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SIDIC Periodical IX - 1976/3
Women in Jewish and Christian Tradition (Pages 14 - 18)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The God of Rebakah
Piet Van Boxel


The God in whom Jews and Christians believe is not only the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob but also, as we shall see, the God of Rebekah. He is the God of the patriarchs whom they encountered as a God of the promise, the God of a hopeful future: « The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, 'Lift up your eyes, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see I will give to you and to your descendants for ever' » (Gen. 13:14-15). For Israel the memory of this promise as well as its fulfillment are linked for ever to the God who is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When life or death are involved, when Israel is in danger, then God and Israel will remember God's promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: « And God heard their groaning, and God remembered '.:is covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the people of Israel, and God knew their condition » (Ex. 2:24-25). And as the God of the patriarchs he reveals himself to Israel: « God also said to Moses, 'Say this to the people of Israel, "The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you"' » (Ex. 3:15).

The reference to the patriarchs in the Hebrew Bible is first of all a reference to God's promise which he will remember. At the same time, however, this reference means that the patriarchs play an active role in the fulfillment of this promise. When Israel has sinned, appeal can be made to them with regard to the fulfillment of God's promise: « Remember thy servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; do not regard the stubbornness of this people, or their wickedness, or their sin » (Deut. 9:27).

The contribution of the patriarchs to salvation history, their activity on behalf of Israel already indicated in the Hebrew Bible, has been extensively developed in Jewish thinking, as can be shown from rabbinic (talmudic), apocalyptic (apocryphal) and liturgical (targumic) literature. In rabbinic literature the patriarchal contribution is sometimes based on the merits of the patriarchs gained because of their righteousness. Because of these merits the fulfillment of God's promise is ensured. So according to Rabbi Azariah God says to Abraham: « If your children were to become dead bodies without tendons and bones, then your merits would help them. »1

Besides the effective merits of the patriarchs there is an other notion of patriarchal support. This support exists in their intercession with God for Israel, certainly inspired by the intercession of the leaders of Israel mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, such as Abraham's intercession for Sodom (Gen. 18:16-33). In rabbinic literature this intercession has been developed in two different ways. One form is the intercession of the patriarchs for Israel after their death. « After the Temple was destroyed, God met Abraham in the Temple and said to him: ' What does my beloved want in my house? ' And he answered: `Because of my children I have come.' God said to him: ' Your children have sinned and have gone into exile.' And Abraham: 'Perhaps they have sinned by mistake.' God: 'A godless attack was their behavior.' Abraham: 'Perhaps it was only the minority who sinned.' God: 'The majority . . »2

The other form of intercession for the people of Israel is the concern of the patriarchs for Israel as a whole already during their lifetime. This kind of intercession we find clearly expressed in the apocryphal and targumic literature. Limiting ourselves to the narratives of the patriarchs, we often see in this literature simply a literal repetition of the biblical stories, while the active role of the patriarchs regarding their posterity is indicated through additions. This we find especially in the prayers and blessings of the patriarchs through which they draw the readers of this literature into their own situation and relationship with God. In this way the words of the patriarchs become encouraging and consoling for the whole of Israel, strengthening it in its faith that God's promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob remains a reality till today. This reality is in a way due to the intercession of the patriarchs. An example of this form of intercession we find in the Book of Jubilees (probably written at the end of the second century B.C.). Comparing Isaac's blessing of his son Jacob in Jubilees 26:24 with the corresponding narrative in Genesis 27:27-29 vie notice a literal correspondence with the biblical text except for one addition. This has precisely the above-mentioned function, that is that in the blessing of Jacob Israel as a whole is included: « And may all the blessings wherewith the Lord bath blessed me and blessed Abraham, my father, be imparted to thee and to thy seed for ever ».3


The function of the patriarchs in the salvation history of Israel through their merits or intercession either after their death or already during their lifetime will not be discussed further here. Attention will be paid to another intercessor, to whom — as to the patriarchs — a function in salvation history must be ascribed, namely the « matriarch Rebekah », The God of Israel is not only the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but also the God of Rebekah. That at least is the way Rebekah is presented in the Book of Jubilees, from which we have already taken the example of the patriarch Isaac's intercession. Part of the Book of Jubilees deals with the narratives of the patriarchs, often however deviating from the biblical text through minor or even more extensive additions. These additions we will examine regarding the matriarch Rebekah.

