Rebekah: The Guardian and Protector of Israel – by Anne Vyn
I’ve grown up in the church all my life and have always heard Rebekah talked about in a negative light. Teachers and leaders have called her manipulative, deceptive, and lacking in submission to God and to her husband. Tradition has not been kind to Rebekah and I believe she is one of the most misrepresented and misunderstood women of the Bible.
I hereby dedicate this post to my hero and to my mentor, Rebekah. This is my tribute to how I believe the biblical story intended her to be seen, not as a symbol of perfection but as a woman who, like King David, panted after the heart of God. She was a woman who longed to live before an Audience of One and who actually served one of the most significant roles in protecting the nation of Israel (Jacob) in its very formative stages.
Here are 8 observations about Rebekah that have captured my heart:
Observation #1: Where God imparts knowledge, he also imparts responsibility
The word of the Lord comes to the very pregnant Rebekah: ”Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.”
Important point to notice here: It’s Rebekah who hears from the Lord, not Isaac. The biblical pattern reveals that whoever hears the word of the Lord is directly responsible to the knowledge He gives. Rebekah can’t delegate responsibility or simply ignore this information. The living God had chosen to speak to her and, like Jesus’ mother Mary, Rebekah hid these words in her heart and waited. The narrative doesn’t tell us whether Rebekah actually told Isaac what God told her…perhaps she did…perhaps she didn’t. But the story does reveal Isaac as being a father who favoured Esau. Esau, the older son, who willfully chose pagan wives, the son who was a sexually immoral and profane man, ”who sold his inheritance for a single meal”. (Heb. 12:16)
Observation #2: God has a long-standing-tradition of turning TRADITION upside down
In Matthew 15:9 , Jesus rebukes the religious leaders for “teaching as doctrine the traditions / commandments of men.” Rebekah clearly didn’t have an infatuation with “Tradition.” Primogeniture (the tradition which ensured special rights to her firstborn) did not prevent her from approving of God’s choice to give the inheritance blessing to her second-born son. For whatever reason, Isaac, the father of the twins, was intent on holding fast to tradition. He favoured his oldest son and set his heart on blessing his firstborn. But he was wrong and needs to be seen as going against what God had decreed!! Genesis 25- 27 reveals Isaac’s ongoing resistance thereby setting the stage for the necessity of Rebekah’s intervention.
Observation #3: The Providence of God is working on behalf of Jacob and Rebekah
It’s important to notice the subtle little clues that point to how God is providentially assisting Rebekah. Just like in the story of Esther, the author of the Genesis narrative strategically drops implicit clues which reveal how God is at work behind the scenes. A huge “providential” moment occurs in Genesis 27:5 when the narrative mentions “Rebekah was listening as Isaac spoke to Esau” about going out to kill some game. She hears the final instructions in Isaac’s plan as he determines to give the blessing to Esau. If Rebekah had not overheard Isaac’s words, this story would have unfolded quite differently so it’s important that we attribute this moment of “knowledge” as coming from God Himself. It confirmed to her that Isaac was still refusing to see Jacob as the son of God’s choosing. If she had been prone to giving Isaac “the benefit of the doubt”, this knowledge was a game changer and it immediately mobilized her into action.
Observation #4: Isaac the manipulator and Rebekah the facilitator
It’s important for the reader to recognize how it was actually Isaac who was trying to manipulate God’s blessing onto his favourite son. Even if Isaac was not aware of what God had spoken to Rebekah, he would have known about Esau’s wicked behaviour which would have been obvious to the whole community. Isaac’s favouritism had completely blinded him (in more ways than one) from seeing the truth. By the time we reach Genesis 27, Rebekah’s role of waiting, listening, and observing had come to its awaited end. Now it was time for her faith to take an active role of facilitating and overseeing the purposes of God by ensuring that the rightful recipient, of God’s choosing, received God’s blessing.
Observation #5: Biblical women of courage and valour were not afraid to take risks and get their hands dirty
As we follow Rebekah through Genesis 27: 5-13, as she dresses Jacob with the hairy skin of 2 young goats, it’s helpful to interpret her actions through the lenses of other OT stories like Abigail, Jael, Deborah, and Rahab. These are all unconventional women who did extraordinary things for God and His people. All of these women had undivided hearts. They knew what it meant to serve only ONE Master and to look beyond the faces of husbands, family, and society in order to listen to the voice of their King.
Observation #6: The name “Jacob” does not mean “deceiver”
It’s important to qualify the meaning of Jacob’s name, which means to “supplant, undermine, the heel.” Tradition has often dictated to us that Jacob’s name means “deceiver”, thereby implying what he and his mother did was wrong. However, once we can rightfully define his name beyond the label of “deceiver”, we are free to see the actual meaning: how God “supplanted” Esau with Jacob, how God “undermined” Isaac’s intent with Rebekah’s plan, and how the “heel” of Israel (Jacob) would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15).
