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Hayei Sarah: The Role of the Nameless

Genesis 23: 1–25:18

Literarily speaking, this week's portion may seem a bit of a bust. Gone, at least temporarily, are the intense, symbolic, high signal-to-noise ratio stories that have until now made the Bible such a riveting read. This week, we contend with the long winds of Eliezer of Damascus, servant to Abraham. His story is dry and bizarrely repetitive.

And yet Eliezer's tale has a great deal to tell us. After first reading about Abraham's purchase of a grave for his beloved wife Sarah (a strange story in itself), we learn that the patriarch, now grown "old, advanced in age," is finally coming around to finding a wife for his precious son Isaac—the successor who will carry God's special message to future generations. This is where Eliezer comes in, a figure who embodies the difficulty of succession and, especially, of relying upon others to help make it happen.

Eliezer is charged with going back east to find a wife for Isaac among the family of Abraham's brother Nahor in Mesopotamia. Eliezer balks, fearful that the woman will not agree to come back with him, but Abraham insists. And so, taking ten camels laden with gifts, Eliezer reaches the land and stands by the well where the city's women come to draw water. He then, with astonishing self-importance, informs God of the sign by which he will know Isaac's bride: if she offers water to both him and his camels, he'll know she's the one.

Abraham's niece Rebecca comes out and does exactly as dictated, and Eliezer prostrates himself in praise. She brings him home, where he refuses to eat until he has repeated the entire story to her family. The next morning, the family asks Rebecca if she's willing to return with the servant, and she agrees, traveling back to Canaan and there uniting with Isaac.

Throughout the Bible, qualities of character are often highlighted by parallel stories in which two people face a similar challenge but respond differently to it. In last week's reading, Abraham's hospitality toward the angels is implicitly contrasted with Lot's hosting of the same angels, a visit marred by Lot's hesitations and failure to make good decisions under pressure; later on, Judah's judgment will be contrasted with that of his brother Reuben in their respective handling of the crisis precipitated by Joseph's being thrown into a pit and sold into slavery.

In this week's reading, understanding Eliezer means comparing him with Jacob a few chapters on. The favored son of Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob must also go east to find a wife among Abraham's extended family. He, too, meets his destined mate at a well. No words pass between them before they embrace: "And Jacob kissed Rachel, and raised his voice, and wept" (Genesis 29:11).

Jacob is a hero, a man of few words and many deeds; a man who intuitively recognizes his bride, the key to his mission, without the need of a pre-set divine signal; a man who, sensing the overwhelming grandeur of the moment, need simply weep. Eliezer, by contrast, is a man incapable of carrying out his mission without talking about it incessantly—to Abraham, to God, to Rebecca's family—and placing himself at the center of the story. Where boldness is called for, he is uncertain; where a simple human response would be appropriate, he falls on his face in praise of the Lord—the same Lord he is proud of manipulating.

Still, in the end, Eliezer fulfills his mission, enabling the story of God's chosen to move to the next stage. Like Lot and Reuben, in other words, Eliezer is neither a hero nor a villain. They are, all of them, flawed individuals who, when called upon to take part in great things, sometimes rise to the occasion but just as often do not.

For this reason, perhaps, Eliezer is not named anywhere in the entire story—we know his name only because Abraham had earlier cited him as the head of his household. He is, rather, an un-special person caught up in an exceedingly special drama: that of the first succession in a religious tradition based entirely on the passage of divine favor and knowledge from one generation to the next. A symbol of vanity, frailty, and ordinariness, an un-hero in a book riddled with heroes, he nevertheless plays the decisive role at the crucial moment.

And that is precisely the point, and why his story embodies one of the most significant messages the Bible has to teach us. While the world may turn on singularly heroic souls, such outsized personalities are often nothing and nowhere without the anonymous individuals who contribute decisively to the moral dramas of their time. The archetypical "connector," Eliezer finds and brings people together so that the world may flourish. He talks too much, this nameless anti-hero, and he is much too enamored of himself; yet his achievements earn him a place of eternal honor. 

David Hazony is the author of The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, published in September by Scribner.



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