He had scarcely finished speaking when Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel, the son of Milcah, the wife of Abraham's brother Nahor, came out with her jar on her shoulder. The maiden was very beautiful, a virgin whom no man had known. She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up. The servant ran toward her and said, "Please, let me sip a little water from your jar." "Drink, my lord," she said, and she quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and let him drink. When she had let him drink his fill, she said, "I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking." Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels. (Genesis 24:15-20)
The marriage of Rebekah and Isaac is the first love story we encounter in the Torah. We have read about many married couples previously, but never before have we witnessed their first meeting or encountered the word "love," as we do in Genesis 24:67 in reference to Isaac's feelings for Rebekah.
The story of Isaac and Rebekah teaches us that there are many different reasons why a couple may get married. Some people marry for love, others because of financial concerns, and still others for political reasons or a desire to raise their social status.
In this instance, Abraham's only concern is that his daughter-in-law comes from the land of his birth. Once a bride has been found for Isaac, Abraham seems to feel that his job is finished and he is free to take on a new wife, Keturah, after Sarah's death. The text never tells us if Abraham even met Rebekah: His only desire was to ensure the status of his progeny as Hebrews.
Abraham's unnamed servant (assumed to be Eliezer, who is mentioned in Genesis 15:2) is more concerned with finding a suitable mate for Isaac. Eliezer is wise enough to pray to God for guidance and hopes to find a woman who is beautiful both inside and out. Rebekah's outward beauty is immediately evident, and her inward beauty manifests itself in her kindness and generosity at the well.
What was Rebekah's motivation for agreeing to marry Isaac and leave her ancestral home? Some of our Sages suggest that she was living in a "house of scoundrels" and saw an opportunity to escape to a life that involved contact with more righteous people. But it is clear that when she sees Isaac for the first time, he sparks her interest: "Who is that man walking in the field toward us?" she asks the servant (Genesis 24:65). Obviously there was something about Isaac that was worth noticing.
The motivation for Isaac's falling in love was the desire to alleviate the loneliness and sense of loss he experienced as a result of the death of his mother. The text tells us that "Isaac loved her [Rebekah] and thus found comfort after his mother's death" (Genesis 24:67).
What lay ahead in the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah? Some may argue that they lived a happy life, while others would conclude that theirs was a marriage fraught with deception and misunderstanding. If Rebekah married Isaac in order to escape a difficult family life and Isaac married Rebekah in order to have someone to comfort him after the loss of his mother, what were the chances of their marriage being successful?
Sometimes when two people enter into a marriage with very different objectives, each of them can still derive satisfaction from their union. May God grant us the wisdom to choose spouses whose beauty delights us in many ways and whose motivations for marriage are in harmony with our own.
By the Way
A man's marriage partner is from the Holy One. At times, a man is guided to his spouse's home; at other times, the spouse is guided to the man's home. (Genesis Rabbah 68:3)
It is said that water welcomes the great and those of patriarchal lineage. It is said that the water in the well rose up to enter Rebekah's jar. Thus Eliezer [Abraham's servant] knew that the woman [for Isaac] was Rebekah. (Genesis Rabbah 60:5)
We are told of Rebekah's beauty and the fact that she is an unmarried virgin. It is important to ascertain her marital status, but should her beauty be an important element to one who is choosing a wife for Isaac?
We are taught in our secular culture that "beauty is in the eyes of the beholder." Rebekah is beautiful to Abraham, to the servant, and to Isaac, each in a different way. What does her beauty mean to these three men?
Genesis Rabbah 68:3 tells us that marriages are bashert (that is, God means for them to happen). According to the parashah, how did the servant know that Rebekah was Isaac's bashert?
What is the significance of water in the text from Genesis Rabbah 60:5? Could water here represent something more than just the means to quench the servant's thirst? In what other biblical stories is water used symbolically?
Peter Kessler is the rabbi of Temple Ohev Sholom, Harrisburg, PA.