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Dr. Piet van Veldhuizen

There comes the bride riding ten camels

Consolation for a mother's boy in Genesis 24

 

It had struck me before that camels keep showing up throughout Genesis 24. For a long time I have been seeing them as an exclusive means of transport. I did not take a closer look at them in order to stay focused on the people in the story. When, some time ago, I decided to read the narrative from the camels' viewpoint, a world opened itself up unto me.

Genesis 24 contains this beautiful long story about Abraham's servant who sets out on a journey in order to find a bride for Isaac. The dynamics of what is going on between the characters is breathtaking. The servant plays a curious role: he is Abraham's agent, but he is Isaac's stand-in as well. One scene is narrated four times within the chapter, with subtle differences each time: the encounter at the well between the servant and the maiden who is to become Isaac's bride. Four times: first, the scene is conceived in a prayer, then it actually happens, and next the servant gives an account of both the prayer and the event itself. And all the time, there are these mysterious camels.

If you expect to encounter hosts of camels in the Bible, you are wrong. The concordance lists only 54 occurences of the word 'camel' for the Hebrew Bible as a whole. Of them, 25 are found in Genesis, 18 of which are concentrated in our chapter. In other words: exactly one third of all biblical camel sightings pertain to our narrative alone, and serve to fetch Rebekah from Mesopotamia. Let us follow on their heels.  

To start with, Abraham's servant takes 'ten camels of the camels of his master' (v.10). This number will recur at the end of the narrative, when Laban proposes to delay Rebekah's departure for ten days (v.55), and right in the middle there are bracelets of ten shekels weight (v.22). If this number would have a meaning, it would be something like 'quite a series': not a number that closes a circle or encompasses a whole, but a sequence that is to be continued, like the commandments. Ten days' delay is the beginning of cancellation, ten camels is a modest queue referring to Abraham's extensive possessions.

When the servant arrives at the well in Mesopotamia, the camels provide for the first peculiar moment. Wayyabrekh ha-gemallim, it says (v.11). Wayyabrekh is derived from the verb barakh, so automatically you tend to read as it usually reads in Genesis, something with 'blessing'. But then you bump into the camels, and unexpectedly, genuflection takes the place of benediction, for the sentence appears to say: 'he made his camels to kneel down'. A very rare second verb barakh is used here, meaning 'to get down on their knees'. For the servant, the time has not yet come to count his blessings.

Now the servant proceeds to formulate the scene in which he will be able to recognize the appropriate bride. A girl will allow him to set his lips at the rim of the jug she will tip over for him. Now try that one with a filled jug, and you will discover that it is quite odd, for a start, that a girl would allow a stranger to come as close as that to her. But the servant decides that next she will offer to water his camels. Alas, the story is so familiar to us that we tend to miss the ludicrous implications of the servant's prayer. Just imagine what he is asking for! There they are on their knees, the ten of them, a worthy challenge for the strongest man of Britain: water them until they have had enough. For those who like to calculate: assume some 500 to 1000 litres, take a sizeble pitcher -  you will have to descend to the well, fetch water and climb up again up to a hundred times.

But Rebekah does show up, and she does it all, and what is more, she does it running, the servant standing by and watching silently. She hurried and ran and fetched and poured 'for all his camels' (v.20). The excessiveness of it all is, for me as a listener, almost inbearable. What has got into this child, and what has moved the servant to ask for precisely this token?

As soon as the camels stop drinking (v.22) the servant already pulls out part of the wedding presents, and when he recounts it later on, it appears that he has set her a nose piercing at that very moment and put bracelets on her arms - again, just like when he was slurping from the jug she was holding, this intimate closeness, as if he were standing in for the bridegroom in a betrothal ritual.

The girl hurries home, and shortly afterwards, her brother Laban hurries in the opposite direction in order to meet the man behind the jewellery. 'There he still stood, next to the camels, at the well' (v.30). The personnel being with him is not mentioned until v.32 , but the camels will never miss an occasion to be mentioned.

At the reception now following in Betuel's home the camels are once more prominently present. Even before, when the servant asked Rebekah if there would be a place to pass the night, she mentioned first of all that there would be 'straw and fodder', and only in the second place she referred to space for people (v.25). Indeed, at their entrance the camels are receiced in first order: they are unsaddled and get their straw and fodder. Only after that, water is mentioned for the feet of the servant and his men (v.32). The servant then wishes to do business first, and of course, the camels do not go unmentioned in his speech (vv. 44, 46). At their departure, next morning, the narrative explicitly states that Rebekah and her girls ride the camels (v.61).

Towards the end of the story, the camels once more play a hilarious role. In verses 63 and 64 two parallel sentences tell that both Isaac and Rebekah lift up their eyes and see. Isaac lifts up his eyes and behold, camels are coming. Rebekah lifts up here eyes and sees Isaac. He sees camels, she sees her husband. She is so sure of what she sees, that she has lept from her camel (v.64) even before she has asked the servant who that man out there is.

