The Servant

Until now we have focused on people with their own agenda surrounding Abraham.  Now let us look at the person who is perhaps closest to Abraham himself:  His trusted servant, the butler.

Part I – The Biblical Text

His Name:

We hear about Eliezer in 15:2.  Who is he?  Why does Abraham assume that he will inherit?

Finding The Wife:

This is undoubtedly the servant’s greatest hour.  The last important task left for Abraham is to marry off Isaac, to ensure that the promise of a great nation can come true.  Abraham chooses to send his servant on this assignment.  Let’s study how the servant handles the situation.

The Assignment 24:1-9

Who is the servant chosen for this task?

Note that no name is given.  Why are we not given that information regarding this very important person who has a fairly long part in the narrative?

Why is the oath taken by placing a hand under the thigh?

Why do you think that Abraham insists that Isaac not marry a local woman “of the daughters of the Canaanites”?

What question does the servant need to clarify with Abraham?

Based on all this information: What are Abraham’s criteria for Isaac’s wife?

How Does One Find A Wife? 24:10-14

The servant heads to Abraham’s Old Country with 10 camels. This caravan has advantages and disadvantages.  What might they be?

Where does the servant go in the town to find the proper woman?

Unlike what we might have thought about fetching water, it seems to have been a job fulfilled by women in the book of Bereshit, whether for the household or for the herds.  The result must have been frequent contact with strangers coming through town.  These girls were apparently not shielded by their families, hidden in the house.

The servant sets up a test to find the appropriate woman (after all, Abraham left all the details to him.)  What is the logic behind the criteria that he chooses?

Enter Rebecca 24:15-27

The reader is informed from the start about the identity of the beautiful girl who will give water to both the servant and his camels.  The servant does not know who she is until he asks.  Let’s take a look at the experience the servant has:

Did the servant expect the girl to agree to the request?

When you are a stranger, is it obvious to you that a local person will share their resources freely with you, asking for nothing in return, and do the heavy labor involved in procuring the water?

The servant had stipulated that the right girl would say ‘drink, and I will also water your camels.’  But was that what happened with Rebecca?

Try to picture in your mind how this would look if acted out in a play.  Why does Rebecca not promise from the beginning to provide water for both the servant and his camels?

Read vv.22-23:

What is surprising in the order of events in these verses?

How do you explain the servant’s behavior here?

In vv. 24-25 Rebecca is introduced twice as the speaker (“and she said…and she said….”) in normal speech there is no need for this kind of opening for every sentence when the speaker has not changed.  Why does the Torah separate Rebecca’s speech into 2 replies?

She may reply in an orderly fashion to 2 questions.  Or something might have interrupted the speech.  We only have verbal responses recorded, but it might well have been a non verbal reaction from servant that interrupted Rebecca’s speech.  Read v.24 again and think:  How might the servant have reacted to Rebecca’s words here?

Finally, the recorded reaction of the servant:  His response is to God.  Now look at the words he utters.  How does he perceive himself in this episode? 

What do you think is his relationship with God?

Meet The Family: 24:28-32

Rebecca informs her mother’s home about what happened.  How should we understand this?

Was it just a matter of a girl sharing an exciting event with her mother, or is this (as my grandmother, an anthropologist, thought) a reflection of a less patriarchal society?  In favor of the latter is Rebecca’s style:  She makes decisions both for herself and, later, for her son, Jacob.

Read vv.29-31 carefully.  Lavan, Rebecca’s brother, welcomes in the man (does he know he is a servant?)  Reading the event carefully, we are struck by the order of things:  He runs, he sees the gold and hears Rebecca’s story, he speaks to the man.  How do you understand the logic in this order, or can you offer a different reading of the event?

Lavan calls the servant “blessed by the LORD”.  What might this tell us about Lavan?

Here we have a window into Abraham’s family (that we looked at in class 1.)  Is Lavan also a believer in Abraham’s God?  Or does he know enough about Uncle Abraham to know that he believed in a God by that name and was willing to travel the world over for Him? Or could you suggest a different reading?

The Speech:  24:33-49

The servant’s speech is very well thought out.  Let us consider it from two points of view:  How he convinces the family to agree to marry Rebecca to Isaac, and what does the speech teach us about him.

How to convince the family to allow Rebecca to marry Isaac?

He is very blunt.  Abraham is rich, his wife bore him only one child, and that after the time when we would have expected any, (so there are not likely to be any other heirs to the fortune. ) Abraham wants a wife from his family.  And, she must have been sent by God with whom the servant consulted, since she matched the signs. (There are parts of this summery that you might have read differently.  I would be interested to see your understanding.)

Note that sharing the story of how he found Rebecca (vv.45-47) the servant changes the story a bit.  What is the change and why might he have changed it?

Why does the servant speak about the LORD sending him on the true path to get Rebecca?

What do we learn about the servant?

