Rebekah Reading from Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! By Johnathan Goldstein, Penguin Canada (March 31 2009)
No matter how many times he heard Rebekah tell the story of the great fight inside her belly, Jacob would get sucked right in. After all, he was its star.
“I think I remember a little,” he said. “There was light in there.”
“You remember,” Rebekah said. “You’re such a genius.”
His mother was always telling him that. If he drew an X in the sand it was more perfect than God’s creation. Made pottage without burning the pan—a hero.
Rebekah would explain, sometimes laughingly and sometimes not, what it felt like to have her belly pulled in opposite directions.
“It was like my lungs were wrestling. From the very beginning you two never got along. My name, Rebekah, means ‘she who binds’ and how I wished I could bind the two of you to keep you apart. [To keep you together.] I would rub my stomach to calm you. ‘My babies,’ I would say.
[But when they were alone, Rebekah would invite Jacob to come and sit with her] She would whisper in his ear: “It is you I love best.” He would look at his mother and it was like looking into the void. It was from where he sprang and sometimes it felt unnatural to be so close to the source of his own existence. But his mother loved him so much. She told him that Esau had come out first for no reason and that she didn’t want the big dumb universe making important decisions for her and him.
“But maybe it was God’s decision for Esau to come out first,” Jacob said.
Rebekah scrunched up her face. “Please,” she said.
During his adolescence, Esau went through this period where he decided that Rebekah would love him more if he wasn’t so hairy. So he cut and pulled the hair from his body.
Jacob walked in on him. Esau stood naked and shaking, fistfuls of hair clutched in his hands.
“The air feels so weird on my skin,” he said. There were patches of white flesh polka-dotting his body.
It got so bad that Isaac[, his father,] had to talk to him…
[Years passed and the divide between sons took its toll, the family falling apart at the seams of a hairy coat. The time came for Jacob to confront his mother.]
“Do you remember when I was a child and you told me that you liked me better than Esau? Why did you do that?”
“Because it was true.”
“But why did you think I needed to know this? Did you think it would make me happy?”
“I guess I wasn’t a very good mother,” she said, her hands twisting up.
“You were a very good mother,” he said, backing off.
“I couldn’t help it. I tried my best.”
“It was different back then. I see how modern mothers are now. I didn’t know any better.”
Jacob sat in silence, thinking about his brother. Before he left, his mother hugged him tightly. She looked at his face.
“I love you more than life itself,” she said.
“Ma, please. Why do you have to tell me these things?”
“I just want you to be happy,” she wept, her whole body shaking.
If you’re not yelling at your kids…
…you’re not spending enough time with them.
Did you know, it turns out when you’re asked, who your favourite child is,
you’re supposed to pick your own?
I’m not going to say that parenting is difficult – any more than varied journeys of life as we wind our way through hopes and heartaches, dreams and disappointment. But mothers feature prominently in the Bible in a way that it’s difficult to ignore. From Eve’s helpless exclusion amidst the turmoil of her sons Cain and Abel, to Sarah’s inclusion in the covenant with Abraham, the role of motherhood returns again and again throughout the story of faith. The biological, adopted/chosen, historical relationships that tie one generation to the next was significant enough to those that came before us that it became a commandment (which Paul describes in Ephesians 2):
The commandment Honor your father and mother is the first one with a promise attached: 3 so that things will go well for you, and you will live for a long time in the land. 4 As for parents, don’t provoke your children to anger, but raise them with discipline and instruction about the Lord. (Ephesians 2:1-4, CEB)
Other than Mary, mother of Jesus, we rarely spend enough time with Biblical mothers to get a sense of who they are. And while Sarah and Abraham, the story of the angels and laughing, get more airplay than Isaac and Rebekah even though their courtship (in Genesis 24) is actually the longest chapter in the Book of Genesis…emphasiz[ing] the importance of their [story]. Their uniting aside, it’s the story of Rebekah as a mother – and a flawed one at that – that Johnathan Goldstein captures in our reading for today.
For just as many of us had good upbringings, there are just as many that suffered at the hand of flawed parents, as Philip Larkin reminds us in This be the Verse (with slightly adapted words)
They [mess] you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were [messed] up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
But the wisdom to not have any kids yourself is not why Rebekah (and Isaac for that matter) are portrayed as flawed people. Instead I think it’s in their flaws that we’re much more likely to see ourselves. For even from the get-go, Rebekah knew that her parenting would be an uphill climb. The boys fought inside her, vying for attention, and
in apparent agony she became anxious and went “to inquire of the Lord (Gen 25:22).”This phrase is of great importance in the Old Testament. Only the great prophets like Moses and Elisha and the greatest kings of Israel inquire of the Lord. . . . Rebekah inquires and, as a result, receives the oracle from Yahweh which destines her younger son to rule the older.”
