Female Piety—The Young Woman's Guide Through Life to Immortality
John Angell James, (1785—1859)
THE CHARACTER OF REBEKAH
"Before I had finished praying these words, I saw Rebekah coming along with her water jug on her shoulder. She went down to the spring and drew water and filled the jug. So I said to her, 'Please give me a drink.' She quickly lowered the jug from her shoulder so I could drink, and she said, 'Certainly, sir, and I will water your camels, too!'" Genesis 24:45-46
Every one must be struck, I would think, with the narratives in the book of Genesis, and their correspondence to the state of society to which they relate. Their realistic descriptions guarantees their truthfulness, and explains their peculiarity. We find all that charming simplicity which is in keeping with the primitive life of the people referred to; together with all the defects in their conduct, which their imperfect knowledge might be expected to bring with it. Another kind of narrative, more in conformity with the advance and artificial refinement of modern society, would excite suspicion of the truthfulness of the story.
Where shall we find in all the range of fiction anything so exquisite as the history of Joseph; or even as the beautiful story which furnishes the example to be contemplated in this chapter? I invite those endowed with taste to the perusal of this portion of Holy Writ. True, it relates rather to the history of a family than of a nation. And it is worthy of remark, that the Spirit of God preserved in the inspired chronicles this little gem of historic narrative, rather than the record of anything going on at that time among the great kingdoms of antiquity, not excepting Egypt, the birthplace and cradle of science. The secular historian delights to emblazon his page with the conflicts of empires, the exploits of heroes, and the prowess of armies—but what is the influence of such records upon the moral habits, social happiness, and individual character of mankind—compared with that of the story of the holy courtship of Isaac and Rebekah?
Sarah, the beloved and faithful wife of Abraham, had died, and been laid in the cave of Machpelah. Sadness and desolation were reigning in the patriarch's household. His tent was empty; the grief of Isaac, who loved his mother most tenderly, was unsoothed; and upon him the heart of the venerable widower was now turned with more concentrated affection. Isaac, the miraculous child of promise, though forty years of age, was unmarried. The holy patriarch, amid much domestic distress—the consequence of polygamy—had known the happiness of possessing a faithful and devoted wife, and he now became naturally anxious to see his beloved son in possession of a companion in life, before he himself should go the way of all flesh. His solicitude however was not merely that Isaac should be married—but well married—which in his view meant not wealthily, but religiously. Abraham was a worshiper of Jehovah, and abhorred idolatry—by the votaries of which he was surrounded on every side; and it pierced his heart with anguish to think of the child of his love contracting a marriage with one of them. He knew that Isaac's character as well as his happiness depended upon his choice. Moreover it was not only a private matter of personal and family arrangement, involving Isaac's happiness and the comfort of his father, but also a public concern, intimately affecting the covenant which the Almighty had entered into with him, and the countless millions who were to be blessed in his seed. Isaac sustained a sacred character, he was the child of promise, and inherited, and was to transmit, the promises concerning the Messiah.
As Abraham had relatives in the land of Mesopotamia who worshiped the living God, he determined to send his personal servant to engage a wife for Isaac from their family. We must suppose of course that all this was with the knowledge of Isaac and met with his cordial consent, though parental authority was then more extensive, and filial submission to it, more exemplary, than they now are. Parents, in those times, chose wives for their sons, and husbands for their daughters; and often were regulated in their choice more by regard to wealth and rank than by the adaptation and affection of the parties to be united. I do not wish this custom to be revived—it is unnatural, and reduces marriage to a matter of bargain and sale. But I do wish parental counsel, consent, and approbation, to be always sought in a matter of so much importance to all parties concerned, whether directly or remotely.
The trusty servant selected by Abraham proceeded on his mission—so delicate, difficult, and momentous to both the father and son. Not however until religious solemnities had been observed, and the patriarch had commended Eleazar to God by prayer. If we wanted the character of a faithful servant delineated to the life, where could we find a picture so perfect as this man? I shall not follow him through his long and wearisome journey of nearly five hundred miles, nor will I dwell upon the anxious ruminations of his mind during the weeks it occupied. Yet I cannot but imagine how constantly that mind was lifted up to God for protection, direction, and success. He at length arrived at the city of his destination. It was a summer evening, and observing a well outside the walls, he stopped to give his camels water, before he passed through the gates. Aware that it was the custom for the young women to come and draw water for household purposes, he first placed his camels by the well, and then betook himself to prayer for Divine direction.
"O Lord, God of my master," he prayed. "Give me success and show kindness to my master, Abraham. Help me to accomplish the purpose of my journey. See, here I am, standing beside this spring, and the young women of the village are coming out to draw water. This is my request. I will ask one of them for a drink. If she says, 'Yes, certainly, and I will water your camels, too!'—let her be the one you have appointed as Isaac's wife. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master." Genesis 24:12-14
It is noticeable that he did not fix upon the one who would first offer her services, but upon the one who would first willingly grant the service asked of her. In this he proceeded wisely, conceiving, it would seem, that a maid who offered unasked, to a stranger, even so slight a service as a draught of water at a public well, showed no maidenly spirit; and deeming perhaps that such attention might be an excuse for curiosity, and an evidence rather of officious forwardness, than of an obliging disposition.
