Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
19 These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham fathered Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife. 21 And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the older shall serve the younger.”
Ellicott’s Bible Commentary has a long section explaining these verses which I find to be interesting and informative:
Abraham begat Isaac—The Tôldôth in its original form gave probably a complete genealogy of Isaac, tracing up his descent to Shem, and showing thereby that the right of primogeniture belonged to him; but the inspired historian uses only so much of this as is necessary for tracing the development of the Divine plan of human redemption.
The Syrian.—Really, the Aramean, or descendant of Aram. (See Genesis 10:22-23.) The name of the district also correctly is “Paddan-Ararn,” and so far from being identical with Aram-Naharaim, in Genesis 24:10, it is strictly the designation of the region immediately in the neighbourhood of Charran. The assertion of Gesenius that it meant “Mesopotamia, with the desert to the west of the Euphrates, in opposition to the mountainous district towards the Mediterranean,” is devoid of proof. (See Chwolsohn, Die Ssabier, 1, p. 304.) In Syriac, the language of Charran, padana means a plough (1 Samuel 13:20), or a yoke of oxen ( 1 Samuel 11:7); and this also suggests that it was the cultivated district close to the town. In Hosea 12:12 it is said that “Jacob fled to the field of Aram;” but this is a very general description of the country in which he found refuge, and affords no basis for the assertion that Padan-aram was the level region. Finally, the assertion that it is an ancient name used by the Jehovist is an assertion only. It is the name of a special district, and the knowledge of it was the result of Jacob’s long-continued stay there. Chwolsohn says that traces of the name still remain in Faddân and Tel Faddân, two places close to Charran, mentioned by Yacut, the Arabian geographer, who flourished in the thirteenth century.
Isaac intreated the Lord.—This barrenness lasted twenty years (Genesis 25:26), and must have greatly troubled Isaac; but it would also compel him to dwell much in thought upon the purpose for which he had been given to Abraham, and afterwards rescued from death upon the mount Jehovah-Jireh. And when offspring came, in answer to his earnest pleading of the promise, the delay would serve to impress upon both parents the religious significance of their existence as a separate race and family, and the necessity of training their children worthily. The derivation of the verb to intreat, from a noun signifying incense, is uncertain, but rendered probable by the natural connection of the idea of the ascending fragrance, and that of the prayer mounting heavenward (Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:4).
The children struggled together.—Two dissimilar nations sprang from Abraham, but from mothers totally unlike; so, too, from the peaceful Isaac two distinct races of men were to take their origin, but from the same mother, and the contest began while they were yet unborn. And Rebekah, apparently unaware that she was pregnant with twins, but harassed with the pain of strange jostlings and thrusts, grew despondent, and exclaimed—
If it be so, why am I thus?—Literally, If so, why am I this? Some explain this as meaning “Why do I still live?” but more probably she meant, If I have thus conceived, in answer to my husband’s prayers, why do I suffer in this strange manner? It thus prepares for what follows, namely, that Rebekah wished to have her condition explained to her, and therefore went to inquire of Jehovah.
She went to enquire of the Lord.—Not to Shem, nor Melchizedek, as many think, nor even to Abraham, who was still alive, but, as Theodoret suggests, to the family altar. Isaac had several homes, but probably the altar at Bethel, erected when Abraham first took possession of the Promised Land (Genesis 12:7), and therefore especially holy, was the place signified; and if Abraham were there, he would doubtless join his prayers to those of Rebekah.
Aramean = אֲרַמִּי ʼĂrammîy, ar-am-mee’; patrial from H758; an Aramite or Aramaean:—Syrian, Aramitess.
Padan-aram = פַּדָּן Paddân, pad-dawn’; from an unused root meaning to extend; a plateau; or פַּדַּן אֲרָם Paddan ʼĂrâm; from the same and H758; the table-land of Aram; Paddan or Paddan-Aram, a region of Syria:—Padan, Padan-aram.
Genesis 10:22-23: 22 The sons of Shem: Elam, and Asshur, and Arpachshad, and Lud, and Aram. 23 And the sons of Aram: Uz, and Hul, and Gether, and Mash.