Contrary to what tradition has taught us, nowhere is Jacob, or Rebekah, ever rebuked for doing what needed to be done. In fact, the very opposite is true (as will be seen in observation #7). The only accusatory definition of “deceiver” that seems to gets quoted and retweeted as “truth” are the words of a very angry and disappointed Isaac when he realizes that his dream of blessing Esau has come to naught: ”Trembling violently”, Isaac spits out these words with bitterness and defeat: “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” And notice that Isaac calls it “your” blessing….another reminder that after all is said and done, Isaac still doesn’t get it!
Observation #7: Rebekah’s greatest honour is given by the apostle Paul as he affirms her actions and claims her words as his own
It’s not until we read the New Testament version of Rebekah’s story that we can see how God’s plan has unfolded. Paul will help us connect the dots in order to see the dominant role Rebekah has played in accomplishing God’s purposes for Israel. Paul bathes her story with redemptive insights as the mystery is unveiled before our very eyes.
But before we jump to what Paul says about Rebekah, let’s look at what Rebekah says to Jacob when they are just about to execute the plan of securing the blessing from Isaac. Jacob asks his mother, (in 27:12), “What if my father touches me? I would appear to be tricking him and would bring down a curse on myself”.
But Rebekah responds by saying: ”My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say…”
Now listen to what Paul says in Romans 9:1-13, the passage directly connected to Genesis 27:13:
“For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.…”
Notice how Paul and Rebekah are both willing to take “the curse” for Israel. Do you see the connection? Paul is talking about Rebekah’s Jacob here!! It’s HER son, and Jacob’s people, who will inherit the blessings “of Israel”. Jacob’s name would be changed to ”Israel” and it would be from his lineage that the Saviour was born. Can you begin to understand why Rebekah was SO intentional in making sure the blessing went to Israel, and not to Esau?
When Paul takes on Rebekah’s language, wishing that he could be cursed so that Israel might be blessed, he is intentionally reaching back into Rebekah’s story. Here is a summary of what I believe his declaration would have sounded like to the New Covenant Community:
“I would have done exactly what Rebekah did. She knew what needed to be done and she did it!!! Courageously!! Sacrificially!! Lovingly!! If I had been in her shoes, knowing what she knew, I would have done anything to make sure that Jacob received God’s blessing. I, too, would have risked being cursed. She had the same love for Israel that I have. She had the same love that Jesus had when He took the curse for sinners upon the Cross. This was her finest moment! Rebekah was willing to be cursed so that her son would walk in God’s blessing. There is no greater love than this!!!”
And then Paul wraps up his accolades for Rebekah in verse 10 when he endearingly calls the twins “Rebekah’s children”. If Paul had wanted to rebuke her for her actions, or reprimand her for insubordination, this would have been the place to do it. But not so. Instead Paul sings her praises with every mention of Israel upon his lips.
Observation #8: Rebekah’s strong desire to see Jacob / Israel walk in God’s blessing
Returning to Genesis 27, there is one more significant detail in the narrative that demonstrates Rebekah’s protective oversight for the son whom God had chosen. Once again, as God’s “providence” would have it, Rebekah hears (from an unmentioned source) of Esau’s plans to kill Jacob as soon as Isaac dies. Rebekah shifts quickly into protective mode as she notifies Jacob that he is danger and must prepare to leave home.
Not only is Rebekah aware of Jacob’s physical danger but she is also aware of the spiritual dangers he will face if he remains. She takes her concerns to Isaac in 27: 46: “I’m disgusted with living because of these Hittite women. If Jacob takes a wife from among women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living.”
This was not an offhand comment made by a depressed and grumbling wife. Rather, these words reflect a holy hatred for the same behaviours that God hated. Her words reflect a zealous heart that yearned for Jacob to marry “in the Lord”, that he might choose a wife with a godly heritage so that the blessings and promises of God would NOT be hindered by disobedience and ungodliness.
As I reflect upon the amazing courage and spiritual leadership displayed by Rebekah throughout this story, I am convinced the church needs to read this story with new eyes. Our voices need to join with the apostle Paul in affirming Rebekah, not condemning her. Traditional interpretations must never have the final say!
Like Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, and Bonhoeffer, Rebekah has brought surprising clarity to what it means to live courageously, obediently, and radically as a woman who loves the Lord. She is a patient revolutionist who continues to inspire me to live for the glory of God alone.
We are grateful to CBE for giving us permission to republish this post. Find it at CBE here: Rebekah: The Guardian and Protector of Israel [Internet Archive link]