Eleazar's conduct in all this is worthy of notice, as furnishing a beautiful comment upon Solomon's advice, "In all your ways acknowledge Him, and he shall direct your paths." Let us thus begin, carry on, and end, all our works in God. What is begun in prayer, usually, as in this case, ends in praise. So thought Eleazar when he knelt down by the side of the well of Nahor, and poured out this simple and beautiful prayer. In his case it no doubt was well, but ordinarily it does not become us to ask, much less to prescribe, special tokens by which God shall indicate his will.
Having presented his prayer, he waited for the answer, and waited in strong faith that he should receive it. He did not wait long. A young woman came towards the well, with a water jug upon her shoulder. By her appearance, perhaps by an impression from God, he was possessed with the idea that she was the person sought, and that the Lord had answered his prayer. He therefore addressed her in the language which he had resolved to employ, and received the very answer which was to be the sign of her being the object of his mission. Her gentleness, cheerfulness, diligence, and courtesy, manifested towards a stranger of whom she could have no knowledge, were truly admirable—unmixed and uncorrupted as they were by any improper forwardness or levity. She was frank without being obtrusive, kind without being familiar. She neither ran away affrighted from his presence, for her innocence gave her courage—nor did she step beyond the decorum of her sex, nor allow her courtesy to infringe upon her modesty. It was well for Rebekah that she did not answer with a proud and haughty contempt, and a surly refusal. "Yes, and it was well for another woman, who long after met another stranger, 'wearied with his journey,' at another well, that when she met his request, 'Give me a drink,' with the surly question, 'How is it that you being a Jew, ask drink of me who am a Samaritan?' it was well, I say, for her that she had a different person from Abraham's servant to deal with."
The words in which Rebekah's answer and conduct are described, paint the scene to the life—"Drink, my lord," she said, and quickly lowered the jar to her hands and gave him a drink. After she had given him a drink, she said, "I'll draw water for your camels too, until they have finished drinking." So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, ran back to the well to draw more water, and drew enough for all his camels." Conduct so amiable overwhelmed Eleazar; and so slow of heart are we to believe in the answer of our prayers, that—"Without saying a word, the man watched her closely to learn whether or not the Lord had made his journey successful." Genesis 24:21
There are cases in which the mind, like the eye, is lit up by a sudden light. It was so here. Finding at length that she was indeed the object of his journey, he could not repress the feelings of his full heart, but expressed them in two ways. The first has in all ages and in all countries been considered as one inlet to the female heart; that heart, which has at any rate been ever thought "accessible to finery, presents, and praise." "Then at last, when the camels had finished drinking, he gave her a gold ring for her nose and two large gold bracelets for her wrists."
But this was not the only expression of his joy and gratitude, for unrestrained by the presence of Rebekah, "He bowed down his head and worshiped, saying—Blessed be Jehovah, God of my master Abraham, who has not left destitute my master of his mercy and his truth—I being in the way, Jehovah led me to the house of my master's brethren." Did the heart of Rebekah, true to instinctive perception in all such matters, begin to divine what this present and this praise to God meant? Did a thought glance across her mind of the nature of this man's visit to Nahor? Or was the scene beheld by her in awe and wonder at the character and errand of the mysterious stranger? She must have known of her noble relation, Abraham, whose name she now heard in prayer from the lips of Eleazar.
But let us for a moment forget Rebekah, to look upon this holy, faithful, loving servant. Never did piety and fidelity more truly blend the sanctity of the one with the devotedness of the other. Happy master, to have such a servant! Happy servant, to be blessed with such a master!
It is not necessary for me to enter very minutely into the incidents of the scenes which followed. How Rebekah hastened with the news to her father's house, and how Laban her brother went forth to greet the stranger and conduct him to their home. We mark, as if we saw them, the courtesy of the opening interview; the frank interchange of kindly greetings and good offices; the admirable delicacy of the servant's introduction of himself to the family of Bethuel; the servant's impatience to fulfill his errand; the simple recital of what the Lord had done for him; and the full development of the object of his visit.
Upon hearing them, Laban, as the surviving representative of his father, replied, "The thing proceeds from the Lord, we cannot speak unto you bad or good. Behold, Rebekah is before you, take her, and go, and let her be your master's son's wife, as the Lord has spoken." This was dependent, as the after part of the narrative shows, upon the girl's consent. To help to gain this, a second splendid present was prepared for her—of jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and clothing. This was, and is still, the oriental custom of contracting all bargains and entering into all covenants, relating to marriage, trade, or politics. Very natural was the remonstrance which the brother, and especially the mother of the bride, addressed to the impatient servant of Abraham, when in the morning he said, "Send me away to my master. And her brother and her mother said, let the girl abide with us a few days, at the least ten; after that she shall go." Whether it be a respite of ten days, or as some say, of ten months, or even years, that the mother joined with her son in soliciting, before the daughter should bid her a last adieu, this is a touch of genuine tenderness which we would not willingly lose from the narrative. For it is a narrative which proves its own truth by its being so thoroughly, all throughout, true to nature.
