Steve Apfel
Steve ApfelINN:SA

Based on midrashic sources

Rebecca’s father goes out to look for her carer, in the blazing Charan sun and the bleaching dust. A few storks observe him from the gutter with sloppy indifference: they are heavy from picking at carrion. He cuts at a bird with an ivory- topped cane. From boyhood Betuel had an impulse to kill any living creature, as though he alone had the right to a natural death. The truth is – and he’s not liked more for it – the idea of killing is solely in his mind.

In fact the ruler of the principality takes fright at creatures big and small. The stork rears up and flaps across the town, over the uneven plaza with the ruler’s weather eaten bust; over the souk dotted with flamingo and mango trees; over the graves of Charan notables who went down with blackwater or cholera; over a barren belt dotted with family altars and temples; onto the winding murky Tigris.

A bearer, propped against a wall, dozes in a bit of shade. 'The devil take her’, he says. ‘What’s become of the nursemaid? I need my daughter.’

The boy gets up in no hurry. ‘They, my lord, are at the well with everyone.’

‘What are you telling me boy – Rebecca at the well? I haven’t enough servants? My three-year old needs go and draw water. Fetch them back if you don’t want your kidneys grilled for dinner.’

The bearer is not unhappy. Gossip of a caravan, of gold and precious trinkets, swept through Charan faster than a plague. Folk have flocked to the main well. Open miracles involving water and human strength have a multitude in raptures. The lad can hardly believe the sight. He stands on tiptoe to peek over the crowd. The well has turned into a gushing spring. Where a depression had been was now a lake. Farmhands and tradeswomen lifting their skirts wade ankle deep.

But the main attraction is the energized maiden. Rebecca goes back and forth with her jug to fill a trough on the high ground where ten camels slake their thirst. The crowd is aghast at the ruler’s daughter exerting herself for a camel owner, tall and robust with biceps like the trunks of a tree, standing idly by. Rebecca is not only watering camels; the giant glugs water from her proffered jug.

“Look you,” a toothless hag points, “the brute is too lazy to pitch water and drink. He stoops so the girl can pour it through that big maw. Have you ever?”

What makes the commoners incredulous, casts a cloud on the brother. Laban was bathing when his valet told of a caravan at the well. He skimmed Rebecca’s carved sea serpent across the sudsy bath water, stepped out the tub, threw on a loose garment, and hurried down to kill and to rob. The son of Betuel had to alter the plan when he saw the bulk of his prey. ‘The brute,’ he thinks, ‘will have to be done away with by other means.’ He pushes through the idle and the curious to hail his baby sister.

“Rebecca, what do you think you’re doing… His eyes have fixed on heavy bangles on the little arms.

The girl catches her breath. Then rattles off names: Eliezer from Canaan. Uncle Abraham. Cousin Isaac. ‘So you know him by name already.’ Deeply ashamed she confesses her invitation: the whole caravan will be quartered at the palace. Laban’s sniggering laugh.

‘Ten camels, the drivers and a replica of Og. Am I allowed to know who and what your Eliezer may be?’

Bright with her mistake Rebecca adjusts her adornments. ‘Our uncle’s head servant has come on a great errand.’

Laban with a slow smile: ‘Has he now. Abraham, eh. I wonder how you got mixed up with the servant. He comes with a missive I suppose?’ Then he bursts out, ‘Look at you, girl! It’s beyond everything – a grown man slipping costly gifts on a child he happens upon at a public well.’ Roughly he fingers the bangles the way a money lender weighs up security.

Eliezer observes the bullying, and hurries up. For a moment anything looks possible.

‘A sister, your honor?’ Courtesy catches the bully off guard. A pause for Laban to snub him, then: ‘Rebecca, dear sir, happens to be a granddaughter of your master’s brother. I, have the honor to be the grandson.’

‘Nahor?’ Eliezer towers over him.

‘Unless Abraham has another brother.’ They weigh each another. ‘What menace the man does breath,’ Eliezer thinks.

‘Your master sent a note? Look – I am not abrupt for nothing. You see gifting young girls we happen upon is not the way menfolk behave. Not in our parts.’

Eliezer with all the coolness in the world: ‘If, young sir, you’ll allow me, I will fetch my pouch of documents.’

While he is gone Laban warns her. ‘I don’t trust him much. Old Abraham, I’m told, gives his household free rein. There’s talk of him being decrepit and imbecilic. Anyhow, wait to see what the slave comes up with.’

The deed is worth reading aloud. Laban reads it with a relish that forms bubbles at the corners of a small mouth petulant from the moment it bawled out the womb. ‘Eliezer is my head servant. He took a vow to find a wife for Isaac, heir to my physical and spiritual estate. She must come from immediate family. Failing this (Laban looks up at his sibling) I shall look for a wife among the daughters of my older son Ishmael.”

‘There.’ Eliezer points a finger at the end to the seal of Abraham; but Laban is fawning. ‘You, sir, are blessed to serve a man as great as our uncle.’ He turns the invitation into an order. Eliezer is not quick to acceept. Laban for all his youth and idleness, is quick of mind. ‘Every trace of idolatry, sir, Rebecca our little angel shall witness it, will be exorcised.’