Eightteen times 'camels', gemalim: that feature of the tale must serve a purpose. For the storyteller they seem to be almost as important to the story as Abraham's servant himself. He keeps reminding us that the camels are there. And yet, like all biblical narrators, he tells his tale without any unnecessary detail. No description is given of the town of Nahor, Betuel's house, the landscape. I mention this to stress the fact that the camels would not be mentioned so often just because they were there. But then, why?

 

A first idea would be that the camels seem to represent Abraham's and Isaac's household. They are a symbol of wealth, a queue of limoes referring to Abraham's standing. In that case, it would make sense that Rebekah has to water the camels in order to pass the marriage test. Doing so, she proves that she is able to deal with the task to run that considerable household. You might even suspect that the servant lets her sweat without help because he foresees how she will have to manage alone at decisive moments. For according to the stories, Isaac will not be an energetic master of the house. His absence at his own betrothal may be caused by fundamental restraints (his wife has to come from a land to which he is not allowed to travel) - but at the same time it is characteristic for his overall patriarchal absence.

The camels, then, seem to be there a a status symbol and as exercise material for the bridal test. They are received with respect, for doing so the in-laws pay respect to Abraham and Isaac. But perhaps there may still be something more.

 

Gamal is the Hebrew word for camel, but at the same time there is a homonymous verb gamal, meaning: to ripen, to wean off, ablactare as the dictionary says. It has a second meaning as well, which reflects the dramatical impact of denying an infant its access to the mother's breasts: >to do damage to someone=. The nouns derived from this verb, gemul and gemulah, refer to >deed', specifically 'reprisal=.

In Genesis 21, mention is made about the festivity that accompanies the weaning of Isaac. The verb gamal is used twice there (v.8). The event leads to the final expulsion of Hagar, because her son Ishmael mocked. Possibly he has called Isaac a milksop: for Isaac, like for any child that is being weaned off, the festive event marked his separation from his mother and must have been a source of tears.

Between that event and Genesis 24 we will meet Isaac only once, in the horrendous story in which Abraham sacrifices him. That is, after his separation from his mother, an extreme father-and-son's story. A man and a boy travelling together, ech in his own solitude, separated by a chasm of tense silence. You cannot be farther off the moter's breast. Then in the next story, Sarah dies and is buried, but the name of Isaacis not even mentioned.

 

Then, Genesis 24. Once the camels have gallopped throughout the betrothal narrative with a resounding gamal, gamal, Isaac takes his bride into the tent of his deceased mother. She there becomes his wife, and then the final clause of the story goes: 'Thus was Isaac comforted after his mother'. The Hebrew text does not say 'after her death', but 'after his mother'. That is, of course, after her death, but also after her breast, now that he finally lies at the breast of his beloved. Therefore I suggest that the camels, by being mentioned over and over agein, represent the yearning of the weaned infant Isaac: he needs the consolation of a woman. The bridal test of watering the camels refers to the need for an overwhelming woman, who after the raw motherlessness of Genesis 22 and after the death of Sarah has to lead this man back to life. Boundless, inexhaustible she will have to be, for Isaac's thirst is the thirst of ten camels - not because he is that ngreedy, but because he has to be recovered from that far.

The scene of Rebekah allowing the servant to sip from the pitcher which she has lowered on one hand, tilling it over until he has drunk enough (v.14, vv.18-19) is in this context a convincing symbol of the consolation of the mother's breast.

Alas, the camels can refer to the weaning theme only in Hebrew, because in English there is no verb 'to camel' that would denote a suckling's separation from his mother. Just write 'mammals' instead of 'camels' in all eighteen instances in Genesis 24, and English listeners will start to wonder what subtext is hidden under the story. 

 

The question remains, if the camels are really meant to serve such a suggestive purpose in the story. I would like it to be the case, because it would throw a warm and sympathetic light upon Isaac's passivity, both in Genesis 24 itself and in all other Isaac stories: a mother's boy that needs consolation by a huge woman. It would also mean that the cycle of Abraham-Isaac stories itself would acknowledge the idea that after Genesis 21 and 22 a devastating inconsolability has got Isaac in its grip.

There comes the bride riding ten camels. Rebekah sees from afar whom she will have to console. Isaac is just coming from a well himself, but instead of having this classical encounter at the well, he had been out there for solitary meditation (v.62). And even when his meditation is at last interrupted by an arrival, he only sees camels, gemalim, gamal, weaned-off... But the last camel of the tale is the one from which Rebekah alights, so that at last Isaac can come home with her.

The second last verse of the story might scare the reader: 'And the servant told Isaac...' - so it says in v.66. Until now, we have heard the story of the servant's encounter at the well four times: in the prayer, in action, and in the servant telling Laban and Betuel about both the prayer and what happened next. What if the servant would start all over again, doubling the narrative once more? But the storyteller has decided that time for consolation has finally come, and so he mercifully limits himself to '...the servant told Isaac aal that he had done'. The camels are not unsaddled nor watered, no straw and no fodder finds its way to the final verses - because that what these things stand for, has been solved: 'Thus Isaac was consoled after his mother'.

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