Rebekah was now called in and the question put to her, "Will you go with this man?" Was she deficient in virgin modesty, in prudence, in thoughtfulness? Did she display an unseemly haste to become a wife? Did she venture too carelessly to commit herself and her happiness for life to one of whom she knew nothing, but by report? Did she not take the decisive step in the dark, when she consented to peril in such haste the comfort of her life, upon the truth of the singular embassy that had come to her? In ordinary circumstances I would unquestionably reply to these questions in the affirmative, and I would earnestly recommend to all young women at the present day, and to all who have the care of them, whether parents or guardians, more delay, inquiry, and caution, than were observed in this case. Hasty offers of marriage should be met either by immediate refusal or lengthened consideration. It is too momentous an affair to be decided without much investigation and reflection.
But there was a peculiarity here. Something, perhaps, may be justly imputed to the times in which they lived, but far more to the religious state of Rebekah's mind; a sense of duty overwhelmed a feeling of reluctance, together with every inferior consideration. She was doubtless in the habit of daily communion with God, and in fervent prayer had sought Divine direction; she saw an overruling providence; God was in the affair; his finger, visible to the eye of faith, pointed the way in which she should go; and with unhesitating obedience she confessed her readiness to part from all the felicities of home, and seek a distant alliance—at the voice of the Almighty Being to whom she had committed her future destiny.
Flattering as the scene before her must have appeared to a worldly eye, the sacrifices she made at this moment of compliance were certainly very considerable. What could have led to such an answer, when standing between the tears of parental and fraternal affection, and the urgency of a mere stranger, the servant too of her future home—but a faith which overcame the world, and dictated her holy resolution. Heaven appointed her journey, and nature pleaded in vain. That religion had something to do with it, I have no doubt; that the promptings of the female heart had also some influence, I have as little doubt. "What woman," says Monod, "under a sense of her dependence, has not wished once in her life, for the arm of a man to support her, and his name to shelter her? But at the same time, what woman under the feeling of reserve, has not kept her secret closely shut up within her own bosom, waiting silently until she is sought for, even though she should wait until the hour of her death, hastened, perhaps, in some cases, by that internal fire by which she would be consumed within, rather than allow it to be blazed abroad. The invariable order of marriage which surrenders the initiative to man, and does not accord even the appearance of it to woman, is not a refinement of civilization, it is not even a nicety of the gospel, it is a law imposed on woman in every age, not excepting the most barbarous; and among all people, not excepting the most savage."
Rebekah partook of this feeling, but she worshiped the true God, and lived amid those who worshiped idols, where perhaps few opportunities of a holy union presented themselves; and now one offered, in which was combined all that piety could desire, and even vanity crave; she therefore required little or no time to deliberate upon it, and at once consented to accompany the servant of Abraham. Rebekah took leave of her friends, and proceeded on her eventful journey under the care of Eleazar, and accompanied, both for her comfort and her protection, by Deborah, an old and faithful servant who had nursed her from a child.
For a moment we leave her, proceeding on her journey, to speak of her future husband, of whom good Bishop Hall says, "Of all the patriarchs, none made so little noise in the world as Isaac; none lived either so privately, or so innocently; neither know I whether he proved himself a better son or husband. For the one he gave himself over to the knife of his father when about to be offered up in sacrifice, and mourned three years for his mother; for the other he reserved himself in chaste forbearance twenty years and prayed."
Isaac appears to have been a quiet, retiring, domestic, and devotional character; good, rather than great, and altogether blameless, with the exception that he was a little too much addicted to the gratification of his palate. "It is a calm and peaceful summer evening. The oxen have been lodged in their stalls, and the implements of husbandry are at rest in the furrows of the field. Not a breath of wind rustles in the noiseless leaves. Not a stray sheep wanders in the dark shadow of the hills. It is a time of profound repose. One solitary figure is seen slowly pacing the sweet-scented meadow path. Unconscious of nature's charms, although his soul is melted into sweet harmony with the peace that reigns all around, he is wrapped in holy fellowship with the God of his salvation." (Candlish)
It is Isaac, "who had gone out into the fields to meditate." No improper oratory for the good man, who, surrounded by the glories of creation, looks through nature up to nature's God. In such an exercise and such a frame of mind, Isaac was well prepared to receive the best possible earthly blessing—a good wife. Perhaps he was then meditating upon Eleazar's mission, and beseeching heaven for its success. Behold the answer of his prayers! A cavalcade is seen in the distance approaching. It draws nearer and nearer. Can it be the return of Eleazar, the faithful servant? And are there not two women in the retinue, one young and the other far advanced in life? The vision of his future wife now flashed through his imagination as the procession drew nearer, and his eyes with fixed attention rested upon the beauteous form of Rebekah.
"And who," says Rebekah, whose eyes are as busy in looking towards Canaan as Isaac's are in the direction of Mesopotamia, "is that meditative man approaching us?" The secret is disclosed by the faithful, joyful Eleazar. "My master, Isaac!" As she approached her destined husband, see how female delicacy, and maiden modesty and reserve, resume their empire. "She alighted off the camel; and took a veil and covered herself." This act expressed her subjection as his already espoused wife, to him as her future husband.
"And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah's tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her—and Isaac was comforted after his mother's death." In this tender manner does this admirable story close. Peace be to that dwelling, the residence of a dutiful son and a tender husband—and of a kind, generous, open-hearted, pious wife. Dutiful sons promise to be affectionate husbands—and were I a woman, and received an offer of marriage, one of the first enquiries I would make concerning the man who solicited my hand and heart, would be "How did he behave to his mother?" feeling assured that conjugal affection could scarcely be expected to dwell in that heart from which filial regard had been excluded. He who is insensible to a mother's tender affection, believe me, my young friends, is not to be entrusted with the care of a woman's heart and happiness.
