve you, and nations bow down to you: be lord over your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you: cursed be those who curse you, and blessed be those who bless you.”
Scarcely has Jacob left when Esau comes in, having caught and cooked game for his father. They quickly realize, to their distress, that Jacob has taken the blessing. Isaac cannot reassign the blessing, but he can give Esau one of his own. So he blesses Esau too with prosperity, finishing with, “By your sword you shall live, but your brother shall you serve; but when you grow restless, you shall break his yoke off your neck.”
The wrath of Esau
Esau is angry at having been denied not only his birthright but the firstborn blessing. Rebecca overhears him saying that he intends to kill Jacob when their father dies.
Rebecca, overhearing this, tells Jacob to get out of town & go live with Laban, lying low until Esau calms down. Then she tells Isaac that she is unhappy about the prospect of Jacob marrying one of the local Hethites, and Isaac “decides” to send Jacob back to Ur of the Chaldees, to take a wife from the daughters of Laban, Rebecca’s brother.
Esau, having already married two Canaanite women, makes a good-faith effort to obey his parents’ wishes as well, taking Ishmael’s daughter as his third wife.
Isaac the gentle
Isaac is a gentle and dutiful soul.
Abraham’s last consequential act in our story is to arrange a marriage for his son. (Abraham marries again, to a woman named Keturah, and has many more offspring with her, but they are not part of this story – they are mentioned so as not to omit part of the received genealogy, and then passed over without remark. He gave them gifts, and sent them east, and Isaac remained his sole heir.)
Isaac’s life is notable mainly for his passivity. He meekly goes up to the mountain as a sacrifice. Afterwards, he mourns for his mother until a wife shows up for him to marry. Both times, he simply goes up to the altar.
He is the one to pray to Yahweh when Rebecca is initially barren – but the text specifies that he does so in her presence. And when she feels more than the expected activity in her womb, she consults Yahweh directly, not bothering with her husband.
After the birth of their fraternal twin sons, we do see Isaac playing the role of a seminomadic patriarch, moving here and there, reclaiming wells, cultivating his household and livestock, but at best he is playing out a pale imitation of his father’s life. He even has his own wife-sister intrigue with Avimelech and Phicol, but he is so inseparable from his wife that Avimelech sees through the ruse before any difficulties ensue. (Avimelech then sends him away after making a covenant with him, for perpetual peace between their descendants.) The intrigue is absurd; there is not even any reasonable chance of paternity uncertainty.
Pain and sacrifice
Why was Isaac so passive? His experience of life was deeply scarred by pain. Remember, he is the first generation of the covenant to be circumcised at eight days old. Abraham was circumcised as an adult, when his cognitive patterns were already set. Ishmael was circumcised at 13 years old, so the pain of circumcision may have affected his development.
But for Isaac, an eight day old infant, the pain of circumcision would have been a large share of his accumulated life experience up to that point. Still new to the world, not yet able to coherently make use of his body or model his world, he receives – along a channel that would otherwise be one of the primary pleasure-seeking channels, central to his experience of the good things in life – a burst of incredibly intense pain instead. It is not unreasonable to imagine that this would channel his attention away from his sexual, generative desires.
This is not an ancillary part of life. Indeed, when Abraham wants his steward to swear by something important, he has Eliezer swear by his master’s life-creating parts. The terrible price of circumcision is to learn, long before the age of reason, to flinch from the pleasure of the creation of life. For this price, the circumcised learn to stand outside the circle of life, and evaluate it. Not eating from the tree of life, but from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Not engaging in reproduction automatically, but in the manner of their choosing, in accordance with their laws.
Then came the day when Abraham lost the son he would do anything to protect, and Isaac lost the father who would always keep him safe.
Then Isaac lost his mother too. Perhaps he was in mourning for both.
Perhaps Abraham judged his son too gentle, too wounded by the terrible sacrifice by which he held his title, to manage his own affairs in the city of Nahor. Pushed around for his own good and the good of his line by the generous, honorable Rebecca, he would have been torn apart by her brother Laban, had he himself gone back to Aram of the Twin Rivers to search for a wife.
Perhaps Rebecca sent her son Jacob back to Laban as a desperate measure, the least-bad option in a terrible situation. Or perhaps she thinks that he will fare rather better than his father would have. If the latter, we shall soon see that she was right, when we come more properly to the story of Jacob.
* The camels are an anachronism, since domesticated camels had not yet reached this region, when the customs displayed in this story were in force.
** Jacob’s name more likely is a shortening of the traditional Semitic name Yaʿaqov-El, God-Will-Protect. We will see this pattern again with the spiritual ancestor of all Israel, Moses, whose name is an Egyptian word (mose) meaning “born”, typically preceded by the name of an Egyptian god, e.g. Thutmose, meaning Thoth-is-Born.