Animals often play a symbolic role in literature, sometimes as personified characters themselves, and sometimes through their frequent association with a human character. In Gabriel García Márquez’s book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example, as Renata Remedios begins to fall in love with Mauricio Babilonia, she notices that whenever he is nearby, a swarm of yellow butterflies flutters through the air.  They hover above the garage where he works, and their flapping wings can be heard echoing through crowds, so that, “She did not have to see him to know that he was there, because the butterflies were always there.” And though she did not know exactly why, “she understood that the butterflies had something to do with him.”1

In like manner, in Parashat Hayyei Sarah, wherever Rebecca goes, camels seem to follow her—and we begin to understand they have something to do with her.  They will function as the vehicle for finding her and then bringing her back to the land of Canaan, and they will even serve as the key figures in determining whether she is the right partner for Isaac and the next matriarch in the covenant.  

Lest we dismiss their prominence here in Rebecca’s origin story, presuming camels to be an ordinary Middle Eastern beast of burden, let us note from the outset: there are more mentions of camels in chapter 24 of Genesis than in the rest of the Torah combined.2

After Abraham dispatches his servant to go back to his birthplace to find a wife for Isaac, the first thing the servant does is take, “ten of his master’s camels” (24:10)—and then he promptly sets off for Aram-naharaim.  Abraham, after all, is the only person we have seen with camels before this; he acquired them early on, during his stay in Egypt (12:16).  

As soon as the servant arrives, we read, “ויברך הגמלים - he knelt the camels down” (24:11)3 and then he begins to pray to God.  In his prayer, he lays out the conditions for a strangely specific test he intends to conduct there at the well, and calls on God to guide the results: 

בראשית כד:יד
וְהָיָה הַנַּעֲרָ אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיהָ הַטִּי נָא כַדֵּךְ וְאֶשְׁתֶּה וְאָמְרָה שְׁתֵה וְגַם גְּמַלֶּיךָ אַשְׁקֶה, אֹתָהּ הֹכַחְתָּ לְעַבְדְּךָ לְיִצְחָק וּבָהּ אֵדַע כִּי עָשִׂיתָ חֶסֶד עִם אֲדֹנִי.
 
Genesis 24:14
“Let the girl to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also give water to your camels’— let her be the one whom You have shown to be for Your servant Isaac.  And through this I will know you have done kindness with my master.”
 

No sooner has he finished his prayer when Rebecca arrives at the well with a jug to fill with water.  When Abraham’s servant asks her for a sip, she immediately tells him to drink, and lowers her jug to give him water.  Then, as soon as he has finished, she says the magic words:4

בראשית כד:יט
גַּם לִגְמַלֶּיךָ אֶשְׁאָב עַד אִם כִּלּוּ לִשְׁתֹּת.
 
Genesis 24:19
I will also draw for your camels until they finish drinking.
 

Success!  This is the woman the servant has been seeking!  God has apparently guided him right to her.  So as soon as the camels finish drinking, he brings out jewelry to offer her and asks to be taken to speak to her family.  There he recounts the scene at the well, laying special emphasis once again on Rebecca’s extra attention to the animals, “וְגַם הַגְּמַלִּים הִשְׁקָתָה - she also gave water to the camels!” (24:46).

Then he asks if they will consent to let Rebecca go back with him, and they eventually put the question directly to Rebecca, who responds with one word: “אלך - I will go” (v.  58).  And after receiving some parting blessings, she and her maids get up and mount—what else?—the camels.  And off they go.

Camels, camels, everywhere!  By this point, we can safely conclude that the recurring image of camels is more than mere coincidence.  The camel has become a motif in this story, a symbol that the Torah seems to be purposefully attaching to Rebecca.  The association is in place.  The question, then, is: what exactly does the camel symbolize?

How might we answer such a question?  What are our tradition’s methods for interpreting symbols in the Torah’s narrative?  

The Rabbis of the Talmud (in Berakhot 56b) take a proto-psychoanalytic approach: “If you see a camel in a dream, it means death was decreed upon you from heaven, but you have been spared.”  No surprise that the camel, which brings a person across the arid desert, might be seen as a symbol of survival.  Perhaps Rebecca, who will cross a desert to give life to the next generation, is just the salvation that this family needs to save it from dying out.

Within the text of the Torah itself, however, the symbolic meaning of a particular object or image is often forged through an underlying philological connection.  To determine the significance of camels, then, we might take the root of the Hebrew word for camel (ג.מ.ל) and ask: how else we have seen it used in the Torah?  When the root is used to form a noun, גמל (gamal), it always refers to a camel.  But it also appears in the Torah as a verb, לגמול (ligmol), with a different connotation.

Our most traditional association with this verb is when it is used as a word for “giving,” such as “אשירה לה׳ כי גמל עלי - I will sing to God for [what] God has given (gamal) to me” (Psalm 13:6).  Another classic usage comes from our liturgy: the HaGomel blessing, customarily said during the Torah service if someone in the congregation has survived a life-threatening experience, thanks God for “שגמלני כל טוב - having given me every goodness.”  In Rabbinic literature, the verb becomes most commonly associated with גמילות חסדים (gemilut hasadim), “the giving of kindnesses,” one of the great pillars upon which Shimon HaTzaddik tells us (in Mishnah Avot 1:2) the world stands.5

These connections do seem rather apt to Rebecca.  The virtue of kindness is precisely what she was being tested on.  Would she show life-giving kindness to a thirsty stranger?  And could she even find it in her heart to show kindness to his animals (לגמול על הגמלים)?  She passes the test with flying colors, characterizing herself from the start with the trait of kindness.  