"We may here pause and remark that all the circumstances continue to make this portion of the sacred record peculiarly attractive. In reading it we feel at home amid these patriarchal incidents and descriptions, realizing them as if they were familiar. The stately pomp and ceremony, reserve and coldness and suspicion of a more artificial social state pass away. The freshness of nature's early truth and tenderness returns—artless, guileless, fearless. We breathe a purer and freer air. We are touched with a deeper sense at once of a special Providence in heaven, and of a real and true sympathy on earth. We feel that there can be such a thing as the exercise of a frank and generous trust, relying both upon God and upon man; and that it is possible to act upon the belief both of God's superintendence and of man's sincerity."
Before we consider what is to be learned from the conduct of Rebekah as a wife and a mother, we will for a few moments contemplate her in reference to the act which made her such, her marriage. The circumstances connected with this were peculiar to the times, and partook of a simplicity, as I have already remarked, to which your history is not likely to supply a parallel. One thing, however, may be noticed—it was with the concurrence and consent of her family. I cannot account for the fact of Bethuel, Rebekah's father, being passed over in silence, and Laban her brother only being mentioned as conducting the transaction, except upon the supposition that Bethuel was dead. It is true the name occurs once in the history, but this probably was a brother. But Laban was consulted. There was nothing clandestine in the affair. And moreover it was a marriage in which the claims of religion were considered. On this delicate subject I cannot enlarge. If Rebekah had showed too great an eagerness for leaving the single state, and somewhat too hasty a decision, we do not recommend this to you; from this however we have absolved her.
It may be natural enough to prefer the married to the unmarried state, when an opportunity offers for entering into it. But let not your minds be unduly restless and anxious in realizing the object of your wishes. Avoid all romantic and poetic imaginativeness on this momentous affair. Do not allow yourselves ever to treat it with levity, or to sustain or adopt a line of conduct which would look as if you were more anxious to be a wife—than to be qualified for such a state. Never come to the conclusion that you cannot be happy if you are not married—and cannot but be happy if you are married. Let the multitude of happy maidens and the equal number of unhappy wives, correct such mistakes, and dispel all the illusions with which the idea of marriage disturbs the propriety of some young women's conduct.
Treat the whole subject, not as a matter of poetry and romance, but as one of the gravest realities of life. It is an affair of love—but it is also an affair of prudence. It is a matter of taste, and even of poetic delightedness—but it is also a matter of judgment and of conscience. It is not a thing to be laughed and joked about—but to be pondered in the deepest recesses of the soul—and prayed over in the most solemn seasons of devotion. It is momentous to both parties, but most so to the woman.
"Life or death, felicity or a lasting sorrow, are in the power of marriage. A woman indeed ventures most, for she has no sanctuary to retire to from an evil husband. She must dwell upon her sorrow, and hatch the eggs which her folly or her unhappiness has produced—and she is more under it, because her tormentor has a warrant of prerogative, and the woman may complain to God, as subjects do of tyrant princes; but otherwise, she has no appeal in the causes of unkindness. And even of the man we may say, though he can run from many hours of his sadness, yet he must return to it again, and when he sits among his neighbors he remembers the objection that lies in his bosom, and he sighs deeply." (Jeremy Taylor's "Marriage Ring")
It is not necessary for me here to lay down many rules for your guidance in this affair. When however it comes in your way, consult, not only your heart, and your imagination, and your young companions—but your judgment, your God by prayer, and your parents for advice. Enter into no commitment without the cognizance of those natural guides and guardians of your youth. It is at the beginning of connections of this kind that parental counsel should be sought. Never commit yourselves by a word until the domestic oracle has been consulted—nor allow your affections to be entangled until a father's and a mother's judgment have been pronounced. Determine that similarity of taste, especially in the most important of all matters, religion—shall form the basis of any union you may form.
