Parashat Chayei Sarah – Erev Shabbat 18 November 2022 (5783)
Week of 13-19 November 2022
Torah portion: Genesis 23 :1-25 :18 Haftarah: 1 Kgs 1 :1-31
This week’s parashah is bookended by the deaths of Sarah (23:2) and Abraham (25:8) and their subsequent burial in the cave of Machpelah in Kiriath-arba (23:19 & 25:9), which is identified as Hebron. In between the announcement of Sarah’s death and her burial is a lengthy description of Abraham’s purchase of the burial site from Ephron, who is described as one of the people of the land, the Hittites (23:3-18). On the other hand, Abraham describes himself as a “stranger and alien”. He is in a liminal space between the divine promises made to him and their fulfilment. With the purchase of a burial site for Sarah, he is also securing a place where he and his descendants can be buried—ensuring continuity (Eskenazi 113).
The story that dominates this parashah is also a story about continuity. Isaac is as yet unmarried, and not wanting his son Isaac to marry one of the people of the land, Abraham sends his servant to find a wife from amongst his extended family. This journey takes him to Haran, where the Eternal had called Abraham from his father’s house and the land of his birth (24:7).
When the servant arrives in Nahor (Haran), he sits beside the well, waiting for the evening, when the town’s young women come forth to draw water from it, praying that he will be successful in his mission (24:10-14). Not only did wells serve an essential function in supporting life, but they also provided a “place of meeting and assembly” (Eskenazi 118). Later in Genesis (29:1-14), we will see Jacob and Rachel meet at a well and again in Exodus (2:15-22), Moses will meet Zipporah beside a well. Christians will also be familiar with the story of Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman by the well of Jacob (John 4:1-45), a story that draws heavily on these stories from the Shared Scriptures (see Mary Coloe’s excellent commentary for more).
No sooner had the servant commenced his prayer than Rebekah—the daughter of Abraham’s relatives, arrives—and, in an extraordinary act of hospitality, offers to draw water for the servant and his camels (24:18-19). Rashi notes that this is indeed an appropriate response from one who is to become the daughter-in-law of Abraham, who was known for extraordinary hospitality (Berlin 45). One can only imagine how much water one camel, let alone ten camels, might consume, particularly after a lengthy journey. Might the generosity of Rebekah’s response—to human and animal alike—have convinced Eliezer that he had found the woman who would become the next matriarch (Neril 83)?
After machinations involving Rebekah’s father, Bethuel, and her brother Laban, the marriage is approved (24:50-51). When it comes time to leave, Rebekah’s brother and mother ask that she may remain with them for about ten days, to which Abraham’s servant says no. Finally, they call Rebekah and ask her if she is willing to go to marry Isaac, leaving her mother’s house (cf. 24:28) and the land of her birth (24:58). Rebekah’s response, “I will go”, highlights another similarity between her and her and Abraham (cf. 12:1, 24:7, 38, 40).
The episode concludes with the servant bringing Rebekah to Isaac’s encampment in the Negev at the well Be’er-lachai-ro’i (site of Hagar’s encounter with God and the birth of Ishmael, Gen 16:1-16) and the death and burial of Abraham by his sons Isaac and Ishmael (25:7-11).
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. How might I show the extraordinary hospitality exhibited by Rebekah? 2. Rebekah answered the call to go, not knowing what this response might ask of her. How would I respond?
Bibliography: Berlin & Brettler eds., The Jewish Study Bible, 2nd Edition (Oxford, 2014); Coloe, John 1–10, Wisdom Commentary Series (Liturgical Press, 2021); Eskenazi, Ed. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (URJ, 2008); Neril & Dee, Eco Bible: Vol 1, Genesis & Exodus (Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, 2020).
This week’s Parashah Commentary was prepared by
Mark David Walsh, Bunurong Country, Australia.Bat Kol Alumnus: 2001, 2002, 2004, 2013