Isaac and Rebekah seemed to have a happy and healthy functional marriage. While it is never overtly stated in the text, the implication is that the two love one another. However, despite what one assumes is a fairly active sex life, Rebekah is unable to conceive and they do not create a child during Rebekah's childbearing years. She passes into old age, which makes one believe that she will never be able to conceive, making her conception of Esau and Jacob even more extraordinary.
Furthermore, though her mother-in-law Sarah also experienced barrenness, she did not have the same tension about conception as Rebekah. Sarah always had God's favor; she was a major component of God's plan for Abraham. Therefore, there was some understanding that she would eventually have a child to continue the nation of Israel. In contrast, Rebekah was not considered an essential part of Isaac's story. As a result, her barrenness could have been symbolic of God being displeased with her. It was consistently assumed during that time period that infertility was because a woman was barren and was not linked to the male.
Furthermore, while other matriarchs who experienced barrenness were considered favored once they conceived, Rebekah was not. In contrast, she had a troubled pregnancy. The constant movement and apparent discord inside of her led her to conclude that the babies were already fighting. She actually complained about the pregnancy, which differentiated her from other miraculously pregnant women in the Bible. She was in enough distress that she went directly to God, and she received her own message from God about her children.
Another way Rebekah's pregnancy was different from other matriarchs is that she did not know the importance of her pregnancy prior to conception. Many of the matriarchs received messages from God prior to conceiving. However, Rebekah received her message from God after she became pregnant. This is an interesting difference because Rebekah's pregnancy was important, not only for Isaac, but for the future of the nation of Israel. Moreover, that importance would not conclude with the end of her pregnancy, but would depend upon her interventions and maneuvering to make sure that the divinely-judged correct child received his father's blessing.
Rebekah's Treatment of Jacob and Esau
One of the most difficult subjects surrounding Rebekah is reconciling her treatment of Esau with the notion of a good mother. While she clearly went out of her way to ensure good things for Jacob, which is how people believe mothers should behave, but, in doing so, she treated Esau horribly. She deprived her older son, Esau, of his birthright through an intentional fraud that she engaged on her husband. However, she did this, not simply because she favored Jacob, but because she had been told by God that Jacob would take Esau's place. Therefore, Rebekah was willing to defy convention and act in a way that may have appeared immoral; she was furthering the nation of Israel.
How can one reconcile the mistreatment of Esau with Rebekah being a good woman? The tradition has been to depict Esau as a horrible man, so that Rebekah is justified in her treatment of him. However, this belies the truth that women frequently have a favorite child and that those feelings may not be motivated by any wrongdoing on the part of the disfavored child. In fact, some even argue that the Biblical depiction of Esau and his cruelty are exaggerations that serve to bolster Jacob's role as the chosen one, rather than an actual condemnation of Esau who, objectively, was probably not the potential threat to Israel that he has been portrayed to be. Instead, it seems clear that the stories about Esau are not really to explain why God preferred Isaac, after all God had a history of favoring certain men. Instead, it seems clear that, "All this was written to build a wall around Jacob that the virtue of no other tribe could scale. It was written to make reasonable and sympathetic Rebekah's favoring of one child over the other."
However, these explanations are unnecessary; Rebekah's favoritism of Jacob over Esau was not an act of rebellion or her condemnation of her older son. Instead, Rebekah's unequal treatment of Jacob was directly related to the Lord instructing her that Jacob would vanquish Esau. "Rebekah's favored Jacob because the nation was still forming and it needed one leader, one story, one hero, to carry forward the tale."
Furthermore, Rebekah's apparent strength and dominance may be very important. Although Isaac was the patriarch of the family, Rebekah was the one who ensured that the appropriate son received Isaac's blessing and was, therefore, capable of carrying on the nation of Israel. She engaged in a very active deceit when she did so. She helped Jacob disguise himself as Esau, and then prepared the meal that Isaac requested from Esau, so that Jacob could receive his blessing.
She had no fear in breaking with tradition if breaking with tradition was required to fulfill God's requirements. Furthermore, their special relationship was not simply one-way; Jacob showed his mother more respect than he showed his father, which represented a break with tradition. When Jacob when to Mesopotamia to find a wife, he identified himself to Rachel as Rebekah's son. To him, his relationship to Rebekah was more important, at least in this context, than his relationship to Isaac.
This was considered important by later commentators because it differed so significantly from history up to that point. However, while it broke with history up to that point, it is important to realize it may have also indicated an underlying shift in cultural tradition, because modern Judaism is somewhat matrilineal, reflecting the importance of the mother.
Furthermore, Rebekah's treatment of Esau is easy to condemn because she is described as helping deprive him of his birthright. However, the descriptions of Esau suggest a man who is much more comfortable in the field than in a leadership role. Is it so easy to conclude that Rebekah mistreated her oldest son? The reality is that being a mother involves difficult choices, and no mother can treat her children equally. Instead, the goal for mothers is to treat children fairly, rather than equally, and consider the individual needs of the individual child when making decisions. If Esau was not suited to being the leader of Israel, it was not only important for Israel that Jacob receive the blessing, but also important to Esau.
Rebekah and Deception
In many ways, Rebekah may be one of the most deceptive people, male or female, described in the Bible. This is an interesting scenario, given that she played such a critical role in the continuation of Israel. Cultural convictions dictated that Esau would take Isaac's place as the leader of the Israelites, because he was the firstborn son, but Isaac had to transmit that through his blessing. Rebekah could have chosen to intervene with her husband, explain what God had told her, and convince Isaac to pass the birthright to Jacob rather than Esau instead of engaging in deception. However, she did not. Instead, Rebekah actively subverted convention to ensure that Jacob would receive the blessing. To do so, Rebekah engaged in behavior that cannot be considered anything other than dishonest. First, she deceived her husband, which would have been considered shameful, if not actually sinful during that time period. Second, she involved her child in that deception, helping one son cheat the other son. To understand the level of deception, one must look at her specific actions. Rebekah dressed Jacob in skins to approximate his brother's hairy visage. When that seemed insufficient to fool Isaac, Rebekah went further and actually coached Jacob on how to best deceive Isaac.
However, it is also important to realize that, in the story, there is significant evidence that Esau does not value his birthright. He is said to have literally traded his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup. While "the pottage story is clearly a tradition that retrospectively reconstructs the political domination of Israel/Judah (Jacob) over Edom (Esau).
While the story may not be literal, it certainly suggests that Jacob was a participant in his mother's plans, not a victim.
While it would be easy to dismiss Rebekah as a liar or a cheat, this would be an oversimplification of Rebekah's role in the Bible. It is important to keep in mind that Rebekah believed that she was fulfilling God's destiny for Israel, a belief that has to be shared by any person giving a literal reading to the Old Testament stories surrounding her. While she may have been defying social conventions and deceiving her husband, Rebekah truly felt as if she were working for God, and to have ignored Him in order to show obedience to her husband would have been far more deceitful and immoral. Furthermore, some scholars suggest whether Isaac was actually deceived by the ruse. Isaac was himself a trickster; did he…