REV. H. HASTINGS WELD
No other wife, and no handmaiden, is mentioned in the scriptures as rivalling Rebekah in the affection of Isaac. The children of no bond‐woman marred her comfort; and thus secure from the disadvantages which afflicted other women of her era, her life promised happiness, and her death peace. Her betrothal and marriage were deemed worthy of a special miracle in their direction; her husband welcomed her as the gift of God; and she was at once recognised in his affection as his comforter, and in his respect as his counsellor. But with all these happy circumstances offering promise, we find the details of her life, after a brief space, those of domestic unhappiness; and respecting her death, the Scriptures preserve a silence which is more painfully eloquent than words. The error which embittered the lives of Isaac and Rebekah is still far too prevalent; and is as prolific in evil now, as Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Esau found it: the preference of parents for one child over another.
In the frank conduct of Rebekah previous to her marriage—in her maiden modesty as she met Isaac—in her trust in God as she appealed to Him in the hour of distress, we see all the elements of a character approved of God and amiable to man—fit indeed to be the comforter of Isaac. But her life exhibited the reverse of this happy picture. The cause was in the unhappy circumstance that the parents were divided in their love: that Isaac loved Esau and Rebekah Jacob. When an unnatural preference is thus exhibited, it is hard to decide which is the more injurious to a child, partial favour or cruel neglect. Overweening fondness is often more detrimental than unkindness; and it is not unfrequently the case that when the grey hairs of a parent are brought in sorrow to the grave, it is by the misconduct of the very child in whom the parent’s heart delighted. There is in this a retributive justice, that the fault may be the means of its own punishment: there is a sad, because fruitless repentance—too late to compensate for the past, or to correct the error, when the sin indulged in for a child stabs the parent’s heart through the wickedness and misery of the very being for whom the evil was committed. Parental injustice must entail unhappiness upon children—it may insure deep misery. It causes brothers and sisters, who should be dear companions, to be cold, unfriendly, and even enemies to each other. It sows hate and discord where love should be planted; and makes the hours of childhood, which should be the green spot in our recollections, a barren waste—barren save in the baleful weeds, whose fruits are envy, and hate, and all uncharitableness.
Parental injustice has the character of a premeditated and persevering sin. What a resolute system of unkindness does it require to estrange the hearts of children—what a continual resistance to their affectionate approaches! In the parents are the highest earthly hopes of their children. Beyond them, in their infancy, they know no greater friends—no more powerful guardians. If those in whom they thus confide, betray, how blank, how cheerless is their little world! They are patient and forbearing; drawing encouragement from the faintest smile of affection, and building up happiness upon the slightest evidence that they are not entirely unloved by their unnatural protectors. Long, against conviction, do they resist the oft recurring proofs that there are children more beloved than they. It is a painful truth which while they feel they would fain deny; which to the latest possible moment they refuse to receive; and when at last the certainty is forced upon them, little marvel is it that it makes them as unlovely as they have been unloved.
Jacob found, no doubt, in his heart some apology for his conduct to Esau, in that his father preferred the rough brother over the mother’s favourite: and Esau in his turn hated the supplanter, who was the delight of his mother. “Is he not,” said Esau, “rightly named Jacob? For he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birth‐right, and now behold he hath taken away my blessing.” (Gen 27:36.) There is something fearfully significant in the passage: “Esau hated Jacob for the blessing wherewith his father had blessed him; and Esau said in his heart, The days of mourning for my father are at hand, then will I slay my brother Jacob.” (Gen 27:41.) How often do we now find the days of mourning for parents signalized by renewed and deeper hate among children! Isaac preferred Jacob over Esau in his last blessing. The last acts of modern fathers, often with the solemn and formal sanction of law, perpetuate the preference of one child over another by an unequal distribution of an inheritance. Thus are days of mourning converted to days of hatred, and as in the case of the descendants of Jacob and Esau, the evil is visited upon the third and fourth generation, and even beyond these to remoter descendants.
The evil done to the character of Jacob by the course of Rebekah made him even more guilty than herself. She was following the weak and wicked but affectionate promptings of her heart, and had the alleviation of comparative disinterestedness. Jacob’s course, though induced by his mother, was at the bottom completely and wickedly selfish. He was selfish in that he sacrificed even his mother for his own profit; allowing her to commit a great sin against God, in the matter of deceiving Isaac for his benefit. It was selfish because it sacrificed his father, making him the unconscious agent of disinheriting his first‐born. How deliberately wicked, and artfully cruel, was the whole transaction of Rebekah’s devisal! Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim. He had passed the period of his strength and manly pride; and the burthen of his years had become to him labour and sorrow. Incapable longer of providing for himself—unable to perceive even whether his desires were truly complied with—trusting to the affection of his children, and to the faithfulness of the wife of his youth, for justice in his old age, and for obedient conformity to his known wishes and preferences:—a feeble old man groping with blind eyes upon the confines of another existence, his only hold in this being the kindness of his family: surely in such a character there was everything to excite sympathy—everything to invite the most sedulous and anxious and fostering care. But in his weakness was the strength of the designing Rebekah—in his blindness was her light. In his fading senses, and incapacity to discern between the meat which he had formerly loathed and that he had desired, were the temptation and the opportunity, which made those of his own household his foes.
