Eliezer the Damascene

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by R. Ira Bedzow

Rabbi Acha said, “The ordinary conversation of the servants of the Patriarchs is more beloved before the Omnipresent than the Torah of their sons, for the section dealing with Eliezer is repeated in the Torah, whereas many fundamentals of the Torah were given only through allusions.” This statement may seem troubling since one would think that God’s commands should be more prominent than the words of a man. This is especially so, since, unlike Eliezer, the Jewish people are not servants of a servant, and when the words of a human authority figure contradict the Divine, we listen to God. Therefore, there must be some value in the repetition of Eliezer’s mission and his account of it that the repetition itself indicates. Otherwise, the text could have stated, “And the servant told Lavan and Betuel all the things that he had done,” just as it states with respect to Eliezer’s recounting to Yitzchak. [1]Genesis 24:66.

In addition to the very fact of its repetition, the accounts are not exactly the same, leaving a question as to the reason of the divergence between them. One way to approach the differences is to assume that they are for literary affect. For example, with respect to the duplication in the verse,

אֶת-כַּסְפְּךָ לֹא תִתֵּן לוֹ, בְּנֶשֶׁךְ; וּבְמַרְבִּית, לֹא-תִתֵּן אָכְלֶךָ

“You shall not give him your money with interest, nor give him your food provisions for increase,”

Rava recognizes that the two prohibitions are the same; he nevertheless offers that the purpose in stating the two commands separately is so that in one act of taking interest, a person transgresses two prohibitions. [2]BT Bava Metzia 60b. The Tosafists write that one need not worry about there being any difference betweenנשך and מרבית, the change in terminology is for stylistic effect and not for the purpose of deriving meaning from etymological or connotation distinctions. [3]Tosafot, BM 60b, s.v. “lama” Similarly, when it comes to the differences in Eliezer’s versions of what occurs, one might simply allow for poetic license to account for the differences. This is the lens through which Radak understands the differences in the accounts. According to him, one should not attempt to provide reasons for the differences in language. Eliezer recounted the events as they occurred; the differences are simply linguistic and do not change the general meaning of the story.

This perspective, however, still leaves one wondering why the Torah repeats the account at all, since it is a general premise that the Torah does not waste words. Moreover, even if one would claim that frugality is a premise with respect to judicial sections and not narrative ones, the Torah still uses particular expressions over other ones in narrative sections to teach lessons. For example, when the Torah states, “Of the clean beasts and of the beasts that are not clean, and of the fowl, and all that creeps upon the earth,” [4]Genesis 7:8. the Sages comment that the Torah uses the longer expression, “that are not clean,” instead of the single word, “unclean,” to teach that one should always try to express oneself in decent language. [5]BT Pesachim 3a. We are therefore still left with the underlying question of what the extra wording of Eliezer’s account to Lavan and Betuel is meant to teach us?

Both Saadia Gaon and Don Yitzchak Abravanel understand the repetition and differences in Eliezer’s recounting to Lavan and Betuel as intentional. The changes that Eliezer makes in describing what had occurred demonstrate his wisdom and good sense, and the reason for the repetition is due to the fact that it is the only way that we may learn what his changes teach since only through repetition can one appreciate nuance. From this perspective, the duplication of Eliezer’s story provides us with insight into how one should accomplish one’s mission and how one can persuade others to fulfill their destiny.

Support for the latter perspective can be found in how Eliezer is described in different parts of the story. The Torah at times refers to Eliezer as a man (Ish) and other times as Avraham’s servant. If during the times when he is called – or perceived as – an Ish he acts on his own accord and not simply as a servant who carries out his master’s command exactly as commanded, then this distinction provides a reason for Eliezer’s omission of certain parts of the account, such as when he asks her for lodging, when he relates it to Lavan and Betuel. They are not relevant to his mission as explicitly set by Avraham. It also explains why he changes Avraham’s words when relating the conversation he had with him when speaking to Rivka’s family.

Eliezer – Eved or Ish?

From the moment that Avraham begins to speak to Eliezer, he is called a servant. In fact, we are never told definitively that the person sent to find Yitzchak a bride is actually Eliezer. We only know who he is based on the description that he is the elder of Avraham’s house who ruled over all that was his. [6]Genesis 24:2. Only Eliezer is given the description as steward of Avraham’s household. [7]Genesis 15:2. The reason why Eliezer is never mentioned by name is to emphasize that his mission is as Avraham’s servant; he does not go on his own accord.

Even though a man’s agent is as himself, and the hand of a slave is as the hand of his master, when Rivka fulfilled the conditions for Yitzchak’s bride that Eliezer set at the well, the text states, “And the man was astonished at her, standing silent, [waiting] to know whether Hashem had caused his way to prosper or not.” [8]Genesis 24:21. Eliezer continues to be called a man and not a servant for the remainder of his encounter with Rivka until he corrects the misconception when he says to Lavan and Betuel, “I am Avraham’s servant.” [9]Genesis 24:34. Nevertheless, Lavan and Betuel (and Rivka) continue to refer to him as a man until Rivka sees Yitzchak. [10]Genesis 24:65.

