Parashat Hayei Sarah / Measure for Measure

Jephthah's story is the only one that ends as it is meant to end: with an unfair response to an unfair demand. His narrative suits the tastes of the sages; it is organized more reasonably and is, to their minds, a moral tale.

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'Rebecca and Eliezer,' by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (c. 1652).
'Rebecca and Eliezer,' by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (c. 1652).

Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to his homeland, Aram Naharaim, in order to find a wife for his son Isaac. When Eliezer arrives, settling his camels by a well, he presents God with the following condition: “Behold, I stand by the fountain of water; and the daughters of the men of the city come out to draw water. So let it come to pass, that the damsel to whom I shall say: Let down thy pitcher, I pray thee, that I may drink; and she shall say: Drink, and I will give thy camels drink also; let the same be she that Thou hast appointed for Thy servant, even for Isaac; and thereby shall I know that Thou hast shown kindness unto my master” (Genesis 24:13-14).

The end of this tale is well known; indeed, there is only a brief pause between the time the condition is presented and the moment it is fulfilled: “And it came to pass, before he had done speaking, that, behold, Rebecca came out, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, with her pitcher upon her shoulder” (Gen. 24:15). Rebecca precisely meets the condition posed, and thus Eliezer, on behalf of Isaac, asks for her hand; when she consents, he takes her back with him to Canaan. The issue of whether Eliezer’s condition will be met does not daunt those who have been following Abraham’s circular narrative, meticulously navigated by God, up to this point.

At the end of last week’s Torah reading, following the binding of Isaac, Abraham receives the report that the son of his brother, Bethuel, has a daughter, Rebecca (Gen. 22:20-23). Despite the geographical distances between them, Rebecca enters the narrative at the point where Isaac has become an adult, and the time for the changing of the guard – the passing of the baton to him from Abraham – is nigh.

Although she is born in Aram Naharaim, the wonderful personality, immense generosity and captivating charm that Rebecca possesses already mark her, in the reader’s eyes, as a member of Abraham’s family. Thus, it is clear that only one option exists, as far as a wife for Isaac is concerned: Rebecca.

When Abraham orders his servant to bring Isaac a wife, Eliezer asks his master, “Peradventure the woman will not be willing to follow me unto this land; must I needs bring thy son back unto the land from whence thou camest?” (Gen. 24:5). Abraham replies: “And if the woman be not willing to follow thee, then thou shalt be clear from this my oath; only thou shalt not bring my son back thither” (Gen. 24:8).

There is only one window of opportunity open for finding Rebecca, the woman best suited to Isaac. She must give a positive response while this window remains open, assuming Eliezer’s condition is met. The condition is, of course, dependent on the kindness of Rebecca’s heart and on her magnificent qualities; however, if this window of opportunity closes, there will be no second one. And without Rebecca, the lovely continuation of the biblical narrative will have to end here.

This possibility, of course, does not really exist in the fabric of the carefully navigated and deterministic tale that unfolds in the Book of Genesis. In this fabric, the only doubt expressed about the successful outcome of Eliezer’s journey is uttered by the slave himself – and only in the form of a question: What should be done if the young woman – and it is obvious to Eliezer that he will in fact find her – refuses to accompany him to the Promised Land?

The sages, in a midrash in Bereisheet Rabbah, include Eliezer’s condition in a list that places the narrative composition of Genesis in a surprising context.

“Four individuals make an unfair demand; three are given a decent response, while the fourth receives an unfair response. The four are Eliezer, Caleb, [King] Saul and Jephthah. Eliezer’s demand is, ‘So let it come to pass, that the damsel.’ Could he not have been given a female slave? No. God arranges for him to find Rebecca and provides him with a decent response. Caleb’s demand is, ‘He that smiteth Kiriath Sepher, and taketh it, to him will I give Achsah my daughter to wife’ [Joshua 15:16]. Could he not have been given a slave? No, God arranges for him to receive Othniel and provides him with a decent response.

“Saul’s demand is ‘ and it shall be, that the man who killeth him, the king will enrich him with great riches, and will give him his daughter, and make his father’s house free in Israel’ [1 Samuel 17:25]. Could he not have been given a slave? No, God arranges for him to receive David. Jephthah makes an unfair demand and God gives him an unfair response. His unfair demand is ‘If thou wilt indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt-offering’ [Judges 11:30-31].

“God asks him, ‘If a camel, a donkey or a dog were to emerge from your front door, would you offer that animal as a sacrifice to me?’ God gives Jephthah an unfair response and arranges for his daughter to emerge from the front door of Jephthah’s home, as it is written, ‘And Jephthah came to Mizpah unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances; and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter’ [Judg. 11:34]” (Bereisheet Rabbah 60:3).

Four biblical figures make a vow that is dependent on someone else’s fulfillment of a certain condition. The midrash defines these vows as unfair. However, despite the unfairness, God grants three of these figures – Abraham’s servant, Caleb and Saul – their request, thus providing them with a fair response. The final story, that of Jephthah is an exceptional case, where both the demand and the response are unfair. Although that tale is the exception, the fact that the midrash closes the list with that narrative, as a counter-response to the other three stories, turns his tale not only into the midrash’s punch line – but also transforms it into a hidden counterpoint, accompanying the other three tales like a shadow.

There is an ethical point to the sages’ decision to place Jephthah’s tale at the end, as a counterpoint: They prefer historical symmetries based on the principle of “measure for measure” and “reward and punishment” to the faulty judgment shown in Eliezer’s narrative. Jephthah’s story is the only one that ends as it is meant to end – with an unfair response to an unfair demand. His narrative suits the literary and historical tastes of the sages; it is organized more reasonably and is, to their minds, a moral tale.

The juxtaposition of Eliezer’s tale with those of Caleb and Saul, and in contrast to Jephthah’s story, demonstrates a courageous effort to grapple with the narrative and with the ethical rationale of the stories of the patriarchs in Genesis – a rationale that is necessarily different from the reader’s. The sages compare their literary logic with the Bible’s, and demarcate precisely the boundary between them: In Jephthah’s narrative, God provides a response that is fair in their eyes, whereas he deviates from their principles in the other narratives when he provides a response that is unfair in their eyes, even if fair in his.

Not only is this comparison a recognition of the fluidity of moral standards; it is an indirect acknowledgment on the part of the sages that, were history dependent on literary and human judgment, Eliezer’s tale might have ended then and there, beside the well in Aram Naharaim.