Should it be that God has not destined you to wedded bliss, do not forget "that there are advantages peculiar to single life—that it affords an immunity from many cares, an opportunity for intellectual pursuits, a power to do good extensively—which married women may not enjoy. And if these privileges are improved; if cheerfulness and benevolence characterize the disposition, there will be no lack of occupation, of happiness, or of sympathy. The kind sister or aunt will be always welcomed; she will be hailed as the agreeable companion, or the tender nurse; as the participator in joy, or the sympathizer in sorrow; as the helper in business, or the companion in affliction; she will be the ready assistant in every good work, the children will run to greet her arrival, the poor will rise up and call her blessed. And if in truth, as we do see in some bright examples in our own day, her energy grows with her desire of doing good, and in the assiduous and pain-taking efforts of Christian charity she seems to forget the weakness of her sex, she realizes in one of its most pleasing forms primitive devotedness. In pious exercises more spiritual, in self-denial more mortified, in faith more pure, than any of the cloistered nuns of the strictest order; while at the same time her religion is without superstition, and her sobriety without gloom. She is one of a holy sisterhood—whose vows are scriptural—and whose voluntary service is the labor of love." (Mrs. Sandford)
We now turn to another chapter in the history of Rebekah, in which she appears to far less advantage than she does in the one we have just reviewed, where the artless simplicity of the virgin is lost in the crooked policy of the designing wife and the too partial mother. Perhaps it will be thought by some that as I am addressing young women, I might have cut short the story with her marriage and her virtues—and drawn a veil over her future failings. But I bear in recollection what I said in a former chapter that the matron should be held up to the maiden, that from the outset she may learn what to copy—and what to avoid. And here is a striking example to serve this purpose—an affecting instance to prove what a transformation a change of circumstances may produce in the same person! Isaac and Rebekah, like Abraham and Sarah, had their faith tried in waiting long for the son who was to be the heir of promise. Twenty years elapsed and Rebekah bore no child. In answer to the earnest prayers of her husband, God gave her the prospect of becoming a mother. Before this happy event took place she received a communication from the Lord that she should give birth to twins, who should be the heads of two separate nations, and that contrary to the order of nature and the custom of nations—the elder brother should serve the younger. Esau and Jacob were born, grew up, and exhibited great difference of taste and character. Into this family of Isaac and Rebekah there entered that which has rent myriads and myriads of households, setting the husband against the wife, the mother against the father, and one child against another; disturbing the harmony of domestic peace; poisoning the springs of domestic happiness; and preventing the progress of domestic improvement—I mean parental favoritism. "Isaac loved Esau in particular because of the wild game he brought home, but Rebekah favored Jacob." Genesis 25:28
In the case of Isaac and Rebekah, the parents had each their favorite child, and what was worse—manifested their fondness. It may in some cases be almost impossible not to have a preference for one child above another, but what anxious carefulness should there be to conceal it! Policy and justice both demand from parents an equal distribution of their affection, their favor, and their goods; for if there be one folly which more certainly punishes itself than another, it is this ill-judged and wicked favoritism between children. Parental partiality injures both the one preferred and the one that is slighted—inflating the one with pride, insolence, and vanity—and corrupting the other by jealousy, envy, and revenge. Isaac loved Esau, and for a reason not very honorable to his character, "because he ate his wild game." Rebekah loved Jacob, for what reason we are not told; it is probable on account both of his superior excellence, and of the revelation which God had made to her concerning his future history. She was undoubtedly a woman of sincere faith, and even her most censurable conduct arose from misdirected piety. She, like another female in after times, pondered in her heart all the things which had been spoken of God concerning her child of promise.
It was not long before the effects of parental partiality appeared in the family. A competition for precedence, and the 'right of firstborn' engaged the attention of the brothers, and whetted their spirits against each other from their earliest years, and the outcome was alienation, separation, hostility, on the part of the children, and sorrow and distress on the part of the parents. Jacob's conduct was selfishness, and Esau's profane. The younger son knew that he was destined to precedence, and instead of leaving God to fulfill his own purpose, sought to accomplish it in a manner unworthy both of himself and of the blessing.
Time, which moves on with ceaseless tread, had brought Isaac to old age; and he now thought of his approaching end, and the propriety of settling his domestic affairs. His great concern was to direct the descent of the patriarchal blessing, which in this case, implied more than that ordinary benediction which every good man would pronounce on all his children without distinction; it comprehended the great things contained in the covenant with Abraham, according to which his posterity was to be selected and distinguished as the peculiar people of God, and to give birth to the Messiah. Isaac ought to have remembered the communication made to Rebekah, and by her doubtless told to him, that this blessing was to be bestowed upon Jacob. Natural attachment for a while overcame his faith, and he prepared to divert the blessing from the channel marked out for it by the purpose and providence of God. To enkindle his affection for Esau, by the remembrance of past gratifications, he wished to have some savory meat, certainly a carnal introduction to so divine an act, partaking more of the flesh than of the Spirit, and betraying more of that parental partiality under which he had acted, than of the faith of a son of Abraham.
See, of what importance it is to avoid contracting bad
habits early, seeing time, indulgence and habit, interweave them with
our very constitution, until they become a second nature, and age confirms
instead of eradicating them. We find the two great infirmities of Isaac's
character predominant to the last–
1. A disposition to gratify his palate with a particular kind of food.
2. Partiality to his son Esau.
Rebekah, whose affection was ever wakeful, active, and jealous for her favorite child, overheard the charge given by her husband to Esau, and instantly plans a scheme to divert the blessing into another, and as she knew into its right, channel. What should she have done? Expostulated with Isaac on the impropriety of acting in direct opposition to the revealed purpose of God. Such an appeal to a mind devout and contemplative, as his evidently was, notwithstanding its weaknesses, would in all probability have succeeded. Instead of this, she manifested what has ever been considered to be one of woman's infirmities—a disposition to have recourse to finesse, stratagem, and maneuver—a wish to carry her object by a indirect and circuitous way—rather than by an open and straightforward course.
It is unnecessary for me to enter into the details of her plan, its prompt execution, and its success. It is a sad story. There was nothing but shameless trickery and imposition, a disguised person, a stolen name, a false answer. Everything was bad except the motive, and that could not alter the character of the action, and transmute evil into good. It was a disgrace to Rebekah, a cruel fraud practiced upon Isaac, and a most grievous injury inflicted on the moral character of her son. We must not load Jacob with more of the infamy of this transaction than what really belongs to him. He was not first in the transgression. His feelings revolted from it when it was proposed to him. He remonstrated against it. His remonstrance, however, was founded more upon the 'consequences of the evil' than the evil itself. And there is a striking difference between his reasoning and that of his son Joseph. Jacob said, "I shall bring a curse upon me, and not a blessing;" Joseph's pious and noble reply was, "How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God."
