We like to think our patriarchs and matriarchs are special, noble people. But the original Biblical audience, and, indeed, today’s Hebrew speakers, realise the reality is different.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah are
human beings, ridden with weaknesses and flaws.
Take the moment in Genesis chapter 24 when Isaac and Rebecca meet. The chance encounter at the well that first brought Rebecca into the story is pure Barbara Cartland.
It’s the conclusion of the story that offers the best moment, however. Verse 63 tells us that Isaac was out in the field. Some translations say he was walking, others that he was meditating.
The Hebrew verb lasu’ach, which tells what Isaac was doing, is a tricky one. Ancient texts are translated based on the different contexts in which the words appear. Sometimes, a word shows up only once – this is a hapax legomenon (Greek for “is said once”). Basically we have no idea what this word means…
While he is doing whatever it is – and we can use our imaginations – Isaac looks up and sees Rebecca approaching on her camel. The
Hebrew then explains va-tipol mei’al ha-gamal: “She fell off her camel.” Any Hebrew speaker, ancient or
modern, would know this.
So whatever Isaac was doing, when Rebecca saw it, she tumbled, perhaps in amusement, perhaps in alarm, suggesting many of the Torah’s stories are intended to amuse and entertain a Biblical audience.
I think we do the authors and their listeners a disservice when we treat these characters with unnecessary reverence. Today’s Jews can learn more from their faults and flaws than by pretending they were perfect.
υ Pete Tobias is rabbi of The Liberal Synagogue Elstree