Isaac called Esau, and desired him to take his weapons, his quiver and his bow, and provide him venison—that he might discover whether affection could not restore the savour and the zest of the meat he had loved in the days of his manhood. And now behold the elder son bounding over the hills, careless of his labour when the boon was a parent’s blessing. And while Esau panted, like the hart he pursued, in the fatigues of the chase—while he passed by the old and feeble, that he might secure the quarry which should be most acceptable to his parent—manfully disdaining to abuse Isaac’s faltering senses with deceit, or to offer to the old and blind any thing which the young and eagle‐eyed would reject:—mark the craven conduct, in which Jacob was instructed by his mother. He creeps to the sheepfold and brings his ignoble and unresisting prey to her at whose instigation he had procured it. He had not even the trouble of dressing the kids—for she who invented the deceit perfected it. She attired him in his brother’s clothing and masking his effeminate limbs in the skins of the kids, sent him to his father.
Observe the character of Jacob trained by an over‐indulgent mother. It is true that he demurred to the transaction, but how? He did not say, How can I thus deceive my father! How can I wrong my brother! How dare to do this great sin against God! But he said, in the selfishness of his heart, without, apparently, any compunction about the deceit to be played upon his parent, without a thought of objection against the wrong intended to his brother, without a consciousness that God, who is over all, would discern and punish his iniquity: “Behold, Esau, my brother, is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man; my father peradventure will feel me, and I shall seem to him a deceiver, and I shall bring a curse upon me, and not a blessing.” Mark the man’s selfishness. There is not a mention of his mother in his objection. “I shall bring a curse upon me”—a malediction upon myself—“and not a blessing.” (Gen 27:11-12.) Nor was this the worst intimation of his inordinate and absorbing self‐love and covetousness: for when the mother answered “upon me be the curse, my son”—he went and fetched the kids. (Gen 27:13.) When she assumed all the responsibility, and all the danger, being ready in her idolatrous heart to shield her son, if the lie proved abortive, at her own expense—when she took all the risk, leaving to him all the contingent benefit, then he hesitated no longer. He was willing to add to the imposition upon his father and to the robbery of Esau the sacrifice of his mother. And this was her reward. This was the love she had earned by her misguided and wicked preference for one child over another—another who fed at the same fountain, who nestled at the same heart in his infancy.
The artifice succeeded. Isaac remarked that the voice was Jacob’s voice—but the cunning of Rebekah deceived him with the semblance of the hands of Esau. To the acted lie, Jacob added many more. Twice he said—and once under an impressiveness which amounted to the solemnity of an oath—that he was Isaac’s very son Esau. Could his voice have been other than trembling when he cheated the father in his dotage with the words “I have done as thou badest me?” (Gen 27:19.) And how fully must he have been trained and hardened in deceit, that he could make such an answer to Isaac’s question:—“How is it that thou hast found it so quickly, my son?” “Because the Lord thy God brought it to me!” (Gen 27:20.)
The father was deceived—and now mark the retribution which followed. Jacob fled at his mother’s instance from his father’s house; and though in after life he found favour with God amid his affliction, and is counted among those who through faith obtained a good report, yet the consequences of his duplicity pursued him all his life long. He suffered among covetous kindred: he was deceived in the most tender object of his life, he was grieved with the crimes and quarrels of his children; and he said near the end of his life, with bitter retrospection, “few and evil have been the days of my pilgrimage.” (Gen 47:9.) Nor did Isaac and Esau escape their penalty for the exclusive preference which the father designed for Esau, and which the son encouraged. The benediction of the Patriarch was the word of a prophet, which he could not recall. Isaac trembled very exceedingly when he found that the lordship and the rule which he intended for Esau he had conferred upon Jacob; and in this exceeding sorrow he admitted that the injustice which he had conceived had fallen where he least desired it. And Esau cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry. (Gen 27:34.)
Rebekah saw no more of the son of her heart, after he left her to go to her kindred. How, in the loneliness of her last hours, must she have felt the fearful imprecation which she invoked upon herself: “The curse be upon me, my son!” (Gen 27:13.) Could Isaac draw again to his heart the wife who had so cruelly deceived him? Could Esau look with the affection of a son upon her who had defrauded him of his birth‐right? And he to whom she might have looked for companionship and comfort, was an exile from her bosom for ever. We are not informed when or where she died; but before Jacob’s return she had departed. What a return was Jacob’s! We can imagine him looking with an aching heart for all that had been dear to his mother—for such is the inference from a striking fact, which appears upon the sacred page: “Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse died, and she was buried beneath Bethel, under an oak, and the name of it was called the oak of mourning.” (Gen 35:8.) Thus the faithful attendant of the mother found a home—shall we not suspect a more genial home than in Isaac’s household?—in the tent of the favourite son. Her place was in the family of Isaac—she preferred to that the household of Jacob. How significant is the fact; and how plainly does it point to the manner in which the woman once welcomed by Isaac as the joy of his heart, must have passed the evening of her days!
As the life of Rebekah opening in hope closed in disappointment and darkness—so may those look to find retribution, who would put the clothes of Esau upon Jacob, and admit favouritism and duplicity, where impartial love and singleness of heart should unite the household in the bonds of peace.