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The Servant, the Man, and the Angel

Posted on כ״ה במרחשון ה׳תש״ע (November 12, 2009) | in Chayei Sarah | by

In the story of Eliezer’s Journey to Aram Naharaim to search for a bride for Yitzchak, his master Avraham’s son, there is an interesting feature in the narrative.  In the first part of the story, Eliezer is consistently referred to by the narrative voice as הָעֶבֶד – the servant, right up to the point where he runs to speak with Rivka at the well ” וַיָּרָץ הָעֶבֶד לִקְרָאתָהּ”  (Ber.24:17).  However, from that point onwards, he is referred to by the narrative voice as הָאִישׁ – the man (Ber. 24:21, 24:26, 24:29, 24:32), through most of the encounter with Rivka and her family.  However, after Eliezer gives his speech explaining his mission to her family, and Lavan and Bethuel agrees to give Yitzchak their daughter’s hand in marriage, the Torah reverts to calling Eliezer הָעֶבֶד.  

A simple pshat-level explanation is that the Torah is using the narrative voice to reflect how Eliezer is viewed by the characters around him at the various points in the story.  When Eliezer is with Avraham, and traveling with his men, Eliezer’s primary role is that of a servant.  However, how Eliezer is perceived changes dramatically once Rivka and her family encounters him.  Now, Eliezer is no mere servant.  He is the leader of an entire entourage of Avraham’s men, traveling in a convoy of camels, most likely impressively dressed, and presents Rivka with jewelry soon after they meet.  Indeed, Rivka herself tells Lavan about how she met “the man” (Ber. 24:30).  However, once Eliezer officially introduces himself, saying עֶבֶד אַבְרָהָם אָנֹכִי “I am Avraham’s servant”, and finishes explaining to Rivka’s family his mission on behalf of his master, the Torah reverts to having Eliezer be הָעֶבֶד – the servant.

R’ Bachya, however, has a novel reading of this change of Eliezer’s status.  He notes that back in the beginning of the story (Ber. 24:7), Avraham promises Eliezer that his mission will be successful and tells him הוּא יִשְׁלַח מַלְאָכוֹ לְפָנֶיךָ – “He (G-d) will send His angel before you”.  He further notes that the term הָאִישׁ is used at other times to refer an angel.  The Book of Daniel refers to the angel Gavriel as הָאִישׁ, and the man (הָאִישׁ) that guides Joseph to his brothers (Ber. 36) is understood to have been an angel.  Therefore, R’ Bachya writes,  “Once it is clear to him (Eliezer) that the angel is with him, his status is changed to a man (from a servant), and he is henceforth called אִישׁ, according to the name of the angel that is with him, who is called אִישׁ” (R’ Bachya, on Ber. 24:15).  Then, once Lavan and Bethuel say הִנֵּה רִבְקָה לְפָנֶיךָ קַח וָלֵךְ וּתְהִי אִשָּׁה לְבֶן אֲדֹנֶיךָ – “Behold Rebecca is before you, take [her] and go, and let her be a wife for your master’s son,” the mission is basically completed with success, Eliezer is back to being called “the servant”.  The angel is no longer involved, because Avrahams’ prayer that invoked angelic assistance has now been answered.

This commentary presents a beautiful idea about the interaction of angels with man. The usual image of angelic assistance is that of a winged being hovering around a person, helping him avoid danger and guiding him to success by pushing things this way and that.  The image that R’ Bachya presents is different.  Eliezer, at the crucial moments of his mission, is filled up with a divine emanation that changes his whole being, to the point that he is acting on behalf of the angel, and the angel is acting through him.

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