The Woman at the Well
“Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and
went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise…” (Matt. 25:1-2).
“For I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband” (2Co. 11:2).
In the books of Genesis and Exodus, Isaac, Jacob and Moses are considered among the clear symbols of the Lord Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. Each one of them is a living image that clearly portrays the Lord in some phase of His life, or reflects one of His attributes or His acts of salvation, written as depicted with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit more than twelve centuries before His advent. Therefore, the wives of those patriarchs and prophets (Rebekah, Leah, Rachel and Zipporah) represent the Church—the bride of Christ, and stand for each and every member of the Church betrothed by Christ to Himself (2Co. 11:2).
This study focuses on the first meeting of each one of these brides with her bridegroom, with a brief survey of her personal life. By applying the spiritual interpretation we inherited from our early Fathers of the Church, each faithful soul can find his (her) place and stance relative to the heavenly bridegroom.
Gen. 24:1-67, 25: 19-23, 27: 5-46, 49: 31
1- Where was Rebekah born? Where was she buried?
2- In the Bible, what does the well of water refer to?
3- Symbols (or Types) in the Bible are characters, things or events that are indicative of the future. What did Rebekah and the well refer to?
4- What is the spiritual meaning of the gifts given to Rebekah by the servant? (Support your answer with Biblical verses).
5- What does Rebekah’s trip in the wilderness from Haran to Canaan represent? Give other examples of such trips from the Old Testament.
Rebekah was born in Paddan-aram in the region of Haran in northern Mesopotamia. Around 1850 B.C., her grandfather Nahor had immigrated to that place with Abraham, the Patriarch, along with his family. When God called upon Abraham for the second time to leave that heathen city and go south toward Canaan, Nahor stayed with his family in Haran, mainly herding sheep and cattle, while the women took care of their household affairs including bringing water from the well that was outside the city.
This was the routine life of Rebekah until a large caravan of ten camels arrived one evening in the town, led by Eliezer of Damascus, Abraham’s steward, who had a very delicate mission to accomplish: to look for a bride for Isaac. Because he prayed for God’s guidance, just before finishing his prayer, he saw Rebekah approaching the well where “she filled her pitcher, and came up. And the servant ran to meet her and said, ‘Pray, give me a little water to drink from your jar.’ She said, ‘Drink my lord,’ and she quickly let down her jar upon her hand, and gave him a drink. When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, ‘I will draw for your camels also, until they have done drinking” (Gen. 24:16-20). This was the sign he had requested from the Lord, so he presented her with the golden gifts prepared for Isaac’s bride, even before knowing her name or her family. When he asked her for a place to lodge, she welcomed him, and her brother Laban personally served them, although his family was rich and had many slaves and servants. When Eliezar learned that he was led by God’s will to his master’s kinfolk, he announced his mission which was immediately accepted by Rebekah’s father and brother (Gen. 24:50, 51).
Upon this, the servant brought forth his master’s gifts to Rebekah, and he gave also to her brother and to her mother precious things. According to the Chaldeans’ tradition in those days, accepting such gifts by parents meant their consent (amounting in fact to accepting a price for the bride). Since that moment Rebekah became Isaac’s, although nobody asked her opinion. She could have done one thing only. According to the then prevailing law, she had the right not to accept traveling with the slave. In such case, Isaac had to come to live with her in Haran if he wished to marry her, and this option had, in advance, been rejected by Abraham. For this reason, when the servant got ready to depart, Rebekah’s parents had no choice, and they asked their daughter if she would go with him, and immediately she said she would. Yes, she would go to her bridegroom who owned her without seeing him.
It must have been a long and tiring trip for Rebekah, having to go through a vast desert. It is quite likely that the servant entertained her, telling her about Abraham and his family as well as about her groom Isaac whom she loved without seeing him: “Whom having not seen, ye love;” (1Pet. 1:8). At last, when the caravan reached Beer-sheba in the desert of Negev in the south of Canaan where Abraham’s tents stood, Isaac was there meditating in the fields at the evening time. When Rebekah felt by instinct that he was her groom, she lighted off the camel, and asked the servant “What man is this that walketh in the field to meet us?” The servant confirmed her instinct, so she took a veil and covered herself. The groom would see her face only after the official marriage, according to the tradition of the time.