The resoluteness of Rebekah is astounding and affecting, confirming the general opinion that woman, in a bad purpose, is often more bold and determined than man. "Upon me be your curse, my son—only obey my voice." Appalling spectacle, to see a mother, a religious mother, so far forgetting what is due to her sex, her relationship, and her piety, as not only to lead, but to goad and drag on her son to perpetrate falsehood, and to practice deception upon his half-blind father! O mothers, read this account and tremble!
The plan moves forward, but the whole plot was in danger of exploding. The conference between Isaac and his son Jacob is deeply affecting. The half awakened suspicion and artless simplicity of the father, invests, by the power of contrast, with deeper shades of infamy and guilt, the shameless, undaunted effrontery of the son. Such is the way of transgressors, one sin prepares for, and leads on, to another, until the sinner is involved by a kind of necessity to add another and another lie to help on the former one. Isaac's ears were keener than his eyes, and his mind was not so blunted by age as not to be capable of reasoning upon some improbabilities; for there is something about falsehood, which though it may silence, yet will not ordinarily satisfy. Trickery however, in this case was too deep for honesty, and Isaac, kind and credulous, soon had his suspicions lulled, ate the meal, and bestowed the blessing. It is no part of my design to paint, or rather copy the scene which followed, when the return of Esau revealed the plot and proclaimed the deception. The shock to poor old Isaac was almost overwhelming. As an aged and an decaying man, the infliction which had been practiced upon him would excite his indignation. Yet a moment's reflection would convince him of his mistake in intending to convey to Esau that blessing which God designed for Jacob. Such considerations rushing upon his mind at once, sufficiently account for all his feelings—it was to him like a place where two seas meet, or as the union of subterranean fires and waters which causes the earth to tremble.
Esau is to be pitied, and would be more so if his distress arose from any other feelings than disappointed ambition. He who profanely despised his birthright, cared for the loss of the blessing, only as it deprived him of some earthly distinctions and temporal possessions.
Rebekah's deceitful policy had succeeded. But she soon began to reap its bitter fruits, in perceiving the feud which she had occasioned between the two brothers. The same tent could no longer contain them. And news having reached her that Esau plotted revenge, even to the murder of his fraudulent brother, she hurried away Jacob to the land of Padan-Aram, to seek a protection and a home among her own relatives.
With the sequel of this interesting story you are acquainted, and we return to Rebekah. The best explanation that can be given of her conduct, and it has been advanced by her apologists as her defense, is that she acted from religious motives. Perhaps it is in part true; but I do not think wholly so. There is much of the mother mixed up with the believer; and no small share of regard for the interests of a favorite child, blended with regard for the purposes of God. But be it so, that religion had the principal hand in this odious deception, then we see how early pious frauds were practiced for the furtherance of the faith; and Rebekah, so far as this part of her conduct is concerned, is presented to us as anticipating the principles of the Jesuits; for even if we concede to her a religious end, we must admit she adopted the most sinful means to obtain it. She was unquestionably right in her belief that God designed the blessing for Jacob, and in this one respect, I mean her faith, she was stronger and more unswerving than her husband. Yet this faith was mixed with some unbelief after all; for what else was it but a partial distrust, that led her to adopt such sinful means to secure the accomplishment of the divine purpose? Does God's truth require man's falsehood to fulfill it? Cannot we leave God to find means to perform his own word without supposing he requires our sins to help him out of a dilemma? The urgency of the temptation was no doubt very great. In her view an hour or two would decide the matter, and the blessing intended for Jacob would be transferred to Esau, and how then would the declaration be fulfilled? She should have left it to God.
Let us now leave the history, and learn the LESSONS with which it is fraught. The Scripture narratives are intended to exhibit holiness and sin embodied in living characters; the one for our imitation, and the other for our warning. And not infrequently we find both sin and holiness blended in the same character, requiring a careful analysis and an accurate discrimination. This discrimination is requisite in looking at the character now before us.
As you see Rebekah with her water jug on the shoulder coming to draw water, you cannot fail to notice her domestic and industrious habits. Yes, it was when thus occupied—and not when indolently reclining upon the couch of ease, nor when sauntering with a company of associates as idle and gossiping as herself, nor when wasting her time in useless occupations of frivolity and amusement, that Eleazar saw her. No! but, though high-born, wealthy, and beautiful, bearing the water jug upon her shoulder to the well to draw the evening's supply of water for the family.
Every young woman should aim to be useful at home, and she is not a wise or good mother who does not train her daughters for such occupations. But as I have already dwelt on this, it is not necessary to enlarge upon it here, any further than to say that the humble yet useful employments of domestic life, are a virtuous woman's most honorable station; that whether in single life, wedlock, or widowhood, God and nature have destined you, my female friends, to occupation—not perhaps highly honorable in the eyes of 'unfeeling wealth' or 'giddy intemperance'—but highly important to the happiness of others, and therefore essential to your own.