This oracle affirms two things. In spite of what would transpire later, God responded to her cry of help (a powerful testament to God’s love and grace), and secondly, what comes later is not Rebekah’s fault. She’s following God’s lead. God has declared that Jacob, the younger, would rule over the older, and while Esau was born first and Isaac’s favourite, Rebekah followed this oracle of God to raise Jacob as her (and God’s?) favourite.
Isaac always accused Rebekah of having a favorite child.
And she’d vehemently deny it, saying she loved Jacob, and Not-Jacob, equally!
That kind of favouritism can wreck a family, as it was said once that all parents have a favourite child, and if they say they don’t, it’s probably not you. It’s human nature to make choices, and it takes deliberate action to balance that display of love. But Rebekah, be it because of God’s declaration or her love of the ‘runt’ of their litter, she cannot help but love Jacob more. And we on the outside see the consequences of that choice. She inadvertently fans the flames of antagonism between the boys. The tie that binds the family together falls apart, revealing how flawed she is. She’s not the perfect parent. But don’t get me wrong – I believe like D.W. Winnicott, a psychoanalyst and pediatrician who said that
beyond meeting their basic needs, [a child’s] emotional growth and ability to cope with life’s frustrations is improved by small failures and them knowing you make mistakes. It’s useful for [a child] to realize that life can be hard sometimes and nothing is really perfect.
Esau and all those who suffered at the hands of Rebekah-like parents know those small or large failures all too well. Yet Esau would go onto lead the Edomites, hopefully inspiring and loving them better than he himself ways. Small failures might improve a child’s life, but bigger ones not so much.
It was the end of the school year when my four year old asked his teacher to spell the world ‘llama.’ I happened to be right beside him at that moment, and (maybe I shouldn’t have, but I pointed out that) the teacher had made a mistake – he misspelled it – missing the double ‘l.’ As his teacher’s imperfections dawned on him, with big Disney-like doe-eyes he looked at me and asked ‘Do you ever make a mistake Dad?’ Thinking of Rebekah and her flawed parenting, I of course said yes, while thinking to myself, ‘Clearly he’s not paid enough attention for the last four years of his life.’ Thank God for that. There’s so much grace in a four year old.
“This is how it always is. You have to make these huge decisions on behalf of your kid, this tiny human whose fate and future is entirely in your hands. Who trusts you to know what’s good and right and then to be able to make that happen. You never have enough information. You don’t get to see the future. And if you screw up – if with your incomplete contradictory information you make the wrong call – nothing less than your child’s entire future and happiness is at stake. It’s impossible. It’s heartbreaking. It’s maddening. But there’s no alternative.”
And sometimes we get it wrong. We mess up the next generation just as our parents were messed up before them. Whether we’re teachers, or parents, or pewmates at church, that connection from one generation to the next is full of flawed people, but clearly God wouldn’t want it any other way. Rebekah is flawed in the same way that I’m flawed in the same way that you’re flawed. We are imperfect but beautifully human beings working out our salvation with fear and trembling as we stand before God, the parent of all creation, who unlike humans manages to not play favourites.
As the boys grow, and the parents age, Rebekah helps Jacob receive the family blessing, the inheritance that rightfully would have been Esau’s, which gives her more labels than just flawed, prompting
many a scholar to characterize Rebekah as a trickster, a scheming wife, or a deceiver. Other feminist interpretations of the incident focus on her determination to carry out God’s revealed will as to which son should inherit the promise…[Instead] Rebekah [stands as] a model of feminine subversion to familial patriarchal traditions…
This sobering reality of Rebekah’s inability to enact blessings herself or to explode the boundaries of patriarchy does not, however, render her powerless. She might not shatter boundaries, but she does challenge them as she inserts herself into “men’s business,” and [we] can find inspiration in her confidence and ingenuity as she does so. Rebekah therefore stands as an important model–a woman who acts with courage and confidence as she refuses to be sidelined and silenced by patriarchal familial expectations. As Furman comments in her analysis of this episode, “[Her] interference breaks up the exclusive father-son dialogue and forces recognition of [her] presence.”
Even flawed, God’s purpose for Rebekah is revealed as she challenges the systems that would prevent future generations of people to experience the blessings of God.
May we trust, no matter how easy it is to see our own flaws, that the God of life enables each of us to love, imperfect as it may be. And as we grow, may we learn to forgive the generation that has come before, as I pray that Jacob and Esau might have, as Rebekah and Isaac before them.
And may the grace of God cover the multitude of sins left in our wake, as we strive to live into the hopes that God has for each one of us.