The starting point of our examination is Genesis 25:28: « Isaac loved Esau, because he ate of his game; but Rebekah loved Jacob ». This remarkable division of love, whose motivation is even rather dubious as far as Isaac is concerned, is certainly more than simply a description of irrelevant family relationships. For Rebekah will incite Jacob later to deceive his father Isaac in order to capture the patriarchal blessing and to become the patriarch of Israel instead of his brother Esau, promising even to take the curse upon herself if his father detects the deceit (Gen. 27:14-17). This instigation of Rebekah is certainly inspired by her love for her son Jacob! That through such trickery invented by the love of a mother for her child, Jacob became the patriarch of Israel, seems rather problematical. Therefore Jacob's deception has been interpreted in various ways. In order to appreciate the interpretation of the Book of Jubilees, which is the most striking, we will mention first some other (Christian) interpretations of this deceit.

The easiest solution is to say that Jacob's deception is not real deceit. This is the interpretation of Thomas Aquinas (who mentions the deceit of Jacob in connection with the question of whether every lie is a sin). According to Thomas the lie of Jacob has to be interpreted not as a lie but as a prophecy. The meaning of this « prophetical lie » would be the indication of the final right of primogeniture of the « younger brother », namely the Gentiles, who would take Israel's place in salvation history'. Such an interpretation refers to a long tradition of Christian exegesis ° which, however, does not do justice to the text in its original setting. Other interpretations given in the notes of Bible editions consider Jacob's deceit as a real one. That deceit can play a part in salvation history is here explained either by the imperfect morality of those days ° or by the possibility that God allows evil in order to realize his plan'. It is typical of these solutions that they do not take seriously the very human way that salvation history is realized. The deepest root of Jacob's deceit — namely Rebekah's love for him — is actually not considered, and refuge is taken in a divine plan which is realized in history in spite of the human situation. Different however is the interpretation in the Book of Jubilees. Here Jacob's patriarchal role is essentially based on the love of his mother. This love is not covered up but esteemed and theologically elaborated.


The esteem for Rebekah's love of Jacob in the Book of Jubilees is evident from the last conversation between Rebekah and Isaac. In her concern for her beloved son she asks Isaac before she dies: « Make Esau swear that he will not injure Jacob, nor pursue him with enmity; for thou knowest Esau's thoughts that they are perverse from his youth, and there is no goodness in him; for he desires after thy death to kill him » (Jub. 35:9). Isaac's reaction to the request of his wife is interesting. He confesses clearly that he also loves Jacob. « I loved Esau formerly more than Jacob, because he was the firstborn; but now I love Jacob more than Esau, for he has done manifold evil deeds . . . » (Jub. 35-.13). Because of Esau's wickedness Isaac is convinced that Rebekah was right in loving Jacob, which love he finally shares.

But this extension of love by the author of the Book of Jubilees is not enough. In her concern for Jacob, Rebekah turns even to her son Esau and expresses her desire « that you and Jacob will love each other, and that neither will desire evil against the other, but mutual love only » (Jub. 35:20). And Esau answers: « Jacob, my brother, also, I shall love above all flesh; for I have not a brother in all the earth but him only: and this is no great merit for me if I love him; for he is my brother, and we were sown together in thy body, and together we came forth from thy womb, and if I do not love my brother, whom shall I love? » (Jub. 35:22). In Esau's love for Jacob Rebekah's love reaches a climax. That Isaac and even Esau love Jacob is a clear indication that Rebekah's love is not minimized. This love which underlay Jacob's ruse even spreads to the others. And their love seems to confirm the rightness of Rebekah's proceeding, which was motivated precisely by her love for Jacob. So Jacob's trickery and his mother's contribution are no longer considered as an immoral deceit.


It is not only afterwards that Rebekah's love and its consequences seem to be recognized. From the very beginning her love is appreciated and even put in a theological setting. For her love is authorized by no less a person than Abraham!

