Wibble Wednesday: Two weddings and a funeral (Genesis 23:1–25:18)

Next up we have פָּרָשַׁת חיי שרה (“Life of Sarah” portion), which pretty much closes out the interesting events of the life of the first patriarch, Abraham.

The quick snarky summary: Sarah dies, and Abraham makes a few last deals for the benefit of the family because he knows he can’t trust his wastrel son to do them. He gets a family burial plot and fixes the kid up with a wife, and figures that’s enough to get the dynasty through at least one generation. Just to see if he can’t maybe get a son who’s actually good at something, he remarries and has a few more kids, but ultimately decides Isaac’s the closest thing he’s got to an actual heir.

Much as the previous section dealt primarily with hospitality, here too we have a focus, but a drier and less universal one, namely: contract law and contractual practices.

Our story begins with Sarah’s death, described in stark, bare terms. Given that she’s one of the matriarchs, and a figure of some significance in Judaic history, it’s kind of interesting that very few of the things attributed to her in the actual text are indicative of any sort of actual virtue. She’s rude to her slave and stepson, contemptuous of the pronouncements of visitors in her home, and apparently passive enough that she is siezed for remarriage under her husband’s nose twice without a peep. None of the female characters in the Torah are really portraits of strong characterization, but what few glimpses we’ve gotten of Sarah’s character, I’m afraid, have not been to her credit.

Sarah’s death takes only two verse from Chapter 23; the remainder is dedicated to an unusually detailed accounting of a bargain and oral contract struck between Abraham and Ephron the Hittite. Getting back to our historical roots, this passage is a popular one for people trying to date the Torah, since it details a very specific sort of contract with some unusual-seeming invocations, but here again we end up struck by the staticity of Near East social customs, in that the various exhortations to “Hear me!” preceding an element of the contract are in fact standard parts of Mesopotamian oral-contract practice in several cultures spanning at least a millennium. If we ignore the peculiar verbiage, what we have is mostly a negotiation characterized by excessive politeness: buth the Hittites and Ephron himself are anxious to maintain good relations with Abraham, but the haggling is all upwards: despite Ephron’s offering of the cave as a gift, Abraham insists on paying for it. This might be indicative of a social custom (note: there have been, and still are, many cultures where it is polite to offer a desired item as a gift, and polite to refuse the gift; that might be what we’re seeing here), or a good-faith offer which Abraham refuses, presumably, because of his fierce independence (which we saw previously in 15:23, where Abraham didn’t want to enrich himself from the spoils of war). Incidentally, this little exchange means, historically and in modernity, Jews have asserted their right to ownership of the cave of Machpelah in Hebron on rather different grounds than that to the rest of Israel: it’s theirs because they bought it. Since it’s also a Muslim holy site, this is, unsurprisingly, a hotly debated contention.

The narrative core of this parsha, however, is the finding of a wife for Isaac. I’m going to discuss this in greater detail next week, but there’s a rather stunning and distressing passivity to Isaac, in that he figures primarily in stories where he, himself, is not the active agent, but other people are going about their plans with and throguh him. The binding was the obvious example, in that despite traditions holding that he was a man full-grown, he hardly does anything in the text, meekly following his father. Here, too, we see what seems to be his autonomy completely ignored: he gets basically no input into his own marriage. Abraham instead sends his steward, pledging him to find a son from Abraham’s own people (fun fact: such a pledge included, at the very least, touching the thigh, and possibly even the testicles). Every time I’ve read this story or summations of it, it’s been my impression that the servant in question is Abraham’s faithful majordomo, Eliezer. But his name’s not mentioned here! Nor, in fact, much of anywhere else — the only place we see that name in the Abraham narrative is back in 15:2. If this is the same person at this point, he must be getting on in years, since at least 51 years have passed since the events of Chapter 15.

But ignoring the servant’s identity, his mission’s quite clear: to find Isaac a wife from his extended clan. In light of this bit of information, the way he goes about his task’s a bit unusual: he doesn’t actually appeal to Abraham’s clansmen, but rather sits at the well and picks a girl more or less arbitrarily, hoping to find the divine hand in randomness. There’s more justification in this practice than might seem to be the case: the presumption that the result of casting of lots indicates the divine will is repeated elsewhere in the Bible, so it’s established as a means of enlisting God’s help, and also, Eliezer’s criterion isn’t completely blind, since his test involves an act of charity (and of significant labor) on the part of the prospective bride, and thus it’s a little better than a purely random selection. He seems to realize it’s a risk though, because he hedges his hopes (24:21) and only relaxes (24:26) after verifying that she’s of the right family. Apropos of that family: we got a little bit of background at the end of Chapter 22 that I didn’t focus on, but Rebecca is Abraham’s brother Nahor’s granddaughter, which makes her Isaac’s first cousin once removed, I think.

SO now comes the contractual element of this particular story. Eliezer seems to have initiated the marriage negotiations with rick gifts of gold to Rebekah, but the actual negotiations end up being with her brother Laban (who we’ll see again later) and father Bethuel. I can’t help but see a contrast these elaborate betrothal discussions with what seemed like very peremptory marriage practices in Egypt and Gerar back when Abraham told people Sarah was his sister. The discussion is protracted and veers into irrelevance from a narrative standpoint, in that verses 24:34–48 are a complete recapitulation of events already recounted inmediately before. Laban and Bethuel’s response is actually pretty anticlimactic, in that there seems to be no actual discussion of the betrothal except as a done deal. Notwithstanding the lack of discussion, there’s an exchange of gifts and an offer of hospitality. The only actual point of contention seems to arrive later, in 24:55–58, where there is clearly some disagreement over how long the wedding ought to be delayed. Presumably a too-fast wedding was viewed as precipitous, in which case Eliezer’s and Rebekah’s haste is a bit outside of social norms.

Rebekah is then specifically stated to take her place in Sarah’s tent, which presumably makes her the female head of family, which is actually a bit interesting in light of what happens next. Chapter 25 opens with Abraham’s remarriage, which is on two fronts troublesome: first, he seems a bit old for that, and second, it rather muddies Rebekah’s explicitly stated role as head of the household. Anyways, the new wife is named Keturah, and has a bunch of children and grandchildren some of whose names correspond to nations with whom Israel was on occasionally friendly terms (e.g. Midian). Neither she nor they appear in the story again, though, so they’re presumably another, somewhat more obscure and less obviously slanderous part of the big Hebrew racial theories we’ve seen (e.g. Africans are born slaves, Moabites and Ammonites are disgusting inbreds, etc.). The first half of Chapter 25 closes out with the final acts of Abraham’s life after this remarriage, which are the disposition of his property, designating Isaac as his sole heir while being generous to the other sons, and his death, after which he is buried by Isaac and Ishmael (Keturah’s sons, mentioned a few verses ago, are already forgotten).

So, fare thee well, first of the patriarchs. That’s our snapshot of Abraham: wandering altar builder, occasional warlord, generous host. Next up we have the rather problematic Isaac, and next week we’re going to see jsut what his problem is.


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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