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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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?
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
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.
the reception now following in Betuel's home the camels are once more
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).
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.
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?
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.
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.
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',
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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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