According to the biblical narrative Esau and Jacob are born after Abraham's death (Gen. 25:7-8, 24-26). In the Book of Jubilees, however, the first patriarch is still alive at the birth of the twins and even plays an active role in loving Jacob and in making him a patriarch of Israel. Let us first deal with Abraham's love by comparing the description of the twins in the Genesis narrative with the one in the Book of Jubilees:

GEN. 25 : 27-28
When the boys grew up, Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.
Isaac loved Esau, because he ate of his game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.

JUB. 19 : 13-16
And Jacob was a smooth and upright man, and Esau was fierce, a man of the field and hairy, and Jacob dwelt in tents. And the youths grew, and Jacob learned to write; but Esau did not learn, for he was a man of the field and a hunter, and he learnt war, and all his deeds were fierce.
And Abraham loved Jacob, but Isaac loved Esau. And Abraham saw the deeds of Esau, and he knew that in Jacob should his name and seed be called; and he called Rebekah and gave commandment regarding Jacob, for he knew that she (too) loved Jacob much more than Esau.

First of all it should be noticed that in contrast to the Genesis text the Book of Jubilees links Rebekah's love to that of Abraham. By doing so the author of the Book of Jubilees puts her love into a patriarchal context from the very beginning. Secondly, the Book of Jubilees gives a moral qualification of the two sons of Isaac which we do not find in the Genesis text. This moral qualification however is not a complete deviation from the biblical narrative as far as this narrative offers the possibility for such a qualification. There Esau is presented as a hunter, which led to his warlike character in the Book of Jubilees.8 The same applies to Jacob, who from a quiet man became an upright man. Finally, the motivation of love is different in the Book of Jubilees as compared with Genesis. Because the hunting Esau had developed into a belligerent Esau, Abraham could not love, him, but loved the upright Jacob. And it is Jacob's uprightness which later brings Isaac to love this son.

Coming back to Rebekah's love of Jacob, we can summarize as follows: on the one hand, her arbitrary love (according to the biblical narrative) becomes in the Book of Jubilees a source which flows out to Isaac and even to Esau; on the other hand, this love is legitimated by the love of the patriarch Abraham. The arbitrariness of this love is not only weakened, because his whole family loves Jacob, but even canceled, because this love is motivated by the uprightness of Jacob in comparison with his brother Esau.

The whole picture given of the love of Jacob in the Book of Jubilees is a typical example of Jewish exegesis. Rebekah's love is not suppressed but taken as a starting-point of the reflection on the love which is due to Jacob. This love is interpreted and motivated by additions to the biblical narrative. Abraham's love, especially, gives Rebekah's love a theological dimension, for it is because of this love that Abraham knows « that in Jacob should his name and seed be called » (Jub. 19 : 16).


It is because of the esteem for Rebekah's love that the part she plays in Jacob's receiving of the patriarchal blessing is already put in a positive and theological (patriarchal) context. Now we will deal with this blessing as such and the way the author of the Book of Jubilees wants to see it understood. For him there is no question of trickery or immoral deceit. This appears from his presentation of the biblical narrative. One could expect that the apocryphal writer would have left out the deceit of Jacob, a method used elsewhere in this book.9 The blessing-narrative however corresponds almost literally to the Genesis story (Jub. 26 -Gen. 27). Even Isaac's comment to Esau on Jacob's proceeding is copied by the author of the Book of Jubilees from the biblical text: « Thy brother came with guile, and bath taken away thy blessing » (Jub. 26:30; cf. Gen. 27:35). That there is nevertheless no question of a trick in Jacob's proceeding, the author makes clear by an addition. For Jacob receives the blessing not only through his cunning but also and finally because of a divine intervention: « And Jacob went near to Isaac, his father, and he felt him and said: The voice is Jacob's voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau,' and he discerned him not, because it was a dispensation from heaven to remove his power of perception and Isaac discerned not, for his hands were hairy as (his brother) Esau's, so that he blessed him » (Jub. 26:18). This dispensation from heaven means that Jacob became patriarch according to God's predestination.

This divine predestination however is realized in a very concrete and human way. And this human way means much more than God's use of a human stratagem.