That trait also connects Rebecca to the legacy of Abraham, whom the prophet Micah (7:20) identified with the quality of kindness (חסד לאברהם).  Rebecca is indeed a parallel figure to Abraham in many ways: she comes from his homeland, and she begins her journey to a new land with a call to go forward (“lekh lekah - go forth!” vs eilekh - I will go!”).  She also, clearly, shares with her father-in-law a readiness to perform acts of kindness to passing strangers.  

As if to signal this connection, when Abraham’s servant prays for a successful mission, he specifically asks God to do kindness (חסד) with his master.  He mentions it no less than four times throughout the story.6 Perhaps Rebecca, who herself showed kindness to both the servant and the camels is the embodiment of that kindness that Abraham’s servant prayed for.  This makes Rebecca both a worthy inheritor of the Abrahamic covenant and a kind of living, breathing reward for his own kindness.  

There is, however, one other verb in the Torah formed from the ג.מ.ל root that bears consideration.  This one is in the passive (נפעל) construction: להגמל (lehigamel)In fact, it appeared just a few chapters before Rebecca’s story.  Isaac had just been miraculously born and, in anticipation of a great celebration, the Torah tells us:

בראשית כא:ט
וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד וַיִּגָּמַל וַיַּעַשׂ אַבְרָהָם מִשְׁתֶּה גָדוֹל בְּיוֹם הִגָּמֵל אֶת יִצְחָק.
 
Genesis 21:9
The child grew and was weaned (vayigamal), and Abraham made a great feast on the day he was weaned (higamel).
 

In this case, the usage refers specifically to “weaning” a child, bringing it to a state of independence from the sustenance of its mother’s breast.  There is a reason this meaning is connected to the word for the animal: a camel is a creature that is uniquely able to survive for long periods independent of any water source.  So we come to understand that one of the broader meanings of the shared root, ג.מ.ל, is something like, “to become independent.” 

That quality of independence is also one that describes Rebecca perfectly.  She is the one who is able to decide for herself (eilekh!) that she will leave her life and everyone she knows to set off on a new adventure.  She is also the one who will act independently of her husband to direct the course of the next generation, when she hatches her plan to make Jacob the inheritor, basing her decisions on messages from God to which she alone has access.  

The specific connotation of “weaning” also has significance in Rebbeca’s story.  The last time we see Rebecca on a camel, as she is riding back with Abraham’s servant, she encounters Isaac, who has gone out into the fields to meditate.  He looks up and—like Renata Remedios and those yellow butterflies—before he even sees Rebecca, he sees: “וְהִנֵּה גְמַלִּים בָּאִים - behold - camels are coming” (24:63).

Rebecca comes down off her camel (ותפול מעל הגמל) and Isaac and Rebecca seem immediately enchanted with one another.  Our chapter then closes with this haunting psychological reflection:

בראשית כד:סז
וַיְבִאֶהָ יִצְחָק הָאֹהֱלָה שָׂרָה אִמּוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת רִבְקָה וַתְּהִי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וַיֶּאֱהָבֶהָ וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק אַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ.
 
Genesis 24:67
Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife.  Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.
 

Rebecca has “weaned” Isaac once again—this time not from his mother’s breast, but from the shelter of her protective care.  And so, as Rebecca steps into the space that Sarah once occupied, she is weaning the coming generation from the previous one.  She is pushing our story forward, as she will continue to do as the great matriarch of the age.  Like the mighty camel, Rebecca will take great burdens upon herself, forge ahead into the unknown, and carry her people to survival.  

 


1 Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, chapter 14.

2 Camels have been mentioned only once before, as one of Abraham’s acquisitions in Egypt (Genesis 12:16).  The word is then used 18 times in chapter 24.  It will appear nine times in the rest of the Torah—six more times in Genesis (30:43; 31:17; 31:34; 32:8; 32:16; 37:25) once in Exodus (9:3), once in Leviticus (11:4), and once in Deuteronomy (14:7).  Interestingly, they are never mentioned in Numbers, the book about traveling through the desert.

3 This is also interesting verbiage, as we note the emphasis on camels, because the verb, “he knelt - vayavrekh” looks, without vowels, like “he blessed - vayvarekh” (וַיְבָרֶךְ).  The root has been used 20 times before in Genesis to connote blessing (even in the first verse of this chapter), but this is the first time it appears with this new connotation.

4 You may notice she does not say exactly the words Abraham’s servant has prayed to hear.  His version was: “I will also give water (אשקה) to your camels,” but what she actually says is, “I will also draw water (אשאב) for your camels.”  This may be why the servant at first “silently wondered if the Eternal had made his way successful or not (24:21).  Ultimately, he seems to be satisfied, even repeating his own language in the retelling (see 24:46, above).  R. Isaac Samuel Reggio, a 19th century Italian commentator, notices these discrepancies, and explains them by saying that when Rebecca first spoke, she simply did not yet know if the camels would actually drink or not.  By the time he is retelling the story, it makes sense to describe the whole action, since she did end up giving the camels water.  In fact, that also makes sense of the end of his moment of “silent wondering,” because the next verse begins: “it was when the camels finished drinking, that he took out a golden ring…” (24:22).

5 Through Rabbinic tradition, then, our primary associations with this verb have to do with the giving of kindness.  But in Tanakh, it can just as easily be used to mean giving something bad—as in when Joseph brothers speak regretfully of “כל הרעה אשר גמלנו אתו - all the wickedness that we gave to him” (50:15). 

6 In Genesis 24:12, 14, 27, 49