In referring to Eliezer as a man rather than as a servant, the text provides a clue as to how to interpret Eliezer’s actions. Though intent on fulfilling the general mission of his master, Eliezer does so based on his own perceptions of the situation and on how he thinks the mission could be best fulfilled. The changes made between the different accounts of the story therefore tell us as much about Eliezer as it does of what had occurred.

Though the text simply infers the pronoun when he first sets the conditions of how he will recognize Yitzchak’s future bride, one can assume that it is at this point that Eliezer first demonstrates his independence in terms of how he will accomplish this mission. The text shows that the conditions he set were not necessary, since as soon as he finished articulating them, “Rivka, came out, who had been born to Betuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nachor, Avraham’s brother, and her pitcher was on her shoulder.” [11]Genesis 24:15. Eliezer, “the servant” ran toward her, [12]Genesis 24:17. not the man, which should indicate that, despite any self-imposed conditions, the angel about whom Avraham told Eliezer had already preceded him to take a wife for his son. [13]Genesis 24:7. Rashi comments that Eliezer was given a sign that Rivka was the woman chosen to be Yitzchak’s bride, namely, the water of the well had risen toward her. Yet, even when his own self-imposed conditions were met, Eliezer, the man, was still astonished and wondered if Hashem had caused his way to prosper or not. [14]Genesis 24:21.

When Eliezer, the man, kneels and prostrates to Hashem, [15]Genesis 24:26. he says, “”Blessed is Hashem, the God of my master, Avraham, Who has not forsaken His chesed and His emet from my master.” [16]Genesis 24:27. The cantillation marks indicate that “His chesed” and “His emet” are said together, implying that Hashem’s chesed to Avraham was true in the sense that Rivka was worthy of Yitzchak both in deed and in lineage. Yet, there is a difficulty in understanding the rest of the verse, given its cantillation, when the two are understood to be a compound expression. The entire verse is as follows:

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר בָּר֤וּךְ ה֙ אֱלֹקֵי֙ אֲדֹנִ֣י אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲ֠שֶׁ֠ר לֹֽא־עָזַ֥ב חַסְדּ֛וֹ וַֽאֲמִתּ֖וֹ מֵעִ֣ם אֲדֹנִ֑י אָֽנֹכִ֗י בַּדֶּ֨רֶךְ֙ נָחַ֣נִי ה’ בֵּ֖ית אֲחֵ֥י אֲדֹנִֽי.

And he said, “Blessed is Hashem, the God of my master, Avraham, Who has not forsaken His chesed and His emet from my master. As for me, Hashem led me on the road to the house of my master’s kinsmen.”

Both Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman and Shadal notes that “anochi” is not joined to the word “ba’derech;” rather, it should be seen as an independent expression. This would parse the expression as “who has not forsaken His chesed and His emet from my master, me…Hashem led me on the road to the house of my master’s kinsmen.” When parsed this way, one can understand the distinction between Eliezer the servant and Eliezer the man, as well as his need to correct Rivka’s (as well as Lavan’s and Betuel’s) misconceptions by stating at the outset that he is Avraham’s servant.

When he first sets his conditions to know which woman would be Yitzchak’s bride, Eliezer asks, “Oh Hashem, the God of my master Avraham, please cause to happen to me today, and perform chesed with my master, Avraham.” [17]Genesis 24:12. Yet Avraham never doubted that Eliezer would not be successful. In fact, Avraham understood the success of Eliezer’s mission to be part and parcel of the fulfillment of God’s promise that he will inherit the land. Therefore, when Eliezer recognizes that Rivka is the choice bride for Yitzchak, he also recognizes that God performed a chesed for him. Meaning, Eliezer perceived it as a chesed since he had reservations about being successful. From Avraham’s perspective, however, God did not forsake His truth from his master. The ambiguity of Eliezer’s expression indicates this distinction, and it should thus be understood to account for it as well. Not only does Eliezer praise Hashem’s true chesed to Avraham in the sense that Rivka was worthy of Yitzchak both in deed and in lineage, he also exclaims “Blessed is Hashem, the God of my master, Avraham, Who has not forsaken His chesed [from me] and His truth from my master…Hashem has led me on the road to the house of my master’s kinsmen.”

Even though Eliezer now recognizes the inevitability of his success, he must still convince Rivka’s family that “the thing proceeds from Hashem.” [18]Genesis 24:50. Because they perceive him as a man and not as a servant of Avraham, despite his protest to the contrary, he must persuade them on their own terms that Rivka must go with him back to Canaan.

