Abraham’s servant Eliezer, at the well outside Nahor, is looking for a wife for Isaac, and he asks the Lord, in Genesis 24:14, for a sign: “Let the maiden to whom I shall say, ‘Pray let down your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’ — let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master [Abraham].”
This is at once “literary” and devout, and what I wrestle with is the blurring of those categories. The literary quality we can recognize and respond to immediately. The search for the wife at the wellhead is one of those “type scenes” that the literary critic and Bible scholar Robert Alter talks about, having adopted the term from classicist Walter Arend, who found “Die Typischen Szenen” in the Homeric epics. We read of this encounter by the wellhead, and then, later, when Jacob meets Rachel… there is, again, a well. And when Moses meets the seven daughters of the Midianite priest Reuel, whose daughter Zipporah he marries, there is, once more, a well. The setting, therefore, is no accident but significant in a literary way. There are setups and payoffs. We seize upon leitmotifs. These are devices, after all, with which we are all too familiar from literary critics and such feinschmeckers.
The way in which Eliezer asks for a sign from the Lord is literary, too — the kind of thing that we remember from the opera “Idomeneo” (the action of which is also figured in the promise that Jephtha made to God, in Judges 11:31, that he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house to greet him if only he could defeat the Ammonites). We read these stories and recognize them as stories, which is, to say, as literary constructions. They are intricate and intriguing. And we love them. They suggest that there is a secret order to the universe and that, like spies exchanging passwords, some people — the ones the Lord has recruited for particular favor or punishment — are in on it. And we think about what it must be like to be among them.
But how do the devout take such signs? Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soleveitchik said that signs are for simple people, but the truly righteous do not play guessing games with Providence. He rationalized and evaded, I think, preferring to see in the encounter a way Eliezer had figured out of determining Rebecca’s kindliness.
But are there any righteous individuals, too devout to need omens and auguries or, as we call them, simanim? And don’t they ever give in to the temptations we experience, to what we try to dismiss as mere superstition? I have my doubts.
I also have my doubts — my deep spiritual struggle, in fact — about how we are to look at these biblical narratives. Sophisticated literary analysis reveals much, but also tames the text, reducing it to an artifact, albeit a fine one. But is this how to read Torah? I admire “King Lear” and “Agamemnon,” but I do not pray with them, and while they may invite meditation and even offer wisdom, they are not — or are not for me — avenues to prayer. But then, is Torah an avenue to prayer or is prayer an avenue to Torah?
We pray every day to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, invoking their names because their intimacy with God was greater than ours. But if we look to them for guidance, what we find — or what I think I find — is startling. Isaac, after all, is nowhere in this scene at the well. The action is between Rebecca and Eliezer, and quite possibly God. Eliezer is a servant, a reasonable figure to whom a critic might look. (What are critics, after all, but literature’s servants?) After that terrible moment on Mount Moriah with his father’s knife flashing above him, Isaac becomes the gentle wraith whom it is so difficult to know. He lives his life and re-digs his father’s wells. Even this encounter between Eliezer and Rebecca at the wellhead is not yet a type-scene — not the first time. It is only the repetitions later on that invite our retrospective literary analysis of these meetings and betrothals.
And the simanim? Eliezer believed in them, and maybe Rebecca, but who knows what Isaac thought? Isaac’s silence, rich, resonant and tantalizing, can be an austere comfort.
David R. Slavitt, a poet, novelist and translator, is the author of 80 books, including a recently published bilingual edition (translated from French and Latin) of Joachim Du Bellay’s collection of sonnets, “The Regrets” (Northwestern University Press).