Rivka at the Well in Art
Chapter 24 of Bereshit describes Avraham's servant's search for an appropriate wife for Yitzchak. The three paintings discussed here, Bambini's Rebecca at the Well1, Tissot's Abraham's Servant Meets Rebecca (c.1902),2 and Tiepolo's Rebecca at the Well (1751),3 all depict the same scene, in which the servant meets Rivka drawing water at the well. The artists, though, vary greatly in their depictions of both the servant and Rivka, allowing for different insights into the characters and their actions.
Bambini depicts a youthful servant leaning at a well, around whom congregate three women. The servant presents a necklace to one of the young ladies, who, in turn, points to another of the women, as if to say it belongs to her. It is unclear which of these two women is meant to be Rivka. Two pitchers sit at the feet of the woman in the right foreground, perhaps to identify her as the chosen bride.
In contrast to Bambini, Tissot renders the servant as an elderly man. He lies on the ground looking exhausted and dehydrated, waiting for someone to have mercy on him and give him water. A youthful Rivka approaches him carrying a jug on her head. In the background, the servant's camels graze and a train of women carry their own pitchers of water as they walk towards the city's gates.
Tiepolo's painting exudes opulence as a majestic looking servant faces a richly dressed Rivka. One of her hands holds her water jug as the other fingers the jewelry offered by the servant. Her face looks stern; her lips do not smile and her gaze is somewhat melancholy. A third, bearded figure, perhaps one of the servant's underlings, stands between the main characters watching the interplay.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
Tissot depicts Rivka as a young girl, in her early teens, while Bambini renders her as a young lady.4 Tiepolo's Rivka, in contrast, is a much more mature looking woman. How old was Rivka according to the Biblical text? The verses in Bereshit do not share her age, but commentators attempt to find clues in the text nonetheless. Rashi5 picks up on the proximity of the stories of the Akeidah, the birth of Rivka and the death of Sarah, suggesting that they all occurred at the same time, making Yitzchak 40 and Rivka three years old at the time of their marriage.6
Others7 similarly posit a connection between the Akeidah and the birth, but propose that Yitzchak was a younger 26 at the episode, making Rivka 14 at her marriage.8 The two events, though, need not be connected, allowing for a much larger range of potential ages for Rivka. The possibilities are relevant for understanding the later relationship between Yitzchak and Rivka. If there was indeed a significant gap in their ages, this might help explain why the two seem not to communicate as expected regarding the blessings to Yaakov and Esav. See Why Bless Esav for more.
Bambini's servant is a young, even playful, lad, while Tissot's is an older man. Tiepolo's servant, in contrast, is depicted as a wealthy and dignified gentleman. What do we know of the servant and his character from the Biblical narrative? The text shares almost nothing, except that he was an elder of Avraham's household, ruling over all his possessions (a description that better fits Tissot or Tiepolo's renderings). As is its wont, the Midrash9 attempts to identify him with a named figure, choosing Eliezer, the only identified servant of Avraham in Bereshit.
Character of Rivka
In contrast to Bambini's smiling cherubic Rivka, or Tissot's kindly young lady, Tiepolo's Rivka is a much more complex figure whose face mingles both austerity and sorrow. The contrasting images make one question the nature of Rivka as described in Tanakh. How does the helpful and kindhearted Rivka of Chapter 24 mesh with the scheming and secretive Rivka of Chapter 27 who manipulates Yaakov into "stealing" the blessing from his brother? See Rivka's Character for more.
Presents to the Unknown?
Both Tiepolo and Bambini portray the servant offering jewelry, but whereas Tiepolo's servant apparently knows to whom he is proffering his gift, Bambini's servant seems unsure. The difference may relate to a contradiction in the text. In the first half of the chapter, we read that the servant presented the bracelets to Rivka before asking for her lineage, whereas in the servant's retelling, the order is reversed. Did the servant conclude that his mission was accomplished as soon as a girl passed his water test, or did he wait to first find out if the girl was from Avraham's family?10 See When was the Jewelry Given and Wanted: A Wife for Yitzchak.