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Rebekah: A Marriage in Ancient Israel

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in age; and the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things. So Abraham said to the oldest servant of his house, who ruled over all that he had, “Please, put your hand under my thigh, and I will make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell; but you shall go to my country and to my family, and take a wife for my son Isaac” (Genesis 24:1-4).

The Search Begins:  the Bride Price

The old man had two gold bracelets and a ring, gifts for a woman he didn’t know. Camels accompanied him with food and gear for the journey and with many gifts. These were intended for people living somewhere in Haran where Terah had settled.  Abraham insisted that his son marry someone from his own people and not a Canaanite woman. That’s why he sent his trusted servant to find a wife from Terah’s family (Gen. 22:20-24). Abraham believed the servant would find a bride in Haran because God “will send His angel with you and prosper your way” (Gen. 24:40). So, the old gentleman was on a mission of faith—Abraham’s faith.

(Note to readers: Many commentaries, like Nelson’s cited in the footnote, believe the servant’s name is Eliezer “because of his high position over all that Abraham had.” [1] I will occasionally use the name Eliezer in referring to the servant.)

English: Rebekah and Eliezer, as in Genesis 24...

English: Rebekah and Eliezer, as in Genesis 24, illustration published 1908 by the Providence Lithograph Company (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Eliezer arrived in Mesopotamia, he stopped at the well of Nahor where Terah’s people lived. The old man prayed for immediate success in finding the right woman for Isaac. He asked that she be identified by three signs: she would come to the well for water; when he asked her for a drink she would give it to him; and she would offer to water the camels. Immediately, beautiful Rebekah appeared at the well, filled her pitcher, gave him a drink and drew water for the camels. If that were not enough reason for joy, Rebekah said she was related to Abraham’s brother Nahor. Out came the bracelets and the nose ring.

Gifts

Eliezer knew she was the answer to prayer. God had divinely singled out Rebekah as the young woman intended for Isaac. So he “put the nose ring on her nose and the bracelets on her wrists…and worshipped the LORD” (Gen. 24:47-48). In bestowing the jewelry, Eliezer claimed Rebekah for Isaac. In accepting the jewelry, she allowed Eliezer to touch her wrists and face—she was willing to proceed. She “ran and told her mother’s household these things” (Gen. 24:28). Rebekah’s appearing before them wearing bracelets and nose ring opened the way for Eliezer to meet her family and propose marriage. After hearing the servant’s remarkable story, Rebekah’s father and brother agreed that this “comes from the LORD…let her be your master’s son’s wife, as the LORD has spoken” (Gen. 24:50-51). Was she committed at this point? Not yet, although everyone began eating, drinking, and acting as if she were.

More gifts

Because the talks had been favorable, Eliezer presented mohar, a gift from the family of the groom to the parents of the bride. It was traditionally given to the bride’s father when the parents gave their consent to the marriage. Mohar could be in the form of money, land, jewelry, clothing or something “precious” (Gen. 24:53). Mohar had somewhat a feeling of being compulsory and expressed the legal aspects of an arranged marriage.[2] It was thought to compensate the bride’s family for her loss. Some fathers kept their daughter’s mohar as insurance in case she was widowed or divorced.[3] In Rebekah’s case, Eliezer gave precious things to her brother Laban and to her mother. The Bible does not mention why Bethuel, the father, did not receive mohar, although he did give permission for the marriage (Gen.24:50).

Even more

Arrangements had come together quickly. Eliezer gave Rebekah special gifts from the groom to the bride called mattan. Mattan[4] could be cash or property or something of a personal nature, “jewelry of silver, jewelry of gold, and clothing” (Gen. 24:53). Mattan was a voluntary assurance of the groom’s personal interest in his bride. Isaac was a wealthy man (Gen. 24:34-36) and his mattan must have been sumptuous—purple linens, exquisite jewelry, embroidered fabrics, gold and silver ornaments, fragrances—everything to delight Rebekah’s heart. Was she committed to marriage now that mattan had been given?

A Purchased Bride?

Not quite. The parental arrangements for marriage and the exchange of gifts may give the impression that men in Abraham’s time could buy their wives. If a man proposed and gave gifts to a girl’s father, did she have any say in the matter? Daughters and sons were very much under the authority of their fathers. Jewish practices, however, made it clear that a wife had to consent to be married.[5] “The opinion that Israelites were required to buy their wives from the parents or relatives seems unfounded.”[6] Rebekah was finally asked for her consent when Eliezer packed up for the return trip.

Eliezer:  Since the LORD has prospered my way; send me away so that I may go to my master.

 Family: We will call the young woman and ask her personally…will you go with this man?

 Rebekah: I will go.

A final round of gift-giving occurred when Rebekah departed. The family allowed Rebekah’s nurse and maids to leave Haran and serve her in Isaac’s household. Her nurse and maids became a parting gift, shilichin,[7] (something given by the family to a beloved daughter leaving home).

Not every man could afford the investment Isaac made in procuring a wife. “It would undoubtedly be expected that the mohar should be proportioned to the position of the bride and that a poor man could not on that account afford to marry a rich wife (I Sam. 18:23).[8] Isaac and Rebekah’s son Jacob, for example, paid his Uncle Laban in work for the privilege of marrying Rachel. The relationship between the two men got off to a bad start because of Laban’s deceit, and it didn’t improve over the years. When Jacob separated his family from Laban’s family, there was no shilichin, no happy parting gifts.

Where is love?

Marriage in ancient Israel was about family, property and alliances. Love was usually not the reason for an arranged marriage. The negotiations, exchange of gifts, consent of the bride, wedding celebration, and blessings for the departing bride preserved the identity of the family. Love was not a factor that Eliezer and Laban discussed in the marriage proposal. However, with Divine chemistry at work, Isaac and Rebekah began to love one another the day they met (Gen. 24:63-67).—Mary Hendren


[1] NKJV Study Bible, note on Gen. 24:2

[2] The Ultimate Wedding, “Ancient Jewish Marriage Traditions and Their Fulfillment in   Jesus the Messiah”

[3] 1bread.org/Teachings/Ancient Israel, “Marriage”

[4] The Ultimate Wedding, same article

[5] 1bread.org, same article

[6] New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, “Dowry,” p. 317

[7] The Ultimate Wedding

[8] Unger’s, p. 818

About womenfromthebook

Mine is a life-long interest in the women of the Bible, and I enjoy exploring the world in which they lived, and discovering the challenges that they faced. I have enough curiosity about them to last the rest of my life.

One response »

  1. Pretty! This was an extremely wonderful article.
    Thank you for supplying these details.

    Reply

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