Pay attention to how he thinks of himself and presents himself to the family. What is the place of Abraham, his son, and his God in the speech of the servant?  Do we get the sense that he represents Abraham or is he more interested in his own glory?

Closing: 24:50-66

Pay close attention to what titles people have, they are a reflection of their role in the story and the manner in which the environment views them.  When is the servant called ‘a man,’ and when is he a ‘servant’?  Pay attention to the manner in which he speaks about Isaac to Rebecca, who has not yet met her husband-to-be.

After studying this story:  What does the choice of servant/trusted right-hand man tell us about Abraham?

Part II – Other Sources:

1. Give and ask, or: Ask and give?

Rashi Gen 24:23

רשי בראשית פרק כד פסוק כג 

ויאמר בת מי את – לאחר שנתן לה שאלה, לפי שהיה בטוח בזכותו של אברהם שהצליח הקב”ה דרכו:

And he said,”Whose daughter are you? He asked her this after giving her [the gifts] because he was confident that in the merit of Abraham, the Holy One, blessed be He, had caused his way to succeed.

Rashi noticed the odd behavior of the servant who first heaps gold (presumably gifts for the bride) on the nice girl he met, and only afterwards asks for her name. How does Rashi understand the reasoning of the servant?

Rashbam Gen 24:22

רשבם בראשית פרק כד פסוק כב 

ויקח האיש נזם זהב – יש לומר שאחר ששאל לה בת מי את, נתן לה, כמו שכתוב לפנינו בסיפור דבריו. אלא שלא להפסיק סדר דבריו ותשובת דבריה, לכן הקדים מעשה נתינתו שנתן לה:

And the man took a golden nose-ring – It should say that after he asked her “whose daughter are you?” he gave her, as he says when he tells his story (v.47).  But in order not to interrupt the order of his words and her answers, so it pre-told the giving that he gave her.

(Rashbam= R. Shmuel ben Meir.  He was Rashi’s grandson and student.)

You are witnessing an argument in the Beit Midrash (the study hall.)  Each of these commentators has a reason for choosing his reading, and they came to 2 opposing understandings of what happened.

Try to understand what (in the text) pushed each of them to the understanding that he reached.

What image of the servant emerges from each reading?

Rashi Gen 24:47

רשי בראשית פרק כד פסוק מז  

ואשאלואשים – שנה הסדר, שהרי הוא תחלה נתן ואחר כך שאל. אלא, שלא יתפשוהו בדבריו ויאמרו: ‘היאך נתת לה, ועדיין אינך יודע מי היא?’

And I asked…and I placed: He reversed the sequence of events, because, in fact, he had first given [her the jewelry] and then asked [about her family]. But [he changed the order] lest they catch him in his words and say,“How did you give her [the jewelry] when you did not yet know who she was?”

Rashi is forced to solve a problem that Rashbam already solved in his comment.

What is the problem?  How does he solve it?

Why would it be a bad idea for the servant to tell Rebecca’s family that he gave her the gifts prior to knowing who she was?

Which reading do you like better?  Why?

2. The identity of the servant:

It seems a bit strange that this servant, who plays such a central role in the story, remains nameless.  The Midrash, in good Midrash tradition, identified him.  He must have been Eliezer, the servant that Abraham thought would be his heir (see Bereshit 15:2.)  Rashi brings the Midrash:     (I like Rashi’s phrasing of the Midrash better than the version in Bereshit Rabba 59.)

Rashi Gen 24:39

רשי בראשית פרק כד פסוק לט 

אלי לא תלך האשה אלי כתיב. בת היתה לו לאליעזר, והיה מחזר למצוא עילה שיאמר לו אברהם לפנות אליו להשיאו בתו, אמר לו אברהם בני ברוך ואתה ארור, ואין ארור מדבק בברוך:

Perhaps the woman will not follow me: It [the word אֻלַי (perhaps)] is written [without a“vav” and may be read] אֵלַי (to me). Eliezer had a daughter, and he was looking for a pretext so that Abraham would tell him, to turn to him, to marry his daughter to him (Isaac). Abraham said to him, “My son is blessed, and you are cursed [Eliezer was a descendant of Canaan who had been cursed by Noah to be a slave/servant (9:27)], and an accursed one will not unite with a blessed one.”

What difficulty is Rashi trying to solve with this comment?

Avoiding giving the identity of the servant raises not only the question of who he was, but also why the identity is concealed. Here is a suggestion:  The servant has his own agenda on this issue of Isaac’s marriage (a likely possibility, even if the conflict is different than that suggested by the Midrash.)  How did he manage the task of finding a wife per Abraham’s orders?  Were his personal preferences getting in the way?  Was he able to carry out the task as a true messenger of Abraham without a personal agenda?  Being mentioned solely as Abraham’s servant might suggest how he approached this task.

End of Course, Go Back To Descriptions