Eliezer’s Changes in Reporting his Conversation with Avraham

The text states that Hashem blessed Avraham with everything, [19]Genesis 24:1 yet Eliezer tells his hosts, that Hashem blessed him greatly (מְאֹד); and that he has become great(וַיִּגְדָּל) ; and He has given him flocks and herds, and silver and gold, and men-servants and maid-servants, and camels and asses, and Sarah bore him a son when she was old, and to him he has given everything that he has (אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ). [20]Genesis 24:35-6. The difference between these two descriptions is not simply that Eliezer gives a detailed bookkeeping of Avraham’s assets. Rather, the two expressions should be seen in a similar light as the distinction between Yaakov’s statement, יֶשׁ-לִי-כֹל, and Esav’s statement, יֶשׁ-לִי רָב. In both cases, the former demonstrates a wealth whereby one is satisfied with all that God has given him; the latter demonstrates a need for others to be impressed with one’s material possessions. When Eliezer tells his hosts about Avraham’s wealth, it is meant to impress upon them that it is to their financial benefit to marry off Rivka to Avraham’s son.

Avraham makes Eliezer swear that he will not take a wife for Yitzchak from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose midst he dwells (בקרבו); rather, Eliezer must go “to my land and to my birthplace” (אל-ארצי ואל-מולדתי). Eliezer, however, tells his hosts that Avraham prohibited him to take a woman from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land he dwells (בְּאַרְצוֹ), and that he should go “to my father’s house, and to my family (אֶל-בֵּית-אָבִי תֵּלֵךְ, וְאֶל-מִשְׁפַּחְתִּי). In emphasizing that he should not take a woman from all of the lands of the Canaanites and go to Avraham’s immediate family, Eliezer leads his hosts to believe that Rivka was the only woman that Avraham wanted for his son.

If Rivka’s family was not made to feel special, they might have been less willing to send her with Eliezer. They might have perceived the choice of Rivka to be a means to avoid intermarriage with the local Canaanite population, for fear that through intermarriage the Canaanites may lay claim to the land promised to Avraham by God. [21]See Chizkuni Genesis 24:3. Taking Rivka as a wife would preclude any difficulties that Avraham might foresee in maintaining his inheritance claim. Of course, Avraham did not consider the political ramifications as a reason not to marry with the Canaanites. By alluding to his own migration away from his ancestral home, Avraham showed that his intention was for Yitzchak and his wife to continue to live as foreigners and not assimilate into Canaanite culture. Nevertheless, Eliezer’s interest was not in explaining Avraham’s rationale. It was in making sure that Rivka would come back home with him.

In his response to Avraham’s command, Eliezer asks, “Perhaps the woman will not be willing to follow me to this land; may I bring your son back to the land from where you came?” Yet in recounting his discussion with Avraham, Eliezer changes his wording to “Perhaps the woman will not follow me?” In changing his words to avoid any implication that Rivka would not be willing to go, and in leaving out the option for Yitzchak to return to Avraham’s ancestral home, Eliezer implies that there was never any doubt as to the willingness of Rivka to come back with him. The concern was only as to whether the family would stop her from fulfilling her destiny.

Rivka’s family responds to Eliezer’s account by saying, “The thing proceeds from Hashem; we cannot speak to you [regarding it, whether for] bad or good.” [22]Genesis 24:50. Rashi explains Eliezer’s success in persuading Rivka’s family of the inevitability of her marriage to Yitzchak, “We cannot speak to you to refuse in this matter, either with an unfavorable reply or with an appropriate reply, because it is obvious that the matter has come from Hashem, according to your words, that He has designated her for you [to take for Yitzchak].”


1Genesis 24:66.
2BT Bava Metzia 60b.
3Tosafot, BM 60b, s.v. “lama”
4Genesis 7:8.
5BT Pesachim 3a.
6Genesis 24:2.
7Genesis 15:2.
8, 14Genesis 24:21.
9Genesis 24:34.
10Genesis 24:65.
11Genesis 24:15.
12Genesis 24:17.
13Genesis 24:7.
15Genesis 24:26.
16Genesis 24:27.
17Genesis 24:12.
18, 22Genesis 24:50.
19Genesis 24:1
20Genesis 24:35-6.
21See Chizkuni Genesis 24:3.

About Ira Bedzow

Ira Bedzow is the Director of the Biomedical Ethics and Humanities Program at New York Medical College. Among his other responsibilities, he is in charge of a new master’s program in biomedical ethics at NYMC, which has an option for a focus in Jewish medical ethics. He is also the Senior Scholar of the Aspen Center for Social Values. Rabbi Bedzow received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg (Yoreh Yoreh), Rabbi Daniel Channen (Yoreh Yoreh), Rabbi Yitzchak Oshinksy (Yadin Yadin), and Rabbi Dovid Schochet (Yadin Yadin). He earned his PhD in Religion at Emory University.

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