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By Nahum Sarna

The biblical matriarch Rebekah (Heb. רִבְקָה) was the wife of Isaac and the mother of Jacob. She was the daughter of Bethuel, and granddaughter of Nahor, a brother of Abraham (Gen. 22:2324:152447). Rebekah is also described as the sister of Laban (24:295025:20). When Abraham sought a wife for his son, he sent his servant to his homeland, Aram-Naharaim, for he wanted to avoid marriage with the Canaanites. The episode is described in detail in Genesis 24, which makes clear the providential nature of the union of Isaac with Rebekah (verses 7, 14, 27, 48, 50).

When Abraham wanted to find a wife for Isaac, he sent his servant to his hometown of Aram-Naharaim. The servant came to a spring and prayed to God. He proposed a sign — the first woman to give water to both him and his camels would be the one who would be right for Isaac. Immediately, Rebekah approached him, and when he asked for a drink, she ran to the spring and brought water for both him and his camels. The servant went with Rebekah to her house, where he received permission from her father and her brother,  Laban, to take Rebekah to Canaan as a wife for Isaac. Isaac married Rebekah when he was 40 years old (25:20); Rebekah’s age is not recorded. According to Genesis, he was only comforted after his mother’s death when he married Rebekah and took her into his mother’s tent.

The text provides an insight into Rebekah’s character by stressing her hospitality to strangers and her kindness to animals (verses 14, 18, 20), as well as her beauty and chastity (24:1626:7). That she is willing to expend considerable energy on watering camels is a testament to her virtue. The same feature may reflect an eighth-century B.C.E. date for the origin of this element of the tradition. On one occasion, Isaac felt that his life was in danger because of Rebekah’s great beauty, and he felt constrained to claim that she was his sister (26:6–11).

Rebekah was barren for 20 years until, in divine response to her husband’s prayers, she became pregnant with twins. During the difficult pregnancy, she received an oracle about the future relationships between, and destinies of, her unborn children (25:21–26). He answered that her two sons would become two nations, and the older would serve the younger. She gave birth and named the firstborn twin Esau and the second Jacob. Possibly because of the prophecy, Rebekah favored Jacob (25:28).

At one point, there was a famine in Canaan, and Isaac went to Abimelech, king of the Philistines in Gerar, to find food. Rebekah was beautiful, and Isaac was scared to tell the people there she was his wife. Instead, he claimed she was his sister. After some time, Abimelech saw them together and confronted Isaac, who admitted that he had been scared to tell anyone that Rebekah was his wife. Abimelech then proclaimed to the people that anyone who hurt Isaac or Rebekah would be put to death.

When Isaac was old, he instructed Esau to hunt and prepare a meal, and then Isaac would bless him. Rebekah overheard this and told Jacob to pretend he was Esau in order to receive the blessing. Rebekah prepared a dish for Isaac, clothed Jacob in Esau’s clothes, and covered his hands and neck with skins so he would feel as hairy as his brother. The plan worked, and Jacob received the blessing from Isaac. When Esau realized what happened, he planned to kill his brother. Rebekah found out and advised Jacob to run to her brother Laban’s house in Haran until Esau got over his anger (Gen. 27), using as a pretext her bitterness and disgust over Esau’s marriage to local women and her determination that Jacob marry within the family (26:34–3527:4628:1).

The Bible does not write when Rebekah died, but only that she was buried in the Cave of Machpelah together with the Patriarchs and Sarah and Leah (49:31).


Noth, Personennamen. 10; H. Bauer, in: ZDMG, 67 (1913), 344; idem, in: ZAW, 48 (1930), 78.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Genesis, The Jewish Publication Society’s translation, (New York: 1985).