Genesis 23:1-25:18

By Henry Bean

Published November 25, 2005, issue of November 25, 2005.
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He is a boy of 8 or 9, sweeping out the entry to the master’s house. He hears his master, Abraham, within, speaking to someone he cannot see, worried that, as the only male born into the household, “this Eliezer of Damascus” might become heir to the household. It took him some moments to divine that this Eliezer was, in fact, himself.

He is startled to hear himself spoken of that way, like a stranger or an interloper, especially by the man he admires and even dares to love. For a moment he is wounded. But he understands even then that as a servant, he is not entitled to resentment. He might, under certain circumstances, be entitled to the master’s property, which he does not want, but not to his affection, which perhaps he does.

Years pass. The master now has a son. One day he takes them on a journey. They rise up early in the morning and travel for three days. On the third day, the master takes Isaac (his son, his only son, whom he loved), and they go up the mountain with the cut wood, leaving the other two to watch the ass. Eliezer wonders what they are doing up there and is bitter at not having been taken along. Yet later, when father and son finally come down, he is not so sure. The looks on their faces stun him to silence, and he no longer minds missing the event, whatever it was. Though no one offers a word of explanation. Then or ever. They walk home in silence. Yet whatever happened up there, it seems to him, is still happening.

When Sarah, the master’s wife, dies, he calls for Eliezer. He gives him 10 camels and tells him to go find a wife for Isaac. He tells him where to look, explicitly excluding the local vicinity where, as it happens, Eliezer lives with his daughter. She is almost the same age as Isaac, and the two of them played happily together throughout their mutual childhood, and even a bit beyond.

At Abraham’s command, Eliezer puts his hand under the master’s thigh and swears that he will do his best. He sets out with the camels and his men and a great anxiety about the enterprise. Nothing he has ever done is so important to his master as this; and nothing is more important to him than his master. And yet, what if he finds no one, or picks the wrong girl? And how will he know the right one?

The girl comes out to the well in the evening. Yet before she comes, before he has even seen her, he has imagined her, a sleek, copper-colored beauty (not unlike Sarah, the deceased mistress) who, he thinks, will please the master and, in a different fashion, the master’s son. He imagines meeting her at the well and asking her for water, for a drink of water for himself. Sometimes he imagines all “the daughters of the men of the city” coming out to the well, and there is one he approaches, and she gives him the drink and then, unbidden, offers to water his camels, as well.

He imagines her in many forms, and, in truth, not all of them come out right. Sometimes she ignores him, or provides the water only grudgingly, or doesn’t offer any to the camels, or serves him and the camels, but without the beauty and sweetness and untroubled generosity of the girl he wants to present to his master.

During the journey here he stopped at many wells in many towns where the girls gather to draw water, but he saw no girls worth seeing, except the ones he imagined. So to say that he imagines this girl who gives him a drink does not quite convey it. He implores God to bring her forth in the world, to provide a wife for Isaac, a wife that he, Eliezer, can present to the master. His imagining, then, is a kind of prayer, a summoning. And then, all at once, even as he is imagining her one way and then another, proud, shy, cheerful, grave, a girl appears, an actual girl, coming out to the well in the evening.

For some reason, even before he can see her, he runs to her. He does not really run, he walks, yet in his mind it is as if he were running. He is almost afraid to look, for fear she will be the wrong one, and at first glance he thinks he has made a terrible mistake. Yet he asks her for a drink. She says, “Drink, my Lord,” and hastens and lets down her pitcher. She gives him water to drink, but she does not touch his hand. When he has finished, she draws water for his camels “until they have done drinking.” Water for 10 camels — think how strong she must be. She is pleasing to the eye, he realizes now, though not in the way he imagined, not smooth and coppery, but small, dark, muscular, her hair choppy like the sea. She doesn’t look like a happy girl, yet he feels happy looking at her. And he looks steadfastly on her, holding his peace to know whether the Lord has made his journey prosperous or not. But already he knows.

With that it is done. He will take the girl back to Isaac and see to the wedding. The marriage will be happy or unhappy — that is unimportant; the line will go on, the covenant will be kept. The girl seems the sort who can appreciate these priorities. He will have less trouble with her than with his own daughter. Strong and clever; he chose well. Like him[,] she knows that happiness has nothing to do with it.

Henry Bean is a writer and film director living in New York.

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