Between Agency and Blindness: The story of Rebekah, Isaac and Jacob in the book of Genesis from a Feminist Perspective

By Prof. Zehavit Gross, Dean, Faculty of Education and Chair holder UNESCO chair for Values Education, Tolerance and Peace& The Sal Van Gelder Center for Holocaust Research & Instruction.

In the story of Rebekah, our matriarch directs the future of the people of Israel. She exploits her husband Isaac’s blindness to create a new perspective and insight into the reality and the Jewish existence for generations.

According to the Biblical narrative, Jacob and Esau are born as twins after years of infertility. Esau is portrayed as a physically strong and cunning man, while Jacob is described as a simple man dwelling in tents. These two sons represent two nations that will emerge in the world: Israel and Edom. Blind Isaac favors Esau, desiring to grant him superiority, dominion, and eternal blessings. However, Rebekah, understanding the potential harm to the people of Israel, decides to change the course of history. She transforms Jacob into a cunning man, dressing him in hunting attire, preparing a meal Isaac loves, and sending him to receive the blessing.

Isaac, enjoying the delicious food, mistakenly blesses Jacob with the firstborn’s blessing, while Esau, arriving later, reluctantly receives a less favorable blessing and harbors a desire to kill his brother. Scholars throughout generations have attempted to understand this complex narrative. However, I believe that through a feminine perspective and analysis, one should interpret the events straightforwardly. Paradoxically, it is the simplicity of the analysis that generates its depth and profound insight.

The biblical story oscillates between the reality of blindness and insight, and the feminine wisdom expressed throughout the narrative ultimately leads to redemption. Rebekah understands that the question of birthright for receiving the blessing is critical. Therefore, she orchestrates and designs it, guiding the simple and honest Jacob to buy the birthright from Esau in exchange for a lentil stew. Subsequently, she sends him to claim the blessing from the blind father, Isaac. This maneuver involves both physical and mental blindness.

Isaac is obligated to give the firstborn blessing to Esau, but Rebekah engages in a struggle against patriarchal and chauvinistic perceptions. Recognizing the potential danger, she adapts to the ever-changing reality, creating new categories for the concepts of justice, ultimately saving the Jewish existence for generations.

From this narrative, we learn the importance of words – they can either bring blessings and create a world or, God forbid, destroy it. Rebekah understands the significance of Isaac’s words when blessing Jacob, shaping a new moral consciousness to rearrange the Genesis order between the firstborn and the younger.

The story of Rebekah and Jacob is another example illustrating how women shaped the destiny of the Jewish people through wisdom and action. Rebekah gives birth to Jacob and Esau, selling their future from the womb. She identifies Esau’s destructive potential even before birth. Rebekah senses the struggle between Jacob and Esau through their womb kicks, understanding that a momentous decision as a mother and a woman will determine their destinies. In the moment of truth, she must make a courageous feminine decision against what seems natural in the distorted reality.

Rebekah, with her flexible matriarchal approach, adapts to the real-world circumstances, creating new categories for the concepts of justice, saving the Jewish existence for generations. The story highlights the power of women to live in cognitive dissonance for the sake of realizing their compassion. Rebekah reshapes the cosmic patriarchal order, organizing and establishing it for the sake of Israel’s enduring future.

Psychologically, Isaac seems to be in a post-traumatic state. He experiences a traumatic event where he is passive and taken to be sacrificed on the altar without any attempt to resist or escape. The potential of the ram to break its horns and harm him lingers deep in his consciousness, even if the ram was ultimately sacrificed. Moreover, Isaac undergoes a traumatic separation from his mother, Sarah, who died in agony after hearing about his near-sacrifice. Isaac carries heavy emotional guilt, leading him to choose strength – Esau, the wild and powerful – when asked to decide. In contrast, Rebekah shifts his choice towards the spiritual and visionary, redeeming Isaac, Jacob and the people of Israel. The story of Rebekah and Jacob is a tale of redemption, where the spirit triumphs over the body, and light prevails over darkness.

To conclude, Rebekah, with her sharpened feminine senses, saves the innocent Isaac and the people of Israel, endowing them with spiritual resilience for generations. Today, we should trust the refined senses and deep insight of women and involve them in decision-making circles. Rebekah saw the big picture and the consequences, and in these days, we should continue the brave path of Rebekah, working towards goals we believe in without fear of judgment or appearance. If we have an intuitive deep truth that the reality is distorted and needs correction, we should act immediately to rectify it, just as Rebekah did. Like Rebekah, women should continue the courageous journey to achieve goals that we are passionate about, contributing to solidarity among diverse women worldwide, fostering love, brotherhood, blessed action, joy, wisdom, and peace.

Picture: Jacob Deceives Isaac (Rebekah in back). James Jacques Joseph Tissot. c. 1896-1902. Courtesy of The Jewish Museum.