First of all it was Rebekah's love which stimulated Jacob and became part of the divine predestination. But also the blessing as such and its predestination have a human history already, before Jacob receives the blessing from his father Isaac. For in principle this blessing has been given already by Abraham himself! Prompted by his love for his grandson, Jacob, Abraham not only foretells that Jacob and his posterity will be blessed with the blessing which he himself had received (Jub. 19:21,23); he also actually blesses his grandson: « May the Lord God be a father to thee and thou the firstborn son, and to the people alway » (Jub. 19:29). So Abraham already makes Jacob the firstborn and the patriarch of Israel. That the qualification « firstborn * has to be understood in the strict sense appears clearly from the fact that Abraham according to the Book of Jubilees blesses Jacob once again before he dies! This blessing, which certainly also intends to admonish Israel and the reader of the book, corresponds in its opening words very much to the blessing with which Isaac will bless his son (cf. Jub. 22:11-13; 26:23-24; Gen. 27:27-29). It is clear that Isaac's blessing is anticipated here by Abraham. This means that the way Jacob will receive his father's blessing has gone beyond the level of trickery and imperfect morality. This procedure was foreseen by God and realized by Abraham.

But regarding the concrete realization of God's intervention, one more thing is to be noticed. For it is not only Abraham who blesses Jacob and realizes in this way God's intervention, but also Rebekah! She is Abraham's partner not only in loving Jacob but also in blessing the future patriarch. And that her blessing has a function in salvation history is witnessed by the fact that this blessing of the matriarch Rebekah concentrates on the promise given to Abraham: « And may He make thy sons many during thy life, and may they arise according to the number of the months of the year. And may their sons become many and great beyond the stars of heaven, and their numbers be more than the sand of the sea. And may He give them this goodly land — as He said He would give it to Abraham and to his seed after him alway — and may they hold it as a possession for ever » (Jub. 25:16-17). This matriarchal blessing of Jacob, which is already remarkable as such, has one more special feature. We began our reflections with the role the patriarchs play in the salvation history of Israel, among other ways through their intercession during their lifetime in behalf of Israel. Here we see that also the matriarch Rebekah is Israel's intercessor. For she draws not only Jacob's sons into her blessing but also his grandchildren, which means Israel. So the blessing of Rebekah consoles and encourages the reader of the Book of Jubilees. She strengthens the hope that God's promise to Israel will be realized.

We can therefore conclude as follows. That Jacob is the firstborn and the patriarch of Israel because of his patriarchal blessing is not the result of the arbitrary love of his mother, who stimulated him to deceive his father. Jacob's role in salvation history is predestinated by God. And this predestination is not only realized by Jacob's trickery but by Abraham and Rebekah, who blessed him. This blessing Jacob received because of his uprightness which is the motivation of everyone's love for him. Therefore he must be blessed finally by his father Isaac.

This exegesis in the Book of Jubilees of the biblical narrative of Jacob's blessing shows the esteem for and« theological » interpretation of human life in the history of a mother and her son. It is this human history —the Jewish thought of the intertestamentary period tells us — which has a meaning for salvation history. What is thereby remarkable is that the role of a woman plays such a central part in this salvation history that she can rightly be called a matriarch of Israel. We must realize that it all started with her love for Jacob, a love which became the standard of everyone else's love for him. It even became the standard of God's love, for with these words she finished her blessing of Jacob: « May the Lord of the world love thee as the heart of thy mother » (Jub. 25:23).

Prof. van Boxel, a New Testament scholar, has been Assistant Professor of Scripture at the Sankt Georgen Hochschule, Frankfurt a. M., and has collaborated in a project on the significance of rabbinic literature for the New Testament. He is presently doing research for SIDIC on the Roman Jewish community of the sixteenth century.

1. Strack-Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud and Midrasch, Vol. I, p. 117; also see other examples same page, and compare Mtt. 3:9.
2. Strack-Billerbeck, Vol. IV, pp. 33-34.
3. Quotations from the Book of Jubilees are taken from the edition by R.H. Charles, ed., The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford 1913).
4. Summa Theologica, 2-2/110/3.3.
5. See Augustine, The City of God, XV Ch. 35.
6. Jerusalem Bible, Ch. 27, note a.
7. Petrus Canisius Bible (Dutch), Ch. 27, note 1.
8. For the negative qualification of Esau see Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 16b, 123a.
9. See F. Martin, « Le livre des Jubiles », Revue Biblique, pp. 502-533, especially pp. 338-340.


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