Avraham's Command: Canaan vs. Mesopotamia
In Bereshit 24, Avraham makes his servant swear that he will make a long trek to Mesopotamia to find a wife for Yitzchak, rather than taking a wife from amongst the indigenous Canaanite women:
(ג) וְאַשְׁבִּיעֲךָ בַּה' אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם וֵאלֹהֵי הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר לֹא תִקַּח אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי מִבְּנוֹת הַכְּנַעֲנִי אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי יוֹשֵׁב בְּקִרְבּוֹ. (ד) כִּי אֶל אַרְצִי וְאֶל מוֹלַדְתִּי תֵּלֵךְ וְלָקַחְתָּ אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי לְיִצְחָק.
(3) And I will make you swear by Hashem, the God of the heavens and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I am dwelling. (4) But you will go to my country and to my birthplace/family, and take a wife for my son Yitzchak.
Why was the nationality element so crucial for Avraham? What distinguished Mesopotamian women from their Canaanite counterparts? Is Avraham primarily concerned with avoiding possible negative influences from the daughters of Canaan, with finding possible positive qualities of the women of Mesopotamia, or both? Was there really any distinction between the civilizations; were not both idolatrous?1 Or, as R. Saadia Gaon, formulates:
ויש שואלים לאמור: האם לא היו אנשי משפחתו גם כן עובדי עבודה זרה, כנאמר: תרח אבי אברהם ואבי נחור ויעבדו אלהים אחרים?
And there are those who question, saying: Were not the members of his family also idolaters, as it says, "Terach the father of Avraham and the father of Nachor, and they worshipped other gods"?
The Servant's Plan: Character or Lineage?
When Avraham's servant arrives in Charan, he devises a water-drawing test to identify an appropriate wife for Yitzchak. When Rivka passes this test, the servant proceeds to ask for her lineage, and only upon hearing that she is from Avraham's family, does he give praise to Hashem. What is the relationship between these two factors, and which is the primary one? If Rivka had turned out to be from a different family, would the servant have still been interested in her?
Interestingly, decades later, our storyline repeats itself, when Yitzchak sends Yaakov to Charan to find a wife. The instructions are strikingly parallel, however, Yaakov is given an explicit command to choose a wife from among his cousins:
(א) וַיִּקְרָא יִצְחָק אֶל יַעֲקֹב וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ וַיְצַוֵּהוּ וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ לֹא תִקַּח אִשָּׁה מִבְּנוֹת כְּנָעַן. (ב) קוּם לֵךְ פַּדֶּנָה אֲרָם בֵּיתָה בְתוּאֵל אֲבִי אִמֶּךָ וְקַח לְךָ מִשָּׁם אִשָּׁה מִבְּנוֹת לָבָן אֲחִי אִמֶּךָ. (בראשית כ"ח:א'-ב')
(1) And Yitzchak called Yaakov, and blessed him, and commanded him, "You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. (2) Arise, go to Paddan-Aram, to the house of Betuel your mother's father, and there take a wife from the daughters of Lavan, your mother's brother." (Bereshit 28:1-2)
Why did Avraham not issue similar instructions to his servant? And why did the servant, upon arriving at Charan, concoct his own test rather than immediately inquiring about Avraham's family as Yaakov later did?
The above issues are magnified by a comparison of the narrator's account of Avraham's charge to his servant and the servant's implementation with the version of these events which the servant relates to Rivka's family. In particular, the servant's account differs in two important respects:
- The mission – According to the servant, Avraham commanded him to take a wife from his family ("בֵּית אָבִי" and "מִשְׁפַּחְתִּי"). In contrast, Avraham's original words were a bit ambiguous but seem to focus only on geography ("אַרְצִי" and "מוֹלַדְתִּי").
- Giving the jewelry – The servant says that he gave Rivka jewelry only after learning that she was from Avraham's family, while in the original narrative he appears to do so before hearing of her lineage.
How should we account for these variations? What light might they shed on the question of the necessary criteria for being Yitzchak's future wife?