Wanted: A Wife for Yitzchak/2/en

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Wanted: A Wife for Yitzchak

Exegetical Approaches


Commentators offer a variety of interpretations as to why Avraham sends his servant all the way to Mesopotamia rather than finding a suitable wife for Yitzchak from among his neighbors. Josephus and a number of the early medieval exegetes propose that Avraham wants to find a wife from his family. In contrast, the Keli Yekar and R. Hirsch focus on the potential negative influences from marrying a local woman whose idolatrous family is always nearby. Finally, Jubilees and many others stress the moral bankruptcy of the Canaanite people and the desire that Yitzchak's wife, in contrast, be of noble character. These different perspectives have important ramifications for understanding Avraham's portrait of the ideal wife for Yitzchak, how the servant's plan of action fit with Avraham's instructions, and how contradictions between the original story and the servant's retelling can be resolved.

Preference for Avraham's Relatives

The most important criterion in the search for a wife for Yitzchak was that she be from Avraham's family.

Why specifically from Avraham's family?
  • Religious potential – R. Saadia suggests that Avraham deemed it more likely that one of his relatives would be willing to convert to monotheism.4
  • Noble character – Ibn Ezra proposes that the servant thought that he had the best chance of finding a kindhearted wife from Avraham's family.5
"וְאֶל מוֹלַדְתִּי" in Avraham's instructions
  • Family – Rashbam defines "מוֹלַדְתִּי" as family.6 Thus, Avraham explicitly instructed his servant to find a wife from his family.
  • Birthplace – R. Saadia, Ibn Ezra, and Radak render "מוֹלַדְתִּי" as birthplace.7 However, R. Saadia and Radak add that it was understood that this was where Avraham's family was to be found.8
Were the Canaanites a backup option? Rashi9 says that if the servant did not succeed in finding a wife from Avraham's family, he was to take a wife from the Canaanite daughters of Aner, Eshkol and Mamre.10 This is a viable possibility only because this approach views the focus as being on Avraham's predilection for family, rather than the demerits of the Canaanites.11
The test at the well – This position must grapple with the question of why, upon his arrival in Charan, the servant did not simply ask for Avraham's family,12 as does Yaakov in Bereshit 29.13
  • This position might suggest that the test was an innovation of the servant himself, who went beyond Avraham's requirements, and wanted to ensure that in addition to having family lineage,14 the future wife would also be of good character.15 Avraham might have ignored this aspect, being more concerned with the woman's religious potential than her character.16
  • Additionally, the test would serve to convince Rivka's family that the marriage was Divinely ordained.17 Since there was a good chance that the chosen woman's family would not easily acquiesce to her moving to a foreign country, it was not enough that the servant simply look for a relative of Avraham, he also needed a Divine sign that could prove to the woman's family that she was destined by God to be Yitzchak's wife. The water test accomplished this goal, highlighting how the Divine hand guided Avraham's relative, Rivka, rather than anyone else, straight to the servant.18
The servant's uncertainty19 in verse 21 – Rashi20 and Radak explain that even though Rivka had passed the water test, the servant needed to know whether she was from Avraham's family before he could be certain of the success of his mission.
When was the jewelry given? Almost all of these exegetes assert that the servant gave Rivka the jewelry only after finding out that she was indeed from Avraham's family.21 R"Y Bekhor Shor explains that the "וַיִּקַּח הָאִישׁ נֶזֶם זָהָב", which appears before his asking about her family, merely means that he prepared the jewelry but did not yet give it to her.22 Rashi is the lone exception,23 and he explains that the servant was so confident of Divine providence enabling the success of his mission that he gave the jewelry first.
Variations in the servant's retelling – The approach of the majority of these commentators eliminates any fundamental differences between the narrator's account and the servant's report.24 Both accounts are consistent in saying that Avraham charged the servant with finding a wife from his family, and the servant gave Rivka the jewelry only after learning that she was, indeed, from Avraham's family. According to Rashi, however, the servant's account did change the timing of the giving of the jewelry, in order that Rivka's family would not find it strange that he gave it before being sure of Rivka's identity.25
Crux of the position – This approach interprets Avraham's instructions (and their implementation) in light of the news of Rivka's birth which precedes the story as well as the servant's account at the end of the story. It maintains that the servant is not taking liberties with the truth merely in order to flatter. It also assumes that the most logical reason for the servant to go directly to the city of Avraham's relatives was in order to find a wife from Avraham's family.

