Women’s Rights in Old Testament Times
by James R. Baker
[p.111]Vivacious and outgoing Rebekah overshadowed Isaac, the quiet patriarch, whom she agreed to marry sight unseen. While pregnant she was told about her yet unborn children, Esau and Jacob. Certain that she had received the Lord’s promise for Jacob, she intervened to ensure that Jacob obtained the firstborn blessing and birthright, even though he was secondborn, not stopping short of deception. Her story gives insight into bridal negotiations using an agent, and her bride-price and bride-gifts may have been some of the more extravagant on record.
Isaac’s mother Sarah died at age 127. Three years later, when Isaac was forty, Abraham sent his most trusted servant to Haran to find a wife for Isaac from among relatives there. The servant loaded ten camels with goods and began his quest (Gen. 24:10).
At the well of Haran, the servant asked to be shown the maiden of his search and set up a specific scenario: he would ask for water from a maiden. If she gave him water and also watered his camels, she would be the Lord’s chosen spouse for his young master. Rebekah arrived immediately and fulfilled the scenario in every respect. It was not an easy task to water [p.112]ten thirsty camels, which consume enormous amounts of water. The servant paid her lavishly with an earring and bracelets weighing about ten and one-half shekels of gold or the equivalent of about ten years’ wages—enough to buy five slaves at twenty silver shekels apiece.1
He then asked her name and if there was shelter in her father’s house for himself and his camels. She answered, “I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Milcah, which she bare unto Nahor” (Gen. 24:24). Bethuel was a nephew of Abraham through his brother Nahor. Isaac and her father were first cousins, making Rebekah and Isaac first cousins once removed. This relationship was considered ideal for a marriage between propertied branches of the same family.
Rebekah offered Abraham’s servant lodging and food for him and his men as well as food and accommodation for his camels. The servant then revealed his identity and his errand for Abraham. Rebekah ran home with the news. Her older brother Laban eyed Rebekah’s gold bracelets and earring and raced out to the well. “Come in, thou blessed of the Lord,” he said. “[W]herefore standest thou without? for I have prepared the house, and room for the camels” (Gen. 24:31). Even in his relative youth, Laban seemed to be an opportunist. As discussed in the previous chapter, he would further prove so in his dealings with Isaac and Rebekah’s son, Jacob, and the bride-price for Leah and Rachel, Jacob’s first cousins.
After attending to the camels, Laban invited everyone to eat. The servant may have been fasting on behalf of his errand, because he would not eat until he had negotiated on behalf of Isaac. He asked permission to return to Canaan with Rebekah as bride for Isaac. Laban and Bethuel, a younger brother (the father was dead),2 agreed.
Genesis 24:53 and 55 specifically mention that Rebekah’s mother helped make the decision and that she also received part of the bride-price. It seems likely that she helped with the [p.113]negotiations. Extant Old and Neo-Babylonian documents record cases where sons and mother negotiated wedding contracts for daughters.3 The negotiators agreed to a contract, and the servant gave Rebekah a princely bride-gift: “jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment, and gave them to Rebekah: he gave also to her brother and to her mother precious things” (Gen. 24:53). The jewelry he had already given Rebekah equalled more than three times the high average bride-price.4 For a dowry we know that Rebekah was given her nurse, who accompanied her to Canaan (v. 59). (It was not uncommon for the groom, through his agent, to give gifts to the bride’s family before the wedding. Such gifts were mostly food and jewelry.5)
As the caravan neared Abraham’s home near Hebron, Rebekah saw a man in a far field coming to meet them and asked who it was. When she learned that it was Isaac, she dismounted from the camel and went to meet him. Because the contract had been negotiated, consideration paid, and dowry received, Rebekah thus already had the status of the chief wife, pending only the final consummation. Thereupon “Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her” (Gen. 24:67).
For twenty years Rebekah was unable to conceive. Isaac approached God in prayer, and Rebekah conceived twins (Gen. 25:21). These twins seemed to struggle in the womb, and Rebekah asked God what this could mean. “And the Lord said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger” (v. 23).
Although this communication could be variously interpreted, Rebekah believed it meant that Jacob should have the firstborn birthright and blessing. But Isaac disagreed and [p.114]named Esau his firstborn. Esau, after all, fulfilled all the firstborn conventions discussed earlier: he was the chronological firstborn, he was the firstborn of the chief wife, and most importantly he was Isaac’s favorite (Gen. 25:28).
Perhaps no twins have been less alike. The record allows us to form a picture of Esau as a burly, hairy, irresponsible, rough-and-tumble outdoorsman who constantly upset his mother—particularly when he married two Hittite women, Bathbeeri or Judith and Bashemath. But Isaac delighted in the meat that Esau provided for the table (Gen. 25:28).
Jacob in contrast was a gentle, smooth-skinned man who preferred to stay near home and tend the flocks (Gen. 25:27). He was Rebekah’s favorite (v. 28). As Isaac grew old and blind (about 117 years old according to Adam Clarke),6 Rebekah must have contemplated the prospects of her imminent widowhood. She was willing to deceive her husband to avoid being supported by Esau, possibly in the home of her two unliked daughters-in-law (27:46). She had a matriarchal responsibility for her sons and felt that God had directed her to ensure that the “elder shall serve the younger” (25:23).