There is an article from Wikipedia on Aram that is also interesting:
Aram (Aramaic: ܐܪܡ, Orom), also known as Aramea, was a historical region including several Aramean kingdoms covering much of the present-day Syria, Southeastern Turkey and parts of Lebanon and Iraq. At its height, Aram stretched from the Mount Lebanon range eastward across the Euphrates, including parts of the Khabur River valley in northwestern Mesopotamia on the border of modern Iraq. The rise of the Aramean states throughout the Middle East even caused a language shift. The Aramaic language eventually replaced Akkadian as the lingua franca of the entire region and became the administration- and commercelanguage of several empires such as the Achaemenid Empire and the Neo-Babylonian Empire.
After the final conquest by the rising Neo-Assyrian Empire in the second half of the 8th century and also during the later consecutive rules of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (612–539 BCE) and the Achaemenid Empire (539–332 BCE), the region of Aram lost most of it’s sovereignty. During the Seleucid period (312-64 BCE), the term Syria was introduced as Hellenistic designation for this region, but the native name (Aram) persisted in use among Arameans, up to the Arab conquest in the 7th century CE. By the beginning of the 5th century, that practice also started to affect terminology of Aramean ecclesiastical and literary elites, and Syrian labels started to gain frequency and acceptance not only in Aramean translations of Greek works, but also in original works of Aramean writers. Following the example of their elites, it became common among Arameans to use not only endonymic (native), but also exonymic (foreign) designations, thus creating a specific duality that persisted throughout the Middle Ages, as attested in works of prominent writers, who used both designations, Aramean/Aramaic and Syrian/Syriac.
After the fall of the last Aramean kingdoms at the end of the 7th century BC the Arameans still inhabited Mesopotamia in large numbers and thus founded geopolitical kingdoms and empires who were dominated by Arameans and also ruled by Aramean royals, such as the kingdom of Osroene (132 BC–AD 214), the Palmyrene Empire (270–273) and the city-states of Amid (modern Sanliurfa and Diyarbakir) and Hatra. Between the 1st and the 3rd centuries AD, pagan Arameans adopted Christianity, thus replacing the old Mesopotamian religion. In the same tame, Christian Bible was translated into Aramaic, and by the 4th century local Aramaic dialect of Edessa (Urhay) developed into a literary language, known as Edessan Aramaic (Urhaya). Mesopotamia and especially the mentioned regions became a major centre of Syriac Christianity and the birthplace of the Syriac Orthodox Church.
Parts of the Aramean homeland were conquered by the Roman Empire (from 116 to 118 AD) and the Sasanian Empire (224 to 651 AD). The Early Arab Muslim conquests resulted in the end of the Aramean dominance in Mesopotamia and the Aramaic language was gradually displaced by Arabic, however the language stayed in tact in the regions where the Arameans isolated themselves.
So if you’ve ever wondered why the language Jesus spoke was called Aramaic… now you know.
Looking at verse 21, we see that Isaac intreats the Lord.
intreated = עָתַר ʻâthar, aw-thar’; a primitive root (rather denominative from H6281); to burn incense in worship, i.e. intercede (reciprocally, listen to prayer):—intreat, (make) pray(-er).
This the only occurrence of this word in Genesis. From The Pulpit Commentaries we get a discussion on the use of incense in the Patriarch’s prayer.:
And Isaac entreated—from a root signifying to burn incense, hence to pray, implying, as some think (Wordsworth, ‘Speaker’s Commentary’), the use of incense in patriarchal worship; but perhaps only pointing to the fact that the prayers of the godly ascend like incense (Gesenius): cf. Tobit 12:12; Acts 10:4. The word is commonly regarded as noting precum multiplicationem, et vehementiam et perseverantiam (Poole): cf. Ezekiel 35:13—the Lord—Jehovah; not because verses 21-23 are the composition of the Jehovist (Tuch, Bleek, Davidson, et alii), but because the desired son was to be the heir of promise (Hengstenberg). The less frequent occurrence of the Divine name in the Thol-doth of Isaac than in those of Terah has been explained by the fact that the historical matter of the later portion furnishes less occasion for its introduction than that of the earlier; and the predominance of the name Elohim over that of Jehovah in the second stage of the patriarchal history has been partly ascribed to the employment after Abraham’s time of such like equivalent expressions as “God of Abraham” and “God of my father” (Keil)—for his wife,—literally, opposite to his wife, i.e. beside his wife, placing himself opposite her, and conjoining his supplications with hers (Ainsworth, Bush); or, better, in behalf of his wife (LXX; Vulgate, Calvin, Keil, Kalisch), i.e. setting her over against him as the sole object to which he had regard in his intercessions (Luther)—because she was barren:—as Sarah had been before her (vide Gen 11:1-32 :80); the long-continued sterility of both having been designed to show partly that “children are the heritage of the Lord” (Psalms 127:3), but chiefly that the children of the promise were to be not simply the fruit of nature, but the gift of grace and the Lord was entreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived (cf. Romans 9:10).