Aversion to Having Local In-laws

Avraham wanted to ensure that Yitzchak and his family would not be influenced by his wife's family or have to contend with their possible future claims on his inheritance.

Why is "local" worse?
  • Constant influence – According to Keli Yekar and R. Hirsch, although both the Canaanites and their Mesopotamian counterparts might have been somewhat equally deficient morally or religiously, the negative influence of local relatives is significantly greater than from those living far away.27 Keli Yekar also draws a parallel between Avraham's admonition that Yitzchak not marry a Canaanite woman and the Torah's later prohibition in Devarim 7 of marrying Canaanite women.
  • Danger to inheritance – Chizkuni and Shadal focus instead on the problems caused by local in-laws with regards to Avraham's inheritance of Canaan. Chizkuni asserts that Avraham did not want anyone to say that his inheritance was due to his marriage to the Canaanites rather than being a gift from God.28 Shadal, in contrast, suggests that being related to the Canaanites would make it very difficult to later expel or eliminate them.29
"וְאֶל מוֹלַדְתִּי" in Avraham's instructions
  • Birthplace – Chizkuni and R. Hirsch suggest that the word "מוֹלַדְתִּי" refers to Avraham's land or city.30 R. Hirsch, though, suggests that implicit in the usage of the word is Avraham's requirement that the woman also be from his family.
  • Family – Shadal asserts that "מוֹלַדְתִּי" refers to Avraham's family but that Avraham set this as a preference rather than a requirement. As proof, he points to the fact that the servant devises the water test, a very inefficient way of finding a maiden from Avraham's family specifically.31
Were the Canaanites a backup option? As the problem for Avraham was the Canaanites' proximity, they could not be a viable option under any circumstances.32
The test at the well – Chizkuni says that the servant wanted to test Rivka's character, when she was alone and not under her family's direct influence.33 As the servant was not looking specifically for a member of Avraham's family, he looked instead for other positive attributes in the potential bride.34 Shadal, in contrast, suggests that the servant was requesting a sign from Hashem,35 and the woman who passed would be deemed the appropriate wife for Yitzchak, from whichever family she might be.
The servant's uncertainty in verse 21 – The Keli Yekar states that the servant was merely waiting to see whether Rivka would draw water for the camels as she promised, and his uncertainty was unconnected to his question which followed regarding Rivka's lineage. Shadal and R. Hirsch, though, connect the servant's hesitation to his wondering whether Rivka was indeed from Avraham's family.36
When was the jewelry given? Shadal suggests that the jewelry was given before inquiring after Rivka's family, as suggested by the order in the original narration of the event.37 Rivka deserved reward for her efforts regardless of who she was.38 In addition, the servant desired to show that he was wealthy and of generous nature. R. Hirsch, in contrast, proposes that the servant took out the jewelry, but only gave it after inquiring who Rivka was.39
Variations in the servant's retelling – Chizkuni, Shadal, and R. Hirsch maintain that the changes made by the servant resulted from the norms of polite discourse and the desire to honor Avraham's family.40
Marriage of Yaakov's sons – This understanding of Avraham's motives might explain why Yaakov appears much much less concerned than his father and grandfather about his sons marrying the local Canaanites. While Yitzchak and Yaakov had been single heirs, who could have easily assimilated into their in-laws families, Yaakov's sons, in contrast, were already a clan, and anyone marrying in would be subsumed by them.  Thus he had no fear of local in-laws.  For further discussion, see Did Yaakov's Sons Marry Canaanites?
Crux of the position – This approach reads Avraham's concerns in light of the Torah's later prohibition in Devarim 7 of intermarrying with the Canaanites. It thus understands Avraham as similarly being fearful of assimilation. The command to find a wife from a far away country and the injunction against taking a wife from the local populace are viewed as flip sides of the same desire to insulate Yitzchak from bad influences.