So the gay party wound its way to the family seat where Laban takes over arrangements to receive the entourage. Eliezer won’t let the camels be unmuzzled until the inner gates. From the time when nephew Lot and Abraham farmed together, he had learnt to muzzle on the move, to stop their animals grazing on land own by others. Indeed, he has been taught to regard quadrupeds – and all that are warm-blooded – as creatures with souls, good or bad. Beasts of the field or ships of the desert, he’s learnt, are not the blameless habitual browsers as commonly thought.

A tale of a pious man, a travelling Israelite, and his donkey instructed the servant of Abraham. When some innkeeper brought barley for the donkey it refused to eat. He carefully sifted it, still the beast was steadfast. Mystified how it could be so finicky, the innkeeper asked the owner who asked him back, ‘Did you tithe your barley?’ The other laughed, but to humor the guest he separated a tenth. Only then the donkey ate everything set before it.

Or take another donkey stolen by thieves. They kept it in their cave for three days, and not a nibble would it take of the feed they gave it. Thieves, the animal sensed, could not be trusted to tithe, and further, could have stolen the feed, and one is forbidden to benefit from stolen goods. ‘The stupid thing will die and stink up our cave,’ said the felons. ‘Since we can’t get use from it, let it go.’ The donkey returned to the owner and brayed at the door. He put it in the stall, and ordered the stable lad to feed it. Still the starving animal would eat not a grain. ‘Did you tithe this?’ the owner asked the boy. ‘Of course,’ he replied. He had a thought. ‘From where was the grain acquired?’ Bought from peasants. ‘Ah, says the owner, ‘they probably neglected to separate. I know my donkey – very strict on itself.’

For those who insist that the animal kingdom is ruled by habit, they must ask: Why did the Divine flood-bringer punish animals along with Man? Would a God of Justice let habit-ruled beasts perish for doing what comes naturally? Yet He decreed they share the fate of man. The animal kingdom had acquired the same perverted habits. In Noah’s time sexual license knew no boundaries. The four-legged were as bad as the two legged; they crossed the line between species. Lion mated with giraffe, monkey with zebra, crocodile with hippo. So wild animals went to the same watery fate as wild humans …Explaining why Eliezer, who knew the stupefying ways of God, took every precaution to keep his camels idol-free in that den of Abraham’s kith and kin.

That evening the family and guests assembled in the banqueting room. The chandeliers were ablaze. A row of colored tapers shone a welcome above the main doorway, from which a length of carpeting formed a walkway to the long table festooned with the blue, white and emerald colors of the Principality of Charan Naharayim. At everyone’s place a handsome menu card was propped.

‘It is so like the grand house of Abraham, don’t you think?” Betuel gloats. Eliezer casts an eye down the menu:

Imperial banquet to welcome the Bargaining Council for Abraham

10th of Sivan

Menu of Foods

Potage from lentils

Spiced turkey

Roasted young goose

Hot sheep and onions

Sweet baked puddings

Imperious at the head, Betuel treats the guest of honor royally. There is a thrill of expectation. If little Rebecca was worth heavy gold bangles, what will Abraham’s agent fetch out of the five bags for her father, mother and brother? The ruler dribbles into his beard. Rebecca, after her epic feats at the well, sits with composure. Impatient to come to the gifts, Betuel tells the guest, who has dressed in a robe fit for royalty, that he has no problem with the match.

“Look at my little one squirming in her seat – eh, Rebecca? Tell father you are not floating like a swan at becoming a daughter of Abraham.”

‘You must think yourself lucky,’ the cocky brother tells her. Meanwhile Betuel is nagged by a problem. If he fails to exercise his ruler's privilege of bedding a bride before the husband, his subjects will object to a double standard. ‘See how it is – one rule for us and another for Betuel. He must have his daughter for the night, exactly as he does with our daughters.’ His subjects would say that.

Laban, blessed with wiles beyond his years, had foreseen the problem – explaining what made him add poison to his father’s food. No one must stop Rebecca, even at the age of three, from wedding Abraham’s boy, who turned forty that year.

To pile melodrama upon tragedy, before Betuel slumped dead onto his food, Eliezer disappointed the family. To ratify the engagement he sent an attendant to fetch his bags and to hand the gifts around. For Rebecca a trousseau of magnificent garments and priceless keepsakes. For her mother, father and brother, fine fruits from Hebron. Laban, grinding pearly teeth, wished he had poisoned another’s food.

The mourning period began the next day. The caravan with Rebecca with Eliezer on the lead camel, sets off at first light. Before it did, Laban gave his sibling the first ever tainted blessing. Her womb, he prays, must be fruitful and her offspring gladden the heart of Abraham.

Thanks to the blessing Rebecca went barren for twenty years. The jealous God of Abraham would not allow people to claim that she bore children on account of a wicked brother’s blessing. From it came a proverb. “The blessing of the wicked is a curse.” A generation later, another proverb, thanks to a cousin named Balaam, would take a sicker turn. “The curse of the wicked is a blessing.”