Monday, January 30, 2017

The Uniformity of Expressive Silence and Corrboration of Biblical History: The Case of Rebecca and Bethuel

In a previous article, I showed how the principle of undesignedness can be used to corroborate Biblical history, giving the specific example of its application to the story of David, Absalom and Ahithophel the Gilonite. For those unfamiliar with the principle of undesignedness, I suggest reading my earlier two articles on the subject (here and here) for a discussion of it.

Another sort of undesignedness can sometimes arise when we examine cases where information is assumed by the author although not explicitly spelled out -- this may be called the uniformity of expressive silence -- repeated omissions that have a meaning. Here, I give an example of this from the book of Genesis.

Genesis 24 narrates the story of Abraham's servant's journey to the city of Nahor in Mesopotamia in search of a wife for Isaac. He encounters "Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham's brother", who "came out with her water jar on her shoulder." Abraham's servant requests a drink of water from the jar. Rebekah gives him some water and also some for his camels to drink. In verses 22-28, we read what happened next:
22 When the camels had finished drinking, the man took a gold ring weighing a half shekel, and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekels, 23 and said, “Please tell me whose daughter you are. Is there room in your father's house for us to spend the night?” 24 She said to him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel the son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor.” 25 She added, “We have plenty of both straw and fodder, and room to spend the night.” 26 The man bowed his head and worshiped the Lord 27 and said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the Lord has led me in the way to the house of my master's kinsmen.” 28 Then the young woman ran and told her mother's household about these things.
The point to which I wish to draw attention is the consistent insignificance of Bethuel throughout the narrative. Bethuel was the father of Rebekah, and thus it is reasonable to expect that the terms of a marriage contract would be stipulated by him. Indeed, in the case of Laban in Genesis 29 in regards to his disposing of a daughter in marriage -- a daughter who, like Rebecca, had brothers (see Genesis 31:1) -- the active party throughout the account is the father, Laban.

Contrast this with the case of Bethuel in our current text in Genesis 24. Abraham's servant had asked her, “Please tell me whose daughter you are. Is there room in your father's house for us to spend the night?” (verse 23). We are then told, however, that "the young woman ran and told her mother's household about these things," (Genesis 24:28). Notice we are not told that she ran to her father's household (as Rachel did in Genesis 29:12 after meeting Jacob), but rather she ran to her mother's household. Verse 29 further informs us, "Rebekah had a brother whose name was Laban. Laban ran out toward the man, to the spring."

After having been invited in to the house by Laban, the servant explains the purpose of his visit (verses 34-49). In verse 50, we read,  "Then Laban and Bethuel answered and said,.." The mention of Bethuel constitutes the only proof that he was alive at the time of this incident. It is agreed that the servant may "take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master's son, as the Lord has spoken," (verse 51).

The servant then gives gifts, we are told, "to Rebekah" and "to her brother and to her mother," (verse 53). Curiously, no gifts are given to Bethuel, it would seem. In verse 55, we read, "Her brother and her mother said, “Let the young woman remain with us a while, at least ten days; after that she may go.”" It would seem expected that such a proposal would be made by her father. Instead, it is made by her mother and brother. After inquiring of Rebekah, it is decided that she would leave with the servant after all (verses 58-61).

Abraham's son Isaac marries Rebekah, and together they have a son called Jacob (Genesis 25:26). After Jacob deceives his father Isaac into blessing him rather than Esau, the eldest (Genesis 27), Rebekah counsels Jacob to flee because Esau planned to kill him,  Along his journey, he encounters some shepherds and asks them “Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?” (Genesis 29:5). This is strange, because Laban was the son of Bethuel and only the grandson of Nahor. Yet, again, we see Bethuel passed over as an individual considered of no importance among his own family. Bethuel's own son, therefore, is identified by the name of his grandfather rather than his father.

We can not state the specific circumstances surrounding Bethuel or explain exactly why he was a man considered of no note. Who knows? Perhaps he was considered incapable of managing his own affairs due to age or imbecility. Whatever the reason, Scripture does not tell us. However, the lack of concurrence in a positive fact but silent presumption of that same fact suggests that the author knew something more than we do about the circumstances than he discloses in his account thereof. It is the sort of pattern we expect in real history, but not the sort of pattern we should expect from works of fiction.


Tony Costa said...
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Tony Costa said...

Excellent article Jonathan. Just as exciting as the first post.

Anthony Rogers said...

Good stuff.

Unknown said...

Hello Jonathan, I recently stumbled across several commentaries that claimed that Rebekah was three years old at the time of her marriage. Could you please address that? Does it have any weight?

David Wood said...

LOL! So, Hannah, you think there may be weight to the claim that Rebekah was three years old when she was out watering camels with the family water jar?

Unknown said...

I wouldn't ask if I knew. What about the timing issue of when they heard about her birth? Also hi David, I love your videos!

Unknown said...

Also I do wonder how nice people were to their kids, especially their daughters, at any point in the history of the middle East. Was cruelty towards young women developed with Islam or did it precede and inform it?