When I was a little girl, there was an old Bible on the bookshelves at home. It wasn’t our family Bible. I don’t know why we had it, but I loved the pictures. To this day, some of my mental images of Bible stories are rooted in those pictures.

Rebekah, for me, will always be the young woman in “Rebecca et Eliézer” by Nicolas Poussin. Poussin was a 17th century French Baroque painter, and his simplest canvases teem with details. While some of those details are set by artistic convention (for one thing, the two protagonists seem to be meeting at a well in Italy, not in ancient Mesopotamia!) it’s clear that he read the story closely.

Eliezer is the only man in the picture. He is standing by the well and he gestures as he speaks to the young Rebekah.  It appears to be the moment at which he asks her if she will allow him a drink from the jug of water at her feet. Women are all around them, some pouring water, some of them gossiping among themselves, and some watching Eliezer and Rebekah with curiosity.

It is the moment just before Rebekah passes his test: in a moment, she will tell him to drink all he wants, and then she will offer to water his ten camels, just as he hoped she would do. In Jewish tradition, she is a role model for the mitzvah of kindness to animals, because she offered to water the thirsty camels of her own volition.

There’s a great deal that isn’t in the picture, of course. Eliezer still had to talk with Rebekah’s father Bethuel, and her brother Laban, who would give her son Jacob so much grief years later. Later, she would leave with Eliezer to travel hundreds of miles to meet Isaac and marry him.

Rebekah was a woman of contradictions. She had a soft heart for a thirsty stranger and his animals, yet later in life she would calmly deceive her husband and direct Jacob in defrauding Esau of his birthright. In fact, the Torah doesn’t tell us much more about her than those two stories.

As a little girl, I scrutinized Poussin’s painting for clues about Rebekah. She seemed to me to be excited to see a stranger. Maybe she was tired of living in one place. Perhaps she was curious about the world. Looking back, I realize that some of my response to her story and the picture was projection: I was curious about the world!

Where did you get your mental images of the characters in the Torah? Are there Biblical figures with whom you identify strongly? Do you know why they feel so close to you?

Torah portion Chayei Sarah may be found in Genesis 23.1-25.18.

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