Monday, March 25, 2024

Rebekah and Isaac: A Biblical Novel


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Author’s Note


Through conversations with my father, S. Kent Brown, and Dr. Kerry Muhlestein, in addition to reading several books and watching podcast discussions on Abraham’s family, which included insights from Camille Fronk Olson and Dr. Daniel Peterson, I discovered my first impressions of reading the applicable chapters in Genesis were quite wrong. Not everyone has the interest or ability to dive deep into a particular ancient family’s lives, and I appreciate the scholars and historians who carve out the path for me when I’m working on a historical novel.

Among historians and scholars, there is debate on some of the details of biblical events and dates. Muhlestein states that Abraham was born about 1943 BC, which places his adult life in the middle of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (From Creation to Sinai by Daniel L. Belnap and Aaron Schade, 243).  This paints a picture of the interactions that Abraham had with the people of Canaan, as well as the Egyptians as they traveled the caravan trails and occupied various cities over the decades.

Abraham and Isaac’s world would have included trading with Egyptians since Beersheba and Hebron are along the trade route to Egypt (ibid, 244, 249–250).  They would have been exposed to the human trafficking of slaves (ibid, 250),  and of course the religious rites of multiple gods and human sacrifice (ibid, 252).

Abraham’s tribe was large, possibly around 2,000 people in his community (ibid, 467).  His tribe consisted of multi-generational households and multifamily clans (ibid, 466),  making Abraham’s personal household in the hundreds. We know that Abraham’s tribe had 318 men trained in combat, who went to the aid of Abraham’s nephew Lot (see Genesis 14:14).  

Interestingly enough, there’s a parallel between Abraham’s flight from Haran (see Genesis 12:1),  and Rebekah later leaving the same city and her family behind. Both did so at the behest of Adonai.

Eliezer, who is mentioned as Abraham’s chief servant and faithful steward, may or may not have been the servant who went in search of a wife for Isaac (see Genesis 15:2; 24:2).  For story purposes, I used Eliezer’s name and developed his character as the servant whom Abraham called upon for that very sacred task.

One hurdle I came across was whether Rebekah’s father, Bethuel, was alive at the time of Eliezer’s arrival and Rebekah’s commitment to marry Isaac. Camille Fronk Olson points out that the ancient scholar Josephus believed that Bethuel had died, and this is why Rebekah runs to her mother’s house (or tent) to report the arrival of Abraham’s servant (see Women of the Old Testament by Camille Fronk Olson, 55; referencing Antiquities of the Jews by Flavius Josephus, 1.16.2).  But in discussion with my father, he related that women often owned their own tents in Bedouin society, so that would explain why Rebekah named the family tent as her mother’s house. We also learn that the handmaid Deborah is sent with Rebekah to Canaan, along with other damsels (see Genesis 24:59, 61; 35:8).  This would be part of the bride price for Rebekah.

Abraham lived as a nomad and didn’t stay in one place year after year. He traveled with the seasons to find the best grazing land for his cattle, herds, and flocks. Scholars believe that Canaan had significant rainy seasons during Abraham’s lifetime, so the topography wasn’t as barren as we modern thinkers might believe (From Creation to Sinai, 349–50).  Muhlestein mentioned in a conference call that Isaac was more sedentary than Abraham, and Jacob became more sedentary than Isaac. This created a mixed nomadic lifestyle, in which they still lived out of tents but were increasingly sedentary.

According to Muhlestein, Abraham built altars of worship in locations such as Hebron, Beersheba, Bethel, and Shechem (ibid, 346).  When Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac, surely this was a repeated nightmare of when Abraham’s father attempted to sacrifice him. Child sacrifice was not uncommon in the ancient world, and it was believed to be a form of worship to the god Molech (ibid, 364).  Of course, Abraham’s sacrifice was requested by Adonai and not false idolatry.

Now onto the difficult part of the story where it’s hard to understand Abraham’s and Sarah’s actions toward Hagar when they sent her away. Hagar is Sarah’s slave—possibly from Egypt, although we do not know with certainty. Due to Sarah’s barrenness, she enlists Hagar to bear children with Abraham, although the children will be born in Sarah’s name.

Hagar becomes pregnant, but living under the rule of Sarah becomes intolerable, so she flees (see Genesis 16:6).  An angel of Adonai entreats Hagar to return to the tribe and reveals the blessings that will come her way, including naming her son Ishmael. Hagar then returns. When Isaac is born to Sarah years later, this displaces Ishmael. Although Ishmael is promised the posterity of twelve princes and the future of a great nation  and his covenant blessings are ensured because of Hagar’s return and Ishmael’s eventual circumcision, he is not the birthright son (From Creation to Sinai, 472).

Tensions mount again between the two wives, and when Isaac is weaned (making him about three years old), an incident occurs that involves Ishmael mocking Isaac. This must be the last straw in a series of events because Sarah tells Abraham to “cast out this bondwoman and her son” (see Genesis 21:10)  much to Abraham’s grief. But when he inquires of Adonai, He confirms Sarah’s decision, and reiterates that Ishmael will become his own great nation. Something that he couldn’t do living a subservient life under Isaac’s future rule and birthright status.

Tradition states that to remove Hagar from the tribe, Sarah has every right to sell her back into the slave trade. But Sarah instead sets the woman free to live her own life, unencumbered by the rule of Abraham and Isaac, which will, in turn, allow Ishmael to become his own ruler of a future nation (From Creation to Sinai, 413, 472, 474).  In this way, Hagar is released from her marital obligation to Abraham. Her son, Ishmael, can now establish his own tribe and become the patriarch and forefather of the Ishmaelites in Islam.

Although Rebekah and Isaac’s marriage was closer to an arranged marriage, since neither party knew each other before the betrothal, Rebekah had full rights to accept or refuse the marriage offer. This is why we see Rebekah being consulted, even after her father and brother have agreed to the betrothal (see Genesis 24:58 and From Creation to Sinai, 477).

How long was the journey from Beersheba to Haran? Likely several weeks one way. Olson stated that the caravan would have spent at least a month on the trail (Women of the Old Testament, 51).  The caravan would have been impressive with ten camels, perhaps ten men, traveling with supplies and gifts. Olson also points out that Rebekah’s jar would have held maybe five gallons of water, and with ten camels who consume twenty-five to thirty gallons of water, she filled her jar about fifty times (ibid, 51).  

Rebekah likely heard of Abram, Sarai, and their story of leaving Haran. Rebekah wouldn’t have known much of what had happened after they left, so any news about Isaac would be new to her. The presentation of gifts by Eliezer to Rebekah and her family was essentially securing the betrothal agreement, although I added an actual ceremony to the story.



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