Search for a Wife of Noble Character

The most critical factor was that Yitzchak's wife have a generous and kind nature and be of upright moral character.

"לֹא תִקַּח אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי מִבְּנוֹת הַכְּנַעֲנִי" – According to all these commentators, Avraham told his servant to avoid choosing a Canaanite wife, not because they were more religiously problematic than his family (who were similarly idolatrous), but because of their amoral character.  Jubilees stresses how the Canaanites debauchery and corrupt interpersonal behavior was the source of the prohibition to mingle with them, while the Ran distinguishes between idolatrous beliefs which can be rectified through education and evil character traits (like those of the Canaanites) which are ingrained and hereditary.41
"וְאֶל מוֹלַדְתִּי" in Avraham's instructions – Ibn Kaspi and the Malbim understand "מוֹלַדְתִּי" to mean birthplace, and that Avraham expressed no preference for finding a wife from his family.42 In fact, Malbim adds that the servant did not expect that Avraham's wealthy relatives in Mesopotamia would be sending their daughter (rather than a servant) out to draw water.
Were the Canaanites a backup option? This approach rules out any possibility whatsoever of a Canaanite wife.43 Thus, Jubilees and Ramban maintain that, not only Yitzchak, but all of the ancestors of the Children of Israel (including the twelve sons of Yaakov) were prohibited from marrying Canaanite women.44
The test at the well – This approach would likely suggest that, despite the silence in the text, after expressing how abominable he found the Canaanites, Avraham proceeded to tell his servant that he should instead find a wife of upright morals and character.  This led the servant to devise his water test. As such, Avraham's specification to avoid the Canaanites and the servant's character test are flip-sides of the same coin.  Malbim further points outs that the test was designed to identify a kindhearted woman from a poor family, who would presumably be more willing to emigrate to a foreign land. The servant assumed that the wealthy inhabitants of the city would send their servants to draw water, rather than their daughters, and thus never even thought of the possibility that a relative of Avraham would be the one to pass the test.
The servant's uncertainty in verse 21 – According to Malbim, the uncertainty did not relate to Rivka's as-of-yet unknown lineage (which was unimportant to the servant) but rather to the concern that Rivka might still ask for remuneration for her efforts, thereby diminishing her good deed.45 Alternatively, it is possible that the servant was concerned that the woman's family might not consent to the marriage.46
When was the jewelry given? Ibn Kaspi and Malbim assert that, as it would appear from the narrator's account, the servant gave Rivka the jewelry before finding out her lineage. They point out that this is consistent with their position that the woman's family background was irrelevant to the servant's mission.47 Malbim adds that the servant's asking for the identity of Rivka's family was merely the lead-up to his inquiry as to whether they could find lodging in her home.48
Variations in the servant's retelling – Ibn Kaspi, and Malbim49 develop the possibility that the servant altered the truth in order to achieve his goals.50 Thus, they contend that the servant only pretended that his marching orders were to find a woman from Avraham's family51 and that he gave Rivka the jewelry only after learning of her pedigree, all in order to flatter Rivka's family and ensure their approval of the marriage.52
Crux of the position – This approach underscores the opening part of Avraham's admonition, the prohibition of taking a Canaanite wife, reading into it the importance of finding a spouse of upright character. It concludes, in light of the Torah's earlier curse of Canaan53 and later revulsion from Canaanite behavior,54 that Canaanite society was unique in the depth of its depravity.