We cannot fail to notice in Rebekah's early deportment an artless genuineSIMPLICITY—affectingly in contrast with her subsequent artifice and duplicity. This it is which invests her character, and most of the excellent ones in Scripture, with such an irresistible charm. To whatever we look we find that 'simplicity is beauty'. This is true of nature as the great model. Amid all its grandeur and complexity, its processes appear easy and spontaneous, being all originated and directed by a wisdom and a power which operate not only without visible effort but in perfect repose. Simplicity is no less beautiful in art than in nature, and the very perfection of art is to hide itself in copying the simplicity of nature. All this holds good of manners, there especially affectation is hateful and repulsive. 'Studied display' of any kind, whether of intellect or virtue, of conversation or even of pronunciation, or of singularity, whether in dress or habits—is always odious. It cannot secure respect but must excite ridicule.
Perhaps this is one of the principal follies against which women, and especially young educated women, have to guard. An 'artificial character' has a deeper meaning, involving immorality, as signifying a tendency to artifice, equivocation, and the simulation of virtue not really possessed. This in its fixed and consolidated form, is hypocrisy—the most odious vice on earth.
But I now refer to 'artificial manners'—the affectation or parade of superiority in any particular; a studied mannerism for the purpose of display. This generally springs from that vanity which has been considered by many female writers as one of the foibles of their sex, and the prevalence of which really spoils many otherwise useful and amiable characters. It is in woman what ambition is in man; and though it may be a less dangerous, it is a more odious fault; and it is a form of self-love equally jealous and insatiable. Nothing can be more opposite to the spirit of the gospel, and the only security against it is genuine humility. Be clothed, young women, with an artless genuine simplicity. It is your most befitting and beautiful garment; and where will you obtain it, but from the wardrobe of Christianity?
Observe theCOURTEOUS affability of this interesting young woman. Here was a stranger, a servant, though evidently a servant of a wealthy master; and yet how respectful, how gentle, how affable was her address. Josephus, fond of adding in his paraphrastic manner to the terseness and simplicity of the Scripture narrative, relates that there were other young women with Rebekah, who were asked for water, but refused; and that she reproved them for their churlishness. COURTESY is a befitting grace in both sexes, but most so in the female. While rudeness, which is a 'blemish' upon masculine character, is a 'blot' upon feminine character. A female churl is a monstrosity, from which we turn away with insufferable disgust. Courtesy is one of the cheapest exercises of virtue; it costs even less than rudeness—for the latter, except in hearts that are petrified into stone, must put the subject of it to some expense of feeling. Even a rough voice issuing from female lips is disagreeable, much more rough manners exhibited by a female form.
There are various things which prevent the exercise of courtesy. In some cases, it is to be traced to pride, a vice which befits a demon, but not a woman. In others it is the result of an absolute bad disposition—a morose, sour, and ill-conditioned mind, which knows no congenial seasons, and experiences no soft emotions. Some are petulant and peevish, and when putting on a mood of civility, are easily driven from it by the slightest touch of their irritability. Be courteous then; it is, if not of the solid substance of holiness, at least its polish. It is a Christian grace; for an apostle has said, "Be compassionate and courteous."
Akin to this was Rebekah'sKINDNESS. There was not only an external affability of manner—but a real benevolence of disposition. Here was a stranger, tired and faint with a day's journey in a hot country, asking her kind offices to procure a supply of water for himself and his weary animals. To grant his request for himself, would have cost her no great labor; but it must have been a considerable effort to draw water enough for a number of thirsty camels! And this is more apparent when you know the construction of eastern wells, which are not like ours, but are a kind of sunken cistern, to which you descend by a flight of steps. How many tiresome descents must this young creature have made, before she satisfied the thirst of Eleazar's camels.
And there is another little circumstance which marks her kindness; Eleazar asked only for a "sip "of water, for so the original word signifies, and she said, "Drink, and your camels." It was a solitary act, I admit; but it was so promptly, so generously done as to indicate a habit. It is said, with as much beauty as simplicity, "Love is kind;" and, if possible, with still greater beauty, it is given as one of the traits of the virtuous woman, "In her tongue is the law of kindness," the tongue here, as in all cases, commanding the hand.
Insensibility in a man is bad enough, but worse in a woman. An unfeeling woman is a contradiction in terms, for the female heart has ever been found the dwelling-place of kindness, where the misery of others, when all other hopes have failed, is sure to find an asylum. In what age, or in what country in the world, has woman forfeited her character as the ministering angel of humanity? When and where has the female bosom disowned the claims of misery and repudiated the virtue of benevolence? Arctic snows have not frozen up the springs of mercy in the female heart, nor tropical suns dried them up. Tyranny has not crushed it out, nor barbarism extinguished it. Look at Mr. Park, when alone in the midst of Africa, and lying down to die in poverty and despair, found by the black women of that wild land, carried to their tent, fed, clad, and cherished amid the tender strains of the impromptu song, with which they cheered the feelings of his heart and expressed the benevolence of their own. Young women, cherish in your bosoms the purest philanthropy. Abhor selfishness—you are made for kindness. Oppose not the design of your Creator. Do no violence to your own nature. A stony heart does not behoove you. A tearless woman is a revolting scene in our sorrowful world. She may be pure and beautiful as the marble statue—but if withal she is as hard and cold, who can admire her?
