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Matriarches

Rebecca's “subversive” plan

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03 July 2021

The second child in place of the first: the deceptive act that changed history


The man she had married was not who she thought he was. The words, the way he looked at her, the gifts, it all seemed good, but she soon understood that in reality he was different. What is more, she was the only one who had not realised because no one had forewarned her.

Rebecca was beautiful, quick-witted and resourceful, but at home, she was never spoken to or asked what she thought because she was a woman. She had no access - how she would have liked it! - to her father's tent, where he and her brother made decisions for everyone. They had also chosen and arranged her future life for their own benefit, without worrying about the risks that she would be exposed to. In addition, and what is worse still, they had deceived her into thinking that it was she who had decided to follow the man who had come from far away and seduced her. When the day came, when they asked her opinion, before giving her away as a wife, it had not seemed real to her! When she met him at the well, he had run up to her, and the only one who had spoken to her, admiring her in silence, adorning her with jewels. She willingly agreed to leave with him at once, but everyone - her father, her brother and even her mother - had been careful not to let her know whom this man actually was.

Disillusionment is an experience that no woman anticipates.

She went away with him, but did not become his wife; instead, she was given in marriage to Isaac, Abraham's son, who was decidedly less active or extroverted. The man with whom she had left home with was just a servant, sent to find a wife for his master's son. The dream marriage therefore lasted less than the journey. When she realised that her parents had deceived her, it was too late. Far from home, in a foreign country, and alone, her future was not as she had imagined it.

She never thought she would marry such a sedentary man! In time, she got to know him and his tastes, his wounds, the taboo subjects, his weaknesses, and his total lack of initiative. This was a man who had few pretensions, in other words, he was a loser, and incredibly fatalistic. It is true that he had loved her from the first moment he set eyes on her, but she had felt that he was only seeking consolation for the pain of losing his mother. His love was insufficient for her to be able to look to the future with hope or to make her feel like a woman. Later on, Isaac would even go so far as to make her feel guilty for her beauty, to deny her a wife’s dignity, hiding her behind the role of a sister, as his father had done previously with his mother. For him, who was looking for a mother in her, she could not bear children; her resourcefulness soon dissolved into languor. Faced with her sterility, he prayed to his God.

After twenty years, what had been asked for was granted. Life returned to her, but the long-awaited pregnancy was so distressing that it left her speechless and breathless, and she feared she would die. Why all this? Why her? Why live if the life she had wanted was only characterized by suffering? It was at that moment that Rebecca decided to do her own thing, and went personally - her, a woman - to consult the Lord.

She received an answer, but the sibylline oracle did not ease her discomfort.  Her immediate painful situation was not considered at all, and to this, the omen of future complications was added. When the moment to give birth arrived, what her feminine intuition had foreseen was confirmed, for she had twins.

The turbulence of their conflict, which she had understood and suffered since her mother's womb, reached its climax when talk of succession began. The uncouth Esau was clearly not up to the task, but he was the eldest son, yet Isaac was all she could thinkt about. In her mother's heart, however, she embraced both sons, although she had a special relationship with Jacob. In his calm but shrewd ways, she saw the right qualities to safeguard the welfare of all. Nevertheless, Jacob was the youngest and tradition left him with no option. This is the moment Rebecca rebelled, for she was no longer willing to accept that everything should proceed with patriarchal inertia. With her old-fashioned determination, she took the lead, and used her knowledge about Isaac -and every other means- to guarantee Jacob a chance, even willing to part with him, so as to prevent Esau's resentment from causing the irreparable. Her deception of the infirm and blind Isaac changed history. He thought he was blessing one son, but turned the desired blessing on the other. No one did anything to warn him, alert him of the error or restrain him.

Not even God.

Terror gripped him when he realised that he had blessed the “wrong” son, but that he was the “right” son as God once expressed as preference, stating, “The elder shall serve the younger”. Rebecca never referred to the last part of the oracle, which she had received years earlier to motivate her actions. In weaving the family fortunes, she was not explicitly acting for God, but for her own reasons as a woman and mother. However, this subversion was the prophecy entrusted to her, to which her maternal initiative gave concrete form in history.

By Laura Invernizzi
Diocesan Auxiliary (Milan), biblical scholar, lecturer at the Theological
Faculty of Northern Italy and at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart.