At first sight, Rebekah’s longed-for pregnancy, twenty years after her marriage, seemed to be all about the prayers of other people – especially those of her husband and his family. First there was her father-in-law, Abraham, who, after a lengthy wait saw in the birth of his son Isaac, the fulfilment of God’s promise that he would be father of a great tribe. But being the father of a great tribe calls for ongoing production of children – generations of them. So the choice of a wife for Isaac was crucial. When Abraham sent his trusty servant Eleazer, to find a wife for Isaac, Eleazer prayed for and received a sign from God as he made the choice. Rebekah’s family sound like people of faith. They readily accepted Eleazer’s story about the sign with the words: ‘The thing comes from the Lord’. They asked for Rebekah’s consent to the marriage and then sent her off to her new husband with blessings on her relationship.
Over twenty long years which must have given Rebekah a deep sense of failure, it became clear that, although she had been God’s choice as Isaac’s wife, she was ‘a barren woman’. And so one more man’s prayers became significant. Isaac, prayed for a change in his wife’s condition. And another man’s prayer was answered. Rebekah conceived.
In the middle of this story of men’s prayers, Rebekah may seem like what today we might call ‘a walking womb’. Maybe at first she thought that other people’s prayers were enough. Finally, when her pregnancy got difficult, when ’the children pressed hard on each other in her womb’, Rebecca decided to speak to God for herself, to do her own praying. Different versions of the Bible translate her prayer in different words. ‘If it is to be this way, why do I live?’ (NRSV) and ‘If this is how it is with me, what does it mean?’(NEB). Either way, it’s that most basic of prayers, a kind of groaning prayer for understanding and strength that we all make when we feel desperate – the kind of prayer which basically asks God that most important question, ‘What is going on?’
The book of Genesis says that not only did Rebekah talk to God but God spoke to Rebekah. He gave her prophetic insight into the conflict between her twin sons which was already beginning in her body. Rebekah joined the ranks of those in Genesis who were addressed by God and received God’s promises. Like Sarah and Hagar before her, she learned that God gave glimpses of the future not only to the men in the family - to Abraham and Isaac - but directly to her too. God was more than just the God of her family and her husband’s family, God was Rebekah’s God – a God who had helped Rebekah make some sense out of her life.
It’s not unusual to find that in life’s most difficult experiences, other people may not understand what is going on in the dark corners of our lives. At these times, we may be left to pray for ourselves. Rebekah’s story teaches that everyone can do it. It doesn’t matter who we are or what our background is. We don’t have to be pious or use special words. All we need is what Rebekah had - a desperate need for strength and wisdom to cope with a difficult experience.
Genesis does not suggest that once Rebekah had talked to God she never had any more problems. Relations in her family continued in bitter conflict. And she did not get everything right! She may even have contributed to that conflict by favouring Jacob. But from this time on, Rebekah was not just a pawn in someone else’s game. Like her mother-in-law, Sarah, whom she had never met, Rebekah became one more evidence that the God of Israel was interested in her as more than a producer of heirs for her husband and father-in-law. God was interested in her as a whole person – a whole woman.
* I wrote and broadcast this on BBC Radio 2 Pause for Thought in a series on Women in the Bible.