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B'resheet/Genesis 24:65 And she said to the servant, "Who is that man, the one walking in the field to meet us?" And the servant said, "He is my master." And she took the veil and she covered herself.
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Rivkah and the servant are just completing the long journey from Haran, across the top part of the fertile crescent and down almost the whole length of the Land from the Galil, below Be'er Sheva, to the Negev where Yitz'khak lived. Yitz'khak now lives alone, separated from his father after the trauma of the Akedah (The Binding of Isaac, chapter 22) and the death of his mother. Perhaps he often walks out in the fields in the evening, bearing the pain of his mourning as he meditates on just exactly what being the child of the promise means for him now. Transition and change are never comfortable. Perhaps the twilight suits his mood as he delays going back to the dark and now empty tent that Sarah his mother used to make home.
Rivkah, on the other hand, whose name means 'engaging' or 'captivating'1, is young, innocent and enthusiastic; consider the way she unhesitatingly says "I will go" (B'resheet 24:58) when asked by her mother and brother if she really wants to go with Avraham's servant right now rather than waiting for a while to get ready and say goodbye (vv. 55-57). She has left home, bringing nothing except a few clothes, some maids and her old nurse, and come all this way to meet her man, her husband, of whom no doubt the servant has been talking for most of the several week's journey. The commentators note that when she first sees Yitz'khak, she almost falls off her camel.
Nahum Sarna tells us that in the ANE, most wives "generally went about unveiled". He cites the example of Sarah in (12:14) to show that Israelite women were not normally veiled. "In Middle Assyrian law, wearing a veil is a mark of distinction and the prerogative of a free woman." He suggests that there is evidence that a bride was veiled as part of marriage ceremony - perhaps Rivkah veils herself as an unspoken signal to Yitz'khak that she is his bride. "In light of this," he suggests that "Rivkah's veiling herself has both symbolic and socio-legal significance." Chazal compare Rivkah at this point to Tamar, commenting that not only are they the only two women in the Hebrew Scriptures that veil themselves - Rivkah here and Tamar in, "and she covered herself with a veil" (38:14) - they are also the only two women recorded as giving birth to twins (B'resheet Rabbah 60:15).
TheSforno suggests that Rivkah was afraid to look directly at Yitz'khak, in the same way as Moshe who "hid his face" (Shemot 3:6) when he realised that G-d was speaking to him from the burning bush. Perhaps there was something in his face that bespoke holiness? Hirsch, after warning us not to see a stereotype in the veiling for "only then did she veil herself", explains that the root of the word for 'veil', is , which he says is probably related to , to withdraw into oneself, similar to to swallow up, and to withdraw from sight by covering up. Perhaps Rivkah was afraid of Yitz'khak and shrank back from immediate face-to-face contact by hiding herself in the veil.
Aviva Zornberg offers a more nuanced and personal interpretation:
What Rivkah sees in Yitz'khak is the vital anguish at the heart of his prayers, a remoteness from the sunlit world of hesed that she inhabits. Too abruptly, perhaps, she receives the shock of his world. Nothing mediates, nothing explains him to her. "Who is that man," she asks, fascinated, alienated. "What dialogue is possible between two who have met in such a way?" A fatal seepage of doubt and dread afflicts her, so that she can no longer meet him in the full energy of difference. She veils herself, obscures her light. He takes her and she irradiates the darkness of his mother's tent. She is, and is not, like his mother; through her, his sense of his mother's existence is healed. But the originating moment of their union is choreographed so that full dialogue will be impossible between them.2
The following chapters of narrative shows a number of barriers, differences and conflicts between Yitz'khak and Rivkah. They may have had children together, she may have made him a home, but their relationship seems uneasy at best, dysfunctional at worst. Zornberg wonders if the seeds of distrust and deceptions that are not to end until after Jacob dies in Egypt were given birth at this moment. The biblical text reveals this in several places: in the relationships with their children, "Yitz'khak loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rivkah loved Ya'akov" (B'resheet 25:28, ESV); in Rivkah's plotting against her husband over the blessing, "Rivkah said to her son Ya'akov, 'I heard your father speak to your brother Esau ...' Now therefore, my son, obey my voice as I command you ..." (27:6-8, ESV); and in Rivkah's manipulating Yitz'khak to save Ya'akov's life, "Then Rivkah said to Yitz'khak, 'I loathe my life because of the Hittite women. If Ya'akov marries one of the Hittite women like these, one of the women of the land, what good will my life be to me?'" (27:46, ESV).
Rivkah's question is asked again in Scripture. The prophet Isaiah asks, "Who is this who comes from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Bozrah, He who is splendid in His apparel, marching in the greatness of His strength?" He is not sure, perhaps frightened by the vision before him, but G-d replies, "It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save" (Isaiah 63:1, ESV). Why is G-d wearing red clothing? Because He has trodden the people in His winepress of wrath. He acted on His own to do what only He could do: "I looked, but there was no one to help; I was appalled, but there was no one to uphold; so My own arm brought Me salvation, and My wrath upheld Me" (v. 5, ESV). In His wrath, G-d is acting to save, to work salvation where no-one else could. The prophet and others, in spite of the salvation motif, are alarmed by G-d's appearance, His talk of wrath and judgement - they want Him to act, but are scared by what He might do! Revelation tells us how the kings of the earth, the rich and the rulers, will react when they see Yeshua revealed: "[they] hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb'" (Revelation 6:15-16, NASB).
Yeshua asks the same question in the synoptic gospels: "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" (Matthew 16:13, ESV); Mark's version has the question a little more directly; "Who do people say that I am?" (Mark 8:27, ESV). The disciples reply, "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets" (Matthew 16:14, ESV), although for Yeshua to be any of those would require resurrection as Luke's version makes explicit: "John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen" (Luke 9:19, ESV). Notice that they restrict themselves to answering just the question He has asked and no more; they don't offer their own opinion. But Yeshua insists on asking the question they don't want to answer: "But who do you say that I am?" (Matthew 16:15, ESV) - the Greek text for the question is the same in all three synoptic gospels. It is left to Peter to reply for all of them: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living G-d" (Matthew 16:16, ESV) and again Matthew gives us the fullest text, both Mark and Luke being shorter.
The question is how we react when we see Yeshua. Do we hide our face, withdrawing and trying to put a barrier between us? Or do we welcome Him, looking Him in the face and catching His eye? If we hide, then we are behaving like Adam and Eve did in the garden - "the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the L-RD G-d among the trees of the garden" (B'rehseet 3:8, ESV) - they were afraid because they knew that they had disobeyed G-d. John wrote, "If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced His perfect love" (1 John 4:18, NLT). Our sin is forgiven in Yeshua, through His death on the cross in our place, so why should we be afraid of Him? Only because of doubt, because we are not sure. John continues: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear" (ESV). When we know His love, there will be no fear.
1. - literally 'binding', from an unused Hebrew root that means "to bind, tie, fasten" in Arabic, so a rather apposite name for Yitz'khak!
2. - Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire - Reflections on Genesis, Three Leave Press, 1995, 0-385-48337-6, pages 142-143
Further Study: Zephaniah 3:14-17; Romans 8:15
Application: Can you look G-d square in the eye and not be afraid of Him and hide? If not, then you need to come to know Yeshua and experience His love and the forgiveness of sins that He offers to all who believe in Him and call on His name.
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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