I cannot yet pass from the contemplation of this sweet and amiable young creature to behold her in her future character, until I have referred again to the veil ofMODESTY under which all this affability and kindness was concealed. In listening to her language, in witnessing her conduct, will the most fastidious, prudish, or censorious of her sex, find anything to condemn in anything she said or did? Did she in the smallest measure violate decorum? She did not stand to gaze upon the stranger and his camels, or do anything to attract his attention, but was intent upon the object for which she came, and was diverted from it only by an opportunity to do good, thrown in her way, without her seeking for it. She did not anxiously or confidently enter into discourse with the man, but waited until she was addressed, and then answered him modestly.
Modesty is the most attractive of all female graces. What is intelligence without it, but bolder impudence; or beauty but a more seductive snare? There is, I know, a reserve that degenerates into repulsive pride; as on the other hand, there is a frankness that corrupts into forwardness. Woman is intended neither to avoid man by a bashful timidity, nor to court him by an obtrusive advance. A genuine modesty guards against each extreme. It is that semi-transparent veil, which by revealing half her excellence, makes more lovely that which it reveals, and excites desire to know the rest. It is her shield as well as her veil, repelling all the darts with which, either by acts, by words, or by looks, any one would dare to assail her purity. It is also her ornament, investing all her other excellences with additional charms, the blush of purity upon the cheek of beauty. It is her power, by which she subdues every heart that is worth the conquest. Yes, what is not modesty to woman? Lay not aside your veil. Cast not away your shield. Divest not yourselves of your brightest ornament. Enfeeble not your power to influence others. Avoid everything in which the absence of this virtue can show itself.
See how the lack of it is reproved by the prophet Isaiah in his third chapter and how the practice of it enjoined by the apostle Paul—"That women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety, not with broidered hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array, but which becomes women professing godliness, with good works." Neither in dress, nor in conversation, nor in action, violate this law. Chastity is the robe which every woman should wear, and modesty is the golden clasp that keeps it upon her, and the fringe that adorns it. When the clasp is lost, the garment is likely to fall off; and when the fringe is torn away, or carelessly allowed to be trampled upon, the disfigurement of the robe has commenced, until at length it is cast away as not worth being retained.
I do not wish you to mistake a silly and affected bashfulness for modesty. You live not amid Asiatic ignorance, tyranny, sensuality, and female degradation, where woman is used mainly to pander to the appetite of her master, and where by a cruel jealousy she is excluded from communion with all but her fellow-slaves and their common tyrant. You are the women of an enlightened age and country, and you are admitted on equal terms to all the enjoyments of social communion. Assert in this respect your rights; maintain your standing, and while you throw off all boldness, cast away with it all unworthy prudishness. In one of my previous chapters, I remarked that the over-prudish mind, which can never speak to one of the opposite sex but with a blush, is not always the purest one in reality.
There are, my young friends, one or two momentous lessons for you to learn from Rebekah's conduct in after life—lessons which you must carry with you through all your future existence on earth. The first is GENERAL—a change of circumstances often produces a considerable change of character and conduct. How unlike the maid of Nahor was the wife in Canaan! And is it an uncommon thing now, for a change, far more extensive and more powerful than this, to be effected by the new condition into which marriage brings the female character?
Learn also this SPECIAL lesson—that we should never seek a good end by bad means; or in other words, never do evil that good may come. Abhor the great principle and favorite maxim of Jesuitism, that the end sanctifies the means; and especially abhor the application and operation of this most detestable principle in reference to religion; a principle which is more or less interwoven with the whole history of Popery. What crimes have been perpetrated by the zealots of Rome in the abused name of religion, for the good of their church! The pages of history which record the progress of that dreadful apostasy are not only 'stained' with blood, but 'steeped' in it.
And even by other professing Christians, holding a purer creed, and animated by a milder spirit, how much has been done, ostensibly for religion, but really for sectarianism, in contradiction of every principle of the law of God, and love to our neighbor! Religion refuses to be served by any principles of action but its own, and disdains to accept any offering which is contrary to truth, love, holiness, and honor. And as the stronger our zeal is for an object, the more we are in danger of resorting, in times of difficulty or in prospect of defeat, to unworthy means; so the more fervent we are to promote any religious cause, the more watchful should we be against being seduced into the use of 'unholy means' to obtain success. The wife of Isaac was right in her object, but wrong in her means, to obtain the blessing for Jacob.
But we must take leave of Rebekah. It is somewhat remarkable that the sacred narrative takes no notice of her death. One might have hoped that she who came upon our notice at first like a bright and lovely vision, would have been seen to depart with as much gracefulness, simplicity, and beauty as she exhibited when we first saw her with such delighted attention. Is it that this despicable act of her old age so disrobed her character of its pristine beauty that censure is pronounced upon her by this most impressive silence? But is hers the only instance of painful contrast between the maid and the matron? The only instance that has disappointed the hopes raised by youthful excellences? The only instance in which the full-blown flower has not answered to the bud? Happy would it have been for thousands if it were.
Let it then be your first solicitude to exhibit, in your early life and single state, all those general and moral beauties which form the character of virgin excellence. Be holy, industrious, modest, benevolent, and useful—inspire hope in every beholder, and awaken expectation. But then, be ever anxious, studious, and prayerful, that in the transition from the single to the wedded state; in the development of the girl into the woman—all that was lovely, artless, and simple in youthful charms, shall, with unbroken and unvarying consistency, ripen into all that is holy, estimable, venerable in the wife, the mother, and the matron.
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