• Light of Torah

An Ancient Love Story

How do you choose a spouse in marriage? What qualities do you seek? What virtues do you hope and pray for your children to find in their husband or wife?

One source of wisdom on this matter is chapter 24 of Genesis. This may come as a surprise to many Christians. But it is no surprise to our Jewish counterparts who are familiar with interpretative traditions that have been milking the Hebrew Scriptures for spiritual insight even before Christianity came to be. Let’s explore a little of this traditional wisdom passed down through millennia of biblical reflection.

In Genesis 24 we have the story of Abraham’s quest to find a wife for his son Isaac. With heartfelt instructions Abraham sends his most trusted servant to the land of his birth. There, at a well, the servant approaches his match-making task with a surprising strategy. Surveying the scene where women gather at the well, he prays to the Lord:

“Let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ – let her be the one whom you have decreed for your servant Isaac” (Genesis 24:14).

Are you uncomfortable with this match-making strategy? Some rabbinic commentators also harbour reservations. Yet others draw positive lessons from this ancient text. The servant’s prayer (the first instance of spontaneous, personal prayer that appears in the Bible) gives rise to a character test. His search for Isaac’s wife prioritizes not external beauty and good family connections, but inner qualities of virtue. Really, he is testing for the prized virtue of hospitality to strangers, a quality boldly celebrated by the Talmud where it says, “Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence” [Shab.127a].