Last time, we spoke about the story of Genesis 24. First, we saw the faith of different people—Abraham, his servant, Rebecca—but at the end of this long and eventful chapter, we read: Isaac …took Rebekah and she became his wife, and he loved her (יֶּאֱהָבֶ֑הָ). It’s important to note that in a romantic sense, as referring to a relationship between a man and a woman, the verb “love” (ahav) occurs here for the first time in the entire Torah! There is no doubt that Abraham loved Sarah, yet Scripture doesn’t use this word to describe their relationship. Isaac’s feelings for Rebecca must have been very strong if the Torah finds it necessary to describe them by this verb. Thus, we are not surprised to find some exceptional details about this marriage in our today portion – Toledot.
Before anything else, let me remind you that Isaac was the only patriarch who remained monogamous. Unlike Abraham and Jacob, Rebecca was his only wife for his whole life! This fact in itself speaks volumes. However, there is more. There is a verse in Genesis 25 that invariably touches my heart: “Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The LORD answered his prayer… “ This verse provides us a glimpse into this marriage, into very close and intimate relationship of this couple. Both Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and Rachel, Jacob’s wife, were also barren, yet we don’t hear a single word in Scripture telling of Abraham praying for Sarah. It was even worse with Jacob: when Rachel complained about her barrenness, Jacob became angry and said, “Am I in the place of God?” Maybe they also prayed – however, Scripture tells us explicitly only about Isaac “praying to the LORD” on behalf of his barren wife.
The choice of words in Hebrew in this verse is very remarkable. The word “prayed” here (in many translations it’s “pleaded”) renders the Hebrew word יֶעְתַּר (ye’etar). Remarkably, the same root is used in the second half of this verse, when “the LORD answered his prayer”: Isaac pleaded (וַיֶּעְתַּ֙ר יִצְחָ֤ק) with the LORD, and the LORD pleaded back and answered his plea (וַיֵּעָ֤תֶר לוֹ֙ יְהוָ֔ה). This whole dynamic between Isaac’s plea and the Lord’s answer is completely lost in translation because both phrases are translated with completely different verbs. And yet, it is precisely this dynamic, this passionate commitment to continue and press on, that brought the desired result: the LORD answered him and Rebecca his wife conceived. Rashi writes: “He (God) allowed Himself to be entreated and placated and swayed by him.”
If Isaac was a loving and godly husband, Rebecca undoubtedly was a loving and godly wife. We remember this young girl at the well. Even then, Rebecca demonstrated a truly kind, humble, and serving heart – offering to draw water for ten camels, a huge and exhausting job for a young girl! Twenty years have passed, and now we see Rebecca knowing God and being steady and mature in her faith. When she conceived, in God’s response to the faithful intercession of her loving husband, and then started to feel vigorous movements within her womb, “she went to enquire of the LORD”. It’s important to note that the words “to enquire of the LORD” render here the same Hebrew expression (אֶת־יְהוָֽהׁ לִדְרֹ֥ש) that is often translated as to “seek the Lord”. For example, we read in Deuteronomy: “But from there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul”, תִדְרְשֶׁ֔נּוּ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ. This expression doesn’t often occur in the Torah, and when it does, it never refers to a woman—except here. Rebecca is a truly unique character: she is the only woman in the Torah of whom it is said explicitly that she went “to seek the Lord”. No wonder she really heard from the Lord—because she truly sought Him!
Godly Parents Still Make Mistakes
We would all be familiar with the Lord’s answer—the prophecy that defined the lives of Jacob and Esau. The whole story of Jacob’s life was greatly affected, even shaped, by the conflict with his twin brother. Moreover, even though the two brothers’ pattern runs throughout the whole book of Genesis, Jacob and Esau—unlike Isaac and Ishmael, for instance, or Joseph and his brothers—had the same parents (loving and godly parents, as we have seen). So, how did this terrible split between the brothers happen?
Obviously, parental favoritism played a very significant role in the conflict of the brothers – otherwise, Scripture would not tell us about it. However, the Torah doesn’t provide any judgment or any explanation—it doesn’t justify, doesn’t excuse, doesn’t explain—it just states the facts: “Isaac loved Esau … but Rebecca loved Jacob”. So, let us try to answer the question: why did this favoritism happen, and how did it start? Can we trace it back to the parents’ characters? Why did Isaac love Esau? Why did Rebecca love Jacob?
Let’s start with the background of Isaac and Rebecca. Isaac is “sabra”, as we would say today: he was born in the Land, and he is the only one of the patriarchs who has never been outside of the Land. Even in times of famine, he was not allowed by God to leave the Land. He belongs here – and in that, he differs a lot from his mother and his father who, as we know, were newcomers and immigrants!
Not only was Isaac born in the Land and connected to the Land, but he also worked the land! He did something that his father hadn’t done, and became the first farmer in the family: “Then Isaac sowed in that land, and reaped in the same year a hundredfold; and the LORD blessed him.” Isaac had always been “a man of the land” – but after that, he actually became “a man of a field”.
Rebecca, on the other hand, is an immigrant in this Land, coming from a completely different culture and background. Moreover, the very same verse that informs us of Isaac’s love for Rebecca, also says that “Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent”. From that time on, Rebecca’s place has been in a tent.
I mentioned already on these pages a wonderful book by Israel Yuval, “Two nations in your womb.” As Yuval writes, “the field is the arena of one who lives and acts in nature, in the open, while the tent is a symbol of quietness and enclosure. Thus, the difference between the parents sets the scene for the difference between the children, the twins who struggle with one another.”
We need some Hebrew now. While most English translations call Esau “a man of the outdoors,” the Hebrew text calls him “a man of the field”: “Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field.” That’s why Isaac loved Esau: even though they probably did not have similar characters, they were both “men of the field”. They both loved being in nature and it’s very likely that they spent a lot of time together outdoors. “Oh, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which the LORD has blessed.”
On the other hand, Rebecca, who was sitting in the tent, probably spent a lot of time with Jacob who was “a mild man, dwelling in tents”. Thus, Isaac had this special bond with Esau, while Rebecca had the special bond with Jacob: “Isaac loved Esau … but Rebecca loved Jacob.” The terrible split between the brothers has its origin in the stories of the parents.
Isaac and Rebecca, as godly as they were, still had their natural backgrounds, natural characters, natural weaknesses – and still made mistakes. This is the wonderful thing about the Bible—it doesn’t embellish its characters. We see people’s weaknesses; we see the mistakes and even the sins those weaknesses lead to. And the people who make these mistakes bear the consequences. However, beyond and through all of that, God’s will and God’s plan prevail as we will see clearly in the story to follow.
 Gen. 26:12
 Israel Yuval, Two nations in your womb, p. 32
It’s Thanksgiving Day in the United States – and since a great many of my readers are from the United States, I would like to wish you all
I would also like to take a moment to say a huge Thank You! I truly appreciate all the wonderful readers and followers of this blog, and I am very thankful to you and for you. As a sign of my gratitude and appreciation, I would like to give you as a gift, my book, “Unlocking the Scriptures”! From today (November 26th), for five days, you will be able to get it free from Amazon. There are also some holiday discounts on some of my other books – so just check it out here.
I would like to remind you, dear friends, that eTeacher offers a wonderful course, where you can learn from Parashot Shavua commentaries along with their New Testament interpretation. As always, you are welcome to contact me for more information!