Our Torah Portion starts in Genesis 25. By the end of the previous chapter, Isaac and Rebecca met, and we all witnessed this amazing transformation, how the story of faith became the story of love: Then Isaac … took Rebekah and she became his wife, and he loved her (יֶּאֱהָבֶ֑הָ).
Genesis 25 tells us about Isaac and Rebecca’s family. Before we say anything about this marriage, let me remind you that Isaac was the only patriarch who remained monogamous (unlike Abraham or Jacob): Rebecca was his only wife for his whole life! I think, this fact by 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 an insight into this marriage, into the very close and intimate relationship of this couple, because there are several things, especially in Hebrew, that make this verse special.
First of all, the very fact that Isaac prayed for his wife is very significant. Both Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and Rachel, Jacob’s wife, were also barren for a while, 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, the Scripture tells us explicitly only about Isaac “praying to the LORD” on behalf of his barren wife.
Second, 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), which has the connotation of a passionate commitment to continue until the desired result is achieved. Even more remarkable is the fact that both phrases: “Isaac prayed to the LORD” and “The LORD answered his prayer”, use the same Hebrew root: when Isaac pleaded (וַיֶּעְתַּ֙ר יִצְחָ֤ק) with the LORD, 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 absolutely different verbs. And yet, we understand that it is this dynamic, this commitment to continue and press in, 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.”
We remember this young girl who came to the well when the servant was standing and praying there. Even then, Rebecca demonstrated a very kind, humble and serving heart – offering to draw water for ten camels, a huge and exhausting job for a young girl! She didn’t grow up in a believing family, as Isaac did, and didn’t know God, as Isaac did – nevertheless, God’s touch and God’s call through Eleazer that day were so real that she decided at once that she wanted Him in her life and surrendered her life to him. She didn’t yet know God—nevertheless, she wanted Him in her life.
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 husband, and then started to feel vigorous movements within her womb, she went to inquire of the Lord:
And the children struggled together within her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And 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־יְהוָֽה׃ לִדְרֹ֥שׁ ) that is sometimes 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 Bible of whom it is said explicitly that she went “to seek the Lord”. It’s no wonder then that she really heard from the Lord—because she went to seek Him.
I think we all are familiar with the Lord’s answer—the prophecy that defined the lives of Jacob and Esau. Also, we all know the story of Jacob’s conflict with his brother: the whole story of Jacob’s life was greatly affected, even shaped by this conflict. Moreover, even though the two brother’s 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?
It is clear, that parental favoritism played a very significant role in the conflict of the brothers – otherwise the 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 provide any comments at all, it just states the facts: Isaac loved Esau … but Rebecca loved Jacob. Let us try to answer the question, then: why did this favoritism happen, and how did it start? Why did Isaac love Esau? Why did Rebecca love Jacob?
We will start with the background of the parents, of Isaac and Rebecca. First of all, 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 (has never been bahul, as we would say in Hebrew today). In obedience to God’s commandment, he doesn’t even leave the land in time of famine. He belongs to this Land – and in that, he differs a lot from his mother and his father: as we know, they came to the Land following God’s call – they both were immigrants.
Not only was Isaac born in the Land and is completely connected to the Land, he also works the land! He tries something that his father hadn’t tried, and becomes the first farmer in his family: he sows and reaps and is extremely blessed in that. “Then Isaac sowed in that land, and reaped in the same year a hundredfold; and the LORD blessed him.” Isaac has always been “a man of the Land” – but after that, he actually becomes “a man of 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 the tent of her late mother-in-law.
I mentioned already on these pages a wonderful book by Israel Yuval, “Two nations in your womb.” As Yuval writes, this tension between Isaac, the man of fields, and Rebecca, hidden in the tent, is a metaphor for the dualism between two characters and two symbols. “The field is 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.”
In order to proceed, we will need some Hebrew here. 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 very 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, the mother, 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 was much more connected with Jacob: “Isaac loved Esau … but Rebecca loved Jacob.”. Isaac and Rebecca, as godly as they were, still had their natural backgrounds and natural characters – and it seems that the terrible split between the brothers has its origin in the story of the parents.
Many of the things that you’ve read here, we tell our students during DHB (Discovering Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion) classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher courses (firstname.lastname@example.org) . Also, If you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books, you can get them from my page: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/
 Gen 26:2
 Israel Yuval, Two nations in your womb, p. 32
 Gen 25:27