We shall skip the remainder of Rebekah’s life, which was mostly associated with that of Jacob, as well as the many clear moral lessons we can derive from it, such as the faith delivered from Abraham to his servant who prayed to the Lord in all his steps, doing exactly what his master ordered, and the decency of Rebekah in treating the stranger and her obedience to her parents. Such contemplation is left to the reader so that we can focus here on the spiritual meaning, which revolves around Christ and His work of salvation. We can understand the relationship of Rebekah with such matters if we follow the history of salvation in Gen. 22-24:
Chapter 22: Abraham’s offering of his son Isaac as a burnt sacrifice symbolizes Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for the salvation of the world, and Isaac’s return alive stands for the resurrection of Christ.
Chapter 23: The death of Sarah and the lack of any further mention of her refer to the Old Testament Church.
Chapter 24: The call on Rebekah to become Isaac’s bride, and her taking the position of Sarah (Gen. 24:67) alludes to the call on the Church to become the bride of Christ after Israel’s rejection.
The core of the spiritual interpretation of the Bible, and its main objective, is to explain the relationship of each member in the Church with Christ. Rebekah, therefore, is a symbol of every soul that is called upon to become the bride of Christ and immediately accepts the call. In this chapter (24), we can trace the work of God’s grace in each soul.
In his sermons on the Book of Genesis, Origen states that the account of the well was not unintentional in the Holy Scripture. Had Rebekah not gone regularly to the well where she stayed for a long time, she would not have been seen by Abraham’s servant who led her to Isaac. This teaches us to visit the wells of the Holy Bible every day, where we drink the water of the Holy Spirit, and fill our pitchers to take home. Unless we do that every day, we shall neither be able to give water to others, nor to have it ourselves, although we thirst to the words of the Lord (Amos 8:11). We are unable to say, “As the deer pants for water brooks, so pants my soul after thee, O God … When shall I come and appear before God?” (Ps. 42:1,2).
Origen explains that the servant represents the word of God in the books of the prophets, which give witness to Christ. But the interpreters, who in later centuries adopted the methodology of the School of Alexandria in spiritual interpretation, said that the servant represented the Holy Spirit “who speaks in the prophets”. But the work of the Holy Spirit in every soul does not stop at that. According to St. Athanasius, “The Holy Spirit complements Christ’s act of salvation and brings everyone unto the divine fellowship.” This can be traced clearly in what the servant did with Rebekah from the moment they met at the well until he handed her over to her groom, Isaac.
1. The engagement gifts: When Rebekah drew water for the camels to drink at the well, the servant gave her a golden earring and two gold bracelets for her hands. That same night, when her family accepted that she would marry Isaac and go to him, the servant offered her jewelry of silver and gold and lovely clothes (Gen. 24:52,53). Such were the engagement gifts presented to the bride. We are not left bewildered in interpreting this. In the Old Testament, Hosea the prophet speaks on behalf of the Lord saying, “And I will betroth thee for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in loving kindness, and in mercies. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord (Hos. 2:19,20). In the New Testament, St. Paul writes, “But the fruit of the spirit is love, peace, long suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal. 5:22,23). One can easily notice the correspondence implied by the gifts mentioned by the prophet, and then Paul’s words about the fruits of the spirit—those virtues that characterize every honest soul yielding itself to the work of the Holy Spirit.3
Origen concludes his explanation of this point saying that it was not possible for Rebekah to uncover her beautiful ears had Abraham’s servant not arrived to decorate them. Likewise her hands could not wear any jewels but those sent by Isaac. She longed to hear the golden words with her own ears, and to do golden things with her own hands. But she was not able to receive those things, and did not deserve to receive them except when she went to the well to fill her pitcher.”
2. The testimony of the slave for Isaac and the testimony of the Holy Spirit: In Rebekah’s home, the servant spoke of the greatness and richness of Abraham; of Isaac who would inherit everything after him (Gen. 24: 34,37). The work of the Holy Spirit who came down on the Church on the Pentecost to remain with her forever is to bear witness to Christ (John 15:26), then carry over the blessings of redemption to every faithful person (John 16:13-15).
3. Rebekah’s departure from her home and homeland: The servant insisted that Rebekah should accompany him immediately to go to his master. The environment in which she lived among her relatives and her town people was not suitable for Isaac’s bride, not even for one more day. She was not given enough time to think or to prepare for her long travel, nor to say goodbye to her parents and brother whom she might not see again in this world. She had to obey the call made for every soul by the Lord immediately upon hearing it:
4. Rebekah’s journey in the wilderness represents the journey of the Church, and every soul in it, in the wilderness of this world:
How our fathers studied the Scriptures, ‘Al-Resalah’ (10th year, Vol. IV)
These sermons were translated to English and are published in the Patrology Series, ‘Fathers of the Church’, Vol. 71”
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