New Testament Reflections: Chayei-sarah

Why did Sarah die?

Right after Aqedat Itzhak, in chapter 23 of Genesis, a new Torah Portion begins:  Chayei-Sarah. Despite the title: “Chayei-Sarah” means “Sarah’s life,” Sarah dies in this portion; moreover, she dies right away, in the second verse of chapter 23 – and here is the first lesson of this portion: the Lord wants His people to live in such a way and to have such an impact on those around them, that even when life here on earth is finished, there would still be people and things who are marked by their name.

Why did Sarah die? In the Jewish tradition, Sarah’s death in Genesis 23 is juxtaposed to the events of Genesis 22: Midrash Genesis Rabbah writes that, when Sarah heard that “her son was prepared for slaughter and was almost slaughtered, her soul flew out of her and she died.”[1] Sarah died at the age of 127, which means that Isaac was 37 when he was led to Mount Moriah. While in Christianity, Isaac is usually depicted as a child or teenager, and his obedience is perceived as a child’s obedience to his father, here Isaac is an adult, and his obedience to his father’s will, his free consent and selfless readiness to be sacrificed – all this becomes much more profound when we think of him as a grown man, willingly following his elderly father.

Where did Isaac go?

Did Isaac come back after Aqedah? In the end of chapter 22, we read: Abraham returned to his young men, and they rose and went together to Beersheba.[2] But where was Isaac? Why does it say, Abraham returned, and not a word is said of Isaac? It turns out that after the sacrifice on Mount Moriah was finished, Isaac mysteriously disappeared from the picture completely. We don’t see him again until the very end of chapter twenty-four in our portion today, which describes his meeting with Rebekah. It says there that he came up from the South (i.e. the desert), from the place called Beer Lahai Roi,[3] but nothing is said about what had transpired during his time in the desert—it is hidden from us. At the very end of chapter twenty-four, however, we witness a fascinating scene. When Rebekah sees Isaac for the first time, coming up out of the desert, she literally falls off her camel. The English translation, she dismounted from her camel, does not correctly portray the original Hebrew, ותפל מעל הגמל (and she fell off the camel).

Why did Rebekah fall? Whether she was staggered by the lingering imprint of the Mount Moriah experience etched into Isaac’s expression, or whether he was simply radiating God’s glory, we are not told. However, while not knowing for sure exactly what so stunned Rebekah, we can see the reflection of this scene in the New Testament. In the Gospel of John, when the soldiers come to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus, He says to them, ‘I am He,’ at which point they drew back and fell to the ground.[4]

We can ask the same question: why did the soldiers fall in the Garden of Gethsemane? We can assume that Jesus – whose weakness, terror and sorrow we had witnessed just a few moments before – was now filled with such glory,  that they simply could not stand before Him: astonished and shaken, they drew back and fell. Perhaps, it was the same with Isaac: after the experiences of Mount Moriah and the desert, he must have been resplendent with God’s light! Rashi writes about Rebecca and this initial meeting: “She saw his majestic appearance, and she was astounded by him.” Maybe, in this amazing scene we witness Isaac coming up out of the desert, radiating God’s light and dazzling Rebekah as she laid eyes on him for the first time.

We may see an additional proof in the words: she took her veil and covered herself.[5] Of course, she covered herself as a token of subjection to her future husband: a bride had to be brought veiled into the presence of a bridegroom. However, both her falling down from the camel, and covering herself, make even more sense as we imagine Isaac shining and dazzling Rebekah.

 

The First “Love”

You would of course remember the beginning of the story of Isaac and Rebecca —one of the most beautiful and romantic stories in the Bible —began as a story of faith. In our Torah Portion today, we see the faith of various people—Abraham, his servant, and Rebecca—but at the end of this long and eventful chapter, the story of faith becomes the story of love:  Isaac …took Rebekah and she became his wife, and he loved her (יֶּאֱהָבֶ֑הָ). Is there anything specific that this amazing Hebrew root – ahav – can tell us here?

It is very 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 Rebekah must have been very strong if the Torah finds it necessary to describe them by this verb.

Even more remarkable is the fact that the first time we find this root is in Genesis 22, where God says to Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love (אהבת)”. It’s really interesting to note that on both occasions, the verb “to love” is attached to Isaac: he was the one who was loved in Genesis 22, and he is the one who loves in Genesis 24.

The eternal truth of parenting is revealed through this Hebrew root: We are to love our children, so that they will be full of love when they grow up. But I believe the message is even more profound: God wants everyone to be loved (by their earthly parents and by their Heavenly Father), in order for them to be able to love fully. Isaac was the first person in the Torah who was described as being loved by his father—and he was the first husband in the Torah who was described as loving his wife!

[1] Gen. Rabbah 58:5

[2] Gen.22:19

[3] באר לחי ראי, the Well of either the Living One who sees me, or the One who sees me lives.

[4] John 18:6

[5] Gen. 24:65

 

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! 

Excerpts from my  books are included in many  posts on this blog, you  can get  my books  from  my page:   https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/  Also,  my last book “Unlocking the Scriptures”, with the Hebrew insights into the Torah and  Jewish Background insights   into NT,  is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=unlocking+the+scriptures+by+julia+blum&crid=2IHYED6W7ZVYI&sprefix=julia+blum+%2Caps%2C689&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_4_11

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Perry

    Is there any rabbinical interpretation of Isaac being disabled in some way and this is why Abraham wanted to sacrifice him? This interpretation is popular right now among one Catholic theologian in Italy, where I live, and he says the message of the story is for us to accept people who are “different” because God accepts them. Any insight would be appreciated.

    1. Julia Blum

      That’s a very interesting note Perry, but this is the first time I hear of this idea. Of course , there is always a possibility of some rabbinical interpretation that I am not aware of; however, it’s very difficult for me to imagine this one, since God says many times in Torah that a sacrifice to Him (any sacrifice) should be without a spot or blemish: “But if it has any defect, such as lameness or blindness, or any serious defect, you shall not sacrifice it to the LORD your God” . So it’s hard to believe that there would be a traditional Jewish interpretation like this. I suppose, this is a modern concept.

  2. Dot Healy

    It is very likely that Jesus was 37 when he was crucified – the same age Isaac was when he was sacrificed. Jesus was born between 4-6 bc, and died, probably 33 ad. No coincidence of course!

    1. Julia Blum

      Yes Dot, I also believe that Jesus was 37 when he was crucified – and of course, you are right, it’s not just a random coincidence! Thank you!

  3. Dot Healy

    Thank you Julia for these womderful insights. The fact that the word “love” appears first with Abraham and Isaac, then with Isaac and Rebekah is profound indeed, especially when seen through messianic eyes. So much to chew over in this reflection!

  4. Nick

    So Isaac, Moses, and Jesus were perceived visibly different after an encounter with the Divine??? Seems this encounter can be associated with stressful circumstances, yet culminating in an elevated existence and connection with G-d??? Much to ponder,Julia! Thank you!
    Nick

    1. Esther Lonfo

      Awesome insights. I have been enjoying Julia’s teaching and all the replies for over three hours today. I love to study God ‘s Word in French and English. Now I am trying to better understand the Bible in Hebrew. God bless you all. Esther