Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Case of the Poisoned Dish

The only narratives included in the Torah are those that help us understand who the Children of Israel are. While some stories are detailed, others are written very much like outlines. Both types of narrative are better understood with the help of the Midrash, a component of the Oral Torah that elucidates the subtle nuances of text and character.

One fascinating example of a story and a character developed in the Midrash is that of Bethuel. Bethuel is mentioned in the Torah when Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac. Eliezer meets Rebecca and believes her to be the perfect bride for Isaac. She introduces herself as “the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor [the  brother of Abraham]” (24:24).

Rebecca brings Eliezer to her house, where he is invited in and given food. Before partaking of the food, he insists on stating his business first. Only after Eliezer tells them the full story of his task and of his unusual encounter with Rebecca at the well, does Bethuel appear to speak, and even then it is in conjunction with his son Laban. They appear to agree to the betrothal.

The Torah records that they then all ate and drank and then slept. The next morning, when Eliezer is ready to leave, it is Rebecca’s mother and brother who make the final arrangements before Rebecca leaves with Eliezer. Bethuel is never heard from again.

The Midrash therefore raises the question: What happened overnight? “Where was Bethuel? He sought to delay [the marriage of Rebecca and Isaac] and was smitten [and died] during the night” (Genesis Rabbah 60:12). The Midrash of Targum Yonatan goes into a bit more detail. Noting that it says in Genesis 24:33 that food was put before Eliezer, the Midrash say that it was food “containing deadly poison. Eliezer sensed it and he said ‘I will not eat until after I have spoken.’ (ibid.) [Later, by mistake] Bethuel himself ate of that dish, and the next morning he was found dead” (Targum Yonatan, Genesis 24:33).

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