Mothers in Israel did not nominate the firstborn son, but undoubtedly they were very interested and may have exerted great pressure on their husbands to nominate a certain son as firstborn. Rebekah must have made considerable effort to persuade Isaac to confer the firstborn blessing on Jacob. She finally plotted with Jacob to obtain the rights from Esau, apparently using the prophecy to justify deceitful and fraudulent behavior (Gen. 27:6-13). Jacob achieved this design in two steps.
In the first instance, Esau returned famished from a long and apparently unsuccessful hunt. Jacob had prepared a red lentil soup, which Esau wanted badly (Gen. 25:30). “Red,” edom, is repeated in the Hebrew, accentuating the name by which Esau became known and for which he sold his birth-[p.115]right.7 Jacob agreed to feed Esau in exchange for his birthright or the inheritance right which would give Esau two-thirds of Isaac’s estate. Esau rationalized that his birthright would do him no good if he were dead of hunger and made the oath Jacob required: Esau “sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob” (v. 33).
It is possible that the inheritance had little or no current value and Esau willingly sold it. We know that Jacob was penniless when he later fled from Esau (Gen. 28:20). Also the fact that Esau spent so much of his time hunting could suggest the possibility that the family was poor and that the wealth of Abraham had not continued in the family. It was not uncommon for desert marauders to swoop down on nomads and in a day strip them of all they had. Perhaps Isaac’s inherited wealth had been lost and the property birthright was essentially worthless, leading Esau to “despise . . . his birthright” (25:34) and sell it.8
The second step in transferring the firstborn rights to Jacob occurred when Isaac felt he was about to die. He sent Esau out for some venison for his favorite stew before conferring upon him patrilineal rights of the firstborn, even though Esau’s marriage to the Hittites was a “grief of mind unto Isaac” (Gen. 26:35).
Overhearing the conversation between Isaac and Esau, Rebekah quickly sent Jacob out to the flock to get a couple of young kids from which she made the stew Isaac loved. Then she dressed Jacob in Esau’s clothes, covering his arms and neck with the skins of the kids, and sent him to Isaac, disguised as Esau, for his blessing.
The masquerade was not convincing. When he addressed Isaac as “my father,” the old man asked, “Who art thou, my son?” When Jacob identified himself as Esau, Isaac asked how it was that he had returned so quickly from the hunt. Still suspicious Isaac felt his arms and smelled his raiment. Some [p.116]doubts still lingered, for he observed, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau” (Gen. 27:18-27). However, he was sufficiently convinced that he pronounced the blessing of leadership: “God give thee of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine: Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee: be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother’s sons bow down to thee: cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee” (vv. 28-29). Isaac obviously thought that he was conferring upon Esau the leadership of the family since he mentions not only the recipient’s supremacy but the subordination of “thy mother’s sons.”
When Esau returned from the hunt, made his savory stew, and presented himself to Isaac, he was stunned to find that Jacob had usurped his blessing. Weeping, he pled with his father for a blessing, but his father confirmed, “Behold, I have made him thy lord, and all his brethren have I given to him for servants; and with corn and wine have I sustained him: and what shall I do now unto thee, my son?” (Gen. 27:37)
No law allows one to benefit through fraud. But although Isaac was shocked and condemned Jacob (Gen. 27:35), Isaac did not retract the blessing. The most likely explanation is that he understood that the blessing rightly belonged to Jacob and that he had been wrong in attempting to bestow it on his favorite son.
After working for Laban in Padanaram, Jacob returned to Hebron with his wives and children. Isaac was still alive and lived approximately twenty-three more years.9 Rebekah must have died, for she is not mentioned. When Isaac died both Esau and Jacob attended to the funeral rites. Then Esau returned to his home east of the Dead Sea in Edom (Gen. 36:8). Jacob, the son for whom Rebekah fought so hard, remained at his ancestral home in Hebron. This indicates that [p.117]in accordance with his purchased firstborn birthright, he had inherited Isaac’s lands. Similarly, in accordance with his firstborn blessing, Rebekah’s favored son was the genealogical leader of the House of Israel. The chief characters of the Bible have been reckoned after Jacob, not after Esau.
2. This would explain why Laban negotiates with Abraham’s servant, why Rachel goes to her “mother’s house” (v. 28), and why the bride-price is paid not only to Laban but also to Rebekah’s unnamed mother (v. 53). See Josephus, “Antiquities of the Jews,” in Josephus: Complete Works, trans. William Whiston (1960; rprt. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1972), 38.
8. The sale of a birthright or an inheritance was not without precedent. A Nuzi contract records a transaction where one Tupkitilla sold his inheritance to his brother Kurpazah for three sheep: “On the day they divide the grove (that lies) on the road of the town of Lumti . . . , Tupkitilla shall give it to Kurpazah as his inheritance share. And Kurpazah has taken three sheep to Tupkitilla in exchange for his inheritance share.” Cyrus H. Gordon, “Biblical Customs and [p.118]the Nuzu Tablets,” The Biblical Archeologist 3 (Feb. 1940): 5; see also John Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975), 93.