The text does not tell us how long Isaac had to wait before his wife becomes pregnant. We know that when the prayer is answered, it is answered with twins.
After twenty years of marriage, when Rebekah fails to become pregnant, Isaac prays to God, who grants the prayer that she may conceive. Another type-scene, that of the barren wife, thus enters the Rebekah story, calling attention to the special role of the children ultimately born to her. A divine oracle is addressed to her when she is pregnant; God proclaims that “two nations” are in her womb and will contend with each other (25:23). This oracle foreshadows the tensions that will characterize the relationship between her sons, Jacob and Esau, as figures in the Genesis narrative and as eponymous ancestors of Israel and Edom.
There is at least some belief (see above) that the wait was long – though not as long as Abraham and Sarah’s wait. The Jewish tradition, also, is that she heard from God through an oracle.
The pregnancy is unusual for her inasmuch as the twins struggle with each other inside her womb. Understandably, she asks God, “why is this happening to me?” Her answer is in verse 23.
From The Pulpit Commentaries:
And the Lord said unto her,—in a dream (Havernick), a form of revelation peculiar to primitive times (Genesis 15:1; Genesis 20:6; Genesis 28:12; Genesis 37:5; 90:5; 91:1; 96:2; cf. Job 4:13; Job 33:15); but whether communicated directly to herself, or spoken through the medium of a prophet, the Divine response to her interrogation assumed an antistrophic and poetical form, in which she was informed that her unborn sons were to be the founders of two mighty nations, who, “unequal in power, should be divided rivalry and antagonism from their youth”—Two nations are in thy womb (i.e. the ancestors and founders of two nations, vie; the Israelites and Idumeans), and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels;—literally, and two peoples from thy bowels (or womb) are separated, i.e. proceeding from thy womb, they shall be divided from and against each other—and the one people shall be stronger than the other people (literally, and people shall be stronger than people, i.e. the one shall prevail over the other); and the elder shall serve the younger—i.e. the descendants of the elder shall be subject to those of the younger. Vide inspired comments on this oracle in Malachi 1:2, Malachi 1:3 and Romans 9:12-33.
Further, from Ellicott:
(23) And the Lord said unto her.—Not by the mouth of Abraham, nor in a dream, but directly, as He spake of old to Adam and Eve. We read of no appearance, as in Genesis 17:1, nor must we invent one. The manner in which Jehovah thus spake has not been revealed, and it is enough for us to know that Jehovah did speak of old to men. The answer is in the form of poverty:—
“Two nations are in thy womb;
And two peoples from thy bowels shall be separated;
And people shall be mightier than people;
And the great shall serve the small.”
The second line shows that even in their earliest childhood her sons would be unlike in character and unfriendly in disposition; upon this follows their development into hostile nations, and the prediction that the son who started with the advantages of the birthright, the stronger physical nature, and superior strength in men and arms (Genesis 32:6), would, nevertheless, finally hold the inferior position. There can be no doubt that the secondary cause of the vaster development of Jacob was his being placed by Joseph in the fruitful Delta, where the Israelites were constantly joined by a stream of Semitic immigrants, whose movement towards Egypt is a perfectly authenticated fact of the history of those times. (See Genesis 12:15.)
Note above that the two Commentaries differ regarding how Rebekah heard from God. The Pulpit Commentaries imply that her question may have been answered by an oracle or via a dream. Ellicott, on the other hand, says that her question is answered directly. I’m not sure that either can say from the text, with absolute certainty, one way or the other. However, if Rebekah hears her answer in a dream or through a medium, we are not given any indication of such.
The genealogical line of God’s Chosen People now has a new generation. We do not yet know in the text through which of these two sons that line will continue. We do hear that both will found nations. (We’ll learn more about the two sons in the next section.)